Commentary on Matthew 3:1-12
This episode interrupts the larger story of Jesus to introduce the one who “prepares the way of the Lord.” While informing us about John the Baptizer’s role, it also locates the ministries of John and Jesus in the larger biblical drama of the redemption of God’s people. The narrative arc of the Bible runs from God’s creation of heaven and earth, followed by human rebellion and the sundering of earth from heaven, through God’s various attempts to restore Israel in order to fulfill their mission, to the inauguration of God’s work to restore and renew the broken creation in the ministry of Jesus. Knowing who we are and what kinds of practices define us has everything to do with knowing where we are in the larger story set forth in the Bible.
Time to build the road . . .
Matthew’s biblical quotations are meant as bright, flashing signs: “Pay attention, this is important!” Audiences are expected to (and did) know both the quotations and the larger contexts from which they come. Matthew 3:3 links John with Isaiah 40:3, as well as with Exodus 23:20 and Malachi 3. Isaiah envisions the preparation of a straight road upon which God returns to God’s people, running from captivity in Babylon back across the desert to Judah. Exodus 23:20 promises a “messenger” who will go before the people to guard them on the way to the land God has promised them. Malachi 3 identifies a messenger who prepares the way for the Lord, who will come suddenly to his temple. All three portray the fulfillment of God’s promises to the people, either of land or of return to land that had been lost, on the way to the restoration of God’s true dwelling place, the temple that is heaven and earth as one. Used here in reference to John’s ministry, Matthew 3:3 confirms that God is once more coming to redeem God’s people.
. . .through the wilderness
Matthew dresses John firmly in the likeness of Elijah (see also 2 Kings 1:8), who, like John, fearlessly called the people, especially their rulers, to repentance (see also Matthew 14:1-12). John’s diet and location in the wilderness demonstrate his complete reliance on what God provides, recalling Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness. Both diet and location also constitute an implicit critique of Jerusalem, its temple, and its leaders.
Whether in ancient times or today, cities fuel and shape human imagination of how the world is ordered, what humans can create, and who is destined to rule. Jerusalem, with its magnificent temple, served well in this capacity both for Judeans and for those living in the Roman diaspora. For many, the pilgrimage to the temple was the definitive statement of their identity and allegiance. John, however, calls them away from the holy city and the temple toward the wilderness, a place of danger and testing, but also the place where Israel was formed, where God’s provision and care was demonstrated, and the people grew ready for God’s promises. In the wilderness, away from the trappings of human traditions and powers, we may see and hear God’s call more clearly. John’s ministry in the wilderness thus calls the people to remember who they were before their kings started building cities and temples, even before they had kings at all.
Fruit and fire
John’s audience includes not only “Jerusalem and all Judea coming for baptism,” but also many Pharisees and Sadducees. It is not clear whether the latter come to be baptized or to critically observe what John is doing. Have they heard or sensed something of “the wrath to come” (3:7)? John suggests that the elites think their claim to be Abraham’s offspring will suffice. In any case, those who trust their human marks of success and status will resist repentance, which requires a turn from the human things we trust. They have not yet borne the “fruit of repentance” (3:8), so John tells them the ax is already at the root of the tree, a classic image of judgment against human pride. Because it has borne no fruit, their tree will be cut down and thrown into the fire (see also 7:15-19, again addressing the leaders/“false prophets”).
Then John contrasts his own power and baptism with that of the still more powerful one for whom he is preparing the way, who baptizes not with water, but with the Holy Spirit and fire, images that suggest both redemption (perhaps the return of God’s Spirit to the temple) and judgment. The way ahead brings not only comfort to Jerusalem (Isaiah 40:2), but to its leaders the refiner’s fire (Malachi 3:2-5). How do we preserve and convey both of these elements in our proclamation of the gospel today?
The fruit of repentance
John’s way of preparing a straight path focuses on repentance, that is, turning from the ways of this world to practices that fit the time of God’s coming. Jesus identifies these practices in passages such as the Sermon on the Mount, his reply to John’s question about whether he is really the one to come (11:2-19), the sign-acts that define his own ministry (chapters 8-9), the parable of the Sheep and the Goats (25:31-46), and more generally in his practices of inclusion and welcoming, which nurture forgiveness, reconciliation, restoration, and wholeness.
Repentance is harder for those more deeply invested in or comfortable with the current order of things, as were the Sadducees and Pharisees who come to observe John’s baptism, and as many of us are today. It may be easier—and necessary—for comfortable people to change when confronted with a great social or personal crisis, which requires us to challenge our prevailing narratives, as when today we must face the realities of racism or climate change. Survival lies in critically examining, repenting of, and replacing the narratives that have brought us to crisis. Wisdom entails repenting prior to crisis.
For Christians repentance is not a religious moment or experience in which we “come to God,” but then continue to live within the social narratives and structures that constitute life as usual. Repentance is a perpetual state of readiness to challenge our commonplaces, the myths we live by, which produce not the fruit of repentance, but the practices of alienation and violence we too easily take for granted.