The Herald of the King
Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. is Professor of New Testament Literature and Exegesis at Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, Texas. This is the third of his selected expository studies in the Gospel of Matthew. If you have questions about John the Baptist relative to the man, his manner of life and ministry, and his message, this study should help answer them and enable the reader to understand and appreciate more fully this great man of God.
Scripture Reading: Matthew 3:1-12
That John the Baptist is an important biblical character could be gleaned from just one statement of our Lord. That statement is found in Matthew 11:11, “Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Add to this the opening of the Gospel of Mark, in which his ministry is said to be significant for “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ” (Mark 1:2), and the point is demonstrated clearly.1 In harmony with this is the two-fold mention of him in the Old Testament prophets (cf. Isaiah 40:3-5; Malachi 3:1)
John was a rugged type of person, a stern John Knox kind of character who thundered out “the way of the Lord” to a stiff-necked generation. His Old Testament counterpart is Elijah, to whom he is likened (cf. Luke 1:17), and whose ministry also was filled with the announcement of judgment.
And yet this rugged and stern character, although his message was not, humanly speaking, “geared for the times,” had a tremendous influence on his contemporaries. John was popular, for the crowds flocked to hear him and receive his baptism. Campbell Morgan describes his ministry as attractive, convictive, and invective.2 John’s ministry, however, was not popular in the sense that he was successful in influencing the majority to turn to the way of the Lord. In fact, it was just the opposite. His work led to his imprisonment (cf. Matthew 4:12) and death (cf. 14:3-12). In this the servant was not above his Master.
We have been saying that Matthew is the royal gospel, presenting the King and His coming kingdom. We have looked over His genealogy, impeccable in its claim of the kingdom for the Son of Joseph. We have read of His virgin conception and birth. We have stood at the cradle of the young Infant, observing the homage of the Gentiles, the Magi, as well as the dread of the wicked Herod. And we have observed the divine providential care in the preservation of the Infant from the malevolence of the king. In the following section, that which we consider in this study, we listen to the voice of the herald of the King, John the Baptist.
John The Man (3:1-3)
His coming (3:1-2). The voice of prophecy had fallen silent for four hundred years when John began his ministry. It is now heard again through the ministry of this modern Elijah.
The opening phrase, “in those days,” maybe somewhat misleading to the casual reader. About twenty-eight years had passed since the events of the preceding chapter (cf. Luke 3:1-2). We are to take the words, then, in a very general sense.3 The likeness of the herald to Elijah is seen in the way he is introduced to the reader. “His portrait,” Maclaren aptly says, “is flung on the canvas with the same startling abruptness with which Elijah is introduced. Matthew makes no allusion to his relationship to Jesus, has nothing to say about his birth or long seclusion in the desert. He gives no hint that his vague expression ‘in those days’ covers thirty years. John leaps, as it were, into the arena full grown and full armed.”4 Matthew, thus, assumes that his readers are familiar with John. As for the modern speculation over John’s relation to the Essene community, or to the Qumran sect, known to us through the Dead Sea Scrolls, neither Matthew nor the other evangelists give us any light.
Matthew does not expatiate upon the origin of the coming of the ambassador. He simply states that he came “preaching in the wilderness of Judaea.” The Apostle John gives us the real source of his coming, for he writes, “There was a man SENT FROM GOD, whose name was John” (John 1:6). And everything about this rugged prophet confirms the truth of the statement. He preached with a conviction born of fellowship with the living God. As Richard Baxter put it, he preached as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.
There is a one-word description of his work. It is “preaching.” The Greek word means to proclaim, and it is a very fitting word for a herald of the King. “It means proclaiming, or acting as a herald,” Maclaren says, “and implies the uplifted voice and the brief, urgent message of one who runs before the chariot, and shouts, ‘The king! the king!’”5 It has none of the modern connotations of “preaching,” such as long-winded tediousness and mild, bland platitudes.
The burden of John’s message is set forth in striking brevity in the second verse. The details of it shall be expounded below.
The cause of his coming (3:3). Matthew relates the coming of John to Old Testament prophecy, as is his method in this work. Isaiah 40:3 is cited as being in harmony with the work of John. The words originally were a part of the consoling message given to the exiles in Babylonia, who were to return to their own land under the guidance and protection of their God in the future. And that return was related to the coming of their God for His kingdom. That return and that kingdom are to come through the ministry of the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, according to Matthew. John’s ministry is that of forerunner and herald of the King, and in Matthew’s view the verse in Isaiah speaks of John.
John’s Manner Of Life And Ministry (3:4-6)
The mantle (3:4a). One gains the distinct impression that John’s manner of life was similar to that of an ascetic. If he was, it was not by reason of a desire to imitate the former prophets. He wore a robe like Elijah’s, but his asceticism was the expression of his stern, severe, no-nonsense spirit, living in detachment from the worldly delights of the senses. The world of today would probably regard him as some sort of “freak.”
The meals (3:4b). In our day we have seen the fads of swallowing goldfish, and other similar things, but it is doubtful that John’s diet was anything other than the simple diet of a poor man. In the Congo, I am told, they eat fried ants, and the French, with some misguided Americans, regard snails as delicacies. In John’s day, the eating of locusts and wild honey simply meant that he preferred, or was limited to, the simple fare of a man with limited resources. Perhaps it would be comparable to our saying that one made his diet from grits, or oatmeal, and cornbread.
This simple food does reflect the sincerity of the message he proclaimed, and it gave a touch of reality to his heralding of thunderous judgment upon his generation. His thoughts were directed toward the heavenlies, not the earthlies. Richard Baxter said, “If a hardened heart be to be broken, it is not stroking but striking that must do it.” And striking is more effective, if it is done by one whose motives cannot be questioned.
The ministry (3:5-6). John’s ministry produced a kind of universal excitement and great results, so far as numbers were concerned. He moved the entire community about him. This fiery soul did not mumble the tired old cliches, the worn-out formulas of the scribes. He did not engage in the tediousness of splitting theological hairs. He spoke with conviction, and they flocked to hear him, and to hear him denounce them!
There are several questions to be answered here. First, what is the origin of John’s baptism? Some have traced it to the Old Testament purificatory rites, and others to proselyte baptism. The latter involved the circumcision of the candidate, the immersion of the candidate by the candidate himself, and an offering in the temple. John’s baptism differed from this in two respects: (1) he baptized the candidates, a fact from which he derived his name, the Baptist; (2) he baptized Israelites, not simply Gentiles. It would appear safest to conclude that his baptism was a radically new thing.
Second, what was the relation of John’s baptism to the forgiveness of sins? Some have contended that the rite conferred remission of sins. They would read the reference in Mark 1:4 with this emphasis, a baptism of repentance unto remission of sins, linking the “for the remission” directly to the “baptism.” Such an interpretation does violence to the spirit of the entire Word of God, in which spiritual blessing is never related to a physical act. Further, it does violence to other New Testament statements regarding John’s message and ministry (cf. Luke 1:77-78). As a matter of fact, in the expression that Mark uses the remission is linked to the repentance, not to the baptism. It is repentance unto remission of sins, not baptism unto remission of sins. The baptism was only the outward symbol of the inner reality of repentance. That this is John’s meaning is confirmed by the charge he gives the Pharisees and Saducees, “Bring forth therefore fruit worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:8), not worthy of baptism.
Third, was John’s call for repentance, a call to the nation as a nation, or did it also have to do with individual salvation? Surely it had to do with both. There can be no real national repentance apart from the repentance of individuals in the nation. Of course, it should be remembered that the salvation that John proclaimed was an Old Covenant salvation. The relationships to our Lord introduced by the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost were not known by His disciples. This is evident from a consideration of Acts 19:1-7, which relates the experience of Paul with certain of John’s disciples.
John’s Message (3:7-12)
The proclamation regarding repentance (3:1-3, 7-9). We now attempt to analyze the essential characteristics of the message of John, which, incidentally, is identical with that of the Lord (cf. 3:2; 4:17). There are three terms which we must interpret.
First, what did John mean by the term repent? Perhaps it will help to note several things it does not mean. It does not mean to be sorry for one’s sins. The emphasis of the word in the original text is not upon the feelings, but upon the mind or purpose of the one who repents. The Greek word means literally to have an afterthought, or to change the mind. The herald, then, was calling upon Israelites to change their minds regarding their sins and guilt, to see themselves as sinners under the judgment of the Lord for their rebellion against Him.
Nor does the word mean to promise to do better. In the Old Testament it was the common word to express the return of the people of Israel to the Lord, being the equivalent of the Hebrew word shub, or teshubah (cf. Hosea 14:1-2; Jeremiah 33:18; Ezekial 33:11). It was associated with the convenantal status in which Israel stood with Jehovah. In effect, for Israel to repent is for the nation to return to the Lord from their sinful state, to return to the covenant established between the Lord and Abraham’s seed. This is the essence of the appeal of John the Baptist.
That the term repent is not very different in meaning from the term believe is seen in John the Apostle’s description of the ministry of the Baptist, “The same came for witness, that he might bear witness of the light, that all might BELIEVE through him” (John 1:7). Repent stresses the negative side of the terms of salvation, while believe stresses the positive. The former is very appropriate for those who have rebelled against a previously established covenantal status.
Second, what is meant by the term the kingdom of heaven? While the term kingdom may have different forces, it is hardly to be doubted that it refers here to the Messianic kingdom, the millennial kingdom. The eternal kingdom of God was always present and could not be said to have drawn nigh in Christ. The fact that the term in the Old Testament in most of its occurrences refers to the Messianic kingdom supports this identification. Since John does not explain the meaning of the term he must intend his listeners to understand it in the common sense.
Third, what is meant by the expression “is at hand”? Simply stated, what John means is that the kingdom of God is imminent. That which was future to the Old Testament saint is now near (cf. Mark 1:15). It has come upon them (cf. Matthew 12:28). In the words and works of Jesus it has come near, for He is the king. The only thing that remains is its public manifestation in glory and power (cf. Matthew 16:28), which will take place at the time that the nation responds to its Lord (cf. Luke 19:11; Acts 3:19-21). Certain of the Jewish teachers taught that, if Israel could repent perfectly for even one day, the Messiah would come.6 The sentiment is not unbiblical.
The proviso regarding reality (3:7-10). In these verses we have a very instructive picture of the Pharisees, the ritualists of Israel, and the Sadducees, the rationalists of Israel, getting religion! The words used by John to describe them, “O generation of vipers,” are very vivid and illustrate the fearlessness of the Baptist. It is true that John is a “voice”; he certainly was no echo (cf. v. 3)! “Honeyed words were not in his line,” Maclaren points out, “he had not lived in the desert for all these years, and held converse with God and his own heart, without having learned that his business was to smite on conscience with a strong hand, and to tear away the masks which hid men from themselves. The whole spirit of the old prophets was revived in his brusque, almost fierce, address to such very learned, religious, and distinguished personages. Isaiah in his day had called their predecessors ‘rulers of Sodom’; John was not scolding when he called his hearers, ‘ye offspring of vipers,’ but charging them with moral corruption and creeping earthliness.”7 I am sure he felt these words when they took up the love offering!
A few words bear comment. The “wrath to come” (cf. Malachi 4:1-6; 2 Thessalonians 1:10) is the anger of the Lord in the eschatological Day of the Lord, the time of the judgment of the Tribulation.
The call to produce “fruit” (the word is singular in the Greek text) is a call to produce the evidence of genuine repentance. A repentance that does not issue in good works of a Scriptural nature is not genuine repentance (cf. Romans 2:17-29; James 2:14-26).
In the reference to the divine ability to raise up children to Abraham from the pebbles on the Jordan beach, or from the loose rocks of the desert, there is a telling thrust at “the lofty structure of confidence in their descent.”8 And there may be some indication here of the ultimate reach of the gospel to the Gentiles (cf. John 8:39). It was a word especially suitable for people who said, “All Israelites have a portion in the world to come,” and that Abraham sits at the gates of Hell to turn back any Israelite who may have been sentenced to its terrors.
The immediacy of the coming judgment is suggested by the statement in verse ten. The ax lies at the root of the trees, soon to begin its work of judgment. The trees are men, and the judgment is an individualizing one, and it embraces all the unfruitful. Nothing but genuine fruit shall prevail to deliver them. What happened historically is sadly unfolded in Romans 11:16-24, where the Apostle Paul speaks in detail of the breaking off of the natural branches from the tree of the Abrahamic Covenant through unbelief of the nation.
The promise regarding a future baptism (3:11-12). In the final verses the Baptist compares his ministry with that of the Messiah, the Coming One (the term is a messianic title). His ministry is symbolic and preparatory, possessing no intrinsic vitality. His baptism is in water; the Messiah’s is in the Spirit and in fire. The reference to the baptism in the Spirit and in fire in verse eleven refers to the purifying nature of the baptism of the Spirit, not the punitive nature of it. The ultimate reference is to the Day of Pentecost, when the church came into existence (cf. Acts 2:1-4).
There is something very appalling and terrifying in the heavy refrain at the end of the three consecutive verses, — “with fire” (cf. vv. 10-12). We have spoken of the meaning of the words in verse eleven. In verses ten and twelve, however, they clearly look on to the time of the judgment of the Day of the Lord, the apocalyptic day of judgment upon the unbelieving world. In the later chapters of the gospel further details will be given of this time (cf. 13:36-43, 47-51).
That John does not see the interval between the first coming and the second coming, presenting them both in the same context, is not surprising. In the great prophetic passages of the Old Testament there is no perspective, the first coming and the second coming of the Messiah being described in the same contexts. As Maclaren says, “The future is foreshortened, and great gulfs of centuries are passed over, as, standing on a plain, we see it as continuous, though it may really be cleft by deep ravines. He did not know ‘what manner of time’ the spirit which was in him did ‘signify.’ No doubt his expectations were correct, in so far as Christ’s coming really sifted and separated, and was the rising and falling of many; but it was not attended by such tokens as John inferred. Hence we can understand his doubts when in prison, and learn that a prophet was often mistaken as to the meaning of his message.”9
John has given us an important understanding of the work of the Messiah, but he has omitted a very important aspect of His work, which is essential for salvation. We find no hint of a mention of His work of sacrifice for sin. We must not however, conclude that he knew nothing of it. It is the same John who in the Gospel of John cries out, “Behold the Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). This is the last and highest plateau of his message. He is the King, the bestower of the Spirit, the awe-inspiring Judge, but before all else the Passover Lamb. It is not surprising that, having uttered this, there was nothing more for him to do but to decrease.
1 I take arche (AV, “beginning”) to refer to the whole gospel.
2 Morgan, p. 22.
3 Hill, p. 89
4 Maclaren, I, 23
5 Ibid., I, 24.
6 Barclay, I, 51
7 Maclaren, I, 27-28
8 Ibid., I, 29.
9 Ibid., I, 32