Our Lord has told us that of those born of women none was greater than John the Baptist. His greatness consisted not simply in his personal character—though he stands out preeminently as a devoted man of God, true to principles and unyielding in his stand against iniquity even in high places (Matt. 14:4)—but in the fact that he was chosen of God to herald the coming of Christ as Israel’s Messiah and the world’s Redeemer (John 1:29-31), and formally to open to Him the door into the sheepfold (John 10:2-3) by baptizing and acknowledging Him as the Anointed of God. Time can never dim the luster that belongs to him as the forerunner of the Christ, who was permitted to see and know the One of whom he prophesied—a privilege denied to all the earlier prophets.
Luke gives the date of the beginning of John’s ministry as the fifteenth year of Tiberias Caesar, which most authorities identify with A.D. 26. He preached in the Jordan valley, in the land of Judea. His special ministry was the calling of the people of Israel to repentance. He “came…in the way of righteousness” (Matt. 21:32), to emphasize God’s holy and just demands on His creatures and to insist that only the self-judged sinner is fit for the presence of the Lord. Such a ministry is needed greatly today when men have lost, in large measure, the sense of the sinfulness of sin. It is useless to preach the gospel of the grace of God to men who have no realization of their need of that grace. Only when the soul is awakened to see its uncleanness and unrighteousness in the eye of a holy God will there be the cry, “God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13).
“In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (vv. 1-2). The wilderness of Judea is the region east and south of Jerusalem, including the lower Jordan Valley, and the western side of the Dead Sea.
John’s message was a call to self-judgment. He urged the people to take sides with God against themselves. “For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make His paths straight. And the same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey. Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judea, and all the region round about Jordan, and were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins” (vv. 3-6).
In Isaiah 40, we find the prophecy that was fulfilled in John the Baptist. His message was, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” Israel had waited expectantly for centuries for the Messiah, but they were not ready to receive Him: they needed that preparation of heart which comes from honestly facing one’s sins before God.
Both John’s raiment and his food are mentioned. Elijah-like, he appeared in wilderness garb and subsisted on wilderness fare. He was a man of the great open places, whose manner of living added to the force of his words. It is considered debatable by some whether he actually fed upon locusts, or whether the term used refers to the carob pod of the locust tree. But inasmuch as locusts are eaten today and have been used as food (very much like dried shrimp) from time immemorial, it seems most likely that John actually used them in his diet. On one occasion Jesus called attention to John’s abstemiousness (Matt. 11:18; Luke 7:33).
As John proclaimed the need of repentance, his hearers came to him from all parts of the land, “and were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins.” Baptism in itself was not an act of merit. It was meant to imply that the baptized person owned that his just desert was judgment because of his sins. Thus they condemned themselves and justified God (Luke 7:29). That John did not imply that his baptism freed them from their sins is clear from the preaching recorded in John 1:29. He pointed the people to Jesus as the only One through whom they could obtain remission of sin.
When haughty religious professors, who gave no evidence of repentance, came with the rest, seeking baptism, John rebuked them sternly, saying, “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (v. 7). Strong language was used because of the hypocrisy of these religious formalists, who by their hidden wickedness proclaimed themselves children of the evil one. The Pharisees were the orthodox party in Israel, and the Sadducees were the heterodox group (Acts 23:8); but both alike rested upon their own fancied righteousness and therefore saw no need to repent (Rom. 10:3). John demanded “fruits meet for repentance” (v. 8) before he was willing to administer the sacred rite of baptism. While good works have no value so far as procuring salvation is concerned, the truly repentant one shows by a new life the reality of his profession by turning to God and away from his iniquities.
These religious professors were ready to reply indignantly that they were children of Abraham, and so needed no repentance. John realized what was going through their minds and exclaimed, “Think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham” (v. 9). It is a common thing for unspiritual religionists to rest upon and glory in the piety of their forefathers. But unless the same faith that was in them is found in us, our glorying is vain. God who made man from the dust of the earth could raise up children of faith from stones if He so willed. He added, “And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire” (Matt. 3:10). Too often in our days the ax is laid to the fruit of the tree. But it is the root that is wrong. There must be a new man if there would be fruit for God. To lay the ax to the root of the tree implies the utter condemnation of the natural man and suggests the positive need of new birth.
“I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear; he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire” (v. 11). The outward symbol was only for those who professed sincere repentance toward God—and who cast themselves upon His mercy as needy, helpless sinners. When Christ should come, He would baptize with (or in) the Holy Spirit and fire.
“Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (v. 12). The wheat are the children of the kingdom (Matt. 13:38). They are the ones who were to be baptized in the Holy Spirit. The chaff are the evildoers who will be baptized in the fire of judgment. Nothing could emphasize our Lord’s Deity more than John’s declaration regarding Him and this twofold baptism. Imagine a creature baptizing in the Holy Spirit. Only One who is Himself divine could do this. And on Pentecost Peter declares unhesitatingly that it was He who sent the Spirit (Acts 2:33). He it is who will consign the impenitent to the fire of everlasting punishment (Matt. 25:41). This is not to be confounded with the cleansing efficacy of the Holy Spirit, nor with the tongues “like as of fire” which appeared at Pentecost. “He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” is placed in direct contrast with gathering the “wheat into the garner.”
“Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him” (v. 13). The day arrived at last for the manifestation of the King. Jesus appeared in the throng and stepped forward to undergo the rite to which so many confessed sinners had submitted. He who was to take the sinner’s place came to be baptized of John, that He might thereby be identified with sinners for whom He was to lay down His life. “But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?” (v. 14). To the Baptist it seemed out of keeping that the sinless One should submit to a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. He felt his own need rather to be baptized of Jesus. “And Jesus answering said unto him. Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffered him” (v. 15). It is as though Jesus said, “I wish to submit to this as a pledge that I have come to fulfill every righteous demand of the throne of God on behalf of sinful men.” It was our Lord’s public dedication to the work of the cross for which He had come into the world. It is a very shallow interpretation indeed that makes the act of baptism the fulfilling of righteousness. In other words, it was not in order that He might set us a good example that Jesus was baptized, but rather that He might identify Himself with sinners as the One who was to make Himself responsible to satisfy every righteous claim for those who owned that they were justly under the curse of the violated law, and so with no righteousness of their own. They were like debtors giving their notes to God. Jesus endorsed those notes, guaranteeing full payment—that settlement was made on the cross.
In the next two verses we learn how God expressed His approval of the Son in a remarkable manner: “And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him” (v. 16). Immediately following our Lord’s open dedication of Himself, “the heavens were opened” above Him, and in visible manifestation the Holy Spirit anointed Him for the great work He had come to undertake to the glory of God and for the salvation of a lost world. It is to this that Peter refers, as recorded in Acts 10:38, and of which Jesus Himself speaks in John 6:27. He was anointed as Prophet, Priest, and King, and sealed by the same Spirit as the Holy One of God, who alone could meet the need of a dying world.
Here in Matthew’s gospel it is His anointing as the King to which our attention is directed particularly. Mark emphasizes His prophetic office, and John presents Him as our Great High Priest, but this was after finishing the work the Father gave Him to do.
“And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (v. 17). Audibly, the Father declared His delight in His Son. He who had in His baptism offered Himself to God to become a sacrifice for sin was thus attested to be Himself the sinless One, for the sin offering must be most holy (Lev. 6:25). There was in Him no taint of sin, no inbred evil such as all of Adam’s fallen sons possess. He could say, “I do always those things that please Him” (John 8:29). Thus the Father ever found His joy in contemplating the perfection of His Son. He would have us delight in Him, too.