Summary: The need for true repentance, and amendment of life.
JUDGMENT AND HOPE IN THE PREACHING OF JOHN
Without any warning from the narrator, John the Baptist bursts onto the pages of Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 3:1) as suddenly as Elijah had burst onto the pages of Israel’s history centuries before (1 Kings 17:1). And like Elijah (2 Kings 1:8), this rugged character (Matthew 3:4) dwelt in the wilderness: on the fringes of the nation, and outside the limitations of established religion. Our Lord Jesus would later indicate that ‘soft raiment’ belonged to king’s palaces, not to John (Luke 7:25).
John came preaching, and his message was not soft and woolly, but as abrasive as his raiment. The spiritual diet which John offered to his hearers was as strict as his own bodily diet (Matthew 3:4). No gentle words to tickle their ears drew the multitudes out of Jerusalem, Judaea, and the region about Jordan (Matthew 3:5): but rather the straightforward declaration of the need for repentance, and the nearness of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 3:2).
Sad to say, but sometimes it is necessary to cross parish boundaries to discover the right preaching of God’s Word. Sometimes, too, the true prophets of the true and living God are found not in His Temple, but outside it (Jeremiah 7:2). Yet such was the working of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the people that they braved the ridicule, and sought out this bizarre unorthodox preacher - “and were baptised of him in Jordan, confessing their sins” (Matthew 3:6).
What is surprising here is that these people were already members of the Jewish faith. Baptism had only existed hitherto for non-Jews converting to Judaism, in the self-administered ‘bath’ to wash away ‘Gentile impurities’. Now, here comes John, calling God’s own people to a baptism with a view to the forgiveness of sins.
John’s conversation with the Pharisees and Sadducees is relevant here. John warns them in no uncertain terms concerning “the wrath to come” (Matthew 3:7). The preacher looks not only for a professed repentance, but the fruits that arise from it (Matthew 3:8).
Also, he says, your claim to be children of Abraham does not suffice to bring you into the kingdom (Matthew 3:9). Similarly, belonging to a ‘Christian’ nation, being brought up in a Christian church, even baptism itself, does not make us Christians. There is the need for true repentance, and amendment of life.
Judgment is indicated in the two images of fire (Matthew 3:10; Matthew 3:12). Yet the wind of ‘purging’ also indicates hope for those represented by “the wheat” (Matthew 3:12). And both wind and fire represent the Holy Ghost (Matthew 3:11).
The judgment and the hope are centred in Jesus (Matthew 3:11), whose shoes John is unworthy to bear. If we refuse Jesus, to whom John is forever pointing, we face the fire of retribution. But when we receive Him, it is Jesus who baptises us with the Holy Ghost - with images of both wind and fire (Acts 2:2-3).