“In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying:
“ The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘ Prepare the way of the LORD;
Make His paths straight.’”
Now John himself was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
— Matthew 3:1-12 (NKJV)
John’s message is an odd one: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” It’s the kind of message that will make people stop and listen just to hear what he says next. So what does the message mean, and why would people travel dozens of miles on foot across parched and difficult terrain to hear John preach it?
Repent is a word that has been so mis-used in our time, both by believers and non-believers, that finding a definition is difficult. The word essentially means to turn or to do a one-eighty. Taken in context, what I hear John saying is essentially “God is coming! Quit wasting your time. Put away the things you do wrong in your life. Admit your failures and your rebellion against God, and be clean on the inside just as being baptized makes you clean on the outside.”
John’s words to the Pharisees and Sadducees are harsh, but not without reason. The Sadducees were wealthy, sophisticated religious leaders who hob-nobbed with the Greeks to the point of compromising their Jewish faith. The Pharisees on the other hand were the popular religious leaders of the day, legalistic and proud of how well they kept the Law of Moses to the smallest detail. What made them popular was that they were pro-Israel and they taught religion in a way the people could understand. The main bone of contention between the two parties was over the issue of resurrection: the Sadducees believed life after death didn’t exist and the Pharisees believed it did. (Side note: Jesus took the position of the Pharisees on this issue when He said the God of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was “the God of the living, not of the dead.”)
To these religious leaders John says: bear fruit worthy of repentance, and don’t say to yourselves ‘we have Abraham as our father’. How to translate this ancient text into modern concepts? “Bear fruit” — Bearing fruit isn’t something a plant tries to do; as long as it is healthy and connected to the source of nutrients it will bear fruit that shows what kind of plant it is. “I am the vine, you are the branches…” Jesus says. In other words John is saying let your lives show what you say you believe.
“And don’t say to yourselves ‘we have Abraham as our father’…” In Jesus’ day it was generally believed that one got into heaven by being physically descended from Abraham, the great patriarch chosen by God. They missed the point that “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” (Rom 4:3) In our day John might have said “and don’t say to yourselves ‘we’re baptized believers’…” because believing in God and being baptized doesn’t save a person’s soul any more than being descended from Abraham does. There is a world of difference between believing IN God (an intellectual assent) and believing God (a position of trust and obedience). John makes it clear that saving faith results in the bearing of fruit.
John then goes on to talk about fire: those who don’t bear the fruit of faith in their lives will be thrown into fire; the One coming will “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire”; He will gather the wheat into His barn, but the chaff will burn with unquenchable fire. This is disturbing stuff. First, I notice that nobody escapes fire. People without the fruit of faith in their lives burn; people with the fruit of faith are made clean by fire; but nobody gets out of this life without passing through fire.
At the same time, God’s people have nothing to fear. I think this is what Isaiah was referring to when he said (Is 43:1-2)
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.”
God doesn’t promise to deliver His people from trouble; He promises to be with us and see us safely through it.
Second, it’s becoming clear to me even as I write this that the fire John is talking about is metaphorical and is something that happens in this life. Our actions happen in this life, our decisions happen in this life, and what we think and do in this life has far-reaching effects beyond just this life.
The apostle Peter talks about the fact that the hardships we face in this life are designed to refine our faith (I Peter 1). And going through life’s trials without God is passing through fire without God’s protection; without faith Isaiah’s promises don’t apply. It seems there might be more to the cutting down and burning John talks about, but I’m not sure what it means exactly except that there will be an end to evil someday.
If there’s a bottom line to the message, it’s that our focus matters. Are we focused on the great news that God is coming? Or are we focused only on ourselves — the call to change our lives and the implications and inconveniences such changes bring?