Tonight we will follow Matthew’s gospel and fast forward about three decades in Jesus’s life. We left Jesus as a child in danger and in this chapter we see Him as a man. But before we get to Jesus we are introduced to John the Baptist, Jesus’s precursor. In Isaiah 40:3, there is s prophecy concerning him: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the LORD; Make straight in the desert A highway for our God.”
John’s arrival on the scene heralds Jesus’s arrival. He came to prepare the people for the new law that was to come. This new law to be established by Jesus would be very different from the Old Testament laws of detailed regulation and animal sacrifice. God’s gospel to come is one of peace and repentance, where the message of the Spirit of God is not written on tablets of stone, but on tablets of flesh (II Corinthians 3:3). This means that God’s Word, which once lived on stone tablets (aka the Ten Commandments), now lives in our hearts, guiding our inner thoughts and decisions.
Some of us might know that John the Baptist was eating locusts and honey in the wilderness of Judea, clothed in camel’s hair and preaching repentance. What some might not know is how parts of John’s message were virtually identical to what Jesus would teach.
For instance, in the seventh verse of this chapter, John calls the Pharisees a “brood of vipers,” because he knew that they needed to repent instead of resting in the fact that they were of Abraham’s lineage. These Pharisees did not have hearts that desired to be approved of God; rather they felt superior to mankind by virtue of the fact that they were Jews. They thought that because they were Jews, they were automatically approved of by God, and also maybe just a little bit better than everyone else. John calling them a “brood of vipers” shows the distinction from the old law to the new: repentance and purity of heart take the place of genealogies and tradition. John could detect that the Pharisees would struggle with making this transition and Jesus saw it too. In Matthew 12, Jesus calls the Pharisees a “brood of vipers” when they accuse Him of using the power of the devil to cast out demons. The meaning behind these accusations to the Pharisees is that the new gospel is coming, and it reveals the hearts of those that hear it. It does the same today.
John the Baptist also refers to trees and the fruit they bear as a metaphor for what comes out of our lives based on what is in our hearts. This is an idea throughout the New Testament: good trees bear good fruit and bad trees bear bad. If we repent of our sins, we are righteous, but if we resist and become defensive or rebellious, our nature is contrary to God and our lives will bring forth undesirables things. Likewise, Jesus made this same correlation in Matthew 12: ““Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or else make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for a tree is known by its fruit.”
John goes on in Matthew 3 to baptize people with water for repentance, an act necessary for salvation that is borne out in the New Testament (Mark 16:16, John 3:5). John makes it clear that he does not consider himself worthy of Jesus, not even to carry His sandals. John’s comments in verses 11-12 again make reference to Jesus’s impending arrival but this time specifically mention that Jesus’s baptism would be divisive: not all would heed His Word, some would obey while others would not.
Jesus at last arrives at the Jordan from Galilee (where we last saw Him at the end of Matthew 2) to be baptized by John. John is astonished because he thinks that Jesus should be baptizing him, but Jesus says, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”
Baptism is an act that removes all sin, leaving sinners pure in the sight of God, so why did Jesus, who had no sin, need to be baptized? He says it was to “fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus’s act of baptism shows the people (and us!) the importance of following the pattern of obedience. Jesus completes this act of righteousness in front of men that men are required to perform to be saved. It is a show of solidarity and also an endorsement of God’s plan of salvation for mankind.
Even though Jesus had no sins to wash away, His baptism was necessary in that it points all mankind to God’s desire for us: that we repent and turn to God as the Master of our lives.