As Matthew presents the ministry of John the Baptist, there is a confrontation between the two religious establishments and John. Certain individuals of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to John for baptism, but he refuses and even rebukes them. In John’s address to them, he brings up the patriarch Abraham, which is a reference to the scriptures even if it is brief. Examining the difference between the religious positions of the Pharisees and Sadducees as opposed to John’s fiery preaching can be quite insightful.
John’s baptism seems to have materialized out of nowhere. There isn’t a record of anyone baptizing people in the manner of John before his ministry in the wilderness, unless we explore what the religious establishment required of Gentiles when joining the nation of Israel. There was a ceremonial cleansing prescribed in the law on certain occasions, see Leviticus 11:39-40, 14:8-9, 15:5-10, 13, 16-18, 21-22, 27, 16:24, 28, 17:15-16, 22:6. Each orthodox Jewish community had a mikveh (which was a bath for the purpose of these ritual cleansings) which was necessary to restore ritual purity based on these statutes. It was a complete immersion in water symbolizing the cleansing process from defilement. The religious establishment took this full body cleansing and required Gentiles to be fully immersed in water to signify their complete forsaking of idolatry in turning to the one true God. So baptism was a symbol of repentance in some sense, but it was designed for unclean Gentiles. What John was saying in essence was, “Repent, turn from your sins. You must start over in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. You have forfeited any right you may have had as Israelites because of your sinfulness.” The response was stark. Common folk, who were convicted of their sins, repented and were baptized. The religious establishment, however, saw no need for repentance. But since this was a religious thing going on out in the wilderness, and since many Israelites were following the teachings of John, some of them decided to go out. But John derides them for their religious stance.
Matthew 3:7-10 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
John states that these who have come would give an excuse within themselves for not repenting. The excuse is that they have Abraham as a father. It may seem as if John is ascribing words to the Pharisees which they may not be thinking. However, if we look at John 8:33-42, we see an exchange between Jesus and the scribes & Pharisees in which they readily claim Abraham as their father and even equate it to having God as their Father. So this idea of “We have Abraham for our father” was their creed. They had no need for repentance because they had never been unclean Gentiles who worshiped other gods. John gives their excuse for not repenting stating it out loud, and then proceeds to deal with this idea that they have no need of repentance because they are of a certain lineage.
The attitude (boiled down) is that God has to treat us in a certain way because we are a chosen offspring. John’s response is simple. God doesn’t need you. God doesn’t need you to fulfill His promises. Yes, God made promises to Abraham, but God has the ability to discard you and raise up other children to fulfill those promises. In examining the character of Abraham, it is fitting here to note that Abraham was not an Israelite. Abraham was a pagan Gentile who learned to walk by faith, Joshua 24:2-3. The promises made to Abraham were such that he would be the father of many nations, Genesis 17:4-6. Further, all nations would be blessed because of his faith and obedience, Genesis 22:18. The religious establishment had focused so long on the aspects which pertained to the nation of Israel that they were blind to the overall plan of God to bring salvation to the Gentiles.
John’s rebuke is not that he would never baptize them. They must first repent and bring forth fruits worthy of repentance, then they could be baptized in anticipation of the kingdom of heaven. Unless they believed that the wrath of God was truly upon them, they would see no need for repentance. The common folk all too readily believed that they were deserving of God’s wrath. Now John states that those fruit trees which should have been producing fruit all along would be cut down. This is a clear admonishment of the religious establishment centered in Jerusalem. John is admitting that these leaders have been the fruit tree(s) for some time, but a lack of fruit in the area of repentance will bring upon them swift judgment since the axe was at the root of the tree even as John preached. The excuse that Abraham is your father will not avert the coming judgment upon you or Israel as a whole.
Matthew the Tax Collector arranged portions of his Guide to Fulfilled Prophecy in a thematic way. Here he notes the contrast between the common folk who repented at John’s preaching and the religious who felt they needed no repentance. He also included an ominous warning that the axe was at the root of the fruit trees. Later, the Tax Collector will bring this idea back to the forefront in Matthew 21:23-46. The ardent student of the word will clearly notice the parallels between this passage here at the beginning of his gospel and the judgment which Christ pronounces in parable form toward the end of his gospel.
The Baptism of Jesus
The Tax Collector’s Guide to Fulfilled Prophecy should contain a mention of the baptism of Jesus. This is because the word fulfill is used in a very unique sense. When Jesus came to John, John would have stopped the entire affair right there. Jesus, however, pointed out that it was necessary to fulfill all righteousness. How could the baptism of Jesus by this wilderness preacher fulfill all righteousness? If we remember that the word for fulfill means to bring to an overflowing, or fill it to the full, we see that the righteousness demonstrated in the obedience of Christ would not have been brought to its fullness without this initial act of obedience. Jesus had to be baptized as an example for us. He as the elder brother leads the way. We follow. All righteousness was brought to a fullness when Jesus submitted to John’s baptism. This was made evident immediately when Jesus ascended from the baptismal waters. The voice of the Father confirmed that all righteousness had been fulfilled as the Just One submitted to the will of His Father. Only after submitting to John’s baptism would Jesus be led by the Holy Spirit and then begin His public ministry. Let us not let the familiarity of the story cause its wonder to fade.
Have fun and stay busy – Luke 19:13
-The Orange Mailman