#1 ~ The Harbinger of the Kingdom (John the Baptist)
Discussion. What is the meaning and significance of baptism?
The first two parable of the Kingdom of Heaven are not spoken by Jesus, but by John the Baptist.
Matthew 3:1-3 ~ The Voice of One Crying in the Wilderness. Matthew quotes Isaiah 40:3 in reference to John the Baptist. Let’s compare Isaiah 40:3-11 to understand the context. Verses 3-5 talk about preparing a highway for God. Verses 6-8 give the message that the voice is supposed to proclaim. Verses 9-11 tell us that the message goes out from Jerusalem that the Lord GOD will come with might and be a shepherd to His people.
(This was a good discussion and prompted a discussion at the end of the lesson about how closely John’s message paralleled the message presented here. All flesh is as grass and will wither away. John’s message was one of judgment by fire.)
Matthew 3:4-6 ~ Dressed like Elijah. The language that Matthew uses to describe John the Baptist should have reminded his readers of the prophet Elijah, see II Kings 1:7-8. A garment of hair and a leather belt was the trademark dress of the prophet. Note: A garment of hair may have been the trademark of any prophet, see Zechariah 13:4-5. He scavenged off the land in order to eat. This also may have reminded the people of Elijah, see I Kings 17:4-6. The people were baptized and confessed their sins. So how was John helping to make a highway for God?
Matthew 3:7-10 ~ John refuses to baptize the Pharisees and Sadducees. Instead of baptizing them, John publicly calls them snakes. He states that they have not repented because they have not brought forth fruits worthy of repentance. He states that they are not coming because they have been warned of God’s wrath which is to come. John’s response shows what they put their hope in, namely a presumption that they were already children of Abraham. See Luke 3:10-14 for John’s preaching on specific repentance.
(I asked the class the question, “What would happen if someone came to our church to be baptized and we refused to baptize them because we did not see fruits worthy of repentance?” I remember one comment being, “That might come across as judgmental.”)
The significance of the baptism of John. Christ had not been crucified, yet John baptized. What was the significance? The best explanation I have found comes from GE Ladd who picked this up from TW Manson. Baptism was total immersion in water. There was a ritual in the law for lepers being cleansed from their leprosy. The ritual was not cleansing them from that leprosy, but an outward sign that they had already been cleansed, see Leviticus 14:8-9. This applied to almost any other type of uncleanness as well, see Leviticus 15:5, 10, 13, 16-18, 21, 27. By the time John the Baptist started preaching, there were mikveh pools throughout Judea in various places for the purpose of this ritual cleansing. The Jews had also devised a system of proselytization for those Gentiles who wanted to convert to Judaism. Males must be circumcised, all must participate in the Passover Feast, and all must be immersed (baptized) in a mikveh pool to show their complete forsaking (repentance) of worshiping false gods and turning to the One, True God. If John was commanding Jews to be baptized, could they have been offended?
Consider the following quote from TW Manson: If we confine the search to Judaism, the most likely of all the Jewish lustrations is the proselytes’ immersion: and that for two chief reasons. First, the proselytes’ immersion differs from the other Jewish washings in that it is a once-for-all rite that is not repeated: and in this respect it agrees with John’s baptism, which equally seems to have been administered once only to each postulant. Secondly, the derivation of John’s rite from the proselytes’ immersion determines the kind of ideas to be associated with John’s baptism: and those ideas fit admirably into the general picture of John’s convictions and expectations. ~~ It seems to me that the point – and it is a very sharp and stinging point – of John’s procedure is that he deliberately invites the children of Abraham to submit to a rite which had been devised for the benefit of Pagans. He says in effect: You call yourselves Jews, you claim to be the descendants of Abraham, you demand the privileges that belong to Israel. You have no right to the name, no right to the status; you have forfeited all by your wickedness. You have only one chance. You must begin where the unclean Gentile begins – at the bottom. You must rediscover, and re-learn your Judaism from the beginning. Only so can you hope to have any part in the good time that is coming.
The first parable of John. We get to the first parable of John concerning the preaching of the Kingdom of Heaven. The axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. What would this show us about John’s understanding of the Kingdom of Heaven? Does this show a sense of urgency? Do we have that same sense of urgency?
(I tried to utilize this series to prompt our church to do evangelism. If there really is this judgment coming and the preaching of the kingdom of heaven is a warning of that judgment, how urgent are we about preaching this gospel of the kingdom?)
Matthew 3:11-12 ~ The parable of the threshing floor. In Luke 3:15-17, John was saying this to dissuade them from the idea that he is the Messiah. He begins to point to One that is coming. John is unworthy, but the Coming One is Worthy. What are the things that the Coming One will accomplish?
Here are some insights into the language that John was using. Wind winnowing is an agricultural method developed by ancient cultures for separating grain from chaff. It is also used to remove hay and chaff or other pests from stored grain. Threshing, the loosening of grain or seeds from the husks and straw, is the step in the chaff-removal process that comes before winnowing. In its simplest form it involves throwing the mixture into the air so that the wind blows away the lighter chaff, while the heavier grains fall back down for recovery. Techniques included using a winnowing fan (a shaped basket shaken to raise the chaff) or using a tool (a winnowing fork or shovel) on a pile of harvested grain.
In Matthew 3:12, the wheat is sunago, which means to draw together or gather together, and even carried the idea of welcoming someone into their home. It is a compound word from “to lead” and “with”. It is used many times in the book of Acts when the church was gathered together for assembly. When John says His (Christ’s) wheat will be sunago into the barn, this is eternal dwelling place language. It is directly related to the word sunagoge which is translated synagogue. The idea is coming together for an assembly. The chaff is to be burned with unquenchable fire. This relates to the parable of the axe and the trees. Based on these two parables now, what is John’s understanding of the Kingdom of Heaven?
(This language should be considered foundational for other passages which talk about being gathered into the kingdom of heaven. There is a gathering for the wheat, but there is judgment for the chaff. All other parables should look back to this one which was preached first.)
Matthew 3:13-17 ~ The Baptism of Jesus. Matthew concludes the ministry of John the Baptist with the baptism of Jesus. It’s almost as if Matthew is saying that once Jesus was baptized, the work of John was essentially done. We know from John 3:25-30 that there was a significant period of time during which Jesus and John were both baptizing people. The arrangement of Matthew makes for a smooth transition for us to focus on Jesus now instead of on John and his preaching. Just before the baptism, John once again admits he is unworthy. Fiery preacher that he was, he knew his own sinfulness. There were immediate signs after Jesus was baptized to show His true identity. What are these signs? John 1:29-34 shows that God had told John ahead of time that when he baptized the Coming One that the Holy Spirit would descend upon Him and remain. When John saw the Holy Spirit descending like a dove, he knew that this was a fulfillment of what God had promised him. Jesus is the One.
What is the Kingdom of Heaven? From this story here, we may not have a clear picture. Throughout the coming weeks we will see what Jesus says about the Kingdom of Heaven.
Have fun and stay busy – Luke 19:13
-The Orange Mailman