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John the Baptist

Matthew  3

Lesson audio

John the Baptist is a figure of mystery to most modern Christians; a footnote found at the beginning of Christ’s ministry. We shall examine today who he really was, what was his life-message and then see how the Trinity is first revealed to us..

Now in those days John the Baptist *came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." For this is the one referred to by Isaiah the prophet when he said, "THE VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, 'MAKE READY THE WAY OF THE LORD, MAKE HIS PATHS STRAIGHT!'" Now John himself had a garment of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem was going out to him, and all Judea and all the district around the Jordan; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins. 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? "Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham for our father'; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. "The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. "As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. "His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." Then Jesus *arrived from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John, to be baptized by him. But John tried to prevent Him, saying, "I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?" But Jesus answering said to him, "Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." Then he *permitted Him. After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on Him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased."

(Mat 3:1-17 NASB)

Herald of the Messiah

We would do well to remember here that Matthew’s primary objective is to present Christ as the Messiah and King of the Jews. His Gospel is dedicated to proving to the Jews that Jesus is indeed the Messiah. The thrust of this chapter is that the last of the Old Testament era prophets, John the Baptist, testifies that Jesus is the Messiah. So let’s look at John in that light.

John, the Prophet

Please note that at this point in Matthew’s history Jesus has yet to perform his first miracle. Indeed, most scholars think that the wedding at Cana is yet to happen. Despite this, John’s testimony is clear and strong. It is so strong, and John so convincing a prophet, that later the Pharisees must waffle on John’s message – because they know the people all saw him as a prophet.[1]

The role of a prophet

One thing is clear: John sure looked and acted like the typical Old Testament prophet. He lived in the desert, dressed in poor clothing and – did what prophets do:

  • He was one who would forthtell the words of God. He had no hesitation about calling the hypocrites a “brood of vipers.” It is the distinguishing mark of the preaching of a prophet: he really doesn’t care which earthly powers he might be offending, as long as he is bearing the message of God.
  • He was also one who would foretell what was to come; in this instance, the soon arrival of the Messiah.

He is the last of the Old Testament prophets; indeed, his own coming was prophesied.[2] The people heard him gladly for he was a voice from God, offering repentance to the sinner.

One must pause to wonder about the church today:

  • Are we really familiar with the prophecies yet to be fulfilled?
  • Do we really think they could be fulfilled?

If this were the church, do you not think that things would be different?


Consider how, even today, John the Baptist’s life is an example to all of us. While not being fond of camel hair, and having no desire to eat locusts, there are some things to which we should pay attention:

  • First, this is a man who rejects the materialism of his day. He has reduced his lifestyle to the purely necessary.
  • Second, his life is one of sacrifice – to the glory of God.

Could the church today even be faintly thought guilty of these virtues?

Voice in the wilderness

It is ever the role of the prophet: the voice in the wilderness. A man running around in a camel hair jacket (and camels are unclean animals), preaching in the desert. He was a clear alternative to the happy connivance of “religious” life in his society. He walked the talk, as we say. God honors such men; indeed, John had the distinct honor of being a martyr for God, of which our Lord tells to be glad, for great is the reward in heaven.[3] Knowing the man, we may now look at his message.

John’s Message

It is a fascinating thought: the wicked were drawn to this man. The hypocrites of the day, the Pharisees and Sadducees went into the desert to hear this man. And what did they hear?

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” It is a fact that Christ reserved his anger solely for the hypocrites. It seems the divine style, as John uses it here. This habit will eventually cost John his head – but even there, Herod is drawn to John like moth to flame.

John’s message is simple and easily understood. Repent – and prove it. Don’t just mouth the words, show God that you mean it. And if you won’t? The unquenchable fires of hell await you.

You can see that this man would have a tough time getting a job as a pastor. The politeness of modern Christianity is almost suffocating. We speak of a “Christless eternity” instead of hell. For those who are in this life without Christ, what does this sound like? Certainly not hell.

Christ the Message

John’s message, shortly put, is Christ Himself. It is so high and holy that John fears to wash the feet of Christ. His understanding of Christ is that He is so far above the Baptist that he could not even help with the man’s sandals.

Do we life Christ up like that? Do we proclaim Him as the Good News?


There is one way to tell if we are doing it right: confession. Non-Catholics view this as a Catholic ritual; it is much, much more than that. We are told to confess our sins to each other.[4] From the earliest days of the church, confession was a requirement of the Christian.[5] Confession precedes repentance, in the Old Testament and the New Testament.

There is one huge difference between the two, however. In the old covenant, you had to go find the prophet in the wilderness. In the new covenant, Christ comes to you, for He wills all to be saved.

The Trinity

We cannot pass through this section of Scripture without recognizing its primary intellectual problem: the Trinity. We see the Trinity complete at the baptism of Jesus. We know that John’s baptism is by water; Christ’s by Spirit and flame.[6] But this instance raises two difficult questions:

  • First, why does Jesus need to be baptized? Baptism is for cleansing from sin, and He had none.
  • Second, what is the nature of the Trinity? How can God, who is one, also be three?
The Baptism of Jesus

The question seems obvious at once; certainly John had no difficulty in stating it. Christ should baptize him, not the other way around. But please note something: there is no recorded instance of Christ ever baptizing anyone. His disciple baptized; the church baptizes – but Christ does not. Evidently it is something reserved for his children. This is our first clue. The early church held that while Jesus was indeed sinless, He bore in his flesh the sin of the world. Thus it was that the baptism of his flesh was necessary.

There are other reasons as well. Some of the earliest writers hold to a different view: that by accepting baptism he was in a sense cleansing the water so that it might now cleanse us of sin.

Beyond that, there is a practical side. In the millennia to come, many times the Gospel would be brought to someone who was considered nobility. The preacher might be indeed a peasant, and the duke might think it beneath his dignity to be baptized like a common peasant. The answer is here: if the King of Kings was willing to be baptized, what’s your problem?

The Trinity

It is the foremost puzzle of Christian life: how can God be one and yet three? We cannot really answer that question, but we can gather some clues from this incident:

  • The heavens open and the Father speaks. Do you not see that the heavens MUST open? God is Spirit, not matter or energy.[7] He must breach the wall between heaven and earth to proclaim His Son.
  • The Spirit comes “as a dove.” It is not certain whether or not this means a physical bird or simply the way in which the Spirit descends. But the human heart is the destination of the Spirit. Perhaps the dove is chosen in memory of the dove that returned to Noah with an olive branch. For by the Atonement God brings peace to his rebellious children.
  • Christ – God in the flesh – humbly submits as one under the Law of Moses. This is so that He may be crucified and die; this is the purpose of His coming.

The Trinity is still a mystery. We may never really understand its nature, but we can know the Father’s glory, respond to the call of the Spirit and call Jesus to our hearts. Perhaps we know enough of the mystery after all. Now that we know, let us do.

[1] Luke 20:1-8

[2] Isaiah 40:3

[3] Matthew 5:10-12

[4] James 5:16

[5] 1 John 1:8-10

[6] Acts 2

[7] If you disagree, then consider this: the universe is, by definition, all matter and energy of all places and all times. If God is matter and/or energy, then He is part of the universe. How did part of the universe cause its own creation?

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