The baptism of John (Matt. 3)

[Sermon audio here.]
Theme: The baptism of John is a symbol of judgment on Israel lest she – like us – repent of our sins and put our faith in Jesus, who endured God’s judgment on the cross.
Water, like bread, is something we take for granted in our lives.  We don’t normally think too much about it.  We just assume it.  However, every now and then, the power and significance of water is heightened for us.  Water can quench our thirst like nothing else can.  Water is like salvation to someone lost and dehydrated in the desert sun.  Water also cleanses us and refreshes us.  For someone who has been sitting on an airplane for days or is covered in salt from the ocean or has just finished a gym session, bathing in clean water is like a new beginning.  And yet, water can also be a source of unspeakable terror.  When ocean currents swell and riverbanks overflow, raging waters can wash away houses and people in a flash…
It is this mundane element of water and its spiritual symbolism in John’s baptism that I would like to focus on in our passage this morning.  More specifically, I would like to consider the significance of John’s water baptism in the river Jordan as an anticipation of the baptism of Jesus – at the cross.  What we shall see is that John’s role as the final OT prophet is to bring to an end the OC and open the way for the New.  Like the law and the prophets before him, John comes declaring a message of repentance and Messianic salvation.  The difference is that unlike the likes of Elijah and Isaiah before him, the Judge and the Redeemer is standing in the crowd on the banks of the river Jordan, and his name is Jesus.
The thrust of John’s baptism is to function as a sign of Christ’s coming judgment upon Israel in the midst of their crisis of unbelief.  Like the Red Sea for the Egyptians, the ministry of Jesus will signal the swelling of the waters of judgment for those who reject Messiah.  But John’s baptism also signifies salvation through judgment for those who put their faith in Messiah.  For John’s baptism also looks forward to Christ’s baptism into a life of suffering that ended with his atoning death at the cross.  Beloved, God’s message to you this morning is that your baptism signifies and seals your participation in Christ’s victorious passageway through the waters of judgment due to your sin.

The end times figure of John the Baptist

Last week, in Matt. 3:1-2, we looked briefly at who exactly this man, John the Baptist, is.  I noted three things about him.  First, that he is the last of the OT prophetsSecond, that his method of delivering his message is preaching.  And third, that his message is one of repentance or conversion.  John enters on the scene before the beginning of Christ’s public ministry.  And he sets the stage by declaring that with the coming of Jesus, the kingdom of God is at hand.  John the Baptist is a herald of the arrival of the kingdom of heaven: something that no one has ever seen before.
Even though John the Baptist and the kingdom of heaven seem to come out of nowhere, it is not as if they are completely foreign to the prophecy of the OT.  This is why, in verse 3, we have yet another variation on one of those fulfillment formulas that Matthew has been using in his gospel so far.  These formulas are a distinct feature of Matthew’s gospel, which help show that the person and work of Jesus is the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy.
In this instance, we are told that the arrival of John the Baptist and his preaching is to fulfill the words spoken by the prophet Isaiah.  Matthew quotes directly from Isaiah 40:3: “The voice of the one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.”  These OT words come at the beginning of the second half of the book of Isaiah.  They signal an abrupt shift from present judgment upon Israel to the future hope of restoration after both the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities.
Isaiah’s ministry took place at a very turbulent time in Israel’s history as a nation, during the 7th and 8th century BC.  Isaiah has warned Israel time and time again of the threat of God’s impending judgment if they do not cease from their wickedness and keep God’s covenant.  There have been terrible visions as well as the realities of destruction and even exile.  And yet, there are also bold declarations of future hope and restoration.  In Isaiah 40:1-2, God speaks comfort to Israel.  He speaks of a day when her warfare will end and her sins will be forgiven.  And in verse 3ff, God will make the paths of the righteous straight and level.  On day, God’s glory will be revealed in all the earth.
On one level Isaiah’s prophecy here was partially fulfilled in Israel’s restoration from exile and the re-building of the Temple more than 500 years before the birth of Jesus.  But its final fulfillment has been set into motion with the ministry of John the Baptist, which appropriately begins in the desert.  This desert setting here is symbolic of the dead, barren and unspiritual state of Israel, which has not changed much since the days of Isaiah.
Nevertheless, final restoration is on the horizon.  However, in order to find out about the coming of God’s greatest act in all of history, one needed to go out into the rugged wilderness and listen to a man: who “wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.”
Now, for us these seem like pretty random details about John.  But for the first century Jews, who knew the OT Scriptures, they would have recognised that this is the lifestyle and the outfit of prophet.  In fact, the manner of John’s appearance is very much reminiscent of the prophet Elijah, which is of no coincidence and no little significance.  In Malachi 4:5, God promised that he would send Elijah the prophet “before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.”  And then in Matt. 11, Jesus confirms that John is the arrival of Elijah.  The significance of the connection between Elijah and John the Baptist is that John’s ministry signals the end of the age: which is both the moment of unparalleled crisis for Israel and the arrival of the kingdom of heaven.
Then Matthew tells us in Matt. 3:5 that “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”  Obviously, John had caused something of a stir among the Jews.  Matthew does not tell us exactly whyNo doubt they were interested in learning more about someone who resembled Elijah; but, even more so, someone who came proclaiming the arrival of the kingdom of heaven.
But do the Jews really understand the nature of this kingdom and how one must enter it?  Well it depends on whether they grasp the symbolism of John’s baptism.  So, what then is John’s water baptism in the river Jordan all about?

The baptism of John

Well, for starters we must understand that religious ceremonies involving water were not completely foreign to the Jews.  They would have been most familiar with the cleansing water rituals of the ceremonial law given by Moses in the Old Covenant at Sinai.  However, John’s baptism is much more than this for a number of reasons suggested in our passage.
For one, Matthew tells us that John was baptising not in some random river but the river Jordan.  This is like someone telling you a story and along the way dropping the name of the street where you grew up.  It conjures up a flood of memories.  The significance of the Jordan for the Jews is that it is the river that the Israelites passed through to enter the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua.  If you remember, God made his covenant with Moses at Mount Sinai in the Sinai desert, and only 40 years later – after wandering in the wilderness – did Israel enter the Promised Land of Canaan.
Now, here comes John the Baptist and he is standing in the same river JordanBut now the water is going over the heads of the Jews.  And the kingdom that God is promising is something other than the earthly land of Canaan.  The reason why the Jews are back on the banks of the river Jordan again has to do with Israel’s disobedience to the Old Covenant.  Israel has failed to keep the Law of Moses.  And therefore they could not earn their keep in the Promised Land.  God patience with them as a nation is about to run out
It is on this note of Israel’s disobedience to the covenant that John’s role as a prophet comes into sharper focus and his water baptism in the Jordan takes on Messianic significance.  Like the prophets before him, John’s ministry entails bringing God’s covenant lawsuit against Israel for failing to keep the judicial, ceremonial and morals laws given at Mt Sinai.  John speaks God’s Word of judgment as the last OT prophet to the final generation of ethnic Israel.  The time of reckoning has arrived and it is symbolised in the John’s water baptism.  But how?
Well, if you go back in the history of God’s people in the OT beyond Israel’s crossing of the river Jordan to enter Canaan, we find another monumental water crossing in God’s deliverance of his people through the Red Sea in the Great Exodus from Egypt.  Back then, God parted the Red Sea to save his people from their enemies.  However, for the ensuing Egyptians, the mass of water that consumed them was God’s literal judgment upon them.  The waters of the Red Sea symbolised both salvation and judgment.
In 1 Cor 10 Paul calls Israel’s passageway through the sea a baptism.  For some this was a sign of their salvation, which found earthly expression in their entrance into the Promised Land.  For others, however, this baptism was followed by death in the wilderness because of their lack of faith.
This dual significance of water is further reinforced for us even earlier in the Bible in the well-known story of the flood and Noah’s ark.  In the early chapters of Genesis we read that God got to a point where the wickedness on earth had become too much.  So, he judged the world by drowning it in water.  However, in mercy, he did spare Noah and his family, who passed through the waters of judgment in a wooden ark.
But what does this have to do with John the Baptist?  Well, the Red Sea ordeal and flood lie behind and help explain the symbolism of John’s baptism: which is one of repentance and judgment for Israel…
The situation is something like this for Israel as many flock to the river Jordan.  Israel is like a criminal on the gangplank of a boat and raging shark-infested waters are below.  Will she turn in repentance to God?  Or will she continue to carry the guilt of sin on her own shoulders and fall into the ocean of God’s wrath?
Matthew tells us in verse 6 that many received John’s baptism and they confessed their sins.
This is a promising sign.  But then, verse 7, we read that the Pharisees and the Sadducees appear among the crowds.  These two groups basically represent the leaders in the church of that day.  The Pharisees were particularly concerned with strict observance of the Law of Moses.  While the Sadducees had more of a political agenda backed by the priests and members of the temple hierarchy.  What they have in common as far as John is concerned is that they are all religious hypocrites.  This is why John singles them out with the choice words: “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
The thing about the Pharisees and the Sadducees is that their repentance is skin-deep and their holiness is outward only.  The Pharisees in particular were known for being fanatical about keeping the laws of the Old Covenant.  And they loved to show off their pious deeds on the street corner.  Their religion was about conforming outwardly to things like circumcision, dietary restrictions, ceremonial washings, and rules for separation from pagans.  And in keeping with this superficiality, they expected Messiah’s kingdom to be all about social and political revolution.
The problem is that the OT Law and the Israelites theocracy in the Promised Land were not ends in themselves.  And God has always been most concerned with conversion of the heart.
It is the pseudo-repentance of the Pharisees and Sadducees – that is in essence a conversion to the altar of self – which John wants to expose in our passage.  So he pulls off their masks of hypocrisy by calling them snakes: snakes that are attempting – in futility – to slither away from the fiery wrath of God.
These leaders of the church came looking for John, probably because they wanted to see for themselves what all the fuss is about.  But in reality they cared little for his baptism, as we shall see later in Matthew’s gospel – hence, the note of sarcasm in John’s interrogation of them.  The sad reality is that the Pharisees and Sadducees had not come to John because they feared the wrath of God.  No, they rested pridefully content in their self-righteous religion that had nothing to do with a true change of heart – even while they brushed shoulders with the Judge of the universe!
This is why John admonishes them, in verse 8, to bear the proper fruit of repentance – which is fruit that grows out of a heart that has been changed by God: a heart that has been cleansed of sin and implanted with the gift of saving faith.  The fruit of repentance is a new disposition of heart that loves God and loves one’s neighbour.  In short, the fruit of repentance is love, which is the fulfillment of the law.
The Pharisees and Sadducees must stop being spiritual frauds and start showing evidence of a true conversion.
And they must also not presume, verse 9, upon their ethnicity as Jews.  Yes, they are physical descendents of Abraham and they have enjoyed the benefits and privileges of being God’s chosen OT people.  But according to John, this counts for nothing before God when it comes to eternal life.  What God wants is circumcision of the heart.
The sobering reality for the Jews is that if this promise of salvation is rejected, there will be judgment, verse 10.  The Pharisees and Sadducees must understand that the ship of the OC is about to sink for good and there are no lifeboats to grab onto.  Like trees that do not bear good fruit, God is ready to cut down and throw into the fire of hell those who do not repent and believe – even the natural descendents of Israel.
This is in essence the sign of John’s baptism: sin and judgment – a judgment leading to damnation, which is about to overcome unrepentant Israel, and a judgment leading to cleansing from sin and entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven for the truly repentant.

Anticipating the baptism of Jesus

But even John’s baptism is not an end in itself.  Remember, John is a prophet and messenger of someone and something greater than himself.  He writes in verses 11-12: ““I baptize you with water for 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 with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.””
Like circumcision in the OT, John’s baptism is meant to point beyond itself to the final Judge and the final Judgment that has come in the person and work of Jesus.  The waters of John’s baptism has enacted and set the stage for the second and final Red Sea Exodus that has come in the baptism of Jesus.  For, beloved, it is Jesus alone who endured the terrible waters of God’s judgment by his righteous life and death.  By his shed blood, he alone was able to secure salvation for God’s people: Jew and Gentile, you and I.  And this salvation we have received by faith through the working of the Holy Spirit.  Christ has poured out his purifying Holy Spirit upon us from heaven.  It is the Holy Spirit that has applied to us the cleansing blood of Jesus to give us a new heart and works in us true repentance that leads to life.
This is what our baptism signifies and seals to us: the reality that we have most certainly endured God’s judgment for sin thanks to Jesus.
Friends, this is the message of the gospel.  Repent and believe it!  May none of us be like the Pharisees and Sadducees and presume upon our good works or what family we have been born into.  For, Christ will judge with unquenchable fire those who live a life of unrepentant sin.  There will be a Day of Judgment when God will separate the wheat from the chaff.
Brothers and sisters, children, if you have repented of your sin and turned to Jesus by faith, may God fill your hearts with unspeakable comfort this morning.  May you know the comfort of having the guilt of your sin removed as far as the East is from the West.  And now, our of gratitude for God’s grace, may we go forth bearing the fruit of repentance in this world: by loving God and loving our neighbour in thought, word and deed.  Amen.
Simon Jooste, RCSS morning service, 23 June 2013