In the ministry of John the Baptist we are introduced to the gospel, the divine message concerning the coming kingdom of God. After four hundred years of silence, God speaks through a new prophet; he proclaims the coming of the long-awaited kingdom, and calls upon the people to repent.
v1. The long-awaited time having come, John begins his prophetic ministry in the wilderness. John's presence in the wilderness authenticates this ministry.
v2. John's message is the gospel. Matthew uses a shorter version than Mark's "the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the gospel." John calls for repentance as a response to the proclamation that God's long promised kingdom has come. Repentance involves a turning around both in will and action. It is not so much a feeling sorry, or a turning from wrong behavior, but rather a turning toward God for mercy. If it is only the perfectly obedient who enter the kingdom, then who can be saved? Thus we cry, "Lord have mercy". In popular expectation, the kingdom was a political reconstruction of the state of Israel, a state free from the yoke of Roman. Yet, the coming kingdom, which is bursting in, even present "now", is more a dynamic force than a static entity. It entails the eternal and powerful reign of Christ.
v3. John's prophetic status is supported by scripture. He fulfills scripture as the one of whom Isaiah spoke, Isa.40:3.
v4-5. John's food and clothing aligns him with Elijah the prophet. He stands above the spiritual softness and idolatry of the age and proclaims the coming "day of the Lord."
v6. Those wishing to enter the kingdom are asked to express their repentance outwardly in baptism. This involved being dipped or dunked in the river Jordan. Normally only Gentiles wishing to become Jews were baptized, but John demands that even Jews submit to this sign. The coming kingdom demands radical decision.
v7. It is unclear whether the religious leaders were just observers, or wanted to demonstrate their eager anticipation for the coming kingdom. John, in true prophetic style, asks them cynically, "who suggested that you would escape the coming wrath?"
v8-9. John knows well that the religious leaders think they are prime candidates for the kingdom, but unless they produce the "fruit" of repentance (reliance on the mercy of God) they will not be allowed to enter. God doesn't need the "stones" (= descendants) of Abraham for the kingdom community. He can gather in ordinary common stones (outcasts, Gentiles).
v10. The coming day of the kingdom is both a day of blessing and a day of wrath. The coming wrath is already at work; the axe is chopping out the dead wood. Those caught up in merit religion must produce the fruit of repentance. If they don't cry out for mercy, then they are damned.
v11. Matthew wants to emphasize the preparatory and limited nature of John's ministry, compared to the ministry of Jesus. John baptizes "with water for repentance." The act of baptizing with water is in reference to, or in connection with, repentance. It expresses outwardly the act of repentance - the turning to God for mercy and thus, the resultant cleansing of forgiveness. Jesus' baptism is "with the Holy Spirit and with fire." The outpouring of the Spirit is the great sign of the dawning of the new age of the kingdom - the Messianic Age when God will come and visit his people and dwell with them. Pentecost serves to illustrate the dawning of this new age. As for the "fire", it may represent "the Spirit's fire," ie. "fire" serves to image the Spirit's coming upon God's new kingdom community. Yet, the "fire" is usually understood to be the fire of judgment and that's certainly the point emphasized in the next verse.
v12. John goes on to develop the theme of judgement. The coming Messiah will judge his people; he will separate the "chaff" from the "wheat"; he will separate the goats from the sheep; he remove the false child of God from the true child of God. So, now is the day to repent, to turn and be saved.
Words are often confusing, and the word "repentance" is no exception. In everyday speech we use the word to declare our sorrow for some past action. When we say we repent we usually mean that we are ashamed and sorrowful for some past action and intend to move ourselves away from it and not do it again.
When the Bible uses the word "repent", particularly as a response to the gospel, it means something stronger than sorrow. Repentance is a turning to God for mercy in the face of his coming judgement. The gospel proclaims that God is at this moment gathering a people to be with him for eternity. Yet, only the righteous will stand before him. Therefore, our only hope is to turn to him with head bowed and seek his mercy, his forgiveness. Our only hope lies in repentance.
Discuss the meaning of the baptism phrases: "water for repentance" and "Holy Spirit and fire."