Studi biblici/Matteo 3:1-12/Matthew 3:1-12

Da Tempo di Riforma.

The Discrimination of the Christ’s Coming

An unexpected visit

The 1962 Italian film "The Roaring Years" [1], inspired by the satirical comedy "The Government Inspector” [2] by Nikolai Gogol, portrays the corrupt administration an Apulia town during the Fascist regime in 1937, after it has been informed, in a roundabout manner, of the visit (in disguise) of a Government inspector from Rome who has the intention of verifying if everything went according to the strict established guidelines for official economic and social planning.

The threat of this political-administrative inspection causes terror the entire city administration, who fear many of their misdeeds will be brought to light. The most fearful are those who have enriched themselves at the expense of public finance, with all sorts of abuses. In addition to public humiliation, they fear that strict measures will be taken against them. In this situation, they seek to remedy to the situation with pathetic staged measures, to make it appear that everything is undertaken according to the rules, as "honest administrators" and "good fascists." In the film, the comic effect is increased by the fact that an unsuspecting insurer, who happens to come into the town is believed to be the fascist inspector. He is made the object of every honour and, of course, is utterly deceived. At the end, the misunderstanding is cleared up as the real inspector arrives …

I was reminded of this film, when I read the biblical text for today, where we see the civil and religious authorities of Israel, who, having heard with evident apprehension, the prophetic preaching of John the Baptist announcing the imminent arrival of the Messiah, also hurry to undergo the baptism of cleansing to which John calls the whole population. They are certain that it is the right thing to do, but they are not sincere. Like everyone else, the leaders undoubtedly had to prepare morally and spiritually for the arrival of the Messiah, the Anointed and Elect of God, the King of Israel. John was calling them to to "get right" with God, in repentance and faith. They may have done it, but only outwardly and not in fact. For them, it was just a fiction. Deceiving themselves and others, they believed that it was sufficient to undergo this baptism to "get right" with God. However, they could not fool God and they certainly could not deceive John the Baptist, a true prophet, who saw what was in their hearts and openly denounced their hypocrisy.

How many today are still those who think that participating outwardly in rituals and religious festivals is "the right thing to do", which can put them right with God.

The biblical text

Let's look at this text, and, trying to understand it, step by step, see what message God wants to communicate to us through it. Matthew 3:1-12.

Preaching of John the Baptist. "In those days John the Baptist came into the wilderness of Judea proclaiming, “Repent,for the kingdom of heaven is near.” For he is the one about whom Isaiah the prophet had spoken: “The voice of one shouting in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Now John wore clothing made from camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his diet consisted of locusts and wild honey. Then people from Jerusalem, as well as all Judea and all the region around the Jordan, were going out to him, and he was baptizing them in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Therefore produce fruit that proves your repentance, and don’t think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones! Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water, for repentance, but the one coming after me is more powerful than I am – I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clean out his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the storehouse,but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire" (Matthew 3:1-12).

This section of the gospel is particularly important because it is a prelude to Jesus’ baptism, His solemn consecration to the ministry that will ensue. Matthew presents four examples of Messiahship of Jesus:

John’s example is the first [3]. It was common at that time that "precursors" or heralds preceded the arrival of VIPs in order to prepare the general population for the event. When a king wanted to visit a city of his kingdom, he sent before him his emissaries announcing the visit. They ensured that the city was ready to receive the king as he deserved. Sometimes these servants had to repair stretches of road that might hinder or delay his arrival. John, consequently, not only aims at ensuring that Israel is ready (morally and spiritually) for the imminent arrival of Christ, but he announces unequivocally that He, Jesus, is the legitimate King and Saviour of Israel. In fact, John precedes Jesus in all phases of his life; in His birth, in His public appearance, and in His death. John, the forerunner [4] of Jesus, prefigured in himself His person and work. Both Jesus and John are agents sent by God (11:10, 10:40). Both belong to the time of fulfillment of the messianic prophecies (3:3, 1:23). Both have the same message to proclaim (3:2 , 4:17). Both come into conflict with Israel and in the case of the crowd, the reception turns into rejection. In the case of the political and religious leaders, both are relentlessly opposed from the beginning (3:7-10; 9:3). John and Jesus are both delivered to their enemies (4:12, 10:4). Both die in a different but violent and shameful way (14:3-12; 23:37).

A "politically incorrect" message

1 .The announcement of a historical fact. "In those days John the Baptist came into the wilderness of Judea proclaiming..." (1). The phrase "In those days," does not specify exactly when, but it identifies the incident as an historical fact. "Baptist" is the nickname given to John because he preached appealing to penitents to be baptized (v. 6). John appears, suddenly and mysteriously, like the prophet Elijah whose ministry John [5] reflects. John was a herald with a new message to proclaim. His "preaching" is not as it is understood today in the sense of making informative speeches and uplifting exhortations which are articulated and expressed with a nice choice of words. Here preaching simply means "to proclaim an event": the arrival of the King, the event, the year of the inauguration of His kingdom.The desert or "wilderness" where John carries out his ministry is the Judean Desert, where Jesus had been tempted, to the north of the Dead Sea. The conditions of the wilderness (bitter and hostile to life) were instrumental to this call to repentance. The wilderness reminded people of the 40 years of the wanderings of Israel in the extreme conditions of Exodus where the people had been prepared for the entrance into the promised land, while educated by Moses to live according to the Law that God has given. The wilderness is associated with the idea of separation from the society and the world, in order to consecrate oneself to God, to undergo tests for refinement and purification and to be ready to start a new life, just as Jesus did before the start of His public ministry. At the time of John, the wilderness had given rise to many movements which challenged the established political and religious powers. Many could have thought that John was just "one among many".

2. A radical change of mentality. "...proclaiming, “Repent,for the kingdom of heaven is near'"(2). This appeal of John was not a generic "acknowledge that you are sinners," "recognize the defects of your lives," and then "ask pardon," "ask for forgiveness". Some translations render our "repent" as "change lives." The original greek word (metanoia) literally means "change your way of thinking" and in the New Testament, it indicates a complete change of attitude toward God's, both morally and spiritually. It means basically "changing direction", "Make a U turn" and “Go to God, stop doing what you are doing now, denying what God considers sin”, “Approach God, present yourselves with determination and confidence to obey Him by proving it with facts”. John’s proclamation came in view of the imminent arrival of the Messiah. "Put yourself right in time" “Let Him find you faithful and obedient subjects”. The question was very important because most of the Israelites took for granted they would enter the Kingdom of God and enjoy its benefits, simply due to being physical descendants of Abraham (v. 9), His chosen people. John challenged this widespread attitude, emphasizing that having God and His Messiah as King, means being His faithful and obedient subjects in the practice of our daily lives. Hypocrisy and superficiality had to be completely removed (v. 8). The King himself, God and His Son, the Christ, is going to visit Israel: How would its people to appear in His presence? Would they be faithful and obedient subjects, or as hypocrites or worse as rebels? They must not think that the King would not be fooled by hypocrisy. He would make "a clean sweep" not only of His open enemies, but also of His fake subjects.

3. The proclamation foretold. "For he is the one about whom Isaiah the prophet had spoken: “The voice of one shouting in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make his paths straight".(3) John's prophecy was not new but he emphadized the contemporary relevance of what was already spoken, in ancient times. Isaiah 40:1-3 a "voice" exhorts the people to prepare for the coming of God, after He brings back His people after its dispersion to Babylon. As God's prophet, Isaiah proceeds to describe the blessings of His future return to them: "A voice cries out, “In the wilderness clear a way for the Lord; construct in the desert a road for our God. Every valley must be elevated, and every mountain and hill leveled. The rough terrain will become a level plain, the rugged landscape a wide valley. The splendor of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it at the same time. For the Lord has decreed it "(Isaiah 40:3-5). Here the evangelist Matthew identifies Jesus with God, meaning that the Kingdom of God is the Kingdom ofJesus. Jesus, therefore, is much more than a representative or spokesman of God. “God's house, His ancient people, must be put in order” in order to be able to receive such a guest. He is indeed, more than a guest, He is the master of the house itself. All those who have been allowed to live in his house "in the time of His absence” are His tenants.

4. A true prophet. "Now John wore clothing made from camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his diet consisted of locusts and wild honey"(4).John, both in the way he dressed, where he lived and in his message, identifies himself with the poor, and with the prophets. In particular he reminded people of Elijah [6], who always assumed an eschatological role [7] in Israel and who undoubtedly resembled John. John used to eat locusts (dried insects), part of the diet of poor people, corresponding to what the Nazirites used to eat [8]. The Bible itself considered dried insects a “clean” food, according to Leviticus 11:22 [9]. The style of John's life was in stark contrast to that of many religious leaders of the time, who lived in a Hellenistic, ostentatious life of well-being. As his coarse clothes and food characterized those who lived in the wilderness, they also represented his role as a prophet of God [10]. Even his appearance was similar to that of the prophet [11] Elijah. Elijah had called on Israel to return to God during a period of serious apostasy, falling away from faith. John called Israel to God at the moment of their biggest opportunity. John was the first prophet sent by God after 400 years of silence.

5. A great popularity. "Then people from Jerusalem, as well as all Judea and all the region around the Jordan, were going out to him, and he was baptizing them in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins" (5-6). Many people of those regions flocked to hear him. Many responded favourably because they perceived John as an authentic prophet, namely the bearer of a message from God. John's baptism was a purification ritual, well known to the Israelites (who had many such rituals as a component of the system of worship) [12]. When a Gentile became a proselyte Jew, he or she was submitted to baptism. John’s baptism had the same connotations of purification, cleansing, but with a different emphasis. The purification ceremonies were performed by the person himself. But what John called people to was a baptism he wanted to administer to them. This fact identified him as “John the Baptist” .

John's baptism did not make a person a member of the Christian community. It was meant to render public testimony that the baptized (Israelite) had repented of his sins and was committed to live a holy life. John’s baptism did not correspond to Christian Baptism as the New Testament later makes clear bvy calling it “The baptism of John”.

6. A baptism that can not be a mere formality. "But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?" (7). Pharisees and Sadducees (here placed in the same category as the leaders of Israel) were religious leaders and political figures in the society of that time. John denounces their hypocrisy (something that is reflected through the whole Gospel). Their zeal was taken up in the diligent performance of formal prescribed religious rituals, but their hearts were far from God. They were, in fact, morally inconsistent. He calls them "Vipers" (insidious and poisonous). It was the nickname that the prophet Isaiah had given the enemies of God [13]. Undoubtedly, it took great courage to rail at the authorities in this way, but John had courage. Yet they had come to be baptized by John. Maybe they felt, at that moment, for fear of the people, that, this was “the thing to do", something "socially useful". It was yet another religious formality that would arouse the admiration of the people and strengthen their power over them. After being baptised by John, they could say to the people, "See how good I am?". Even John's baptism would become an instrumental observance, and John recognizes and openly denounces this wrong attitude. We know that the leaders must have acknowledged John as being authentic, as Jesus, later in the Temple, challenged them with “the impossible question” about the baptism of John. Was it from God or not? They could not deny it was from God, without declaring themselves hypocrites before the people.

In John there is no complacency. In fact, many, even among leaders, responded favourably to his message. He knew that for them, appearance was all. He did not boast of the number of people who came to be baptized, nor that "important people" seemed to endorse his ministry. He had no scruples about "insulting" them and sending them away, because, for him, what mattered was "substance” not rhetoric. They would have been more than welcome if their repentance and their intentions had been sincere. They would not escape, though, with their rituals of outward cleansing, the fire of God’s wrath. God expects "fruits", ie the facts of a consistent life corresponding to the profession of faith.

7. Nothing for granted. "Don’t think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones!" (9). The fact is that there was no external evidence that they had really really wanted to get closer to God, in anticipation of the imminent coming of the Messiah. Moreover, they believed that in order to be right with God, it was enough for them to be in the bloodline of Israel and that the righteousness of Abraham was also enough to cover them too. They forgot the fact that, in the past, God had cut off unproductive branches of Israel. Thus they counted merely on their alleged justice, purifications, rituals. praying in public and the giving of tithes. They thought that what they did in secret in their proud hearts, did not matter, such as coveting, ruining widows livelihoods, liking money, laying burdens on the people they could not bear and plotting against the true messengers of God, of whom they were jealous. So he says to them: "Therefore produce fruit that proves your repentance" (8). Do actions that bear witness to a real transformation of your morality, actions and life.

John's reference to the "stones" was a pun, or a play on words (in Hebrew and Aramaic). Stone is אֶבֶן (e-ven) while child is בֵּן (beyn). So the pun says "Raising up children of Abraham, for God, is as easy as raising up children or stones. E-ven might be written in beyn if a scribe got the letters wrong as they copied them. The apostle Paul writes: "It is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all those who are descended from Israel are truly Israel, nor are all the children Abraham’s true descendants; rather “through Isaac will your descendants be counted.” This means it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God; rather, the children of promise are counted as descendants. For this is what the promise declared: “About a year from now I will return and Sarah will have a son.” Not only that, but when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our ancestor Isaac" (Romans 9:6-8). To explain this, when this prophecy was given to Abraham, Isaac was just a “child of promise”, i.e. not yet brough into being, by the miracle of making elderly Sarah able to bear children. What matters to God is not physical descent, but the spiritual seed. The unfaithfulness of the nation of Israel would have encouraged the young Christian movement to look for other "sons of Abraham" elsewhere outside of Israel. In this case, among the Gentiles.

8. Advent is also judgment. The coming of the Messiah also brings Judgment: "Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire" (10). The "unsuccessful" Israelites would be "cut off" from God's people, no matter their ethnic and national identity. The axe which cuts down the tree has already been placed at its base, ready to strike repeatedly, to hack it and make it fall, because the tree is unproductive. On top of its stump, others will enjoy the sap of its root and will be grafted on: "What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was diligently seeking, but the elect obtained it. The rest were hardened, as it is written, “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, to this very day.” (Romans 11:7-8). John says that the coming of Christ was going to cause discrimination among those either for Him or against Him. Those who followed Him in faith would be involved in the work of salvation and regeneration through the Spirit of God, while unbelievers, even some descendents of the flesh of Abraham, would be enveloped, by the fire of God's judgment.

9. Someone much more important than John. "I baptize you with water, for repentance, but the one coming after me is more powerful than I am – I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire" (11) . The baptism of John was in view of repentance but Someone greater than he would "baptize" spiritually, by making people the object of the Holy Spirit’s work. One Person (the Messiah) would be so great and powerful, that not even John would dare to render Him a service as humble as bringing Him his shoes.

The expression: "With the Holy Spirit and with fire" has two different possible interpretations. The first refers to the coming of Christ as the One who involves the believer in the purifying work of the Holy Spirit, as He is active in saving and sanctifying (one spiritual baptism which operates both salvation and purification). The second distinguishes between two types of "baptism" that involve the salvation of the believer who accepts Christ, and also the condemnation of the unbeliever, (represented by fire). In fact, the image of fire often refers to both the final judgment [14] and the power of the presence of the Lord to purify His people [15]. Since the Holy Spirit and fire are here governed by a single preposition in Greek, this is most likely a reference to a single baptism. This interpretation, the fire of judgment, seems to be more consistent with what is stated in the following verse. In this, John speaks of God's work in general, and not only refers to (even if it includes) the advent of the Christian Pentecost, in some say.

10. A work of cleansing. "His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clean out his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire" (12). In this verse, using different images, John insists that the coming of Christ would bring a judgment, a judgment that begins in the present and that will not just be reserved for the end times alone.This Judgment is like the work of the farmer who makes use of the winnowing fork [16] (an agricultural tool consisting of a wooden shovel in order to separate the hay from the chaff). It has an effect similar to a sieve. Wind winnowing is an agricultural method developed by ancient cultures for separating grain from chaff. It is also used to remove weevils 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. "Winnowing the chaff" is a common expression.

Hence the meaning is that God will separate what is true from what is false, those who truly repents of his sins from those who do not repent, or do this, only outwardly. The proximity of the Messiah is therefore an appeal to repentance which can only be authentic.

A message of defiance

The message of John who preached the coming of Christ, was also the message of Jesus of Nazareth and of the whole New Testament. It was and remains a message that puts the listener in crisis, questioning him. It is deeply challenging. It is not the "tamed gospel" that many would like hear preached today (and which is often heard), which is a consoling and "politically correct" message such as “everyone goes to Heaven!”. It is a message that was and remains "uncomfortable", a message which causes change and which calls us to change. It is a message that, of necessity, "discriminates" among the audience, treating it as sheep and goats. It is a message before which you can not "remain neutral". Jesus himself said: "I have come to bring fire on the earth – and how I wish it were already kindled!" (Luke 12:49), "For judgment I have come into this world, so that those who do not see may gain their sight, and the ones who see may become blind"(John 9:39). It's a message which denounce religious and all hypocrisy. He intends it clearly to bring about "fruit."

Jesus Christ has already come, but has He come into your life so that you know Him personally? Certainly, many today are not baptised, and repenting, believing and baptism, is the first step to being accepted, where there is time for this public witness. His message brings salvation by grace to those who repent of what God considers sin and who entrust themselves to Jesus in life and in death. Accepting Him, however, is not and never will be "a formality." Having faith means bearing fruit as the result of the promise of salvation. Whoever really receives Christ, necessarily brings about "fruits of righteousness" i.e. faithfulness to Him and His Word, obedience to the Ten Commandments, compassion on the needy, imitation of His life, sharing of the Gospel, financial support of His professional workers and works of service to others.

Jesus is the King who comes to claim what is His, I, you, this whole world. God reigns and will reign forever, but the kingdom is manifested, in a particular way, in the coming His Son, the eternal word, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, in attracting to himself an obedient people, people who are truly His, in fact, not in name, who acknowledge Him and submit themselves to Him.The King will be physically present, in the earthly ministry of Jesus, and in a spiritual way in the time of the Church ("the present age"), as Lord. Before ascending to heaven, Jesus said to His disciples: "I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20). The King, Christ, will return at the end of the age of the Church, where He will finally make a "clean sweep" all His enemies and their sins. It written: "For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet" (1 Corinthians 15:25). He will free us from His and our enemies in our lives (our sins) but one day He will do it with those who reject His authority as legitimate.

The Kingdom will be made ​​manifest in the physical coming of Jesus and made present spiritually for His obedient people. He will return at the end of the world at the the final defeat of all His enemies.

Paolo Castellina, Dec. 5, 2013