With the birth narrative complete, Matthew now starts to set up the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry. Several years have passed. Due to several factors—increased Roman occupation and control, Herod Antipas’ filthy rule, religious hermits escaping to the desert, religious radicals disrupting the region, pontificating religious experts presiding in Jerusalem, and an entire land of frustrated, downcast, oppressed people faintly hoping for something—the land was thick with tension. But into such a boiling melting pot good news would come.
It would not begin with Jesus, however, but with “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make ready the way of the LORD, make His paths straight!’”
Described as a desert-dweller, wearing camel’s hair and eating locusts and honey, John was more than a preacher; he was a herald of what was coming, and who was bringing it. The good news he summarily proclaimed was “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
It’s a rather vague statement. Matthew is content with that. No list of rules is included, no mold to measure up to, no expert to supervise or control; just a simple imperative—Repent.
It’s not a new direction John is calling them to, but an old one; a return to the holy heart of God. John’s ministry mainly presented a course correction for the people, his words signaling “You people are going the wrong way!” He remained mum, however, on what the right way was; framing it only as “the kingdom of heaven is at hand”, these words would carve a path into the people’s minds and hearts, readying them for Messiah’s arrival and subsequent paving of the right “way of the LORD” upon that path John had prepared. John’s role was not to effect transformation but to prepare the people for the transformation approaching in the redemptive reality of God’s kingdom. Like Elijah, he was there to re-call the people, to reappoint them to their holy purpose, to redirect them. Return. Repent.
As John carried out his ministry of repentance, the responses varied. People from everywhere—Jerusalem, all Judea, the Jordan River regions—went out to him, to listen, to let his words form kingdom reality in their hearts. Convicted to return to the Lord, they confessed to John their sins and would then be baptized to mark their return. Our common word for this event is revival, a movement characterized by the renewal of religious or spiritual fervor. Revival can be very exciting. It can pull us out of the throes of idolatry, clear away the cobwebs of indifference, call people’s hearts forward into God’s sanctifying presence, give people a sense of help for today and hope for tomorrow, energize obedience. These reliefs were no doubt experienced by the people here. But revival can be tricky; sometimes it becomes about the excitement and experience itself. John’s ministry was no exception.
Many of the Pharisees and Sadducees began coming for baptism. Unimpressed, John calls them out: “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Knowing their habits of hypocrisy, politicizing, revising and circumventing the Law, dominating the people, and showing off, John knew they were only there to get in on the party; repentance may have been trendy then, but John would not tolerate such pretentiousness. So he instructs them “Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance.”
Forget the butterflies and goose bumps, the adrenaline and the tears, the resolutions you make at retreats. Revival is not about the revelry, but returning to the holiness of God. Revival may seem romantic, but that fades away quickly as we discover repentance means living out the way of holiness, very slowly, but very surely, through the everyday details of life.
When faced with the reality of what repentance requires of us, we may here begin to backtrack, thinking we may not have been that bad after all. Anticipating this attitude, John then tells them “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 Pharisees and Sadducees often relied on their Abrahamic legacy to justify themselves; John says if legacy was only what God was interested in, God could raise up dumb rocks for that dead purpose. God is interested in legacy, but a legacy of holiness. Holiness has no substitute and holiness has no shortcut. Holiness is the substance of God’s call on their lives. And so John warns “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.” His point is succinct: time is of the essence; be holy or become worthless.
Not only did John know the danger of trendiness in religious movements, he also knew such trendiness often fed off the personalities of religious celebrities, so he takes care to diminish and minimize himself while making much of the imminent Messiah: “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.”
What is coming will be purifying and sanctifying. The reality of what that will be will soon be clarified for the people, but John won’t be the one to clarify it. Its reality belongs to the one who reigns over it and shall be revealed upon his arrival. Until then, the reality of John’s message permeates the wilderness and all who catch the wind of his words “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Repentance is not a “one and done” action; it’s a decision that must be followed up. It’s the first step in a lifetime of following Jesus and being formed in his fellowship. As Eugene Peterson writes, repentance is “a long obedience in the same direction”. We cannot follow what we are not facing; I pray that as you meditate on this story, John’s words will convince and compel you to the holy heart of Christ, to faithfully follow in his fruitful fellowship.