[December 9, 2007] We are familiar with the story about John the Baptist proclaiming repentance to the people, but we want to try to keep this in its proper setting. John the Baptist appears to Israel proclaiming the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God means the rule of God, both the rule of God in our lives and the rule of God in history. When he says that the kingdom of God has drawn near, or is “at hand,” what he is referring to is what I had mentioned last week about the Psalms: how the psalms shift, in the same way that Isaiah does, from emphasizing the dynasty or kingship of David to the kingship of God. Around Psalm 100 you see this shift in the Psalter where the psalms start proclaiming that the Lord is King. Isaiah refers to John the Baptist in 40:3 (the passage that Matthew quotes), saying, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” In Isaiah that is “Prepare the way of YHWH,” not just the “Lord” as a master, but in the sense that God is coming. “Prepare the way for God to come.” So the idea of the kingdom of God being at hand refers to God Himself coming as King. That is what John is proclaiming. “Repent and prepare for the coming of God.”
Why baptism? Why this immersion in water? People have thought of a number of different reasons. If you look in the Old Testament, after a person was cleansed from leprosy they had to take a ritual bath before they could offer a sacrifice. Also Gentiles who became Jews, in order for them to enter into the covenant with Israel, they first had to undergo a kind of baptism. Another thing you might consider is this. In Exodus 19, when God gave the Law to Moses, it says that before the people could approach, they had to sanctify themselves and wash their garments (verses 10 and 14). Then they would be ready for when the Lord would come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. So, before the Lord would come down to give the Law, the people had to cleanse themselves. This story might also be insinuated in John’s baptism. Thus John is proclaiming the coming of the Messiah, but actually God is coming in the kingdom. So the people had to prepare themselves by undergoing this washing, this baptism, just as they prepared themselves for God’s appearance on Mount Sinai.
When the Messiah comes, He would baptize the people in the Holy Spirit and fire. This probably refers to the fire of judgment because that is the fire that John the Baptist was talking about. He talks about the trees being cut down and thrown into the fire if they do not bear any fruit, and the chaff being separated from the wheat and being burned in the fire. So the Messiah will come both to give the Holy Spirit on the one hand, but also to purify the people through fire. All those things are in the Matthew passage.