True Repentance (Matthew 3)
This is my beloved Son.
Whereas Luke prepares us for John the Baptist’s entry by relating his conception and birth (Lk 1), and John introduces him in his prologue (Jn 1.6-8), in Matthew’s Gospel he appears unannounced.
He needs no introduction to Jewish readers other than to identify him as the one Isaiah spoke of. He is God’s voice preparing people for the coming of the LORD - when his glory would be revealed (Isa 40.1-3).
But he also fulfils the role the prophet Malachi announced: he is the prophet Elijah (2 Kgs 1.8) who will return before the great and awesome day of the LORD to turn hearts in repentance (Mal 4.5f.)
What Isaiah had prophesied was that - after a time of punishment in exile for her sins - Israel would be comforted by her God and restored to her land. God himself would come and reign in her midst, restoring her fortunes. While Israel’s exile formally ended in 538 BC this prophecy had yet to be fulfilled, and all Israel knew it.
After more than 500 years they were still awaiting their deliverer. John abruptly announces that his coming is imminent and that they must get ready. The response to John’s blunt message is startling: widespread confession of sin and baptism (5-6).
Even many Pharisees and Sadducees come. However, John identifies them with the arrogant of Malachi’s prophecy who are like stubble which will be set ablaze (Mal 4.1, cf. Matt 3.12). True repentance is a deep work of the heart; it bears fruit, having abandoned all claims to an inherited or self-acquired righteousness. This will be a recurring theme in Jesus’ confrontations with the Pharisees and Sadducees.
John uses the strongest image possible to debase himself before the one he announces (11) and emphasizes the preparatory nature of his work. Water baptism is not an end in itself but a preparation for the coming of God’s kingdom.
When the King comes he will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. The former speaks of God’s transforming power in bringing new life (see Jer. 31.31-33.26; Ezek. 11.16-21; 36.22-37.14); the latter is a fire of purification and judgment, to be feared.
Given John’s words about being unworthy to carry Jesus’ sandals it is no wonder that he balks at baptizing him. Implicit in Jesus’ response is that his baptism is not one of repentance and cleansing from sin, but a symbol of his identification with Israel and of his submission to the will of God. There is a sense of intimacy in this action - between John, Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Spirit.
Note that Jesus speaks in the plural in v.15, including John in this fulfilling of righteousness, and it is presumably for his ears that God spoke in the third person about his beloved Son. Yet artist Daniel Bonnell omits John altogether, making the point that Jesus’ baptism is supremely a revelation of the unity and glory of the Trinity, needing no human support. John would surely approve.
How does your life bear the fruit of true repentance?
Lord God, I thank and praise you that you have revealed yourself as three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in perfect communion. Grant that I may grow in my understanding of this sacred mystery, and share in your loving communion, for your name’s sake. Amen.
Michael Hewat is currently serving as the Senior Minister at West Hamilton Community Church, New Zealand
Photo by Ben White on Unsplash