Matthew 3: John the Baptist
Today we are standing by a river. It is the Jordan, the river of the Holy Land. It makes one border of the land, and you may remember how it opened before the ark to let the children of Israel in. Years and years afterward something else was bringing crowds of people to the river. They came from the country far and near, and from the great city of Jerusalem, and from the pastureland beyond the Jordan. Among the crowd there were some dressed in fine robes, who were Pharisees and Sadducees; there were soldiers and publicans or tax gatherers; there were farmers from the fields and fishermen from the Sea of Galilee.
And why were all these people here? They were listening to a man who was standing by the river and speaking to them. It was John the Baptist. He was a rough-seeming man, like the old prophet Elijah. His hair was long, and he wore a coarse cloak of camel's-hair cloth, with a belt of leather. He had lived most of his life in the desert, and he ate the large locusts, as the poor people in that country do, cooking them or drying them in the sun. He ate, too, the honey that the wild bees gathered from the desert flowers and laid up in their combs among the rocks.
He was saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." He spoke sternly to the proud Pharisees, and when soldiers and publicans asked him what they must do, he told them plainly what wrong things they did which they must stop doing to be ready for the Lord. He told them they were like trees that would be cut down if they did not bear fruit. He told them they were like the grain that the farmers piled on the threshing-floors near every village, and when the grain had been beaten out they threw, it into the air with their big wooden fans or shovels till the light chaff was blown away.
Those who listened to John and were ready to repent, to stop doing wrong and to do right, he baptized in the river. The washing with water was a picture of making their lives clean.
And the Lord, for whom John was preparing the people, was nearer than they knew. He had been born in Bethlehem and had been living for years in the little town of Nazareth, in Galilee. And He was even then among the people who were listening to John. The Lord came and was baptized; it was a sign that He was making His life clean. And when He was baptized the heavens were opened, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting upon Him. John saw it, too, and it was a sign to him that this was the Lord.
Now listen, and I will read the story just as it is told.
Today it will be well to draw neatly a little map to show the river Jordan and its relation to the Holy Land. Show the mountain where the Jordan rises, the sea through which it flows, and the sea into which it empties. Show Judea and Galilee and Jerusalem and the country beyond Jordan. Show Nazareth, the Lord's home, and the wilderness of Judea, bordering the Dead Sea, where John had lived. At what place on the Jordan the Lord was baptized we are not told. If it was at Bethabara "where John at first baptized," it was probably at the fords of the Jordan some fifteen miles south of the Sea of Galilee.
When we first read of John the Baptist in Matthew's Gospel, he is a grown man, a hardy man of the desert, entering upon his work of preaching repentance and baptizing, preparing the people for the Lord. We learn in the first chapter of Luke's Gospel how John was promised by the angel to Zacharias and his character and work were foretold, how he was born in the hill country of Judea and named John, and how "the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel." (Luke 1:80.) The preaching of John is described with somewhat greater fullness in Luke 3. The vision of the dove is mentioned also in John 1:29-34, and its meaning to John the Baptist as a sign that Jesus was the Lord. Who is the prophet Esaias? and in what chapter of that prophet is John's work described? (Isaiah 40.)
What was the substance of John's preaching? He was preaching repentance, the confessing and putting away of evil from the life in preparation for the Lord and His kingdom. John himself with his hardy desert life, shows the bold, self-denying spirit in which the work of repentance must be done. The washing of baptism pictures the washing of repentance. As we read of John's work we see our own duty to examine our lives and to be brave in cutting off for the Lord's sake every habit that is wrong. We imagine ourselves with the others who came to John, asking, "What shall we do?" And the Lord's commandments show us the things that are wrong and must be given up. Do you know one wrong habit in your life that John would condemn? Have his courage to stop it now. Make no excuse. Make no delay.
If this is the burden of John's teaching and the meaning of his baptism, does it seem strange that the Lord should come to be baptized? We feel, as John seems to have felt, that He could not need to repent. The Lord had not done wrong, but He had in His human nature all the tendencies to wrong that we have. He must meet them all and overcome them. This was the work of repentance which He must do, and which He had been doing with perfect courage all the years in Nazareth. This was pictured in His baptism. And the effect was pictured, too, when the Spirit of God was seen descending upon Him. By His repentance the way was opened for the Divine Spirit to come down into His life in all its innocence and power.
1. Where is the Jordan? Where does its water come from? Where does it go to?
2. Who was the prophet Esaias? Why was baptism the fitting sign to accompany John's teaching?
3. Why was the Lord baptized? What was seen when the Lord was baptized? What was heard?
4. Write the burden of John's preaching. And as you write it think of some wrong thing in your life, and resolve for the Lord's sake to put it away.
You easily recall the geography of the chapter by a glance at the map of Palestine in Gospel days. You complete the story of John's birth and preparation and ministry, by reference to Luke 1 and 3, John 1 and Isaiah 40. All that you learn from the Scripture about John and his preaching and his baptism helps to make clear the duty of repentance as the necessary preparation for the Lord and the blessings of His kingdom. Notice some particulars of the story.
John was in the deserts and preached in the wilderness. It suggests the state of the Jewish Church before the coming of the Lord, barren of all heavenly beauty and fruitfulness, and the state of every life before the way is opened by repentance for life that is fruitful from the Lord. (E. 405, 730)
John wore a cloak of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins. Remember the Lord's reference to John's raiment (Matthew 11:8), for it was significant. One's spiritual clothing is his thought, his intelligence, which brings his affection forth in form. The soft raiment of those who are in kings' houses is an interior, spiritual intelligence such as angels have in heaven; but the coarse, strong raiment of John the Baptist is the strong natural intelligence of one who is learning and applying the literal commandments of God's Word. (E. 619; A. 9372.)
John's food was locusts and wild honey. The insects are types of powers of the mind that are comparatively weak and superficial. Locusts often represent powers of thought so superficial as to be wholly false and hurtful; but here, in their best sense, they represent true thought from the letter of the Word. The honey of wild bees is the pleasantness of learning and applying the truth of natural order and usefulness. (E. 619; A. 5620, 9372)
It is easy to see that washing and baptism represent the cleansing of repentance. The water for this spiritual cleansing is truth that teaches what is right and what is wrong and enables us to recognize and separate the evil. There is truth from many sources which can be used for cleansing, the life, but the perfect truth and that with fullest power is truth from the letter of the Word. This truth is represented by the water of Jordan, the river of the Holy Land and the gate of entrance to all its blessings. This was why Naaman in the old days must wash in Jordan and in no other stream, and why John baptized in the Jordan. (A. 4255) The baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire is the interior cleansing and renewing of the soul by Divine truth and goodness from the Lord when the way is prepared for it by repentance of external evils of life in obedience to the literal precepts of the Word. (E. 475)
When the Lord came to John's baptism it showed that what takes place in some small measure in every man who repents and is regenerated, took place in fullness in His glorification. "By submitting to be baptized, He testified to the cleansing of the natural life by the truth of the Word. The dove descending and lighting upon Him testified to the reception of the Spirit of God in the Human, according to its purification. The voice from heaven testified to the Divine satisfaction in the human work among men." ("Matthew's Gospel," pp. 40,41; T. 144)