CHAPTER XIX

THE FORERUNNER OF MESSIAH AND HIS MINISTRY

ACCORDING TO THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
(Matthew 3:1-17)



3 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, 2 Repent, for the kingdom of heaven¹ has come to hand. 3 For this is the word spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying: The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make ready the way of the Lord, Make His paths straight.² 4 John himself had his clothing of camel's hair and a leather girdle about his lions, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then Jerusalem, and all Judea, and all the region about the Jordan kept going out to him 6 and were being baptized in the Jordan River by him, confessing their sins. 7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them: You brood of vipers, who made known to you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit, therefore, worthy of repentance; 9 and do not begin to say within yourselves, We have Abraham as our father; for I say to you that God is able out of these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 And now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree, therefore, not producing good fruit is to be cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 I am baptizing you in water unto repentance, but the One coming after me is mightier than I, the sandals of whom I am not worthy to carry: this One will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire; 12 whose winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly cleanse His threshing floor and will gather His grain into the granary, but the chaff He will burn up with unquenchable fire.

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John to be baptized by him. 14 But John attempted to hinder Him, saying, I have need to be baptized by Thee, and art Thou coming to me? 15 Then Jesus replied and said to him, Permit it now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness. Then he permitted Him. 16 When Jesus was baptized, immediately He went up from the water; and, behold, the heavens were opened, and He saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and coming upon Him; 17 and, behold, a voice out of the heavens, saying, This is my Son, the beloved One, in whom I am well pleased.³

¹ Literally,
the kingdom of the heavens.
² Isaiah 40:3.
³ Isaiah 42:1.




I. JOHN THE BAPTIST THE HERALD OF THE MESSIAH

IN Matthew, chapter 3, John the Baptist steps forth upon the historic scene without any introduction. Information, however, concerning his birth is found in Luke 1:5-25, 57-80. Isaiah the Prophet foresaw John as the herald announcing the coming of Jesus the Messiah (Isa. 40:3-5). Malachi likewise foresaw him as the royal herald (Mal. 3:1). These prophecies fall into the third classification of prophecy, the literal plus an application, as seen in the previous chapter. Both of these predictions are quoted in the New Testament to prove that John was foretold by the prophets. These predictions, while they speak of John as a forerunner of Messiah at His first coming, present the Messiah at His Second Coming and His being preceded by a herald, who will be none other than Elijah the Prophet (Mal. 4:5,6). Josephus, the Jewish historian, in an undisputed passage, refers to the ministry of John the Baptist.

II. JOHN'S MESSAGE
(Matthew 3:1-12)

John broke the silence of four hundred years, the interbiblical period, by announcing that the "kingdom of heaven" had come to hand. He, therefore, called upon the nation, saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come to hand." John made the plain announcement regarding the kingdom, but did not explain what he meant by the expression "kingdom of heaven." His manner of announcing it proves that he assumed on the part of his audience a knowledge of this kingdom.

What kingdom did John announce? To this question theologians give two answers. One group of students believe that the kingdom which John announced is what is known as the literal earthly Messianic kingdom. When this kingdom is established, the Messiah will reign in Jerusalem over a converted world. At that time the curse will be lifted from the earth, and the glory of God will encircle the earth as the waters cover the sea. Promises relating to this literal reign of King Messiah are found in such passages as Isaiah 2:1-4; 11:5-16, and chapter 35. Numerous prophecies foretell the glorious reign of King Messiah. Other Bible students understand John's announcement of the kingdom as a prophecy regarding the establishment of a spiritual kingdom of the Messiah, which will spread over the world by the preaching of the gospel.

Those who interpret John's announcement as referring to the literal earthly Messianic kingdom insist that there is but one kingdom foretold in the Old Testament, the earthly reign of Messiah. They deny that a spiritual kingdom of the Messiah is revealed in the Old Testament. Since they believe that the literal earthly kingdom is the only one foretold, they maintain that it is obviously the one that John announced.

These interpreters also call attention to the fact that there was a growing opposition to Jesus practically from the beginning of His ministry. Nevertheless, in the first twelve chapters of Matthew, Jesus and the apostles offered to the Jewish people the earthly Messianic kingdom if they would accept Him as King. About the middle of His ministry certain of the leaders of the Jews, according to Matthew 12:14, took counsel how they might kill him. When they took this attitude, these interpreters further believe, Jesus no longer promised to establish the earthly kingdom at that time. On the contrary, they say, He showed that what would be done was the establishment of a spiritual kingdom, which is described in the parables of Matthew, chapter 13. In the first twelve chapters of Matthew, therefore, the expression "kingdom of heaven" means the literal earthly reign of Messiah. After the crisis just mentioned, they explain, Jesus revealed to His audience that the earthly kingdom would not be set up then, but that the kingdom which would be established would be a spiritual one. This spiritual kingdom is interpreted as the church—broadly speaking, Christianity.

On the other hand, those who claim that the kingdom announced by John and later by Jesus was a spiritual kingdom cite definite prophecies in the Scriptures which foretell God's setting Israel aside temporarily and His calling forth from among all nations a people to take the place of Israel in His program at the present time and to carry on His work—the program of giving the truth to the world. To substantiate this position, they call attention to Deuteronomy, chapter 32, the national anthem of Israel, wherein is revealed the course of Jewish history through the centuries. In verses 15-18 Moses shows that the people of Israel, after entering the land of promise, corrupt themselves by going after other gods. In verses 19-25 he shows how abominable to the Lord idolatry among His ancient people Israel is. According to this prediction, the people of Israel turn from the Lord God to idols. Thus they move God to jealousy. Then the Lord declares, "They have moved me to jealousy with that which is not God: They have provoked me to anger with their vanities: and I will move them to jealousy with those that are not a people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation. For a fire is kindled in mine anger, And burneth unto the lowest Sheol, and devoureth the earth with its increase, And setteth on fire the foundations of the mountains" (Deut. 32:21,22). In this prediction the Lord declares that, because the people of Israel provoke Him and move him to jealousy by those that are not gods, He, therefore, provokes them to jealousy with them that are not a people. Obviously, this language is a play on words. The nation of Israel is the Chosen People of God. When they provoke Him to jealousy with non-gods, He moves them to jealousy by a non-people—those who are not the favored race. After making this prediction, the Lord tells how deeply His anger is being stirred by their spiritual delinquencies. In verses 23-25 He speaks of the terrible catastrophe that, we know, overtook Israel in A.D. 70. Then, according to verse 26, the Lord scatters the disobedient people among the nations.

Isaiah, the statesman prophet, likewise sees a time when people of all nations will come together and will find the Lord. Hear him: "I am inquired of by them that asked not for me; I am found of them that sought me not: I said, Behold me, behold me, unto a nation that was not called by my name" (Isa. 65:1). In verses 2-7 of this prophecy, God shows that, at the time that He accepts other people, Israel is set aside temporarily because of moral and spiritual delinquencies.

In the Jewish section of the Epistle to the Romans—chapters 9-11—the inspired Apostle discusses the present state of the Hebrew people. In Romans 10:19-21 he shows that both Moses and Isaiah foresaw and foretold the time that God would reject Israel temporarily as His chosen nation through whom to work and would call forth and accept people of all nations to constitute a group known as the body of Christ, who would serve Him and carry on His work at the present time.

Malachi, the last of the Old Testament prophets, foresaw the same situation. In his day religion in Israel was at a very low ebb. The people who continued the worship had perverted ideas regarding the holiness of God and their worship of Him. He, therefore, expressed the wish that someone would lock the doors of the Temple and stop the worship that was being conducted there, because it was futile—yes, abominable to the Lord.

10 Oh that there were one among you that would shut the doors, that ye might not kindle fire on mine altar in vain! I have no pleasure in you, saith Jehovah of hosts, neither will I accept an offering at your hand. 11 For from the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same my name shall be great among the Gentiles; and in every place incense shall be offered unto my name, and a pure offering: for my name shall be great among the Gentiles, saith Jehovah of hosts (Mal. 1:10,11).

In this prediction the inspired prophet declares that, when the acceptable worship of the Temple has ceased, people from all nations will bring appropriate sacrifices and offer incense to God. Here the prophet speaks of the worship of true believers among all the nations in terms of the Mosaic ritualism. He clearly predicts that Israel will be set aside and that a spiritual worship will be inaugurated in which people from all nations will engage. From these predictions it is clear that Moses, Isaiah, and Malachi foretold the establishment of a spiritual kingdom upon Israel's being rejected temporarily and set aside.

Further confirmation of this position is found in Isaiah 61:1-3:
1 The Spirit of the Lord Jehovah is upon me; because Jehovah hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening
of the prison to them that are bound; 2 to proclaim the year of Jehovah's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn; 3 to appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them a garland for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they may be called trees of righteousness, the planting of Jehovah, that he may be glorified.

In verse 1 of this passage, the Holy Trinity is clearly revealed. Impersonating the Messiah, Isaiah declares that the Lord God has anointed Him with the Spirit of the Lord, who is none other than the Holy Spirit. Thus the three persons of the Holy Trinity appear here: God the Father; God the Holy Spirit; and God the Messiah, the Son.

One of the purposes for which Messiah is anointed is "to proclaim the year of Jehovah's favor and the day of vengeance of our God; ..." Two periods of time are here mentioned: the year of Jehovah's favor and the day of vengeance of our God. As has been seen in Book Two, Chapter XIII, the first period is compared to a year; the second, to a day. Obviously the first is the longer one, since it is compared to a year, whereas the second one is a very short one, being thought of as a day. One may logically assume, moreover, that an approximation of the ratio which exists between a year and a day likewise obtains between these two periods. The first is an era of grace; the second is a time of judgment. The day of vengeance of Jehovah obviously is another name for what is known in the writings of the Prophets as the great and terrible day of Jehovah. See, for example, Zephaniah 1:14-18. The length of this period of wrath is seven years, as is shown by a careful study of related passages. Since at least an approximation of the ratio existing between a year and a day exists between these two periods, and since the latter is of seven years' duration, the former can be logically two thousand or more years. From Isaiah 61:1-3, it is clear that this long period of grace is the present Christian Dispensation, during which God is extending mercy in the fulness of abundance and is calling out from among all people those who want the truth, and who will stand for righteousness. At the same time Israel, as a nation, figuratively speaking, is on the siding. This long period of grace is to be followed by the relatively short seven-year period of Jehovah's wrath.

The same fundamental idea is set forth in Isaiah 42:1-4:
1 Behold, my servant, whom I uphold; my chosen, in whom my soul delighteth: I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the Gentiles. 2 He will not cry, nor lift up his voice, nor cause it to be heard in the street. 3 A bruised reed will he not break, and a dimly burning wick will he not quench: he will bring forth justice in truth. 4 He will not fail nor be discouraged, till he have set justice in the earth; and the isles shall wait for his law.

Verse 1 shows Messiah beginning His work, which verses 2 and 3 reveal to be a spiritual ministry. He is not a rabble-rouser; neither is He a dictator. On the contrary, He comes to establish justice upon the earth "in truth," by the proclamation and dissemination of the truth. According to verse 4, when He makes His first appearance on earth in fulfillment of this prediction, He will not establish a reign of righteousness; but, instead, He will launch a preaching ministry. Until He returns, the nations must wait for His law by which they will be governed. This passage shows also that the spiritual phase of the kingdom of God, foretold by the Prophets, comes first on the program of God. It is to be followed by the visible, literal, earthly reign of King Messiah at His Second Coming.

III. THE WRATH TO COME
(Matthew 3:7)

John the Baptist spoke to the Pharisees and Sadducees who manifested a carping, bitter spirit and asked them who had warned them to flee from the wrath to come (Matt. 3:7). Then he divulged the fact that the axe was lying at the root of the trees and that every tree which was not bringing forth fruit would be hewed down, cast into the fire, and burned. He was, of course, speaking figuratively of the people as trees and of Jehovah as the woodman with His axe in readiness to cut down all trees that were not bearing good fruit. Since John said that the axe was lying at the root of the trees "even now," he was obviously talking about the generation to which he was ministering. God poured out His wrath upon that generation in the catastrophic events of the war with Rome which culminated in the overthrow of the nation in A.D. 70.

In the Tribulation God will again pour out His wrath upon Israel. At that time He will purge out all the dross from the gold and silver and will destroy all the wicked from among the righteous. Thus He will purify the entire nation. The honest spiritual ones will be saved and will enter the Messianic kingdom. The wrath to come which John foretells is obviously the wrath of the day of Jehovah foretold many times by the prophets.


IV. BAPTISM IN WATER, IN THE HOLY SPIRIT, AND IN FIRE
(Matthew 3:11,12)

A. Baptism in Water

5 Then Jerusalem, and all Judea, and all the region about the Jordan kept going out to him 6 and were being baptized in the Jordan River by him, confessing their sins (Matt. 3:5,6).

John the Baptist called upon the entire nation—both religious and non-religious people—to repent and submit to baptism. Many accepted his teaching and were baptized of him in the River Jordan, "confessing their sins." Some of the leaders, however, refused to do so:

And all the people when they heard, and the publicans, justified God, being baptized with the baptism of John. 30 But the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected for themselves the counsel of God, being not baptized of him (Luke 7:29,30).

Luke speaks of John's baptism as a "baptism of repentance unto remission of sins ..." (Luke 3:3). It was the outward visible expression whereby the penitent Israelites virtually declared to the world that they had repented of their sins and intended to forsake them. There was no efficacy or cleansing power in the waters of baptism. When, however, anyone under conviction of sin and by faith submitted to John's baptism, he was forgiven.

In the great commission Jesus commanded His disciples to baptize their converts: 18 And Jesus came and talked to them, saying, All authority in heaven and on earth has been given unto Me. 19 Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all things whatsoever that I have commanded you; and, lo, I am with you all the days, even unto the consummation of the age (Matt. 28:18-20).

Christ's baptism differs from John's in that it is administered "into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

B. Baptism in the Holy Spirit

I am baptizing you in water unto repentance, but the One coming after me is mightier than I, the sandals of whom I am not worthy to carry: this One will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire ... (Matt. 3:11).

John spoke of baptizing the people in water unto repentance. John's baptism was simply a rite or ceremony, an outward symbol and a pledge on the part of the one being baptized that he would accept the Messiah when He appeared. In contrast with this purely legalistic, symbolic ordinance, John spoke of the work which Christ performs in the heart of the believer—the one accepting Him—in terms of the ordinance of baptism: "I baptize you in water ... He shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit ..." Obviously this language is a play on words.¹ John baptized in water; the coming Messiah, declared John, would baptize in the Holy Spirit. Thus what John did for his converts was to administer an outward symbolic ordinance; what the Messiah performs is an inward work of grace in the heart of the believer. In other words, this inward work of grace is regeneration of the believer by the Holy Spirit. That this interpretation of John's language is correct is seen by a study of I Corinthians 12:13: "For in one Spirit were we all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free; and were all made to drink of one Spirit." John had said, "I indeed baptize you in water, but he [the Messiah] will baptize you in the Holy Spirit." This language is echoed in the Corinthian passage: "For in one spirit [not in water, as in the case of John's baptism] were we all baptized into one body." The spirit in this passage, therefore, is thought of as the element in which the penitent believer is baptized. In being thus spiritually baptized, he is brought into the one body, into fellowship with Christ and with all believers.

Thus the work of regeneration of the believer is thought of as baptism in the Holy Spirit. Everyone who has been regenerated and saved has been baptized in the Holy Spirit. Baptism in the Holy Spirit is, therefore, a spiritual experience which the believer enjoys when he accepts Christ as Saviour and Lord.

The one who has thus been baptized in the Spirit into the one body is urged from time to time to be filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18-21).

C. Baptism in Fire

John the Baptist said that Christ would "baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire" (Matt. 3:11). To whom was John speaking? The answer is found in verse 7: "When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said ..." These religious leaders were there to criticize and to obstruct the work as much as possible, but were not seeking God. Proof of this interpretation is seen in what John said to them: "You offspring of vipers ..." At the same time there were many sincere people who had come in their quest for God. John, therefore, was addressing a mixed audience. Some of these, sincerely accepting Christ, would be baptized in the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, the carping, criticizing religious leaders were warned that they would be baptized in fire. That this interpretation is correct is seen by the words that follow:

... whose winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly cleanse His threshing floor and will gather His grain into the granary, but the chaff He will burn up with unquenchable fire (Matt. 3:12).

To be baptized in the Holy Spirit is to be regenerated, to be saved; to be baptized in fire is to be banished from the presence of God and the glory of His might forever.

11 And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat upon it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. 12 And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne; and books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of the things which were written in the books, according to their works. 13 And the sea gave up the dead that were in it; and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. 14 And death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death, even the lake of fire. 15 And if any was not found written in the book of life, he was cast into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:11-15).

V. THE BAPTISM OF JESUS
(Matthew 3:13-17)

John the Baptist began what might be called a back-to-God movement in Israel. He, therefore, called upon the entire nation—the leaders and laymen alike—to repent, to confess their sins, and to come back to God. When men, as individuals, groups, and nations, forsake God, the only way for them to escape disaster is to do as John said: repent, confess, forsake their sins, and return to God with all their hearts.

John engaged in his ministry largely along the Jordan River. Just where, we cannot say. The traditional site of Jesus' baptism in the Jordan is about five miles north of the Dead Sea. But the place of the baptism is immaterial.

Jesus left Nazareth, His home, and went to John to be baptized. Though John did not know Jesus personally, he recognized Jesus at once as his superior. John, therefore, recoiled from baptizing Him, protesting, "I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?" Jesus assured him that it was proper and fitting that they both should submit to every righteous ordinance of God. Then John ceased to object and immediately baptized Jesus. When he did so, the heavens were rent asunder, as it were, and the Holy Spirit in the visible form of a dove descended out of heaven and lighted upon Jesus. There came at the same time a voice to John the Baptist saying, "This is my Son, the beloved One, in whom I am well pleased" (Matt. 3:17). This scene was most impressive: Jesus the Messiah of Israel was baptized; God the Father spoke audibly, so that John could understand; the Holy Spirit descended from heaven in the form of a dove and lighted upon Jesus. Thus at the baptism were present the three persons constituting the God-head. (For a full discussion of this point, see Volume I of this Messianic Series,
The God of Israel.)

That three divine personalities constitute the Godhead is reflected in the important utterance of Moses, which declares, when literally translated: "Hear, 0 Israel, Jehovah our Gods is Jehovah a unity" (Deut. 6:4). They are one, viewed from one standpoint, but are three when looked at from another. They are one in essence and nature, but three in personality.

In a number of passages, two of these divine personalities appear on the stage of action. In other passages three are seen—but never more than three. When one takes these facts into consideration, he is forced to believe that the Godhead exists in the form of three persons—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

When Jesus was baptized, a voice from heaven said: "This is my Son, the beloved One, in whom I am well pleased." These words are an echo of Isaiah 42:1: "Behold, my servant, whom I uphold; my chosen, in whom my soul delighteth: I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the Gentiles." Instantly one sees that Matthew identified Jesus as the servant of whom Isaiah in chapter 42:1-4 spoke. A comparison of this passage with the record of the baptismal scene of Jesus (Matt. 3:13-17) shows that Isaiah in his prediction, by prophetic insight, saw the Messiah immediately after His baptism when the Spirit came upon Him.

Isaiah uses the word servant with three connotations. In certain contexts, as in chapter 41:8ff., servant refers to the faithful remnant of Israel in the end time, whom God will restore to the land of the fathers and will make the head of the nations instead of the tail, as they are at the present time. In Isaiah 42:1-4, therefore, the facts of the context indicate that the servant is none other than the personal Messiah, an individual, in whom God is delighted, and who does God's pleasure, and God's pleasure alone. But in chapter 42:18-22, the word servant refers to the entire nation of Israel, as the facts of the immediate context indicate. For other passages which speak of the Messiah as the servant, see Isaiah 49:1-7, chapter 50, and 52:13-53:12. An examination of the context of these passages shows that servant denotes an individual—the Messiah—the spotless, sinless one. Matthew thus identifies Jesus of Nazareth as this servant of prophetic forecast and as King of the Jews.


Footnote:
¹ Paronomasia, a play on words, is one of the most important and most frequently used figures of speech in the Scriptures. The failure to recognize it brings nothing but confusion and misunderstanding.