If Matthew chapters 1 and 2 are an encapsulation and re-enactment of the drama of the Old Testament, Matthew 3 begins where the Old Testament left off. John the Baptist is the promised Elijah who would warn the people before the “great and terrible day of the LORD.” (Malachi 4:5) The elements of Malachi 4 are in John’s message.
Three times, John cries “repent!”
Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand
Repent and show it with your life
Repent before the mightier One comes to sort humanity for salvation and judgement.
The Hebrew word for repentance is teshuvah- to change direction.
The Greek word for repentance is metanoia- to change one’s mind.
Baptism is also mentioned 3 times. Baptism’s Jewish parallel is mikvah or ritual washing. It was used on two kinds of occasions, for part of the ceremony to remove ritual uncleanness and for conversion of a Gentile to Judaism. John is telling the people of Jerusalem and Judea (Matthew 3:5), the religiously correct, they need to be cleansed and converted. Then, in address the religious elites, John says, “in addition to cleansing and conversion, you need to change your lives too.” John message and requirements tell the insiders that they are outsiders with God, and the “well-behaved” that they are sinners before God. The whole troubling thing about John’s message is this- there is nothing you can do to qualify yourself to enter God’s presence. Beginning with God requires that you accept this. Your heritage can’t help you- God is able to raise up from stones descendants of Abraham. (Matthew 3:9) Your good works can’t help you. John calls the most religious of us by our proper title, children of snakes. The very best things I have done, were done for the worst reasons. I say I have tried to help people when I have simply tried to impress them. I say I have loved people, but often, I was really trying to get them to love me. I insist that I was working to glorify God, really, I was seeking the applause of people. And as evil as I may be, we are more alike than you might want to admit. That admission however, is how we begin with God.
To begin with God, I must finally concede that the very things I believed qualified me to for friendship with God are the very things that are keeping me from Him. Further, while I must admit that I can do nothing to have fellowship with God, He from His side, has done everything needed to have fellowship with me. In God’s converting and cleansing, He makes me fully His.
All this is on my heart to say to you, because in Matthew 1-3 we are shown that God’s people are not the way we expect them to be. We are a people who are hidden, obscure, on the margins, tenuous, and now we find we are people in need of conversion and cleansing. God has not called the best and brightest. Like our King, we are called to be the gentle and the lowly. That is where we begin. Jesus would say later that we are converted to become like little children. That is how we come and that is how we live. If we think we are experts, teachers, models, or the moral standard, we can keep it up, on our own. If we and to be His people, His children- we put our trust in nothing but His love and faithfulness