Matthew 3:1-12 CEB: In those days John the Baptist appeared in the desert of Judea announcing, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” He was the one of whom Isaiah the prophet spoke when he said:
The voice of one shouting in the wilderness,
“Prepare the way for the Lord;
make his paths straight.”
John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey.
People from Jerusalem, throughout Judea, and all around the Jordan River came to him. As they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River. Many Pharisees and Sadducees came to be baptized by John. He said to them, “You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon? Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones. The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire. I baptize with water those of you who have changed your hearts and lives. The one who is coming after me is stronger than I am. I’m not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out.”
“Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” I’m not so sure a lot of us get this. What do we suppose John meant by that statement? Some have supposed that, whatever it means, it obviously failed because there is obviously no ‘kingdom of heaven’ anywhere that can be seen. But, what if we are missing it? That is, what if John was right and we the ones who are just not getting it? In the same way that God’s people are not limited to a specific group like was assumed (verse 9), God’s realm is not what we think it is (or should be).
My thoughts are that the realm of God started with the ministry of Jesus. He even stated as much (Matthew 12.28). The issue that we have is one of our culture. We want everything to be done instantly and conformed to our understanding. ‘If God’s realm is here’ we argue, ‘then there would no longer be war or hunger or the homeless or the destruction of the rain forests or child prostitution, etc. Since those things till exist, God’s realm is not here.’ But if God’s realm can be manifested through the life of Jesus in the middle of the brokenness around him, then God’s realm should be manifest today in similar ways.
Furthermore, if we keep this in mind, then the stories Jesus told about God’s realm fall into place. For example, in one place (Matthew 13.33) he stated that God’s realm was like yeast a baker put in some dough. This yeast wasn’t added at the end of the process but in the middle of the process. And because of that, the entire dough became infused with yeast. Therefore, Jesus is the yeast in the middle of the dough that is creation. Likewise, the followers of Jesus shouldn’t be looking to leave this realm for God’s realm. The whole story is about this realm becoming infused with God’s realm. The followers of Jesus should be looking for ways of infusing God’s realm wherever we are. When we feed the hungry, that is God’s realm being made manifest. When we pass laws that empower women and minorities, that brings them to a level of equality with others, that is God’s realm being made manifest. When we put an end to war and famine and disease, that is God’s realm being made manifest. The followers of Jesus need to be about these things until God’s realm fills the whole creation like the waters cover the seas.
A couple of fun facts! The description of John resembles that of Elijah in 2Kings 1.8. Which is an important point later in the story. The disciples ask Jesus why they were taught that Elijah was to come before the Messiah. Jesus answered that it was true that Elijah must come first and, if they could understand it, he had already came, meaning John the Baptist (Matthew 17.10-13).
Another fact is the ‘eschatological’ (or ‘end time’) statements in this passage. A lot of people (wrongly) assume that John was referring to the end of the world here. But, as the Common English Bible makes clear, the judgment that was coming was a judgement he and his contemporaries would witness. We see this by the phrases, ‘Who warned you to escape the angry judgment that is coming soon?’ and ‘The axe is already at the root of the trees.’ and ‘The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands.’ These are all words directed to the Jewish people (the religious leaders specifically) of John’s day.
These things set the tone and the context for the whole ministry of Jesus and helps better interpret some of his harshest words.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br Jack+, LC