Open Matthew 3:7-12.
Politics and religion were so intertwined in the ancient world that if you wanted to become king (other than by birth), you needed a prophet to announce that you were God’s chosen leader. Samuel was the king-maker for Saul and David (1 Samuel 10:1; 16:13). Nathan anointed Solomon (1 Kings 1:34). There’s an awkward moment when Jeroboam takes most of the realm from Solomon, but it could not have happened unless YHWH decreed it, so Jeroboam had his prophet (1 Kings 11:29-40). Nehemiah’s enemies accused him of sedition, claiming he had lined up prophets to proclaim him king (Nehemiah 6:7). So if Jesus is to be the king of the Jews, he needs a prophet to announce him.
Matthew introduced Jesus as the Messiah, the king who would restore his people from their captivity (1:17, 21). Foreigners recognized him as king of the Jews—disturbing news for “all Jerusalem” (2:3). Jesus escaped to Egypt, identifying with his suffering people so he could lead the new exodus and establish God’s reign once again.
So John announced the restoration of God’s rule: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (3:2). Repentance isn’t a feeling; it’s a reorientation from rebellion against God’s authority to submission to his rule. God is not the kind of ruler who forces himself on his people, so that reorientation is the necessary precursor for the restoration of his reign. In submitting to his authority, humanity invites God to reign over us.
John was annoyed when Pharisees and Sadducees came to check him out. The Sadducees were aristocrats, including the temple rulers and high priests. Rome actually appointed the high priests, so John viewed Sadducees as compromised, in bed with Israel’s oppressors. Pharisees called Israel back to Torah-obedience, which assumed the temple played a central role. Pharisees would have viewed people like John and the Essenes who rejected the temple as leading people away from Torah.
John saw these leaders as a nest of snakes — poisoning his crowd, and frightening them away (3:7). They were so sure of themselves: God gave his promises to Abraham’s descendants, and they were the leaders of Abraham’s descendants. “You’re not the foundations stones of God’s reign,” John told them. “God can raise up descendants of Abraham from the rocks if he needs to” (3:9 paraphrased).
Previously when God’s people had been invaded by Assyria and Babylon, prophets had described these disasters as God cutting down his fruitless tree. John uses this familiar image too: “You guys think you’re the main branches of God’s tree? You’re wrong! God will chop you down so all that’s left is the root. Branches like you will be tossed in the fire” (3:10 paraphrased).
The reason John is so vitriolic is that he knows these old branches won’t yield when God raises up the new branch to reign over his people. John is about to announce God’s new ruler, and the existing rulers will refuse to repent and yield to him. They want their power.
John describes the king God is about to give them. This will be the high king — someone of such gravitas, such honour, that John feels unworthy to bear this message. He feels unworthy to even bear the king’s sandals (3:11). All John can do is to ask Israel to submit to his authority (repent), signifying their submission to the coming king by seeking purification in preparation for his arrival.
John himself can’t purify Israel. The king will do that when he arrives. He will do it by flooding his people with the cleansing Spirit and fire (3:11). The dry rotted branches will burn, and all that will remain will be the true tree purified by the Holy Spirit’s fire.
It will be harvest time when the king arrives. Nothing will stay the way it is. Everything will be overturned, thrashed like the grain after harvest so the stalks separate from the grain. Everything will be tossed into the air, so the chaff is blown aside and separated from the grain. Those who are shown to be grain in his hands will be collected under his kingship; those who are worthless chaff will be burnt so there is only good in his realm (3:12). These dual themes run through the OT prophets like parallel railway tracks: the restoration of God’s reign (salvation), and the removal of those who resist him (judgement).
John’s word pictures are impressionist images of what it would be like when God restored his kingship over Israel, appointing a son of David to rule for him. John was the prophet who announced this God-appointed king. His main message was calling the nation to submit to the king heaven was about to give them. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (3:2).
What others are saying
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (London: SPCK, 2004), 17–18:
But the trouble was that they weren’t ready, not by a long way. You may think your house is reasonably tidy and well kept, but if you suddenly get word that the king is coming to visit you may well suddenly want to give it another spring-clean. And the Jewish people, even the devout ones who worshipped regularly in the Temple, knew in their bones that they weren’t ready for God to come back. The prophets had said that God would come back when the people repented, turning to him with all their hearts. That was what John summoned them to do; and they came in droves.
They came for baptism. John was plunging them in the water of the river Jordan as they confessed their sins. This wasn’t just a symbolic cleansing for individuals; it was a sign of the new thing that God was doing in history, for Israel and the world. Over a thousand years before, the children of Israel had crossed the Jordan when they first entered and conquered the promised land. Now they had to go through the river again, as a sign that they were getting ready for a greater conquest, God’s defeat of all evil and the establishment of his kingdom on earth as in heaven.