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Matthew 3:1-12

John the Baptist: Repentance is not comfortable but is part of our calling.

Tom Faletti

March 15, 2024

Matthew 3:1-12 John prepares the way by calling for repentance, baptizing those who respond


John is in a place east of Jerusalem, perhaps 6 miles north of the Dead Sea.  It is not an easy place to live.  The Greek word used to describe that place is translated as the “wilderness” (NRSV) or “desert” (NABRE).  People had to make an intentional decision to go there.


In the West, Christians call this man John the Baptist.  If we want to clarify that we don’t mean he was a member of the Baptist denomination, we might say John the Baptizer.  In the Eastern Orthodox Churches, Christians call him “John the Forerunner,” because he came before and announced the coming of Christ.


Let’s look first at what is going on in this passage, and then we will look at what his message of repentance means.


What is happening in this passage?


Who is involved?


How would you describe John the Baptist’s character traits or personality?


What is John’s central message?


Is there significance in his being in a wilderness/desert?


Matthew makes explicit Old Testament connections everywhere he sees them, and he sees John in the Old Testament:


In verse 3, Matthew quotes Isaiah 40:3.  What does that quote from Isaiah suggest to us about John?


Why do you think it is important to Matthew that John fulfills that Old Testament passage?


In verse 4, Matthew describes John’s clothing and food.  What do you picture as you read this?  Why is this image of John important?


In 2 Kings 1:7-8, the prophet Elijah wore a hairy garment and a leather belt.  Zechariah 13:4 tells us that prophets, include false prophets, wore a hairy mantle.


John is baptizing not far from the place traditionally identified as the place where Elijah was taken up into heaven, and the Jews expected Elijah’s return before the coming of the Messiah.


Why might John’s mannerisms and language have heightened interest in him?


The Jews were concerned that there had not been a prophet, a voice of God, in their midst for several centuries.  The connections between him and the Old Testament heightened the significance with which they saw him.



John uses the word “repent” in verse 2.  What does it mean to “repent”?


The Hebrew word teshubah comes from the verb shub, meaning to turn (William Barclay, Gospel of Matthew, Volume 1, p. 45), leading to the idea that repentance means turning around.  The Greek word for “repentance” is metanoia, which means to think differently or have a change of mind.  These concepts are often combined to create the concept that to repentance is to change your mind and turn away from sin and to God.


Why should the people repent, according to John?


What is “the kingdom of heaven”?  What does that phrase mean to you?


Matthew is the only Gospel writer  to use the term “kingdom of heaven” rather than “kingdom of God.”  The two different phrases are often used in the same statements and stories in the different Gospels, so it is hard to argue that they have different meanings.  However, they have different connotations.  Matthew might have decided to avoid the word “God” out of deference to the Jews, who were hesitant to speak the name of God (H. L. Ellison, “Matthew,” The International Bible Commentary, p. 1123), but there is a further point.  In Jesus’s time, the Jews expected a messiah who would free them from political oppression.  Referring to the kingdom “of heaven” might have allowed Matthew “to distinguish the kingdom proclaimed by John (3:2) and Jesus (4:17) from popular hopes for a literal restoration of Israel’s political empire” (Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, p.11).  The kingdom Jesus preached is not an earthly political kingdom; it is a kingdom that encompasses far more, a realm that transcends temporal political arrangements.


In verses 7-8, John makes it clear that baptism is not free.  It demands a change.  What is the “price” of being baptized?


What does John expect people to do to show that their repentance is genuine?  What would that evidence look like?


Is it genuine repentance if you decide you are doing something wrong but don’t actually do something else instead?  Explain.


In verses 9-10, what does John warn that God is going to do?


In verses 11-12, John makes a prophecy about what is coming.  What does he say is coming?


What will the one who is coming do?


Considering John’s overall message and what you know happened later, was John right about how things were going to play out or did his vision need to be corrected/tweaked?



Read the passage again, but this time, pick a character and see it through that person’s eyes, thinking their thoughts, and asking several questions that I will give you below.  (If you are studying this passage with a small group, have different people take different characters so that the whole list is covered by someone.)  The characters to consider are:


  • John.

  • A “perfect 10” Pharisee (devoted to honoring God by strict observance of the entire law – including the Pentateuch (the written Torah), the rest of the Hebrew Bible, and also the oral legal traditions (sometimes called the oral Torah).

  • An ordinary “5-6” Jew (The “5-6” Jews are the ones described in verses 5-6, who are trying to live a reasonably religious life but are probably not zealous about it and would not be rated a “10” like the Pharisees).

  • A Sadducee (from the priestly aristocratic party, committed only to the written Torah/Pentateuch rather than the whole Old Testament and more politically savvy).

  • Jesus (not having started your public ministry yet).

  • God in heaven (whose kingdom and actions John is talking about).


With regard to the character you chose:

  • Why are you there?

  • What do you think about John (or about what John is doing)?

  • What does John’s preaching lead you to do or make you think you should do?


Now fast-forward 2000 years.  Where would you be in this scene?  If you did not already know about John the Baptist, what would you think about him?


Knowing all that you know, in what ways might you respond to John?


What repentance do you need to consider?  In what ways does God want you to think differently?  What is God asking you to change right now?


What good fruit (v. 8) do you think you need to be showing?



Scholars disagree about whether the baptism with “the holy Spirit and fire” is talking about one thing or two.  Is there a baptism of the Holy Spirit for the repentant and a baptism of fire for the unrepentant?  Or are the terms synonymous, with the one baptism producing either purification (for the repentant) or destruction (for the unrepentant)?  (This issue is raised, for example, in the NABRE in a footnote to 3:11.)  Does it matter?  Or is this just a good way to segue to:


When John was preaching, no one would have known what being “baptized with the Holy Spirit” means.  But we know more.  How is this baptism of the Holy Spirit different from John’s baptism of repentance?

Among other things, it is transformational in a way that the baptism of repentance was not.


What does it mean to you to be baptized with the Holy Spirit?


And what is the meaning of the baptism with fire and the burning of the chaff?

If this is a baptism of fire in a positive sense, which later New Testament descriptions support, it is a purification that, again, changes us in ways that a simple repentance and confession of sin may not.


Does it provide some encouragement that Matthew connects repentance and the Holy Spirit?  How does the Holy Spirit get involved in our lives to help us repent and produce good fruit?



Take a step back and consider this:


Repentance is necessary for spiritual growth, but it is usually not a comfortable process.  To repent requires us to recognize where we are falling short.  Furthermore, it requires us to act on that recognition and actually make a change.  The change comes in two parts: a change of mind – thinking differently than we used to think – and a change of action to conform our lives to the new thinking we are doing.


If we were going to write the equation of repentance, we might write it this way:


Repentance = Recognizing what’s wrong + thinking differently + acting differently


Thinking differently is often uncomfortable.  Acting differently can also be uncomfortable – we are creatures of habit and relinquishing old habits in order to take on new habits can be hard.


Fortunately, we are not alone in the repentance process.  God is trying to work the character of Jesus into us and then let that character guide all we say and do.  He does not leave us alone in that process.  He is always trying to help us.  He has sent his Holy Spirit into our hearts, to guide and empower us.  We are constantly invited to tap into the power of the Holy Spirit so that we can make the changes that allow Jesus to radiate in us and through us.


For Christians, we are not asked to “tough it out” on our own.  Repentance is something God is doing in us, with our cooperation – if we are willing.  And the fruit of repentance is not something we need to dream up and then carry out on our own.  God wants to work through us to change the world around us, to advance the work of the kingdom of heaven through our lives.  So the fundamental question is:


Am I willing to let God show me where I need to change my thinking?  Am I wiling to put his thinking into action in my life?


Am I willing to let the Holy Spirit empower me to produce good fruit?  If the answer is “Yes,” then I need to stay in close contact with God.  What am I doing to stay tuned in to God, so that my thinking and actions reflect his character and desires?



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Copyright © 2024, Tom Faletti (Faith Explored, This material may be reproduced in whole or in part without alteration, for nonprofit use, provided such reproductions are not sold and include this copyright notice or a similar acknowledgement that includes a reference to Faith Explored and See for more materials like this.

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