The Gospel of Matthew was written several decades after Jesus lived, died, and was resurrected (about 80 CE). The identity of the author of Matthew is unknown but this Gospel message is clear: Jesus is the Messiah! From the first chapter of Matthew the author tells the story of Jesus in ways to explain this message. Jesus is the Messiah and in him is all the authority and power of the kingdom of heaven.
In chapter 3, John the Baptist is introduced into the account of Jesus’ life and mission. John the Baptist was a well-known figure with a large following. John dressed, spoke, and acted in similar ways to the prophets of old. His clothes resembled the prophet Elijah, he spoke the words of Isaiah, and he preached a message of repentance and reform.
In this passage people are going into the wilderness to be baptized by John. The wilderness is a place that brings to mind the exodus of the people of Israel. In the wilderness the Israelites experienced God’s guidance and comforting presence. It was from the wilderness they emerged as a people of God. Here in the wilderness John is calling people to “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (v. 2). The word repent does not mean to confess one’s sins or offer regret for bad behavior. To repent (in Greek, mentanoein—to change one’s mind, think in a new way) is to turn away from an old way of being and to adopt a new way more closely aligned with God’s purposes. This new way is the way of the Lord, a way of justice, liberation, and faithful living.
Included in the groups coming from Jerusalem were Pharisees and Sadducees, Jewish religious leaders. Pharisees were educated men who interpreted and enforced rigid adherence to religious law. Sadducees were leaders who were of the elite priestly lineage. These two groups of leaders were not in religious agreement (rather like present-day conservative or liberal divisions) but both came to be in opposition to the message John, and soon Jesus, would proclaim. John the Baptist is quick to denounce these leaders. He tells them to “bear fruit worthy of repentance” (v. 8). In other words, baptism alone is not enough for true repentance, nor is religious status or heritage. Repentance requires new actions that bear the good fruits of justice making and peace.
This passage ends with John pointing to the coming of Jesus. John proclaims that while he can baptize with water, one far superior to him will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. It is through Jesus and the gifts of the Holy Spirit that the reign of God comes near. Through baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire, disciples are strengthened and refined to act in ways of mercy, justice, and peace.