1 In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 3 For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’” 4 Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 10 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
My father once told me about something interesting that happened when he and my mother visited the city of Assisi in Italy. Their tour guide was a Franciscan, a monk in the order founded by St. Francis, Assisi’s most famous son. Their guide, he said, was wearing the Franciscan habit—a brown robe with a thrice-knotted rope belt—but it was, my father went on to explain, a very nice robe and rope! It looked to have been tailored and made of very nice fabric. In all, the guide looked clean and well-dressed in his seemingly not-inexpensive Franciscan habit.
My father said that at one point in the tour there came around the corner toward them another Franciscan brother. But this one looked different. His brown robe was old and frayed and threadbare. It had obviously not been tailored. The rope belt was dirty and frazzled. He looked, my father said, like something out of Francis’ own day, like he came from that first group of zealous men who took up with Francis of Assisi so very long ago. This less-refined monk did not have the amiable face of a tour-guide either. He looked stern and focused.
My dad said that as this other Franciscan passed them by he noticed the look that he gave their tour guide. He said it was a look of exasperation, of judgment. The haggard Franciscan, in that brief moment, communicated with his eyes that he did not care much for the tour guide Franciscan. My dad said it looked like a clash of different worlds in just that instant and he wondered what the two men thought of each other.
I thought of that while reading our text about John the Baptist. There was something old-school about John, something very different from the other religious leaders of the day. John was dressed haggard and odd. His diet was raw and made one flinch: locusts and honey! He wore a camel hair garment. And he looked askance at the comfortable clergy of the day, the leaders and rulers of the people in their nice robes with their cushy stations in life.
We are privileged in Matthew 3 to see what happened when John and these others crossed paths. Who was this odd man, John the Baptist? What exactly was this seemingly surly, cantankerous prophet up to? And why exactly was he so important? Why did Jesus call John the Baptist one of the greatest of all time?
John the Baptist’s Role: The Prophet Preparer
In Matthew 3:1, Matthew introduces John the Baptist.
1 In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea,
Let us first try to establish John’s earthly relationship to Jesus. It is common to hear them referred to as cousins, but is this so? What we can establish concerning this we establish from Luke’s further information about John. In Luke 1:36 the angel who appeared to Mary calls Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s mother, Mary’s “relative.” He also says that Elizabeth is “in her old age” (v.36). So we know that Elizabeth is an older relative. Does that make them John the Baptist and Jesus cousins? We cannot say for certain, but it is likely so. We then read in Luke 1 that something startling happened when pregnant Mary went to meet pregnant Elizabeth:
39 In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, 40 and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, 42 and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
That is an important text, for it highlights in a beautiful way John’s role as the preparer of the way for Jesus! Even in the womb, John was bound to Jesus in a powerful way. We turn back to Matthew 3 now and see more evidence for John’s role.
1 In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 3 For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’” 4 Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.
First, note John’s fascinating appearance and dietary habits: “John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.” This has led many people to say that John had taken Nazirite vows as described in Numbers 6: no “wine or strong drink” (v.3) and “no razor shall touch his head” (v.5).Stanley Hauerwas writes that “Nazarenes were called to live lives of holiness not unlike the role of monks in Christianity” and that while “John is not explicitly described as a Nazarene…he seems to have shared much with those so designated in Israel’s past.”
Whether or not John’s appearance associated him with Nazirite vows, it certainly associated him with the prophets. For instance, in 2 Kings 1, Ahaziah sends servants to go inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron, whether or not he would recover from an injury and illness he had incurred. After encountering Elijah and being sent back to the king with a rebuke, Ahaziah asks the messengers what this man looked like.
7 He said to them, “What kind of man was he who came to meet you and told you these things?” 8 They answered him, “He wore a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist.” And he said, “It is Elijah the Tishbite.”
The association with Elijah in particular through the similar “garment of hair” and “belt” is telling as we will see, but, for our purposes at this point, let us note that John’s clothing places him in the prophetic tradition. There is further evidence for this in Zechariah 13:
4 “On that day every prophet will be ashamed of his vision when he prophesies. He will not put on a hairy cloak in order to deceive
So prophets tended to wear “hairy cloaks” it would seem! In this John is seen as the last great prophet before the arrival of Jesus on the scene. But let us go back to his connection to Elijah in particular. Interestingly, the last words of the Old Testament are a promise that Elijah would come before the coming of the Lord. We see this in Malachi 4:
5 “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. 6 And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”
We have this promise. Then we have John the Baptist show up dressed like a prophet. Then we see that he is dressed specifically like Elijah. Then we see this odd prophet, dressed like Elijah, proclaiming the day and coming of the Lord! This leads us to a surprising question: can this John the Baptist be, in some sense, the Elijah that God said through Malachi would come? Jesus addresses this very question in Matthew 11:
7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is he of whom it is written, “‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11 Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John,14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
Jesus says that John is in fact “Elijah who is to come”! Amazing! So in John the Baptist the prophesy of the coming Elijah is fulfilled. But the greater point is that the coming Elijah was to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord Jesus. This is exactly what John does. John was the prophet preparer!
In Matthew 3:3 Matthew wrote that John’s coming also fulfilled the prophesy of Isaiah 40:
3 A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
In appealing to Isaiah 40 Matthew was saying that John was the one who prepared the way for the coming of the Lord. In appealing to Micah 4 Jesus was also saying that John was the one who prepared the way for the coming of the Lord. In dressing like Elijah John was saying the same thing.
John the Baptist’s job was to announce that the King was coming and had come in Jesus! Epiphanius the Latin wrote, “John has no other mission than to bring about the conversion of the people so that they believe him who baptizes in the Holy Spirit, and whose sandals John confesses he is not worthy to carry.” Yes! His job was to prepare their hearts for the amazing arrival of Jesus on the scene and in their lives!
John the Baptist’s Baptism: Repentance
Of course, a large part of John’s mission involved baptism, as Matthew writes:
5 Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
We see that John was baptizing and he was baptizing a lot of people! “All Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him,” Matthew tells us. I recall having a liberal New Testament professor in college who called me out publicly in class to ask me if I actually thought that “all Judea” had gone to the Jordan. I had been pretty vocal in that class, as I recall, about the trustworthiness of scripture and I took the professor to mean that this was most likely an error since, of course, not every single person in that area was baptized. But the usage of “all” here is, as Martin Luther pointed out, a synecdoche, a figure of speech in which a part represents a whole or a whole represents a part. Think, for instance, of somebody saying, “It was a great party! Everybody was there!” We understand what they mean. They mean a lot of people were at the party! And, indeed, a lot of people were being baptized by John!
Why? We saw in the end of verse 6 that those being baptized were “confessing their sins.” Matthew continues:
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 10 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Here also, in John’s clash with the Pharisees and Sadducees, we see the need for confession and repentance highlighted. These religious leaders, John said, were a “brood of vipers” who were storing up “wrath” for themselves. John called on them to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” and not to be presumptuous about their identity as “children for Abraham” since God can raise up “children from Abraham” even from “these stones.” John then ends with a chilling warning about the presence of divine judgment.
In all of these we see two telling concepts: confession (v.6) and repentance (v.8). This was what John’s message and baptism were about. John was calling all who would hear to confess their sins and repent or turn from their sinful ways. Why? Because the King had come and the King sought ownership of their very lives. This is something they should have already known, of course. God had been calling Israel and the whole world to follow Him from the very beginning. But now, in Christ, the great moment of God’s visitation had come and the end was beginning.
John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. John could call for repentance but John was imply the preparer of the way. Only God can forgive. Only Jesus, God with us, can forgive. For this reason, John Chrysostom argued that John’s baptism was different from Jesus’ in that John’s baptism called them to repentance in preparation for Christ who alone could bring the remission of sin.
Since they would not condemn their own sins…coming to an awareness of sin would enable them to seek after their Redeemer and to desire remission. This is what John brought about: persuading them to repent…that having been humbled by repentance through self-condemnation, they would be ready to receive remissions.
Part of preparing the way for Jesus was preparing hearts for Jesus. As Oscar Wilde wrote in “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”:
Ah! happy day they whose hearts can break
And peace of pardon win!
How else may man make straight his plan
And cleanse his soul from Sin?
How else but through a broken heart
May Lord Christ enter in?
Thus, these ideas of confession (naming what you have become by naming your sin) and repentance (turning from what you have become and back to God) were at the very heart of John’s preaching and baptism. This word “repent” has fallen on hard times. It is oftentimes neglected in the church today because, in truth, the very concept of sin has been diminished and, in some cases, done away with. But we truly must return to a robust sense of repentance if we are to understand what John the Baptist was calling for and, yes, what Jesus was calling for! Frederick Dale Bruner has offered a very helpful word study of “repent” that is worthy of careful consideration.
In secular Greek matanoeite, “repent,” means a (mental) change of mind or an (emotional) regret; it does not mean the biblical change of one’s whole direction of life…A.T. Robertson…reported that the grammarian Broadus used to say that “repent” is the worst translation in the NT, for in English the word “repent” means (insipidly and literally) “to be sorry again,” from the Latin repoenitet; yet the even bigger problem, Broadus concluded, is that we have no better English word! Meier…summarizes John’s repentance-baptism message this way: “Within, one must change one’s mind and heart about what is important in life and then change one’s outward life accordingly.” I like the simplicity of Gnilka’s comment: “Repentance means the radical recognition of God.” The Greek metanoeite translates the Hebrew root shuv, a Hebrew term that means literally “come back!” or “turn around!”
We must understand this to understand why John the Baptist was calling for this in light of the arrival of Jesus. Jesus, the Holy One of God, God with us, comes to take our hearts captive, to change us, to save and redeem us. We must approach Jesus with faith and repentance, belief and a rejection of everything that would separate us from Him. The proper posture of the human heart in the presence of Jesus is repentance then faith and joy! Modern Christianity seems to want the joy without the repentance, but joy only truly comes from repentance since it is through faith and repentance that our hearts receive Christ.
John the Baptist’s Preaching: The Coming King
Indeed Christ is the whole point of John the Baptist’s ministry because Christ is the whole point! John now moves to his extolling of the greatness of Jesus:
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
What is this that Jesus will do? Why has Jesus come? John says that Jesus (1) will baptize with the Holy Spirit, (2) will baptize with fire, and (3) will clear his threshing floor by gathering his wheat and burning the chaff.
This means, then, that the coming King will (1) save, (2) judge, and (3) cleanse. He will baptize with the Holy Spirit those who come to Him. We see this happen in Acts 2 at Pentecost and we see it happen ever since then whenever anybody calls on the name of Jesus for salvation. This was also a kind of baptism with fire: the Holy Spirit’s descent upon the church in tongues of flame. But this was saving fire.
The King will also judge. Those who reject the life he offers will be lost, condemned, damned. They will be baptized with the fire of judgment, cast into the fires of Hell. What is more, they will be gathered and burned with “unquenchable fire” as “chaff,” the husks of seed that farmers separated from their wheat by throwing the wheat into the air with a winnowing fork. The chaff has no place in the storehouse with the wheat. The chaff is separate and will be separated. This, too the King will do.
But there is a note of cleansing and transformation here as well. Fire does not merely destroy and consume, it also purges and purifies. Part of the baptism of fire that Jesus brings must surely be seen as an aspect of the repentance to which John and Jesus called and call us. After all, in Mark 9, Jesus spoke of fire as a universal purgative.
49 For everyone will be salted with fire.
That is a mysterious verse, but it becomes less so the longer we walk with Jesus. Is Jesus not always in the business of burning away that which wounds and hurts and separates us? Is the fire of Heaven not an act of mercy in the life of the believer? If fire is judgment for the lost it is also sanctification for the saved. This is why following Jesus can feel painful at times. It burns at times. It burns because God is burning out of us that which wounds and destroys us.
The fire of God’s love is greater than the fire of Hell. Followers of Jesus welcome this changing, purifying, transforming, generative fire of the Spirit in their lives.
And there is even evidence in John the Baptist’s diet that this love of God that manifests itself in and through Jesus is a love for all people. All people must repent because the love of God in Christ is offered to all people!
Peter Leithart, in commenting on John’s eating locusts and honey, observes that oftentimes in the Old Testament Gentile nations are depicted as locusts. Furthermore, honey had strong associations with the Promised Land. He then makes a fascinating point in light of this:
James Jordan has explained that eating in Scripture signifies incorporation; the Lord “ate” the sacrifices on the altar of burnt offering to show His acceptance of the worshiper into the fellowship of the Godhead, and when we eat the bread and wine of the eucharist, we participate in the flesh and blood of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:16). John’s eating of the locusts, then, may signify the incorporation of the demonically-dominated nations into the new Israel of God.
What about the other component of John’s diet? Honey is associated with the land throughout the Old Testament (Exodus 3:8, 17; 13:5; etc.). Honey in fact is said to flow out from the land. Similarly, Psalm 81:16 records God’s promise to feed Israel with honey from the rock. In 1 Samuel 14, Jonathan eats honey from the ground. The fact that John ate locusts with honey (and perhaps dipped in honey) again might be taken to signify the incorporation of the locust-nations into the blessings of the land. It is significant that John embarked on this ministry from the wilderness; in the waste places, he held out the promise of the blessings of a new Garden.
Putting all these considerations together, it seems that John’s diet indeed symbolized his role in redemptive history. Luke informs us that John gave counsel to what we can assume are Gentile soldiers (3:14), thereby “eating” the soldiers into the kingdom. And, it seems that John’s diet is a part of the Elijah typology by which the NT explicates John’s ministry. Elijah’s ministry was full of contacts with Gentiles, and was a foreshadowing of the coming of a new Israel; John’s ministry marks the beginning of the fulfillment of that type, the beginning of a new Israel in which there is neither Jew nor Greek.
Could it be that John’s consumption of locusts signals that the loving embrace of God is opened to all people, even to the Gentiles and those who are far off? Through Jesus, the King of Kings was incorporating even those outside of God’s covenant people into the Kingdom. As John crunched his locusts was he making a shocking prophetic statement? Was he saying that God’s love is open quite literally to everybody who will repent, that in Christ the door has been kicked off the hinges and whosoever will may come?
Whether or not John was saying that with his odd diet, that fact is true! Jesus signals the definitive inbreaking of the all-consuming and universally-offered love of God for humanity! Yes, truly, whosoever will may come!
 Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), p.31.
 D.H. Williams, trans. and ed., Matthew. The Church’s Bible. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2018), p.45.
 Ibid., p.42-43.
 Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew. Vol.1. Revised & Expanded Edition. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), p.86-87.