MATTHEW 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at 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 one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. 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 will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

To the degree that the portrait of John the baptist in the Gospels is confirmed also in the report on first-century religious and political movements given by the Jewish historian Josephus, we can say that John stood rather squarely in the tradition of what we earlier called an exclusionist messianism.

The Gospels themselves don’t give us any suggestion that John reached out beyond the boundary of Jewish identity, though he did attract a remarkably large following of Jews from just about every walk of life.

Both his geographical and ideological proximity to the sectarian group known as the Essenes places him as a possible one-time adherent of their community. His message marked a strategic departure from the sectarian outlook, however, in that he offered repentance with a requirement of formal sect membership through world-renunciation.

Upon repentance and their ritual washing in the Jordan, those responding to John’s call were sent back into their work-a-day world with a new ethic – not of separatism but fairness, honesty, and charity on behalf of the needy.

John’s concept of how the messianic age would come, and to what effect, was less kind to Pharisees and Sadducees – at least as Matthew tells the story. Their so-called leadership among the Jewish people had only magnified the law’s burden and depressed the human spirit. Both were in agreement that salvation needed to be officially mediated – by the law (Pharisees) or by the temple (Sadducees).

                                                                         

The Gospel writers inform us later on that John eventually grew somewhat disillusioned with Jesus and sent a delegation of disciples to inquire whether he was really the messiah of their expectation.

As far as his original insight was concerned – that the messiah of God’s in-breaking kingdom would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire – John was right on the mark. But once again, he was mistaken over the ultimate outcome.

John was anticipating that Jesus (or the messiah of his expectation) would cast the unrepentant moral reprobates of the world into the “unquenchable fire” of God’s wrath – and that’s where he got it wrong. Jesus did not, in fact, bring God’s vengeance but God’s forgiveness. And forgiveness, at least as Jesus understood and advocated it, is something that does not compute in the calculations of a black-and-white worldview.

But as a figure, John serve as the historical bridge from the moral paradigm of conventional religion (represented in the story of Judaism) to the mystical paradigm of esoteric religion. This move from membership to spirituality, from orthodoxy to enlightenment, and from an ethic of duty to an ethic of compassion, is a passage that faith must make in its progress to maturity and fulfillment.

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