I was late coming to Advent. The church of my childhood and youth never observed a season of preparation leading to Christmas day. We were left, then, to “get ready for Christmas” the same way secular people did: by overfilling our schedules, spending too much money, bingeing on TV Christmas specials, and eating way too many sweet treats.
Of course, a fair bit of the time, the result was that I didn’t actually prepare for Christmas at all. I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy the lights, the tinsel, the carols, and all the rest; I loved them—and I still do! The problem is that much of the outward trappings of Christmas don’t always draw us into the depths of its holy mystery. In fact, if we’re not careful, they can even shield us from that mystery.
That’s why I have come to appreciate the discipline of Advent. Advent taps the breaks on our culture’s frenetic Christmas “preparations.” Sometimes, it slams on those breaks with both feet. At it’s most basic, Advent insistently whispers, “Pace yourself; it’s not Christmas yet.”
And when I come more slowly into Christmas, I can better appreciate what that season really means, and how my life should be different because of that meaning.
Today’s text introduces us to John the Baptist, a patron saint of Advent waiting and preparation. His ministry in the wilderness got people ready for Jesus to show up. He announced the coming of the kingdom of heaven and called people to repent—just as Jesus did.
And what better way to prepare for Christmas than to get serious about what Jesus said to do?
• What is your favorite part of getting ready for Christmas? Why?
• How can even good Christmas traditions keep us from contemplating the deeper meaning of the season?
• How can John lead us to prepare for the coming of Jesus?
Preparing for the Greater One
John believed that his role was preparatory for the coming of one greater than he (Matt 3:11; Mark 1:7; Luke 3:16; John 1:26-27). Precisely whom John envisioned as this coming one is open to debate. Some have suggested that John was speaking of God himself who was about to come to manifest his judgment and salvation. Others believe that John was looking for a messianic deliverer to serve as God’s agent in manifesting the kingdom. If so, there is no evidence that John was looking for a nationalistic redeemer who would bring political liberation from the Romans. The evidence does seem clear that John did not view the man Jesus of Nazareth as this coming one until after Jesus appeared to John to be baptized (Matt 3:13-17; John 1:32-34). Even then, the NT indicates that John was still not certain that Jesus was the one to come, for while the Baptist sat in prison awaiting execution, he sent his disciples to Jesus to ask him concerning this very question (Luke 7:18-23; Matt 11:2-5). Given John’s assumption that the coming one would manifest the righteous wrath of God and bring judgment down upon the enemies of God, it is not surprising that the Baptist had genuine questions about Jesus’ status given the latter’s inclination to associate with the ungodly and unclean. Nonetheless, this coming one was to be the one to complete the work which John had begun. It would be this coming one who would offer the baptism of both fire and spirit (Luke 3:16). This is probably to be understood to mean that the coming one would manifest the wrathful judgment of God on the unrepentant (fire baptism) and the new life and salvation of God on the repentant (spirit baptism).
J. Bradley Chance, “John the Baptist,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 459.
The Message of John
The message of John is that God’s Dominion or saving reign is approaching or at hand. The First Evangelist more than any other Gospel writer uses the phrase “of heaven” when speaking of this Dominion (some thirty-three times), and he alone uses the phrase among New Testament writers. He also on occasion uses the phrase “Dominion of God” (12:28; 19:24; 21:31, 43). In v. 3 we have another example of this writer making a public announcement of sorts, for only he uses the emphatic phrase “this is the one whom….” The Isaiah 40:3 text is seen as fulfilled by and in John the Baptist by all four Gospel writers. What is especially interesting about this text is that it could be divided in two ways: (1) “the voice of one crying: ‘In the wilderness make straight…’” or (2) “the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘make straight….’” Either reading is possible. It is interesting that the Qumran com- munity took the text in the first sense, and this in part explains why they located where they did by the Dead Sea. The “wilderness” in this case is not a forest but rather a barren chalk wilderness just to the east of the Dead Sea and of the Jordan.
The description of John in v. 4 is deliberately intended to remind us of Elijah (cf. 2 Kgs 1:8 to Zech 13:4), though he is not formally associated with Elijah until Matthew 11:14. John signifies a fresh outburst of eschatological prophecy. The impression left by vv. 5-6 is that John is drawing large crowds and that there is a big response to his preaching—many were coming out and being baptized in the Jordan. Verse 7 indicates that many Pharisees and Sadducees came out to hear John and see what he was up to. The fact that they are mentioned together does not mean they were acting in concert, and each group would have their own reasons to be curious about John because John threatened these groups’ authority and control over the people in some respects, especially if he was offering forgiveness outside of the Law’s requirement in regard to sacrifice for certain sins. We will find these two groups mentioned again later in Matthew (16:1-12; 21:45-46). We will say more about them later in the commentary. For now it is sufficient to remark that some common enemies and some things seen as a common threat could have united these two disparate groups on occasion.
John’s preaching is clearly not an example of currying favor with the audience as he calls the Pharisees and Sadducees the offspring of vipers (see also Matt 12:34; 23:33 where it is only the Pharisees). John speaks of an in- breaking wrath of God coming soon, and he challenges his audience to demonstrate concretely that they have repented (hence fruits of repentance). Verse 9 brings to the fore an important point—physical descent from Abraham is not going to be enough to exempt one from the wrath to come. John seems clearly to treat his fellow Jews, including Pharisees and Sadducees, as those who need to act like proselytes and go through the whole process of starting over with God by repentance and baptism, so they can be forgiven for their sins. John says outright that God can raise up new children of Abraham from the stones if need be. He is striking at the heart of the automatic ethnic privilege and provision mentality. Notice how John’s word about a barren tree being cut down and burned at v. 10 is repeated verbatim by Jesus at 7:19. The First Evangelist is not afraid to show a close connection in the preaching of John and of Jesus. Verse 11 contrasts John’s baptism with the baptism of the one who follows John, which will be a baptism of the Holy Spirit and of fire, and so presumably not a reference to a literal baptism, such as Christian baptism. It seems clear enough that John expects a human being to be his successor, for he refers to the person’s sandals and to him being stronger than John (cf. Pss. Sol. 17:37), which would be an innocuous and nonsensical remark if it was referring to God. The phrase “the Coming One” may be a messianic allusion (cf. Ps 118:26). Verse 12 indicates that a sifting and judgment is coming on Israel.
Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006), 78–80.
Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.
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