John the Baptist and the judgement of Jesus in Matt 3

The lectionary gospel reading for Advent 2 in Year 1 is Matt 3.1–12, and it contains many foundational themes of eschatology, the coming of God, and judgement, which set us up nicely for thinking about Advent not as the build-up to Christmas, but (as it should be) thinking about the Last Things.

This is one of those passages where it is particularly informative to compare the gospel accounts side by side; you can do this with a printed text like Throckmorton’s Gospel Parallels, or online using something like this site from the University of Toronto. The online version is convenient, but the print edition highlights differences more clearly in its layout.

We can see immediately the different interests of the gospel writers. Luke locates the beginning of John’s ministry in the larger world of the Roman empire, whilst the Fourth Gospel doesn’t explain either John’s ministry or Jesus’ baptism, but assumes you already know about it from reading the other gospels. There is an interesting contrast between Matthew and Mark’s ordering of elements (which I am not sure commentaries pick up) which is striking since, in other respects, Matthew follows Mark quite closely. Mark introduces John the Baptiser in this order:

OT prophecy—John’s preaching (and baptism)—the people’s response—John’s appearance

but Matthew introduces the elements in this order:

John’s preaching—OT prophecy—John’s appearance—the people’s response (and baptism)

It is characteristic of Matthew to describes something, and then explain how this fulfils OT prophecy, as we have seen (or will see) in the nativity account. He appears to want to emphasise John’s appearance up front, which (of course) identifies him with Elijah.

Matthew’s opening phrase ‘In those days…’ is very general, and follows the pattern of Mark’s ‘In those days…’ with reference to Jesus in Mark 1.9. It sits rather oddly in Matthew’s account, since he has already been talking about the events around Jesus’ birth, and these events are now decades later. (We only know from Luke that John and Jesus are about the same age.)

Although Matthew introduces John as ‘the baptiser’, his emphasis is constantly on his preaching. He appears ‘in the wilderness’, which is not just a physical location, but one pregnant with theological significance, both for the people as a whole and for John himself. The wilderness was the scene of the Exodus wanderings, a period of testing and refinement as well as a period of the presence of God with his people. But it is also the place of new beginnings when the people have strayed from God, a place where God will once more woo and win his people (Jer 2.2–3, Hos 2.14–15, Ezek 20.35–38). And it is the place through which God will call his people home from exile in Is 40.3, which Matthew then cites. For John, the wilderness is also the home of Elijah, whose clothing he also wears (see 1 Kings 17.3–7 and 2 Kings 1.8). Locusts were a common and practical food source, and are still eaten in the region—but they also signify the diet of someone who eats what God has provided, rather than food he has worked for, echoing the promise of God that the land will be ‘flowing with milk and honey’, things that you gather rather than work for (in contrast to the sowing and harvesting of grain).

Matthew consistently records Jesus and others talking about the ‘kingdom of the heavens’ rather than the ‘kingdom of God’ as found in Mark and Luke. It has been argued that this is Matthew’s Jewish tendency to avoid using the name of God—but he does use the phrase ‘kingdom of God’ on occasion (as in Matt 12.28, 19.24), and elsewhere does not avoid ‘God’. So it is perhaps merely stylistic, though it does emphasis the divine origin of all that will happen, in contrast with other more political expectations of the Davidic messiah.

The nature of the ‘kingdom of God/heaven’ has been debated at great length in scholarship in the past, though there is less debate about it currently. The consensus is that, rather than referring to a territory or an object, it is really referring to the dynamic nature of the reign of God, based on the OT idea of God as king of both his people and the whole earth. It is central to the teaching and ministry of Jesus in the Synoptic gospels, and the hope for the kingdom of God (almost never abbreviated simply to ‘the kingdom’ in the gospels) has become central to Christian prayer.

Matthew’s summary of John’s (and Jesus’) declaration ‘The kingdom of heaven has arrived’ might thus be paraphrased as ‘God’s promised reign is beginning’ or ‘God is now taking control’. (R T France, NICNT, p 102)

This is at every point connected to the fulfilment of hope from the OT, but it cannot be detached from the language of apocalyptic eschatology. The reason that God’s reign needs to come is because all is not right with the world as it is, and because it is dominated by other kingdoms which oppose God’s own will and rule.

The Lord will become king over all the earth; no that day the Lord will be one and his name one (Zech 14.9)

Jewish longing for this coming kingdom is expressed in the closing words of the Kaddish prayer from the time of Jesus:

May God let his kingship rule in your lifetime and in your days and in the whole lifetime of the house of Israel, speedily and soon.

What is remarkable here is John’s claim that the reign of God is coming in the ministry of the One who follows him, that is, in the person and the ministry of Jesus. This extraordinary Christological claim is reinforced by Matthew’s citation from Is 40.3. There, the messenger is preparing the way for God himself—yet John is preparing the way for Jesus, who is now to be addressed as ‘Lord’ in the way that Isaiah calls God ‘Lord’. In the coming of Jesus we see the coming of God to his people Israel.

John’s ministry is taking place on the east bank of the Jordan, north of the Dead Sea (see John 1.28), and only 20 miles from Jerusalem, so it is easy for the crowds to come to him. Josephus tells us that the crowds were so great that Herod Antipas, rule of Galilee and Perea, thought there was a real risk of an uprising (Ant 18.118). Where Luke notes that John rebukes the ‘multitudes’ who come to him, Matthew, with his Jewish focus, identifies those rebuked as ‘Sadducees and Pharisees’, two quite distinct groups who, between them, represent the establishment powers in Jerusalem.

Two questions are raised by John’s preaching and anticipation of Jesus’ ministry.

The first is whether John is the last in the line of OT prophets, and Jesus is by contrast the beginning of the new thing God is doing—or whether John’s and Jesus’ ministry have more in common with one another. It is common in Christian reading of the gospels to assume the former, but Matthew is keen to hold the two together, not least in attributing to John exactly same summary message as he will soon attribute to Jesus in his declaration of the arrival of the kingdom of heaven.

In fact, John and Jesus’ ministry have many things in common.

  • The language of ‘brood of vipers’ in Matt 12.34 and 23.33
  • The call to repentance in Matt 11.20–21, 12.41
  • The importance of producing fruit in Matt 7.16–20 and elsewhere
  • The debate about the children of Abraham in Matt 8.11–12
  • The fruitless tree being cut down and burned in Matt 7.19
  • Judgement by fire in Matt 5.22, 13.40–42, 50, 18.8–9 and 25.41
  • The grain being gathered in Matt 13.30

Jesus in Matthew sounds very much like John the Baptist! The image of the grain harvest is also found in Rev 14.14–16, gathered by ‘one like a son of man’.

The second question is whether John is right in associating Jesus’ ministry with judgement. John’s anticipation of Jesus’ ministry:

“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with (or ‘in’) the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Matt 3.11–12)

There are several significant images of eschatological judgement here. First, the promise of the Holy Spirit being poured out (‘baptism’ means being immersed in or overwhelmed by) is connect with ‘the last days’ in Joel 2.28. Although we might naturally associate ‘fire’ with the tongues of flame at Pentecost in Acts 2, but in fact it is an image of judgement, as the phrase ‘unquenchable fire’ makes clear. (Two interesting things to note here. First, the Greek term for ‘unquenchable’ is asbestos from which we get, well, asbestos! Second, fire is primarily an image of destruction, not torment.) John seems to expect Jesus to be one who will bring the judgement of God to his people and to the wider world.

In Luke’s gospel, there is a sense that judgment is postponed until the end of Jesus’ ministry, with an intervening period of grace creating an opportunity to respond. Matthew is less reluctant to record the language of judgement in the teaching of Jesus, and this is particularly noticeable in Jesus’ six-fold use of the phrase ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ in Matt 8.12, 13.42, 13.50, 22.13, 24.51 and 25.30.

The coming of the kingdom of heaven means the coming of the longed-for presence of God with his people. But that will also mean a challenge to the reigning powers of this world, and the personal challenge to us: to whom do you owe your allegiance? Will you respond to the urge call to welcome what God is now doing, and change your ways and your priorities? And this challenge comes most sharply in the ministry of Jesus himself, who will one day return as judge and king over all the earth.

John is right about judgement and Jesus, with two important qualifications. The first is that this judgement is postponed—in the case of Israel until the destruction of the temple in 70AD, and in case of all humanity until the return of Jesus as judge at the end of the age. And the second qualification is that the basis of judgement shifts; for John it is avoided by repentance, baptism and the fruit of that change in tangible change of life. In Jesus’ teaching this is taken up into the question of decision about following him: judgement is no longer on the basis of being part of the ethnic Jewish people of God; nor on the basis of whether we change and begin to obey God’s just commandments; but it is now on the basis of being incorporated into the renewed people of God by accepting Jesus as Lord, and living a new life of holiness empowered by the Spirit. And all this is possible only because of Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection for us.

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11 thoughts on “John the Baptist and the judgement of Jesus in Matt 3”

  1. Yes, fire is an image of judgement, though not necessarily a metaphor for judgement. Several of the passages quoted indicate that the fire will be fire in the literal, physical sense. As Peter says, the earth and its works will be burned up.

    The ‘threshing floor’ in Matt 3:12 is the earth. ‘Clear’ is not a good translation. The Greek verb (diakatharizw) means ‘purge’, not ’empty’ – i.e. purge by fire.

    • Hi Steven,

      You speak of “fire in the literal, physical sense.” Are you sure you mean that? Fire is a strongly exothermic chemical reaction, typically with oxygen as the reagent. It is just not possible to burn up in this sense the planet Earth. Much of the surface layers of the Earth (the mantle and crust) are already oxidised: bauxite is aluminium oxide, which takes a lot of energy to split to extract the metal. Other rocks are made of iron oxides and silicon oxides, for example.

      What about the kind of nuclear reactions which power the sun (or atom bombs)? There are two kinds: fusion and fission. The former is the source of energy which powers the sun and H-bombs. Light elements combine to form heavier elements, with the release of energy. Fission is the break up of heavy elements (e.g. Uranium 235) into lighter elements, with the release of energy. These two meet in the middle with the most stable elements. The end point of much of this process is iron. The Earth is made mostly of iron.

      However, assuming that you are referring to 2 Peter 3:10, note the variation in English translatations, and that “the earth and its works that are therein shall be burned up” (KJV) is based on a variant reading which is not preferred. The new Tyndale NT text, which is based almost entirely on documentary evidence of actual NT text (and not, for example, quotations in the fathers) from the 5th century and earlier goes with
      καὶ γῆ καὶ τὰ ἐν αὐτῇ ἔργα εὑρεθήσεται.
      The verb at the end – 3rd person singular future passive of a verb meaning to find/meet – seems to suggest in the context the exposure of the “earth and its works” to exposure and judgement, rather than destruction.

      • As it happens, I know something of what the Earth is made of, having a PhD in geology.

        So I repeat the observation: several of the passages cited indicate that the fire is meant in the literal, physical sense. What I would therefore be interested in, from readers, is firstly some acknowledgement of this and secondly suggestions as to how these scriptures might be understood in the light of – yes – what we know about the physical world today.

        An important clue is that ‘the earth’ in biblical Greek and Hebrew can mean (a) the planet, (b) the people on the planet, (c) the dry land as opposed to the sea, (d) a territory (as in ‘the land of Israel’) and (e) the surface of the land. Only context can determine which sense is operative.

        I cited II Peter 3:10 only because it nicely summarises what is described in Revelation chs 8 and 16-18 in some detail.

        I was aware of the alternative reading for the last word in that verse. Indeed, both the ESV and NIV footnote what I consider the correct reading, katakaesetai, as per the Textus Receptus (followed by some other translations). Your ‘heurethesetai’ means ‘will be found’. Some conjecture that ‘not’ has dropped out of the text and that the sense is as in Rev 16:20, 18:21 and 20:11. Without the putative ‘not’ (which is unattested so far as I am aware, though I might be wrong), ‘will be found’ hardly makes sense. It almost begs for a ‘not’, but ‘not’ is not in the manuscripts (at least not the ones considered best). Heurethesetai certainly does not mean ‘will be exposed’; had that been his meaning, Peter might/would have used the verb apokaluptw (as in Matt 10:26). Rather, he wanted us to understand that just as the first world was destroyed by (literal, physical) water, so the present world would be destroyed by (literal, physical) fire (II Peter 3:7).

        In short, the translation ‘will be exposed’ is as flaky as the choice of text.

        The verse illustrates the very precarious nature of modern scholarship when it comes to manuscript variations. Scholars have been aware of ‘heurethesetai’ for centuries. Only recently has the variant come into favour. In the 1950s to 1970s, when the RSV and NIV came out, previously ill-regarded variants of this sort were very much in vogue and those translations adopted them in the belief that they represented the very best in modern textual scholarship. Fortunately, the ESV and later versions of the NIV retreated from this uncritical stance. However, in the case of II Peter 3:10, the RSV stuck with katakaesetai and the ESV went for heurethesetai – I don’t know why the anomaly.

        By the way, could you do me the favour of explaining how you manage to format comments for italics, Greek alphabet etc?!

        • ‘heurethesetai’ is the word used in the oldest manuscripts, and I see no good reason for accepting a later manuscript copy as more reliable as to the original wording.

          So the correct translation is ‘the earth and its (ie people’s) works will be found'(no need for a ‘not’) after God has judged the demonic powers, and metaphorically peels back the heavens to find the earth, ready to be judged.

          The literal destruction of the earth also doesnt make sense when Peter uses the analogy of Noah’s flood. Although he talks of the earth at that time being destroyed, he clearly doesnt mean literally destroyed because the earth is still here, rather he means judgement has fallen, people were judged, and evil was purged. Evil people were killed, but the earth itself was not destroyed. So the analogy actually shows that the earth will continue, albeit renewed.

          Having a science background myself, I too have tended to understand the NT apocalyptic writings rather literalistically, but I have come to realise that is not correct. If you are interested, Id recommend such books as J Richard Middleton’s “a new heaven and a new earth” for further reading.


          • It does not follow that the ‘oldest’ manuscripts are necessarily the most accurate. There is not a single textual genealogy such that errors are propagated through all manuscripts from the time that they occur. Hence it is fallacious to infer that the older reading is necessarily the original one.

            I gave you reasons why you should reject ‘heurethesetai’ – you have just chosen to ignore them, with a magisterial “I see no good reason”.

            Likewise, when you write “Although he talks of the earth at that time being destroyed, he clearly doesnt mean literally destroyed because the earth is still here”, you have just ignored what I have already set out, that ‘earth’ has multiple possible meanings. In Gen 9:11 the word means the land distinct from the sea, as defined in Gen 1:10, not the whole planet. The originally created dry land was destroyed then (end of the Hadean in geological terms). None of it survives to the present day, hence all terrestrial crust on the present Earth (planet) is younger.

            Your line of reasoning, “he clearly doesnt mean literally,” is depressingly familiar, and goes all the way back to Genesis 2. I wonder what meaning you have left when God says to Noah, “Never again shall there be a cataclysm to destroy the earth,” and you strip the words of their literal meaning.

            I have read parts of Middleton’s book.

    • Hi Alex,
      (I note that Matthew 11:20-24 does not refer to ‘gehenna’ but ‘hades’ – the place where you go when you die, which the LXX uses to translate ‘Sheol’.)

      Some see a strong relationship between ‘gehenna’ and the destruction of Jerusalem, because of the references in OT prophecy in relation to the judgement of Jerusalem in 587BC.
      I”m not sure I can do better to outline the position than Andrew Perriman does here:

      Note the reference to Josephus who reported that the bodies of those who died in the seige in AD70 where tipped over the wall. I have read that what a Jew wanted was to live a long life, to die peacefully and to have their body buried respectfully. To die young, in a seige and have your body unceremonially over the wall and into the valley outside the city represents a significant judgement.

  2. A note from my own sermon (to repay the debt to Ian for my use of this article)

    “Now here’s something funny: the description of John.

    “John’s clothes were woven from coarse camel hair, and he wore a leather belt around his waist. For food he ate locusts and wild honey.”

    Two simple facts about John: how he dressed and what he ate.

    Here’s three more examples of that:

    “Joanne wore a tracksuit when she wasn’t in her pyjamas. She ate a lot of takeaways and fast food.”

    “Jack wore a tweed jacket with brogues. He was a vegetarian.”

    “Jane worse a no-nonsense business suit and sensible shoes. She liked good restaurants and fine wine.”

    Can you picture them? Can you guess what kind of people they are just from a description of their clothes and food?

    In modern language: “John had and a worn old biker’s leather jacket and ate whatever he could find or forage.”

    So what kind of person is John?”

  3. “the Greek term for ‘unquenchable’ is asbestos from which we get, well, asbestos!”

    Surely asbestos is that which does not burn, not that which burns forever? Unless the image is of something that stays in the flames unconsumed, like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego?

    • The word “asbestos”, first used in the 1600s, ultimately derives from the Ancient Greek ἄσβεστος, meaning “unquenchable” or “inextinguishable”.[7][8][9] The name reflects use of the substance for wicks that would never burn up.[7]

      It was adopted via the Old French abestos, which in turn got the word from Greek via Latin, but in the original Greek, it actually referred to quicklime. It is said by the Oxford English Dictionary to have been wrongly used by Pliny for asbestos, who popularized the misnomer. Asbestos was referred to in Greek as amiantos, meaning “undefiled”, because it was not marked when thrown into a fire. This is the source for the word for asbestos in many languages, such as the Portuguese amianto. It had also been called “amiant” in English in the early 15th century, but this usage was superseded by “asbestos”.[10] The word is pronounced /æsˈbɛstəs/ or /æsˈbɛstɒs/.[11]


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