Thoughts on Matthew 3:1-12
The first thing to note is that John is the cousin of Jesus. While there are no verses that describe any pre-baptism encounters between them, it seems unlikely to me, given the prominence of family in that culture, that the two didn’t meet at some prior time. Who knows, maybe John and Jesus were hanging out together on the famous trip to Jerusalem when they were 12 years old. Luke 1:80 says of John, “And the child grew and became strong in the spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.” At what age John left home for the wilderness is not clear, but it seems it was before he was considered a man. Maybe both his parents died when he was young. After all, they were both well advanced in years when he was born.
Regardless of the time in between Luke 1:80 and Matthew 3:1, we know that John lived a strange life and began preaching in the wilderness at some point. There’s not a definite timeline given, nor is there any indication of how or why people started listening to John. Whatever the catalyst, people began seeking to hear and be baptized by this peculiar man. In Matthew 11, Jesus states John was not only a prophet, but the fulfillment of prophecy (Isaiah 40:3). And even thought he would deny it (John 1:21), Jesus contradicted him and stated that he was in fact the “Elijah” who was to come (Mark 9:11-13).
Even though John spent most of his life in the wilderness, he still knew enough to know the Pharisees and Sadducees were religious hypocrites. He called them out in front of everybody for their hypocrisy and referred to them as snakes. He even posed a counterargument to their favorite copout argument before they even rebut. He said, “And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’” He hit them hard and didn’t let up. He then proceeded to inform them that judgment had already begun and that bearing fruit in keeping with repentance was necessary to keep them from being chopped up and cast into the fire. John hit them right where it hurt – their pride. They were self-righteous, overly-religious people who didn’t think they needed to repent of anything. They were Jews and thus looked to their standing as children of Abraham to save them even if their good works were inadequate. They were good to go in their eyes. John said otherwise.
John begins to discuss Jesus in verse 11, and described him as one is far superior and who would baptize people with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Many Christians believe, and many pastors and teachers state that this verse relates to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost when tongues of fire appeared on the disciples. However, within its context, the baptism of fire relates to judgment, not the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The baptism of the Holy Spirit and the baptism of fire are antonyms. It’s one or the other, and we all know which one we want and which one John was implying the Pharisees and Sadducees would likely receive. John reveals Jesus as both Savior and final Judge. This picture of Jesus should cause us to fear Him and love Him. It contradicts any notion that He is only a loving, gentle Savior who would not hurt anyone. John’s metaphor of the winnowing fork is a very active and deliberate metaphor. Jesus is depicted as having the winnowing fork in His hand and ready to separate the wheat from the tares. This conceptualization of Him is echoed and supported by Jesus Himself throughout His ministry. The bottom line is that Jesus came to give the gift of the Holy Spirit to the repentant, and separate and save them, while simultaneously judging the wicked and condemning them to eternal punishment with fire. This is also a clear allusion to Hell and is a proof text against those who deny the existence of eternal, conscious punishment for those who reject Jesus Christ as Savior.