Matthew 3:7-12

THE MESSAGE OF JOHN–THE THREAT

Matt. 3:7-12

When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who put it into your minds to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit to fit repentance. Do not think that you can say to yourselves. `We have Abraham as a father.’ For I tell you that God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. The axe is already applied to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not produce good fruit is on the point of being cut down, and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water that you may repent. He who is coming after me is stronger than I. I am not fit to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing-floor; and he will gather the corn into his storehouse, but he will burn the chaff with a fire that no man can quench.”

In John’s message there is both a threat and a promise. This whole passage is full of vivid pictures.

John calls the Pharisees and the Sadducees a brood of vipers, and asks them who has suggested to them to flee from the coming wrath. There may be one of two pictures there.

John knew the desert. The desert had in places thin, short, dried-up grass, and stunted thorn bushes, brittle for want of moisture. Sometimes a desert fire would break out. When that happened the fire swept like a river of flame across the grass and the bushes, for they were as dry as tinder. And in front of the fire there would come scurrying and hurrying the snakes and the scorpions, and the living creatures who found their shelter in the grass and in the bushes. They were driven from their lairs by this river of flame, and they ran for their lives before it.

But it may be that there is another picture here. There are many little creatures in a standing field of corn–the field mice, the rats, the rabbits, the birds. But when the reaper comes they are driven from their nests and their shelters, and as the field is laid bare they have to flee for their lives.

It is in terms of these pictures that John is thinking. If the Pharisees and Sadducees are really coming for baptism, they are like the animals scurrying for life before a desert fire or in front of the sickle of the harvester.

He warns them that it will avail them nothing to plead that Abraham is their father. To the orthodox Jew that was an incredible statement. To the Jew Abraham was unique. So unique was he in his goodness and in his favour with God, that his merits sufficed not only for himself but for all his descendants also. He had built up a treasury of merit which not all the claims and needs of his descendants could exhaust. So the Jews believed that a Jew simply because he was a Jew, and not for any merits of his own, was safe in the life to come. They said, “All Israelites have a portion in the world to come.” They talked about “the delivering merits of the fathers.” They said that Abraham sat at the gates of Gehenna to turn back any Israelite who might by chance have been consigned to its terrors. They said that it was the merits of Abraham which enabled the ships to sail safely on the seas; that it was because of the merits of Abraham that the rain descended on the earth; that it was the merits of Abraham which enabled Moses to enter into heaven and to receive the Law; that it was because of the merits of Abraham that David was heard. Even for the wicked these merits sufficed.” If thy children,” they said of Abraham, “were mere dead bodies, without blood vessels or bones, thy merits would avail for them!”

It is that spirit which John is rebuking. Maybe the Jews carried it to an unparalleled distance, but there is always need of a warning that we cannot live on the spiritual capital of the past. A degenerate age cannot hope to claim salvation for the sake of an heroic past; and an evil son cannot hope to plead the merits of a saintly father.

Then, once again, John returns to his harvest picture. At the end of the season the keeper of the vineyards and the fig trees would look at his vines and his trees; and those which were fruitless and useless would be rooted out. They only cumbered the ground. Uselessness always invites disaster. The man who is useless to God and to his fellow-men is in grave peril, and is under condemnation.

THE MESSAGE OF JOHN–THE PROMISE

Matt. 3:7-12 (continued)

But after John’s threat there came the promise–which had also a threat within it. As we have said, John pointed beyond himself to the one who was to come. At the moment he was enjoying a vast reputation, and he was wielding a most powerful influence. Yet he said that he was not fit to carry the sandals of the one who was to come-and to carry sandals was the duty of a slave. John’s whole attitude was self-obliteration, not self-importance. His only importance was, as ne saw it, as a signpost pointing to the one who was to come.

He said that the one who was to come would baptize them with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

All through their history the Jews had looked for the time when the Spirit would come. Ezekiel heard God say, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you…. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and be careful to observe my ordinances” (Eze.36:26-27). “And I will put my Spirit within you and you shall live” (Eze.37:14). “And I will not hide my face any more from them; when I pour out my Spirit upon the house of Israel, says the Lord God” (Eze.39:29). “For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring” (Isa.44:3). “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh” (Jl.2:28).

What then is the gift and work of this Spirit of God? When we try to answer that question, we must remember to answer it in Hebrew terms. John was a Jew, and it was to Jews that he was speaking. He is thinking and speaking, not in terms of the Christian doctrine of the Holy Spirit, but in terms of the Jewish doctrine of the Spirit.

(i) The word for spirit is HSN7307 – ruwach, and ruwach, like GSN4151 -pneuma in Greek, means not only spirit; it also means breath. Breath is life; and therefore the promise of the Spirit is the promise of life. The Spirit of God breathes God’s life into a man. When the Spirit of God enters us, the tired, lack-lustre, weary defeatedness of life is gone, and a surge of new life enters us.

(ii) This word HSN7307 – ruwach not only means breath; it also means wind. It is the word for the storm wind, the mighty rushing wind that once Elijah heard. Wind means power. The gale of wind sweeps the ship before it and uproots the tree. The wind has an irresistible power. The Spirit of God is the Spirit of power. When the Spirit of God enters into a man, his weakness is clad with the power of God. He is enabled to do the undoable, and to face the unfaceable, and to bear the unbearable. Frustration is banished; victory arrives.

(iii) The Spirit of God is connected with the work of creation. It was the Spirit of God who moved upon the face of the waters and made the chaos into a cosmos, turned disorder into order, and made a world out of the uncreated mists. The Spirit of God can re-create us. When the Spirit of God enters into a man the disorder of human nature becomes the order of God; our dishevelled, disorderly, uncontrolled lives are moulded by the Spirit into the harmony of God.

(iv) To the Spirit the Jews assigned special functions. The Spirit brought God’s truth to men. Every new discovery in every realm of thought is the gift of the Spirit. The Spirit enters into a man’s mind and turns his human guesses into divine certainty, and changes his human ignorance into divine knowledge.

(v) The Spirit enables men to recognize God’s truth when they see It. When the Spirit enters our hearts, our eyes are opened. The prejudices which blinded us are taken away. The self-will which darkened us is removed. The spirit enables a man to see.

Such are the gifts of the Spirit, and, as John saw it, such were the gifts the one who was to come would bring.

THE MESSAGE OF JOHN–THE PROMISE AND THE THREAT

Matt. 3:7-12 (continued)

There is a word and a picture in John’s message which combine both promise and threat.

John says that the baptism of the one who is to come will be with fire. In the thought of a baptism with fire there are three ideas.

(i) There is the idea of illumination. The blaze of a flame sends a light through the night and illuminates the darkest corners. The flame of the beacon guides the sailor to the harbour and the traveller to his goal. In fire there is light and guidance. Jesus is the beacon light to lead men into truth and to guide them home to God.

(ii) There is the idea of warmth. A great and a kindly man was described as one who lit fires in cold rooms. When Jesus comes into a man’s life, he kindles his heart with the warmth of love towards God and towards his fellow men. Christianity is always the religion of the kindled heart.

(iii) There is the idea of purification. In this sense purification involves destruction; for the purifying flame burns away the false and leaves the true. The flame tempers and strengthens and purifies the metal. When Christ comes into a man’s heart, the evil dross is purged away. Sometimes that has to happen through painful experiences, but, if a man throughout all the experiences of life believes that God is working together all things for good, he will emerge from them with a character which is cleansed and purified, until, being pure in heart, he can see God.

So, then, the word fire has in it the illumination, the warmth and the purification of the entry of Jesus Christ into the heart of a man.

But there is also a picture which has in it a promise and a threat–the picture of the threshing floor. The fan was the great wooden winnowing shovel. With it the grain was lifted from the threshing floor and tossed into the air. When that was done the heavy grain fell to the ground, but the light chaff was blown away by the wind. The grain was then collected and stored in the barns, while any chaff which remained was used as fuel for the fire.

The coming of Christ necessarily involves a separation. Men either accept him or reject him. When they are confronted with him, they are confronted with a choice which cannot be avoided. They are either for or against. And it is precisely that choice which settles destiny. Men are separated by their reaction to Jesus Christ.

In Christianity there is no escape from the eternal choice. On the village green in Bedford, John Bunyan heard the voice which drew him up all of a sudden and left him looking at eternity: “Wilt thou leave thy sins and go to heaven, or wilt thou have thy sins and go to hell?” In the last analysis that is the choice which no man can evade.

THE MESSAGE OF JOHN–THE DEMAND

Matt. 3:7-12 (continued)

In all John’s preaching there was one basic demand–and that basic demand was: “Repent!” (Matt. 3:2). That was also the basic demand of Jesus himself, for Jesus came saying, “Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mk.1:15). We will do well to seek to understand what this repentance is, and what this basic demand of the King and his herald means.

It is to be noted that both Jesus and John use the word repent without any explanation of its meaning. They use it as a word which they were sure their hearers would know and understand.

Let us then look at the Jewish teaching about repentance.

To the Jew repentance was central to all religious faith and to all relationship with God. G. F. Moore writes, “Repentance is the sole, but inexorable, condition of God’s forgiveness and the restoration of his favour, and the divine forgiveness and favour are never refused to genuine repentance.” He writes, “That God fully and freely remits the sins of the penitent is a cardinal doctrine of Judaism.” The Rabbis said, “Great is repentance for it brings healing upon the world. Great is repentance for it reaches to the throne of glory.” C. G. Montefiore wrote, “Repentance is the great mediatorial bond between God and man.”

The Law was created two thousand years before creation, but, the Rabbis taught, repentance was one of the things created even before the Law; the six things are repentance, paradise, hell, the glorious throne of God, the celestial temple, and the name of the Messiah. “A man” they said, “can shoot an arrow for a few furlongs, but repentance reaches even to the throne of God.”

There is a famous rabbinic passage which sets repentance in the first of all places: “Who is like God a teacher of sinners that they may repent?” They asked Wisdom, “What shall be the punishment of the sinner?” Wisdom answered: “Misfortune pursues sinners” (Prov.13:21). They asked Prophecy. It replied: “The soul that sins shall die” (Eze.18:4). They asked the Law. It replied: “Let him bring a sacrifice” (Lev.1:4), they asked God, and he replied: “Let him repent and obtain his atonement. My children, what do I ask of you? Seek me and live.” So, then, to the Jew the one gateway back to God is the gateway of repentance.

The Jewish word commonly used for repentance is itself interesting. It is the word teshubah (HSN8666) which is the noun for the verb shuwb (HSN7725) which means to turn. Repentance is a turning away from evil and a turning towards God. G. F. Moore writes, “The transparent primary meaning of repentance in Judaism is always a change in man’s attitude towards God, and in the conduct of life, a religious and moral reformation of the people or the individual.” C. G. Montefiore writes, “To the Rabbis the essence of repentance lay in such a thorough change of mind that it issues in a change of life and a change of conduct.” Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish scholar, defines repentance thus: “What is repentance? Repentance is that the sinner forsakes his sin and puts it away out of his thoughts and fully resolves in his mind that he will not do it again; as it is written, `Let the wicked forsake his way, and the bad man his plans.'”

  1. F. Moore very interestingly and very truly points out that, with the single exception of the two words in brackets, the Westminster Confession definition of repentance would be entirely acceptable to a Jew: “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God (in Christ), doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of and endeavour after, new obedience.” Again and again the Bible speaks of this turning away from sin, and this turning towards God. Ezekiel had it: “As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel” (Eze.33:11). Jeremiah had it: “Bring me back that I may be restored, for thou art the Lord my God” (Jer.31:18). Hosea had it: “Return, O Israel, to the Lord thy God…. Take with you words and return to the Lord” (Hos.14:1-2).

From all this it is quite clear that in Judaism repentance has in it an ethical demand. It is a turn from evil to God, with a corresponding change in action. John was fully within the tradition of his people when he demanded that his hearers should bring forth fruit meet for repentance. There is a beautiful synagogue prayer which runs, “Cause us to return, O Father, unto thy law; draw us near, O King, unto thy service; bring us back in perfect repentance unto thy presence. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who delightest in repentance.” But that repentance had to be shown in a real change of life.

A Rabbi, commenting on Jnh.3:10, wrote, “My brethren, it is not said of the Ninevites that God saw their sackcloth and their fasting, but that God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way.” The Rabbis said, “Be not like fools, who, when they sin, bring a sacrifice but do not repent. If a man says, `I will sin and repent, I will sin and repent,’ he is not allowed to repent.” Five unforgivable sinners are listed, and the list includes “Those who sin in order to repent, and those who repent much and always sin afresh.” They said: “If a man has an unclean thing in his hands, he may wash them in all the seas of the world, and he will never be clean; but if he throws the unclean thing away, a little water will suffice.” The Jewish teachers spoke of what they called “the nine norms of repentance,” the nine necessities of real repentance. They found them in the series of commandments in Isa.1:16: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes, cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.” The son of Sirach writes in Ecclesiasticus: “Say not, I sinned, and what happened to me? For the Lord is long-suffering. Do not become rashly confident about expiation, and go on adding sin to sins; and do not say, his compassion is great, he will forgive the multitude of my sins; for mercy and wrath are with him, and upon sinners his anger will rest. Delay not to turn to the Lord, and do not put it off from day to day” (Sir.5:4-7). He writes again, “A man who bathes to purify himself from contact with a dead body and touches it again, what profit was there in his bath? So a man who fasts for his sins and goes again and does the same things–who will listen to his prayer, and what profit was there in his afflicting himself.” (Sir.34:25-26).

The Jew held that true repentance issues, not merely in a sentimental sorrow, but in a real change in life–and so does the Christian. The Jew had a holy horror of seeking to trade on the mercy of God–and so has the Christian. The Jew held that true repentance brings forth fruits which demonstrate the reality of the repentance–and so does the Christian.

But the Jews had still more things to say about repentance and we must go on to look at them.

THE MESSAGE OF JOHN–THE DEMAND

Matt. 3:7-12 (continued)

There is an almost terrifying note in the ethical demand of the Jewish idea of repentance, but there are other comforting things.

Repentance is always available. “Repentance.” they said, “is like the sea–a man can bathe in it at any hour.” There may be times when even the gates of prayer are shut; but the gates of repentance are never closed.

Repentance is completely essential. There is a story of a kind of argument that Abraham had with God. Abraham said to God, “Thou canst not lay hold of the cord at both ends at once. If Thou desirest strict justice the world cannot endure. If Thou desirest the preservation of the world. strict justice cannot endure.” The world cannot continue to exist without the mercy of God, and the gateway of repentance. If there was nothing but the justice of God, it would be the end of all men and of all things. So essential is repentance that in order to make it possible God cancels his own demands: “Beloved is repentance before God, for he cancels his own words for its sake.” The threat of the destruction of the sinner is cancelled by the acceptance of repentance for the sinner’s sins.

Repentance lasts as long as life. So long as life remains, there remains the possibility of repentance. “God’s hand is stretched out under the wings of the heavenly chariot to snatch the penitent from the grasp of justice.” Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai said, “If a man has been completely righteous all his days, and rebels at the end, he destroys it all, for it is said, `The righteousness of the righteous shall not deliver him when he transgresses’ (Eze.33:12); if a man has been completely wicked all his days, and repents at the end, God receives him, for it is said, `And as for the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not fall by it when he turns from his wickedness'” (Eze.33:12). “Many,” they said, “can go into the world to come only after years and years; while another gains it in an hour.” As the poet said of the man who gained the mercy of God in the instant of death:

Between the saddle and the ground, I mercy sought, and mercy found.”

Such is the mercy of God that he will receive even secret repentance. Rabbi Eleazar said, “It is the way of the world, when a man has insulted his fellow in public, and after a time seeks to be reconciled to him, that the other says, `You insult me publicly, and now you would be reconciled to me between us two alone! Go bring the men in whose presence you insulted me, and I will be reconciled to you.’ But God is not so. A man may stand and rail and blaspheme in the market place, and the Holy One says, `Repent between us two alone, and I will receive you.'” God’s mercy is open to the man who is so ashamed that he can tell his shame to no one except God.

There is no forgetfulness in God, because he is God, but such is the mercy of God that he not only forgives, but, incredible as it may sound, he even forgets the sin of the penitent: “Who is a God like thee pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance?”” (Mic.7:18). “Thou didst forgive the iniquity of thy people; thou didst pardon all their sin” (Ps.85:2).

Loveliest of all, God comes halfway and more to meet the penitent: “Return so far as you can, and I will come to you the rest of the way.” The Rabbis at their highest had a glimpse of the Father who in his love ran to meet the prodigal son.

Yet, even remembering all this mercy, it remains the case that in true repentance reparation is necessary in so far as it can be made. The Rabbis said, “Injury must be repaired, and pardon sought and forgiven. The true penitent is he who has the opportunity to do the same sin again, in the same circumstances, and who does not do it.” The Rabbis stressed again and again the importance of human relationships, and of setting them right.

There is one curious rabbinic passage. A tsaddiyq (HSN6662) is a righteous man.) “He who is good towards heaven and towards his fellow men is a good tsaddiyq. He who is good towards heaven and not towards his fellow men, is a bad tsaddiyq (HSN6662). He who is wicked against heaven and wicked against his fellow men, is a bad sinner. He who is wicked against heaven, but not wicked against his fellow men is not a bad sinner.”

It is because reparation is so necessary that he who teaches others to sin is the worst of sinners; for he cannot make reparation because he can never tell how far his sin has gone out and how many it has gone on to influence.

Not only is reparation necessary for true repentance; confession is equally necessary. Again and again we find that demand within the Bible itself.” When a man or woman commits any of the sins that men commit … he shall confess his sin which he has committed” (Num.5:6-7). “He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper; but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy” (Prov.28:13). “I acknowledged my sin to thee, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, `I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’; then thou didst forgive the guilt of my sin” (Ps.32:5). It is the man who says that he is innocent and who refuses to admit that he has sinned who is condemned (Jer.2:35). Maimonides gives the formula which a man may use to confess his sin: “O God, I have sinned, I have done iniquity, I have transgressed before thee, and have done thus and so. I am sorry and ashamed for my deed, and I will never do it again.” True repentance necessitates the humility to admit and to confess our sin.

No case is hopeless for repentance, and no man is beyond repentance. The Rabbis said, “Let not a man say, `Because I have sinned, no repair is possible for me,’ but let him trust in God and repent, and God will receive him.” The classical example of a seemingly impossible reformation was the case of Manasseh. He worshipped the Baals, he brought strange gods into Jerusalem; he even sacrificed children to Moloch in the valley of Hinnom. Then he was taken away captive to Assyria, and there in fetters he lay upon the thorns. Then he prayed to God in his distress, and God heard his supplication and brought him again to Jerusalem. “Then Manasseh knew that the Lord was God” (2Chr.33:13). Sometimes it takes God’s threat and God’s discipline to do it, but none is beyond the power of God to bring him home.

There is one last Jewish belief about repentance, and it is a belief which must have been in John’s mind. Certain, at least, of the Jewish teachers taught that if Israel could repent perfectly for even one day the Messiah would come. It was only the hardness of the hearts of men which delayed the sending of God’s Redeemer into the world.

Repentance was the very centre of the Jewish faith as it is the very centre of the Christian faith, for repentance is the turning away from sin and the turning towards God, and towards the life that God means us to live.

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