The Herald of the King (Exposition of Matthew 3:1-12)

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Can you imagine complete silence? It’s hard to in our culture today in which televisions, radios, etc. are constantly blaring. But in this morning’s text a silence of 400 years is broken. Don’t misunderstand me, not everyone was silent during this period. Women were talking, and so were men. Boys and girls were talking. But there was no prophet speaking the Word of the LORD. No one was truthfully saying, “Thus says the LORD. . .”

In reality two silences are broken in this morning’s text. For one, the 400 year period without a Word from God and for another, a gap of approximately 30 years in the life of Jesus. Matthew skips directly from his birth and infancy narrative to an event that occurs approximately 30 years later: the ministry of John the Baptist. Both of these silences are broken by the sound of a voice.

The voice which breaks the silence is the voice of John the Baptist, who may rightly be called the last of the Old Testament Prophets. He is functioning as a Herald by announcing the coming of the King. In the ancient world, a herald was one who went ahead of a king’s chariot to prepare the road. He would command a crew which would smooth out the usually rough roads of that day by filling potholes and removing boulders. The herald would also go before the king shouting, “Make way, the King is coming!” One commentator noted that such “efforts to make a road level and smooth were restricted to times when royalty was on its way” (Robert Mounce, Matthew NIBC, 23). This was the function of John the Baptist.

In this morning’s text, we will see something of the man, his method, and his message.

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” 3 For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the LORD; Make His paths straight.’ ” 4 And John himself was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him 6 and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins. 7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 “Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, 9 “and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. 10 “And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 “His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Matthew 3:1-12

I. John the Baptist: The Man, vv. 1-6.
Who is this man who appears in the middle of nowhere preaching and baptizing and gathers such large crowds? In Luke 1 we read of his unusual birth and more details are given about his ministry. Matthew only announces his appearance as an adult of approximately 30 years old. However, Matthew does provide a few clues about who exactly this mysterious and eccentric individual is. First, he is identified by a prophecy.

Matthew declares that John is the one who is prophesied of in Isaiah 40:3:

The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the LORD; Make His paths straight.’

Here we see John fulfilling his role as a herald for King Jesus. His voice is crying out announcing the coming of the King. And he is calling for the roads to be prepared for the King’s coming. But the roads which John has in mind are not literal roads, but the hearts of men. This is his call for repentance which we’ll examine later. For now, we see the identity of John the Baptist as the promised messenger who would prepare the way for the Messiah.

Second, John is identified by his attire. Notice the unusual clothing which John is described as wearing: “camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist” (verse 4). Was John unsuccessfully trying to start a new fad? Was this merely a fashion statement? No, but his clothes did make a statement. They identified John as the Elijah who the Old Testament anticipates would come before “the great and dreadful day of the LORD” (Malachi 4:5). In 2 Kings 1:8 Elijah is identified by his hairy appearance and leather belt. The prophecy of the coming of Elijah as a sign of the end times in Malachi 4 had created an urgent anticipation for the appearance of Elijah. Now, finally, after 400 years without a prophet, there appears in the wilderness of Judea one who looks and sounds like the prophet Elijah! No wonder the crowds went to him in droves! It was not mere curiosity that motivated the crowds, but Messianic expectancy!

Third, John is identified by his location. There is significance in the fact that John is “in the wilderness.” This would bring to mind the words of Hosea 2:14ff of a day of restoration that will come when Israel is allured to the wilderness where God will “speak comfort to her.”
So with the appearance of John the Baptist, Isaiah’s prophecy of a forerunner to the Messiah, Malachi’s prophecy of the coming of Elijah and Hosea’s prophecy of a coming restoration for the nation of Israel are being fulfilled.

II. John the Baptist: The Method, vv. 1-2, 6.
Two aspects of John’s ministry were his preaching and his baptizing. First, let me say a word about John’s preaching. More attention will be given in just a moment to the content of his message, but for now let me merely address the term translated “preaching” in verse 1. It is the word kerusson and means “to proclaim as a herald.” Again by choosing this word to describe the preaching of John, Matthew is emphasizing John’s role as a herald for the King. As a herald, one’s authority comes from the content of the message and not from the messenger himself. He was not composing his own messages, but simply declaring the message of the King. This continues to be the role of Christian preachers. Namely, to declare the Word of God and not one’s own opinion. The best preaching, in fact the only preaching, is that which faithfully explains what God has already spoken.

In John’s example we can also see the primacy of preaching. Throughout the history of the church, preaching has been the primary way of communicating God’s truth to God’s people. In Matthew, John came preaching, Jesus came preaching, the disciples were sent preaching. In the book of Acts, Peter and Paul both preach. In church history, Augustine was a preacher, Chrysostom was a preacher, John Calvin and Martin Luther were above all else preachers, Charles Spurgeon was a preacher, D.L. Moody was a preacher, W.A. Criswell and Adrian Rogers were preachers, John MacArthur and John Piper are preachers! Whatever else the world may need, no need is greater than for God-called preachers to declare the same message as John the Baptist:“The King has come!”

Secondly, John came baptizing. He was rightly called: John the Baptist for baptize he did. The title “the Baptist” is given to distinguish him from the apostle by the same name who wrote the Gospel of John; 1, 2, and 3 John; and Revelation. This title also identifies a distinguishing characteristic of his ministry: baptism.

John’s baptism was not Christian baptism which is administered in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and identifies the believer with the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is an important precursor to Christian baptism in its mode, immersion, and symbolism of confession and repentance of sin. However, John’s baptism is best identified as being analogous to the Jewish ritual cleansings and/or the baptism of Jewish proselytes. This would have been somewhat familiar to John’s Jewish audience, but also quite shocking since John is calling all Jews to repent and be baptized. Not just those recognized as morally impure or Gentiles.

III. John the Baptist: The Message, vv. 7-12.
There are three primary themes noted by Matthew in John’s preaching: Repentance from Sin, the Kingdom of Heaven, and the Person of Christ. These themes are closely related to one another.

First, John was a preacher of repentance from sin. The first word attributed to John by Matthew is the word “Repent!” This is the Greek word metanoeite and means “to change one’s mind”. Biblical repentance is not merely being sorry for sin, but turning away from that sin. Children in Sunday School were once asked to define repentance and a little boy defined it simply as “being sorry for sin,” but a little girl corrected him by adding, “It means being sorry enough to quit.” This was the primary message of John the Baptist and what his baptism represented. He was calling upon the Jews of his day to turn from their sin in preparation for the coming of the King. He was calling them to prepare their hearts as the grand highway upon which the King of glory could come.

Repentance is still the message of the Christian preacher. The very next chapter records the beginning of Jesus’ preaching ministry by saying:

From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew 4:17

The apostle Peter on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2:38,

Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

In Acts 17, Paul preached repentance. He concluded his address to the philosophers in Athens with these words:

Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, 31 because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead. Acts 17:30-31

Repentance has been the content of the preaching of preachers throughout church history. All the men mentioned earlier preached repentance. The Puritans of the 17th century especially understood repentance. One of them, William Perkins, defined repentance as follows:

Godly sorrow causeth grief for sin, because it is sin. It makes any man in whom it is to be of this disposition and mind, that if there were no conscience to accuse, no devil to terrify, no Judge to arraign and condemn, no hell to torment, yet he would be humbled and brought on his knees for his sins, because he hath offended a loving, merciful, and longsuffering God (Cited in John F. MacArthur, Jr., Matthew 1-7, 67).

Second, John the Baptist preached the Kingdom of Heaven. There is a sense of urgency in his preaching of repentance because of the impending coming Kingdom in which evil will be judged. When John announced the “kingdom of Heaven,” in reality he was announcing the coming of the King of Heaven, Jesus. For wherever King Jesus is, there is the Kingdom. Kingdom speaks of the reign of Jesus. Matthew uses the phrase “kingdom of Heaven” instead of “kingdom of God” not because he is talking about something different (as your Scofield Study Bible may say), but to honor Jewish sensibilities about using the name of God. Since Matthew was writing to a Jewish audience, he often avoids using the name of God by substituting an alternate word which serves as a synonym. This is obvious when one compares parallel passages in Matthew and Luke in which Luke (writing to a Gentile audience) uses the term “Kingdom of God” while Matthew uses “Kingdom of Heaven.” The theme of the Kingdom is not just prominent in John’s preaching, but is a prominent theme in the Gospel of Matthew which emphasizes the coming of the King. You will be hearing a lot about this subject in the weeks ahead.

Third, John’s preaching was focused on the person of Christ. As a herald who announced and prepared the way for the King, a main emphasis of his ministry was describing the coming King. In verses 11-12 John describes the coming King, but he first confronts the Pharisees and Sadducees who have come to him under apparently false pretenses. John attacks the two main sources for human pride: human ancestry and human achievement. First, he essentially tells them, “Don’t even think about appealing to your relationship to Abraham. The same God who caused ancient Abraham and barren Sarah to bear can also create children for Abraham from these stones. Don’t boast in your human ancestry!” (v. 9). Second, John strips away the pride of human achievement from the Sadducees and Pharisees. “Don’t boast in your human achievement, because you don’t have any achievements of which to boast. Bring forth evidence of repentance, if you want to be baptized to symbolize your repentance” (v. 8)! Interesting, the most common sources of human pride today remain the same as the Pharisees and Sadducees whom John confronted: Human Ancestry and Human Achievement.

John also issues a warning of the imminency of coming judgment upon them. He uses two images to speak of this imminency. First, he says the ax is already at the root of the tree (v. 10). The image is of a lumberjack taking an ax and aiming with his ax on the spot where he wants his ax to fall. All that remains is for the ax to be drawn back and the blow to fall! That’s how imminent God’s judgment is! Next, John uses the imagery of the threshing floor to speak of the imminency of God’s judgment. He says that the winnowing fan (or better “fork”) is already in his hand (v. 12)! This means that the judgment which will be executed by the coming King is about to commence.

It is in this context which John introduces the One for whom he is preparing the way. He is one who is so mighty that John does not consider himself worthy to perform the menial task of carrying His sandals (a job reserved for slaves)! This is the greatness of the coming King whose arrival John is announcing!

His baptism will differ from the baptism of John. John only baptizes “with water unto repentance,” but Jesus will baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (v. 11). Although many commentators disagree, I am convinced that John is referring to two separate baptisms which the Messiah will administer. The first “with the Holy Spirit” is given to all who embrace this Messiah by faith. The second “with . . . fire” is the fate of all those who reject the Messiah. In other words, the second baptism is a baptism of fiery judgment, not cleansing. This is born out by the context as the following verse speaks of the wheat being gathered into the barns, but the chaff being burned “with unquenchable fire” (v. 12). This is the kingly authority of the whom John says is coming. He has the power to either baptize you into His body by the Spirit, or to baptize you into eternal judgment by fire!

The image in verse 12 is of a threshing floor. The grain has been harvested and it is now time to separate the stalk and leaves from the grain itself. This process normally involved allowing oxen to trample the grain which separated the kernels from the husks. This was done on some high place where a good breeze would blow to separate the “chaff” from the “wheat” when it was tossed high in the air by the winnowing fan/fork. The lighter chaff would be carried away, but the heavier kernels would fall straight down. In this way, the chaff and wheat were separated. John says that the Messiah will perform this function, then sweep up the chaff to be consumed by “unquenchable fire.” The “wheat” however would be gathered into His barns. Thus, for John the Baptist, the coming King would be One who has the authority to either grant eternal life or send to eternal damnation!

What would be the application of John’s message to us today. It is essentially, “Be ready!” The Christ whose first coming John announced has come once and is coming again! My message today then as a Christian preacher is very similar to the message of John. “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” The one who has been given authority to either grant eternal life or send to eternal damnation may come at any moment. The ax is already at the root of the tree! The winnowing fork is already in his hand! Be ready, the King is coming!


  1. This is a great sermon. I appreciate it very much. I have often wondered what kind of emotional response the preaching of John the Baptist would evoke in the days in which he preached.

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