SynopsisThis passage introduces John the Baptist, who wears clothes made out of camel’s hair, and eats locusts and wild honey. And, probably more importantly, John has been sent by God to preach repentance to the Israelites, since the “kingdom of heaven is at hand” (verse 2 (ESV) ). (We are told that John’s coming was prophesied in Isaiah 40:3 (ESV) .) Many Israelites are coming to John to be baptized, and to confess their sins.
In addition to the Israelite lay-people coming to be baptized by John, a number of Pharisees and Sadducees also come, but John—like Jesus after him—has little patience for them. He calls them a “brood of vipers” (verse 7 (ESV) ), and tells them that they need to bear fruit, if they are really repenting. He also addresses a problem that Israel often had in the Old Testament:
And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. (verse 9 (ESV) )
Even in the New Testament, it appears that some Israelites were trusting in the fact that they were God’s chosen people, and not believing they had to actually live up to what He commanded of them.
The passage ends with John describing the one to come after him; one so mighty that John doesn’t even feel worthy to carry his sandals. One who will baptize with the Holy Spirit—and with fire. And one who will “gather his wheat into the barn” (an allusion to His children), but who will burn the “chaff” with “unquenchable fire” (verse 12 (ESV) ).
ThoughtsI get interested in the fact that these people are coming to confess their sins to John. They obviously don’t understand how salvation works yet—even the chosen ones won’t understand that until after Jesus’ death—but they do understand that they are sinners, and that they’re under the wrath of God. And this is the first step in accepting His deliverance; you won’t seek a cure if you don’t think you’re sick. One might wonder what the purpose of John’s ministry is—especially since Jesus is going to be beginning his public ministry shortly. It’s not something I’ve been able to figure out, but the ESV Study Bible posits that John is calling for people to remove the obstacles from their lives that might hinder their reception of the Messiah and his kingdom, which makes sense to me. If you recognize that you’re a sinner, then you’ll be more likely to receive what God has to offer, to save you from your sins.
Speaking of which, a lot of people don’t like to preach God’s wrath, these days, but John the Baptist had no problem with it, and neither did Jesus after him. (Nobody talked about Hell more than Jesus did.) John doesn’t just say that sinners will be punished; he says that they will burn with “unquenchable fire.” Sin is serious business, and the consequences are dire—which is why God Himself had to save us from it.
We sometimes think of John eating locusts and wild honey as indicating that he’s a bit eccentric, but it’s not the case. Eating locusts and wild honey was actually quite common for poor desert dwellers, and are still eaten today by poorer people in the region.