As we open chapter 3 of Matthew’s Gospel, we find ourselves some 30 years after Matthew chapter 2, which ends by reporting the return of the child Jesus to His residence in the Galilean town of Nazareth. As a child, Jesus “grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.” (Luke 2:51-52), but we do not know much more about these years. We can assume that since Mary, the mother of Jesus was very close with Elizabeth (whose son John was born 6 months prior to Jesus) that Jesus would have grown up knowing John. Chapter 3 introduces us to the prophetic ministry of John, who we often call, “the Baptist,” because of his ministry of baptizing sinners who desired to be cleansed from their sins. John’s ministry took place in the barren Judean wilderness west of the Dead Sea. His message was a call to repentance, that is, a reversal of the direction of one’s life; because God’s kingdom, that is, His rule over His people, was imminent. As we saw in the first two chapters, once again in chapter 3, Matthew finds the fulfillment of prophecy in John and his message. We learn that it was John the Baptist who the prophet described in Isaiah 40:3 as, “a voice crying in the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD.”
Like the prophets before him, John preached the ‘repentance-Law’ of God, calling on people to the demands of baptism. He appears in all four Gospels as the forerunner of Jesus, so that each Gospel account begins with the law proclaimed. In Matthew’s account in the first 12 verses of chapter 3, the law is preached by John with ‘fire and brimstone.’ While his message was loud, clear, and effective, resulting in many people coming to him for baptism under the stinging indictment of God’s law, nevertheless John pointed to One greater than he, “whose sandals he was not worthy to carry”(3:11). Different from his own baptism, John prophesied that this coming One would, “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (3:11). John models faithful Gospel preaching, which begins with the life-demanding law of God, but then always preaches and point to the life-giving Gospel of Jesus.
In verses 13-17, this One who is the Baptizer Himself, Jesus, comes to John to be baptized by him. Jesus’ first adult act in the Gospel is to go down into the waters of repentance and baptism. But why? If He is without sin, what is Jesus doing here? Jesus supplies the answer in verse 15: “it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Think about what that might mean as you prepare for Sunday’s sermon.