advent wreath stjohnscamberwellorgauThe Second Sunday of Advent is on December 4, 2022.

Readings for Year A can be found here.

The Gospel reading is as follows (emphases mine):

Matthew 3:1-12

3:1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,

3:2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

3:3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”

3:4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.

3:5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan,

3:6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

3:7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

3:8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance.

3:9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

3:10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

3:11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

3:12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Commentary comes from Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

This is a long post, so grab yourself a cuppa and a snack.

To set the background for John the Baptist, it had been 400 years since God had sent the Jews a prophet.

Malachi was the last. This is Malachi 4, with which the Old Testament ends:

Judgment and Covenant Renewal

[a]“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the Lord Almighty.

“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.

5 “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”

John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea proclaiming (verse 1) repentance, for the kingdom of heaven was near (verse 2).

Matthew Henry’s commentary points out that both John the Baptist and his cousin Jesus were of humble families and led unremarkable childhoods, yet figured mightily in God’s plan:

Glorious things were spoken both of John and Jesus, at and before their births, which would have given occasion to expect some extraordinary appearances of a divine presence and power with them when they were very young; but it is quite otherwise. Except Christ’s disputing with the doctors at twelve years old, nothing appears remarkable concerning either of them, till they were about thirty years old. Nothing is recorded of their childhood and youth, but the greatest part of their life is tempos, adelonwrapt up in darkness and obscurity: these children differ little in outward appearance from other children, as the heir, while he is under age, differs nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all. And this was to show, 1. That even when God is acting as the God of Israel, the Saviour, yet verily he is a God that hideth himself (Isa 45 15). The Lord is in this place and I knew it not, Gen 28 16. Our beloved stands behind the wall long before he looks forth at the windows, Cant 2 9. 2. That our faith must principally have an eye to Christ in his office and undertaking, for there is the display of his power; but in his person is the hiding of his power. All this while, Christ was god-man; yet we are not told what he said or did, till he appeared as a prophet; and then, Hear ye him. 3. That young men, though well qualified, should not be forward to put forth themselves in public service, but be humble, and modest, and self-diffident, swift to hear, and slow to speak.

Matthew says nothing of the conception and birth of John the Baptist, which is largely related by St. Luke, but finds him at full age, as if dropt from the clouds to preach in the wilderness. For above three hundred years the church had been without prophets; those lights had been long put out, that he might be the more desired, who was to be the great prophet. After Malachi there was no prophet, nor any pretender to prophecy, till John the Baptist, to whom therefore the prophet Malachi points more directly than any of the Old Testament prophets had done (Mal 3 1); I send my messenger.

Henry describes this wilderness, sometimes called a desert, of Judea, which has biblical significance:

It was not an uninhabited desert, but a part of the country not so thickly peopled, nor so much enclosed into fields and vineyards, as other parts were; it was such a wilderness as had six cities and their villages in it, which are named, Josh 15 61, 62. In these cities and villages John preached, for thereabouts he had hitherto lived, being born hard by, in Hebron; the scenes of his action began there, where he had long spent his time in contemplation; and even when he showed himself to Israel, he showed how well he loved retirement, as far as would consist with his business. The word of the Lord found John here in a wilderness. Note, No place is so remote as to shut us out from the visits of divine grace; nay, commonly the sweetest intercourse the saints have with Heaven, is when they are withdrawn furthest from the noise of this world. It was in this wilderness of Judah that David penned the 63d Psalm, which speaks so much of the sweet communion he then had with God, Hos 2 14. In a wilderness the law was given; and as the Old Testament, so the New Testament Israel was first found in the desert land, and there God led him about and instructed him, Deut 32 10. John Baptist was a priest of the order of Aaron, yet we find him preaching in a wilderness, and never officiating in the temple; but Christ, who was not a son of Aaron, is yet often found in the temple, and sitting there as one having authority; so it was foretold, Mal 3 1. The Lord whom ye seek shall suddenly come to his temple; not the messenger that was to prepare his way. This intimated that the priesthood of Christ was to thrust out that of Aaron, and drive it into a wilderness.

The beginning of the gospel in a wilderness, speaks comfort to the deserts of the Gentile world. Now must the prophecies be fulfilled, I will plant in the wilderness the cedar, Isa 41 18, 19. The wilderness shall be a fruitful field, Isa 32 15. And the desert shall rejoice, Isa 35 1, 2. The Septuagint reads, the deserts of Jordan, the very wilderness in which John preached.

As the prophets did before him, John the Baptist exhorted his audiences to repent, to turn their lives away from sin:

Those who are truly sorry for what they have done amiss, will be careful to do so no more. This repentance is a necessary duty, in obedience to the command of God (Acts 17 30); and a necessary preparative and qualification for the comforts of the gospel of Christ. If the heart of man had continued upright and unstained, divine consolations might have been received without this painful operation preceding; but, being sinful, it must be first pained before it can be laid at ease, must labour before it can be at rest.

John MacArthur looks at the Greek word for ‘proclaim’, or ‘preach’:

It says in verse 1, “He came preaching,” and the Greek word there is “to herald,” “to announce,” “to proclaim,” kerussoAlso, it’s interesting that it says, “In those days came John,” and the verb “came” there is literally used in the Greek to speak of the arrival of an official The arrival of an official.  John was an official herald announcing the arrival of a king; and you know his message in verse 2?  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  And “at hand” means it’s imminent, it’s the next thing

Kerusso, the noun form is krux or krux, and it means “a herald.”  Literally, “one who with a loud voice announces the arrival of a king” – a herald.  And so he was heralding.  He was heralding, and what was he heralding?  “Repent!”  That was the message.  “This kind of King demands that you repent.”  In other words, He wants you to worship Him, but you can’t worship Him legitimately until you get sin out of the way You can’t come to Jesus Christ and just worship Him first.  First, you’ve gotta deal with your sin.  That’s what he was saying.

He was saying to Israel, “Look, you just can’t accept the King and begin to worship the King.  You’ve gotta get rid of your sin.”  In fact, it’s the identical message that Jesus preached when He came.  Matthew 4:17, “From that time Jesus began to preach.” And what did He say?  “Repent.”  Same sermon.  Jesus and John preached the same sermon.  The word “repent,” metanoeo, means more than just sorrow.  We think of repentance, and we say, “Oh, he’s so repentant.  He’s weepy, and he’s sorrowful.”  That isn’t what the word means in the Greek It means “to turn around.”  It means “to be converted.”  It means a change of opinion.  A change of purpose.  A change of direction.  A change of mind.  A change of will.  A change from sin to holiness.

Broadus, who has written a classic commentary on Matthew, says, “Wherever this Greek word is used in the New Testament, the reference is to changing the mind and the purpose from sin to holiness.  It implies sorrow for sin, but that’s not what it means.  It means to turn around.”  It is 2 Corinthians 7 that talks about godly repentance, godly sorrow, that turns you around, and that’s what John was saying He wasn’t just saying, “I want you to feel sorry for your sin.”  He was saying, “I want you to change from sin to holiness.  You will never have the kingdom.  You will never have the King until you turn around.”  The message really could be better translated, “Get converted.  Get converted.”

MacArthur discusses Matthew’s use of the words ‘the kingdom of heaven’:

The precise phrase, “the kingdom of heaven,” is not found in the Old Testament; but it is an Old Testament concept.  This is why I say that.  Nebuchadnezzar, for instance, in Daniel 4:37, refers to God as “the king of heaven.”  Daniel 2:44 calls Him “the God of heaven”; and Daniel 4:25 says, “He will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed.”  Now, the God of heaven, the King of heaven, God and heaven are then associated.  The kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God then are associated terms.

Now, Matthew uses the term “kingdom of heaven” 32 times; and he is the only gospel writer that ever uses it Mark doesn’t use it.  Luke doesn’t use it.  John doesn’t use it.  They use “the kingdom of God,” and there may be a special reason for that.  As I tried to point out from Daniel, and there are many other illustrations, heaven and God were thought of as synonymous.  God was the King of heaven; and the reason Matthew may use it is because Matthew’s gospel is a characteristically Jewish gospel; and one thing about Jews that you learn historically as you study Judaism is that a Jew would never say the name of God; and in deference to that, they would substitute frequently the term “heaven.”

MacArthur explains what the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God, is:

The kingdom of heaven has two aspects.  Two aspects – the outer and the inner, and sometimes, in the gospels, the outer is in view, and sometimes the inner is in view Let me show you what I mean.  In the broadest sense, the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, includes – watch this – everybody who professes to acknowledge God.  Now, in Matthew 13 we’ll see that, that the kingdom of heaven’s got in it wheat and what?  Tares, right?  That the kingdom of heaven is like a great big bush with birds in it; and you’ve got the true and the false, the real and the non-real.

So in the outer sense, the kingdom of heaven is, is everybody that professes; but in the inner sense, it’s only the really regenerated, born-again, genuinely saved people; and in some passages, the inner is in view; and in some, the outer; and we’ll see that as we go through Matthew.  The big circle of profession includes the true and the false.  The little circle only those truly born again in Christ.

Now, tracing the kingdom will help us a little bit.  Let me give you a quick little historical look at the kingdom.  We’re gonna go flying by, so hang on.  There are five distinct phases in the kingdom.  Five phases.  I, I tried to reduce a very difficult subject to simple terms so I could understand it and pass it on to you simply.

First of all, it’s talking about the rule of God.  The rule of God over the hearts of men and over the world.  Both are included.  Now, the first phase of this thing is the prophesied kingdom, the prophesied kingdom.  For example, Daniel said that God is gonna come and set up a kingdom, a kingdom that’ll never be destroyed; and Daniel foresaw that Christ would be the King of that kingdom It was a prophesied kingdom.

The second thing, the second phase of this is what you could call the present kingdom or the at-hand kingdom; and that was the kingdom described by John the Baptist He was saying, “The prophesied rule of God is now imminent.  It’s now ready.”  Jesus said it.  The twelve said it.  It’s at hand.  It’s coming.  It’s imminent.  It’s near.  The rule of God, the reign of Christ, both internally and externally – it’s here.

Then the third phase of the kingdom was what I call the interim phase The prophesied, the imminent or at-hand, and the interim; and, there, the kingdom is described in this way.  After the King was rejected by Israel, the King returned to heaven, and the kingdom now exists in a mystery form.  Christ isn’t literally in the world, literally reigning, literally sitting in Jerusalem ruling the kingdom; but He reigns a kingdom in the hearts of all who acknowledge Him as Lord, right?  So it’s an interim kingdom, the mystery form.  So you have the prophesied, the at-hand, which would’ve been both earthly and internal, the whole thing; and when they wouldn’t accept the King, the kingdom went inside; and now in a mystery form is in the hearts of those who believe And, as Paul says in Romans 14:17, “The kingdom of God is righteousness and joy and peace in the Holy Spirit.”  It’s internal.

The fourth phase of the kingdom is what I call the manifest phase You start with the prophesied, the at-hand, the interim, and then the manifest; and this is the literal, thousand-year millennium that is to come It will involve an external rule where Christ literally rules, physically in the earth, and an internal where He rules the hearts of the believing people.

The book of Revelation talks about this.  Jesus, in Matthew 16, gave people a glimpse of this in the transfiguration.  So what do you have?  You have the prophesied kingdom, the at-hand one, the interim one, the manifest one for a thousand years; and finally what I call the everlasting kingdom.  Second Peter 1:11, Peter calls it, “The eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”  The fifth and final phase.

Now, that’s generally the flow of the kingdom.  The Old Testament prophesied a kingdom — a kingdom that would be external, where they would literally be in the earth; and the earth would be the place of the kingdom; and the earth would be ruled by the King; and it would also be internal, the hearts of the believing people would submit to that reign.  And John and Jesus and the twelve said it’s at hand. But it was rejected, and so an interim, internal kingdom has taken form now that we call this mystery age.  But one day the kingdom will be manifest internally and externally, and then that thousand-year kingdom will exist and, at the end of that, an everlasting kingdom.

This bit is particularly interesting:

So John was talking about the at-hand. Now listen to me – had they received John, and had they received Christ, there never would have been the interim – you understand that there never would have been the mystery church age. They would have gone into the thousand-year manifest kingdom and from there right into the everlasting kingdom, and John would have been that Elijah and it would have all been fulfilled. But when they killed the forerunner and they killed the King, the whole thing was future postponed and in the meantime the mystery kingdom dwells in the hearts of believing people. And Christ may not be reigning in the world, but He’s reigning in my heart, right, and your heart. So John was calling the nation to turn its back on sin, to be converted, to get ready for the kingdom, because the kingdom was coming.  The tragedy of it is that they didn’t hear his message.  They didn’t listen.  They never received the kingdom, and that whole generation died without the King, died without the kingdom, and went into hell. So the man, the message, and the motive.

The notion of the herald continues as Matthew tells is that Isaiah spoke of a man in the wilderness who would cry out, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’ (verse 3).

MacArthur explains:

Fourthly, the mission. Simply stated, and we’ve already seen it, he was called to be the herald of Christ, but the mission was laid out long before in the Old Testament prophets.  Look at verse 3, “For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.'”  He fulfilled Isaiah 40, verse 3, “He is the one of whom the prophets spoke.”  He is the one who was to come and get things ready, and he was preparing a way.  Not a road, not a dirt path, but a way into the hearts of believing people.  He was “the voice of one crying in the wilderness.”

Oh, that’s such a great passage.  Isaiah 40, you see, that tells us about the forerunner in 40, verse 3. But in the verses after it tells us why he was getting them ready.  Listen to chapter 40 verse 1, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people,” and you can’t know what an exciting thing that was in chapter 40 ’cause they had just had 39 chapters full of judgment; and, boy, here comes this comfort “Speak ye tenderly to Jerusalem.  Cry to her.  Her warfare is accomplished.  Her iniquity is pardoned.  She’s received from the Lord hands, Lord’s hands double for her sins.”  All that’s done, and now comes the voice of him that cries in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.  Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

Why?!  Because the kingdom is coming, and he describes it this way:  “Every valley shall be exalted.  Every mountain and hill shall be made low.  The crooked shall be made straight, and rough places plain.  And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”  One of the, one of my favorite passages of the Messiah taken from that marvelous text.

You see, John was crying to prepare the people for the kingdom, and Isaiah described the kingdom in 4 and 5.  He was fulfilling the prophetic word of Isaiah.  “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, make his paths straight.  Prepare a road into your heart by turning from sin.”  So his mission was preparation, deep conviction.  He wanted to bring to bear on Israel such conviction that they confessed they were unfit, sinners, poor, damned, miserable – he was a judgment preacher.  He was a judgment preacher designed by God from way back in the book of Isaiah to confront a wicked, evil nation and get ’em right for the arrival of the King. So he fulfilled prophecy.

Part of the herald’s job was to make sure that the road upon which the forthcoming king travelled was smooth and free of obstacles.

MacArthur says that the straight paths here were spiritual rather than literal:

So to John was given the role of being the herald of the King, announcing the King’s arrival and making sure the people made the preparations so that the path was smooth This was a customary oriental thing, and John was called to do it.  Only in his case, he was heralding the King of kings; and in his case, he wasn’t asking people to prepare a dirt road He was asking them to prepare the road into their hearts, that the King might enter there.  That was his purpose.

Henry has more on the corrupt religious system that the Jewish hierarchy imposed on the people, legalistic without holiness:

In the Jewish church and nation, at that time, all was out of course; there was a great decay of piety, the vitals of religion were corrupted and eaten out by the traditions and injunctions of the elders. The Scribes and Pharisees, that is, the greatest hypocrites in the world, had the key of knowledge, and the key of government, at their girdle. The people were, generally, extremely proud of their privileges, confident of justification by their own righteousness, insensible of sin; and, though now under the most humbling providences, being lately made a province of the Roman Empire, yet they were unhumbled; they were much in the same temper as they were in Malachi’s time, insolent and haughty, and ready to contradict the word of God: now John was sent to level these mountains, to take down their high opinion of themselves, and to show them their sins, that the doctrine of Christ might be the more acceptable and effectual. (2.) His doctrine of repentance and humiliation is still as necessary as it was then to prepare the way of the Lord. Note, There is a great deal to be done, to make way for Christ into a soul, to bow the heart for the reception of the Son of David (2 Sam 19 14); and nothing is more needful, in order to this, than the discovery of sin, and a conviction of the insufficiency of our own righteousness. That which lets will let, until it be taken out of the way; prejudices must be removed, high thoughts brought down, and captivated to the obedience of Christ. Gates of brass must be broken, and bars of iron cut asunder, ere the everlasting doors be opened for the King of glory to come in. The way of sin and Satan is a crooked way; to prepare a way for Christ, the paths must be made straight, Heb 12 13.

John wore simple clothes made from camel hair along with a leather belt; he ate locusts and wild honey (verse 4).

It is probable that he had taken a lifelong Nazirite vow, as Samson and Samuel did.

However, our commentators note that Old Testament prophets dressed similarly and lived simply without that particular vow.

Henry says that John might have purposely dressed like Elijah:

John appeared in this dress, (1.) To show that, like Jacob, he was a plain man, and mortified to this world, and the delights and gaieties of it. Behold an Israelite indeed! Those that are lowly in heart should show it by a holy negligence and indifference in their attire; and not make the putting on of apparel their adorning, nor value others by their attire. (2.) To show that he was a prophet, for prophets wore rough garments, as mortified men (Zech 13 4); and, especially, to show that he was the Elias promised; for particular notice is taken of Elias, that he was a hairy man (which, some think, is meant of the hairy garments he wore), and that he was girt with a girdle of leather about his loins, 2 Kings 1 8. John Baptist appears no way inferior to him in mortification; this therefore is that Elias that was to come. (3.) To show that he was a man of resolution; his girdle was not fine, such as were then commonly worn, but it was strong, it was a leathern girdle; and blessed is that servant, whom his Lord, when he comes, finds with his loins girt, Luke 12 35; 1 Pet 1 13.

As for his meagre diet from foraging, Henry posits that he probably had more normal meals, just not that often:

… his meat was locusts and wild honey; not as if he never ate any thing else; but these he frequently fed upon, and made many meals of them, when he retired into solitary places, and continued long there for contemplation. Locusts were a sort of flying insect, very good for food, and allowed as clean (Lev 11 22); they required little dressing, and were light, and easy of digestion, whence it is reckoned among the infirmities of old age, that the grasshopper, or locust, is then a burden to the stomach, Eccl 12 5. Wild honey was that which Canaan flowed with, 1 Sam 14 26. Either it was gathered immediately, as it fell in the dew, or rather, as it was found in the hollows of trees and rocks, where bees built, that were not, like those in hives, under the care and inspection of men. This intimates that he ate sparingly, a little served his turn; a man would be long ere he filled his belly with locusts and wild honey: John Baptist came neither eating nor drinking (ch. 11 18)—not with the curiosity, formality, and familiarity that other people do. He was so entirely taken up with spiritual things, that he could seldom find time for a set meal.

The people of Jerusalem and all of Judea as well as those who lived along the Jordan flocked to him (verse 5).

MacArthur says:

This man had an amazing impact.  He called the society to attention.  In Matthew 21:26, it says, “For all men hold John as a prophet.”  It was common belief this was a prophet from God, and they went out. 

John baptised people in the River Jordan and they confessed their sins (verse 6).

This was radical, because the Jews of that era had ritual ceremonial baths but not the type of baths that proselytes — converts — had. John the Baptist’s form of baptism was the kind that those converting to Judaism had.

MacArthur explains:

As much of a shock as it was, people came, and they were baptized, and they confessed their sin Can you imagine it out there? One crowd after another, everywhere, even in Galilee they came.

The fact that they were baptized is shocking.  I’ll tell you why.  Listen to me.  Never — I’ll say it again — never in all history had any Jew submitted to being baptized Okay?  This is something new.  “Oh,” you say, “what about the Levitical washings?”  Those were different.  The Levitical washings of the hands and the feet and the head and all of that were frequent.  There were certain ceremonial bathings among the Essenes, which was a community of the Jews living out in that area; but all of those – listen to this – purification ceremonies were repeated daily and even hourly if you sin.  You understand that?  These were just ceremonial washings, and every time you suspected another pollution, you did it again.

John’s baptism was a one-time, one-shot deal; and Jews never did that.  You say, “Why?”  Listen to this.  Because single baptism was exactly what was required of a Gentile proselyte, who was entering into Judaism. And a Jew who would submit himself to that kind of baptism would be saying, in effect, “I am an outsider seeking entrance into the people of God,” and that’s quite an admission, isn’t it?  They were literally indulging themselves in proselyte baptism.

So, they did this; it was really a step.  A member of God’s chosen people, a son of Abraham, assured of God’s salvation, baptized like a common proselyte? And, yet, that’s exactly what John asked of them He called Israel to realize that their nationality couldn’t save ’em.  Their race couldn’t save ’em.  They had to forsake sin.  They had to be converted to righteousness.  They had to get in the kingdom like everybody else did; and in the East, no act of religion, no act of crisis in religion was ever done in the heart without an external act to go with it.  That was part of the culture, and baptism in the Jordan River was the sign of the public confession of sin that had occurred in the heart.

So John was calling for a fundamental transformation that even a Jew had to make.  Now, some of these people were hypocritical.  Some of them went through it, but they were phony … the fascinating confrontation with the snakes who were also known as Pharisees.  But they came confessing their sins.  The man had an incredible impact on the entire country.

When John saw the Pharisees — those who had devised the legalistic religious system — and the Sadducees — those who ran the temple system and did not believe in the divinely supernatural — he called them a brood of vipers and asked them who warned them to flee from the wrath to come (verse 7).

MacArthur says that the Pharisees inherited their beliefs from the predecessors, the Hasidim. (Today’s Hasidim are probably a mix of the original and of the Pharisees.) The Pharisees focused more on legalism than holiness:

… it all started out kind of okay with the Hasidim, but by the time it got to the reorganized Pharisees, they perverted everything.  And there was no inward life left.  There was no real devotion.  There was no real consecration.  There was no real piety.  There was no real godliness.  It was all an external, phony deal to set themselves above everybody else as the real super spiritual people.  They were, literally, fanatics at self-righteousness.  They withdrew themselves, Luke 7:39 says, from all sinners.  And they tried to condemn Jesus for even going near sinners.  You remember that?  They blasted Him for hanging around drunkards, winebibbers and sinners, and any of those kinds of people.  They tried to force Jesus into their same kind of fanatical self-righteousness.

The Sadducees got rich off the sacrificial system and courted the Greeks when they ruled, then the Romans:

They didn’t particularly care about the intrusion of Greek culture.  They could have cared less about Greek customs.  They were the ones who courted and kowtowed and hassled around and fiddled with Rome to get everything they could out of it.  The high priests at the time of Jesus were Sadducees.  They were compromisers.  They didn’t believe in any resurrection, so they didn’t have to worry about how they lived ’cause there weren’t any consequences.  They just, you know, made hay while the sun shined, that’s all.  Everything was here-and-now, get it while you can get it, make it while you can.

And so they did everything they could politically to make sure they got out of Rome all they could get and they played the political game to get into the seats of power.  They were few in number, extremely wealthy. They were a priestly party, and the chief priest, by the way, is almost a synonym when you see that in the Bible. The term chief priest, the New Testament, is almost a synonym for the Sadducees.  Their big thing was to make money, and they ran the temple franchises.  You say, “What?”  Oh, yeah, they had big business in the temple.  When certain feast time came – in fact, all year long, when people came there, pilgrims from other countries, to make sacrifices – the first thing they had to do was exchange their money, because they had to buy sacrificial animals.  And in the temple they sold everything, the doves and the pigeons and the goats and the sheep.  They sold it all there.  They provided the whole bit, and when these pilgrims would come to the temple they would first of all have to exchange their money to trade in Jerusalem And the place you exchanged your money was at the temple and, of course, they charged an exorbitant interest to change the money.  And then it turned right around, when they went to buy the animals, they paid incredible prices for the animals and the Sadducees were gettin’ wealthier and wealthier and wealthier.  And that’s why Jesus went in with a whip and cleaned them out.  And when He cleaned the thing out, that’s when He alienated the Sadducees ’cause that was their business that He was messing with.  And that’s why people like Annas and Caiphas hated Him for the rest of the time that He lived and ministered, until finally they got Him to the cross.

MacArthur analyses the verse and explains why the two groups were there:

In Matthew 3 we find a very interesting thing in the Greek “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.”  What’s interesting to me about this, in the Greek there are two nouns but only one article And it seems to me that John is kind of pointing to the fact that he saw them as one group.  It’s sort of like he was saying, “and when he saw the Pharisees/Sadducees.”  They’re just like one group, one class of religious phonies, one class of people all wrapped up in the religion of human achievement.  In one case it was get it now, in one case it was earn it for later, in both cases it was the same thing.

You say, “Well, John, if they’re so bad off and they’ve got it all figured out with their human achievement, why are they coming to be baptized?”  Good question.  Why are they coming to be baptized?  What do they want out of John?  Well, you know something?  The Bible doesn’t tell us why they came.  But I’ll give you some reasons that I thought of.  First of all, they may have come because they were curious.  I mean, if the whole city of Jerusalem had come out there, you know that they’re gonna come out.  And it’s amazing that they figured it was a threat to them, too – Right? – or they wouldn’t have banded together.  Or at least we assume they were together because they appear together so frequently following this.  I think maybe, too, that the Bible tells us, you know, that all men perceive that John the Baptist was a prophet, and I think they were intimidated by the population that thought this man was a prophet of God.  And maybe they even had some real questions ’cause they’d had prophetic silence for 400 years.  Maybe they figured that maybe the people are right.  Maybe the guy’s a prophet.  We certainly can’t stay in here and be ignorant while everybody in town’s running out to find out about it.  We gotta find out about this guy.  And so under the pressure of curiosity and the pressure of the people believing he was a prophet, they showed up. And I got another think, too.  I think maybe they figured if they didn’t join the people, they might get left out and then the people would know something they didn’t know and they might lose their influence.

And I think, also, that they probably wanted to get in on the movement so they could move to the top and take it over.  Listen, that’s an old one.  We’ve got that in Christianity today.  We’ve got all kinds of people running churches and running organizations in Christianity who aren’t Christians.  Satan moves these people in.  The apostle Paul told us that.  “Beware, because when I leave grievous wolves shall come in not sparing the flock.”  Watch out for false teachers.  Watch out for false apostles.  Watch out for the people who want to come in and take over the church – false leaders.  They wanted to get in on it.  This was a movement that was gonna make a difference.  If this was a movement that was gonna capture the people, then they were willing to stoop to conquer.  Now, you can see they were all the wrong reasons There was no real repentance, no real repentance, no real confession of sin, no honest spirituality, no real search for God, no real heart-rending sorrow, no desire to get a heart that was sinful righteous, to get ready for the coming King and His kingdom.  They were so smug and self-righteous. They believed that they would be the great exalted ones in the kingdom when it came, just as they were; so they didn’t repent.  There wasn’t any conversion, no transformation.  They were just deceitful hypocrites.  And they just come walking out minding their own business and they run into John.  And I don’t know what they figured about this guy, but I’m sure they didn’t figure what they got.

Henry says that John was warning these two groups about the wrath here and the wrath to come. Recall that the Romans destroyed the temple in AD 70:

Note, (1.) There is a wrath to come; besides present wrath, the vials of which are poured out now, there is future wrath, the stores of which are treasured up for hereafter. (2.) It is the great concern of every one of us to flee from this wrath. (3.) It is wonderful mercy that we are fairly warned to flee from this wrath; think—Who has warned us? God has warned us, who delights not in our ruin; he warns by the written word, by ministers, by conscience. (4.) These warnings sometime startle those who seemed to have been very much hardened in their security and good opinion of themselves.

MacArthur explains why John called them a brood — offspring — of vipers:

“O, offspring of snakes, who chased you out here?”  The proud sons of Abraham, honored leaders of the nation, and he says, “You offspring of vipers.”  You know, the Lord must have liked that title for them ’cause He used it a lot.  It became rather common.  Jesus said to them in Matthew 12:34, “O offspring of vipers.”  And then over in Matthew 23:33, Jesus said again to them, “O offspring of vipers”  Boy, I mean, that’s pretty strong stuff.  What does he mean by that?  Well, he exposes in one expression the great and fatal sin that marked them.  He condemns them instantly as religious phonies.  Let me tell you why.  Viper, echidna, interesting little Greek word.  It refers to a small, poisonous desert snake, very familiar to John the Baptist.  And that snake was so deceitful.  It looked like a dead branch or a little stick, and it would stay still and somebody gathering firewood, phe-ew!  That’s exactly what happened on Melita in Acts 28, you remember, in verse 3, the firewood, and Paul was at the fire and that little thing that looked like a stick got Paul, Acts 28.  That was the viper, deceitful.  Suddenly it would strike and sink its teeth in and shoot its poison.  Now, he doesn’t call them just vipers; he calls them offspring of vipers, for they were just the product of the people who preceded them He really talked about the sin of their fathers.  But they were deadly hypocrites.  They were poisoning a whole nation with their fatal deception.  They were passing themselves off as if they were harmless and they were venomous.  And by the way, it was fitting that he called them vipers because their own originator and their own leader was nothing but a viper himself, and who was that? – Satan.  Revelation, chapter 12, verse 9 and Revelation, chapter 20, verse 2, Satan is seen as a serpent.  He is a serpent in the Garden.  John 8, he is a deceiver.  He is a liar.  And so he calls them poisonous, deceitful vipers, snakes.

It is common to see vipers slither out of the way of danger:

… basically, in the desert, and if you were there today, you’d see that this is all there is – in places in the desert there was dry, short grass, and it’s just very dry and you see fields of it.  Maybe it’s sometimes left over from a harvest, but just sometimes growing there.  Perhaps the water of the Jordan allowing some growth and then as the heat of the summer comes and the Jordan becomes a little narrower, it dries out and is very parched.  And then, now and then, around the desert, as John would well know, you would see these stunted little bushes, thorny bushes, very brittle for lack of water.  And sometimes a desert fire would come.  And when a desert fire would break out, it would sweep like a river of flame across that dry grass and those brittle little thorny bushes.  And invariably, and this is still true, in front of that wall of fire would come scurrying these little snakes, these little vipers, and other little scorpions and desert creatures running for their lives In fact, the same thing happened when a field was burned Today in America we still burn fields after harvest.  They did the same then.  During the time when the grain was growing, the snakes would hide in the grain.  They would live there.  And then all of the sudden the harvest would come and they might endure the harvest.  And then the field burning would come and if the field was being burned, you’d see the little snakes fleeing across the desert in front of the fire.  And so John the Baptist faces the snakes and says, “What made you run to safety before the fires of judgment?”  You see this picture?  Graphic.  He sees these people scurrying in front of the flame.  It’s as if to say, “Who brought you snakes out of your holes?” What brought you out of your holes?  What fire got you moving?  And, you know, in his own mind and in his own heart, he knew what that fire was It was the fire of the judgment of God he’s about to talk about.  But that wasn’t what really moved them.  They weren’t moved by the fire of the judgment of God; they were chased out of their holes by Satan The devil had pushed them out there to carry out their hypocrisy.  And just like snakes scurrying before a fire, they were running out there as chased by Satan.  They should have been running out there running from the wrath of God with real repentance.

John warned that repentance is evidenced by worthy fruit (verse 8), meaning that those who have truly turned away from sin will lead sincerely godly lives, not just on the surface — not through legalism — but in spontaneous and heartfelt good deeds.

MacArthur explains:

What he’s saying is there oughta be a change in your lifestyle.  Stop doing what you used to do.  Do righteous things, not unrighteous things.  Be loving and sharing and kind.  He says to the Pharisees and the Sadducees, if you got two coats, give one to somebody and if you’ve got food, give it to somebody who’s hungry.  Let me see something in your life.  That’s exactly what James says: “Faith without works is” – What? – “dead.”  You’ll never prove true repentance unless the fruit of repentance and the work of repentance is visible.  True repentance will manifest a changed life.  And there’s a beautiful little word here.  “Bring forth, therefore, fruits befitting repentance.”  That Greek word means “of equal weight.”  In other words, there ought to be works that are of equal weight with repentance so you can see it’s legitimate And this wasn’t true of them, and he knew it, and they knew it, and everybody around knew it.  And so he nails ’em with it.  “If you’re coming here with genuine repentance, then let’s see it.  Let’s see your life change.”

John had a special message for his fellow Jews: their Abrahamic lineage meant nothing. John said that, if He chose to do so, God could raise stones as children to Abraham (verse 9).

The Jews of that era were fond of saying they had nothing to worry about spiritually, because Abraham was their father. They did not need to repent. John was telling them otherwise, hence the exhortation to be baptised as if they were Gentile converts.

MacArthur elaborates:

“Think not to say within yourselves, ‘we have Abraham as our father,’ for I say unto you that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.”  Big deal!  “You have Abraham as your father.  God can make a child of Abraham out of a rock.  You’re not so hot.”  Now, this he says, “Stop presuming on your descent from Abraham as a passport to heaven.”  Boy, this was really a shock to them Do you realize that orthodox Jews believed that they were saved by their Jewishness?  I’m sure you know that.  The rabbis said, quote, “All Israelites have a portion in the world to come.”  They believed that.  They talked about – listen to this – they talked about “the delivering merits of the fathers,” “the delivering merits of the fathers.”  They had their own Jewish treasury of merits.  Another thing the rabbis taught was that Abraham sat at the gates of Gehenna and hell to turn back any Israelite who happened by chance to come that way.  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 receive the law, that it was because of the merits of Abraham that David’s prayer was heard, even for the wicked these merits sufficed.  They said, “If thy children were mere dead bodies without blood vessels or bones, thy merits, O Abraham, would avail for them.”  And it’s just that spirit that John is rebuking.  A degenerate person cannot claim salvation on the basis of a heroic past.  An evil son cannot plead the merits of a saintly father.  They were tryin’ to hold onto their nationality.  They were dead wrong

And the Pharisees and the Sadducees that confronted John were headed for hell because they were relying for their eternal security on their descent from Abraham They were Jews, and they were so smug.  And he says to them, “God is able to take these stones and make children unto Abraham out of ’em.”  What a statement.  You see, it minimizes the importance of being a son of Abraham.  But more than that –  listen to this.  It is a symbolic statement, I feel.  If these Jews – now watch – if these Jews, by turning their hearts to stone in resisting God’s converting grace, if they wish to do that, if they wish to turn their hearts to stone, then God will take stones – lifeless, useless, dead things – and make them into his sons And I believe those stones are symbols of the Gentiles “If you want to turn into rocks, dead, lifeless and useless, then I’ll take the dead and lifeless and useless Gentiles and turn ’em into sons.”  In chapter 8, verse 10, Jesus said the same thing.  He met a centurion servant who was a Gentile, and he saw, and he listened and he marveled and he said, “Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.”  I never met a son like this.  And here’s a rock that I can turn into a son.  “And I say unto you that many” [such Gentiles] “shall come from the east and west and sit down with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.  But the sons of the kingdom” – the Jews – “shall be cast out into outer darkness.  There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  If God finds a son who has become a rock; He’ll find a rock that He can make a son out of.  And so John confronts them and condemns them.

There is a note of caution here for Christians, too. Some firmly believe that the denomination they belong to is the only one that brings salvation and that anyone who doesn’t belong to it is destined for hell. That sort of thinking is along the lines of the Jews invoking Abraham here.

MacArthur says:

You know something very interesting to me?  Do you know that the rich man in hell in the story that Jesus told about the rich man and Lazarus – You remember that? – the rich man went to hell; the rich man was a man who had Abraham for his father.  That’s right.  He had Abraham for his father.  I’ll tell you something else.  He even heard Abraham call him “son” and it didn’t do him any good.  He recognized Abraham as a father.  Abraham recognized him as a son racially; it didn’t do him any good.  No religious attainment does.

Tying into that verse, John then goes into an agricultural analogy which everyone listening to him would have understood, even if they lived in Jerusalem. He said that the ax is lying at the root of the trees, and that every tree that does not bear good fruit will be thrown into the fire (verse 10). Farmers chop down trees that don’t bear fruit. Gardeners do, too. Those trees are wasting space that could be used for productive trees.

Henry says:

It is now declared with the axe at the root, to show that God is in earnest in the declaration, that every tree, however high in gifts and honours, however green in external professions and performances, if it bring not forth good fruit, the fruits meet for repentance, is hewn down, disowned as a tree in God’s vineyard, unworthy to have room there, and is cast into the fire of God’s wrath—the fittest place for barren trees: what else are they good for? If not fit for fruit, they are fit for fuel.

To understand this more fully, MacArthur explains true repentance as expressed in Psalm 51:

First of all is the intellectual.  Repentance begins when there is a knowledge of sin, when there is a recognition of sin.  So John, like any good preacher of repentance, confronted people with sinfulness.  There had to be an understanding of sin involving a sense of personal guilt, a sense of personal defilement, a sense of personal helplessness.  Now, all three of these are illustrated very aptly in Psalm 51first of all is the intellectual part in verse 3 “For I acknowledge my transgression and my sin is ever before me.”  Verse 7, “Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean.  Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.”  Verse 11, “Cast me not away from thy presence.  Take not thy Holy Spirit from me.”  Now, in all three of those verses is a recognition of sin.  Verse 3 explicitly, “For I acknowledge my transgressions, my sin is ever before me.”  Verse 7 and 11, implicit, the sense that he needs to be cleansed, the sense that he needs to be purged, that there is something wrong, that God may leave him, verse 11, the Holy Spirit may be removed from him.  And so there is an acknowledging, an acknowledging of sin, a recognition of what we are before God.  That is the beginning of repentance …

There must be, secondly, the emotional; and … this what we have in the feelings.  We go from the mind to the feelings, and it becomes a recognition not only of sin, but that sin is hateful to a holy God, and then there is an overwhelming sense of guilt in the emotions Psalm 51 again – in this psalm where David is facing his sin, we find this element in verse 1: “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness, according to the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.  Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.”  You see, here is a man crying for mercy and the only man who needs mercy is a man who is – What? – guilty.  You see, innocent men don’t need mercy.  Justice will do fine for them.  It’s guilty men that need mercy, and David recognizes here that he is guilty and his emotions are stirred.  In verse 10, “Create in me a clean heart” – he sees the evil in his heart – “O God, renew a right spirit in me.”  Verse 14, “Deliver me from blood guiltiness.”  And David even felt the anxiety and the pain in his physical body He cries out to God in the midst of this sin, in terrible anguish in his heart … True repentance doesn’t think of consequences, it doesn’t think of other people’s opinion, and it doesn’t think of excuses; it does think of transgressing God, it does think of being personally guilty.  So it is lupe kata theon, “sorrow toward God.”  That’s the issue.  And when there is genuine repentance, there will be this deep sense of sorrow directed toward a holy God who has been offended

But no matter how convinced the mind is about sin, and no matter how pained the emotions become, even in the right way, true repentance will never happen without the third area, and that’s volitional – intellectual, emotional, and volitional.  There’s got to be an act of the will.  There’s got to be a turning around With David he recognized it and he felt guilty for it and his guilt was directed toward God, but the thing that really made the repentance happen was the fact that he had an act of will in which he said “I will not do this anymore.  I turn from this.”  He changed his life pattern.  Look at Psalm 51, verse 5.  “Behold, I was shaped in iniquity and in sin did my mother conceive me.”  He recognizes that this is the past, this is the way it was.  But in 7 he says, “Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean.  Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.”  Turn it around.  Turn this depravity around.  Turn this sinfulness around.  “Create,” verse 10, “in me a clean heart, O God.  Renew a right spirit within me.”  You see, his will wanted a dramatic change.  That’s vital.  That’s vital.

Guilt is of no use if we do nothing with it to change our lives with the help of divine grace.

Now on to MacArthur’s explanation of verse 10:

John is saying this: “Look, you can pretend to be running from the wrath to come.  You can pretend to be fleeing from the judgment of God, but if there’s not any fruit there, and if you’re depending upon your self-righteous smugness and your descent from Abraham to save you, you’re in a lot of trouble because the axe is already laid at the root of your tree because there’s no fruit.  There’s an imminency here.  He says – look at it – “the axe is laid unto the root of the trees” already.  “Now,” he says, “it’s there.  It’s there now.  Judgment is now.  It’s imminent.”  Notice a most interesting thing that judgment, in John’s preaching and in all of the prophetic preaching of the Old Testament, was connected with the coming of the Messiah, just as much as salvation was

As Henry said above, there is judgement here and judgement in the life to come. MacArthur agrees:

I can’t help but think back a few weeks ago in Matthew that as soon as that little baby arrived, as soon as that little baby arrived it wasn’t very long until other little babies were slaughtered, until there was chaos in Israel, until 70 A.D. came and the whole nation of Israel was drowned in a bloodbath and the city of Jerusalem literally obliterated from the map When John preached this word, when John said the axe is laid at the root of the tree, do you realize the destruction of Jerusalem was only about 40 years away and it would be all over And so there was imminent judgment.  By the way, this is always true There is always imminent judgment, because the moment you die, the moment any man dies, there is judgment.  Oh, not the final great white throne judgment, but listen, when you die without Jesus Christ, at that moment you go out of the presence of God forever That’s judgment.  And, additionally, God brings about judgment and vengeance even in this life before we die.  If you live a life in violation of God’s principles, you will suffer consequences here and now.  Read the book of Proverbs.  The bottom line in the book of Proverbs is this:  It’s gonna be good for the good and bad for the bad, here and later.  That’s the bottom line in the book of Proverbs.  Good for the good, bad for the bad, now and later.  The axe head is at the root of the tree.  And, of course, ultimately, the great white throne judgment – terrible, fearful, fearful judgment.  So, John had to say judgment is just as near as the kingdom is near.  If the King comes, He comes not only to save, but He comes to judge and always the same.  By what you do with Jesus Christ, you determine whether He’s the Savior or the Judge. 

Then John spoke of Jesus. John said that he provided a baptism of repentance but that Jesus — unnamed here — was more powerful and coming after him; John said he was unworthy of carrying His sandals and that he would baptise the people with the Holy Spirit and fire (verse 11).

Henry says:

See how meanly he speaks of himself, that he might magnify Christ (v. 11); “I indeed baptize you with water, that is the utmost I can do.” Note, Sacraments derive not their efficacy from those who administer them; they can only apply the sign; it is Christ’s prerogative to give the thing signified, 1 Cor 3 6; 2 Kings 4 31. But he that comes after me is mightier than I. Though John had much power, for he came in the spirit and power of Elias, Christ has more; though John was truly great, great in the sight of the Lord (not a greater was born of woman), yet he thinks himself unworthy to be in the meanest place of attendance upon Christ, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear. He sees, (1.) How mighty Christ is, in comparison with him. Note, It is a great comfort to the faithful ministers, to think that Jesus Christ is mightier than they, can do that for them, and that by them, which they cannot do; his strength is perfected in their weakness. (2.) How mean he is in comparison with Christ, not worthy to carry his shoes after him! Note, Those whom God puts honour upon, are thereby made very humble and low in their own eyes; willing to be abased, so that Christ may be magnified; to be any thing, to be nothing, so that Christ may be all.

Of Christ’s forms of baptism, Henry tells us:

By the powerful working of his grace; He shall baptize you, that is, some of you, with the Holy Ghost and with fire. Note, [1.] It is Christ’s prerogative to baptize with the Holy Ghost. This he did in the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit conferred upon the apostles, to which Christ himself applies these words of John, Acts 1 5. This he does in the graces and comforts of the Spirit given to them that ask him, Luke 11 13; John 7 38, 39; See Acts 11 16. [2.] They who are baptized with the Holy Ghost are baptized as with fire; the seven spirits of God appear as seven lamps of fire, Rev 4 5. Is fire enlightening? So the Spirit is a Spirit of illumination. Is it warming? And do not their hearts burn within them? Is it consuming? And does not the Spirit of judgment, as a Spirit of burning, consume the dross of their corruptions? Does fire make all it seizes like itself? And does it move upwards? So does the Spirit make the soul holy like itself, and its tendency is heaven-ward. Christ says I am come to send fire, Luke 12 49.

John warned that Christ’s winnowing fork is in His hand and that he will clear the threshing floor, gathering His wheat — the saved — into His granary but burn the chaff with unquenchable fire (verse 12).

Henry explains:

By the final determinations of his judgment (v. 12); Whose fan is in his hand. His ability to distinguish, as the eternal wisdom of the Father, who sees all by a true light, and his authority to distinguish, as the Person to whom all judgment is committed, is the fan that is in his hand, Jer 15 7. Now he sits as a Refiner. Observe here [1.] The visible church is Christ’s floor; O my threshing, and the corn of my floor, Isa 21 10. The temple, a type of church, was built upon a threshing-floor. [2.] In this floor there is a mixture of wheat and chaff. True believers are as wheat, substantial, useful, and valuable; hypocrites are as chaff, light, and empty, useless and worthless, and carried about with every wind; these are now mixed, good and bad, under the same external profession; and in the same visible communion. [3.] There is a day coming when the floor shall be purged, and the wheat and chaff shall be separated. Something of this kind is often done in this world, when God calls his people out of Babylon, Rev 18 4. But it is the day of the last judgment that will be the great winnowing, distinguishing day, which will infallibly determine concerning doctrines and works (1 Cor 3 13), and concerning persons (ch. 25 32, 33), when saints and sinners shall be parted for ever. [4.] Heaven is the garner into which Jesus Christ will shortly gather all his wheat, and not a grain of it shall be lost: he will gather them as the ripe fruits were gathered in. Death’s scythe is made use of to gather them to their people. In heaven the saints are brought together, and no longer scattered; they are safe, and no longer exposed; separated from corrupt neighbours without, and corrupt affections within, and there is no chaff among them. They are not only gathered into the barn (ch. 13 30), but into the garner, where they are thoroughly purified. [5.] Hell is the unquenchable fire, which will burn up the chaff, which will certainly be the portion and punishment, and everlasting destruction, of hypocrites and unbelievers. So that here are life and death, good and evil, set before us; according as we now are in the field, we shall be then in the floor.

Before I forget, MacArthur has an English anecdote that needs correction. As he preached these sermons in 1978, he did not have the benefit of the Internet.

MacArthur’s sermon says:

The story goes that Lady Huntington was invited, or rather invited, I should say – the Duchess of Birmingham – to come to hear George Whitfield preach.  The duchess responded in this manner, quote, “It is monstrous to be told that you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth.  It is highly offensive and insulting,” end quote.  Well, Lady Huntington was insulted when George Whitfield attempted to call her to the recognition of sin, and consequently she never entered into the act of repentance.

I do wonder about the veracity of that story, since Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon (1707-1791), devoted her life to the Christian faith and to charity. George Whitefield became her personal chaplain and preached to invited guests in one of her homes in London. She had connections with Anglicanism, her first denomination, then Calvinism and, finally, Methodism, participating in the work of the Great Revival.

In closing, MacArthur tells us what made John the Baptist the greatest human that ever lived:

Number one, made him great, he was obedient to God’s Word.  From the very beginning of his life, he obeyed.  From the very start of his life, he obeyed.  He never wavered from the calling that God had given to him.  From the time that he was a little child, he obeyed God.  That’s part of greatness.

Second, he was filled with the Spirit.  Luke 1:15 says he “was filled with the Spirit from the time of his mother’s womb.”  He was great because he was obedient.  He was great because he was filled with the Spirit of God.  He was controlled by the Holy Spirit.

Thirdly, he was great because he was self-controlled.  Luke 1:15 says he, “drank neither wine nor strong drink.”  Matthew 3 says that, “His clothes were only what was necessary, and his food the same.”  The man had self-control.  The man had brought his body into subjection.  He didn’t overdo anything …

Fourth, he was great not only because of his obedience, because he was Spirit-controlled, because he was self-controlled, but because he was humble He was humble.  The greatest thing he ever said, I think, in this regard was when Jesus finally arrived on the scene, and the disciples who had so fallen in love with John the Baptist were gathered around John, and they said, “And, John, now what?  This, this is the Messiah, and He’s come, but, but what about you?”  And John said in John 3, in verse 30, “He must increase, and I must” – What? – “decrease.”  “It’s over for me, guys.  You go and give your love to Him.  I’m not even worthy to unlatch His shoe.”  Right?  That’s what he said.  Humble.

Fifth, he was great because he proclaimed God’s Word.  “Behold, the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world.  Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  You can hear him thundering it out, “He shall turn many of the people to righteousness.”  That’s the sixth He not only proclaimed God’s Word, he won people to Christ He was obedient, filled with the Spirit, self-controlled, humble, proclaiming God’s Word, and winning people to Christ.  “He shall turn many of the hearts of the people to righteousness.”  And he did.

You say, “Oh, boy, but even if I did all that, I’d never be as great as John.”  Hang onto your seat and listen to this.  Matthew 11:11 says, “Verily I say to you, among them that are born of women, there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist.”  Now listen to this.  “Nevertheless, he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”  You get that? Shock.  Listen, we’re in the kingdom; and any of us, the least of us in the kingdom, surpasses the one who foretold its coming.  We have all the resources he looked for.  We have all the realities he searched for.  We have all the blessings he anticipated.  We’re not greater in terms of character.  That isn’t what he’s saying.  We’re greater in terms of privilege and opportunity.

It’s like Jesus said to His disciples, “Greater things than these shall” – What? – “ye do, because I go to My Father.” We can be great for God.  The least of us, greater than the greatest who ever lived.  That’s what it is to be in His kingdom.  Are you grateful?

That is certainly something to ponder in the days ahead. So often, we take our spiritual blessings for granted, but they are the greatest gifts we can receive in this life, because the Lord gave them to us.

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