Advent 2 • Matthew 3:1–12 • December 5, 2010
by Jeffrey A. Gibbs
Historically Specific Theology
Matthew begins by writing, “and in those days.” Recalling that chapter divisions are later additions and (sometimes) unhelpful, I would encourage the following understanding: there is no “break” between chapters 2 and 3. Even though we know that there is a gap of several decades, Matthew’s narrative flows seamlessly. The “days” of John the Baptizer’s ministry are the same as “those days” of chapter 2. And to be specific, those are the days of fulfillment when the OT promises to Israel are finally happening—in Jesus. John’s ministry is also part and parcel of the unique moment in history when God’s promises to and through Israel on behalf of the world begin to come true. The fulfillment theme is made explicit through the Isaiah 40:3 quotation, and it is implicit in the description of John that shows that he looks like the long-promised Elijah (2 Kgs 1:8; Mal 3:1, 23; Mt 11:7–15).
The figure of John is introduced, and his basic message is summarized: “Repent, for the reign of heaven has come near” (3:2). The reign of heaven is not a place (the default meaning of the English “kingdom”), and it is certainly not an internal experience. Rather, it is the kingly deeds of God long foretold and long awaited; the “reign of heaven” (= reign of God) is God’s intervention, his “reigning.” God has broken into human history through the one whom John is announcing. Even more than this, it is the beginning of the end of all things, as history’s consummation already intrudes into the present time.
John’s call to repentance refers in the first place to what we might call “being converted.” As Jesus’s teaching will make clear, the people in Judea and Galilee can be generally described as the “lost sheep which are the house of Israel” (10:6; 15:24). Thus John’s preaching (and Jesus’s after him) is both unexpected and radical. John is no “covenantal nomist,” who believes that most, if not all, Jews were in a saving covenantal relationship with their God. No, a radical turning must happen, and that because God has now, in Jesus, begun to do his kingly deeds of restoring all things. God’s power is at work, for there is a great response to John’s preaching and John’s baptism. Many come, acknowledging their need for conversion and confessing their sins—the very sins from which Jesus has come to same them (Mt 1:21).
Religious leaders also come, however, and in the form of an unlikely alliance. Pharisees and Sadducees come together—but only together because they have come to examine John’s baptism. John, however, denounces them in the fiercest terms, for he perceives no true repentance. Descent from Abraham means nothing. God’s judgment is surely coming, and those without fruit-full repentance will be cut down and destroyed. Indeed, John announces the coming of the agent of God’s judgment, both for salvation and for destruction. As powerful as John’s ministry and baptism are, he knows of one who will, on the Last Day, baptize with the Holy Spirit (for final salva- tion) and with fire (for final condemnation). The time is urgent; God has begun to act. Human response can only be to confess sins, turn to God and look for what he is going to do through his agent.
The reading does not reveal “timeless theological truths.” It proclaims the time when God began a work, a new work that is still going on. Proper proclamation must somehow invite the congregation to embrace the understanding that God is the Lord of history and that the congregation’s life, and the members’ lives, are merely (but not unimportantly!) located in the flow of what God is doing for the world.
Long ago (to us), John announced that God had begun a new thing. The call to repentance reveals that it was into a broken and rebellious world that God’s new deeds in Jesus had penetrated. The ultimate goal of God’s reign in Jesus is the Last Day, when separation of repentant from rebellious will take place.
Christian congregations must have (or regain) a sense of their temporal location in the plan of God for the world. God in Jesus, through the Spirit and his means, is still at work in the world even as that world continues in rebellion. Where Jesus is present—in the gospel and the sacraments—God is reigning to call a people together as a community to be salt and light for the world (5:13–16). The Last Day is coming near, when all will finally be put right—God’s repentant people will be known and his stubborn enemies will be turned away into the hell of judgment. Nothing matters but a response to John’s message; nothing matters but to repent and to embrace Jesus in faith.
Christians will acknowledge again the need for God to reign over and repair the world; and to reign over and repair their lives. Christians will also marvel and rejoice over God’s unexpected reign in Jesus. As Matthew (and the whole NT) proclaim, God’s mighty agent of judgment has come in astonishing and unexpected ways—to be baptized in the place of sinners (3:13–17) and ultimately to suffer and die for their sins. God vindicated his Son, and now the Son’s work continues in the world—in the congregation—as God’s people wait for the day.