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Free Sample for December 8, 2013
By David Howell
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Preaching Matthew 3:1-12
All the Synoptic Gospels include the proclamation of John the Baptist (Mt 3:1-12; Mk 1:2-6; Lk 3:1-6), yet each one is unique in its theological point of view. While Mark and Luke stress John’s role as the one who administers "a baptism of repentance," Matthew describes John as an impassioned prophetic preacher by putting on his lips the urgent message, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near" (v. 2).
Matthew seems to consider two different audiences with this passage. One is the ordinary people who came from Jerusalem, Judea, and the region along the Jordan to hear John’s preaching and who were baptized by him with water, "confessing their sins" (vv. 5-6). Matthew probably identifies them with the members of his own church. The other audience is the two leading groups of Judaic society in Matthew’s time, the Pharisees and Sadducees. To them, John’s words are harsh. He rebukes them for their hypocrisy by calling them the "brood of vipers" (v. 7) and declares God’s judgment against them unless they discard their vanity about themselves as the offspring of Abraham. John urges them to "bear fruit worthy of repentance" (v. 8-10).
The climax of John’s preaching is in the words given to the former audience, the baptized members of the church, in verse 11. To them, John tells about himself as the precursor of the one who is more powerful than he and explains that his baptism of repentance with water is to prepare "the way of the Lord" who will come and baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire. However, John’s message does not end here. He proclaims the cataclysmic judgment of the Lord: "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" (v. 12). It is noteworthy that these words of judgment to the baptized are basically the same as what was delivered to the unbaptized, the pompous leaders of society, in verses 8-10. In other words, through the prophetic voice of John, Matthew warns the members of his own church that God will judge them as equally as God does unbelievers, according to their "fruit worthy of repentance."
How, then, can John’s message of judgment be good news for the listeners? Actually, John’s imperative, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near," dominates the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus begins his preaching ministry with this message (4:17), and later his twelve disciples are commissioned to "go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near’" (10:7; cf., 28:16-20). It is, for Matthew, good news for both believers and unbelievers, for it proclaims that God’s reign with the sovereign power of heaven over the earth has come near us. Matthew alludes that it is now time to think in a new way about our lives and world order, since the nearness of God’s reign awakens us to see our world from God’s point of view. The leaders of society should no longer oppress people to secure their power and privilege, because God’s sovereign power will reign over the world. Meanwhile, the powerless will no longer suffer oppression, because, in the kingdom of heaven, all who bear fruit worthy of repentance will become the children of God, the descendants of Abraham, regardless of their class, gender, race, and ethnicity. From beginning to end, this good news of the kingdom of heaven is the major theological theme of Matthew.
The good news, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near," is indeed the joyful message for the church. It is, however, a challenge for the believers to think concretely about what sins they should repent. Contrary to Luke (3:10-14), Matthew is not specific about what to repent and how to bear fruit of the Spirit, but he provides us with at least two clues. First, in the previous chapter, he indicts the violence of Herod that "killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under" (2:16-18) against God’s salvific plan in Jesus Christ. Where were the religious people, especially, the religious leaders of the society, when such an unjust act was taken by the political leaders? In our contemporary context, churches and their leaders might be indifferent to politics and make every effort to secure their so-called religious freedom or their prestigious status in society rather than give to the public a prophetic voice against injustice. The second clue that Matthew provides us with is that, like his church, many of our churches are racially and ethnically homogenous communities. Like his church, our churches need to overhear John’s sarcastic criticism of the Pharisees and Sadducees: "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" (v. 9). John’s words are a reminder that God is free to choose anyone to be the children of God to replace the church with. Unfortunately, Christians tend to be exclusive by considering that they are the only children of God and that they would be exempted from God’s judgment. However, Matthew calls our contemporary churches, most of which are racially and ethnically homogenous, to repent of their racial and ethnic prejudice and feelings of religious superiority, and he urges us to bear fruit worthy of repentance.
Eunjoo Mary Kim
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