Clearing the Way for God - Matthew 3:1–12

Many years ago, my wife and I attended a live taping of a late-night talk show. Before the famous host came on stage to welcome us and begin the show, a comedian came on stage. He told some jokes and warmed up the crowd. But more importantly, he gave the audience essential instructions for how to respond to things going on during the show. We should smile, clap loudly, and show enthusiasm, especially before and after the commercial breaks. After that, the host appeared. Then the show began, with the host playing his part and the audience playing our part, which we understood because the comedian, who served as the forerunner to the show host, had prepped us. In a similar way, John the Baptist was a forerunner Jesus Christ with these important instructions for the people: they should prepare the way of the LORD. This meant they should clear the way of whatever was in their hearts and lives that could come between them and God; in this way, they would “make the path straight” for the presence of God within them.

Clearing the Way for God - Matthew 3:1-12

The reason was simple, and it’s as true now as it was then: The hearts of all people contain barriers that obstruct the LORD’s work in us. Imagine something like a roadblock, hindering the presence and power of God in your life.

And yet God makes it possible for the way to be made clear. And so our desire should be for a clear way for God’s unhindered work in our lives. But how does God make it possible for the way to be cleared? We see three ways here in Matthew 3.
1. God makes it possible for the way to be cleared by a demand for real change. (v.1-9) 2. God makes it possible for the way to be cleared by a warning of real consequence. (v.10,12) 3. God makes it possible for the way to be cleared by an outpouring of real help. (v.11) 

So let’s look together at these.

First, by a demand for real change. (v.1-9)

Keep in mind here that Jesus has not begun his earthly ministry yet.
For that reason, OC principles still apply. Specifically, God’s call for his people to return to him, for them to repent or turn from their sin. John’s call is in line with the prophets from years ago. Notice verse [2], he says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” And [4], Now John wore a garment of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. He sounds like some strange mountain man or homeless person. But he looked like the prophets of old, specifically the last prophet, Elijah. After Elijah, God had been silent for many, many year. John sounded like those OC prophets. Matthew tells us, verse 3, that John in the one spoken of by one of the greatest prophets, Isaiah. When Isaiah first wrote those words, he had just stated that God was going to send Israel into exile because of their sin, but with this statement Isaiah declared that God would deliver them from the exile.
This later happened when the Babylonian king Cyrus allowed them to return to their land after having been deported when they were conquered. They rejoiced at that time, but not fully, because they weren’t entirely free. They weren’t free like they were in the time of king David, or like they were when Moses led them out of slavery in Egypt. So the actions of Cyrus were only a partial fulfillment of the prophecy of return from exile. And it makes sense, because even if they had been made completely free, there would still remain a complete fulfillment, an all-inclusive return, a fully-comprehensive freedom that they would need. 

They would need freedom from the same bondage that plagued them after Egypt, and during David’s reign, and when they went to Babylon, and when they came out. They needed freedom from sin. The prophets had begun talking about this coming freedom. It would be another exodus. And when the time had come for this second exodus,
there would be a voice crying out. Isaiah says, in chapter 40, [3] A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. [4] Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. [5] And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” Isaiah 57 says that God is going to “remove every obstruction,” 
and yet Isaiah 62 says that the people must also clear the way. They would do this through true repentance, through real change of behavior that reflects authentic faith. Words would not be enough.

God demanded more than simply lip service, more than simply feelings of remorse. So see verse [5] Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, [6] and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

These are Jewish people, Hebrews, whether born into it or having joined them. The baptism is not identical with Christian baptism. This is not a Trinitarian baptism. Baptism already existed at that time, much the same way that circumcision existed  before God instructed Abraham to do it. Again, Christ had not yet begun his ministry,  and it wouldn’t be until his death that he inaugurated the new covenant, which he did by the shedding of his blood. So as I said before, these are still Old Covenant times, but this is something of a transitional time in redemptive history. John the Baptist is a transitional figure. He’s the last Old Covenant prophet. He marks the end of an era.

So it makes sense that his message is “return to the LORD” like we heard in the book of Joel. And naturally, faith preceded their repentance. How could they return to a God whom they did not trust? Baptism in the first-century was a ritual of purification, that interestingly, was self-administered. You would baptize yourself. John was apparently the first to baptize others, but even more interesting is that the Jews need this. They need to be made clean. But submission to baptism would be useless if they didn’t change their ways. Which comes up when the Jewish religious leaders arrive.
Verse [7] But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? [8] Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. Strong language. I wouldn’t welcome visitors to GS in this way! But these leaders were everything that was wrong with Israel. They were notorious for saying the right things but not reflecting them in their lives. John’s call to repent and be baptized by him was a call to admit that they were unclean.

Jews had rituals for being made clean. There were rules established by God. But a true understanding of the Old Testament rules and laws comprehends that only God can make a person clean. A common response would be to say that they had kept the laws, and have descended from Abraham, they were clean before God. John the Baptist debunks that view. He says, [9] 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. Being acceptable to God is not a matter of race or ethnicity. Now, John didn’t just look around and find some object to make his point,
like if I pointed to these music stands and said “if you don’t praise God, 
he can make these music stands do it.”

There in the shallow water of the Jordan River, he may have seen many rocks, but he’s referring to Isaiah 51, which says, “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the LORD: look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. [2] Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you.

To “hew” – h-e-w – is to break into pieces. The descendants of Abraham and Sarah are like little stones broken off a big rock. All those little rocks should offer true worship to God through faith and repentance, but they aren’t. So, God will raise up children for Abraham from these other rocks, these other nations, these other tribes and races. They will be children for Abraham. They will be joined with the genuine Jewish believers to form the true people of Israel, as Paul explains in Romans 9 and Galatians 3. God’s people are so by faith, not by birth.

Don’t people naturally point to their accomplishments or family history, or church or denominational background as evidence for why they are right with God? People think, ‘I’ve done this,’ or ‘I’ve avoided that, so I’m a Christian.’‘I’m associated with this group,’ ‘I was baptized at this church,’‘I’m a member at that church,’ ‘My parents or grandparents were members.’ People can even expect that consistency in things like prayer, Bible reading or memorization, church attendance, or ministry experience is what ensures that they are right with God.

But an essential component of gospel preaching is helping people see that while those things are nice, they don’t make you right with God. None of those things make an unclean person clean. So, you can see how JTB was a worthy forerunner to Jesus Christ. He’s paving the way for the gospel. Many first-century Jews misunderstood
how to be made clean. Therefore, they were not going to understand Jesus Christ.
They needed to be prepped or instructed to clear the way in their hearts
for the one who would make them clean. These people coming for baptism had faith in Yahweh, the God of the covenant. Here you see clearly an example of the continuity from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant. John’s baptism demonstrates that people are saved by faith alone through grace alone. 
Always have been, always will be.

We are on the other side of the inauguration of the new covenant in Jesus Christ. Do your actions in your life reflect the words of your mouth? You prayed a prayer of salvation, you were baptized, so what? God demands real change. True faith is demonstrated by real change.

Also, God makes it possible for the way to be cleared by a warning of real consequences.

The reality of judgment is sobering.  It reminds that what we do matters. That is John’s purpose here. Notice verse [10], he says, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” and then verse [12] His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” The people of Israel are referred to as “trees” in both Isaiah and Jeremiah. The fruit of the tree is a clear indicator of the condition of the tree.
We have a small tree in our front yard that has never been quite right. I have a friend who is an arborist. And when he was at my house, I asked him to look at the tree. The trunk is deformed in places, and the growth of the tree seems stunted. I wanted to know what I could do to fix it. His answer was disappointing. He said that it’s a bad tree and it will likely always be a bad tree. He said I’m better off to just replace it. So according to his expert opinion, what’s it good for? Well, you could cut it down and burn it on a fire. Get some use out of it. But it’s never going to flourish.

That is the message of John here. The wrath of God, the impending judgment, is so close. Like a tree about to be cut, the axe is sharp and aimed right at the base of the trunk. In verse 12, John makes another comparison. He describes Jesus Christ, though he doesn’t name him yet, but this is a clear reference to the Messiah, and the Messiah is a like a man harvesting his grain. He takes his winnowing fork, and he works it like a shovel. He gets a fork full of grain and tosses it high in the air. This was the process for winnowing  or separating the grain (which was the good part) from the chaff (or the trash part). The chaff was the useless husk. Like this separation of grain and chaff, the Messiah is going to separate people into two groups. He’ll gather his “wheat” into his “barn,” so to speak. And the chaff he’ll burn. The images of heaven and hell here is unmistakable. Jesus himself would reference hell later in Matthew’s gospel. This is a real warning of consequences that compels people to clear the way for the LORD in our hearts. God points out the difference between lip service and true repentance, and he points out the difference between eternal peace with himself and eternal punishment.

I realize people don’t like to hear about hell. Many folks don’t believe in it, 
or they have various ideas of what it is. You might want to discard that doctrine from your personal system of belief because you don’t think it’s fair or you see it as cruel and unjust. I get that. But are you willing to take upon yourself the mantle of determining what is fair and just, to then turning to almighty God and dictating that to him? Better to do this: consider your own evil ways, consider the brutality of the cross of Jesus Christ, and think about how great the punishment awaiting you must have been for Jesus to have to die the kind of death he died? How severe the consequences for sin? We need to clear the way for the LORD of Glory to work in our lives, and the warning of real consequences sobers us and makes it possible.

And finally, an outpours of real help makes clearing the way possible. (v.11)

Look back at verse [11], John says, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. 
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” It’s clear that John is subordinate to Jesus. John himself is not the Messiah. John references a future event called Pentecost, an event in Acts 2 in the New Testament that was the fulfillment of Joel 2 in the Old Testament. Joel 2 says that in “the last days” the Spirit would be poured out on the people of God.

In Acts 2, we see that pouring, that baptism. That’s one reason why we pour the water of baptism. God poured out his Spirit, and in doing so, he provided an outpouring of real help to clear the way for his work. Why did they need help?  Why do we need help? Because repentance alone will not sustain obedience. The words of Jeremiah must be fulfilled. A new covenant had to be inaugurated. When Moses inaugurated the covenant at Mt. Sinai, he fulfilled the next phase in the development of the covenant with Abraham. They slaughtered animals, and Exodus 24 says, [8] Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you.” Jesus no doubt had Exodus 24 in mind when he said in Luke 22 at the Last Supper, [20] “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” Same language, only Jesus personalizes “the blood.”

This would fulfill the words of Jeremiah 31: The LORD says [31] “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, [32] not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. [33] For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel…I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

That is real help – the help we need to clear the way for the LORD Jesus. While we should make efforts toward real change, and while we should heed the LORD’s warning of judgment, without this help, it’s all useless. In John 14, Jesus says, [16] I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever,” The Helper is the Holy Spirit of God poured on God’s people.

Jesus says in John 16 that the Helper would glorify him. J.I. Packer writes, “Think of it this way. It is as if the Spirit stands behind us, throwing light over our shoulder on to Jesus who stands facing us. The Spirit's message to us is never, "Look at me; listen to me; come to me; get to know me", but always, "Look at him, and see his glory; listen to him and hear his word; go to him and have life; get to know him and taste his gift of joy and peace." Packer adds, “The Spirit, we might say, is the matchmaker…whose role it is to bring us and Christ together and ensure that we stay together.”

How do we receive the Spirit? We can try to change, we can fear judgment, but receiving the Spirit of God…only God can make that happen. In John 3, Jesus calls it being “born again.” Are you born again? Are you responding to the Spirit’s help by recognizing your desperate need for Jesus?

As we go to the table today, it is Jesus whom we need to see. We confess our sin to clear the way. We turn from sin to clear the way. We receive the Spirit’s help to clear the way. May the Spirit enlightened the eyes of our hearts to know Jesus’ love and power.

Let’s pray together.