Gospel: Matthew 3:1-12
Epistle: Romans 15:4-13
Lesson: Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm: Psalm 72:1-7
CLB Commentary – Dr. David Veum
“Prepare to be redeemed!” Although this passage shouts the call for repentance and sounds the warning to the obstinate, we must remember that the quote from Isaiah was in the context of salvation. These verses, which are quoted in all four gospels, immediately follow the prophet’s pronouncement of comfort for those about to be rescued from captivity in Babylon. Yahweh will fill the valleys and level the hills in making a highway for his children to return.
As the gospel writers appropriately apply these words to the ministry of John the Baptist, they provide metaphors for both repentance and salvation. Those coming for baptism must level the hills of pride in their lives and fill the valleys of depravity to be ready for the Coming One. Of course, they cannot. Only the Coming One can accomplish this through his redemptive work, which will be brought to them in the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
It is the very admission of their need to level mountains and fill valleys along with the acknowledgement that they cannot accomplish this that typifies true repentance. The very word means to look back with regret at the situation one has created. This admission or confession accompanied their stepping into the water to be baptized by John. It brought about the fruit of a turning from the very sins they acknowledged.
But not all repented. John denounced the Pharisees and Sadducees as a generation of vipers. These Pharisees opposed Christ throughout the gospel, and the Sadducees eventually led the mob that crucified him. They mistakenly thought their connection to Abraham would save them. This was a lie from the Serpent himself. So insidious was his deception that they thought they could flee the coming wrath through the ritual of baptism but without the fruit of repentance.
Thus this text provides a fitting proclamation for the season of Advent, the season of preparation. It calls all of us to the confession of the mountains and valleys in our lives and our inability to remove them. It points to the greatness of the Coming One who does not baptize with sacramental water, but with the Holy Spirit himself, the Spirit that he will pour out once he has accomplished our redemption. It is a warning to those who refuse to repent that someday the Coming One will separate wheat from chaff and will burn the chaff eternally. Since there is still time even for the obstinate to repent, this text fittingly proclaims, “Prepare to be redeemed!”
“In those days” indicates a special time of revelation.
John resembles Elijah. See 2 Kings 1:8. At last the prophetic silence of 400 years has been broken.
That God is able to raise up children from the stones points to the salvation of the Gentiles. Children/stones. Word Biblical Commentary notes: “John’s statement appears to be a play on words, since in Aramaic (and Hebrew too) the word for ‘children’ (benayya’) is similar to that for ‘stones’ (’abnayya’).”
Who can level hills and fill valleys? Isaiah points to Yahweh. John may not yet have understood the deity of the Coming One. Certainly Matthew and his congregation did. But John did understand the greatness of this one. He uses a slave/master metaphor to compare himself to him. He is not even worthy to serve as his slave. And, he contrasts his baptism, which is through means, with the baptism of that One who shall actually baptize with the Holy Spirit and his cleansing fire.
Lenski’s comment should not be overlooked:
The “wrath” of God is mentioned over 300 times in the OT. It is the necessary reaction of God’s holiness and righteousness to sin as the persistent rejection of his love and his grace. It is always active, not merely at the end of the world. The coming wrath is a pregnant expression for the final manifestation of God’s wrath at the end of the world.
Finally, it should be noted that the Old Testament prophecies of the Coming of the Messiah typically do not differentiate between his first and second coming and between his coming in salvation and his coming in judgment. Likewise this text, with its clarion call to repentance, brings both messages with the intent that the reader will be prepared by Christ’s first coming for his second.