In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.'”
Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptised by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
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? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. 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. 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.
“I baptise you wiwth water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 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 narrative moves from Jesus’ birth and settlement in Nazareth to John the Forerunner. Chapters 1-2 would be like the introduction to Jesus’ story, John preparing the way for the protagonist. This is another fulfilment of Scripture, from Isaiah 40:3 (Matthew 3:3). He preached a baptism of repentance, for the kingdom of heaven is “at hand.”
“At hand” is a rather poor translation from the ESV. The word is ἢγγικεν (ēngiken), which is the Perfect Indicative Active, third person singular form of ἐγγίζω (engizo), “to come near” or “approach.” In this PIA form, the clause properly translates to “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The phrase “at hand” denotes a nearness that has not yet come. The proper translation, however, says the kingdom of heaven has come near. In other words, the kingdom has already come! And it is nearby! Then Jesus enters the scene in verse 13—He is the kingdom. The kingdom has already come in the person of Jesus, and He was nearby to these people.
Baptism and repentance go together. Those who were being baptised were confessing their sins (v. 6). Jesus’ baptism is different in that He baptises with the Holy Spirit, but this does not nullify repentance. Jesus’ Baptism is not a removal of the Forerunner’s baptism, but rather its fulfilment. You cannot say you are born anew in Baptism if you do not repent of the old Adam within you, for then nothing would have changed (and repentance means “change”).
“Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (v. 8). In other words, a genuine repentance (and baptism) cannot help but produce good fruit, just as a human being cannot help but breathe. The Jews who suddenly came cannot use the tactic that Abraham is their father as their justification since if God so desired, He could make children of Abraham out of these very stones. Any inauthentic repentance will be obvious by their works, and their futility will be thrown into the eternal fires like feckless chaff.
Again, Jesus’ Baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire is the fulfilment of the Forerunner’s baptism, not a removal. This fulfilment will begin with Jesus’ Baptism, then Pentecost, then our own baptism, which are “mini Pentecosts” (thanks to Rev. Dr. Leo Sánchez for this term). This Jesus will distinguish between genuine and ingenuine confessions with His winnowing fork (a farming tool used to separate the useless chaff from the real grain, the wind carrying the chaff away; cf. Psalm 1:3-4).
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©Hendrik van Balen I (1574/5-1632), The Preaching of Saint John the Baptist