A Kingdom at Hand

Scripture Reading

John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea
and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said:
A voice of one crying out in the desert,
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.
John wore clothing made of camel’s hair 
and had a leather belt around his waist.
His food was locusts and wild honey.
At that time Jerusalem, all Judea,
and the whole region around the Jordan
were going out to him
and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River
as they acknowledged their sins.

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 coming wrath?
Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.
And do not presume to say to yourselves, 
‘We have Abraham as our father.’

For I tell you, 
God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones.
Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees.
Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit 
will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, 
but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I.
I am not worthy to carry his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fan is in his hand.
He will clear his threshing floor 
and gather his wheat into his barn, 
but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
(Matthew 3:1-12)

Scripture Study

3:1 John the Baptist: The forerunner to the Messiah. A Levite (Lk 1:5) and relative of Jesus (Lk 1:36), John was considered a prophet by many Jews (21:26) and even by Jesus himself (11:9). His message was accompanied by an austere life of penance and self-denial (CCC 523). ● John’s clothing (3:4) recalls the OT prophet Elijah who “wore a garment of haircloth, with a belt of leather about his loins” (2 Kings 1:8). A figure like Elijah was expected to return before the Messiah (Mal 4:5) to begin restoring the tribes of Israel (Sir 48:10).

3:2 kingdom of heaven: The overarching theme of Matthew’s Gospel. The expression appears 32 times in the Gospel and is equivalent in meaning to “the kingdom of God” (see, e.g., 19:23–24). In their original Jewish context, the words “of heaven” helped to distinguish the kingdom proclaimed by John (3:2) and Jesus (4:17) from popular hopes for a literal restoration of Israel’s political empire (cf. Acts 1:6). Instead, it is a kingdom that comes from the Father in heaven (Mt 6:10). The presence of the kingdom is mediated through the Church in history (16:18–19); its full manifestation, however, awaits the coming of Christ in glory (25:31–46) (CCC 541, 669–71).

3:3 The voice of one crying: A quotation from Is 40:3. ● Isaiah’s oracle outlines John’s mission: he is the important figure who prepares the way of the Lord. All four Gospels connect Isaiah’s words with John’s ministry (Mk 1:3; Lk 3:4; Jn 1:23).

3:6 the river Jordan: Runs along the eastern side of Palestine. Its headwaters begin north of the Sea of Galilee, and it flows southward into the Dead Sea. ● In the OT, the Jordan is associated with God’s deliverance. Like the Red Sea, it parted so that the Israelites could cross over on dry ground and inherit the Promised Land (Josh 3:14–17). Naaman the Syrian was cleansed from leprosy at this location when he “dipped” (LXX: ebaptisato) seven times in the river at the command of Elisha (2 Kings 5:14). Both OT events prefigure the saving power of the Sacrament of Baptism (CCC 1222).

3:11 I baptize you: John’s baptism differed from sacramental Baptism, which confers forgiveness and the regenerating grace of justifying faith (Acts 2:38). His was a visible token of repentance and preparation for the Messiah (cf. Is 1:16; Heb 9:10; CCC 718). with water: John administered a baptism by water alone as a sign of purification. But as was shown in Noah’s day, water alone cannot cleanse the soul; the sinfulness of man’s heart remained unchanged even after the flood (Gen 6:5; 8:21). Only the Sacrament of Baptism infuses the Holy Spirit (Jn 3:5) and marks one’s adoption into God’s family (28:19) (CCC 1265). with fire: A symbol of God and his purifying judgment (Deut 4:24; Sir 2:5; Is 4:3–5; Acts 2:3–4; CCC 696).[1]

Scripture Reflection

John the Baptist’s words remind us of the tremendous power of Christian baptism. John’s baptism at the Jordan served as an important visible expression of one’s repentance in preparation for the messiah. Nevertheless, John recognized that his baptism paled in comparison to what Christ would offer: “The one who is coming after me is mightier than I.… He will baptize you with the holy Spirit” (3:11).

What makes the baptism that Christ offers so powerful? It imparts an identity that we could never earn on our own. Through baptism, God freely forgives all our sins and fills us with his Holy Spirit, making us his children—a status we could not achieve through our own efforts (CCC 1262, 1265). Christian baptism also gives us the power to live in a way that we could not do on our own. Baptism with the Holy Spirit does not merely express a desire to live a better life; it actually changes the person, uniting the soul with Christ’s death and resurrection and filling it with his divine life, so that it has the power to live and act under the prompting of the Holy Spirit (CCC 1227, 1262, 1265). Filled with Christ’s Spirit, the Christian can begin to love not with his own fallen, selfish love, but with Christ’s divine love overcoming his weaknesses. As St. Paul wrote, “yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20).[2]

May the virtues of faith, hope, and love go with you today – DV. 

 

 

 

[1] Curtis Mitch, “Introduction to the Gospels,” in The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: The New Testament (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010), 11-12.
[2] Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, The Gospel of Matthew, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 68.