Updated: May 2, 2022
A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 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. 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 40:3-5
Matthew has now established for us the pedigree of Jesus, His birthplace, and His fulfillment of many prophecies even through His birth and hometown. Now we skip many years ahead into Jesus' adulthood. Scholars tell us that Jesus would have been around the age of 30 when He began His ministry, which leaves a lot of curiosity for what He would have been up to in the meantime from His childhood through early adulthood. This side of Heaven I don't think we will find reliable answers to those questions, neither do I think they're really necessary. If you love to read, you probably recognize that many of the great epics you've read begin with some sort of Prologue, which done correctly introduces the main character, their background, and the stakes of the adventure they're about to have. Often after this Prologue time will pass before the meat of our story actually begins because whatever is happening in the interim has little to no importance in the grand arc of the story needing to be told.
All this to say, so much time has passed the King Herod's grandson, also named Herod, is now on the throne of Judea, and the religious leaders who would have answered the question of the wise men had most likely passed on their own mantles of leadership to the next generations. Therefore, Matthew's audience may have scoffed at this point, "That's a cute story about a baby from decades ago that may or may not have lived, how do we know this man you're claiming to be the Messiah is that child all grown up?"
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.’” Matthew 3:1-3
I think it's easy for us in the post-modern world to miss the significance of John the Baptist to his first-century audience. By the time John begins his ministry, there have been nearly 400 years of silence from God to His people with several false messiahs rising up in the gap only to be destroyed and their followers killed or scattered to the wind. For Christians we might experience this on a small self-inflicted scale when we go long periods without diving into God's Word, attending Church, or participating in any kind of worship. It is like being in a desert deprived of water and food, your greatest longing is for those things and it doesn't take much to be deceived by the mirage when you think you see what you want. In fact, being so deceived more than once by the taste of sand when you expected warm bread or only dry wind when you thought you'd finally found water, it would be doubly hard to believe the true oasis was finally on the horizon when it did appear. John the Baptist was like that first taste of true living water after that terrible desert, should it surprise us then that he came out of the wilderness to declare that the True Messiah has finally arrived?!
The next thing we're going to realize is the responses of two different groups of people to the teaching of John.
First for the everyday people such as you and me,
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 baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Matthew 3:4-6
Second, we see the new generation of religious leaders,
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 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. 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.” Matthew 3:7-12
This astounding rebuke would have had these "holy men" of the day grinding their teeth in anger at John as they watched their congregations follow his teaching en masse. Besides calling them a brood of vipers, why would this have upset them? I think the first thing we see John saying here is that these "holy men" don't believe that they need to repent of anything, they don't believe that God's wrath is coming for them so why should they flee from it? They do believe that because they're descendants of Abraham and Priests no less that they are more than covered by their own righteous pedigree. This is certainly something interesting for Matthew's telling to point out, right after he gets done establishing the pedigree of the Messiah.
The second thing I think John is pointing us toward in this exhortation are two images that Jesus Himself will use later on in His ministry: that of the tree destroyed for its bad fruit or having born no fruit at all and that of the wheat being threshed from the chaff.
In other words, judgment is indeed coming for these arrogant men and it won't be their lineage that saves them. Consider that out of their twisted attitude toward the Law and God they were trying to work their way into righteousness like a pine tree trying to produce figs.
Even the baptism of repentance that John taught was only the beginning, a preparation of the hearts of the people to receive the Messiah. John nor these leaders had the power to save the souls of the people much less their own souls, they could only turn their hearts and eyes in either the right direction of repentance and faith or the wrong direction. The fruit of the ministries of these Pharisees and Sadducees had propped up the Law as the god of the people in place of the Law Giver leaving no room for mercy or grace on the part of the Judge.
Then Jesus came down to the Jordan to be baptized.
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Matthew 3:13-17
If you're feeling immediately confused about why Jesus would insist on being baptized, believe me, you are not alone. After all, we understand baptism in the Christian's case to be a symbol of the death of their old sinful self with Christ on the cross, the burial of that sin in the grave, and the resurrection with Christ to new life. Jesus already being the embodiment of righteousness living a perfectly sinless life would not need this act of atonement or to symbolically declare it. Especially when we learn earlier in this chapter that John's baptism is one of confession (3:6) and repentance (3:11) which Jesus definitely would not need to do as the sinless Savior. John himself seems to make this very argument in verse 14. Yet Jesus answers him and in doing so persuades him by saying that, "it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." Meditate on this answer and consider it, the most compelling explanation I've heard for this answer is by Pastor John Piper who says that Jesus as the fulfillment of all righteousness on our behalf saw it as fitting to be baptized. Picture it this way, Jesus was showing us that to live a truly righteous life we must come before God in an attitude of humility and repentance. Oh, how different that is from the self-declared "holy men" who had come out from the city of Jerusalem to sneer at the people being baptized by John considering themselves far too righteous to face the wrath of God that these lowly peasants were so in danger of facing.
Paul, a former religious leader himself, would later put it this way in his letter to the church at Philippi:
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— Philippians 3:8-9
He had lost his wealth, position, and reputation among the "holiest scholars" and "keepers of the Law" of his day. Paul had suffered many things for the sake of knowing Christ as his Lord. Yet he says, it is not my pedigree, it is not my position in society, it is not my worth in the eyes of men or my good works that make me righteous in the eyes of God. My righteousness comes through faith in Christ and is from God, nothing else can save me!