Matthew chapter 3
In those days John the Dipper came preaching in the desert areas of Judaea, saying, “Change your lives, for the Rule of Heaven has drawn near!” He is the one mentioned by Isaiah the prophet:
A voice sounding in the desert
“ Make ready the road for the Lord,
Straighten his paths!”
John had clothing made of camel hair, and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judaea and all the Jordan countryside went out to him and were dipped by him in the River Jordan on confession of their sins. But when he saw numbers of Pharisees and Sadducees coming to to be dipped by him, he said to them, “Viper’s gets! Who warned you to run away from the approaching fury? So produce fruit that shows a changed life; and don’t think of saying to yourselves, “We have Abraham for our father.” I tell you, God can raise children for Abraham from these stones! Already the axe is set to the roots of the trees. Any tree that does not bear good fruit will be chopped down and thrown in the fire. I dip you in water for a changed life, but the One who comes after me is mightier than me; I am not good enough to carry his sandals! He will dip you in Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing shovel is in his hand and he will completely clean out his threshing floor; and he will gather his wheat into his granary; then burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
Whatever John actually said, he is remembered by Matthew’s vivid diatribe. As we say in Scotland, he disnae miss. All the gospel writers include the Dipper in their story, not just because Mark, a source for the others, did so, but because, in all probability, discipleship of him continued into the time of the gospellers. Following Mark, the other gospels a) present John as a typical prophet, perhaps as Ezekiel, and b) as the one who “dipped” Jesus at the outset of his ministry. This latter would have been difficult for the Jesus assemblies as it suggested that the Dipper had been, at least then, senior to Jesus. For this reason we may judge that the fact of Jesus’ dipping by John was well -known and and accepted. Each gospel deals with this fact in its own way. (See below)
John is also depicted as having the same message as Jesus, namely the imminence of the kingdom, the rule of God. That God rules his people is for the Torah, a commonplace, and for the prophets a promise of the future. For the dipper as presented by Matthew, that future is no longer distant but imminent, leaning into the present, demanding “metanoia” which is not repentance but a change of life / heart/ mind. Such a message is unlikely to be popular with the official guardians of religion.
This fact suits Matthew’s enmity to the Pharisees and Scribes, which probably arose out of the decisive leadership of the Pharisees after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, and their ultimate decision that followers of Jesus were not Orthodox Jews. John is shown denouncing them in language which is a foretaste of Jesus’ own critique of them.( Matthew 23)
The meme of the unfruitful tree is shared with the prophets and with Jesus. Israel was known as God’s vine or vineyard. The fruits of good deeds and justice were expected.
The meme of the axe, on the other hand, is an indicator of the arrival of the last times; judgement is at hand, and only a speedy change of life will prevent destruction. The ordinary farmer of course has nothing against the chaff, but once the wheat is in store, the chaff is good for nothing and can be burnt. The divine farmer will focus on the crop, and do away with the leftovers.
John the Dipper refers to the “One who comes after me” who in this context is Jesus, but may originally have been God the Judge. Jesus then is envisaged by Matthew as God’s stand-in, possessing the powers of God, in this case the ability to dip people in the Holy Spirit and fire.
Although Matthew incorporates Mark’s account of the Dipper, he extends it, especially in respect of the religious leaders and imminent judgement.
It is important for Matthew that the Dipper indicates the correct order of priority: he is only the forerunner who makes ready the road, as the quotation from Isaiah 40 eloquently makes clear.
1. John the Dipper: This is a translation; baptist is Greek. The word means to dip; in this context to do so as part of a ritual. Judaism did not have this ritual at least for Jews, but it was used for gentile converts, signalling the end of their former lives. The physical act retains the notion of cleansing, although it also gathered the sense of drowning, that is of dying to a former life and living in a new way. To offer dipping to Jews was to ask them to put themselves in the status of an outsider asking to come in. It would certainly take humility for any Jewish person to accept it.
2.,We have Abraham,,,,,. This would be the response of a practicing Jew: “We are children of Abraham; only outsiders need Dipping.”
3. Viper’s gets. The Scots word “get” probably started as a neutral term for offspring but took on unfavourable connotations. As such it is suitable for John’s dismissive attitude to the religious leaders.
4. Holy Spirit and fire. This would not originally have referred to the third person of the Christian Trinity, but to the Hebrew ‘Ruach” the wild and unsettling presence of Yahweh God, which is associated with fire, as at Sinai, and in the inspiration of the prophets. Here fire may suggest a cleansing more violent than John’s.
5. It is reasonable to point out that John’s warning about judgement is as much holy writ as any other bit of the Bible, and as such doesn’t hold out much hope for stubborn sinners. People like Putin will not be allowed to clutter God’s threshing floor.