St. John Lutheran Church-Drake
This Sunday is the Second Sunday in Advent, and with this gospel text [3:1-12], we are getting closer to the actual beginning of the Gospel according to Matthew. We are near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. And before this very important ministry came the also important ministry of John the Baptist, Jesus’ ‘forerunner’.
You can see a strong similarity between both people in 3:1 and 4:17. The following translation is somewhat literal:
And in those days John the Baptist arrives, proclaiming in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, ‘Repent! For the kingdom of the heavens has come near.’
From then on, Jesus began to proclaim and to say, ‘Repent! For the kingdom of the heavens has come near.’
Obviously, the strong similarity is at the end with the identical message. And there is a slight but significant difference at the very beginning. In the description of Jesus, the beginning of the text signals a major division in this gospel account, and the next time—and the only other time—that these words are used, the text is at 16:21, and Jesus is ready to go to Jerusalem and die. (The start of the other verse, with ‘in those days’, is also a significant description since the last ‘days’ that were mentioned were when Jesus was still a child; see 2:20-23)
It would be also good to make a comparison between the first verse of this Sunday’s text and the verse which follows immediately after this text (3:13). Here, again, is a literal translation:
Then Jesus arrives from Galilee at the Jordan toward John, to be baptized by him.
First, John the Baptist ‘arrives’. And then Jesus ‘arrives’. These two verbs are in a special form called the ‘historical present’. The writer COULD use the past tense of a verb, but he decides to use the present instead. And, in this case, the writer has chosen to use a very special word for ‘arrives’. The only other time that the writer used this word was when he described the coming of the magi, and there the tense is as we would normally expect. You might want to think of this word as ‘arrives on the scene’; whatever happens after the fact, it is important that this person is there.
If you have a translation that shows when there is an historical present (like the NASB), you can tell that the presence of this one verb these two times is significant. It is significant because there were just two other historical presents before these two; and they are the same word, AND they also have a similar meaning to ‘arrives’. In 2:13 & 19, when both the texts say that an angel of the Lord ‘appeared’ to Joseph, the texts actually say that the angel of the Lord ‘appears’ to Joseph.
That the verbs are in the present should get our attention and pull us into the account. An angel appears … twice! But then John the Baptist arrives ‘on the scene’. But then, even more important than that, is that JESUS arrives! And the ‘scene’ has significantly changed as a result. Angels have been said to have appeared during the time between the Old Testament and the New. But Jesus’ entrance is much more important than any appearance of any angel. Perhaps we are too used to the so-called ‘New' Testament to realize how special this is, that Jesus ‘arrives’.
There are, by the way, another pair of historical presents in the verses that follow this text. In 3:15, John the Baptist ‘lets’ Jesus be baptized, and in 4:11, the devil leaves; you could say that he ‘lets’ Jesus go.
Jesus comes. And then Jesus is ‘let go’; he leaves. But since he came, we are never the same.
- Rev. Paul Landgraf