Notes Matthew chapter 3
© copyright 1997 drs Gijs van den Brink
The Ministry of John the Baptist 3:1-12
1. In those days refers to the time when Jesus was living in Nazareth (2:23). Some thirty years separate the events of the second and third chapters.
John the Baptist came. John was the son of the priest Zacharias and his wife Elizabeth, who was a relative of Mary, the mother of Jesus (see Luke 1:36). At birth he had been called and set apart as the herald of the Messiah. His miraculous birth is described in Luke 1:5-25. Jesus grew up in Galilee, but John grew up in the highlands of Judea. He then preached in the wilderness of Judea (Judg 1:16; Ps 63:1), i.e., in the desert lands between the ridge of the mountains of Judea and the Dead Sea. His mission was a pioneering one and of short duration, but his influence has been great, extending even outside the Christian community (see Acts 18:25 and 19:1-7).
2. Repent means ‘turn around’. The Greek meta-noein suggests a change of mind, but not merely an intellectual one, but a change including the alteration of one’s goals and disposition. It suggests a total change, i.e., repentance for the sins of one’s old life and reverence and submission towards the God of the New Life.
The kingdom of heaven is near. This does not mean the universal everpresent kingship of God, but the Messiah’s Kingdom of Peace, foretold by the prophets and promised by God (see in particular Isa 2:2-5; Dan 2:44-45; Micah 4:1-5).
3. Isa 40:3 is quoted here.
This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah. The second word in the Greek sentence is gar,’for’ (so KJV) and emphasises the fact that John’s appearance and preaching had been prophesied in the OT. As the deliverance from Egypt took place in a passage through the wilderness, so also in the Last Days a way must be made ready in the wilderness for the Lord. This was fulfilled in the appearance of John the Baptist, the forerunner of the coming King. But the preparation for the coming of the Messiah is not the privilege of John alone, but is something that concerns the whole people (cf. v.2; Isa 40:9-11).
4. The appearance of John the Baptist reminds us strongly of Elijah (2 Kings 1:8). His clothing was probably characteristic of a prophet (Isa 20:2; Zech 13:4). In any case it was suitable for desert-dwellers. In conformity with his sober clothing, John also took plain food (cf. Matt 11:18). Four kinds of locust might be eaten (Lev 11:22). It was no unusual food for poor people. They were prepared in various ways with butter or honey as a side-dish (‘wild honey’: Judg 14:8-9; 1 Sam 14:25,27).
5. People came to hear John from the whole province and beyond (cf. 11:7-9), because he was generally considered to be a prophet (21:26).
6. They were baptised by him. The baptism of John must be considered in connection with his work. He prepared the people to meet the Christ, and that had to happen through repentance and faith. Therefore he baptized only those who confessed their sins.
Baptism in itself was not an invention of John’s. After the Exile, it was customary among the Jews to baptize those who wanted to join the Jewish religion (proselyte baptism). But for John baptism had another meaning. It was an outward sign of the confession of sin, which was necessary even for a Jew to escape the Wrath of God (v.7) and to benefit from the coming time of Salvation.
The word baptize (Greek baptizo) literally means ‘dip’ or ‘immerse’.
7. The Pharisees and Sadducees: two religious parties. The Pharisees were the stronger group (Acts 26:5). They were characterized by their zeal to keep the Law. They gave as much weight to the regulations they themselves had added to the Old Testament commandments as to the Scriptures themselves.
The Sadducees were the party of the priestly class, the spiritual nobility. They were more political than religious. They accepted only the authority of the five Books of Moses, and therefore did not believe in the resurrection of the Dead nor in the existence of angels and spirits (Acts 23:8).
Brood of vipers, i.e. children of a snake (cf.12:34; 23:33), is related to children of the devil (cf. John 8:44). As adders flee from an approaching forest fire, so did the Jews flee from the coming Judgement.
The coming wrath is God’s Last Judgement (Rom 2:5; 1 Thess 1:10), judgement to Gehenna, the lake of fire (Rev 20:11-15).
John’s question is rhetorical, with the stress on ‘who’. The answer is: not I.
8. Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. Fruit trees are useful only if they bear fruit. Conversion is much more than acceptance of a certain doctrine and includes a complete change (v.2). It is always to be seen in a person’s way of life, in his words and deeds (cf. Luke 3:10-14).
9. We have Abraham as our father. The religious leaders’ conception seems to have been a widespread one (cf. John 8:33-39). The Scribes taught that the merit of the Patriarchs, particularly Abraham, made up a store on which every Israelite could draw to complete his incomplete righteousness (SB I,117). But John rejected this idea and said that descent from Abraham was no substitute for conversion and good works.
Out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. As God had hewed Israel from the rock of Abraham (Isa 51:1), so was He now able to raise up children to Abraham from stones. The point is not that people belong to the natural lineage of Abraham, but that by faith and conversion they belong to the spiritual lineage of Abraham (cf. Rom 9:7-8; Gal 4:21-31). It is therefore possible that the stones are an image of the Gentiles.
10. The axe is already at the root of the trees. The felling of trees and the fire tell of God’s great Judgement of all godless peoples (Isa 10:33-34; 66:24). The axe laid to the root of the trees and the use of the present tense emphasise that this Judgement is near at hand. Everyone who does not bring forth good fruit is considered godless (see v.8;12:33).
11. I baptise you with water for repentance. John’s baptism and preaching remind us of Ezekiel’s prophecy in Ez.36:24-29, where mention is made of Israel’s cleansing and liberation from unrighteousness (by water!). Conversion implies a complete change (see commentary on v.2).
Whose sandals I am not fit to carry. Loosening and carrying someone’s shoes was such a humilation that a Jewish slave was not required to do it, only a heathen (Gentile) slave (SB I,121). Hence John saw himself in his relationship to Jesus as less than a heathen slave.
He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit. ‘Baptism with the Holy Ghost’ is the great promise for the time of Salvation: the Spirit of the Lord will be poured out (Isa 32:15; 44:3; Joel 3:1; Acts 2:1-4,16ff.).
And with fire. Fire here does not refer to cleansing fire, but to judgemental fire (see vv.10 and 12). John is preaching the old message that God and His Messiah will immerse the godless in the fires of Judgement (Isa 66:24; Mal 3:3,4).
Thus John the Baptist proclaims the coming Messiah as a complete representative of God: for the people of God He will bring the time of Salvation and the gifts of Salvation, but for the godless he will bring eternal Judgement.
12. His winnowing fork is in his hand. Threshing was done in the open air, usually on a hill-top. The grain was placed on a circle on the ground and trodden by oxen or asses (Deut 25:4; 1 Cor 9:9; 1 Tim 5:18), or beaten from the ear by a flail. To separate the chaff and other rough material from the grain, everything was thrown in the air by a winnowing-fan (in this case a wooden fork or shovel). The wind carried off the chaff, while the grain fell to the ground.
As the grain was gathered into the garner and the chaff burned, so the Messiah will gather the believers into His Kingdom and condemn the godless to Eternal Punishment (cf. Matt 13:30,42,50).
The Baptism of Jesus 3:13-17
13-14. John’s baptism was for those who needed the forgiveness of their sins. This is why it is not so strange that John should refuse to baptize Jesus in the first instance.
I need to be baptised by you. John’s reaction is not so strange to us, but the Scriptures tell us that John ‘knew Him not’ (KJV), i.e., that he had not seen a sign to prove that He was the Messiah (John 1:32-33). Yet he did know who He was, and much more: as unfitting as this baptism in water was for Jesus, so Jesus’ baptism in the Spirit was necessary for him.
15. Let it be so now. Jesus acknowledges John’s objection, but says that he must allow Him to be baptized, for both of them (it is proper for us) must be obedient to every godly institution (righteousness). Because John’s baptism was valid for all Israelites, Jesus, being an Israelite, had also to undergo it (cf. Matt 5:17). He had to be like his brothers in every respect.
Moreover, baptism signified for Jesus, in connection with receiving the Holy Ghost, a preparation for his ministry (see v.16).
16. Heaven was opened. The opening of the heaven is a sign that a divine revelation is to take place (cf. Isa 64:1).
The Spirit of God descending. Anointing with the Holy Ghost is the fulfilment of the Old Testament promises (Isa 11:2; 42:1; 61:1) and signifies the preparation of the Messiah for the work of the Servant of the Lord.
Like a dove. As John’s baptism is a sign of salvation from the Judgement to come (vv.6 and 7), so is the dove a sign of the end of the Judgement and the beginning of a new age (see Gen 8:8-12).
17. The whole Godhead is involved in this occurrence. The Holy Ghost, which comes over Jesus and the Father, who proclaims Him to be His Son.
This is my Son reminds us of Psalm 2:7, which deals with the Messianic King. In the Old Testament the beloved son is the only son (Gen 22:2,12,16). It tells us of the unique relationship between Jesus and the Father.
With him I am well pleased reminds us of Isa 42:1. It is the Servant of the Lord in whom God is well pleased.
We therefore conclude that the Father’s declaration means that Jesus is His only-begotten Son, who is to perform the task of the Messiah, a task which involves in the first instance that He must perform the works of the Servant of the Lord (cf. v.16).