The Ministry of John the Baptist

3:1 In those days John the Baptist came into the wilderness of Judea proclaiming, 3:2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” 3:3 For he is the one about whom Isaiah the prophet had spoken:
“The voice of one shouting in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make his paths straight.’ ”

In those days – A general reference to time, compared with Luke’s precision.  Clearly, it is many years after the infancy narratives which Matthew has just related.

Mt 3:1–12 = Mk 1:3–8; Lk 3:2–17

Proclaiming– The word means ‘to make known by a herald’, and thus implies ‘a message given by authority to the proclaimer, not a free composition of his own.’ (Morris)

The wilderness of Judea – A barren, uninhabited wasteland extending along the western shore of the Dead Sea.

“Repent” – This was also the first word of Jesus’ recorded preaching, Mt 4:17, and also of his disciples when they were sent out, Mk 6:12.  In Greek writing, the word simply means ‘a change of mind’, regardless of whether that change is from bad to good or from good to bad.  But on the lips of John and others, it becomes a command to adopt an entirely new course of life.

“The kingdom of heaven is near” – This expression is equivalent to ‘the kingdom of God’, which is used more frequently in the other Gospels.  Matthew’s use reflects the Jewish desire to avoid speaking the divine name.

‘Kingdom’ should be understood dynamically, as ‘kingly rule’, rather than statically, as ‘realm’.

‘Matthew is careful to show the continuity between John’s mission and that of Jesus. John’s proclamation in v 2 is the same as that of Jesus in Mt 4:17 (and of his disciples in Mt 10:7). Echoes of John’s words also occur later in Jesus’ teaching (see Mt 7:16, 19; 12:34; 13:30; 23:33), while Mt 8:10–12 reinforces John’s warning against relying on Jewish racial origin alone. John was thus not just a curtain-raiser for the coming of Jesus; he was already launching the mission which Jesus would develop.’ (NBC)

Isa 40:3 is quoted, almost verbatim, from the LXX.  In the same section of Isaiah, God speaks words of comfort to those who are in exile in Babylon.  Here, then, is a hint of the ‘end of exile’ theme that may be discerned in various ways in Matthew’s Gospel.

“The Lord” – The title which in Isaiah is used for Yahweh is here applied to Christ.

“Make straight paths for him” – Probably the removal of bumps, rather than of bends.  In ancient times, efforts would be made to smooth out the roads in preparation for the visit of some important person.  It is a clear for to prepare for the coming of the Lord, and to remove all obstacles and hindrances in his way.

3:4 Now John wore clothing made from camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his diet consisted of locusts and wild honey. 3:5 Then people from Jerusalem, as well as all Judea and all the region around the Jordan, were going out to him, 3:6 and he was baptizing them in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins.

The picture is of a man who lived simply, in the prophetic tradition.

Locusts – cf. Lev 11:22

Baptized – We should try to get behind our own usual image of baptism and see it as a dramatic picture of plunging, sinking, and even drowning.  It signified death to an old way of life, and then rising to a new way of life.

‘As one of the conditions of becoming a proselyte to Judaism, the person had to immerse himself in water (also be circumcised if a male and offer a sacrifice). To be baptized by John was a striking aligning of oneself with his message. John had no organization to join; those being baptized were already Jews; and the church was not yet in existence. So they were acknowledging the truth of his message and siding with righteousness.’ (Ryrie)

‘When, at the diaspora, numerous Gentiles sought admission to Israel, the required public repentance and acceptance of Mosaic Law was accompanied by immersion in water, symbolizing and effecting religious, moral, and ritual cleansing from the defilements of paganism. Ancient Jewish discussions (echoed in 1 Cor 10:2) support a pre-Christian date for this proselyte baptism. This is why John’s baptism needed no explanation, though his authority to perform it was challenged and his demand for purification of “children of Abraham” gave deep offense.’ (Mt 3:7-9; Jn 1:19-24) (EDBT)

3:7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 3:8 Therefore produce fruit that proves your repentance, 3:9 and don’t think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones! 3:10 Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

Pharisees – ‘The Pharisees were the most influential of the Jewish sects at the time of Christ. Though holding orthodox doctrines, their zeal for the Mosaic Law led them to a degenerate, though strict, outward observance of both the law and their equally authoritative (in their own eyes) interpretations of it. They knew the Scriptures (Mt 23:2), tithed, (Lk 18:12) fasted (Mt 9:14), and prayed; (Mk 12:40) but they were also hypocritical (Mt 23:15), self-righteous, (Lk 18:9) and the foremost persecutors of the Lord (Mt 9:3).’ Ryrie)

Sadducees – ‘The Sadducees, whose membership came largely from the priesthood and upper classes, were the anti-supernaturalists of Christ’s day. They denied the truth of bodily resurrection, of future punishment and reward, and of the existence of angels. (Ac 23:8) Though they upheld the written law of Moses, they were opposed to the oral traditions observed by the Pharisees. They were the party of the high-priestly families of Jerusalem with direct interests in the apparatus of Temple worship and generally collaborated with the Roman rulers. They opposed Christ as vigorously as the Pharisees and were condemned by him as severely, though not so frequently (Mt 16:1-4, 6).’ (Ryrie)

Coming to his baptism – It is pretty clear from John’s scathing comments that he refused to baptise them.  This receives independent support from Lk 7:29f.  The two passages, then, have the character of an undesigned coincidence.

“You offspring of vipers!”

“Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” – ‘The implication is that they had no real repentance but only a desire to escape divine retribution.’ (Morris)

‘This is Matthew’s only use of wrath, but it is an important New Testament concept. It stands for the settled opposition of God’s holy nature to everything that is evil. We are not to think that God is mildly displeased when people sin. He is totally and vigorously opposed to evil, and the Bible expresses this by speaking of his wrath. It is the consistent teaching of Scripture that this wrath will be manifested in all its vigor at the end of the age, when evil will finally be punished.’ (Morris)

Flee from the wrath to come!

‘All the while thou delayest, God is more provoked, the wicked one more encouraged, thy heart more hardened, they debts more increased, thy soul more endangered, and all the difficulties of conversion more and more multiplied upon thee, having a day more to repent of, and a day less to repent in’ (George Swinnock).

“Fruit” – the word is singular. ‘John is not inviting people to pile up good works; he is looking for a change in the orientation of the whole of life that will result in fruitful living.’ (Morris)

“Do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’” – Do not think that the fact you are Jews renders you immune from God’s judgment.

‘The common teaching of that day said that the Jews participated in the merits of Abraham, which made their prayers acceptable, helped in war, expiated sins, appeased the wrath of God, and assured a share in God’s eternal kingdom. Consequently, the people were startled when John and Jesus preached the necessity of personal repentance.’ (Ryrie)

‘No place of privilege counts in the face of the demands of an all-holy and all-powerful God.’ (Morris)  What other privileges might people be tempted to rely on?

The ax is already – Time is running out; judgment is near.

‘Does John seem too stern? Jesus spoke with similar sternness; no gospel is needed if there is no judgment.’ (Filson)

3:11 “I baptize you with water, for repentance, but the one coming after me is more powerful than I am—I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 3:12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clean out his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire.”

“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” – ‘The verbal form, ‘baptize(d) with the Holy Spirit’, occurs seven times in the Bible. Six refer to John the Baptist’s contrast between his preparatory heralding ministry, baptizing ‘with water’, and Jesus’ coming Messianic ministry, baptizing ‘with the Holy Spirit’. (Mt 3:11; Mk 1:8; Lk 3:16; Jn 1:33; Acts 1:5; 11:16) It also occurs when Paul expounds the essential unity of the experience of the Spirit in all of God’s people: ‘we were all baptised by one Spirit into one body’. (1 Cor 12:13)

In Scripture ‘baptism in the Spirit’ belongs to that complex of ideas which refer to Christian beginnings: repentance and faith, justification, conversion, regeneration, water baptism, ingrafting into Christ, adoption into God’s family…’Baptism in the Spirit’ is therefore one of the ways the NT speaks about ‘becoming a Christian’; hence every true believer in Christ has been baptized in the Spirit…To use the phrase for a subsequent experience of the Spirit’s power and blessing, no matter how overwhelming, strictly goes beyond the biblical usage and is liable therefore in the long run to be unhelpful and misleading.’ (Milne, Know the Truth, 199.)

“And with fire” – ‘The context makes clear that fire in that phrase denotes judgment, a judgment that would presumably purify the penitent (cf. Is 4:4; Mal 3:2, 3) as well as destroy the impenitent (Mal 4:1; Mt 3:10, 12).’ (Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, art. ‘Baptism of Fire’)

Revival is well described as fire. God himself is a consuming fire: he blazed at Sinai and in the burning bush. Fire cleanses, refines and purifies. Fire warms, glows and spreads. Fire brightens, cheers and illuminates. Fire is unpredictable and difficult to control. In all these respects, revival is like a spiritual fire.

Winnowing fork – A wooden shovel used for tossing grain against the wind after threshing so that the lighter chaff would be blown away, leaving the kernels to settle in a pile.

“Burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” – Basil Atkinson argued from this text against the doctrine of everlasting punishment.  He asserted that ‘the meaning of “burn up” is surely unmistakable. Can it by any trick of imagination be made to mean “preserve alive in everlasting misery”? But many have felt that unquenchable fire expresses a special sort of fire that must go on burning forever. Now even if it actually did so, it would not follow that the persons or things cast into it would exist forever without being burned up. But there is no reason to suppose that it does…Unquenchable fire in Scripture is thus fire that cannot be put out until it has totally devoured what it was kindled to burn up. Such will be the fire that will burn up the wicked.’ (Christopher M. Date, Gregory G. Stump, Joshua W. Anderson. Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism (p. 107). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.)

The Baptism of Jesus

3:13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John to be baptized by him in the Jordan River. 3:14 But John tried to prevent him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you come to me?” 3:15 So Jesus replied to him, “Let it happen now, for it is right for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John yielded to him.

Mt 3:13–17 = Mk 1:9–11; Lk 3:21,22; Jn 1:31–34

‘Matthew alone tells us that John tried to deter Jesus from being baptized, ostensively because baptism implies that a person has sin of which they must repent. John seems to recognize his own sinfulness in comparison with Jesus and notes that their roles should be reversed-Jesus should be baptizing John. Jesus’ reply seems to acknowledge the logic of John’s argument, but he nevertheless requests baptism for a different reason.’ (DJG)

“To fulfill all righteousness” – That is, to fulfill the demands of God’s law. ‘Matthew has portrayed Jesus fulfilling specific prophecies as well as more general biblical themes. Now he fulfills the moral demands of God’s will. In so doing, Jesus identifies and sanctions John’s ministry as divinely ordained and his message as one to be heeded.’ (DJG)

3:16 After Jesus was baptized, just as he was coming up out of the water, the heavens opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming on him. 3:17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my one dear Son; in him I take great delight.”

The Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him – ‘We are not to suppose that there was any change wrought in the moral character of Jesus, but only that he was publicly set apart to his work, and solemnly approved by God in the office to which he was appointed.’ (Barnes)

‘The Gospels show that three voices-Scripture, a prophetic voice in the wilderness and the heavenly voice-all attest Jesus’ identity. The heavenly voice alone would have been inadequate, but here it confirms the witness of Scripture and a prophet. Jesus is not a mere prophet but the subject of other prophets’ messages. The fact of the voice is important, but what the voice says is most important, for this is what officially declares Jesus’ identity to Matthew’s biblically informed implied audience. The voice rehearses ancient biblical language, probably adapting Ps 2:7 (“you are my Son”) into an announcement to the bystanders (This is my Son). Psalm 2, originally an enthronement psalm, is here used to announce in advance Jesus’ messianic enthronement. The second proposed biblical allusion here, Isa 42:1, is more controversial, despite its many proponents. But whether or not Mark saw Isaiah’s servant as background here, Matthew surely did, for he reads the wording of this voice’s recognition oracle into his own translation of Isaiah. (Mt 12:18) Jesus’ mission includes suffering opposition as well as reigning, and so does the mission of his followers. (Mt 5:11-12; 10:22; 16:24-27; 19:27-29; 24:9-13)

The Father’s acclamation of the Son may suggest various principles to Matthew’s readers. First, it reveals how central Jesus is to the Father’s heart and plan; no one can reject Jesus and simultaneously please the Father. Jesus is not one prophet among many, but God’s ultimate revelation; that he is God’s “beloved” Son underlines the magnitude of God’s sacrifice. (compare Jn 3:16) Though in many contemporary circles worship properly exhorts and encourages the people of God, (Col 3:16) we also need the kind of worship that tells Jesus how great he is, praising him for what he has done and for who he is. (Ps 150:2) Second, the Father’s acclamation reveals that the meek Jesus is also the ultimate ruler who will usher in justice and peace. The beginning of his story tells his persecuted followers the end of the story in advance, providing us firm hope for the future. Finally, the voice reveals Jesus as the Son obedient to the point of death, who willingly divests himself of his proper honor by identifying with us in baptism and death. We who often trifle with obedience in the smallest matters-for instance, the discipline of our thoughts or words for God’s honor-are shamed by our Lord’s obedience. May we worship him so intensely that his desires become our own and we, like our Lord, become obedient servants with whom the Father is well pleased.’ (IVP NT Commentary)

A plain revelation of the Trinity

Alec Motyer (BST commentary on Exodus, p21f) remarks that ‘When the Lord Jesus Christ came to the waters of his baptism, he brought to us the first ever plain revelation of the Holy Trinity: the Father who addressed his beloved Son, the Son for whom the heavens were opened and the Holy Spirit in visible gentleness as a dove descending upon him.  It was as if a divine hand had suddenly adjusted the focus of a film projector and the multiplex revelation of the one God throughout the Old Testament sharpened and consolidated into the vision of the three who are one, the one who is three.’