Matthew 3 Bible Commentary

McGarvey and Pendleton

(Read all of Matthew 3)
3:1  And in those days1 cometh John2 the Baptist3, preaching4 in the wilderness of Judaea5, saying, JOHN THE BAPTIST'S PERSON AND PREACHING. (In the wilderness of Judea, and on the banks of the Jordan, occupying several months, probably A.D. 25 or 26.) Matthew 3:1-12; Mark 1:1-8; Luke 3:1-18
In those days. Some take this expression as referring to the years when Jesus dwelt at Nazareth. But it is better to regard it as a Hebraism equivalent to "that age" or "that era" (Exodus 2:11). It contrasts the era when the Baptist lived with the era when Matthew wrote his Gospel, just as we say "in these days of enlightenment" when we wish to contrast the present time with the days of the American Revolution.
John. He was cousin to Jesus.
The Baptist. So called because God first gave through him the ordinance of baptism. It has been erroneously thought by some that John borrowed this ordinance from the Jewish practice of proselyte baptism. This could not be, for John baptized his converts, but Jewish proselytes baptized themselves. The law required such self-baptism of all persons who were unclean (Leviticus 14:9; Numbers 19:19; Numbers 8:7). More than twenty distinct cases are specified in which the law required bathing or self-baptism, and it is to these Paul refers when he states that the law consisted in part of "various washings" (Hebrews 9:10). But the law did not require this of proselytes, and proselyte baptism was a human appendage to the divinely given Jewish ritual, just as infant baptism is to the true Christian ritual. Proselyte baptism is not mentioned in history till the third century of the Christian era. Neither Josephus, nor Philo, nor the Apocrypha, nor the Targums say anything about it, though they all mention proselytes. In fact, the oldest mention of it in Jewish writings is in the Babylonian Gemara, which was completed about 500 years after Christ. The New Testament implies the non-existence of proselyte baptism (Matthew 21:25; John 1:25,33). John could hardly have been called the "Baptist" had he used an old- time rite in the accustomed manner. The Baptist was a link between the Old and New Testament. Belonging to the Old, he announced the New.
Preaching. Not sermonizing, but crying out a message as a king's herald making a proclamation, or a policeman crying "Fire!" in a slumbering time. His discourse was brief and unembellished. Its force lay in the importance of the truth announced. It promised to the Hebrew the fulfillment of two thousand years of longing. It demanded repentance, but for a new reason. The old call to repentance had wooed with the promise of earthly blessings, and warned with the threat of earthly judgments; but John's repentance had to do with the kingdom of heaven and things eternal. It suggested the Holy Spirit as a reward, and unquenchable fire as punishment.
In the wilderness of Judaea. That part of the wilderness which John chose for the scene of his ministry is a desert plain, lying along the western bank of the Jordan, between Jericho and the Dead Sea.

3:2  Repent ye1; for2 the kingdom of heaven3 is at hand.
Repent ye. To repent is to change the "will" in reference to "sin", resolving to sin no more.
For. John sets forth the motive for repentance. Repentance is the duty, and the approach of the kingdom is the motive inciting to it. Only by repentance could the people be prepared for the kingdom. Those who are indifferent to the obligations of an old revelation would be ill-prepared to receive a new one.
The kingdom of heaven. See Daniel 2:44. The phrase "kingdom of heaven" is peculiar to Matthew, who uses it 32 times in 31 verses. He also joins with the other evangelists in calling it the "kingdom of God" (Matthew 12:28; Matthew 19:24; Matthew 21:31,43). We know not why he preferred the expression, "kingdom of heaven".

3:3  For this is he that was spoken of through Isaiah the prophet, saying, The voice1 of one crying in the wilderness, Make ye ready the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
The voice, etc. See Mark 1:3.

3:4  Now John himself1 had his raiment2 of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his food was locusts and wild honey3.
Now John himself. "Himself" indicates that John's manner of life differed from that of his disciples. He did not oblige them to practice the full measure of his abstinence.
Had his raiment. John's dress and food preached in harmony with his voice. His clothing and fare rendered him independent of the rich and great, so that he could more freely and plainly rebuke their sins. Calling others to repentance, he himself set an example of austere self-denial. So much so that the Pharisees said he had a demon (Matthew 11:18).
Of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his food was locusts and wild honey. See Mark 1:6.

3:5  Then went out unto him Jerusalem, and all Judaea1, and all the region round about the Jordan2;
All Judaea. See Mark 1:5.
All the region round about the Jordan. The last phrase includes the entire river valley. On both sides of the river between the lake of Galilee and Jericho, there were many important cities, any one of which would be more apt to send its citizens to John's baptism than the proud capital of Jerusalem.

3:6  and they were baptized of him1 in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
And they were baptized of him, etc. See Mark 1:5.

3:7  But when he saw many of the Pharisees2 and Sadducees31 coming to his baptism, he said unto them4, Ye offspring of vipers5, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
Pharisees and Sadducees. Josephus tells us that these two leading sects of the Jews started about the same time in the days of Jonathan, the high priest, or B.C. 159-144. But the sentiments which at that time divided the people into two rival parties entered the minds and hearts of the Jews immediately after the return from the Babylonian captivity. These returned Jews differed as to the attitude and policy which Israel should manifest toward the neighboring heathen.
Pharisees. Some contended for a strict separation between the Jews and all pagan peoples. These eventually formed the Pharisee party, and the name Pharisee means "the separate". Originally these men were genuine patriots and reformers, but afterwards the majority of them became more formalists. As theologians the Pharisees represented the orthodox party, and were followed by the vast majority of the people. They believed (1) in the resurrection of the dead; (2) a future state with rewards and punishments; (3) angels and spirits; and (4) a special providence of God carried out by angels and spirits. As a sect they are said to have numbered six thousand at the time of Herod's death. They were the patriotic party, and the zealots were their extreme section. They covered an extremely selfish spirit with a pious formalism, and by parading their virtues they obtained an almost unbounded influence over the people. By exposing their hypocrisy, Jesus sought to destroy their power over the multitude, and incurred that bitter enmity with which they pursued him in death.
Sadducees. But certain other of the captives who returned from Babylon desired a freer intercourse with the pagans, and sought to break away from every restraint which debarred therefrom. These became Sadducees. They consented to no other restraint than the Scriptures themselves imposed, and they interpreted these as laxly as possible. Some take their name to means "the party of righteousness", but more think it comes from their founder, Zadok, and is a corruption of the word Zadokite. Zadok flourished 260 B.C. His teacher, Antigonus Sochaeus, taught him to serve God disinterestedly--that is, without hope of reward or punishment. From his teaching Zadok inferred that there was no future state of rewards or punishment, and on this belief founded his sect. From this fundamental doctrine sprang the other tenets of the Sadducees. They denied all the four points held by the Pharisees, asserting that there was no resurrection; no rewards and punishments hereafter; no angels, no spirits. They believed there was a God, but denied that he had any special supervision of human affairs (Matthew 22:23; Acts 23:8). They were the materialists of that day. Considering all God's promises as referring to this world, they looked upon poverty and distress as evidence of God's curse. Hence to relieve the poor was to sin against God in interfering with his mode of government. Far fewer than the Pharisees, they were their rivals in power; for they were the aristocratic party, and held the high-priesthood, with all its glories. Their high political position, their great wealth, and the Roman favor which they courted by consenting to foreign rule and pagan customs, made them a body to be respected and feared.
He said unto them, etc. John spoke principally to the leaders, but his denunciation indirectly included the multitude who followed their leadership.
Ye offspring of vipers, etc. See Luke 3:7.

3:8  Bring forth therefore fruit worthy of repentance1:
Bring forth therefore fruit worthy of repentance. John had demanded repentance (Matthew 3:2), he now demands the fruit of it. By "fruit" or "fruits", as Luke has it (Luke 3:8), he means the manner of life which shows a real repentance.

3:9  and think not1 to say within yourselves2, We have Abraham to our father3: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham4.
And think not. John nips their self-excuse in the bud.
To say within yourselves. Speaking to your conscience to quiet it.
We have Abraham to our father. The Jews thought that Messiah would rule over them as a nation, and that all Jews would, therefore, be by birthright citizens of his kingdom. They thought that descent from Abraham was all that would be necessary to bring them into that kingdom. John's words must have been very surprising to them. The Talmud is full of expressions showing the extravagant value which Jews of a later age attached to Abrahamic descent. It says,

"Abraham sits next the gates of hell, and doth not permit any wicked Israelite to go down into it."

Again, it represents God as saying to Abraham,

"If thy children were like dead bodies without sinews or bones, thy merit would avail for them."


"A single Israelite is worth more before God than all the people who have been or shall be."


"The world was made for their [Israel's] sake."

The pride was the more inexcusable because the Jews were clearly warned by their prophets that their privileges were not exclusive, and that they would by no means escape just punishment for their sins (Jeremiah 7:3,4; Micah 3:11; Isaiah 48:2). John repeated this message, and Jesus reiterated it (Matthew 8:11,12; Luke 16:23). We should note that in this preparation for the gospel a blow was struck at confidence and trust in carnal descent. Birth gives no man any privileges in the kingdom of God, for all are born outside of it, and all must be born again into it (John 1:13; John 3:3); yet many still claim peculiar rights from Christian parentage, and infant baptism rests on this false conception. The New Testament teaches us that we are children of Abraham by faith, and not by blood; by spiritual and not carnal descent (Romans 4:12-16; Galatians 3:26; Galatians 6:15; John 8:39). It had been better for the Jews never to have heard of Abraham, than to have thus falsely viewed the rights which they inherited from him.
God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. John meant that their being children of Abraham by natural descent gave them no more merit than children of Abraham made out of stone would have. He pointed to the stones along the bank of Jordan as he spoke.

3:10  And even now the axe lieth at the root of the trees1: every tree therefore that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire2.
And even now the axe lieth at the root of the trees, etc. The threatened cutting down means the end of the probation of each hearer, when, if found fruitless, he would be cast into the fire mentioned below.
And cast into the fire. Used as fuel.

3:11  I indeed baptize you in water unto repentance1: but he that cometh after me2 is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you3 in the Holy Spirit and [in] fire4:
I indeed baptize you in water unto repentance. That is, unto the completion of your repentance. Repentance had to begin before the baptism was administered. After the sinner repented, baptism consummated his repentance, being the symbolic washing away of that from which he had repented and the bringing of the candidate into the blessings granted to the repentant (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3).
But he that cometh after me, etc. See Mark 1:7.
He shall baptize you, etc. See Mark 1:8.
And [in] fire. Many learned commentators regard the expression "in fire" as a mere amplification of the spiritual baptism added to express the purging and purifying effects of that baptism, but the context forbids this, for, in Matthew 3:10; Luke 3:9 casting the unfruitful trees into the fire represents the punishment of the wicked, and, in Matthew 3:12; Luke 3:17 the burning of the chaff with fire does the same, and consequently the baptizing in fire of the intervening verse must, according to the force of the context have the same reference. True, the expression "he will baptize 'you' in the Holy Spirit and with fire", does not separate the persons addressed into two parties, and, if the context is disregarded, must be understood as meaning that the same persons were to be baptized in both; yet the context must not be disregarded, and it clearly separates them.

3:12  whose fan1 is in his hand2, and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing-floor3; and he will gather his wheat into the garner4, but the chaff5 he will burn up6 with unquenchable fire7.
Whose fan. Winnowing shovel. In the days of John the Baptist, and in that country at the present day, wheat and other grain was not threshed by machinery. It was beaten out by flails, or trodden out by oxen on some smooth, hard plot of ground called the threshing-floor. These threshing-floors were usually on elevations where the wind blew freely. When the grain was trodden out, it was winnowed or separated from the chaff by being tossed into the air with a fan or winnowing shovel. When so tossed, the wind blew the chaff away, and the clean grain fell upon the threshing-floor.
Is in his hand. Ready for immediate work. Both John and Malachi, who foretold John, are disposed to picture Jesus as the judge (Malachi 3:2-5). Of all the pictures of God which the Bible gives, that of a judge is the most common and frequent.
He will thoroughly cleanse his threshing-floor. Removing the chaff is called purging the floor. Humanity is a mixture of good and bad, and to separate this mixture, save the good and destroy the bad, is the work of Christ. He partially purges the floor in this present time by gathering his saints into the church and leaving the unrepentant in the world. But hereafter on the day of judgment he will make a complete and final separation between the just and the unjust by sending the evil from his presence and gathering his own into the garner of heaven (Matthew 25:32,33). He will also winnow our individual characters, and remove all evil from us (Matthew 22:31,32; Romans 7:21-25).
And he will gather his wheat into the garner. Eastern garners or granaries were usually subterranean vaults or caves. Garnered grain rested in safety. It was removed from peril of birds, storms, blight, and mildew. Christians are now on God's threshing-floor; hereafter they will be gathered into the security of his garner.
But the chaff. When the Bible wishes to show the worthlessness and the doom of the ungodly, chaff is one of its favorite figures (Job 21:18; Psalms 1:4; Isaiah 17:13; Jeremiah 15:7; Hosea 13:3; Malachi 4:1).
He will burn up. To prevent chaff from being blown back and mixed again with the wheat, it was burned up. All the chaff in the church shall be consumed on the day of judgment (1 Corinthians 3:12,13), and there shall be no mixing of good and bad after death (Luke 16:26).
With unquenchable fire. In this and in other places (2 Thessalonians 1:8,9 Mark 9:48; Matthew 25:41), the future suffering of the wicked is taught in the Bible. He shows no kindness to his neighbor, no friendship toward mankind, who conceals the terrors of the Lord. These terrors are set forth in no uncertain terms. Many believe that God will restore the wicked and eventually save all the human race. Others hold that God will annihilate the wicked, and thus end their torment. This passage and the one cited in Mark would be hard to reconcile with either of these views; they indicate that there will be no arrest of judgment nor stay of punishment when once God begins to execute his condemnation. God purged the world with water at the time of the flood; he will again purge it with fire on the day of judgment (2 Peter 3:7-10).

3:13  Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to the Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him2. JESUS BAPTIZED BY JOHN IN THE JORDAN. (Jordan east of Jericho, Spring of A.D. 27.) Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21,22
The cometh Jesus from Galilee to the Jordan. Tradition fixes upon a ford of Jordan east of Jericho as the place where Jesus was baptized. It is the same section of the river which opened for the passage of Israel under Joshua, and later for Elijah and Elisha. This ford is seventy or eighty miles from Nazareth.
Unto John, to be baptized of him. He set out from Nazareth, intending to be baptized. Such was his intention before he heard John preach, and he was therefore not persuaded to do it by the preaching. His righteousness was not the result of human persuasion.

3:14  But John would have hindered him1, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee2, and comest thou to me3?
But John would have hindered him. It seemed to John too great an honor for him to baptize Jesus, and too great a humiliation for Jesus to be baptized. There is some dispute as to how John came to know this righteousness of Christ, which prompted his protest. The one natural explanation is that the intimacy of the two families indicated at the beginning of Luke's account had been given kept up, and John knew the history of his kinsman.
Saying, I have need to be baptized of thee. Those are most fit to administer an ordinance who have themselves deeply experienced the need of it.
And comest thou to me? John felt that he needed Jesus' baptism, but could not think that Jesus needed his. The words "I", "thee", and "me", show that John contrasted the baptizers as well as the baptisms. As a human being he marveled that the Son of God should come to him to be immersed. The comings of Jesus and the purposes for which he comes are still the greatest marvels which confront the minds of men. Moreover, it should be noted that this protest of John's needed to be made, for it saved Jesus from being baptized without explanation, as if he were a sinner. Baptism without such explanation might have compromised our Lord's claim as the sinless one.

3:15  But Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer [it] now1: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness3. Then he suffereth him5.
But Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer [it] now. Permit me for this moment to appear as your inferior. The future will make plain and clear the difference between us, both as to our missions and our natures. The words show a Messianic consciousness on the part of Jesus.
For thus it becometh us us. Some take the word "us" as referring to Jesus and John, the clause "to fulfil all righteousness" shows that "us" refers to Jesus, and he uses the plural to show that it also becometh all of us.
To fulfil all righteousness. Jesus came not only to fulfill all the requirements of the law, but also all that wider ranger of righteousness of which the law was only a part. (1) Though John's baptism was no part of the Mosaic ritual, it was, nevertheless, a precept of God, given by his prophet (John 1:33). Had Jesus neglected or refused to obey this precept he would have lacked a portion of the full armor of righteousness, and the Pharisees would have hastened to strike him at this loose joint of his harness (
Mt 21:23-27). (2) It was the divinely appointed method by which the Messiahship of Jesus was to be revealed to the witness John (John 1:33,34). We should note here that those who fail to obey God's ordinance of baptism fail (1) to follow the example of Jesus in fulfilling the divine will and precepts (2) to obey one of the positive commands of almighty God spoken by his own Son.
Then he suffereth him. John's humility caused him to shrink from this duty, but did not make him willfully persist in declining it. Humility ceases to be a virtue when it keeps us from performing our allotted tasks.

3:16  And Jesus when he was baptized1, went up straightway from the water2: and lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon him;
And Jesus when he was baptized. See Mark 1:9 and see Luke 3:21.
Went up straightway from the water, etc. See Mark 1:10.

3:17  and lo, a voice out of the heavens, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
A voice from heaven, etc. See Mark 1:11.