Matthew 3 Bible Commentary

Jamieson, Faussett, and Brown

(Read all of Matthew 3)

Mt 3:1-12. PREACHING AND MINISTRY OF JOHN. ( = Mr 1:1-8; Lu 3:1-18).

For the proper introduction to this section, we must go to Lu 3:1, 2. Here, as BENGEL well observes, the curtain of the New Testament is, as it were, drawn up, and the greatest of all epochs of the Church commences. Even our Lord's own age is determined by it (Lu 3:23). No such elaborate chronological precision is to be found elsewhere in the New Testament, and it comes fitly from him who claims it as the peculiar recommendation of his Gospel, that "he had traced down all things with precision from the very first" (Mt 1:3). Here evidently commences his proper narrative.

Lu 3:1:
Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Cæsar--not the fifteenth from his full accession on the death of Augustus, but from the period when he was associated with him in the government of the empire, three years earlier, about the end of the year of Rome 779, or about four years before the usual reckoning.
Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea--His proper title was procurator, but with more than the usual powers of that office. After holding it for about ten years, he was summoned to Rome to answer to charges brought against him; but ere he arrived, Tiberius died (A.D. 35), and soon after miserable Pilate committed suicide.
And Herod being tetrarch of Galilee--(See on Mr 6:14).
and his brother Philip--a very different and very superior Philip to the one whose name was Herod Philip, and whose wife, Herodias, went to live with Herod Antipas (see on Mr 6:17).
tetrarch of Ituræa--lying to the northeast of Palestine, and so called from Itur or Jetur, Ishmael's son (1Ch 1:31), and anciently belonging to the half-tribe of Manasseh.
and of the region of Trachonitis--lying farther to the northeast, between Iturea and Damascus; a rocky district infested by robbers, and committed by Augustus to Herod the Great to keep in order.
and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene--still more to the northeast; so called, says ROBINSON, from Abila, eighteen miles from Damascus.

Lu 3:2:
Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests--The former, though deposed, retained much of his influence, and, probably, as sagan or deputy, exercised much of the power of the high priesthood along with Caiaphas, his son-in-law (Joh 18:13; Ac 4:6). In David's time both Zadok and Abiathar acted as high priests (2Sa 15:35), and it seems to have been the fixed practice to have two (2Ki 25:18).
the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness--Such a way of speaking is never once used when speaking of Jesus, because He was Himself The Living Word; whereas to all merely creature-messengers of God, the word they spoke was a foreign element. See on Joh 3:31. We are now prepared for the opening words of Matthew.

1. In those days--of Christ's secluded life at Nazareth, where the last chapter left Him.
came John the Baptist, preaching--about six months before his Master.
in the wilderness of Judea--the desert valley of the Jordan, thinly peopled and bare in pasture, a little north of Jerusalem.

2. And saying, Repent ye--Though the word strictly denotes a change of mind, it has respect here (and wherever it is used in connection with salvation) primarily to that sense of sin which leads the sinner to flee from the wrath to come, to look for relief only from above, and eagerly to fall in with the provided remedy.
for the kingdom of heaven is at hand--This sublime phrase, used in none of the other Gospels, occurs in this peculiarly Jewish Gospel nearly thirty times; and being suggested by Daniel's grand vision of the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven to the Ancient of days, to receive His investiture in a world-wide kingdom (Da 7:13, 14), it was fitted at once both to meet the national expectations and to turn them into the right channel. A kingdom for which repentance was the proper preparation behooved to be essentially spiritual. Deliverance from sin, the great blessing of Christ's kingdom (Mt 1:21), can be valued by those only to whom sin is a burden (Mt 9:12). John's great work, accordingly, was to awaken this feeling and hold out the hope of a speedy and precious remedy.

3. For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying-- (Mt 11:3).
The voice of one crying in the wilderness--(See on Lu 3:2); the scene of his ministry corresponding to its rough nature.
Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight--This prediction is quoted in all the four Gospels, showing that it was regarded as a great outstanding one, and the predicted forerunner as the connecting link between the old and the new economies. Like the great ones of the earth, the Prince of peace was to have His immediate approach proclaimed and His way prepared; and the call here--taking it generally--is a call to put out of the way whatever would obstruct His progress and hinder His complete triumph, whether those hindrances were public or personal, outward or inward. In Luke (Lu 3:5, 6) the quotation is thus continued: "Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God." Levelling and smoothing are here the obvious figures whose sense is conveyed in the first words of the proclamation--"Prepare ye the way of the Lord." The idea is that every obstruction shall be so removed as to reveal to the whole world the salvation of God in Him whose name is the "Saviour." (Compare Ps 98:3; Isa 11:10; 49:6; 52:10; Lu 2:31, 32; Ac 13:47).

4. And the same John had his raiment of camel's hair--woven of it.
and a leathern girdle about his loins--the prophetic dress of Elijah (2Ki 1:8; and see Zec 13:4).
and his meat was locusts--the great, well-known Eastern locust, a food of the poor (Le 11:22).
and wild honey--made by wild bees (1Sa 14:25, 26). This dress and diet, with the shrill cry in the wilderness, would recall the stern days of Elijah.

5. Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judea, and all the region round about Jordan--From the metropolitan center to the extremities of the Judean province the cry of this great preacher of repentance and herald of the approaching Messiah brought trooping penitents and eager expectants.

6. And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins--probably confessing aloud. This baptism was at once a public seal of their felt need of deliverance from sin, of their expectation of the coming Deliverer, and of their readiness to welcome Him when He appeared. The baptism itself startled, and was intended to startle, them. They were familiar enough with the baptism of proselytes from heathenism; but this baptism of Jews themselves was quite new and strange to them.

7. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them--astonished at such a spectacle.
O generation of vipers--"Viper brood," expressing the deadly influence of both sects alike upon the community. Mutually and entirely antagonistic as were their religious principles and spirit, the stem prophet charges both alike with being the poisoners of the nation's religious principles. In Mt 12:34; 23:33, this strong language of the Baptist is anew applied by the faithful and true Witness to the Pharisees specifically--the only party that had zeal enough actively to diffuse this poison.
who hath warned you--given you the hint, as the idea is.
to flee from the wrath to come?--"What can have brought you hither?" John more than suspected it was not so much their own spiritual anxieties as the popularity of his movement that had drawn them thither. What an expression is this, "The wrath to come!" God's "wrath," in Scripture, is His righteous displeasure against sin, and consequently against all in whose skirts sin is found, arising out of the essential and eternal opposition of His nature to all moral evil. This is called "the coming wrath," not as being wholly future--for as a merited sentence it lies on the sinner already, and its effects, both inward and outward, are to some extent experienced even now--but because the impenitent sinner will not, until "the judgment of the great day," be concluded under it, will not have sentence publicly and irrevocably passed upon him, will not have it discharged upon him and experience its effects without mixture and without hope. In this view of it, it is a wrath wholly to come, as is implied in the noticeably different form of the expression employed by the apostle in 1Th 1:10. Not that even true penitents came to John's baptism with all these views of "the wrath to come." But what he says is that this was the real import of the step itself. In this view of it, how striking is the word he employs to express that step--fleeing from it--as of one who, beholding a tide of fiery wrath rolling rapidly towards him, sees in instant flight his only escape!

8. Bring forth therefore fruits--the true reading clearly is "fruit";
meet for repentance--that is, such fruit as befits a true penitent. John now being gifted with a knowledge of the human heart, like a true minister of righteousness and lover of souls here directs them how to evidence and carry out their repentance, supposing it genuine; and in the following verses warns them of their danger in case it were not.

9. And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father--that pillow on which the nation so fatally reposed, that rock on which at length it split.
for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham--that is, "Flatter not yourselves with the fond delusion that God stands in need of you, to make good His promise of a seed to Abraham; for I tell you that, though you were all to perish, God is as able to raise up a seed to Abraham out of those stones as He was to take Abraham himself out of the rock whence he was hewn, out of the hole of the pit whence he was digged" (Isa 51:1). Though the stem speaker may have pointed as he spoke to the pebbles of the bare clay hills that lay around (so STANLEY'S Sinai and Palestine), it was clearly the calling of the Gentiles at that time stone-dead in their sins, and quite as unconscious of it--into the room of unbelieving and disinherited Israel that he meant thus to indicate (see Mt 21:43; Ro 11:20, 30).

10. And now also--And even already.
the axe is laid unto--"lieth at."
the root of the trees--as it were ready to strike: an expressive figure of impending judgment, only to be averted in the way next described.
therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire--Language so personal and individual as this can scarcely be understood of any national judgment like the approaching destruction of Jerusalem, with the breaking up of the Jewish polity and the extrusion of the chosen people from their peculiar privileges which followed it; though this would serve as the dark shadow, cast before, of a more terrible retribution to come. The "fire," which in another verse is called "unquenchable," can be no other than that future "torment" of the impenitent whose "smoke ascendeth up for ever and ever," and which by the Judge Himself is styled "everlasting punishment" (Mt 25:46). What a strength, too, of just indignation is in that word "cast" or "flung into the fire!"

The third Gospel here adds the following important particulars in Lu 3:10-16.

Lu 3:10:
And the people--the multitudes.
asked him, saying, What shall we do then?--that is, to show the sincerity of our repentance.

Lu 3:11:
He answereth and saith unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat--provisions, victuals.
let him do likewise--This is directed against the reigning avarice and selfishness. (Compare the corresponding precepts of the Sermon on the Mount, Mt 5:40-42).

Lu 3:12:
Then came also the publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, Master--Teacher.
what shall we do?--In what special way is the genuineness of our repentance to be manifested?

Lu 3:13:
And he said unto them, Exact no more than that which is appointed you--This is directed against that extortion which made the publicans a byword. (See on Mt 5:46; Lu 15:1).

Lu 3:14:
And the soldiers--rather, "And soldiers"--the word means "soldiers on active duty."
likewise demanded--asked.
of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man--Intimidate. The word signifies to "shake thoroughly," and refers probably to the extorting of money or other property.
neither accuse any falsely--by acting as informers vexatiously on frivolous or false pretexts.
and be content with your wages--or "rations." We may take this, say WEBSTER and WILKINSON, as a warning against mutiny, which the officers attempted to suppress by largesses and donations. And thus the "fruits" which would evidence their repentance were just resistance to the reigning sins--particularly of the class to which the penitent belonged--and the manifestation of an opposite spirit.

Lu 3:15:
And as the people were in expectation--in a state of excitement, looking for something new
and all men mused in their hearts of John, whether he were the Christ, or not--rather, "whether he himself might be the Christ." The structure of this clause implies that they could hardly think it, but yet could not help asking themselves whether it might not be; showing both how successful he had been in awakening the expectation of Messiah's immediate appearing, and the high estimation and even reverence, which his own character commanded.

Lu 3:16:
John answered--either to that deputation from Jerusalem, of which we read in Joh 1:19, &c., or on some other occasion, to remove impressions derogatory to his blessed Master, which he knew to be taking hold of the popular mind.
saying unto them all--in solemn protestation.

(We now return to the first Gospel.)

11. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance--(See on Mt 3:6);
but he that cometh after me is mightier than I--In Mark and Luke this is more emphatic--"But there cometh the Mightier than I" (Mr 1:7; Lu 3:16).
whose shoes--sandals.
I am not worthy to bear--The sandals were tied and untied, and borne about by the meanest servants.
he shall baptize you--the emphatic "He": "He it is," to the exclusion of all others, "that shall baptize you."
with the Holy Ghost--"So far from entertaining such a thought as laying claim to the honors of Messiahship, the meanest services I can render to that "Mightier than I that is coming after me" are too high an honor for me; I am but the servant, but the Master is coming; I administer but the outward symbol of purification; His it is, as His sole prerogative, to dispense the inward reality. Beautiful spirit, distinguishing this servant of Christ throughout!
and with fire--To take this as a distinct baptism from that of the Spirit--a baptism of the impenitent with hell-fire--is exceedingly unnatural. Yet this was the view of ORIGEN among the Fathers; and among moderns, of NEANDER, MEYER, DE WETTE, and LANGE. Nor is it much better to refer it to the fire of the great day, by which the earth and the works that are therein shall be burned up. Clearly, as we think, it is but the fiery character of the Spirit's operations upon the soul-searching, consuming, refining, sublimating--as nearly all good interpreters understand the words. And thus, in two successive clauses, the two most familiar emblems--water and fire--are employed to set forth the same purifying operations of the Holy Ghost upon the soul.

12. Whose fan--winnowing fan.
is in his hand--ready for use. This is no other than the preaching of the Gospel, even now beginning, the effect of which would be to separate the solid from the spiritually worthless, as wheat, by the winnowing fan, from the chaff. (Compare the similar representation in Mal 3:1-3).
and he will throughly purge his floor--threshing-floor; that is, the visible Church.
and gather his wheat--His true-hearted saints; so called for their solid worth (compare Am 9:9; Lu 22:31).
into the garner--"the kingdom of their Father," as this "garner" or "barn" is beautifully explained by our Lord in the parable of the wheat and the tares (Mt 13:30, 43).
but he will burn up the chaff--empty, worthless professors of religion, void of all solid religious principle and character (see Ps 1:4).
with unquenchable fire--Singular is the strength of this apparent contradiction of figures:--to be burnt up, but with a fire that is unquenchable; the one expressing the utter destruction of all that constitutes one's true life, the other the continued consciousness of existence in that awful condition.

Luke adds the following important particulars (Lu 3:18-20):

Lu 3:18:
And many other things in his exhortation preached he unto the people--showing that we have here but an abstract of his teaching. Besides what we read in Joh 1:29, 33, 34; 3:27-36, the incidental allusion to his having taught his disciples to pray (Lu 11:1) --of which not a word is said elsewhere--shows how varied his teaching was.

Lu 3:19:
But Herod the tetrarch, being reproved by him for Herodias his brother Philip's wife, and for all the evils which Herod had done--In this last clause we have an important fact, here only mentioned, showing how thoroughgoing was the fidelity of the Baptist to his royal hearer, and how strong must have been the workings of conscience in that slave of passion when, notwithstanding such plainness, he "did many things, and heard John gladly" (Mr 6:20).

Lu 3:20:
Added yet this above all, that he shut up John in prison--This imprisonment of John, however, did not take place for some time after this; and it is here recorded merely because the Evangelist did not intend to recur to his history till he had occasion to relate the message which he sent to Christ from his prison at Machærus (Lu 7:18, &c.).


Baptism of Christ (Mt 3:13-15).

13. Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him--Moses rashly anticipated the divine call to deliver his people, and for this was fain to flee the house of bondage, and wait in obscurity for forty years more (Ex 2:11, &c.). Not so this greater than Moses. All but thirty years had He now spent in privacy at Nazareth, gradually ripening for His public work, and calmly awaiting the time appointed of the Father. Now it had arrived; and this movement from Galilee to Jordan is the step, doubtless, of deepest interest to all heaven since that first one which brought Him into the world. Luke (Lu 3:21) has this important addition--"Now when all the people were baptized, it came to pass, that Jesus being baptized," &c.--implying that Jesus waited till all other applicants for baptism that day had been disposed of, ere He stepped forward, that He might not seem to be merely one of the crowd. Thus, as He rode into Jerusalem upon an ass "whereon yet never man sat" (Lu 19:30), and lay in a sepulchre "wherein was never man yet laid" (Joh 19:41), so in His baptism, too. He would be "separate from sinners."

14. But John forbade him--rather, "was (in the act of) hindering him," or "attempting to hinder him."
saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?--(How John came to recognize Him, when he says he knew Him not, see Joh 1:31-34). The emphasis of this most remarkable speech lies all in the pronouns: "What! Shall the Master come for baptism to the servant--the sinless Saviour to a sinner?" That thus much is in the Baptist's words will be clearly seen if it be observed that he evidently regarded Jesus as Himself needing no purification but rather qualified to impart it to those who did. And do not all his other testimonies to Christ fully bear out this sense of the words? But it were a pity if, in the glory of this testimony to Christ, we should miss the beautiful spirit in which it was borne--"Lord, must I baptize Thee? Can I bring myself to do such a thing?"--reminding us of Peter's exclamation at the supper table, "Lord, dost Thou wash my feet?" while it has nothing of the false humility and presumption which dictated Peter's next speech. "Thou shall never wash my feet" (Joh 13:6, 8).

15. And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now--"Let it pass for the present"; that is, "Thou recoilest, and no wonder, for the seeming incongruity is startling; but in the present case do as thou art bidden."
for thus it becometh us--"us," not in the sense of me and thee," or "men in general," but as in Joh 3:11.
to fulfil all righteousness--If this be rendered, with SCRIVENER, "every ordinance," or, with CAMPBELL, "every institution," the meaning is obvious enough; and the same sense is brought out by "all righteousness," or compliance with everything enjoined, baptism included. Indeed, if this be the meaning, our version perhaps best brings out the force of the opening word "Thus." But we incline to think that our Lord meant more than this. The import of circumcision and of baptism seems to be radically the same. And if our remarks on the circumcision of our Lord (see on Lu 2:21-24) are well founded, He would seem to have said, "Thus do I impledge Myself to the whole righteousness of the Law--thus symbolically do enter on and engage to fulfil it all." Let the thoughtful reader weigh this.
Then he suffered him--with true humility, yielding to higher authority than his own impressions of propriety.

Descent of the Spirit upon the Baptized Redeemer (Mt 3:16, 17).

16. And Jesus when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water--rather, "from the water." Mark has "out of the water" (Mr 1:10). "and"--adds Luke (Lu 3:21), "while He was praying"; a grand piece of information. Can there be a doubt about the burden of that prayer; a prayer sent up, probably, while yet in the water--His blessed head suffused with the baptismal element; a prayer continued likely as He stepped out of the stream, and again stood upon the dry ground; the work before Him, the needed and expected Spirit to rest upon Him for it, and the glory He would then put upon the Father that sent Him--would not these fill His breast, and find silent vent in such form as this?--"Lo, I come; I delight to do Thy will, O God. Father, glorify Thy name. Show Me a token for good. Let the Spirit of the Lord God come upon Me, and I will preach the Gospel to the poor, and heal the broken-hearted, and send forth judgment unto victory." While He was yet speaking--
lo, the heavens were opened--Mark says, sublimely, "He saw the heavens cleaving" (Mr 1:10).
and he saw the Spirit of God descending--that is, He only, with the exception of His honored servant, as he tells us himself (Joh 1:32-34); the by-standers apparently seeing nothing.
like a dove, and lighting upon him--Luke says, "in a bodily shape" (Lu 3:22); that is, the blessed Spirit, assuming the corporeal form of a dove, descended thus upon His sacred head. But why in this form? The Scripture use of this emblem will be our best guide here. "My dove, my undefiled is one," says the Song of Solomon (So 6:9). This is chaste purity. Again, "Be ye harmless as doves," says Christ Himself (Mt 10:16). This is the same thing, in the form of inoffensiveness towards men. "A conscience void of offense toward God and toward men" (Ac 24:16) expresses both. Further, when we read in the Song of Solomon (So 2:14), "O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rocks, in the secret places of the stairs (see Isa 60:8), let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice; for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely"--it is shrinking modesty, meekness, gentleness, that is thus charmingly depicted. In a word--not to allude to the historical emblem of the dove that flew back to the ark, bearing in its mouth the olive leaf of peace (Ge 8:11) --when we read (Ps 68:13), "Ye shall be as the wings of a dove covered with silver, and her feathers with yellow gold," it is beauteousness that is thus held forth. And was not such that "holy, harmless, undefiled One," the "separate from sinners?" "Thou art fairer than the children of men; grace is poured into Thy lips; therefore God hath blessed Thee for ever!" But the fourth Gospel gives us one more piece of information here, on the authority of one who saw and testified of it: "John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and IT ABODE UPON HIM." And lest we should think that this was an accidental thing, he adds that this last particular was expressly given him as part of the sign by which he was to recognize and identify Him as the Son of God: "And I knew Him not: but He that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending AND REMAINING ON HIM, the same is He which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. And I saw and bare record that this is the Son of God" (Joh 1:32-34). And when with this we compare the predicted descent of the Spirit upon Messiah (Isa 11:2), "And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him," we cannot doubt that it was this permanent and perfect resting of the Holy Ghost upon the Son of God--now and henceforward in His official capacity--that was here visibly manifested.

17. And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is--Mark and Luke give it in the direct form, "Thou art." (Mr 1:11; Lu 3:22).
my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased--The verb is put in the aorist to express absolute complacency, once and for ever felt towards Him. The English here, at least to modern ears, is scarcely strong enough. "I delight" comes the nearest, perhaps, to that ineffable complacency which is manifestly intended; and this is the rather to be preferred, as it would immediately carry the thoughts back to that august Messianic prophecy to which the voice from heaven plainly alluded (Isa 42:1), "Behold My Servant, whom I uphold; Mine Elect, IN WHOM MY SOUL DELIGHTETH." Nor are the words which follow to be overlooked, "I have put My Spirit upon Him; He shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles." (The Septuagint perverts this, as it does most of the Messianic predictions, interpolating the word "Jacob," and applying it to the Jews). Was this voice heard by the by-standers? From Matthew's form of it, one might suppose it so designed; but it would appear that it was not, and probably John only heard and saw anything peculiar about that great baptism. Accordingly, the words, "Hear ye Him," are not added, as at the Transfiguration.