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Bible Commentaries

John Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible
Matthew 3

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-17


Appearance of the Baptist. Baptism of Jesus

1-12. John the Baptist's ministry. The circumstances of John's birth are detailed in Luke 1 (see notes there). He was sanctified from birth to be the forerunner of the Messiah (Luke 1:13-17, Luke 1:76.), and received a special revelation to enable him to recognise the Expected One when He appeared (John 1:33). His mother Elisabeth was a cousin of the virgin, and he was born about six months before Jesus. Knowing what his work in life was to be, he devoted himself from his earliest years to a life of strict asceticism. 'He was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel,' imitating the austerities of the OT. prophets, especially Elijah, whom he greatly resembled. Some earnest Jews seem to have followed his example, and adopted the hermit life. For instance, one of the instructors of Josephus, a man called Banus, 'lived in the desert, and had no other food than that which grew of its own accord, and bathed himself in cold water frequently both by night and day'. Josephus adopted his practices and stayed with him three years. The ascetic and unsocial life of John contrasted strangely with the genial and social habits of Jesus, who came 'eating and drinking,' and mingling freely with people of all classes. Yet our Lord had the greatest esteem for John, and spoke of him as greater than the greatest of the prophets (Matthew 1:17-19).

The public appearance of the Baptist marked a new era. He came forward in the twofold capacity of a prophet and the forerunner of the Messiah. As prophecy had been silent for 400 years, and all patriotic Jews were longing for the coming of the Messiah to deliver them from the Roman yoke, it is not surprising that he was welcomed with enthusiasm, and that those who ventured to doubt his mission found it expedient to dissemble (Matthew 21:26). He might undoubtedly have claimed the allegiance of Israel as their promised king (Luke 3:15), but, true to his mission, he declared himself only the forerunner of that greater One, whose ministry was about to begin. The testimony of John to the Messiahship of Jesus is undoubtedly a historical fact, and an important one. To it our Lord owed His first and most capable followers (John 1:35.), and much of His early success.

The teaching of John was confined within the limits of OT. ideas, and his aim was to make his converts pious Jews of the orthodox type. At the same time, his views were of a far more spiritual kind than those generally current. In his teaching he laid the main stress not upon the ceremonial law, but upon righteousness. He did not regard the Messiah's kingdom as—in its main aspect, at any rate—a temporal monarchy. It was a kingdom not of this world, a kingdom of righteousness. Not descent from Abraham, but righteousness entitled a man to be a member of it. Hence above all things repentance and amendment of life were necessary. Those who repented and received the Messiah, would be admitted into the kingdom, to whatever nation they might belong, but Israelites who refused to repent and believe would be rejected. John foresaw the difficulties with which Jesus would have to contend, and even predicted for Him a death like his own (John 1:36.). In his preaching John appealed largely to the emotion of fear. He declared that the Messianic age would be ushered in by a terrible act of judgment. The Messiah would hew down every unfruitful tree with the axe of retribution. With the fan of judgment he would winnow the wheat, casting the useless chaff into unquenchable fire. Let hypocrites, especially Pharisees and Sadducees, beware, for only by true repentance could they flee from the wrath to come. Let all men practise charity, sharing their goods with their neighbours. Let publicans collect no more than the taxes due. Let soldiers, avoid all violence, and be content with their wages. So and so only could they enter into the kingdom: see Luke 3:10-14. Josephus alludes to John, but in a brief and guarded manner, as 'a good man, who commanded the Jews to exercise virtue both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism.' St. Matthew and St. Luke both supplement St. Mark's brief account of John from other sources.

1. In those days] i.e. 26 a.d. The wilderness of Judaea] a desert tract about 10 m. wide to the W. of the Dead Sea, including also the W. bank of the Jordan near its mouth. The chief towns in it were Engedi and Tekoa.

2. Repent ye] Repentance is not mere sorrow for sin, but a real change of life. It includes, (1) contrition, i.e. sorrow for sin, regarded as an offence against God; (2) confession of sin, always to God, and, where man has been injured, also to man; (3) amendment of life. The kingdom of heaven] St. Matthew nearly always employs this rabbinical phrase instead of 'the kingdom of God.' 'Heaven' so used is a reverential substitute for 'God.' 'The kingdom of heaven' is, of course, the kingdom of Christ, which the Baptist certainly regarded as spiritual. On the precise meaning of the phrase in this Gospel see the Intro., also the notes on the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), and on the parables.

3. For this is he, etc.] words of the evangelist, not of the Baptist. Isaiah 40:3 is quoted according to LXX. In Isaiah the words are a summons to make level the roads before Jehovah, who is leading home His people from the Babylonian captivity. St. Matthew typically applies them to the entry of Israel, after their long period of waiting, into the Messianic kingdom.

4. Camel's hair] i.e. either a camel's skin, or cloth woven from camel's hair. John's dress was a protest against the luxurious robes of soft wool, which were fashionable at the time. Locusts] They are still eaten in the East, especially by the poor. After being thrown into boiling water their wings and legs are torn off; they are then sprinkled with salt, and either boiled or roasted. Sometimes they are fried in butter or oil. Wild honey] still plentiful in the wilderness, where it flows from combs built in the crevices of the rocks. Certain trees also exude a juice called treemanna, or honey, and some suppose that this is meant.

6. Were baptized] The Baptism of John was specifically a baptism of repentance, of which public confession was the pledge and evidence. Its significance can be best described in the words of Isaiah: 'Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do well; seek judgment' (justice), 'relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow' (Isaiah 1:16 cp. Zechariah 13:1). It has points of contact with the baptism of proselytes or converts from heathenism. John required circumcised Jews of the seed of Abraham to submit to his baptism, and thereby to declare themselves outside the Messianic kingdom, and unfit to enter into it without a moral purification. This was distasteful to the pride of the Pharisees, who took offence at being treated as proselytes (Luke 7:30). From John 1:26 it may be gathered that there was a general expectation that the Messiah and those closely associated with Him would baptise, so that John's action was in accordance with Jewish ideas. John's Baptism differed from that of Jesus in being of a preparatory character. It did not confer the Spirit, and was not recognised as equivalent to Christian baptism (Acts 18:25; Acts 19:3). Confessing their sins] The Gk. word generally, but not always, means a public confession, and that seems to be the sense here. For an example of public confession and repudiation of past sins in connexion with Christian baptism, see Acts 19:18.

7. Pharisees and Sadducees] The Pharisees were the strictest, the most active, and the most influential of the Jewish parties or sects. They were zealously attached to the Law, and still more to 'the traditions of the elders.' By the length of their prayers, the frequency of their fasts, and their devotion to ceremonialism, they sought to win honour with men and merit with God. They were hostile to foreign rule, intensely national and patriotic in spirit, and ready to suffer persecution even unto death for their religion. They believed in angels and spirits (also in revelations made by them), in eternal retribution in the next world, and in the resurrection of the dead. They also cherished with especial fervour the Messianic hope. They were closely allied with the scribes or lawyers, with whom they formed practically one party.

The views of the Sadducees were in most respects the opposite of those of the Pharisees. They made no special pretensions to piety. They acknowledged the Law of Moses as alone authoritative, and rejected the traditions of the elders. They were hostile to the aspirations of the national party, and leaned for support on Rome. Sceptical, or semisceptical, in their religious views, they rejected the popular beliefs in angels and spirits, in a future life, and in the resurrection of the dead. They were a worldly, wealthy, and selfishly ambitious party, and their adherents were chiefly found among the chief priests. Their opinions were so unpopular, that they often hesitated to express them publicly. In the Sanhedrin, although the leading Sadducees had seats, Pharisaic views were decidedly in the ascendant.

Come to his baptism] In consequence of John's severe denunciation of their conduct, most of the Pharisees and Sadducees who had come for baptism departed without it: see Luke 7:30. Generation (RV 'offspring') of vipers] This peculiar term of condemnation is also applied by Christ to the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 12:34; Matthew 23:33) Probably the allusion is to their poisonous opinions and corrupt influence: see Psalms 58:4; Isaiah 14:29. Who hath warned you] Are you, too, conscious of your danger? To flee] The picture is that of vipers fleeing before the flames when the stubble in the fields is set on fire. The wrath to come] the great judgment with which it was generally believed that the age of the Messiah would open. The Jews regarded it mainly as a judgment upon the Gentiles, but John declared that it would be a judgment upon every hypocritical Jew.

8. Fruits meet for repentance] RV 'fruit worthy of repentance.' Fruit is a frequent metaphor for works, and a very suitable one. Fruit is not loosely attached to a tree, but is part of it. It derives its character from the tree on which it grows. So a man's works, i.e. his words and actions, are part of him, and express his true character.

9. We have Abraham to (for) our father] cp. John 8:33, John 8:39, John 8:53. This insolent spirit is best illustrated by a quotation from the rabbis: 'The fire of hell (Gehenna) has no power to consume even the sinners of Israel, but they go down only to be frightened and slightly singed for their bad actions. Then comes Abraham, who kept all the precepts of the Law, and through his own merit brings them up again.' Of these stones] a hint, not an express statement of the calling of the Gentiles: cp. Romans 4, Romans 9:6; Galatians 4:28; John 8:39.

10. Ax] a frequent and expressive type of imminent judgment (Matthew 7:19; Luke 13:7 : cp. Romans 11:17). The trees] i.e. individual Jews, not the nation, though, as a matter of fact, judgment overtook the nation also for its rejection of Christ: cp. John 7:19. The fire] see on Matthew 3:12.

11, 12. Here is emphatic testimony of John to the Messiahship of Jesus. Jesus is so great that John is unworthy to perform for Him the function of the meanest slave. Jesus is the dispenser of divine sanctification (the Holy Ghost). Jesus is the absolute judge of the human race, with power to reward the good in heaven and to punish the guilty in hell (Matthew 3:12). Nothing of importance is really added to this testimony in the Fourth Gospel. There, indeed, the Baptist calls Jesus the Lamb of God and the Son of God, and is aware of His prëexistence; but these things follow naturally from the tremendous prerogatives which even in the Synoptics John assigns to Him. If it be remembered that the synoptic testimony is given before, and the testimony in the Fourth Gospel after Christ's Baptism, all difficulty disappears: see John 1:6, John 1:15, John 1:19; John 3:27.

11. Whose shoes, etc.] the office of the meanest slave. 'A slave unlooses his master's shoe, and carries it after him; does what he needs for the bath, undresses, washes, anoints, rubs, redresses him, and puts on his shoes.'

With the Holy Ghost, and with fire] St. Mark omits 'and with fire.' John says, in effect, 'I can bring you to repentance, but no further. My baptism gives no grace. It only symbolises the greater baptism which Jesus will give. His baptism will give you “the Holy Ghost,” i.e. new spiritual life, and inward sanctification, and “Fire,” i.e. holy fervour and zeal in God's service': cp. Acts 2:3. John here refers directly to Christian Baptism, the spiritual efficacy of which he contrasts with the inefficacy of his own.

12. St. Mark omits this v. Whose fan (or, 'shovel')] Jesus holds in His hand the winnowing fan of judgment, for He is the judge of quick and dead. Here John passes far beyond Jewish ideas about the Messiah. His floor] RV 'threshing-floor': not merely Palestine, but the universe. His wheat] i.e. good persons. The garner] heaven. The chaff] the wicked. Unquenchable fire] i.e. Gehenna, hell.

13-17. Baptism of Jesus (Mark 1:9; Luke 3:21; John 1:32). The Baptism of Jesus has more than one aspect and significance. To John it was with its miraculous accompaniments a sign that Jesus was the promised Messiah and the Son of God (John 1:32-34). To Israel it was 'the showing to the people' of the promised monarch, and His consecration by the unction of the Holy Spirit to the threefold office of prophet, priest, and king. To the Christian Church it is the type and first example of all true baptism—the baptism, that is, of water and the Spirit. So far all is clear. But when we come to speak of its significance to Jesus Himself we are in a region of mystery, and both prudence and reverence teach us not to dogmatise. Yet we may venture to say this, that the vision at the Baptism was intended primarily for Jesus Himself, and neither for John nor for the multitudes who were present. It was Jesus to whom the heavens were opened, Jesus who saw the Spirit descending as a dove, and Jesus to whom the momentous words were spoken, 'This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased' This is expressly testified by St. Matthew and St. Mark, and is not contradicted by St. Luke and St. John, although the last states what St. Luke perhaps also implies in the words 'in a bodily form,' that the vision was also intended for the Baptist. If we take the most natural and obvious interpretation of the incident, we shall hold that our Lord's baptism marked the point in His career when there first awoke in Him the complete consciousness of His divine sonship, and of all the tremendous consequences which this unique relationship to God and man involved. There must have been a time when this consciousness first became fully explicit. He cannot have had it in unconscious infancy, or as a young child. Even as a boy (we are speaking, of course, of His human knowledge) He cannot have possessed it complete. He grew in knowledge of things human and divine (Luke 2:40-52), and one of the things in knowledge of which He grew was the awful mystery of His own Divine-Human Personality. He must, of course, have been always conscious, after attaining the use of reason, of the difference between Himself and other men, of the unique character of His communion with God, and of the greatness of the mission which lay before Him, but He need not have known all. It is possible that full self-knowledge might have hindered rather than helped Him during the thirty years of obscurity which preceded His public ministry. But however that may be, before the ministry began the veil that concealed the mystery of His nature was drawn aside by an inward revelation, and soon the outward testimony of miracles confirmed what the inward voice had declared.

14. I have need] not inconsistent with John 1:33 ('I knew him not'). As Jesus approaches, a prophetic presentiment passes through the mind of John that this is the Messiah. The descent of the Spirit makes it a certainty. It is possible, even likely, that as John and Jesus were cousins, they were already acquainted, although John 'knew him not' as the Messiah. As John's baptism was unto remission of sins, it seemed to him strange that Jesus should have consented to such a baptism. But, though sinless, Jesus came to identify himself with sinners. He would be 'under the law that he might redeem those that were under the law' (Galatians 4:4-5).

15. To fulfil all righteousness] i.e. to fulfil, all the ordinances of the old covenant among which our Lord reckoned John's baptism.

16. 17. One of the leading Trinitarian passages in the NT. The voice of the Father is heard proclaiming the essential divinity of the Son, and upon the Son, as He rises from the baptismal waters, the Holy Ghost, the living bond of love and unity in the Godhead, descends. The appearance of the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove was a symbolical vision, and, as spiritual things are spiritually discerned, the vision was probably seen only by our Lord and the Baptist. The dove is a type of the Spirit, because of its innocence, gentleness, and affection; cp. Matthew 10:16, 'Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.' The voice from heaven may be paralleled by the voice at Sinai (Exodus 20), to Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4:31), at the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:5), before the Passion (John 12:28), to St. Paul (Acts 9:4), and to St. Peter (Acts 11:7). The idea that a revelation might be communicated by a supernatural voice, was familiar to the Jews of our Lord's time. The rabbis taught that after the cessation of prophecy, God continued to make revelations to His people by means of the Bath-kol, or heavenly voice. At Jericho, for example, the Bath-kol declared the Rabbi Hillel to be worthy to have the Spirit of God abide upon him, and at Jamnia decided the dispute between the schools of Hillel and Shammai in favour of the former.

16. And he saw] i.e. Jesus saw, though John saw it also.

17. This is] This represents the form in which the Baptist heard the words. 'Thou art' (Mk, Lk) represent the form in which Jesus heard them. My beloved Son] cp. Matthew 17:5. The highest sense is to be given to these words. The Father bears witness, not only to Christ's Messiahship, but to His eternal and divine Sonship, in virtue of which He is from all eternity 'in the bosom of the Father,' loving and beloved. In whom I am well pleased] cp. Isaiah 42:1; Matthew 12:18. Lest the Baptism of Christ should be thought to indicate that He was a sinner like ourselves, the Father was pleased to pronounce Him absolutely sinless. The tense of the Gk. is difficult. The Revisers (also Plummer) regard it as a timeless aorist. But it may be an ordinary historical aorist, and thus point to Christ's preëxistence—'in whom I was well pleased,' viz. before the Incarnation and before the creation of the world. The words are also a message full of grace to mankind. As the Son is ever well pleasing and acceptable to the Father, so also are all those who are found in Him.

 


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Bibliography Information
Dummelow, John. "Commentary on Matthew 3:4". "John Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dcb/matthew-3.html. 1909.

Lectionary Calendar
Friday, August 23rd, 2019
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20
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