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Bible Commentaries

Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges

Matthew 3

Verses 1-99

Ch. 3: 1 12 . John Baptist preaches in the Wilderness of Judæa. Mark 1:2-8 ; Luke 3:1-18 ; John 1:15-34

St Luke does not name the Pharisees and Sadducees, he gives the particular exhortations to the various classes of people who came to hear John. In the fourth Gospel the Baptist’s disclaimer of the Messiahship (cp. also ch. 3:25 36) and his teaching respecting the person of Christ are reported more fully.

1 . In those days ] See Luke 3:1 , where the time is defined.

came ] Rather, cometh . The same word and the same tense as in v. 13.

John the Baptist ] So named by the other Synoptists and by Josephus: in the fourth gospel he is called simply John, a note of the authenticity of St John’s gospel. Josephus mentions the great influence of John and speaks of the crowds that flocked to hear him preach and to be baptized of him. He says John taught men “Justice in regard to one another and piety towards God.”

preaching ] Lit. heralding , a word appropriate to the thought of the proclamation of a King.

the wilderness of Judea ] i. e. the uncultivated Eastern frontier of Judah. The term also includes the cliffs and Western shore of the Dead Sea. In this wild and nearly treeless district there were formerly a few cities, and there are still some luxuriant spots. See Tristram’s Topog. of H. L . Ch. iv.

2 . Repent ye ] The original implies more than “feel sorrow or regret for sin,” it is rather “change the life, the heart, the motive for action.” It was a call to self-examination and reality of life.

the kingdom of heaven ] St Matthew alone uses this expression, but he also employs the equivalent phrase, the Kingdom of God, in common with the other N. T. writers. In itself the expression was not new. It connected itself in Jewish thought with the theocracy the direct rule of God of which the Earthly Kingdom was a shadow. It implied the reign of the Messiah (cp. Daniel 7:14 ). It became the watchword of the zealots “no King but God.” Jesus took up the word and gave it a new deep and varied spiritual significance, which is rather illustrated than defined.

The principal meanings of the Kingdom of Heaven in N. T. are (1) The presence of Christ on earth. (2) His Second Advent. (3) His influence in the heart. (4) Christianity, ( a ) as a Church, ( b ) as a faith. (5) The life eternal.

3 . by ] See note on ch. 2:5.

by the prophet Esaias ] The reference in Isaiah 40:3 is to the promised return from Babylon. A herald shall proclaim the joyous news on mountains and in the desert through which the return should be. This incident in the national history is transferred to the more glorious deliverance from bondage and to the coming of the true King.

The voice ] The message is more than the messenger, the prophet’s personality is lost in the prophetic voice.

make his paths straight ] The image would be familiar to Eastern thought, a Semiramis or a Xerxes orders the mountains to be levelled or cut through, and causeways to be raised in the valleys.

4 . the same John ] Translate, “John himself.”

raiment of camel’s hair ] A kind of tunic or shirt coarsely woven of camel’s hair, “one of the most admirable materials for clothing, it keeps out the heat, cold and rain.” Recovery of Jerusalem , p. 445.

his meat was locusts and wild honey ] Thomson, Land and Book , pp. 419, 420, states that though tolerated, as an article of food, only by the very poorest people, locusts are still eaten by the Bedawin. Burckhardt mentions having seen locust shops at Medina and Tayf. After being dried in the sun the locusts are eaten with butter and honey. Sometimes they are sprinkled with salt and either boiled or roasted. Thomson adds that wild honey is still gathered from trees in the wilderness and from rocks in the Wadies.

6 . baptized ] John introduced no new custom, for ceremonial ablution or baptism was practised in all ancient religions. Among the Jews proselytes were baptized on admission to the Mosaic covenant. John’s baptism was the outward sign of the purification and “life-giving change,” and contained the promise of forgiveness of sins. Christ too adopted the ancient custom and enriched it with a new significance, and a still mightier efficacy.

7 . Pharisees ] The name signifies “Separatists;” the party dates from the revival of the National life, and observances of the Mosaic Law under the Maccabees. Their ruling principle was a literal obedience to the written law and to an unwritten tradition. Originally they were leaders of a genuine reform. But in the hands of less spiritual successors their system had become little else than a formal observance of carefully prescribed rules. “The real virtues of one age become the spurious ones of the next.” Prof. Mozley, Sermon on Pharisees . The “hypocrisy” of the Pharisees, which stifled conscience and made them “ incapable of repentance ,” is the special sin of the day rebuked more than any other by the Saviour.

Politically they were the popular party, supporters of an isolating policy, who would make no terms with Rome or any other foreign power. The Zealots may be regarded as the extreme section of the Pharisees.

The Sadducees were the aristocratic and priestly party, they acquiesced in foreign rule, and foreign civilization. They refused to give the same weight as the Pharisees to unwritten tradition, but adhered strictly to the written law of Moses. Their religious creed excluded belief in a future life, or in angels and spirits (Acts 23:8 ). The name is probably derived from Zadok the priest in David’s time. Others with less probability connect it with Zadok, a disciple of Antigonus of Socho, who lived in the second century b. c. The derivation from tsaddik (righteous) is untenable.

O generation of vipers ] Translate “offspring or ‘brood’ of vipers.”

the wrath to come ] In a technical sense “wrath” is (1) the divine attitude towards sin, and as a result (2) the divine judgment upon sin (Romans 2:5 ). “Fleeing from the wrath to come” implies agreeing with God’s view of sin and therefore “Repentance” or change of heart.

8 . meet for repentance ] “Answerable to amendment of life.” ( Margin .)

9 . think not to say ] i. e. “Do not persuade yourselves to say,” “be not so proud as to say.” For a similar use of the word see Philippians 3:4 , “If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh.”

We have Abraham to our father ] Or, ‘ as our father.’ The Jewish doctors taught that no one who was circumcised should enter Gehenna.

of these stones to raise up children ] Stones are regarded as the most insensate, the furthest removed from life of created things. May there not be a play on the words banim (children) abanim (stones)?

10 . which bringeth not forth ] Lit. if it bring not forth .

fruit ] The Oriental values trees only as productive of fruit, all others are cut down as cumberers of the ground. He lays his axe literally at the root. Land and Book , p. 341.

the fire ] Rather, fire , there is no definite article in the original.

11 . unto repentance ] i. e. to be a symbol of the changed life.

whose shoes I am not worthy to bear ] The work of the meanest slaves. John, great prophet as he was, with influence sufficient to make even Herod tremble for his throne, is unworthy to be the meanest slave of the Stronger One the Son of God.

with the Holy Ghost ] Lit. in the Holy Ghost . This preposition is used in Greek and especially in Hellenistic Greek to signify the instrument, but it also expresses the surrounding influence or element in which an act takes place. With water=in water; with the Holy Ghost=surrounded by, influenced by the Holy Ghost.

The matured Christian conception of the Holy Ghost would not be present to the mind of John. Some of his disciples at Ephesus said to Paul “we have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost.” Acts 19:2 .

fire ] This metaphor implies: (1) Purification, (2) Fiery zeal or enthusiasm, (3) Enlightenment; all which are gifts of the Holy Spirit. In the ancient hymn by Robert II. of France the third point is brought out:

“Et emitte cælitus

Lucis tuæ radium

Veni lumen cordium.”

12 . fan ] An instrument by which the corn after being threshed is thrown up against the wind to clear it of chaff.

floor ] Here put for the contents of the threshing-floor, the mingled grain and chaff.

St Matthew represents the picturesque side of John’s preaching, these verses are full of imagery. How many similes are compressed into his teaching! The vipers, the stones, the trees, the slave, the threshing-floor, are all used to illustrate his discourse. St Luke throws into prominence the great teacher’s keen discrimination of character. St John has recorded a fragment of the Baptist’s deeper teaching as to the nature and mission of the Son of God.

13 17 . Jesus comes to be baptized of John. Mark 1:9-11 ; Luke 3:21 , Luke 3:22 ; John 1:32-34

St Luke adds two particulars: that the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus (1) “in a bodily shape,” and (2) “while He was praying.”

In the fourth gospel, where John Baptist’s own words are quoted, the act of baptism is not named; a touch of the Baptist’s characteristic humility.

13 . Then cometh Jesus … to be baptized of him ] Jesus who is the pattern of the New life submits to the baptism which is a symbol of the New life ( Metanoia ). He who has power to forgive sins seems to seek through baptism forgiveness of sins. But in truth by submitting to baptism Jesus shows the true efficacy of the rite. He who is most truly man declares what man may become through baptism clothed and endued with the Holy Spirit, and touched by the fire of zeal and purity.

There is no hint in the gospel narrative of that beautiful companionship and intercourse in childhood between Jesus and the Baptist with which Art has familiarized us. See John 1:31 , a passage which tends to an opposite conclusion.

to Jordan ] Probably at “Ænon near to Salim” (John 3:23 ), a day’s journey from Nazareth, “close to the passage of the Jordan near Succoth and far away from that near Jericho.” Sinai and Palestine , p. 311.

14 . forbad him ] Rather, was preventing , or, endeavoured to prevent .

15 . righteousness ] Here = the requirements of the law.

16 . the heavens ] A literal translation of the Hebrew word, which is a plural form.

he [ Jesus ] saw ] We should infer from the text that the vision was to Jesus alone, but the Baptist also was a witness as we learn from John 1:32 . “And John bare record, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him.” This was to John the sign by which the Messiah should be recognised.

17 . a voice from heaven ] Thrice during our Lord’s ministry it is recorded that a voice from heaven came to Him. The two other occasions were at the Transfiguration and in the week of the Passion (John 12:28 ).

heaven ] lit. as above heavens .

beloved ] The original word is used specially and only of the Saviour in the Gospels, Mark 12:6 and Luke 20:13 cannot be called exceptions. In late Greek it is nearly interchangeable with “only-begotten.”

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Matthew 3". "Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/cgt/matthew-3.html. 1896.