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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 3

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

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Verses 1-2

John appeared "in those days" (Matthew 3:1). This phrase is a general term that says little about specific time but identifies what follows as historical. It is a common transitional statement in Matthew’s narrative. [Note: Robertson, p. 708.] John’s ministry, as Matthew described it here, occurred just before the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, approximately 30 years after the events of chapter 2.

"John" became a popular name among the Jews following the heroic career of John Hyrcanus (died 106 B.C.). There are four or five Johns in the New Testament. This one received the surname "the Baptist" because of his practice of baptizing repentant Jews (Matthew 3:6).

John was a herald with a message to proclaim. He appears on the scene suddenly and mysteriously, much like Elijah, whose ministry John mirrored (cf. 1 Kings 17:1). [Note: See Edersheim, 2:706-9, on rabbinic traditions about Elijah.] "Preaching" is literally heralding (Gr. kerysso).

"In the New Testament the verb does not mean ’to give an informative or hortatory or edifying discourse expressed in beautifully arranged words with a melodious voice; it means to proclaim an event’ . . ." [Note: A. M. Hunter, The Message of the New Testament, p. 24.]

The event John proclaimed was the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom.

The scene of John’s ministry was the wilderness of Judea. This loosely defined area lay mainly to the west and somewhat north of the Dead Sea. John evidently conducted his ministry there because of its rough conditions that were suitable to his appeal for repentance. In Israel’s history the wilderness forever reminded the Jews of their 40-year sojourn under extreme conditions and God giving them the Law of Moses. They associated it with a place of separation unto God, testing for refinement, and new beginnings. In John’s day the wilderness spawned many movements that challenged Israel’s leadership. [Note: Josephus, The Wars . . ., 2:13:4-5.] This may explain why John chose to minister there.

John called the people to repent (Matthew 3:2).

"Contrary to popular thinking, repent does not mean to be sorry. The Greek word metanoeo means ’. . . to change one’s mind or purpose . . .’ [Note: Footnote 74: G. A. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 287.] In the New Testament it ’. . . indicates a complete change of attitude, spiritual and moral, towards God.’ [Note: Footnote 75: J. H. Moulton and G. Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament, p. 403.] The primary meaning involves a turning to God which may indeed make a person sorry for his sins, but that sorrow is a by-product and not the repentance itself. . . . In a word, John’s command to the people of Israel was for them to turn from their sins to God in anticipation of their Messiah." [Note: Toussaint, pp. 60-61.]

The Jews needed to change their thinking because most of them believed that they would enter the Messiah’s kingdom simply because they were the children of Abraham (Matthew 3:9). John was attacking established religious concepts of his day and those who taught them. He demanded evidence of genuine repentance instead of mere complacency, hypocrisy, and superficiality (cf. Matthew 3:8).

John also announced that the kingdom of heaven (lit. the heavens) was at hand. What was this kingdom? Students of this question have offered three basic answers.

First, some believe that the kingdom began with Jesus’ ministry and will continue until His second coming, which will mean the end of the world, in their view. They view the kingdom as spiritual, namely, as God’s rule over the hearts and lives of believers in Jesus. This kingdom is spiritual in contrast to physical and earthly. Advocates do not believe Jesus will return to earth to set up an earthly, physical kingdom that will resume the Davidic kingdom of the Old Testament. They believe that the promises in the Old Testament of Israel’s restoration under Messiah are being fulfilled in a spiritual sense in the experience of Christians. For example, promises of Israel’s return to her land will find fulfillment in the church’s entrance into heaven. Most advocates of this view believe that the church has replaced Israel and that God has no special future for Israel as Israel. The kingdom that Jesus inaugurated, they believe, is already present. This is the typical amillennial (no millennium) understanding of the kingdom.

Second, some believe that the kingdom that Jesus preached will be entirely earthly. They hold that it is the resumption of the Davidic kingdom, which ended with the Babylonian exile and will resume when Jesus returns to earth at His second coming. Then He will establish this kingdom, which will continue for 1,000 years (the millennium). The present inter-advent age is not the kingdom, nor is the kingdom the church age. There is no present form of this kingdom, according to this view. The kingdom Jesus preached is not yet from our perspective in history. This is the view of some premillennialists, mainly some dispensationalists.

Many who hold this second view acknowledge that though the kingdom Jesus announced will be an earthly kingdom, there is another kingdom that has existed throughout history. It is God’s sovereign rule over all. Since He has ruled, is ruling, and will forever reign over all, we can speak of this universal rule as His kingdom. However, it is not the restored Davidic kingdom that Jesus announced as being at hand.

Third, some interpreters have concluded that the kingdom Jesus announced was both already present in one form and not yet present in another form. They believe there is a present spiritual form of the kingdom now (as in view one above) and a future physical form of the kingdom (as in view two above). Some advocates of this view believe that God has a future for Israel as Israel (the physical descendants of Jacob). The church has not replaced Israel in God’s plans. This is the view of "progressive dispensationalists." Other advocates of this view believe that the church does replace Israel. God’s promises to Israel will find fulfillment in the church. These are mainly "historic premillennialists." This group believes in a physical, earthly kingdom but for the church, not Israel.

Many dispensationalists are uncomfortable with the idea that the kingdom is already and not yet, in view of how they interpret kingdom passages. Specifically, they are uncomfortable with the idea that the church is the "already" stage of the kingdom. They prefer to view the church as an entity distinct from the kingdom, an intercalation or something inserted in the divine timeline between the Old Testament kingdom of David and the messianic kingdom. They make much of the terminology used to distinguish the church and the kingdom. Most in this group of interpreters see some form of God’s kingdom in existence now, however, whether the universal rule of God or a mystery form of the coming kingdom.

Among dispensationalists, some hold that there were two kingdoms that Jesus preached: the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven. [Note: Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, 5:316; 7:223-24; John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom, p. 171; idem, "The Kingdom of Heaven," Bibliotheca Sacra 124:495 (July-September 1967):203; C. I. Scofield, ed., The Scofield Reference Bible, p. 1003.] The former term, they say, refers to a smaller kingdom that includes only genuine believers and is cosmic and universal in scope. The latter term, they say, refers to a larger kingdom that includes all who profess to be believers and is limited to the earth. This distinction has been shown to be invalid. One cannot make this distinction on the basis of how the New Testament writers used these terms.

"Most recent advocates of a distinction acknowledge that the two expressions are ’often used synonymously,’ yet are to be distinguished in certain contexts. [Note: Footnote 20: The New Scofield Reference Bible, pp. 994, 1002.] Others who would generally be identified with dispensationalism agree with most non-dispensationalists that no distinction between these expressions is intended by the biblical writers. [Note: Footnote 21: Eric Sauer, The Triumph of the Crucified, p. 23; Toussaint, pp. 65-68.] Matthew’s use of ’the kingdom of heaven’ is to be explained as a Semitic idiom probably resulting from the Jewish reverence for the name of God and the tendency to use ’heaven’ or ’heavens’ as a substitute. [Note: Footnote 22: Dalman, pp. 91-93. See also Edersheim, 1:267.] So, although some dispensationalists still distinguish the two terms in some passages, we agree with Ryrie that this issue is not a determinative feature of dispensationalism. [Note: Robert L. Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism, p. 19. His reference to Ryrie is from Dispensationalism Today, pp. 170-71.]

Dispensationalists who are not "progressives" believe that the kingdom that John, Jesus (Matthew 4:17), and His disciples (Matthew 10:7) announced and offered the Jews was exactly the same kingdom that the Old Testament prophets predicted. Because the Jews rejected their King and His kingdom, God "postponed" the kingdom until a future time when Israel will accept her Messiah, namely, at His second advent (cf. Zechariah 12:10-14). The word "postponed" does not imply that Jewish rejection of the Messiah took God by surprise. It views the coming of the kingdom from man’s perspective. This view, I believe, best harmonizes the normal meaning of the Old Testament kingdom prophecies and Jesus’ teachings. [Note: See Alva J. McClain, The Greatness of the Kingdom, An Inductive Study of the Kingdom of God, pp. 274-76.] Similarly because the generation of Jews that left Egypt in the Exodus refused to trust and obey God at Kadesh Barnea, God postponed the nation’s entrance into the Promised Land for 38 years. As God postponed Israel’s entrance into the Promised Land because of Jewish unbelief, so He postponed Israel’s entrance into the messianic kingdom because of Jewish unbelief.

There is good evidence that the kingdom that John and Jesus spoke about was the earthly eschatological kingdom that the Old Testament prophets foretold. First, the fact that John, Jesus, and Jesus’ disciples did not explain what it was but simply announced that it was near indicates that they referred to a kingdom known to their hearers. [Note: George N. D. Peters, The Theocratic Kingdom of Our Lord Jesus, the Christ, as Covenanted in the Old Testament and Presented in the New Testament, 1:195.] Second, Jesus restricted the proclamation about the kingdom to Jews (Matthew 10:5-6). If the kingdom was spiritual, why was this necessary? Moreover the inauguration of the kingdom predicted in the Old Testament depended on the Jews receiving it (Zechariah 12:1-14; Zechariah 13:7-9; Malachi 4:5-6). Third, Jesus’ disciples expected the beginning of an earthly kingdom (Matthew 20:20-21; Acts 1:6). They did so after they had listened to Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom for a long time. Fourth, this kingdom cannot be the church since God had not yet revealed the existence of the church let alone established it (Matthew 16:18). It cannot be God’s universal reign over the hearts of mankind since that had existed since creation.

". . . if the Kingdom, announced as ’at hand’ by the Lord, had been exclusively a ’spiritual kingdom,’ or as some have defined it, ’the rule of God in the heart,’ such an announcement would have had no special significance whatever to Israel, for such a rule of God had always been recognized among the people of God [cf. Psalms 37:31; Psalms 103:19]." [Note: McClain, p. 303.]

Therefore we conclude that when John spoke of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 3:2) he meant the earthly kingdom over which Messiah would rule, which the Old Testament prophets predicted.

"Only the premillennial interpretation of the concept of the kingdom allows a literal interpretation of both Old Testament and New Testament prophecies relating to the future kingdom" [Note: Walvoord, Matthew: . . ., p. 31.]

It is particularly important to distinguish the church from the kingdom. The kingdom, whether described as "of heaven" or "of God," always refers to the earthly reign of Messiah as predicted in the Old Testament. The church will play a part in the kingdom, but they are separate entities. Progressive dispensationalists argue that the church is the first phase of the messianic kingdom, the "already" phase, in contrast to the eschatological, "not yet," phase. Matthew maintained the distinction between the kingdom and the church throughout his Gospel, as did the other New Testament writers.

What did John mean when he announced that the kingdom was "at hand" (Matthew 3:2)? The Greek verb eggizo means "to draw near," not "to be here" (cf. Matthew 21:1). [Note: William L. Lane, The Gospel according to Mark, p. 65, n. 93; A. J. Mattill Jr., Luke and the Last Things: A Perspective for the Understanding of Lukan Thought, pp. 70-77.] All that was necessary for the kingdom to be there was Israel’s acceptance of her King (Matthew 11:14). The kingdom was near because the King was present. Amillennialists, historic premillennialists, and progressive dispensationalists believe John meant that the kingdom was about to begin, which, they say, it did when Jesus began to minister.

"If Israel had accepted its Messiah, the earthly kingdom would have been inaugurated by the King." [Note: Toussaint, p. 63. ]

This statement may seem to some to render Christ’s work on the cross unnecessary, but this is incorrect. Had the Jews accepted their Messiah when He offered the kingdom to them He still would have died on the cross and experienced resurrection and ascension. He could not have been the Messiah without doing so in fulfillment of many Old Testament prophecies (Psalms 22; Isaiah 53; Daniel 9; Zechariah 13). Then the prophecies concerning the seven years of Jacob’s trouble would have been fulfilled (Jeremiah 30:7; Daniel 12:1; Daniel 9:26-27). Next Messiah would have returned to set up His kingdom (Isaiah 60:1-3; Isaiah 66:18; Habakkuk 2:14; cf. Zechariah 12:10; Zechariah 13:6).

Since the Jews rejected Jesus’ offer of the kingdom was His offer genuine? Had God not already determined that Israel would reject her Messiah? Jesus’ offer of the kingdom was just as genuine as any gospel offer of salvation to someone who rejects it.

"Those who cavil at the idea of an offer which is certain to be rejected betray an ignorance, not only of Biblical history (cf. Isaiah 6:8-10 and Ezekiel 2:3-7), but also of the important place of the legal proffer in the realm of jurisprudence." [Note: McClain, p. 344.]

Verses 1-11

D. The King’s preparation 3:1-4:11

Matthew passed over Jesus’ childhood quickly to relate His preparation for presentation to Israel as her King.

"The material of this section of the Gospel is particularly important since the baptism of Jesus serves as the occasion of his special anointing by the Holy Spirit for the ministry that follows, but it is also Christologically significant in that his divine Sonship is confirmed and the non-triumphalist nature of the present phase of that Sonship is indicated (Matthew 3:17 c and Matthew 4:1-11). Thus Matthew provides information that is vitally important to an understanding of the narrative that follows: what Jesus does in his ministry he does by the power of the Spirit; yet Jesus will not act in the manner of a triumphalist messiah, in accordance with popular expectation, but in his own unique way, in obedience to the will of his Father." [Note: Hagner, p. 43.]

Matthew presented four witnesses to Jesus’ messiahship in this section: John the Baptist (Matthew 3:1-15), the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:16), the Father (Matthew 3:17), and Satan (Matthew 4:1-11). A fifth witness follows in Matthew 4:12-15, namely, Jesus’ ministry.

Verses 1-12

1. Jesus’ forerunner 3:1-12 (cf. Mark 1:2-8; Luke 3:3-18)

It was common when Jesus lived for forerunners to precede important individuals to prepare the way for their arrival. For example, when a king would visit a town in his realm his emissaries would go before him to announce his visit. They would make sure the town was in good condition to receive him. Sometimes his servants even had to do minor roadwork to smooth the highway the king would take as he approached his destination. [Note: Walvoord, p. 29.] John not only prepared the way for Jesus but also announced Him as an important person and implied His royalty. John preceded Jesus in His birth, in His public appearance, and in His death.

"As Jesus’ forerunner, John foreshadows in his person and work the person and work of Jesus. Both John and Jesus are the agents of God sent by God (Matthew 11:10; Matthew 10:40). Both belong to the time of fulfillment (Matthew 3:3; Matthew 1:23). Both have the same message to proclaim (Matthew 3:2; Matthew 4:17). Both enter into conflict with Israel: in the case of the crowds, a favorable reception ultimately gives way to repudiation; in the case of the leaders, the opposition is implacable from the outset (Matthew 3:7-10; Matthew 9:3). Both John and Jesus are ’delivered up’ to their enemies (Matthew 4:12; Matthew 10:4). And both are made to die violently and shamefully (Matthew 14:3-12; Matthew 27:37)." [Note: Kingsbury, p. 49.]

Verse 3

"This is the one OT citation of Matthew’s own eleven direct OT quotations that is not introduced by a fulfillment formula . . . Instead he introduces it with a Pesher formula (e.g., Acts 2:16 . . .) that can only be understood as identifying the Baptist in an eschatological, prophecy-and-fulfillment framework with the one of whom Isaiah (Isaiah 40:3) spoke." [Note: Carson, "Matthew," p. 101.]

In Isaiah 40:3 the voice exhorts the people to prepare for God’s coming as He brings Israel back from her dispersion. The prophet then proceeded to describe the blessings that would follow her return. Matthew identified Yahweh in Isaiah 40:3 with Jesus in Matthew 3:3. This means the kingdom of God is the kingdom of Jesus. While this is not an implicit statement of Jesus’ deity, it certainly presents Jesus as more than just Yahweh’s representative.

Verses 4-6

In his dress and in his food, as well as in his habitat and in his message, John associated himself with the poor and the prophets, particularly Elijah (cf. 2 Kings 1:8; Zechariah 13:4; Malachi 4:5).

"In view of the considerable Jewish interest in the eschatological role of Elijah (see on Matthew 11:14 and Matthew 17:10-11) it is likely that John’s clothing was deliberately adopted to promote this image." [Note: France, The Gospel . . ., p. 106.]

Likewise, John may have selected his venue for ministry because of its associations with Elijah. Poor people ate locusts (Leviticus 11:22), and such a diet was compatible with that of a Nazirite. John called the people to get right with God because the appearing of their Messiah was imminent. Elijah had called the Israelites back to God at the time of their most serious apostasy. John called them back to God on the eve of their greatest opportunity. He was the first prophet from God in approximately 400 years.

Many people responded to John because they perceived that he was a genuine prophet with a message from God (Matthew 3:5).

Baptism represented purification to the Jews. Ceremonial washings were part of the Mosaic system of worship (Exodus 19; Leviticus 15; Numbers 19). When a Gentile became a proselyte to Judaism, he or she underwent baptism. But John baptized Jews. John’s baptism carried these connotations of cleansing with it, but it was different. In the other types of ceremonial cleansing, the person washed himself or herself. John, on the other hand, baptized other people. He probably received the name "John the Baptist" or "Baptizer" for this reason. [Note: Ethelbert Stauffer, New Testament Theology, p. 22.]

John’s baptism did not make a person a member of the church, the body of Christ, since the church had not yet come into existence (Matthew 16:18). It simply gave public testimony to that Jewish person’s repentance and commitment to live a holy life. Lenski, a Lutheran commentator, believed that John baptized by effusion (pouring) rather than by immersion. [Note: Lenski, p. 101.] It is impossible to identify the method of baptism John used from what the Gospels tell us. However extrabiblical sources indicate that Jewish proselyte baptism took place in large tanks (Heb. mikvah) in which the person undergoing baptism stood. [Note: See Edersheim, 2:745-49; A Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, s.v. "Baptism," by Marcus Dodds.] The issue boils down to whether one takes the word "baptism" in its primary sense of submersion or in its secondary sense of initiation. [Note: Walvoord, Matthew: . . ., p. 31.] Likewise it is unclear whether the confession involved public or private acts.

Verses 7-10

This verse contains Matthew’s first reference to the Pharisees ("separate ones") and the Sadducees ("righteous ones"). Significantly, John was antagonistic toward them because they were hypocritical, a trait that marks them throughout the Gospels. Matthew lumped them together here because they were Israel’s leaders.

"After the ministry of the postexilic prophets ceased, godly men called Chasidim (saints) arose who sought to keep alive reverence for the law among the descendants of the Jews who returned from the Babylonian captivity. This movement degenerated into the Pharisaism of our Lord’s day-a letter-strictness which overlaid the law with traditional interpretations held to have been communicated by the LORD to Moses as oral explanations of equal authority with the law itself (cp. Matthew 15:2-3; Mark 7:8-13; Galatians 1:14). . . .

"The Sadducees were a Jewish sect that denied the existence of angels or other spirits, and all miracles, especially the resurrection of the body. They were the religious rationalists of the time (Mark 12:18-23; Acts 23:8), and were strongly entrenched in the Sanhedrin and priesthood (Acts 4:1-2; Acts 5:17). The Sadducees are identified with no affirmative doctrine, but were mere deniers of the supernatural." [Note: The New Scofield . . ., p. 995.]

"Vipers" is a word Isaiah used to describe God’s enemies (Isaiah 14:29; Isaiah 30:6). John’s use of it associates him with the former prophets and reflects his prophetic authority.

"The first major appearance of the religious leaders in Matthew’s story occurs in conjunction with the ministry of John the Baptist (Matthew 3:7-10). The importance of their appearance here has to do with the fact that John is the forerunner of Jesus. As such, the attitude that John assumes toward the leaders is predictive of the attitude that Jesus will assume toward them." [Note: Kingsbury, p. 117.]

John’s question (Matthew 3:7) amounted to, "Who suggested to you that you would escape the coming wrath?" [Note: Carson, "Matthew," p. 103.] The behavior of the Pharisees and Sadducees should have demonstrated the genuineness of their professed repentance, but it did not. Fruit is what people produce that other people see that indicates their spiritual condition (Matthew 13:21; cf. Mark 4:19; Luke 8:14; John 15:1-6). The fruits of repentance were absent in the case of these leaders. There was no external evidence that they desired to draw near to God in anticipation of Messiah’s appearance.

Many of the Jews in the inter-testamental period believed that if one was a descendant of Abraham he would automatically enter Messiah’s kingdom. [Note: Edersheim, 1:271.] They counted on the patriarch’s righteousness as sufficient for themselves. However, God had often pruned back the unrighteous in Israel and preserved a remnant in its history. As Matthew continued to point out in his Gospel, many of the Jews refused to humble themselves before God and instead trusted in their own righteousness. The Pharisees and Sadducees were doing that here. Josephus placed the origin of both of these groups in the time of Jonathan, the son of Judas Maccabee (160-143 B.C.). [Note: See ibid., 1:96.]

John’s reference to "stones" (Matthew 3:9) was a play on words with "children" in both the Hebrew and Aramaic languages. If stones could become God’s children, certainly Gentiles could.

Matthew 3:10 gives the reason the Jews needed to repent. Divine judgment would precede the establishment of Messiah’s kingdom (cf. Isaiah 1:27; Isaiah 4:4; Isaiah 5:16; Isaiah 13:6-19; Isaiah 42:1; Jeremiah 33:14-16; Daniel 7:26-27). The Jews connected the concepts of repentance and the messianic age closely in their thinking. [Note: C. G. Montefiore, "Rabbinic Conceptions of Repentance," Jewish Quarterly Review 16 (January 1904):211.] John announced that this judgment was imminent (Matthew 3:10-12). Any tree (better than every tree) that does not bear good fruit, regardless of its roots, will suffer destruction. Probably John had individuals and the nation of Israel in mind.

The reference to fire in Matthew 3:10 pictures the judgment and destruction of those who fail to repent (cf. "wrath," Matthew 3:7, and "winnowing fork," Matthew 3:13). For individuals this judgment would involve eternal destruction (Matthew 3:12), assuming there was no later repentance. For the nation it would involve the postponement of the kingdom and its attendant blessings.

Verse 11

John baptized in water "in connection with" repentance. [Note: Carson, "Matthew," p. 104.] However the One coming after him, the King, would baptize with the Holy Spirit (cf. Joel 2:28-29) and fire (cf. Malachi 3:2-5). The Malachi prophecy speaks of fire as a refining or purifying agent, not as an instrument of destruction. Both prophecies involve the nation of Israel as a whole primarily.

Are these two different baptisms or one? This is a very difficult question to answer because the arguments on both sides are strong. [Note: See Hagner, pp. 51-52.] In both interpretations baptism connotes both immersion, in the metaphorical sense of placing into something, and initiation.

The construction of the statement in the Greek text favors one baptism. Usually one entity is in view when one article precedes two nouns joined by a conjunction. [Note: Robertson, p. 566.] This would mean that the one baptism Jesus would perform would be with the Holy Spirit and fire together. This apparently happened on the day of Pentecost initially (Acts 2:3-4).

The fire in Malachi’s prophecy probably refers to purification and judgment. The purification emphasis is in harmony with Malachi’s use. This has led many scholars to conclude that the fire baptism that John predicted is not the one at Pentecost. [Note: E.g., Edersheim, 1:272; M’Neile, p. 29; Toussaint, p. 70; Carson, "Matthew," p. 105; and James Morison, A Practical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Matthew, p. 36. See also John Proctor, "Fire in God’s House: Influence of Malachi 3 in the NT," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 36:1 (March 1993):12-13.] They believe that the time when Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire to fulfill these prophecies concerning Israel is yet future from our viewpoint in history. It will happen at His second advent. It would have happened at His first advent if Israel had accepted Him. Jesus’ baptism of His disciples on the day of Pentecost was a similar baptism, they say. However, it was not the fulfillment of these prophecies since they involved Israel and "the day of the Lord" specifically (cf. John 14:17; Acts 2; 1 Corinthians 12:13). [Note: See Renald E. Showers, Maranatha: Our Lord, Come! A Definitive Study of the Rapture of the Church, pp. 30-40, for an excellent discussion of "the day of the Lord."]

The context, which speaks of blessing for the repentant but judgment for the unrepentant, tends to favor two baptisms (Matthew 3:8-10; Matthew 3:12; cf. Acts 1:5; Acts 11:16). In this case the fire would refer primarily, if not exclusively, to judgment. [Note: Those who favor this view include Walvoord, Matthew: . . ., p. 32; Barbieri, p. 25; and Wiersbe, 1:17.] The baptism with the Holy Spirit would refer to Spirit baptism that will happen when Israel accepts her Messiah (Isaiah 44:3; Joel 2:28-32). A foretaste of that baptism occurred on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). The baptism with fire would refer to Jesus’ judgment of unrepentant Israel (cf. Matthew 3:12). After Israel’s rejection of Jesus, it became clear that this national judgment will happen primarily at His second coming. This fiery judgment might also refer to unrepentant individuals when they reach the end of their lives.

All things considered it seems probable that John was referring to one baptism that took place initially on the day of Pentecost but which will find complete fulfillment at Jesus’ second coming.

The rabbis taught that, even if one was a slave, loosening another person’s sandal was beneath the dignity of a Jew. [Note: The rabbinic writing Mekilta de Rabbi Ishmael, Nezikin 1 on Exodus 21:2, cited by Bock, Jesus according . . ., p. 83.] So by saying he was unworthy to unloose Jesus’ sandals, John meant that he was unworthy of even the most humiliating service of Jesus.

Verse 12

John metaphorically described God separating the true and the false, the repentant and the unrepentant, in a future judgment. This thorough judgment will result in the preservation of the believing Israelites and the destruction of the unbelieving (cf. Matthew 25:31-46). The barn probably refers to the kingdom and the "unquenchable fire" to the endless duration and the agonizing nature of this punishment.

"’Unquenchable fire’ is not just metaphor: fearful reality underlies Messiah’s separation of grain from chaff. The ’nearness’ of the kingdom therefore calls for repentance (Matthew 3:2)." [Note: Carson, "Matthew," p. 105.]

What then was the essential message of Messiah’s forerunner?

"John preached both a personal salvation, involving the remission of sins (Mark 1:4), and a national salvation, involving the establishment of the millennial kingdom with Israel delivered out of the hand of their enemies (Matthew 3:2; Luke 1:71-75)." [Note: S. Lewis Johnson Jr., "The Message of John the Baptist." Bibliotheca Sacra 113:449 (January 1956):36. See also Toussaint, p. 69.]

2. Jesus’ baptism 3:13-17 (cf. Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-23)

Jesus’ baptism was the occasion at which His messiahship became obvious publicly. Matthew recorded this event as he did to convince his readers further of Jesus’ messianic qualifications. Thus John’s baptism had two purposes: to prepare Israel for her Messiah (Matthew 3:1-12) and to prepare the Messiah for Israel (Matthew 3:13-17; cf. John 1:31).

Verses 13-14

John hesitated to baptize Jesus because he believed that Jesus did not need to repent. John evidently suggested that it was more appropriate that Jesus baptize him than that he baptize Jesus because he knew that Jesus was more righteous than he was. It is unlikely that John meant that he wanted the Spirit and fire baptism of Jesus. John did not know that Jesus was the Messiah until after he had baptized Him (John 1:31-34).

Verse 15

John agreed to baptize Jesus only after Jesus convinced him that by baptizing Him both of them would "fulfill all righteousness." What did Jesus mean?

An important prerequisite to understanding Jesus’ words is an understanding of the meaning of "righteousness." Matthew’s use of this word is different from Paul’s. Paul used it mainly to describe a right standing before God, positional righteousness. Matthew used it to describe conformity to God’s will, ethical righteousness. [Note: Benno Przybylski, Righteousness in Matthew and His World of Thought, pp. 91-94.] Ethical righteousness is the display of conduct in one’s actions that is right in God’s eyes. It does not deal with getting saved but responding to God’s grace. In Matthew a righteous person is one who lives in harmony with the will of God (cf. Matthew 1:19). Ethical righteousness is a major theme of the Old Testament, and it was a matter that concerned the Jews in Jesus’ day, especially the Pharisees.

Jesus understood that it was God’s will for John to baptize Him. There is no Old Testament prophecy that states that Messiah would undergo water baptism, but there is prophecy that Messiah would submit Himself to God (Isaiah 42:1; Isaiah 53; et al.). That spirit of submissiveness to God’s will is primarily what John’s baptism identified in those who submitted to it. Consequently it was appropriate for Jesus to undergo John’s baptism, and John consented to baptize Him. In doing so, Jesus authenticated John’s ministry and identified Himself with the godly remnant within Israel.

"The King, because of His baptism, is now bound up with His subjects." [Note: Toussaint, p. 73.]

"Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan stands as a counterpart of Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea at the onset of the Exodus. Thus Jesus transversed the Jordan and then, like Israel, spent a period of time in the wilderness. Jesus, another Moses, on whom the Spirit had been placed (Isaiah 63:10-14), would lead the way." [Note: Don B. Garlington, "Jesus, the Unique Son of God: Tested and Faithful," Bibliotheca Sacra 151:603 (July-September 1994):287.]

"Jesus fulfilled the Scripture by replicating in His own life the patterns of God’s historical relations with Israel and by accomplishing in His own history the predicted events of prophecy." [Note: Craig A. Blaising, "The Fulfillment of the Biblical Covenants," in Progressive Dispensationalism, p. 195.]

It is significant that Matthew did not describe Jesus’ baptism. His emphasis was on the two revelatory events that followed it (cf. Matthew 2:1-23).

Verses 16-17

The Greek text stresses the fact that Jesus’ departure from the water and God’s attestation of Him as the Messiah occurred at the same time. The NIV translation gives this sense better than the NASB.

The person who saw the Spirit descending was evidently Jesus. Jesus is the person in the immediately preceding context. John the Evangelist recorded that John the Baptist also saw this (John 1:32), but evidently no one but Jesus heard the Father’s voice. In fact the baptism of Jesus appears to have been a private affair with no one present but John and Jesus. The phrase "the heavens were opened" or "heaven was opened" recalls instances of people receiving visions from God. In them they saw things unseen by other mortals (e.g., Isaiah 64:1; Ezekiel 1:1; cf. Acts 7:56; Revelation 4:1; Revelation 19:11). The phrase implies that new revelation will follow to and through Jesus. What Jesus saw was the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, not in a dove-like fashion, descending on Him (cf. Luke 3:22). This is the first explicit identification of the Holy Spirit and a dove in Scripture. It was an appropriate symbol because of its beauty, heavenly origin, freedom, sensitivity, purity, and peaceful nature.

"The descent of the Spirit upon Jesus denotes the divine act whereby God empowers him to accomplish the messianic ministry he is shortly to begin (Matthew 4:17). Such empowerment, of course, is not to be construed as Jesus’ initial endowment with the Spirit, for he was conceived by the Spirit. Instead, it specifies in what way Jesus proves to be the mightier One John had said he would be (Matthew 3:11). It also serves as the reference point for understanding the ’authority’ with which Jesus discharges his public ministry. Empowered by God’s Spirit, Jesus speaks as the mouthpiece of God (Matthew 7:28-29) and acts as the instrument of God (Matthew 12:28)." [Note: Kingsbury, p. 52.]

In Isaiah 42:1 the prophet predicted that God would put His Spirit on His Servant. That happened at Jesus’ baptism. Matthew’s account shows fulfillment though the writer did not draw attention to it as such here. When God’s Spirit came on individuals in the Old Testament, He empowered them for divine service. That was the purpose of Jesus’ anointing as well (Luke 4:14; Luke 5:17; cf. Luke 24:49).

An audible revelation followed the visual one (Matthew 3:17). The voice from heaven could be none other than God’s. After 400 years without prophetic revelation, God broke the silence. He spoke from heaven to humankind again. Matthew recorded God’s words as a general announcement (cf. Matthew 17:5). The other evangelists wrote that God said, "You are my beloved Son" (Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22). Evidently the accounts in Mark and Luke contain the actual words God used, the ipisissima verba, whereas Matthew gave a free quotation of God’s words, the ipisissima vox. These Latin terms mean essentially "own words" and "own voice" respectively. As used in New Testament studies, the former phrase indicates a verbatim quotation and the latter a free quotation. The former refers to the words the speaker in the narrative used and the latter to the words of the writer who interpreted the speaker’s words. Matthew probably gave a free quotation because he used what happened at Jesus’ baptism as evidence of His messiahship.

"Had the crowds heard the voice from heaven, it is inexplicable why one segment of the public does not at least entertain the idea that Jesus is the Son of God. And had John heard the voice from heaven, it is odd that his question of Matthew 11:2-3 contains no hint of this. On the contrary, it reflects the selfsame view of Jesus that John had expressed prior to the baptism, namely, that Jesus is the Coming One (Matthew 3:11-12)." [Note: Ibid., p. 51.]

The words God spoke identified Jesus as the Messiah promised in the Old Testament. The term "Son of God" was one that God used of David’s descendant who would follow him on Israel’s throne (2 Samuel 7:13-14; Psalms 2:7; Psalms 89:26-29; cf. Matthew 1:20; Matthew 2:15; Matthew 4:3; Matthew 4:6). God’s commendation also linked Jesus with the Suffering Servant at the commencement of His ministry (Isaiah 42:1; Isaiah 53). The Beloved One is equivalent to the One with whom the Father was "well pleased" (Isaiah 42:1). Genesis 22:2 may also be behind this announcement since that verse describes Isaac as Abraham’s beloved only son (cf. Psalms 2:7; Isaiah 42:1). Consequently, Son of God is a messianic title. [Note: Allen, p. 29.] Notice the involvement of all three members of the Trinity in Jesus’ baptism. This indicates its importance.

"For the first time the Trinity, foreshadowed in many ways in the O.T., is clearly manifested." [Note: The New Scofield . . ., p. 995.]

In this one statement at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, God presented Him as the Davidic Messiah, the Son of God, the representative of the people, and the Suffering Servant. Matthew had presented Jesus in all of these roles previously, but now God the Father confirmed His identity.

". . . God’s baptismal declaration at Matthew 3:17 reveals itself to be climactic within the context of Matthew 1:1 to Matthew 4:16 because this is the place where God’s understanding of Jesus as his Son ceases to be of the nature of private information available only to the reader and becomes instead an element within the story that henceforth influences the shape of events. To illustrate this, notice how the words Satan speaks in Matthew 4:3; Matthew 4:6 (’If you are the Son of God . . .’) pick up directly on the declaration God makes in the baptismal pericope (’This is my beloved Son . . .’)." [Note: Kingsbury, p. 44, and footnote 2.]

"Because Matthew so constructs his story that God’s evaluative point of view is normative, the reader knows that in hearing God enunciate his understanding of Jesus, he or she has heard the normative understanding of Jesus, the one in terms of which all other understandings are to be judged. In Matthew’s story, God himself dictates that Jesus is preeminently the Son of God." [Note: Ibid., p. 52.]

"He did not become Son of God at His baptism, as certain heretical teachers in the early Church maintained; but it was then that He was appointed to a work which He alone could perform, because of His unique relationship with His Father." [Note: Tasker, p. 50.]

Matthew passed over all the incidents of Jesus’ childhood, including His appearance at the temple (Luke 2:41-50), because his interests were selective and apologetic rather than merely historical. He introduced Jesus as the messianic King of Israel who fulfilled Old Testament prophecy and received divine confirmation from God with an audible word from heaven (cf. Exodus 20:1). [Note: See S. Lewis Johnson Jr., "The Baptism of Christ," Bibliotheca Sacra 123:491 (July-September 1966):220-29.]

In chapter 1 Matthew stressed the glories of Messiah’s person. In chapter 2 he gave a preview of the reception He would receive as Israel’s Messiah. In chapter 3 he introduced the beginning of His ministry with accounts of His earthly forerunner’s heralding and His heavenly Father’s approbation.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Matthew 3". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/matthew-3.html. 2012.
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