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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 3

Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New TestamentsSutcliffe's Commentary

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Verses 1-17

Matthew 3:1 . In those days came John the Baptist. When the time of the seventy weeks was fulfilled, when the sceptre was departed from Judah, and when all the east, according to Suetonius, expected one to arise in Judea who should be the ruler of all things. It was when Tiberius entered the fifteenth year of his reign, that the preacher of the desert opened his commission.

Preaching in the wilderness of Judea. John had a special revelation from heaven, of all the particulars of his mission with regard to doctrine and to baptism. Of this revelation we know but one fact, that on whomsoever he should see the Spirit descend, and resting upon him, the same was the Messiah. John 1:33. The glory was uncreated, and the sign was infallible. The spirit of his ministry and baptism was to sanctify and prepare his country for the reception of Christ, and for accession to the evangelical kingdom, as Moses had sanctified them for the reception of the law. 1 Corinthians 10:2. After this revelation, it is not doubted but that John instantly opened his commission in his own neighbourhood, the hill country, and wilderness of Judea. The king’s business required haste, and the harbinger of the Lord was too full of the Spirit to admit of delay.

Matthew 3:2 . Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. These brilliant words were the general text of all his future sermons. Μετανοεω is the current verb in the new testament, and designates, after better instruction, a return from folly to wisdom, from sin to holiness, as when the prodigal, by an eminent display of grace, “came to himself.” It is ever connected with becoming fruits and evidences, as conviction of sin, a fear of punishment, a godly sorrow, earnest prayer, and all the fruits of righteousness, just the reverse of our former sin and folly. It is a repentance from dead works, to serve the living and true God. Hebrews 6:1.

There is another verb, Μεταμελομαι , by which it is expressed five times in the new testament, and always designates a change of mind, either for good or otherwise. Matthew 27:3; Matthew 21:29; Matthew 21:32. 2 Corinthians 7:8. Hebrews 7:21. This great work of unfeigned repentance and conversion, must be repeated daily for our defects, and especially after all our backslidings from God. Hebrews 6:6. This tender and gracious work is designed to prepare the heart for the reign of grace in the inward kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 3:4 . His meat was locusts and wild honey, or honey taken out of hollow trees. The species of locust are very numerous. Some are about the size of a man’s little finger. “The Bushmen in South Africa, not only eat them, but dry them in the sun, and pound them as a substitute for bread.” Campbell’s Travels. Baronius contends however, that acrides signifies the tops of vegetables and trees, as well as insects. See the note on the locust, Exodus 10:4. Joel 1:4.

Matthew 3:7 . The Pharisees and Sadducees. The former were a sect of learned men zealous for the law, and were distinguished as religious characters by their dress. In the time of Josephus their number was about six thousand, that is, prior to the destruction of Jerusalem. Women were not excluded from this sect. This religious order was formed about one hundred years before our Saviour’s time. They engaged to keep every iota of the law; to fast twice a week, pray, and give alms. They were famed for sanctity of manners, but neglected judgment, mercy, and faith. Our Saviour sometimes calls them hypocrites; but Pliny calls them degenerate dogs, and black sheep. The Sadducees were of equal rank with the Pharisees; and the sect originated with Zadok. They were called Baithuses, and in Egypt the Karaites. They denied a future state, and consequently the existence of angels or spirits. They quarrelled with the temple worship which said, for ever and ever, or from age to age. This wicked and infidel sect arose about the time that Malachi died. See Matthew 22:23.

Come to his baptism. The jews baptized proselytes in whole families, the man, the woman, and all their children, in order that they might be saved from the sins of the age and the punishments coming on the world, as Noah and his sons were saved by water in the ark. By the like figure, says an apostle, does baptism now save us. 1 Peter 3:21. Peter also said to the jews, “Save yourselves from this untoward generation.”

Dr. Lightfoot, who understood Hebrew better than the rabbins of his age, and was superior to any christian critic in the sacred tongue, brings here and elsewhere many quotations to prove the baptism of children. First, “they baptize a little proselyte according to the judgment of the sanhedrim;” that is, as the gloss reads, “If he be deprived of his father, and if his mother bring him to be made a proselyte, because none becomes a proselyte without circumcision and baptism, according to the judgment of the sanhedrim; that is, unless three men be present at his baptism, who are now to him instead of a father.” Bab. Cherubb, fol. 2. This proves that godfathers were only for orphan children. Dr. Lightfoot brings a second proof of infant baptism from the Gemara, which a little after says, “If the sons and daughters of a proselyte are made proselytes, that which is done by their father redounds to their good. But rabbi Joseph says, when they come to years, they may retract.” The gloss adds, “This is to be understood of little children, who are made proselytes together with their father.” “If an Israelite take a gentile child, or find a gentile infant, and baptise him in the name of a proselyte, behold he is a proselyte.”

Now, the disciples of Christ finding baptism in use among the jews did not alter it, they only applied it towards its proper object; viz. they baptized with water unto repentance: Matthew 3:11. They baptized in the name of Jesus; and lastly, they baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Matthew 28:19. Five times we read that they baptized households. Hence it is of no avail to deny infant baptism. It is misguiding the ignorant, and giving a false gloss to the holy scriptures. They might just as well say that women did not receive the sacrament, as say that the primitive christians did not baptize their children, because it is not said that women did communicate, or that infants were baptized. Origen however says, “It was always the custom of the church to baptize children.”

Now though the jews, resident in a warm country, did baptize by dipping, we are nowhere restricted to that form of baptism, and especially, as in the great churches, even in the early times, difference of mode prevailed. Some dipped, some sprinkled, and some poured water on the children. The emperor Constantine was baptized when sick in bed, by having water sprinkled upon him. Baptism is a figure of the renewing of the Holy Ghost, and of our purification from sin; and as we are oftener said to be sprinkled with the blood of Christ than washed, I do not see the absolute force of forms. Every father has a right to choose his own mode for his own child.

Matthew 3:9 . Think not to say we have Abraham to our father. Dr. Lightfoot, to lower the Hebrew theology, gives us a story here out of the Talmud of Jerusalem, that “Abraham sits at the gate, and will not suffer any Israelite to descend into the fire of gehenna.” The ancient jews had long boasted, “the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord are we.” The drunken rulers of Jerusalem mocked Isaiah in a high tone of derision: chap. 28. He rejoined, that God had begun to build another temple, one of living stones, and that the hail of invasion should sweep away all their refuges of lies. He adds still stronger words of their utter execration, in Isaiah 65:15.

Matthew 3:10 . Now also the axe is laid to the root of the trees. These words portend that the destruction of hypocrites, and of all the impenitent, was near at hand. As the woodman in a morning throws down his axe at the root of a tree, while he takes off his coat to give the final blows to the tall cedar or the ancient oak, so the Roman axe was already commissioned to strike at the jewish nation, and give them a total fall. Their rejection of the kingdom of heaven which was now approaching, would be the prelude to this dreadful catastrophe.

Matthew 3:16 . Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him. This is the consecration of the Saviour for his ministry, without human hands. It is altogether Divine. It followed his baptism, for means are attended with grace. David after his anointing slew in succession a lion, a bear, and the gigantic Goliath. In like manner Solomon was taken to the fount of the Gihon above Jerusalem, and there washed and consecrated. He then mounted his father’s horse, and marched against the rebels.

St. Luke adds, Luke 3:21, that when all the people were baptized, “Jesus prayed,” and they seem to have gathered round him. Then it was that the heavens were opened; and according to Jerome, the glory shone along the Jordan to some extent. This visible splendour was the ancient emblem of the divine presence. This glory John saw, the seal from heaven of the Saviour’s designation, as the prophet, the priest, the prince of his church. And the testimony of John to the scribes corresponds to this. “I knew him not; but he who sent me to baptize with water, the same said to me, upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and resting on him, the same is he that baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God.” John 1:33-34. To this testimony the apostles appeal, as a higher revelation than that of the prophets. 2 Peter 1:17-18. Colossians 1:13. Matthew 17:5.

If it be asked why the similitude of a dove was preferred to emblems of fire, or chariots of glory; we might say, because of his meekness, and lowliness of heart. “He shall not cry, nor lift up (a banner) nor cause his voice to be heard in the street.” Isaiah 42:2. It was that we might approach him, arrayed in every engaging form of innocence, mildness, affability, and love.

Matthew 3:17 . And lo, a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son. This is the voice from heaven to earth, the declaration of the Father to the human race, that the Christ, arrayed in mortal flesh, was the only-begotten Son of God. The title designates him to be one with the Father, and equal with God. St. Paul’s question is cogent here: “To which of the angels said he at any time, thou art my Son?” How different are these aspects of grace from those cast on the old world, when it repented the Lord that he had made man. Genesis 6:7.

I must superadd here a strong stricture on Dr. Campbell’s new translation of the four gospels. He thus renders Matthew 4:3; Matthew 4:6: “If thou be a son of God!” If the doctor plead the absence of the Greek masculine article, the appeal is unfounded; the article being twice repeated in this verse, with a voice from heaven, as in Matthew 17:5. It was not essential for diabolus to repeat it here. Besides, how can a son of God create, by turning stones to bread? Was any son of God higher than this wicked one, who never invaded the creative prerogatives of the Deity. This, in defiance of all shame, is the running language of all the unitarian books. The faith of diabolus was pure and correct; he doubted not that the Divinity dwelt in Christ; this was a point he durst not dispute; his sole aim was to draw his human nature, in time of hunger, to sin, either by distrusting providence, or by working a miracle for vanity, to demonstrate the truth of what the voice from heaven had said. If our unitarians would speak out in the titles of their books, we might avoid the deleterious poison of their breath. The blasphemy of Diderot in the French academy was, “Strike the wretch, but conceal the hand.” Of this preceptor they are the pupils; they slide their venom not only into our sacred books, but into our magazines, reviews, travels, and school books. Oh christian, beware! Neither touch nor taste the forbidden fruit. If you visit the hospitals of death, you will not come away without infection.


From the nativity of Jesus Christ, our eyes make a sudden transition to the preacher of the desert, whose birth and mission are related by the evangelists Luke and John. This man, though of priestly descent, tutored in solitude, came forth at the appointed time in the spirit and power of Elijah. He received his commission and his instructions immediately from heaven. He was instructed to preach repentance, to baptize the people, and to assure them that the Messiah would tread on his steps; and whom he should recognize by a visible descent of the Holy Ghost, which glory was at all times an infallible mark of the Godhead. John, filled with the Spirit, and starting like a giant in his course, raised his voice in the wilderness, Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. This was the text of all his sermons, and the leading trait of his ministry. The severities of his food and dress, the superior aspect of his countenance, together with the grace and terror of his words, seized on the multitude, and interested his nation. The Messiah’s kingdom, which Daniel had said the Lord would erect in the Roman times, Daniel 2:44, and which all the prophets saw afar off, John declared was now at hand, even the kingdom of grace in the heart, of truth in the earth, and of glory opened from above.

Repentance is the first preparation for that kingdom. If men wish to become the friends of God, they must leave their sins, must hate them, and weep for them. They must repair their faults towards men as far as is in their power, and towards God with unfeigned tears of godly sorrow. Pardon then descends on the conscience, peace, righteousness, and joy are opened in the heart. These doctrines John illustrated and applied to all ranks of men with irresistible conviction and force, and a nation was baptized in the Jordan, confessing their sins.

But sad to tell, when God effectuates a great work in a nation, the priests and rulers, often through pride, seek to destroy it. We seem to see the learned doctors of Jerusalem, hearing of the fame of John, and affecting to despise it, as the lying wonder of the day. Presently some festival arrived; and now they look cloudy one at another, and ask why the courts were so thinly attended. It was replied, the people are all gone after John. Whenever it is known where he preaches, whole towns, and all the villages are deserted. What must we do to suppress it? The popular humour must be opposed with caution. Let us place some of our most subtle doctors as spies over his person, let them listen to his sermons, ask him questions, and penetrate his views, that we may be the better able so to eradicate his heresy, and bring him to punishment. Ah, so is the heart of man, which does not yield to God.

Hypocrites must be rebuked in the severest language. When John saw these doctors approach him in their robes, destitute of tears, and the contrite looks of true repentance; when he saw them bow with apparent respect, while their countenance looked twenty different ways; moved by the divine impetus, he cried, oh generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? The day of burning is at hand, Malachi 4:1; yet you have no repentance. With carnal hearts you rest in covenant privileges, and boast of being Abraham’s seed; but you are the seed of the serpent, and God is about to crush the viper’s brood. He will adopt these stones, these young converts, as the living stones of his spiritual temple. Yea, and as the woodman applies his axe to the root of the tree, so the Lord is about to give a fatal blow to both root and branch of your nation. Oh how desperately wicked is the human heart: every lust is of the viper’s brood.

How great also is the punishment of impenitent men. John gave proof to the doctors that he was a prophet, by revealing the thoughts of their hearts; yet they repented not. Therefore the winnowing, the burning day approached; the day of God’s great wrath, and always wrath to come; wrath to come for ever. And canst thou, oh christian minister, after hearing John’s voice, see among thine auditory persons lately occupying the first place at theatres and balls, and deal with them in affable dissuasions from vice, and persuasives to virtue? This would be to damn thine own soul, without saving them.

Presently after they who were all guile had departed, he who was all innocence approached. But John, revolting at the honour which the Lord conferred on the servant, forbade him in a yielding modesty. In the baptism of our blessed Lord and Master, we see a pattern of obedience. He who requires all precepts to be obeyed, did himself fulfil all righteousness. Hence, as Jesus entered on his ministry in purity of body and mind, ministers and members of his church must be washed and sanctified by grace. Regeneration is the gate of life, and of the church.

John having borne testimony that Christ was his Master and Lord, the Father from heaven next bears testimony that Jesus, though now in the likeness of sinful flesh, was his beloved Son; yea, inexplicably so, and incomparably above angels. Hebrews 1:5. This was the voice on Sinai, this was the voice in the holy of holies, and this voice was proof that all glory and grace rested now in Christ, as the fountain of life to his church. The glory was at all times an infallible proof of the presence of God. Hence this cloud, this voice, this dove were to the church a threefold testimony, that Christ was the true God and eternal life.

Bibliographical Information
Sutcliffe, Joseph. "Commentary on Matthew 3". Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jsc/matthew-3.html. 1835.
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