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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 3

Grant's Commentary on the BibleGrant's Commentary

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Verses 1-17

Though John was of a priestly family, this too is not mentioned. He does not preach in the temple, but in the wilderness of the river Jordan, at least thirteen miles from Jerusalem.

For a priest to preach in the wilderness is totally out of character, and nothing but the sovereign power of the Spirit of God can account for his large audience coming from Jerusalem and all Judea out into the wilderness to hear the unusual messenger of God. But the formal religion of the Jews, though established by God, had deteriorated so badly that God's testimony must now be in complete separation from this, to bear solemn witness against the sin of elders, priests, scribes and people; for their state was desolate as the wilderness.

Fittingly, John's preaching stresses repentance, but in view of the kingdom of heaven being at hand. Old Testament prophecy had taught Israel to look for the kingdom of their promised Messiah, a kingdom of magnificent glory. They assumed that this would be strictly Israel's possession, with its head quarters in Jerusalem, just as the former kings of Israel had their thrones established there. But John speaks of this kingdom of God as "the kingdom of heaven." Only in Matthew is this latter expression Used (about 33 times); for here it was necessary to intimate to the Jews that they were not the possessors of the headquarters Of this kingdom: its centre of authority is in the heavens. Indeed, the King Himself had come from heaven; and He would return to heaven, where all authority is vested (Daniel 4:26).

John was the forerunner of the King, come to prepare the way of the Lord, and spoken of as a voice crying in the wilderness, in fulfilment OfIsaiah 40:3; Isaiah 40:3. No fanfare, no public celebration, no great rejoicing is seen at all, in view of the presentation of Him who is King of kings and Lord of lords. His herald is the very epitome of lowly self-denial, wearing a rough garment of camel's hair. Camel means "a bearer," symbolizing John's bearing the burden of Israel's sad condition of quilt. The leather girdle speaks of the self-discipline that leaves no loose ends. His diet of locusts (which appear in times of drought) reminds us of Israel's desolate spiritual condition; and the wild honey, of the sweetness of the truth gathered independently of men's institutions.

All of this is in great contrast to the way in which kings are usually presented; yet great numbers were gathered from the city of Jerusalem and all the surrounding areas to hear this austere preacher of repentance. Only the sovereign (and unusual) work of God can account for this. Confessing their sins, they were baptized in the river Jordan. Having broken God's law, how could Israel rightly face their promised Messiah? They deserved the sentence of death, and in being baptized they were publicly submitting to this sentence, for baptism speaks of burial (Romans 6:4). Israel had once victoriously passed through Jordan (Joshua 3:14-17); but now, in shameful defeat, they are buried in it.

Many of the Pharisees and Sadducees, however, though they come to witness John's baptism, had no intention of honestly admitting their own defeat. They could not ignore this great work of God through His prophet, but religious pride forbid them to frankly confess their sins, as others were doing. John's words to them were solemn and unsparing. They were a generation of vipers, their influence tending to poison the people rather than to help. If they had been warned to flee from the wrath to come, then let them produce fruits that were evidence of repentance on their part.

Nor will John allow them to take shelter behind the claim of their natural relationship to Abraham. God could, and would, dispense with those who were merely related by nature, and raise up children to Abraham "of these stones." Does he not refer to those being baptized, who confessed themselves as dead in sins, lifeless as stones? God could give life on the simple principle of faith: only those who are of faith are true children of Abraham (Galatians 3:29; Romans 4:16).

John's ministry was that which laid the axe to the root of the trees, to bring down the haughty pride of man. If the tree did not bear good fruit, then it was to be cut down and consigned to the fire of God's judgment. Of course one must have the proper life to bear proper fruit, but it is John's Gospel that speaks of the life, and Matthew emphasizes its fruit.

Though John's call to repentance and his baptism with this in view was deeply important, yet far more important was the glory of Him to whom John bore witness, whose shoes John was not worthy to carry, or as he says elsewhere, not worthy to even loose His shoelaces. He would accomplish a far more mighty work than John. He would baptize with the Holy Spirit, as He did in the book of Acts 3:1-26, uniting believers, Jews and Gentiles, into one body (1 Corinthians 12:13) by the gift of the Spirit of God. But also He would baptize with fire, which refers to His own solemn judgment of those who refuse His grace, as verse 12 shows.

The figure of the threshing floor is used here to illustrate the sovereign work of the Lord Jesus in grace and in judgment. For not a grain of wheat will be lost, but gathered into His granary; while the chaff, all unbelievers, will be burned with unquenchable fire. This blessed, holy One will have total authority in these maters of stupendous import .

For the express purpose of being baptized by John, the Lord Jesus come all the way from Galilee to the Jordan. Well may we understand John's astonishment at this, for John's baptism was one of repentance, of which John felt himself in need, but not the Lord Jesus. We know "He did no sin" (1 Peter 2:21-22); yet He insists to John, "Suffer it to be so now, for thus it becomes us to fulfil all righteousness." His use of the word "us" is significant. For in being baptized He was identifying Himself with the many who were repenting of their sins; and He was virtually accepting the sentence of death for them, for He was not Himself under that sentence. In joining Himself with sinners, the claims of righteousness could only be fulfilled by His taking upon Himself the full responsibility for their sins. So that by His baptism He was pledging Himself to go to the cross, where the claims of righteousness would be perfectly fulfilled on their behalf. Marvellous condescension of grace!

As He came up out of the water, the heavens were opened. Only once before do we read of this, in Ezekiel 1:1, which is prophetic of the great revelation of God in the person of His Son. Upon that blessed person here the Spirit of God descends, in the form of a dove. Heaven is opened to manifest the fact that the trinity--Father, Son and Holy Spirit--are united in regard to the wonder of this lowly Man taking His place in grace among His wayward people. The dove, the bird of love and sorrow, also indicates the Father's complacency in the Son, while the Father's voice from heaven publicly approves Him as the One in whom He finds delight. As well as this being true personally, it surely also seals the Father's approval of the Lord's willing acceptance of responsibility for the guilt of His people.

Bibliographical Information
Grant, L. M. "Commentary on Matthew 3". Grant's Commentary on the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lmg/matthew-3.html. 1897-1910.
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