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On St. Matthew’s use of the expression “the kingdom of heaven”—In regard to the meaning of this expression, I go along with Schürer in explaining that it is only in the Jewish custom of using some circumlocution for the name of God, and of specially using the term heaven for that purpose (cf. Mark 11:30; Luke 15:18), that we must seek the reason for interchanging the terms “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven.” The peculiar meaning of the notion “kingdom of God” would not be modified or specialised by this transposition. It would neither specially denote the heavenly origin of the kingdom nor its perfect realisation in heaven, but only that the kingdom belongs to heaven, that is, to God in heaven, and that it is governed from heaven, that is, by God. And just because that expression must be explained by the Jewish custom of circumlocution, and was by no means an original term as used by the Evangelist, but was adopted by him out of the current phraseology of his contemporaries, and further, because this expression simply meant, in the consciousness of the first Evangelist, the same thing as the term “kingdom of God,” and did not bring out any peculiar aspect of thought, we can understand that the Evangelist was not always consistent in the use of that expression, but sometimes unconsciously employed alongside of it the expression “kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33; Matthew 12:28; Matthew 19:24; Matthew 21:31; Matthew 21:43) (H. H. Wendt, D.D.).
The Baptism of Jesus.—Had the main purpose of John’s preaching and baptism of repentance lain in confession of sins and penitence, the coming of Jesus to be baptised would appear strange, and might be regarded as an argument against the stainless purity of His religious consciousness, or as the expression of a false humility. We must consider, however, that the main element in the idea of repentance lies in the positive best of the spirit towards conformity with the Divine will; and that turning from sin, so far as it has existed, forms only the preparation for, or the reverse side of, that process. We must remember, also, that the final and essential purpose of the Baptist’s preaching was to create the positive endeavour after a righteousness conformable to God’s will, and to the establishment of the Messianic kingdom. Hence, it appears intelligible and truly fitting that Jesus should, not merely in spite of, but just on account of, His consciousness of integrity and filial obedience to God, feel impelled to submit to John’s baptism. He thereby sealed His resolve to yield His will wholly to the will of God, abjuring all sin, and thereby He gave that resolve a definite reference to the kingdom of God, whose nearness the Baptist proclaimed, and of which he desired to be a member (ibid.).
Matthew 3:1. In those days.—Of Christ’s secluded life at Nazareth (see Luke 3:1, etc.) St. Matthew passes over a period of nearly thirty years (Luke 3:23). Preaching.—Lt heralding; making, by command, a royal proclamation. Wilderness of Judæa.—The name was commonly applied to the thinly populated region in the southern valley of the Jordan, and so was equivalent to “the country about. Jordan” of Luke 3:3, including even part of the district east of the river. In this region John had grown up (Luke 1:80) (Plumptre).
Matthew 3:2. 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 New Testament 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 (Carr). See Supplementary note. At hand.—By the Jews the Messiah was always conceived as the means whereby the kingdom of God was to be set up (Wendt). Of. Daniel 7:13-14.
Matthew 3:3. Prepare ye the way.—The conquerors of the East sent a herald before them to call the people of the countries through which they marched to prepare for their approach. A “king’s highway” had to be carried through the open land of the wilderness, valleys filled up, etc. The words used are, of course, poetical in their greatness (Plumptre). The preparation was to be by repentance.
Matthew 3:4. Camel’s hair, i.e. woven of it. The dress was, perhaps, deliberately adopted) by the Baptist as reviving the outward appearance of Elijah (2 Kings 1:8) “who suddenly appeared in the wild mountain region of Gilead, at a time when Phœnician manners were making the same havoc in Israel that Greek manners” were “now making in Jerusalem” (J. M. Gibson). See Dr. Edersheim’s Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol. i., p. 130, as to the luxuriousness of Jerusalem at this time. Locusts.—The insect, not the pod. Permitted by the law (Leviticus 11:22). Still used by the poor in Palestine and Syria. Wild honey.—Honey made by wild bees. Jos., B. J., IV. viii. 3, speaking of the plain of Jericho, says that the palm-trees, when pressed, exude honey; but, he adds, “the country produces honey from bees.” Zorn, Kuinoel, Fritzsche, and others, suppose the “wild honey” to have been of purely vegetable origin. There were clearly both kinds in the wilderness of Judæa (H. R. Reynolds).
Matthew 3:5. Region … Jordan.—This would include the whole length of the river-valley, and would, therefore, take in parts of Peræa, Samaria, Galilee, and Gaulonitis (Plumptre).
Matthew 3:7. 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 loaders 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. 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. Sadducees.—The aristocratic and priestly party; they acquiesced in foreign rule and foreign civilisation. 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. The name is probably derived from Zadok the priest in David’s time (Carr). O generation of vipers.—Perhaps borrowed from Isaiah 59:5. Both parties “poisoners of the nation’s religious principles” (Brown). Flee from the wrath to come.—The coming of the Messiah was expected to be a time of judgment (Daniel 7:10; Daniel 7:26) which, however, the Jews interpreted of the heathen only (Mansel).
Matthew 3:9. Abraham … father.—The boast seems to have been common. See John 8:33-39. The later Hebrew literature frequently expresses the conviction that the children of Abraham occupied a position of exclusive and exceptional privilege (H. R. Reynolds). Stones.—The coming kingdom of righteousness and truth will not fail, even if Pharisees and Sadducees and all the natural children of Abraham refuse to enter its only gate of repentance. If flesh become stone, then stone can be made flesh, according to the word of promise (J. M. Gibson).
Matthew 3:10. Axe.—The woodman has, as it were, taken his position, and, while making his brief preparations, such as the adjustment of his vesture, etc., has laid his axe at the root. The crisis-time has come. Not a moment should be lost (Morison).
Matthew 3:11. Shoes, or sandals.—Among Jews, Greeks, and Romans alike, this office, that of untying and carrying the shoes of the master of the house or of a guest, was the well-known function of the lowest slave of the household (Plumptre). With fire.—Origen, among the Fathers, and among moderns Neander, Meyer, De Wette, and Lange interpret this as a baptism of the impenitent with hell-fire, and so as a distinct baptism from that of the Spirit, but this is, as Dr. D. Brown says, “exceedingly unnatural.” The “with” would be better omitted. It is in italics in the R. V. The Baptist adds “and fire,” to give a vivid description of the mighty and mightily purificatory influence of the Holy Spirit (Morison).
Matthew 3:12. Fan = winnowing-fan. Purge, cleanse (R. V.). Floor, threshing-flour (R.V.). Chaff = all but the actual grain, i.e. the ungodly and evil-doers. Unquenchable fire = the wrath of God against evil, which is, in its very nature, eternal, and can only cease with the cessation or transformation of the evil (Plumptre). How picturesque John’s preaching! Matthew 3:7-12 are full of striking imagery.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Matthew 3:1-12
Before His face.—At last the silence is broken. At last a partial explanation is given. One stands up to tell us (at least) that such an explanation is coming, and to prepare us for the mission which the long-silent Jesus is at last about to begin. Let us note, first, what is said of this forerunner in the passage before us. Let us note, secondly, what he says of himself.
I. What is said here about him.—About his office, to begin. He is, pre-eminently, a preacher (Matthew 3:1); a man with a message, having something to “say” (Matthew 3:2); a “voice crying out” (Matthew 3:3). He came and preached. That is his story in brief. About the place of his preaching. Other preachers had been sent to deliver their messages in temples and cities (Jeremiah 36:5-6; Jonah 1:2; Jonah 3:1-2); this man was sent to raise his voice in the solitudes of the “wilderness” (Matthew 3:1; Matthew 3:3). About the object of his preaching. To bring men to “repent” (Matthew 3:2); to a proper sense, and open acknowledgment, and practical forsaking of their sins. About the singular urgency and cogency of his preaching. Other preachers had referred to what was to happen in the future (Isaiah 2:2, etc.), he always spoke of that which was close (end of Matthew 3:2). About his place as a preacher. The greatest in word of all previous prophets had foretold his coming and work (Matthew 3:3). The greatest in deed of all previous prophets had been so like him even in apparel and food (Matthew 3:4, cf. 2 Kings 1:7-8) as to be almost a prophecy of his appearance. About his success as a preacher. On this point even those other preachers, with all their advantages, had much to lament (see Isaiah 53:1; 1 Kings 19:10). In this case, on the contrary, we see, on this point, almost all a preacher could wish. Multitudes of hearers, brought out to him in the wilderness, brought from afar, brought from all parts, brought to “hear” and to “do,” brought to open confession of sins, and brought also to such desire for amendment as to be “baptised of him” in the River Jordan in attestation thereof (Matthew 3:5-6)—what true preacher would not rejoice in seeing such results from his words? In seeing even an approximation to such tokens as these? About the character of his preaching. Here, perhaps, this preacher of preachers is greatest of all. None of his extraordinary success is due to anything of an unworthy type in his language. Not Elijah himself, on the contrary, could be more faithful than he. No matter who they were who came to his preaching, however high in position or repute, whether believing too much or too little, even if (apparently) of all men the least likely to come (Matthew 3:7), he has but one message for all, and that a message of the most heart-piercing kind (Matthew 3:8). Neither will he allow them, be they who they may, to dream of safety in anything else (Matthew 3:9); or to be content, if they listen to him, with anything less (Matthew 3:10). On all points, therefore, what is said of him here points him out as a preacher indeed. Never was there, in fact,—when all is considered—such a preacher before! (cf. Matthew 11:11).
II. What he says of himself.—Simply that, after all, his great work is to testify to Another. This, for example, is why he is so especially urgent in demanding amendment of life. That great Searcher of hearts, who is so close behind him, will be satisfied with no less. Already, as it were, He is “laying” His axe to the root of the tree (Matthew 3:10). The next thing, therefore, with every fruitless tree, will be to hew it down for the fire (ibid.). This, again, is why this most successful of preachers insists on baptism as he does. Not so much for its own sake as for what it prepares for, does he make use of this sign. One is coming so much “mightier” than he, that he himself is unworthy to serve Him even in the lowliest way. The principal use, therefore, of my baptism, which is “with water unto repentance,” is to prepare you for His, which shall be a baptism, on the contrary, “with the Holy Ghost and with fire” (Matthew 3:11). Once more, this is why he, finally, fixes attention on that coming One and His work. What an instrument of discrimination, e.g. is that which He holds in His hand! How thoroughly, with that “fan” of His, will He “purge His” own “floor”! And how wide apart, and how irrevocable therefore, will be the separation it works! Where is the “wheat”? In His “garner.” Where is the “chaff”? In the “fire.” What sort of fire? That which cannot be “quenched” (Matthew 3:12).
See here, therefore, in this “preparation” for Christ, for such it is in effect (end of Matthew 3:3):—
1. How much it contains.—How it testifies, on the one hand, to the greatness of Christ! In it one who surpasses all the greatness of the past, points to that “coming One” as greater by far than himself. How it testifies, on the other hand, to His holiness! If there has been anything unexamined before, it will now be so no longer. So holy is He who comes that nothing unholy can remain in His sight. What stillness of heart—what readiness to hear—such testimonies should create.
2. How much, for all this, this present testimony suggests.—A call to repentance is an indication that, so far, there is no absolute need to despair. But it is not very much more. “Who knoweth if He will return and repent?” (Joel 2:14). “Who can tell if God will turn and repent?” (Jonah 3:9). It seems noteworthy, therefore, that, in what is told us here, the Baptist tells us no more. Afterwards, when he sees the Saviour Himself, he adopts a very different strain. “Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Meanwhile, it is not unfitting, in this preliminary teaching, that he only “prepares” for that Light!
HOMILIES ON THE VERSES
Matthew 3:1-12. The ministry of John.—There are two classes of men—those that are made by the times, and those that are made for them. John the Baptist belonged to the latter class. There are three great truths which this passage develops:
1. That the system of Jesus is a system of Divine rule. “Kingdom of heaven.” It is the ruling power of God—God reigning by His truth, over the reason, heart, and conscience of man.
2. That reformation is indispensable to the enjoyment of this system. “Repent.”
3. That the effecting of this reformation is one of the greatest ministries of man. This mission was John’s. He had an insight of the heart of his age. Hence his cry for reformation. John’s ministry may be regarded as a type of the ministry needed for an age of religious form and sensuousness, in order to prepare it for a higher teaching. His mission was—
I. Moral in its aim.—What kind of reformation did he seek? Intellectual? Institutional? No; he aimed at the reformation of Judæa’s heart. No ministry is valid that strives not supremely for this moral reformation. Three facts show this:
1. That all systems of religion, erroneous either in idea or practice, spring from wrong moral principles.
2. Systems thus erroneous may be destroyed in form, and the moral principles from which they spring remain as vigorous as ever.
3. That the great mission of Christianity is to combat and crush the moral principles of wrong.
II. Faithful in its appeal.—Two things show his faithfulness:
1. His declaration of their character—“generation of vipers.”
2. His faithfulness is seen in destroying the chief object of their glory—“Think not to say,” etc.
III. Symbolical in its ritualism.—The grand end both of the Jewish and Christian rites was the same, viz. to teach; to portray truth to the senses. Thus John regarded baptism. Symbolic of spiritual cleansing. So unutterably strong were his convictions of the importance of spiritual reformation that he not only made the Jordan help him to speak them, but his labouring soul made both his dress and diet symbolic. There is something transcendently more important for humanity than either food or raiment.
IV. Self-abnegating in its spirit.—“He that cometh after me,” etc.—D. Thomas, D.D.
Matthew 3:1-2. John the Baptist.—
I. John’s character as a man.—
1. A man of extraordinary piety. Filled with Holy Ghost from his mother’s womb. A godly child, a godly boy, a godly man, the greatest saint probably of his dispensation.
2. His piety was marked by extreme abstemiousness. A Nazarite.
3. Partly as a consequence of his Nazaritic obligations, his dwelling was in the wilderness. Herein we partly see the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament holiness. The Old Testament holiness manifested itself principally in isolation from the world. Its primary idea was separation. But the New Testament holiness consists, not in separation from the world, but in the pervasion of the world. Its primary idea is permeation.
4. At the age of thirty the “word of the Lord came unto John”—he received his official call to be a prophet. Not the product of his age. Had a mission to his age, not from it. The great man should be an interpreter of his age, but to interpret does not mean to share.
II. John’s character as a preacher.—
1.A voice. To behold John was a sermon in itself. “I am a voice; I am not the Speaker, only the voice of one; the Speaker is coming after me, for He was before me.”
2. A voice crying. Literally, crying aloud. Guard against the supposition that his ministry consisted of nothing but sound. “John was a burning and a shining lamp,” says the Saviour. His preaching was warm and enlightening.
3. He was a voice crying aloud in the wilderness. First came John crying aloud in the wilderness, shouting lustily at the highest pitch of his voice. Then came Jesus Christ, the very opposite of John, sitting quietly whilst teaching, and speaking in calm, subdued, and measured tones.
4. He cried, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” etc. His was the work of preparation; strength, therefore, was more requisite than refinement. Adorn your frontispieces, embellish your corner-stones, but let the foundations be as rugged as you please.
III. The character of John’s ministry.—
1. It aimed chiefly at the conscience. “Repent,” a word addressed not to the understanding or to the imagination, but to the conscience.
2. He neither reasoned nor apologised but stated the truth in its stark nakedness.
IV. The motive forces of John’s ministry.—The kingdom of heaven wears two aspects; of wrath, to those who obstinately refuse allegiance to it; of grace, to all who submit and accept its overtures of peace. John gave special prominence to the Divine wrath. “Who hath warned you,” etc. We, living at the zenith of the gospel dispensation, should expatiate more particularly on Divine grace. Repent—why? Because wrath is coming. Why? Because grace has come.—J. C. Jones, D.D.
Matthew 3:3-12. The herald of the King.—
I. We have an outline sketch of the herald and of his work.—
1. John was Elijah over again.
2. His message is summed up in two sentences, two blasts of the trumpet—the call to repentance and the rousing proclamation that the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
3. John’s fulfilment of prophecy.
4. His asceticism. The more luxuriously self-indulgent men are, the more are they fascinated by religious self-denial. A man “clothed in soft raiment” would have drawn no crowds. His asceticism was the expression of his severe, solitary spirit, detached from the delights of sense, and even from the softer play of loves, because that coming kingdom flamed ever before him, and his age seemed to him to be rotting and ready for the fire. There is no need to bring in irrelevant learning about Essenes, to account for his mode of life. The thoughts which burned in him drove him into the wilderness.
5. The last point in this brief résumé of John’s work is the universal excitement which it produced. Wherever a religious teacher shows that he has John’s qualities, as our Lord in His eulogium analysed them, viz. unalterable resolution, like an iron pillar, not a reed shaken with the wind, conspicuous superiority to considerations of ease and comfort, a direct vision of the Unseen, and a message from God, the crowds will go out to see him; and even if the enthusiasm be shallow and transient, some spasm of conviction will pass across many a conscience, and some will be pointed by him to the King.
II. We have a more detailed account of John’s preaching as addressed to the Pharisees and Sadducees.—If they were drawn into the current it must have run strong indeed. John’s salutation is excessively rough and rude. He was not scolding when he called his hearers, “ye offspring of vipers,” but charging them with moral corruption and creeping earthliness. The summary of his preaching is like a succession of lightning flashes.
1. The remarkable thing about his teaching is, that in his hands the great hope of Israel became a message of terror, the proclamation of the impending kingdom passes into a denunciation of “the wrath to come,” set forth with a tremendous wealth of imagery.
2. Next comes the urgent demand for reformation of life as the sign of real repentance. His exhortation does not touch the deepest ground for repentance in the heart-softening love of God manifested in the sacrifice of the King, but is based wholly on the certainty of judgment. So far, it is incomplete; but the demand for righteous living as the only test of religious emotion is fully Christian, and needed in this generation as much as it ever was.
3. The next flash strikes the lofty structure of confidence in their descent. He wrenches away this shield against which his sharpest arrows were blunted.
4. With a new emblem the immediate beginning of the judgment is proclaimed, and its principles and issues are declared.
5. The coming of the kingdom implied the coming of the King. So his sermon reaches its climax in the ringing proclamation of His advent.
6. Note the grand conception of the gifts of the King. He would come, bringing with Him the gift of a mighty Spirit, whose quick energy, transforming all deadness into its own likeness, burning out the foul stains from character, and melting cold hearts into radiant warmth, should do all that his poor, cold, outward baptism only shadowed.
7. Note, further, the renewed prophecy of judgment. There is something very solemn in the stern refrain at the end of each of three consecutive verses—“with fire.” The first and the last refer to the destructive fire; the second, to the cleansing Spirit. But the fire that destroys is not unconnected with that which purifies. The very same Divine flame, if welcomed and yielded to, works purity, and if repelled and scorned, consumes.
8. Note the limitations in John’s knowledge of the King. His prophecy unites as contemporaneous events which, in fact, are widely separate—the coming of Christ, and the judgments which He executes, whether on Israel or in the final “great day of the Lord.” There is no perspective in prophecy.—A. Maclaren, D.D.
Matthew 3:3. John’s call to preach.—John’s calling and authority to preach are described to be from heaven, according to the prophecy past of him (Isaiah 40:3).
1. The calling and authority of a preacher are chiefly to be looked into, that he take not this honour to himself.
2. A called preacher should labour that the hearts of the hearers be prepared for more and more lively receiving of Christ. John sought to prepare the way of the Lord.
3. He should discharge his commission plainly; keeping back nothing of the Lord’s revealed counsel and not fearing what flesh can do unto him.
4. He should labour to bring down the pride of impenitent hearers, and to lift up the dejected souls of such as in the sense of their sin and unworthiness dare not believe.—David Dickson.
Matthew 3:4. John’s fitness for his commission.—
1. Such as the Lord doth call to the ministry, He fitteth them for the work, and for the times wherein He doth employ them. Such austerity was fit in a Nazarite, sent forth to waken a world besotted in security.
2. Ministers in the outward manner of living should so behave themselves, as least exception may be taken against them, and as the work in their hand may be most advanced.—Ibid.
Locusts and wild honey.—I have myself “eaten” exactly this food, of “locusts” and “wild honey.” It so happened that when I rode upward from Jericho to Bethel, and later, from Beyrout to Baalbec, the air was darkened with clouds of locusts. They covered the ground on my return journey two and three inches deep; in places, whither a strong east wind had blown them, nearly a foot deep. Gathering a basketful, I had them preserved, “dried,” pounded, and ultimately “cooked.” My cook (for the occasion) was a Frenchman; but he assured me he followed “the custom of the country.” I must frankly own that I shrank from partaking of the dish, and at first, at any rate, the proportion of “locust” to the delicious “wild honey” in the comb—drawn from a hollow pomegranate trunk—was very slight. But I could have imagined myself eating shrimps. They were well seasoned of salt, and the combination of the salty with the honey taste gave a not unpleasant originality and fragrance of flavour. I cannot affirm that I would care to choose such “food” habitually, but if circumstance or duty demanded it, I should be able to “live” upon it. Certes, I should very much prefer “locusts and wild honey” to the pod of the tree that some have sought to substitute for the “locusts.” Anything more fushionless (Scotice, tasteless and nurtureless) than the “washy” (Scotice, tasteless) sweet pods of the locust-tree (Ceratonia Siliqua) I cannot imagine.—A. B. Grosart, D.D.
Matthew 3:7. A special sermon to the Pharisees and Sadducees.—
1. How powerful is the preaching of truth, when the Lord is pleased to bless the same.
2. Such as profess to believe the Word, and to repent of their sins and submit to God’s ordinances, cannot be excluded from entering into the society of the church. 3. Notorious sinners may and should, in their receiving into the church, after any pollution by scandal, be put in mind of their former evil life, that they may be humbled the more, and be more holy for time to come.
4. It is a rare thing to see sectaries converted. John wondereth at their coming.
5. Wrath doth follow on all the wicked who either live epicures, as the Sadducees, or seek to be justified by their own works, as the Pharisees.
6. Coming to Christ, and subjection to His ordinances is the way to eschew wrath.
7. When God’s glory, people’s edification and salvation, do require that public faults should be publicly reproved, then the credit of the party reproved is not to be stood upon.—David Dickson.
The Pharisees and Sadducees coming to John.—As we recall who these Pharisees and Sadducees were, surely most remarkable is the historico-biographic fact, that “many” of them “came” to “hear” the “preaching” and to seek the “baptism” of John the Baptist? What brought them?
I. That strange emotion and sympathy which sometimes runs through a whole community.—The tidal wave floods a community, and all are borne upon it.
II. Here was a new sensation.—I must believe that, as these Pharisees were human, their weary formalism of outward observances, from which all of reality and sacredness had long vanished, often and often made them sigh for something that would interest and nurture them. Then, the Sadducees, as they too were human, had instincts and sharp sorrows and achings and ominous agitations that, spite of themselves, must have led them to doubt and speculate, wonder and dread. I have observed that modern Pharisees and Sadducees rather like to have their consciences flagellated—occasionally; and I can well believe that the lash and the terrors and the authority of John the Baptist’s ministry had something to do with the coming of this unique “many.”
III. The Messianic expectation was in the air.—Even outside of Judaism there was a great “hope” of a “Coming One.” Within Judaism itself there were not a few who “waited for the consolation of Israel.”
IV. The “Finger of God” was in it.—God “sent” the man as herald and as preacher, and it could not but be that He would see to it that the souls for whom the summons, “repent ye,” was meant, aye, and the lightning softened into light of its sequel, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” should be there to hear.—A. B. Grosart, D.D.
A generation of vipers.—The self-righteousness of religious formalism always produces a generation of vipers, by hypocritically conforming to its demands.
1. A low and unimpressible generation.
2. A cunning generation.
3. A malicious and dangerous generation.—J. P. Lange, D.D.
The Pharisees and Sadducees at John’s baptism.—Bearing in mind that coming to John’s baptism was the seal of his success, and that his baptism contained in symbolical form the whole substance of his teaching, these are the two topics of the text:—
I. The meaning of John’s message.—
1. That those baptised were in danger. “Flee,” etc.
2. The importance of confession (Matthew 3:6). On the eve of a promised new life they were required to acknowledge the iniquity of their past life.
3. The necessity of a renewal of heart. We lose part of the significance of baptism from its transplantation away from the climate in which it was natural and appropriate. It was impossible to see that significant act in which the convert went down into the water, travel-worn and soiled with dust, disappeared for one moment, and then emerged pure and fresh, without feeling that the symbol answered to, and interpreted a strong craving of the human heart. It is the desire to wash away that which is past and evil. Now to that craving John gave reality and meaning when he said, “Behold the Lamb of God!” Had he merely said, “Flee from the wrath to come,” he would have filled men’s life with the terrors of anticipated hell. Had he only said, “My baptism implies that ye must be pure,” he would have crushed men’s hearts with the feelings of impossibility, for excellence without Christ is but a dream.
II. The Baptist’s astonishment at his own success.—
1.What was the secret of this power by which he chained the hearts of men as by a spell?
(1) One point was what we see every day. Men of thought and quiet contemplation exercise a wonderful influence over men of action.
(2) His was a ministry of terror. Fear has a peculiar fascination. The preaching of John in this respect differed from the tone of Christ’s. How many of John’s terrified Pharisees and Sadducees retained the impression six months? Excitement has its uses, impression its value. But excitement and impression are not religion.
(3) Men felt that John was real. Religion in Jerusalem had long become a thing of forms. John spoke as men speak when they are in earnest, simply and abruptly, as if the graces of oratory were out of place. And then, that life of his! This tells—the reality of unworldliness.
2. Let us analyse that success a little more closely by considering the classes of men on whom that influence told. First of all, we read of soldiers, publicans and the poor people coming to John for advice, and with the acknowledgment of guilt; and we do not read that their arrival excited the smallest emotion of astonishment in John’s bosom. The wonder was not there. But among those who came, there were two classes who did move him to marvel.
(1) The moral, self-satisfied formalist. Pharisees. Men who rested satisfied with the outward. Men without souls, from whose narrow hearts the grandeur of everlasting truth was shut out.
(2). The calm, metaphysical, reasoning infidel. Sadducees. Could not be satisfied with the creed of Pharisaism. Passed from doubt to denial. I deduce from those facts which astonished John two truths: (a) Formalism, even morality, will not satisfy the conscience of man. (b) Infidelity will not give rest to his troubled spirit. There is rest nowhere except in Christ, the manifested love of God.—F. W. Robertson, M.A.
Matthew 3:8. Repentance.—Repentance includes:—
I. Conviction, or the sense of the fact of sin.
II. Contrition, or the sense of the evil of sin.
III. Confession, or the sense of the relation of God to sin. “Against Thee only have I sinned.”
IV. Conversion, or the. practical evidence of a real sense of the above things.
Repentance distinguished from “despair,” as despair leads to doom, repentance to conditions of safety. Repentance put for salvation, as being the starting point; and because, if real, it will lead to salvation, not as meriting that salvation, but as being a condition appropriate to the reception thereof.—Weekly Pulpit.
Hypocritical repentance.—Fra Rocco, a Dominican, preached a celebrated penitential sermon on one occasion, when all the audience were in terror, and fell on their knees, showing every sign of contrition. Then he cried, “All who are truly penitent, hold up your hands!” Every man in the vast multitude held up his hand. Then he said, “Holy Archangel Michael, thou who standest with adamantine sword at the judgment-seat of God, cut me off every hand which has been held up hypocritically.” Every hand dropped.—Paxton Hood.
Restitution as proof of repentance.—An extensive hardware merchant in one of the Fulton street prayer-meetings in New York appealed to his brother merchants to have the same religion for “down-town” as they had for “up-town”; for the week-day as for the Sabbath; for the counting-house as for the communion table. After the meeting a manufacturer with whom he had dealt largely, accosted him. “You did not know,” said he, “that I was at the meeting and heard your remarks. I have for the last five years been in the habit of charging you more for goods than other purchasers. I want you to take your books and charge back to me so much per cent. on every bill of goods you have had of me for the five past years.” A few days later the same hardware merchant had occasion to acknowledge the payment of a debt of several hundred dollars which had been due for twenty-eight years from a man who could as easily have paid it twenty-four years before.—Family Treasury.
Matthew 3:9. A far-reaching principle.—That was a mighty, far-reaching principle established. To-day it abides. A frivolous story—perchance mythical—is somewhere told of some French noble lady, wherein she is made to say that “The Almighty will think twice before He damns so great a peer of France as Duke.…” Semi-unconsciously there is a vast amount of this counting on things that have not a grain of sand’s weight with God. Genius, rank, beauty, wealth, power, splendid service, go for absolutely nothing in the supreme matter of destiny, divorced from character, apart from the spiritual life. However much they may aggravate doom, they will in nowise touch the entrance into “the kingdom.”—A. B. Grosart, D.D.
Reliance on ancestry.—There are persons who seem to have nothing on which to base their claims to notice but the fact that they had noble ancestry, and they are never tired of informing you of that fact. There is every reason for likening them, as Sir T. Overbury did, to that useful esculent, the potato. They make a show, and flourish; but the best part of them, according to their own boasting, is, like the potato, buried and underground.—Scientific Illustrations and Symbols.
Matthew 3:10. Christian reform.—The man from whose lips these words poured forth like a leaping bugle-call was an inspired reformer. The axe was the spirit and genius of a new religion. The trees were bad laws, obsolete customs, social inequalities and religious bigotries. Into the forest of abuses John went, swinging his axe and crying “Reform! Repent! Make way!” Observe:
1. The reformer’s message proved the reality of his mission. That message was balled up and concentrated in one heroic word “Reform.”
2. The reformer’s dress indicated the intensity of his mission. The reformer has no time to waste on niceties. One supreme passion fills his soul—the wrongs of his country, the sins and sorrows of his fellows.
3. The reformer’s food proved his devotedness to his mission. His was a case of plain living and high thinking. To-day we need men of the stamp and spirit of John. To-day we need a new instalment of Christian reform.
I. Reformation in the State.—I do not mean a reformation such as Luther wrought so much as a reformation in the tastes, manners, and lives of the people. True reformation in the State will come when the principles of Jesus Christ are in the ascendant. The remedy must be deep and divine, reaching to the very heart and core of human society.
II. Reformation in the home.—No man has a right to be thrust into a hovel, and for that rent-racked. But the true reformation of the home must be deeper and more radical. The home should be the spring of inspiration and power to a nation. In it should be cherished and created the purest ideals, the loftiest ambitions, the holiest enthusiasms. The best house-furnishing is to pack into our homes the principles of the Sermon on the Mount. The most beautiful ornaments are grace, joy, and love. The finest decorations are a good temper, a sound character, a Christlike life. You can only reform your home by reforming your character.
III. Reformation in the individual.—The distinctive note in John’s message was personal. “Repent ye.”—Charles Houghton.
Matthew 3:12. Christ’s separating fan.—
1. The visible church is like a cornfloor, wherein good and bad, as chaff and corn, are mixed together.
2. Christ as the perfect Husbandman will so sever the one from the other that not one of the wicked shall be in company of the godly. “Throughly.”
3. Christ hath means at hand to make the separation. His word, church censures, afflictions, persecution, death, and judgment.
4. The upright and fruitful shall be gathered into heaven, the unfruitful cast into hell.—David Dickson.
The great Winnower.—
I. The disciples of John were to learn:—
1. That their hearts were under another tillage-cultivation than their own. They could not winnow the grain, they could not separate corn from chaff. If there was no one more skilful than they were to do that, the labour had been thrown away.
2. They were to be sure that this discipline, if it was indeed Divine discipline, would be thorough. “He will throughly purge His floor.”
3. Those who heard John speak, and understood him, must have received two lessons at first sight inconsistent. They must have been sure that He who was conducting the sifting discipline, of which the prophet testified, over them and over the whole nation, was the Lord of the spirits of all flesh. And yet they were told of a Man standing among them, who claimed the floor as His, and could prove it to be His by purging it.
II. John the Baptist’s words were fulfilled when Jesus Christ came in the flesh.—They have been fulfilling themselves in every age since He ascended on high. In every age men, who have been led to discover their own great necessities, have asked indeed for one who should forgive their sins; but quite as earnestly for one who should destroy their sins. They have learned to welcome sufferings when they found that they were designed for this object. And so, too, the course of history and the trials of nations interpret themselves. As long as there is any strength, vitality, faith in a people, so long is there wheat, which Christ will assuredly gather into His garner; and so long that nation will be subjected to frequent fires, that its chaff, all its untruth, and baseness, and heartlessness, may be burnt up; nay, it may be said always to be in such fires, for the time of our wealth, as well as the time of our tribulation, is a searching time. That is the time in which it is hardest for us to separate the chaff from the wheat, and therefore in which we have most need to recollect that there is a Lord who is doing it, and will do it thoroughly.—F. D. Maurice, M.A.
The fan; the wheat; the chaff.—I. The fan on the threshing floor; or the Word of God separating the two classes.
II. The gathering of the wheat into the kingdom of love; or, the complete salvation of God’s people.
III. The chaff in unquenchable fire; or, the judgment of hypocrites.—J. P. Lange, D.D.
Matthew 3:13. Jesus … baptised.—He received the rite as ratifying the mission of the great forerunner, and He also received it as the beautiful symbol of moral purification, and the humble inauguration of a ministry which came not to destroy the law but to fulfil (Farrar).
Matthew 3:14. Forbad, διεκώλυεν is emphatic, and implies that John interposed strenuously to hinder Him. The Baptist’s words imply that he had some definite knowledge of the character of Jesus. John 1:33 seems to mean that he did not know for certain, by Divine intimation or revelation, that Jesus was the Messiah, until the event referred to occurred (Morison).
Matthew 3:15. Now = for the present. “The future will make abundantly manifest what we respectively are.” Fulfil all righteousness.—To leave nothing undone which would be honouring to the seemly and significant ordinances of God (Morison).
Matthew 3:16. Heavens … opened.—This and the resultant manifestations were granted probably to John and Jesus only (John 1:32-34). Dove.—Suggesting the idea of completeness and, at the same time, of beauty, gentleness, peace, and love (J. M. Gibson).
Matthew 3:17. This is My beloved Son.—This revelation awakened the Messianic consciousness of Jesus (Wendt). The titles, “Son of God” and “beloved,” or well-pleasing to the Father, according to the Old Testament promises, belonged to the Messiah (cf. Psalms 2:7; Isaiah 42:1). No doubt Jesus was previously conscious that He was the Son of God and an object of the Divine complacency; but through this revelation was awakened the consciousness of a unique pre-eminence of sonship in relation to God, and of the unique significance which, in virtue of this pre-eminence, He should have for the establishment of the kingdom of God and the Messianic dispensation (ibid.).
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Matthew 3:13-17
Messiah Himself.—“Mightier than I.” So the Baptist, in the preceding verses, had predicted of Christ. What he foretold in those verses is accomplished in these. “Jesus of Nazareth” Himself here appears on the scene. “Jesus of Nazareth” is here openly acknowledged to be all that the Baptist had just declared about “Christ.” This is shown us, partly, by what is related here of the actions of men; and partly by what is related here of the action of God.
I. Of the actions of men.—We say of “men” because of the representative character of the “man” shown to us here. “The law and the prophets were until John” (Luke 16:16). He excelled all before him partly because of the fact that he summarised all. What he does here, therefore, is done in effect by the whole “column” he leads. Hence its significance, in the first place, in the way of remonstrance. Whilst engaged in his work of baptising sinners and bringing them to repentance, Jesus of Nazareth appears amongst them, and asks for baptism at his hands. Such a request, to John the Baptist, seems to put everything wrong. So far from seeing any need of “repentance” in Jesus, His very presence there only makes him the more conscious of the evil to be found in himself. “I have need to be baptised of Thee, and comest Thou to me?” (Matthew 3:14). What a testimony this is (if we think of it) to the character for holiness which this Jesus possessed in the eyes of John, even before the latter appears to have known Him fully as the Messiah (cf. John 1:33). What a testimony from one so holy himself! So discerning! So faithful! So connected, as we have just seen, with all the holiness of the past! Virtually, it was all that holiness effacing itself before Christ’s. In the way of submission. The answer of Jesus to this remonstrance of John says in effect, “As things are now, I ask you to allow this to be done. If it does not seem so at first, it is yet, in reality, in fullest harmony with what I am here to accomplish; the very object I have come for being that of occupying the place of the unrighteous and fulfilling ‘all righteousness’ in his stead.” Convinced by this language, John opposes no more (Matthew 3:15). It is not for him to undertake to deny what this sinless One says. Jesus of Nazareth is not only far holier, He is also far wiser than he. So he confesses by thus “giving way.” So, also, there confesses with him all the true enlightenment of the past.
II. Of the action of God.—As soon as the baptism thus conceded is over, we are in the presence of this. It follows immediately on the coming up of Jesus “out of the water” (Matthew 3:16). It is manifested, on the one hand, in the way of vision or sight. From the “opened heavens” above Him “the Spirit of God” was seen by the Baptist “descending like a dove” upon Jesus, “and lighting upon Him” (Matthew 3:16). Thus, as it were, was the Messiahship of Jesus set forth to the world. The very sign of that Messiahship which John was taught to expect (John 1:33) has come upon Jesus. That sign, as it were, therefore, is the “laying of hands” upon Him as the man called to this work—a gift at once separating and preparing Him for what that “Anointed One” had to do. On the other hand, we see the action of God here in the way of hearing and speech. From the same opened “heaven” there comes, next, the sign of a “voice.” Needless to say, coming thence, from Whom it proceeds. It is the “voice” of that Father whom we are taught to call upon as “Our Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:9). This sign is a testimony, therefore, to the unique dignity of the Messiah. Whatever the Messiah was to be in this respect, that this Holy One—this Jesus of Nazareth—is hereby acknowledged as being. “This”—this same one, this just baptised one—“is” truly “My Son.” “With Him,” also—as being such—I am always “well pleased.” Even John’s greatness, as the greatest of servants, is nothing to this.
This combination of testimonies, as well from earth as from heaven, brings before us, in conclusion:
1. The greatest of Teachers.—Who can be better qualified as a teacher than One on whom the Spirit of truth (1 Corinthians 2:11) thus descends and remains? In thus altering the decision of John, also, do we not see Him instructing one who had surpassed all teachers before? Well, therefore, may He be accepted as the Teacher of all teachers to come!
2. The completest of Saviours.—What He undertakes here to do is just that which sinners most of all need, viz. to provide them with that which shall secure them acceptance with God. How striking to find this thus spoken of on His first appearance in public! How equally striking to find that the Father sets His seal on this from the first!
3. The profoundest of mysteries.—How plainly we seem taught here that there are three persons in One! How nothing short of this seems to satisfy all that is shown to us here! How fully this does satisfy all that is shown to us here! No other key cart turn this lock with its multitudinous wards!
HOMILIES ON THE VERSES
Matthew 3:13-17. The coronation of the King.—
I. The becomingness of the apparently unbecoming baptism.—The whole mystery of Christ’s identification of Himself with sinful men, and of His being “made sin for us, who knew no sin,” lies in germ in His baptism by John. No other conception of its meaning does justice to the facts.
II. The Divine anointing or coronation.—The symbol of the dove seems to carry allusions to the grand image which represents the Spirit of God as “brooding” over chaos, and quickening life, as a bird in its nest by the warmth of its own soft breast; to the dove which bore the olive branch, first messenger of hope, to the prisoners in the ark; to the use of the dove, as clean, in sacrifice; to the poetical attribution to it, common to many nations, of meek gentleness and faithful love. Set side by side with that John’s thought of the Holy Spirit as fire, and we get all the beauty of both emblems increased, and understand how much the stern ascetic, whose words burned and blistered, had to learn. Meekness is throned now.
III. The Divine proclamation.—
1. The coronation ends with the solemn recitation of the style and title of the King.
2. The voice attests the Divine complacency in Him.
3.The Father’s delight in the Son is through the Son extended to all who love and trust the Son.—A. Maclaren, D.D.
Matthew 3:13-15. Christ coming to be baptised.—The mighty impulse of the Spirit leading Christ to Jordan. Appears from the circumstance:
1. That He came from a great distance.
2. That He came alone.
3. That He came fully decided on the course before Him.—J. P. Lange, D.D.
Matthew 3:15. Christ in His humiliation.—
1. Some things were necessary to be done by Christ in the time of His humiliation, which otherwise would not have become the dignity of His person.
2. It is a thing both right and comely for each man to do what his calling requireth.
3. When the Lord makes His will clear unto us, we should renounce our will and follow His. “Then he suffered Him.”—David Dickson.
The mode of Christ’s baptism.—As to the baptism, there has been great discussion about it. It is very curious to me that when the great moral lesson of this incident has stood confronting the church, instead of considering what is the real meaning of Christ’s baptism, it has gone discussing what Professor Swing has so well characterised as a question whether the water should be applied to the man or the man to the water. We do not know which was done in this case. An ancient picture, dating, I think, from about the fourth century, rude and rough, in the catacombs of Rome, represents Jesus and John standing in the water, and John pouring the water from a shell on Jesus’ head. We know that in early times water was poured on the heads of priests to anoint them. I think myself it most probable that the baptism of Jesus by John was neither that which the Baptist sect nor that which the other sects have generally pursued, but one which, so far as I know, no considerable denomination of Christendom has ever used, the method of pouring.—L. Abbott, D.D.
Matthew 3:16. Like a dove.—
I. In His purity like a dove. Hence He finds at first only one resting-place—the head and heart of Jesus.
II. In His gentleness like a dove. Hence addressing Himself to man.
III. In His harmlessness like a dove. Hence conquering the wicked one.
IV. In His love as a dove. Hence imparting life to the church.—Lange.
The baptism of Jesus.—Even the pure offspring of the Spirit needed the anointing of the Spirit; and it was only when His human nature had grown strong enough for the support of the fulness of the Spirit that it remained stationary and fully endowed with power from above.—Olshausen.
Matthew 3:16-17. The Holy Trinity.—Here, in the baptism of our blessed Head, we find ourselves in the presence at once of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, into whose adorable name we are baptised (Matthew 28:19). The early Fathers of the church were struck with this, and often advert to it. “Go to Jordan,” said Augustine to the heretic Marcion, “and thou shalt see the Trinity.” Nor is it to be overlooked, as Lange remarks, that, as it is at Christ’s own baptism that we have the first distinct revelation of the doctrine of the Trinity, so it is at the institution of baptism for His church that the doctrine brightens into full glory.—D. Brown, D.D.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Matthew 3". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30