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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 3

Benson's Commentary of the Old and New TestamentsBenson's Commentary

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A.M. 4030. A.D. 26.

This chapter exhibits,

(1,) The life and doctrine of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ; his baptizing multitudes, and solemn calling to them to repent and receive the Messiah, who was about to be manifested, Matthew 3:1-12 .

(2,) The baptism of Jesus by John at Jordan, and the solemn attestation of his person by the Holy Ghost and the Father, Matthew 3:13-17 .

Verse 1

Matthew 3:1. In those days That is, in those years. For, as these events happened near thirty years after those recorded in the former chapter, this phrase is to be taken, in a very extensive sense, for that age of which he had spoken in the preceding words. And it is here used with the greater propriety, because John did indeed appear in his public character while Christ continued to dwell at Nazareth, which was the event that Matthew had last mentioned. Christ was now about thirty years of age, before which time of life no priest, teacher, or prophet was allowed to perform his office, as the Hebrews tell us, and as may be collected from the Scripture, 1 Chronicles 23:3. Hence we learn that great preparation is necessary for sacred offices. The evangelists, therefore, pass over almost in entire silence our Saviour’s minority, only mentioning his disputing with the doctors in the temple, Luke 2:46. And yet it is probable many other remarkable things happened during that period, which, if they had been recorded, we should have read with pleasure and profit. But as the Holy Ghost has not been pleased to favour us in this respect, let us be thankful for, and duly improve, what is made known to us. Came John The son of Zacharias and Elizabeth, who had lived for several years retired in the wilderness of Judea: the Baptist So called, either because he was the first who, by God’s command, baptized penitents, or because by him God instituted the ordinance of baptism. For, admitting that the Jews received proselytes by baptism, yet he baptized Jews themselves, and from his time the ordinance of baptism must be dated. Before Christ’s entering upon the first part of his work, that of declaring the will of God, was recorded, it was necessary that the office of John should be spoken of, because he was his harbinger, or forerunner, and proclaimed his coming beforehand; and because, at the time of John’s baptizing Jesus, the Holy Ghost visibly descended on him, and consecrated him to his prophetic office. Preaching The original word, κηρυσσων , means proclaiming, or crying aloud. It is properly used of those who make proclamation in the streets or camps, or who lift up their voice in the open air, and declare the things which are to be promulgated by public or royal authority, and which they have in charge from another. In the wilderness of Judea That is, in the uncultivated and thinly-inhabited parts of Judea, where, it seems, his father Zacharias lived, Luke 1:39-40. For we are not to suppose that John shunned the society of men, as those afterward did, who, on that account, were called hermits; but he had been brought up and had always lived in the country, and not in the city, and had had a plain country education, and not an academical or courtly one, at Jerusalem. We must observe, that the term wilderness, among the Jews, did not signify a place wholly void of inhabitants, but a place in which they were fewer, and their habitations more dispersed, than in villages and cities. Hence we read of six cities with their villages, in the wilderness, Joshua 15:61-62; that Nabal dwelt in the wilderness of Paran, 1 Samuel 25:1-2; and Joab had his house in the wilderness, 1 Kings 2:34. John began his preaching in the desert, in which he had been brought up, Luke 1:80, as Jesus, in like manner, began his in Galilee, Acts 10:37. There was, however, this difference between them, that Christ preached in Galilee, a country the most populous of any in that neighbourhood, but John in the desert, that is, in a place but thinly inhabited, and little cultivated. The former of which was suitable to the benignity of our Saviour, and the latter to the austerity of his forerunner. Lastly, John, who had begun to preach in Judea, is imprisoned and put to death in the dominions of Herod; Christ, on the other hand, who entered upon his ministry in the tetrarchy of Herod, is crucified at Jerusalem, in Judea.

Verse 2

Matthew 3:2. Repent ye, &c. Be sorry for your sins, and amend your lives; for the original word, μετανοειτε , here used, implies this. It properly signifies, says Beza, to be wise after the action, and so to grieve for a fault committed as to amend it, which, in Latin, is properly expressed by resipiscere. In this respect it differs from another Greek word, which the evangelists sometimes use, viz., μεταμελομαι , which simply signifies to be distressed, and anxious after any thing done, but does not necessarily imply any change of mind, or reformation of life. Therefore Matthew uses the latter word of Judas, the traitor, Matthew 27:3, but not the former. Thus Christ and his apostles began their preaching, confirming John’s doctrine. John taught other things also, but this he began with, and this was the main scope of his preaching. He did not give them any new precepts of life, but charged them with breaking the law they had already, and called upon them to be sensible of it, sorry for it, and to reform their conduct: to lay aside the false opinions they had imbibed, whether from the Pharisees or Sadducees; to acknowledge, condemn, and lament the faults they had committed, and to turn from all error and all sin, to true faith in, and piety toward, God. He that so deplores some sins as to commit others, or to repeat the commission of those he deplores, either counterfeits, or is ignorant of repentance. Repentance is, as Jerome speaks, secunda post naufragium tabula a lucky plank after a shipwreck. The first degree of happiness is, not to sin; the second, to know our sins, and repent of them. For repentance not only implies sorrow for sin, or sincerely wishing it undone, but a change of mind, and reformation of life. The kingdom of heaven is at hand As if he had said, God is about to appear in an extraordinary manner, to erect that kingdom spoken of by Daniel, (Daniel 2:44; and Daniel 7:13-14,) as the kingdom of the God of heaven, which he would set up, and give to the Son of man, making it finally victorious over all other kingdoms. This phrase, the kingdom of heaven, is used thirty times by St. Matthew. The other evangelists, and St. Paul, term it generally, the kingdom of God, and sometimes, the kingdom of Christ. These different phrases mean the same thing, and were in familiar use among the Jews, as plainly appears from divers passages of the gospels. They seem to have borrowed them from the above-mentioned passages in the book of Daniel, which they wholly misunderstood and misinterpreted, inferring from them that God would erect a temporal kingdom the seat of which would be at Jerusalem, which would become, instead of Rome, the capital of the world. The expected sovereign of this kingdom, they learned, from Daniel, to call the Son of man, by which title they understood the promised Messiah, or the Anointed One of God. Both John the Baptist, then, and Christ took up this phrase, and used it as they found it, and gradually taught the Jews to affix right ideas to it, though it was a lesson which that worldly people were remarkably unwilling to learn. This very demand of repentance showed that it was a spiritual kingdom which was spoken of; and that no wicked man, how politic or brave, how learned and renowned soever, could possibly be a genuine subject of it. As the term kingdom implies the dominion of a king over his subjects, so the kingdom of God, or heaven, is God’s reigning in and over his rational creatures, whether angels or men; and, as to the latter, whether on earth or in heaven, that is, whether of the church militant or the church triumphant. The expression properly signifies the gospel dispensation, in and by which subjects were to be gathered to God by his Son, and a society formed, which was to subsist first in more imperfect circumstances on earth, and afterward in complete perfection and felicity in the world of glory. In some places of Scripture the phrase more particularly signifies the former, and denotes the state of Christ’s kingdom on earth, as Matthew 13:0., especially Matthew 13:41; Matthew 13:47; Matthew 20:1; and sometimes it signifies only that most blessed state of things which shall take place after the resurrection, when God will be all in all. See 1 Corinthians 6:9; and 1 Corinthians 15:50. But it generally includes both; and what is closely connected therewith, God’s subduing, or executing judgment upon his and his people’s enemies. For God’s regal power is exercised in delivering, assisting, defending, and rewarding all his faithful subjects, and in warning, punishing, and destroying his obdurate enemies. This latter particular, namely, the punishing and destroying his enemies, seems, at least, to be partly meant in this passage, as appears by the context. For, to enforce his doctrine of repentance, he warns them of approaching wrath that would speedily come upon the impenitent, Matthew 3:7; Matthew 3:10, the executing of which wrath, first upon the unbelieving Jews, and then upon the persecuting Gentiles, is elsewhere represented as the coming of the Son of man in his kingdom.

Verse 3

Matthew 3:3. For this is he, &c. These may be the words of John himself, (comp. John 1:22-23,) but it is more likely that they are the words of the evangelists; spoken of by the Prophet Esaias, saying, The voice, &c. Isaiah, in the passage referred to, Isaiah 40:3, &c., is to be understood as speaking first, though not principally, concerning the Jews returning from the Babylonish captivity, as appears from the preceding chapter. As, however, the prophet intended, under the emblem of that deliverance of God’s people, to shadow out a redemption of an infinitely higher and more important nature, the evangelists, with the greatest propriety, apply his words to the opening of the gospel dispensation by the preaching of John, and to the introduction of the kingdom of the Messiah, who was to effect a much greater deliverance of the people of God, Gentiles as well as Jews, from the captivity of sin, and the power of death. And the same thing may be affirmed concerning many other passages of the prophets. See notes on Isaiah 40:3-4. This expression, The voice of one crying, is as much as to say, A herald is at hand proclaiming. The word crying, implies that John’s testimony concerning Christ was uttered, not secretly, negligently, or doubtfully, but openly and publicly, freely, expressly, and resolutely, with a fervent spirit, and an audible, or strong voice. In the wilderness These words are generally considered as connected with the preceding, so as to signify that John preached in the wilderness of Judea; and some interpret the expression figuratively as well as literally, and by the wilderness of Judea, understand the desert state of the Jewish Church at that time, destitute of religious culture, and the trees and fruits of righteousness. But Bishop Lowth connects Isaiah’s words with the following clause, and translates them, A voice crieth: In the wilderness prepare ye the way of Jehovah, which he thus interprets: “The prophet hears a crier giving orders, by solemn proclamation, to prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness; to remove all obstructions before Jehovah marching through the desert; through the wild, uninhabited, and unpassable country;” the idea, he thinks, “being taken from the practice of the eastern monarchs, who, whenever they entered upon an expedition, or took a journey, especially through desert countries, sent harbingers before them to prepare all things for their passage, and pioneers to open the passes, to level the ways, and to remove all impediments.” Thus John the Baptist, the harbinger of Christ, who was God manifest in the flesh, is sent to prepare his way before him, by calling the people to repentance and to faith in him, their great Redeemer and Saviour. Make his paths straight The paths of our God. Remove all obstructions out of his way, particularly all sin and unbelief, all carnal desires and worldly views, affections, and expectations, that your Saviour and your King may have a ready passage, and free access to your hearts, and may there erect his spiritual kingdom of righteousness, peace, and joy in, and by, the Holy Ghost; and may rule your lives, your whole conversation and conduct by his righteous and holy laws. Though this could only be done by divine grace, and it is grace which prepares for further grace, yet as man must concur with God, and be a worker together with him, John with propriety calls on the people thus to prepare the Lord’s way, that his grace might not be received in vain. The words imply that they were unprepared for receiving the Messiah and his salvation, which indeed they were in every sense, being neither in a fit disposition to relish, or even understand, his doctrine, to be convinced by his miracles, receive his Spirit, follow his example, rely on his mediation, or become his subjects. An earthly, sensual, and devilish disposition had taken possession of their minds and hearts, even the whole spirit of the world, and obstructed the entrance of Christ’s spiritual kingdom into them and among them. It was necessary, therefore, that these hinderances should be removed out of the way, that they might become the true people and followers of the Messiah.

Verse 4

Matthew 3:4. And the same John The following description of John is added, that it might appear he did not live in obscurity, but was sufficiently known to all: had his raiment of camel’s hair Not, as some have supposed, a camel’s skin, raw and undressed, but a kind of sackcloth, coarse and rough, made of the raw long hair of camels, and not of their fine and soft hair, dressed and spun into thread. The difference between these two is as great as that between flax rude or unprepared, and the same dressed or spun; or between that which we now call hair cloth, made of undressed hair, and camlet, that is made of it when it is softened, and spun, and prepared; in imitation of which, though made of wool, is the English camlet. Elijah seems to have wore a similar garment, and therefore was called a hairy man; which expression is supposed to refer to his clothing rather than his body. Most of the ancient prophets wore such garments, whence we read of the false prophets putting on a rough garment to deceive, Zechariah 13:4; and of the witnesses prophesying in sackcloth, Revelation 6:12; and Revelation 11:3. And a leathern girdle about his loins In this respect, also, being like Elijah, in whose spirit and power he came, Malachi 4:5; Luke 1:17. Hereby, as also by his spare diet, he gave an example of repentance, and of his expectation of a heavenly kingdom. And his meat was locusts The insects called locusts are undoubtedly intended, a kind of large-winged grasshoppers. See Revelation 9:3; Revelation 9:7; Revelation 9:9. It is true, according to Sandys ( Trav. p. 183) and many others, it appears there is, in these parts, a shrub termed the locust tree, the buds of which resemble asparagus; yet it is not probable that this is here meant, nor the wild fruits of any trees, nor the tops of herbs and plants, as some, both ancients and moderns, have supposed; because the original word here used, in the LXX. and elsewhere, generally signifies the animal which we call a locust, which it is certain the law allowed the Jews to eat, and which, Pliny assures us, made a considerable part of the food of the Parthians and Ethiopians. Dr. Shaw tells us that when sprinkled with salt and fried they taste much like the river cray-fish. See his excellent Travels, p. 258. And wild honey Such as, in those parts, was often found in hollow trees, or in the clefts of the rocks, 1 Samuel 14:26; Judges 14:8; Psalms 81:16. John used such a diet and such clothing as was cheap and easily obtained. He drank no wine, and frequently fasted, not through poverty, for he was the only son of a priest, but of his own free-will, as well that his severe and mortified manner of life might correspond with his doctrine, which enjoined frequent fasting to his disciples, as that in this way he might fortify both his body and mind, and prepare himself to undergo dangers, imprisonment, and death undauntedly. As the months of April and May are the time when locusts abound, it has been conjectured that John began his ministry about that season of the year, which might also seem more convenient for receiving, and especially for baptizing, so great a number of people, than the winter could have been.

Verse 5

Matthew 3:5. Then went out to him Jerusalem That is, the citizens of it, famed as they were for wisdom and virtue: and all Judea, &c. The preacher being described, the evangelist proceeds to tell us what auditors he had. All sorts and ranks of persons, and the generality of the people there, flocked to hear him. The uncommon circumstances of John’s public appearance could scarcely fail to awaken the attention of the people to his person and ministry, which would be yet more excited by the time of it: for the Roman yoke began to bear hard upon them, and their uneasiness under it raised in their minds the most impatient desire of the Messiah’s arrival, by whom they expected not only deliverance, but universal monarchy. No wonder, therefore, that they flocked to the Baptist from all parts, and listened attentively while he proclaimed this long-expected Messiah’s approach, and denounced the divine vengeance upon such as rejected him. Add to this, the novelty of a prophet’s appearance in Israel, (for it seems they had had none among them since Malachi’s time;) the family of John, the circumstances of his birth, and the extraordinary character he had no doubt maintained for strict and undissembled piety; the new doctrine he taught, and his fervent manner of urging it, together with the new rite of baptism which he brought in; all concurred, with the cause mentioned above, to draw such vast multitudes after him. And, it appears, great numbers of them were brought under very serious impressions by his faithful remonstrances, expostulations, and warnings. Here we observe a remarkable difference between John and Jesus. That the people might hear John they were under the necessity of going out of the city, and travelling to him into the desert: but Jesus, of his own accord, went to his hearers.

Verse 6

Matthew 3:6. And were baptized of him in Jordan Namely, those that were awakened to repentance. It has been questioned by many, whether John baptized these immense multitudes by dipping them in Jordan? In answer to which it has been observed, “that such prodigious numbers could hardly be baptized by immerging their whole bodies under water: nor can we think they were provided with change of raiment for it, which was scarce practicable for such vast multitudes. And yet they could not be immerged naked with modesty, nor in their wearing apparel with safety.” It has been thought, therefore, “that they stood in ranks on the edge of the river, and that John, passing along before them, cast water on their heads, or faces, by which means, he might baptize many thousands in a day.” This, it must be confessed, most naturally signified Christ’s baptizing them with the Holy Ghost and with fire, which John spoke of as prefigured by his baptizing with water: and which was eminently fulfilled when the Holy Ghost sat upon the disciples, in the appearance of tongues, or flames of fire. But be this as it may: supposing that John baptized by immersion, it will not follow from hence, that immersion is essential to baptism; the washing of the soul from the guilt of sin, by the blood of Christ, or from the power and pollution of sin, by the Spirit of God, (the things signified by baptism,) being expressed by sprinkling or pouring water on a person, as well as by plunging him in it. See Isaiah 44:3; Ezekiel 36:25; Colossians 2:12. And as Cyprian observes, in his 76th Epistle to Magnus: “Baptism is rather of the mind by faith, than of the body by immersion in water: this being only a visible sign of an invisible baptism.” It is admired by some, that this practice of John did not excite more stir, and meet with more opposition among the Jews. But it must be observed, that baptizing was not a ceremony entirely new. For, “there were two kinds of baptism in use among the Jews; one was that of the priests at their consecration, Leviticus 8:6; the other was that of the heathens proselyted to the Jewish religion. It was, therefore, no unheard-of rite which the Messiah’s harbinger made use of. His countrymen were well acquainted both with the thing itself and its signification. They knew that it denoted some great change, either in the opinions or practices of those who submitted to it, and implied a promise of acceptance with God. Moreover, they had been led by a passage in their sacred books, Zechariah 13:1, to expect, that either the Messiah himself, or some of his attendants, would baptize; as is evident from the question which the messengers of the Sanhedrim put to the Baptist, John 1:25: Why baptizest thou, if thou be not that Christ, nor Elias? They must have known, therefore, that John’s baptism represented purification both of heart and life, as necessary even to Jews themselves, before they could become the subjects of so holy a prince as the Messiah; and that it was a solemn obligation, binding those who received it to lead such lives. Hence, as Dr. Whitby observes, they are mistaken who think John’s baptism the same in kind with that which Christ afterward instituted, for admission of disciples into his Church. The difference between the two was considerable: 1st, John did not baptize either in the name of Christ, or of the Holy Ghost; much less did he baptize them with the Holy Ghost, a circumstance mentioned by himself, as what remarkably distinguished Christ’s baptism from his. 2, They who were baptized with John’s baptism did not profess their faith in the Messiah as actually come, neither did they receive his baptism, in testimony of their entertaining that belief; for after having administered it he exhorted his disciples to believe on Him who was to come. Therefore his baptism could not initiate men into the Christian Church, as appears likewise by the apostles’ rebaptizing some who had been baptized by John. Acts 19:4; Act 5:3 d, John’s was the baptism of repentance, whereby all that had a sense of their sins, and professed repentance, were promised pardon, and exhorted to believe in the Messiah, who was soon to appear. Or, it was a washing with water, to show the Jews that they must be cleansed, not only from their prejudices and vices, but that they must relinquish Judaism in order to their becoming fit members of the Messiah’s kingdom.” Macknight. Indeed, John, properly speaking, was not a gospel minister, nor his ministry a gospel ministry; for that state of the Church was not then begun; but, as he was a middle person between both testaments, greater than the prophets, less than a gospel minister, Matthew 11:11; Matthew 11:13, so his ministry was a sort of middle ministry, the chief drift whereof was to prepare people to receive Jesus of Nazareth as the promised Messiah: in order whereunto he laboured to convince them of their sins, and their need of a Saviour, by preaching repentance, Matthew 3:2; and pointed out the Messiah to them, John 1:29; and baptized them as a sign of repentance, on their part, and an assurance of pardon on God’s part. John’s baptism, therefore, was only a temporary sacrament or institution, set up upon a particular occasion; which, as it agreed with Christ’s in the external sign, so was perfected by his. See Grotius. Confessing their sins Acknowledging their offences, and condemning their former lives, and that freely and of their own accord: for it does not appear that the Baptist required them to do it. It is not said whether this confession was made to God or man: but it is probable it was to both: only, so far as it was made to John, it must have been merely general. For how could one man have sufficed to hearken to a particular confession of all the offences of this immense multitude made secretly in his ears. It seems to have been like the confessions recorded in the Old Testament; (see Ezra 9:0.; Nehemiah 9:0.; Daniel 9:0.;) and that made by the high priest on the day of atonement, Leviticus 16:21. They acknowledged in words their sinfulness and guilt, professed repentance for, and a detestation of all their sins, and submitted to be baptized in token of their being convinced of their need of pardon and purification. And it must be observed, that this was the confession, not of persons who had been baptized, concerning sins committed after baptism, but of those who were to be baptized. It therefore differs widely from, and gives no countenance to, the auricular confession of the Church of Rome.

Verse 7

Matthew 3:7. When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees, &c. These are not names of office, but of sects, or sorts of persons of different opinions in matters of religion. There were three religious sects among the Jews, the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. Of the latter, indeed, we read nothing in the Holy Scriptures. We shall only, therefore, observe concerning them, that their way of life was very singular. They did not marry, but adopted the children of others, whom they brought up in the institutions of their sect. They despised riches, and had all things in common, and never changed their clothes till they were entirely worn out. When initiated they were strictly bound not to communicate the mysteries of their sect to others; and if any of their members were found guilty of any enormous crime they were expelled. As to their doctrine, they allowed a future state, but denied the resurrection of the body. The reason why we find no mention of them in the New Testament may be their recluse and retired way of life, no less than their great simplicity and honesty, in consequence of which they lay open to no censure or reproof. The Pharisees were a very ancient sect. They are said to have made their first appearance about 150 years before Christ. It is certain from the account given by Josephus, Ant., lib. 12., cap. 10., sect. 5, 6, that in the time of John Hyrcanus, the high priest, about 108 years before Christ, the sect was not only formed, but made a considerable figure; and that it had advanced to a high degree of popularity and power about thirty years after that period. They took their name from the Hebrew word פרס , pharas, which signifies to separate, because they seemed to separate themselves from all others by their peculiar manner of living. They pretended to have greater knowledge of the rites of the Jewish worship and of the customs of their country than other people, and were very strict in the observance of them, as also of all the traditions of the elders. They fasted often, made long prayers, rigorously kept the sabbath, and put on an appearance of great sanctity, with much display of zeal for Moses and the law. On all these accounts they were in high esteem among the people: and some of them, we have reason to hope, had a measure of true piety; but it is evident from several of the discourses of our Lord, recorded by the evangelists, that they were in general devoid of that humility, and sincere love of God, which are essential to true religion. Though they acknowledged the existence of angels, the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the body, and a future state of rewards and punishments, yet they were involved in many great and destructive errors, both in principle and practice. They held the unwritten traditions of the elders to be of equal authority with the written word, pretending that both were delivered to Moses from mount Sinai. From their rigorous observance of these traditions they considered themselves as more holy than other men, and held their own righteousness to be sufficient for their justification before God; having no proper conception of the spirituality, extent, and obligation of the divine law. Accordingly they neglected the weightier matters of it, justice, mercy, and the love of God, and rendered its holy precepts of none effect through their traditions, while they were scrupulously exact in little and trivial things, such as washing cups, &c., Mark 4:0., and tithing mint, anise, and cummin.

The Sadducees also were a sect of great antiquity, having existed, as well as the Pharisees, according to Josephus, from the time of the Maccabees. They had their name from their founder, Sadoc. Antigonus of Socho, president of the Sanhedrim at Jerusalem, and teacher of the law in the divinity school in that city, having often in his lectures asserted to his scholars that they ought not to serve God in a servile manner, with respect to reward, but only out of filial love and fear; two of his scholars, Sadoc and Baithus, inferred from thence that there were no rewards or punishments after this life; and therefore, separating from the school of their master, they taught that there was no resurrection nor future state. Many embracing this opinion gave rise to the sect of the Sadducees, who were a kind of Epicureans, but differing from them in this, that, though they denied a future state, yet they allowed that the world was created by the power of God, and governed by his providence, whereas the followers of Epicurus denied both. The Sadducees, says Luke, (Acts 23:8,) say, there is no resurrection, neither angel nor spirit. Add to this, that they not only rejected all unwritten traditions, but all the books of the Old Testament, excepting those of Moses. They were not very numerous, but being the wealthiest of the three sects, the rich and great gave in to their opinions; whereas the people were firm in the interest of the Pharisees, and so attached to their notions, that, if a Pharisee should happen to throw out reflections, either upon the high priest or king, he was sure to be believed; for every thing that concerned divine worship was regulated by the Pharisees. So that when the Sadducees took upon them any public employment they were obliged, though never so much against their own interest, to obey the injunction of the Pharisees, which had they presumed to refuse, the consequences would have been dangerous, and would have set the people in an uproar. O generation of vipers A wicked offspring of wicked parents, crafty, malignant, mischievous creatures. In like manner the crafty Herod is styled a fox, and persons of insidious, ravenous, profane, or sensual dispositions, are named respectively by Him who saw their hearts, serpents, dogs, wolves, and swine; terms which are not the random language of passion, but a judicious designation of the persons meant by them. For it was fitting such men should be marked out, either for a caution to others, or a warning to themselves. Who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? To put on this form of humility and repentance? What hath moved you to it? How came you to think yourselves in any danger of divine and future wrath, or to use any means to escape it? since you Pharisees think yourselves secure from it, on account of the sanctity of your lives, and you Sadducees imagine there is no such wrath, and that all that is spoken of it is a mere fable and delusion?

Verse 8

Matthew 3:8. Bring forth, therefore, fruits meet for repentance That is, a change of temper and behaviour, answerable thereto; forsake, as well as confess, your sins, and let the integrity, regularity, holiness, and usefulness of your lives, manifest the sincerity of your repentance. It is a metaphor taken from trees, which discover what quality they are of by the fruits they bear; in allusion to which, pious men are called trees of righteousness, Isaiah 61:3; and their works, fruits of righteousness, Philippians 1:11. Let it be observed, further, that as the original word, μετανοια , here rendered repentance, properly signifies a change of mind, from the approbation and love of sin to an aversion and hatred to it, in consequence of a deep conviction of its evil nature and destructive tendency; (see on Matthew 3:2;) so, wherever this is, there will, of course, be an entire reformation of life, a ceasing to do evil, in all respects, according to the knowledge and ability of the penitent, and a learning to do well. Hence it is styled repentance from dead works, Hebrews 6:1; and repentance unto salvation not to be repented of, 2 Corinthians 7:10; that is, such as is not reversed by any voluntary returning or relapsing into our former sins. And, seeing God is unchangeably holy, and must for ever hate all sin with a perfect hatred, it is certain, from his very nature, that he cannot be reconciled to or have communion with the sinner, till a change be wrought in his spirit and conduct, and he cease from the commission of known iniquity. For a change there must be in God or man; and, since God’s nature is immutable, and it cannot be in him, it must of necessity be in man. Now it is evident, both from reason and experience, that confession of sins, a present sorrow for them, and displeasure against them, with a warm resolution to forsake them, are by no means always attended with this change, and, therefore, that these alone cannot be fruits meet for repentance. And O, how necessary was this admonition for the men of that age, who placed their repentance, as Dr. Lightfoot observes, in a mere verbal confession of their sins; and is it not equally necessary for too many of our own age?

Verse 9

Matthew 3:9. And think not to say Or, as the words, μη δοξητε λεγειν , rather signify, Presume not to say, or, Say not confidently, within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father As if he had said, Being called upon to bring forth fruits meet for repentance, begin not to obstruct the efficacy of the admonition with those thoughts which are so common among you, that you are secure from wrath by being the children of Abraham. It is almost incredible how great the presumption of the Jews was, on this their relation to Abraham. “Abraham,” says the Talmud, (a book in high repute among them,) “sits near the gates of hell, and does not permit any wicked Israelite to go down into it.” And Justin informs us, that the Jewish rabbins assured them, “That, being Abraham’s seed, though they continued in disobedience to God, and in infidelity, the kingdom of heaven should still be given them.” And it is to be feared that many professors of Christianity build their hopes of salvation on a foundation equally false, depending on their baptism, their knowledge, their orthodoxy, their forms of godliness, their deeds of charity, or their fancied interest in the merits of Christ, while they live in sin, and are lukewarm and negligent in pursuit of that holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.

For I say unto you This preface always denotes the importance of what follows: God is able of these stones He probably pointed to those which lay before them: to raise up children to Abraham You think that because you are the only Church of God upon earth, and if you were destroyed God would then have no seed of Abraham to show mercy to, and keep his covenant with, therefore judgment shall not come upon you: but mistake not; that God who raised Adam from the dust of the earth, and children to Abraham from the dead womb of Sarah, can, if he please, animate and sanctify these very stones, which are before your eyes, and transform them into children of Abraham; into persons who shall inherit Abraham’s faith and piety, and who, by imitating his obedience, shall become his spiritual seed, to whom the promises made to him shall be fulfilled, and in whom the church shall still subsist, though all you should be destroyed. And he would sooner work such a miracle as this, than he would suffer his promise to fail, or admit you to the blessings of his approaching kingdom, merely because you have the abused honour to descend from that peculiar favourite of Heaven. Thus the Baptist took from those presumptuous men the ground of their confidence, by affirming that God could perform his promises to Abraham, though the whole Jewish nation should be rejected by him; the seed, like the stars for multitude, that was principally intended in the promise, being a spiritual progeny.

Verse 10

Matthew 3:10. And now, also, the axe, &c. To enforce his exhortation, he informs them that they had no time to delay their repentance, because the patience of God was very near exhausted, and come to an end with respect to them. His judgments were at hand and ready to be inflicted, so that, if they continued unfruitful, notwithstanding the extraordinary means that were now to be tried with them, destruction would speedily overtake them; as if he had said, God now once more offers you his grace in and through his Son, which, if you refuse, he will no longer bear with you. You think of national deliverances, but I am sent to warn you of national judgments; judgments, which even now hang over your heads, and are ready to fall upon you if you still continue barren, or do not bring forth good fruit: for I assure you, the hand of God is lifted up to strike the fatal blow. There is an allusion in the words to a woodman, who, having marked a tree for excision, lays his axe at the root of it, till he puts off his upper garment, and then immediately goes to work to cut it down. Therefore, every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit Every one that, while he professes to be one of God’s people, contradicts that profession by a wicked life, or by the neglect of vital and practical religion, is cut down, &c. Instantly, without further delay; and cast into the fire Of hell: a prediction this, 1st, of that dreadful destruction which, within the short period of forty-four years, came, by the Romans, upon the whole Jewish nation; as if he had said, The Babylonians formerly lopped off your branches, but now the tree shall be cut down; your commonwealth shall be destroyed, and your temple, city, and nation totally ruined: and, 2dly, it is a prediction of that particular destruction which shall soon overtake all that reject the counsel of God against themselves, or, as the apostle expresses it, that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Verse 11

Matthew 3:11. I indeed baptize you with water I call you to repentance: and admit the penitent to the baptism of water, as a sign and token of their being washed from their past sins, and of their engaging to walk henceforward in newness of life. He answers the question put to him, John 1:19; John 1:25, by the priests and Levites sent from Jerusalem. But he that cometh after me That succeeds me in preaching and baptizing, is mightier than I Is endued with unspeakably greater authority and power; Whose shoes I am not worthy to bear That is, for whom I am unworthy to perform the humblest office of menial service: He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire He shall not only administer the outward element, or sign, to his disciples, but the thing signified thereby, viz., the gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit, which, in their operations and effects, are like fire, enlightening, quickening, and purifying men’s souls, and kindling therein pious and devout affections; inflaming their hearts with love to God and all mankind, and with a degree of zeal for his glory and the salvation of sinners which all the waters of difficulty and danger, of persecution and tribulation, which they may be called to pass through, shall not be able to quench. And this baptism he will communicate in so abundant a measure, that you shall seem to be overflowed therewith. Now this promise was fulfilled, even with a visible appearance, as of fire, on the day of pentecost; and it is fulfilled without that appearance to this day, with respect to all that believe in Christ with a faith that worketh by love.

Verse 12

Matthew 3:12. Whose fan is in his hand That is, the doctrine of the gospel, which is of such a nature as effectually discovers what is the real disposition of the hearts of men, and perfectly distinguishes between the hypocritical and the sincere. Perhaps, also, the Baptist might refer to the persecutions and tribulations which should attend the preaching of the gospel. Dr. Campbell renders the original expression, το πτυον , winnowing shovel, mentioned Isaiah 30:24, “an implement of husbandry, very ancient, simple, and properly manual: whereas the fan, (or van, as it is sometimes called,) is more complex, and, being contrived for raising an artificial wind, by the help of sails, can hardly be considered as proper for being carried about in the hand.” “In the eastern countries,” says Dr. Shaw, “after the grain is trodden out, they winnow it by throwing it up against the wind with a shovel. ” “To understand the Baptist’s meaning aright, we should observe, that in this verse he describes the authority of Christ’s ministry, as in Mat 3:16 he had described its efficacy. As if he had said, The Messiah is infinitely mightier than I, not only as he will bestow on you the miraculous gifts of the Spirit, but as he has power to reward those who obey him with eternal life, and to punish such with everlasting destruction, as reject him.” Macknight. He will thoroughly purge his floor His Church, at present covered with a mixture of wheat and chaff. As if he had said, Though, for the present, the good and bad, the fruitful and unfruitful, are joined together in the visible Church, yet in due time he will sever them, Malachi 3:2-3; and rid his Church of all hypocrites and ungodly persons. And gather his wheat The, truly pious, into his garner Will lay them up in heaven as his peculiar treasure. But the chaff Those who have only a show of religion, without the power, and produce not the fruits of righteousness, he will burn with unquenchable fire He will treat them as men do the refuse of the floor. He will destroy them as worthless and unprofitable trash. There is, in these words, an evident allusion to the custom of burning the chaff after winnowing, that it might not, by the wind’s changing, be blown back again, and so be mingled with the wheat. And though this may in part refer to the calamities to come upon the Jewish nation for rejecting Christ, yet, it seems chiefly to intend the final destruction of all sinners in hell, which alone is properly opposed to the gathering the wheat into the garner. See Matthew 13:40-42. And certainly this burning of the chaff with unquenchable fire, is absolutely inconsistent with all views of the restoration of the wicked, nor can it, by any easy or just interpretation, be reconciled with their annihilation, which, it is certain, no punishment of mind or body can, of itself, effect.

Verse 13

Matthew 3:13. Then cometh Jesus Who was now about thirty years of age, from Galilee Where he had long lived, in a retired manner, unto John, to be baptized of him Not in testimony of his repentance, or for the remission of sins, for, being without sin, he neither needed repentance nor remission; but that he might honour John’s ministry, and acknowledge his commission to baptize, and might confirm the institution of baptism by water. He thus, also, offered himself to receive that testimony which he knew his heavenly Father would give him, and conformed himself to what he appointed for his followers; for which last reason he drank likewise of the sacramental cup. Thus the apostolical constitutions inform us that Christ was baptized, not that he needed any purgation, but to testify the truth of John’s baptism, and to be an example to us. We may consider this as a plain argument that baptism may be rightly administered to, and received by those that are incapable of many of the chief ends of it, provided they be capable of some other end for which it also was designed. For Christ, being without sin, could neither repent nor promise amendment of life; being the wisdom of the Father, he could be taught nothing; being the Christ, he could not profess he would believe on him that should come after him, that is, on himself. He, therefore, was baptized, 1st, to testify that he owned the Baptist as one commissioned by God to perform this office; 2d, that by this rite he might profess his willingness to fulfil all righteousness; and, 3d, that by this he might be initiated into his prophetical office, and consecrated to the service of God. Therefore, though infants can neither be taught, nor believe, nor give the answer of a good conscience, at baptism, yet they may be baptized; 1st, that by this ceremony they may be obliged to observe the laws of that Jesus, into whose name they are baptized, even as, under the Mosaic dispensation, the infant, by virtue of circumcision, became a debtor to observe the whole law of Moses, Acts 15:5; Galatians 5:3; Galatians 2:0 dly, that by this rite they may enter into covenant with God, of which they are declared capable by Moses, Deuteronomy 29:11.

Verse 14

Matthew 3:14. But John forbade him Out of modesty he would have declined the service, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee To receive a larger measure of the gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit from thee, and comest thou to me on such an occasion as this? It has been questioned, how John knew him to be the Christ, before the Spirit descended on him? But this question will be easily resolved, if it be considered that John was a prophet filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother’s womb. No doubt he knew by a secret intimation from that Spirit, that he, who then came to him, was the person on whom the Holy Ghost should descend, and on whom he should abide in so large a measure, or, rather, without measure, that he might impart him to others, such matters being frequently imparted to prophets by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. Thus Simeon, having been told that he should not die until he had seen the Lord’s Christ, had an intimation given him in the temple that the child Jesus was that Christ, Luke 2:26-32; as had, also, Anna the prophetess. And Samuel, being told by God that on the morrow a man should come to him to be captain over his people Israel, 1 Samuel 9:15, when Saul appeared, he had another intimation given him respecting the person, the Lord saying, Matthew 3:17, Behold the man of whom I spake to thee. Just so the Baptist, being to testify, when he baptized with water, that another should baptize them with the Holy Ghost, God tells him that of this he should see an evidence by the visible descent of the Holy Ghost upon Him who, from his fulness, was to impart this Spirit to all true believers; and when our Saviour came to be baptized, God tells him again, this was that very person.

Verse 15

Matthew 3:15. Suffer it to be so now In this my state of humiliation: For thus By this appearance in the form of a sinner, and stooping to thee, my inferior; it becomes us Me, and my disciples according to my example, to fulfil all righteousness To do whatsoever is just, fit, and requisite in our circumstances. Or, it becometh every messenger of God, and even every follower of mine, to observe every divine appointment, and to honour every divine ordinance. I therefore offer myself to be baptized, that I may show my readiness to obey all God’s righteous precepts, and to justify God and approve his counsel, Luke 7:29-30, and celebrate his wisdom in sending thee to prepare his and my way, by calling men to repentance, and in that way fitting them for the blessings of my kingdom. “Our Lord’s baptism tended,” says Dr. Macknight, “to promote the ends both of his own mission and of his forerunner’s, as it established the authority of both. It established John’s mission, great honour being done him by the Messiah’s receiving his baptism. It established our Lord’s mission also; for after he was baptized, the testimonies of the Spirit and voice from heaven were given him in the presence of the multitude assembled at Jordan. That these testimonies should have been given on this occasion, rather than on any other, was fit; because it was an august manner of opening our Lord’s ministry, was the most public occasion that could be found, and pointed him out as Messiah to the Baptist, who was thereby qualified for the principal duty of his mission, John 1:31.” By this we are taught a holy exactness in the observance even of those institutions which owe their obligations merely to a divine appointment. Surely thus it becometh all his followers to fulfil all righteousness. Jesus had no sin to wash away, and yet he was baptized. And God owned his ordinance so as to make it the season of pouring forth the Holy Spirit upon him. And where can we expect this sacred effusion, but in an humble attendance on divine appointments? Then he suffered him He that sins through ignorance, will correct his error upon better information.

Verse 16

Matthew 3:16. And Jesus, when he was baptized, &c. Hereby he was, 1st, installed into his ministerial office, as the priests were by washing, Exodus 29:4; Leviticus 8:6; Leviticus 2:0 d, engaged solemnly in the same military work with us against sin and Satan; 3d, admitted a member of the gospel Church, as he was before of the Jewish, by circumcision; 4th, he was baptized as a public person, the Head of his Church, in whom, and by virtue of whose baptism, all his members are baptized spiritually, Romans 6:4; Colossians 2:12. Went up straightway out of the water Or, as the original, ανεβη απο του υδατος , rather signifies, ascended from the water, namely, went up from the banks of Jordan. The heavens were opened unto him For his sake, appearing as if they had been rent asunder directly over his head. It is probable they might resemble that opening of the heavens which we often see in a time of great lightning, when the sky seems to divide, to make the fuller and clearer way for the lightning: although, doubtless, this was much more striking and glorious. And he saw Christ himself saw, and also John the Baptist, as appears by John 1:33-34; and by this he was further confirmed that this was the very Christ: the Spirit of God descending like a dove Not only in a hovering, dove-like motion, but, it seems, with a bright flame, in the shape of a dove, for St. Luke says, Luke 3:22, σωματικω ειδει , ωσει περιστεραν , in a bodily shape, as a dove. See also John 1:32. The Holy Spirit descended upon him in this form to signify what Christ Isaiah , 1 st, in his own nature to them that come to him, meek and loving; 2d, in the execution of his office, reconciling us to the Father, and bringing us good tidings of peace and reconciliation, as the dove brought Noah tidings of the deluge being assuaged; 3d, in the operations of his Spirit upon his people, whereby they are made meek, lowly, and harmless as doves. And lighting upon him As a visible token of a new degree of the Holy Ghost’s operation in Christ, now at his entrance upon his public employment, even of that Spirit by which, according to the intimations God had given in his word, he was anointed in a peculiar manner, and abundantly fitted for his public work. Psalms 45:7; Isaiah 61:1. And thus was Christ installed into his ministerial function, both by baptism and the unction of the Holy Ghost, as the priests of old were by washing and anointing.

Verse 17

Matthew 3:17. And lo! As a further token of the divine regard to Christ, and of the glorious dignity of his person, a voice from heaven, saying, to John, concerning Christ, This is my beloved Son, and to Christ himself, Thou art my beloved Son, Luke 3:22. For it is not improbable that both sentences were pronounced; the voice uttering the words, Thou art my beloved Son, &c. while the Spirit was descending, as if they had been directed to Jesus alone, in answer to his prayer; and, after the Spirit rested on Jesus, the voice, speaking to the Baptist and the multitude, said, This is my beloved Son, &c. St. Luke informs us, that he was praying when this happened, and it is observable that all the voices from heaven, by which the Father bore witness to Christ, were pronounced while he was praying, or quickly after. Luke 9:29; Luke 9:35; John 12:28. In whom I am well pleased Or, in whom I delight, That is, whose character I perfectly approve, and in whom I acquiesce as the great Mediator, through whom will I show myself favourable unto sinful creatures. See Isaiah 42:1. The original word properly signifies an entire acquiescence, or a special and singular complacency and satisfaction. This the Father took, in the person and undertaking of Christ; and this, through him, he takes in all true believers, who, by faith, are united to him, and made members of his body. And O, how poor, in comparison of this, are all other kinds of praise, yea, and all other pleasures! To have the approbation, and be the delight of God; this is praise, this is pleasure indeed! This is, at once, true glory and true happiness, and is the highest and brightest light that virtue can appear in.

Bibliographical Information
Benson, Joseph. "Commentary on Matthew 3". Benson's Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/rbc/matthew-3.html. 1857.
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