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Sunday, July 14th, 2024
the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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Matthew 3

Watson's Exposition on Matthew, Mark, Luke & RomansWatson's Expositions

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Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

1 John preacheth: his office, life, and baptism.

7 He reprehendeth the Pharisees,

13 and baptizeth Christ in Jordan.

Verse 1

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

In those days. — That is, while Jesus yet remained dwelling in Nazareth, where he continued till near his entrance upon his public ministry.

Preaching. — The word signifies to publish or proclaim any thing as a public officer, commissioned and warranted by lawful authority. John the Baptist was God’s commissioned herald, or preacher, and did not rush into his service without express authority.

In the wilderness of Judea. — This comprehended, says Lightfoot, the mountains and part of the plain along the Jordan, and also especially the hill country south of Jerusalem. In this hill country, at Hebron, John was born, but retired before his mission, to the neighbouring wilderness, probably of Ziph or Maon. He taught first in that district, and then toward the Jordan, a tract sufficiently dessert, yet with a great resort of people, and near large cities. The wildernesses of Canaan were not in every part without towns and cities.

Verse 2

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

And saying, Repent ye. — Although μετανοεω literally signifies, to change one’s opinion, this does by no means express the force of the word, as it is commonly used in the New Testament. There it signifies to be affected with sorrow and remorse for sin, and to be so fully sensible to our spiritual dangers as to turn to God in penitence, confession of sin, renunciation of it, and earnest prayers for forgiveness. The sense of theological terms, as used in the New Testament, must not be rigidly interpreted by Greek etymologies, which, while they amuse, will sometimes mislead.

The kingdom of heaven is at hand. — This phrase, and that of “the kingdom of God,” signify the same thing. Similar expressions, to be found in Jewish writers, who often use them to express the true worship and fear of God, have been referred to in illustration; but Jews are poor commentators upon this phrase, because they never attained to true notions of the kingdom of Messiah. The kingdom here referred to is that which Daniel and other prophets, so explicitly predicted, and the creation of which our Lord, by the public ministry on which he was now entering, was about to commence. It is therefore said by the Baptist to be “at hand.” The very connection of REPENTANCE with this kingdom, as a necessary preparation for men becoming subjects of it, strongly marks its spiritual character. That is, it was not to be a kingdom “of this world;” not to originate in human policy, or to be concerned with merely civil matters. It was not to exhibit a monarch arrayed in external pomp, claiming some particular territory as his dominions, and defending them by arms against invasions; or exercising the office of “a judge and divider” of property, which our Lord expressly on one occasion refused to become, even when solicited. His was the more glorious office of bringing the hearts of men into subjection to the authority of God by moral influence, so that they should make his laws the rule of their private conduct, and the principles of his religion, its justice, mercy, and truth, the basis of all their social and political institutions.

This was done by a perfect declaration of the claims of God, and the duties of men; by the work of his Spirit in their hearts, producing repentance for sin, and aversion to it; by reconciling them to God by faith in his sacrifice; by placing the heart under the constant and regenerating influence of grace, and by kindling there the flame of supreme love to God, to render, the service and subjection of men to God voluntary and grateful, universal and absolute. This is the kingdom of God which an apostle so forcibly describes to be “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.” It has no parallel; for the establishment of such a sovereignty as this could never enter into the heart of man to conceive; its design and execution equally implied Divine wisdom and Divine power; it is confined to no people, no country, no rank; it addresses itself to no collective bodies, but separately to individuals; and it is only through the multiplication of those individuals themselves, who are brought thus into a state of subjection, that it affects the state and condition of external political society, by the diffusion of the corrective principles of truth, justice, and charity. But in this way it urges forward, and will finally accomplish, those mighty and beneficial changes in the social and political condition of all nations, on which the prophets so rapturously dwell, as the final results of Messiah’s glorious and universal reign. Of this kingdom, so purely spiritual, but which was expressed by the prophets in terms taken from the accidents of earthly monarchies, the Jews could have no just conception, because they interpreted those predictions literally, and in a manner most accordant with their carnal desires and expectations, their national pride, and their haughty ambition. With these notions even the disciples of our Lord himself were so infected, that, though the whole current of his teaching, and the most striking parts of his conduct, tended to correct the error, they were “slow of heart to understand,” and never fully attained to true conceptions of the great subject, until after Christ’s resurrection and ascension to sit, not upon an earthly throne, but upon a heavenly one, as suited to that heavenly kingdom which he was first to establish among men on earth, and to perfect for ever amid the glories of immortality.

Verse 3

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

For this is he that was spoken of by the Prophet Esaias, saying, The voice, &c. — These words are supposed by some to have been first spoken of the return of the Jews from the captivity of Babylon, through the desert places which separated the two countries. Bishop Lowth takes this view, but allows that under the emblem of that deliverance a redemption of an infinitely more glorious nature was shadowed out, and that the evangelists, with the greatest propriety, apply the words to the opening of the Gospel dispensation by John the Baptist. But there is no more reason to suppose that this lofty prediction had a primary and an ultimate sense, than that the fifty-third chapter of the same prophet referred first to some person who lived before Christ, and then more perfectly to Christ himself. Many prophecies, indeed, have a double reference, an immediate and an ultimate one, which arose out of that system of typical persons and typical things which we find in Scripture. But it is equally certain that many prophecies of the Old Testament refer to Christ, and to him only, Such, by the acknowledgment of all Christians, is the fifty-third of Isaiah; and whoever reads the section in which the passage in question stands, and which obviously comprehends the first eleven verses of the fortieth chapter of the same book, will perceive that it is as distinct and perfect a portion of prophecy, and possesses as complete a unity as the former, and has no internal marks of reference whatever to any other event beside that personal appearance of Messiah, to he introduced by his harbinger.

Bishop Lowth, opens the passage with his usual taste: “The prophet hears a voice giving orders by solemn proclamation, to prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness, to remove all obstructions before Jehovah marching though the desert; the idea being taken from the practice of eastern monarchs, who sent harbingers before them to prepare all things for their passage, and pioneers to open the passes, to level the ways, and to remove impediments.” But what application there is in all this to the return of the Jews from Babylon, it is impossible to conceive. Had they marched from Babylon, as from Egypt, with the visible cloud of the Divine presence among them there would then have been an adaptation in the terms of the prophecy to the event; “Jehovah” would then have had “his way in the wilderness;” but they returned in scattered parties, without pomp, and especially without any visible presence of the Lord. Isaiah, however, expressly says that the voice cries, “Prepare the way, of the Lord;” and the passage which St. Matthew quotes with brevity, declares that “the glory of the Lord should be revealed, and that all flesh should see it.” It is clear, therefore, that it has no application to the return of the Jews, and refers solely to those events to which the evangelists so explicitly apply it. John the Baptist was “THE VOICE” or herald, and Jesus was the JEHOVAH whose personal appearance as “God manifest in the flesh,” and subsequent glorious manifestation, he proclaimed and prepared.

This mission of John, as the harbinger of our Lord, exhibits another instance of the fulfilment of those prophecies to which St. Matthew, as writing first especially to the Jews, directed their attention more frequently than the other evangelists. At the same time the accomplishment of a prophecy which borrows its terms from the magnificence of eastern monarchs, who were preceded by heralds, and before whom valleys were exalted and hills levelled, in a manner so manifestly spiritual, and turns the attention so absolutely from external to moral grandeur, sufficiently reproves those who contend too strenuously for the literal accomplishment of the sayings of the ancient prophets, and thereby often fall into a Jewish mode of interpreting them. Prophecy has its peculiar imagery, its own appropriate dress of metaphor and allegory, which must not be overlooked. Here, the monarch is Christ, but his majesty is in his doctrine, his character, and his works. The herald, too, is a man in rough raiment, issuing from the wild solitudes in which he had been trained to converse with God, to rouse a slumbering people by urging their immediate repentance upon pain of imminent judgments; and the levelling of hills and valleys is that preparation of the heart for the doctrine of Christ which consists in contrition and humility. That the Baptist was a powerful preacher, the immense number of persons who flocked to his baptism, confessing their sins, is a sufficient proof; that he was a successful one, in his special office of “preparing the way of the Lord,” appears from this, that several of the apostles and others of the early disciples of Christ had been previously the disciples of John; and the effect of his preaching was, no doubt, not only to prepare them, but multitudes of the Jews, to receive the Gospel, both in Judea and in other places into which his disciples carried his doctrine; for of this the evangelical history contains many indications. There was also probably in this dispensation of John the Baptist something of a typical character. The way of Christ in all ages is “prepared” only by repentance; and wherever that is preached with power, and under right views of the Lamb of God, to which it is to point, as “taking away the sins of the world,” the valleys are exalted, the mountains and hills are brought low, the crooked is made straight, and the rough places plain; and then comes the revelation of the Lord in pardoning mercy, and manifestation of Christ as “the salvation of God.”

The ministry of the Baptist was of a kind peculiar to itself. As a prophet, he not only spoke of the immediate appearing of the Christ, but pointed him out to his disciples; and his baptism was in fact the token of initiation into a new dispensation intermediate between that of Moses and fully revealed Christianity. It was a declaration of repentance and renunciation of sin, and it was a profession of faith in the immediate revelation of the Messiah, and of trust in him to take away sin; for to him as the Redeemer John directed his converts. “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.” With baptisms or washings, as emblems of the putting, away of sin, the Jews were familiar; and proselytes from Gentilism to the religion of the Jews were baptized as well as circumcised in token of the same thing, and the renunciation of their old religion. All the Jews therefore, who in truth, and with a right understanding of the case, submitted to John’s baptism, so far renounced Judaism in its primitive form as a ground of hope as to wait for the remission of the sins they repented of and confessed no longer from their accustomed sacrifices, but immediately from the Messiah: “Behold,” said John, “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” Lightfoot has showed from the rabbinical writings, that the Jews themselves have held, and still hold, that repentance should precede the coming of Messiah.

The circumstance of our Lord’s submission to John’s baptism does not affect this view of its nature and design. That it was not necessary for Christ, as a sign of repentance, and passing into a new dispensation and better hopes of salvation, is clear from the objecting of John to administer the peculiar rite of his ministry to Christ until urged by his authority; and also from the ground on which our Lord puts his own act, which he makes not an act of repentance, but of fulfilling all “righteousness,” that is, perfectly obeying the will of the Father in every appointment laid upon him; and finally, from the baptism of John as administered to Christ, rising into an entirely different and higher order from his ordinary one; for our Lord was then “baptized with the Holy Ghost,” which it was no part of John’s baptism to impart. All these circumstances prove that John was, in the case of our Lord, employed in a ministry quite distinct from his common one; and that the chief end of the baptism of Christ was to attest his Messiahship fully, to John, by making him the witness of the sign which God had previously appointed. “Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he that baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God.”

Verse 4

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

Raiment of camel’s hair, &c. — John wore the same dress as Elijah, or, as it is written in the New Testament, Elias, in whose “spirit and power” he came, and whose name he figuratively bore. “He was a hairy man, and girt with a girdle of leather about his loins. And he said, It is Elijah the Tishbite,” 2 Kings 1:8. This garment was not of the fine hair of the camel, spun and woven, of which a soft cloth was made, called תמילה , from which our camblet is derived; but either the skin of the camel dressed with the hair, or a rough fabric manufactured from the coarser pile. This was worn by the prophets, not for purposes of bodily mortification, as some have dreamed; but yet in a spirit of self-denial.

Locusts and wild honey. — The latter, μελι αγριον , was produced by bees which collected in trunks of trees and in rocks, throughout Palestine; thus, Psalms 81:16, we read, “honey out of the stony rock.” The former, ακριδες , has been made the subject of conjectural and emendatory criticism; but the real locust dried is used as food throughout the east, and some of the species were permitted to be eaten by the law, Leviticus 11:22. The rabbins state that it was usual for the Jews to hunt after locusts for food.

Verse 6

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

And were baptized. — That is, as John himself explains it, “with water unto repentance.” See note on verse 3.

In Jordan. — Water, for the baptism of such multitudes, could only be procured from the river, in a part of the country where springs and fountains were not found, or were private property. That the people were immersed with their clothes on, it would be absurd to suppose; that they were baptized naked, would be an indecent assumption; and that dresses should have been provided, is impossible. They, no doubt, went down to the water’s edge, and then the element was poured upon them; for the expression, “baptized IN Jordan,” means no more than within the banks of Jordan, that is, in the bed of the river, which had a double bank, because of its great overflow at certain seasons.

Confessing their sins. — Not unto John, but unto God; though, being powerfully affected by his awakening sermons, they probably did this audibly. Yet even this does not certainly appear; for the very nature of the rite of baptism, as practised by John, implied confession of sin, a pleading guilty to his reproofs, and a resolution to seek remission of sins from the Messiah who was immediately to succeed him. If there was more than this tacit acknowledgment of sin, it was probably like that mentioned in Ezra 10:1, where Ezra himself expressed the confession, and the congregation “wept very sore.” A similar scene is described in Nehemiah 9:1-38. The immense multitudes which came to John would necessarily prevent a particular confession being made to him by each individual. Of these multitudes we may infer from singling out the hypocritical Pharisees and Sadducees for reproof, that a great proportion were sincerely penitent. So powerful was the ministry of this extraordinary messenger of God.

Verse 7

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees. — These sects being now for the first time mentioned, a short account of them is necessary. The most satisfactory derivation of the name of PHARISEES is from פרשׁ? , to separate, because they assumed to themselves a superior sanctity Josephus’ account of them is, that they valued themselves for their exactness in keeping, and their skill in interpreting, the law, and seemed to excel all others in the knowledge and observance of the customs of their fathers. If they sprung from the Assideans, תמרים , or, the pious described in the Maccabees as, εκουσιαζ ομενοι τω νομω “voluntarily devoted to the law,” they had a good origin; and it is probable that the genuine and vigorous piety of the Jewish Church after the return from Babylon, was embodied in this sect, at least as far as respected the influential class of society. That they had generally degenerated into formality, superstition, and hypocrisy, though not without many individual exceptions, is evident both from the writings of the evangelists, and from contemporary history. On the doctrines of the resurrection from the dead, and the immateriality of the soul, they were more orthodox than the Sadducees; but they interpreted the prophecies respecting Messiah in a gross and worldly sense; placed religion in ceremonies; turned it into an instrument of gaining popular applause; made a show of their prayers and alms; affected not only to keep the law, but to go beyond the requirements of its ceremonial precepts, in their obedience; — paying tithe of “anise, mint, and cummin,” practising more frequent ablutions than the law required, fasting twice a week, and in some instances submitting to painful austerities and mortifications; but with all this outward show of strictness, they neglected the purification of the heart and the practice of moral virtue. They were proud, arrogating to themselves the peculiar favour of Heaven, contemptuous of others, especially of the body of the people, from whom they exacted an abject reverence; and covetous, for, under pretence of sanctity, they made a prey of the ignorant and unwary. To colour all these evils, they had a delusive system of casuistry, and pleaded in justification traditions of the elders, to which they not only gave equal authority with the law of God, but often interpreted the law by them, contrary to its true meaning, so that, as they were charged by our Lord, they “made the commandments of God of none effect by their traditions.” Most of the Jews at present are rabbinists or Pharisees, that is, they believe in, and observe, the traditions; the remainder are Karaites, who only regard the law in its literal interpretation.

The SADDUCEES were coeval with the Pharisees, and probably, like the present Karaites, originally owed their distinction to their rejecting traditions, and adhering to the text of the Pentateuch. The oriental and Greek philosophy, from the time of Alexander the Great, however, infected the learning among the Jews, and gave rise to multifarious speculations and theories. The Sadducees especially affected philosophy, openly professed the tenet of materialism, denied the resurrection of the body, and the existence of angels and men departed. To the law of Moses they, however, professed the strongest attachment, and were equally bigoted with the Pharisees, subjecting it, however theologically, to a philosophical interpretation. The men of rank and wealth, the court, and the nobles, were chiefly of this sect. Thus, although the Jews at the coming of our Lord were free from the charge of idolatry, which was their ancient easily besetting sin, they had generally fallen, as a people, into a state of awful declension from truth and piety, more deeply so probably in Judea than in the Greek cities, and in Jerusalem most of all. There was another Jewish sect, not mentioned in the gospels, the Essenes. These were abstemious and austere in their manners, given up to mystical speculations, and lived apart from cities, in communities of their own, and chiefly in Egypt, and in the wilderness of Judea. None of these appear to have attended our Lord’s ministry; but afterward many of them became Christians, and are supposed to have infected some of the early Churches with their doctrines of abstaining from meats, the worshipping of angels, &c.; and they sowed the seeds of many sects which, in various ways, adulterated Christianity.

Come to his baptism. — They wished to submit to this rite principally, no doubt, because it was administered by a prophet, who brought them tidings of the immediate revelation of Messiah; and they thus professed their faith in John’s mission as the Messiah’s harbinger, and as such hoped to recommend themselves to him. This seems to have been their motive: self- confident as they were, they would scarcely have submitted to a rite which implied some change of religious views; for they were familiar with the practice of baptism, which was administered by them to Gentiles and their families when they embraced the Jewish religion. But of John’s baptism in its spiritual character, as baptism “unto REPENTANCE,” and to FAITH in the coming of Messiah to take away or remit sin, they had no conception; for these self-righteous persons in their own opinion had no sins to confess and therefore we do not read that they came like the others, “confessing their sins.” To them, therefore, John appears to have refused the distinguishing rite of his dispensation, because of their misconceptions of it, and their want of repentance. Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance, was his address to them. Show that you truly repent, by your humility, broken-heartedness, self-renunciation, and self-abhorrence, by your acknowledgment of sin, and your renunciation of it; and then come and be baptized. Some, indeed, contend that after this warning they were baptized: but this question appears to be set at rest by Luke 7:27-30, where our Lord, having commended the character of John the Baptist, the evangelist adds, “And all the people that heard him, and the publicans, justified God, being baptized with the baptism of John; but the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the counsel of God against themselves, not being baptized of him.” They were offended and went away, denying that mission of the Baptist which at first they appeared to acknowledge.

Generation of vipers, &c. — The offspring, or children of vipers, in opposition to their boast of being the children of Abraham, — men of subtle and malignant dispositions. The word εχιδνα is used in a metaphorical sense, closely analogous to this, by classic authors.

Who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? — Some take this as an expression of surprise. So Macknight: “Ye Pharisees form your righteousness on the works of the law; ye Sadducees deny the doctrine of a resurrection; how is it then that men of your principles come to a baptism of repentance?” It is, however, better understood as implying a negation — no one hath warned you, no one effectually: you are not penitently apprehensive of the displeasure of God; but either, as Pharisees, trust in yourselves that you already possess the special favour of God, or, as Sadducees, reject the doctrine of future punishment entirely. The wrath to come is not to be understood of the destruction of Judea; for John dealt with his hearers as sinners before God, and liable as such to the penalty of sin in a future life. THIS was the wrath of which he speaks; and it is a tremendous doctrine which he thus teaches in one sentence: this wrath is always wrath to come; that is, it is not only a future penal visitation, but even when this visitation has arrived, it will still be “wrath to come” for ever! “Fools” only “can make a mock at sin” when these are its consequences.

Verse 9

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

And think not to say within yourselves, &c. — A common mode of expression, says Lightfoot, in the Talmud. Μη δοξητε λεγειν is equivalent to “be not of opinion;” ne lubeat vobis, “be not disposed to say;” let not this delusive opinion have a place in your thoughts. We have Abraham to our father, a relation which was the theme of their constant boastings, and from which they expected salvation, merely by virtue of their fleshly descent, though both the faith and the works of Abraham were wanting among them. There is no imputation of the holiness of pious ancestors to their children, and personal regeneration can alone qualify men for the kingdom of God. For God is able of these stones, &c. Perhaps John pointed to the rocks and stones in the bed of the Jordan.

The meaning is, not that children to Abraham could be raised up from stones in the sense of natural descent and relationship, which was a thing impossible; but that as children to Abraham were at first raised up by a miracle in the birth of Isaac, so though God should destroy the then race of Jews, no purpose of his would fall to the ground; because he was able to raise up a people from the stones, to stand in the place of the natural descendants of Abraham, were that necessary to accomplish the purposes of his providence and grace. That there was also a tacit reference to the calling of the Gentiles is very probable. — They were despised by the Jews as though they had been the stones under their feet; and were as little likely to become the true Church of God in the world as stones were to become living men. Yet God by his almighty grace not only gave them spiritual life, and adopted them as Abraham’s believing seed; but formed them into his Church, to the exclusion of the unbelieving Jews, and made them his peculiar people. So Irenæus: “Jesus raised up children to Abraham from the stones, when he turned us from the religion of stones, ( a lapidum religione; meaning the worship of gods of stone, &c.,) and from our own insensible and barren state of mind, and brought us to a faith like that of Abraham’s.” Jerome takes a similar view of the import of the passage.

Verse 10

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees. — Fruitless and fruitful trees have in all ages been used as metaphors to express good and bad men; and as barren trees, after patient forbearance, are finally cut down and burned, so the certainty and terribleness of the punishment of the wicked are forcibly indicated by the metaphor. The same image is employed by Isaiah with great effect to express the judgments which should fall upon all the ranks of a guilty nation, by the Chaldean invasion: “Behold, the Lord of hosts shall lop the bough with terror: and the high ones of stature shall be hewn down, and the haughty shall be humbled. And he shall cut down the thickets of the forest with iron, and Lebanon shall fall by a mighty one,” Isaiah 10:33-34. The Baptist does not, however, refer to the Jewish state, but to the dangerous condition of sinful individuals. (See note on verse 8.) The axe being laid “to the root,” that is, at or near to, the root, intimates both the long suffering of God which gave them space for repentance; and the certainty that, if the tree remained unfruitful, it would be “hewn down and cast into the fire.” — Mercy grants delay, but justice lays down the axe in preparation for the work of excision. The danger, too, was not distant, but imminent; ηδη δε και , and even now the axe is laid at the root, &c.

Verse 11

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

I indeed baptize you with water. — That is, with water only; for the Spirit was to be administered by Christ alone. “Unto repentance, εις μετανοιαν ,” UPON repentance, as Grotius well suggests; that being the condition of his baptism. Whose shoes I am not worthy to bear. The Jewish shoes were a kind of sandal, fastened to the foot with thongs, easily untied and slipped off, and were laid aside for washing the feet on entering a house, or before meals. The word here used is indeed not σανδαλιον , but υποδημα ; but the Septuagint renders געל sometimes by one and sometimes by the other. The unloosing of the sandals, and carrying them away till wanted, was a menial office of the lowest kind, both among Greeks and Jews. Hence among the latter the disciples of the rabbins were obliged to perform every kind of office for them, the unloosing and carrying of the sandals excepted. Thus Maimonides: “All services which a servant does for his master, a disciple does for his teacher, except unloosing his shoes.” No words could therefore more forcibly express the sense that John had of the superiority of Christ. In his view, he was the supreme Lord, and himself a servant so low in comparison of this “mightier” Being, that he was not even worthy to unloose and bear his sandals. The whole manner in which the Baptist speaks of Christ in comparison with himself is utterly irreconcilable with his regarding him merely as an exalted human being. “He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire,” εν Πνευματι αγιω και πυρι . Unless this be rendered, “He shall baptize you IN the Holy Ghost and fire,” it is a folly for the advocates of immersion to translate εν υδατι , IN water.” They have indeed ventured on both, in support of a favourite opinion; but in what sense — whatever allowance may be made for figurative language — men can be said to be plunged or immersed “in the Holy Ghost and fire,” it is impossible to conceive. Εν τω Ιορδανη may indeed be translated “in Jordan,” for the reason before given; but the preposition may be taken in the sense of WITH, understanding an ellipsis, “with the water of the Jordan.” But there the place of baptism only is referred to, here the mode and kind of baptism; and as the manner in which the baptism of the Holy Ghost was actually administered by Christ is recorded, we have the sense of the preposition fixed by the fact. Thus when this baptism took place we read, “And there appeared unto them cloven tongues as of fire, and it SAT UPON each of them; and they were all filled with the HOLY GHOST.” Thus the baptism of “the Holy Ghost and fire,” was a descent UPON, and not an immersion INTO; and John must be understood to use the word baptism when he refers to water, in the sense of pouring or effusion.

It is a strange opinion entertained by some commentators, that the fiery baptism here spoken of signifies the calamities which afterward befell the impenitent Jews. The fancies of some of the fathers on this text were also numerous, but not worth recording. Those of them who referred it to the descent of the Holy Spirit at the day of pentecost in his plenitude of gifts and graces, interpret correctly. The Holy Ghost, and fire, mean the same thing, the latter clause being exegetical; ( Spiritus, qui est ignis, Elsner;) and the words added were designed to convey the lofty notion of an illuminating, purifying, and most energetic effusion of the Holy Spirit. And it is to be observed that whenever our Lord speaks of the gift of the Holy Spirit, in that fulness of influence which was to be administered to all that believed on him, he speaks of it as a future gift, “which they that believed on him should receive;” and the direction to the disciples was, that they should “tarry at Jerusalem until they were endued with power from on high.” The declaration in the text was. first fulfilled at the day of pentecost; but not only then: it is fulfilled whenever the Holy Spirit is vouchsafed to believers; for when St. Peter gives an account of the result of his mission to Cornelius, he says, “And as I began to speak, the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning: then remembered I the word of the Lord; how that he said, John indeed baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost,” Acts 11:15-16. With this inspired comment before them, how remarkable is it that the professed interpreters of Scripture should have had any difference of opinion as to the meaning of the words of the Baptist! The external emblem of fire accompanied the descent of the Holy Spirit at the day of pentecost, probably to mark more sensibly the accomplishment of this predictive promise; but at other times, even when followed by miraculous gifts, this circumstance was wanting, as in the instance of the house of Cornelius above referred to. We are thus taught that when the gift of the Spirit is invisible and secret, it is yet the mighty and transforming BAPTISM OF FIRE; that is, his influences are fitly represented by that powerful and purging element.

This is one of the particulars in which the superiority of Christ’s baptism consisted. John’s baptism was founded upon a confession of sin; and that of Christ was the application of a Divine energy to purge it away; as fire removes those stains and pollutions which water cannot. The words, “and fire,” are wanting in some MSS.; but that they are genuine, is sufficiently proved from their being in the parallel passages in St. Luke, and in the older MSS. and versions, The Socinian writers urge the absence of the article before Πνευματι αγιω against the words being understood of the Holy Spirit; and Bishop Middleton’s distinction between the Holy Spirit taken personally, and his influence, in order to account for this absence of the article, is worth nothing. The reasons for the omissions and insertions of the Greek article in many instances, after all the investigation which the subject has of late years received, are far from being satisfactorily made out. The foundation which different theories assume is often too frail to bear the weight of an argument: and of this, the passage before us is a pregnant proof. We may urge against Wakefield’s translations, “with a holy spirit of fire,” and “with a holy wind, and with a fire,” their unintelligible absurdity; for no idea, surely, can be attached to baptism with a holy spirit of fire, or to baptism with wind, much less to a holy wind; and especially when this same critic will not allow that even “a personified operation of Deity” is to be understood without the article. To this may be added the remark of Campbell, whose views of the passage are otherwise obscure and defective, that no example can be produced of the adjective, holy, being joined to πνευμα , where the meaning of πνευμα is wind. But there is a more decisive answer in Acts 11:15-16; where it is plain that the absence or presence of the article before πνευμα makes not the least difference in the sense of the term; and that it is both inserted and omitted in the same breath. Εν δε τω αρξασθαι με λαλειν , επεπεσε ΤΟ Πνευμα ΤΟ αγιον επ’ αυτους , ωσπερ και εφ ημας εν αρχη . Εμνησθην δε του πνματος Κυριου ως ελεγεν . Ιωανυης μεν εβαπτισεν υδατι , υμεις δε βαπτισθησεσθε εν Πνευματι αγιω . “And as I began to speak, the Holy Ghost fell on them, as at the beginning: then remembered,” &c. Here it is clear that the absence of the article in the words of John, which he quotes, occasioned St. Peter no difficulty; but that he applied πνευμα in its anarthrous form to the personal operations of the Divine Spirit of God himself.

Verse 12

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

Whose fan is in his hand, &c. — The metaphors in this verse are taken from the process of threshing among the Jews. The sheaves of corn were trodden by oxen upon a “threshing floor,” or prepared plain area, formed upon some elevated place, so as to force out the grain; then the winnowing fan, which was often a portable instrument used by the hand, and here not inaptly rendered by some, “a winnowing shovel,” was applied to throw up the grain to the wind, that the chaff might be separated from it; while the straw, being crushed beneath the feet of the oxen and rendered worthless, was reserved with the separated chaff to be burned with other fuel in heating their ovens. The word αυχρον equally includes the chaff and the crushed and worthless straw. The phrase πυρι ασβεστω , with unquenchable fire, is awfully emphatic. The domestic fires in which the straw was burned as fuel were extinguishable, and often extinguished; but this is “unquenchable,” a clear indication of the perpetuity of future punishment. Those who refer all this to the destruction of Jerusalem do not rightly apprehend the nature of John’s ministry. His office was to warn men of their eternal danger as sinners, and to pluck them, if possible, out of the fire of Divine wrath. There is not an expression in the whole of this discourse of his which leads to the supposition, that he intended merely or chiefly to warn his hearers against temporal judgments. Its awakening character was manifestly framed upon views of deeper and more formidable dangers than the Roman invasion, before which, most of his hearers, he knew, would be in an eternal world. And as he had preached Christ in his offices of grace, and as baptizing those who should believe on him with the Holy Ghost, so here he proclaims him in his office of Judge, separating the chaff and straw from the grain, the wicked from the righteous, the office which he now exercises in the invisible world, upon all departed spirits, between whom he will make a still more public separation, with visible majesty, at the judgment of the great day. The instrument by which corn was winnowed was employed by heathen writers with a similar metaphorical application; and in the Eleusinian mysteries a mystic FAN is said to have been employed as a symbol, to denote the separation of the initiated, or holy, from the profane.

Verse 13

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John. — Τοτε , then, does not always so accurately mark the time, as to lead to the conclusion, that our Lord in this instance came to John at that particular juncture when he was addressing the multitudes in the discourse contained in the preceding verses, The notion of those, therefore, who think that the august scene of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon him was a public one has no solid foundation. The contrary, indeed, appears to be indicated by this circumstance, that the descent of the Spirit was promised to be a sign to John the Baptist himself, John 1:33, to point out that personage whose precursor he was commissioned to be. It is not probable that this solemn token was given in the midst of a multitude; and in the presence of the scoffing Pharisees and Sadducees. The whole had too sacred and too mystic a character for indiscriminate gaze; and as no reference occurs to this event in the gospels, as a public one, we may conclude that none but the Baptist and Christ were present. The adverb of time with which the account is introduced means no more than at the period when John was baptizing on the Jordan; near to which river he appears for some time to have fixed his abode; but he undoubtedly had some seasons of relaxation and of privacy.

Verse 14

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

But John forbade him, &c. — John declares that “he knew him not” till his baptism; the reason being, that, though the families were related, yet John had lived long in solitude, at a great distance from the residence of Christ; Divine Providence having ordered this circumstance that it might be manifest that there was no concert between them. Now, for the first time since the days of their infancy, John became acquainted with Christ; and his recognition of him was no doubt produced by supernatural impulse; and knowing then in whose presence he was, said, in acknowledgment of his dignity, “I have need to be baptized of thee.” Then, in the baptism which took place immediately after, he received the confirmatory sign which demonstrated him to be the Messiah.

Verse 15

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

To fulfil all righteousness. — See note on verse 3. To the remarks there, may be added, that our Lord says, “It becometh us to fulfil all righteousness,” using the plural; by which form of speaking he urged John to his duty. Christ, who never sinned, was not under obligation to submit to John’s baptism as a baptism upon repentance, nor was he received by John under that condition; for John’s reluctance to baptize Christ was an explicit declaration that he “needed no repentance.” But he was baptized by him, as stated in the note referred to, on the simple ground of “fulfilling all righteousness,” which is to be understood of obedience to every appointment of his Father, the reasons of which, notwithstanding many have been given, as that it was to honour John’s ministry, &c., are not clearly revealed; so that it becomes us to confess our ignorance. It was sufficient for our Lord that such was the Divine will that he should be baptized of John, and that John, though overwhelmed with a just sense of his inferiority, should baptize him; and it was “the righteousness” of both to obey. Some light is, however, thrown upon this act by the phrase rendered, “it becometh us to fulfil,” &c., πρεπον εστιν ημιν , intimating fitness and propriety, rather than that obligation under which all the Jews were placed to submit to the baptism of John. This “fitness” appears to have arisen out of the mutual testimony that John and Jesus were to give to each other’s mission; and thus a connection was established between the forerunner and him whose herald he was; so that the person to whom John gave testimony as Messiah could not be mistaken. The notion that Christ was baptized with reference to the entrance of the Levitical priests into their office by anointing and baptism, does not seem to be well founded, since their baptism was a mere ablution, which was constantly repeated during their ministry.

Verse 16

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

Went up straightway out of the water, &c. — That it should be stated that he went up straightway out of, or rather FROM the water, has its reason, or otherwise it would be a trifling remark; for why should he remain in the water after he had been baptized? It is manifest that the descent of the Holy Spirit did not take place during the administration of the rite to him, which is a clear proof that it was a distinct act of God, wholly unconnected with the baptism of John; so that this baptism was not a means of communicating this grace; for John baptized not with the Holy Ghost; and it was no doubt to mark this circumstance, that his departing from the water, that is, ascending the bank of the Jordan, IMMEDIATELY after his baptism, is noticed. Campbell renders it, “Jesus, being baptized, no sooner arose out of the water than heaven was opened,” &c., which is a very forced translation of ανεβη ευθυς απο του υδατος . The common version is to be every way preferred; or, if any alteration were thought necessary, “and scarcely had he ascended from the water,” as suggested by several critics, would be preferable. The adverb has been variously arranged in the sentence by others; but none of them appear to have caught the intention of the evangelist, which evidently was, to mark distinctly the difference of time between the ASCENT from the river and the DESCENT of the Spirit, so as to guard against the idea, that the baptism of John was an ordinance through which the effusion of the Holy Spirit upon Christ was dispensed.

The heavens were opened, &c. — When a meteor, or any extraordinary appearance, falling from the clouds or from the higher regions of the atmosphere, occurred, the Jews usually expressed it by the phrase, “the heavens were opened.” Unto him, some think to Christ, in the sense of for his sake; but more probably the sense is, they were opened unto John; for his conviction the sign was made a visible and splendid one, because he was to be the witness of those things, and to give his public testimony to them.

Descending like a dove, and lighting upon him. — Tertullian and St. Augustine entertained the notion that a real dove was employed as the visible sign on this occasion. It does not, however, clearly appear that the likeness of a dove was apparent. St. Luke says, “And the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him;” but the bodily shape, σωματικω ειδει , may mean no more than a defined, visible appearance; and the comparison may be between the motion of this appearance in its descent, and the motion of a dove when alighting. But, whether this view be taken, or, which is at least equally probable, that the effulgence which broke from the heavens:, had the similitude of a dove, the conclusion is the same; for, whether by the shape or the peculiarity of the motion, the idea of a dove was strongly and INTENTIONALLY excited in the mind of John; the reason of which is justly and beautifully conceived by Archbishop Leighton: “The Holy Ghost, descended upon the apostles in the shape of fire; there was something to be purged in them; but on Christ as a dove, because there was no need of cleansing or purging any thing. That, therefore, was a symbol of the spotless purity of his nature.”

Verse 17

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

And lo a voice from heaven, &c. — Some absurdly render φωνη , thunder, as though thunder ever uttered articulate sounds. It was a voice uttering the words which follow, the voice of the eternal Father, accrediting to his high office his eternal Son, now incarnate: This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Here the articles are most emphatic, Ουτος εστιν ο υιος μου ο αγαπητος , This is that Son of mine, that beloved Son, εν ω ευδοκησα , in whom I am well pleased. The aorist, too, is here emphatic also, and is used, after the manner of Greek writers, as including the past, present, and future time; that beloved Son, in whom I have been, am, and shall be well pleased; or, in brief, in whom I am ALWAYS well pleased. Here is the strongest testimony from the highest and most glorious authority. This voice of God repeated on this occasion what it had before solemnly proclaimed by the spirit of prophecy: “Behold my servant, whom I have chosen; MY BELOVED, in whom I am well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him.” This was Christ’s solemn inauguration into his prophetic office.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Matthew 3". "Watson's Exposition on Matthew, Mark, Luke & Romans". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/rwc/matthew-3.html.
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