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And in those days cometh John the Baptist (εν δε ταις ημεραις παραγινετα Ιωανης ο Βαπτιστης). Here the synoptic narrative begins with the baptism of John (Matthew 3:1; Mark 1:2; Luke 3:1) as given by Peter in Acts 1:22, "from the baptism of John, unto the day that he was received up from us" (cf. also Acts 10:37-43, Peter's summary to Cornelius very much like the outline of Mark's Gospel). Matthew does not indicate the date when John appeared as Luke does in ch. 3 (the fifteenth year of Tiberius's reign). It was some thirty years after the birth of John, precisely how long after the return of Joseph and Mary to Nazareth we do not know. Moffatt translates the verb (παραγινετα) "came on the scene," but it is the historical present and calls for a vivid imagination on the part of the reader. There he is as he comes forward, makes his appearance. His name John means "Gift of Jehovah" (cf. German Gotthold) and is a shortened form of Johanan. He is described as "the Baptist," "the Baptizer" for that is the rite that distinguishes him. The Jews probably had proselyte baptism as I. Abrahams shows (Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels, p. 37). But this rite was meant for the Gentiles who accepted Judaism. John is treating the Jews as Gentiles in demanding baptism at their hands on the basis of repentance.
Preaching in the wilderness of Judea (Κηρυσσων εν τη ερημω της Ιουδαιας). It was the rough region in the hills toward the Jordan and the Dead Sea. There were some people scattered over the barren cliffs. Here John came in close touch with the rocks, the trees, the goats, the sheep, and the shepherds, the snakes that slipped before the burning grass over the rocks. He was the Baptizer, but he was also the Preacher, heralding his message out in the barren hills at first where few people were, but soon his startling message drew crowds from far and near. Some preachers start with crowds and drive them away.
Repent (μετανοειτε). Broadus used to say that this is the worst translation in the New Testament. The trouble is that the English word "repent" means "to be sorry again" from the Latin repoenitet (impersonal). John did not call on the people to be sorry, but to change (think afterwards) their mental attitudes (μετανοειτε) and conduct. The Vulgate has it "do penance" and Wycliff has followed that. The Old Syriac has it better: "Turn ye." The French (Geneva) has it "Amendez vous." This is John's great word (Bruce) and it has been hopelessly mistranslated. The tragedy of it is that we have no one English word that reproduces exactly the meaning and atmosphere of the Greek word. The Greek has a word meaning to be sorry (μεταμελομα) which is exactly our English word repent and it is used of Judas (Matthew 27:3). John was a new prophet with the call of the old prophets: "Turn ye" (Joel 2:12; Joel 55:7; Ezekiel 33:11; Ezekiel 33:15).
For the kingdom of heaven is at hand (ηγγικεν γαρ η Βασιλεια των ουρανων). Note the position of the verb and the present perfect tense. It was a startling word that John thundered over the hills and it re-echoed throughout the land. The Old Testament prophets had said that it would come some day in God's own time. John proclaims as the herald of the new day that it has come, has drawn near. How near he does not say, but he evidently means very near, so near that one could see the signs and the proof. The words "the kingdom of heaven" he does not explain. The other Gospels use "the kingdom of God" as Matthew does a few times, but he has "the kingdom of heaven" over thirty times. He means "the reign of God," not the political or ecclesiastical organization which the Pharisees expected. His words would be understood differently by different groups as is always true of popular preachers. The current Jewish apocalypses had numerous eschatological ideas connected with the kingdom of heaven. It is not clear what sympathy John had with these eschatological features. He employs vivid language at times, but we do not have to confine John's intellectual and theological horizon to that of the rabbis of his day. He has been an original student of the Old Testament in his wilderness environment without any necessary contact with the Essenes who dwelt there. His voice is a new one that strikes terror to the perfunctory theologians of the temple and of the synagogue. It is the fashion of some critics to deny to John any conception of the spiritual content of his words, a wholly gratuitous criticism.
For this is he that was spoken of by Isaiah the prophet (ουτος γαρ εστιν ο ρηθεις δια Εσαιου του προφητου). This is Matthew's way of interpreting the mission and message of the Baptist. He quotes Isaiah 40:3 where "the prophet refers to the return of Israel from the exile, accompanied by their God" (McNeile). He applies it to the work of John as "a voice crying in the wilderness" for the people to make ready the way of the Lord who is now near. He was only a voice, but what a voice he was. He can be heard yet across the centuries.
Now John himself (αυτος δε ο Ιωανης). Matthew thus introduces the man himself and draws a vivid sketch of his dress (note ειχεν, imperfect tense), his habit, and his food. Would such an uncouth figure be welcome today in any pulpit in our cities? In the wilderness it did not matter. It was probably a matter of necessity with him, not an affectation, though it was the garb of the original Elijah (2 Kings 1:8), rough sackcloth woven from the hair of camels. Plummer holds that "John consciously took Elijah as a model."
And they were baptized (κα εβαπτιζοντο). It is the imperfect tense to show the repetition of the act as the crowds from Judea and the surrounding country kept going out to him (εξεπορευετο), imperfect again, a regular stream of folks going forth. Moffatt takes it as causative middle, "got baptized," which is possible. "The movement of course was gradual. It began on a small scale and steadily grew till it reached colossal proportions" (Bruce). It is a pity that baptism is now such a matter of controversy. Let Plummer, the great Church of England commentator on Matthew, speak here of John's baptising these people who came in throngs: "It is his office to bind them to a new life, symbolized by immersion in water." That is correct, symbolized, not caused or obtained. The word "river" is in the correct text, "river Jordan." They came "confessing their sins" (εξομολογουμενο), probably each one confessing just before he was baptized, "making open confession" (Weymouth). Note εξ. It was a never to be forgotten scene here in the Jordan. John was calling a nation to a new life. They came from all over Judea and even from the other side of El Ghor (the Jordan Gorge), Perea. Mark adds that finally all Jerusalem came.
The Pharisees and Sadducees (των Φαρισαιων κα Σαδδουκαιων). These two rival parties do not often unite in common action, but do again in Matthew 16:1. "Here a strong attraction, there a strong repulsion, made them for the moment forget their differences" (McNeile). John saw these rival ecclesiastics "coming for baptism" (ερχομενους επ το βαπτισμα). Alford speaks of "the Pharisees representing hypocritical superstition; the Sadducees carnal unbelief." One cannot properly understand the theological atmosphere of Palestine at this time without an adequate knowledge of both Pharisees and Sadducees. The books are numerous besides articles in the Bible dictionaries. I have pictured the Pharisees in my first (1916) Stone Lectures, The Pharisees and Jesus. John clearly grasped the significance of this movement on the part of the Pharisees and Sadducees who had followed the crowds to the Jordan. He had welcomed the multitudes, but right in the presence of the crowds he exposes the hypocrisy of the ecclesiastics.
Ye offspring of vipers (γεννηματα εχιδνων). Jesus (Matthew 12:34; Matthew 23:33) will use the same language to the Pharisees. Broods of snakes were often seen by John in the rocks and when a fire broke out they would scurry (φυγειν) to their holes for safety. "The coming wrath" was not just for Gentiles as the Jews supposed, but for all who were not prepared for the kingdom of heaven (1 Thessalonians 1:10). No doubt the Pharisees and Sadducees winced under the sting of this powerful indictment.
Fruit worthy of repentance (Καρπον αξιον της μετανοιας). John demands proof from these men of the new life before he administers baptism to them. "The fruit is not the change of heart, but the acts which result from it" (McNeile). It was a bold deed for John thus to challenge as unworthy the very ones who posed as lights and leaders of the Jewish people. "Any one can do (ποιησατε, ςιδε Genesis 1:11) acts externally good but only a good man can grow a crop of right acts and habits" (Bruce).
And think not to say within yourselves (κα μη δοξητε λεγειν εν εαυτοις). John touched the tender spot, their ecclesiastical pride. They felt that the "merits of the fathers," especially of Abraham, were enough for all Israelites. At once John made clear that, reformer as he was, a breach existed between him and the religious leaders of the time.
Of these stones (εκ των λιθων τουτων). "Pointing, as he spoke to the pebbles on the beach of the Jordan" (Vincent).
Is the axe laid (η αξινη κειτα). This verb κειτα is used as the perfect passive of τιθημ. But the idea really is, "the axe lies at (προς, before) the root of the trees." It is there ready for business. The prophetic present occurs also with "is hewn down" and "cast."
Mightier than I (ισχυροτερος μου). Ablative after the comparative adjective. His baptism is water baptism, but the Coming One "will baptize in the Holy Spirit and fire." "Life in the coming age is in the sphere of the Spirit. Spirit and fire are coupled with one preposition as a double baptism" (McNeile). Broadus takes "fire" in the sense of separation like the use of the fan. As the humblest of servants John felt unworthy to take off the sandals of the Coming One. About βασταζω see on Matthew 8:17.
Will burn up with unquenchable fire (κατακαυσε πυρ ασβεστω). Note perfective use of κατα. The threshing floor, the fan, the wheat, the garner, the chaff (αχυρον, chaff, straw, stubble), the fire furnish a life-like picture. The "fire" here is probably judgment by and at the coming of the Messiah just as in verse Matthew 3:11. The Messiah "will thoroughly cleanse" (διακαθαριε, Attic future of -ιζω and note δια-). He will sweep from side to side to make it clean.
Then cometh Jesus (τοτε παραγινετα ο Ιησους). The same historical present used in Matthew 3:1. He comes all the way from Galilee to Jordan "to be baptized by him" (του βαπτισθηνα υπο αυτου). The genitive articular infinitive of purpose, a very common idiom. The fame of John had reached Nazareth and the hour has come for which Jesus has waited.
Would have hindered (διεκωλυεν). Rather "tried to prevent" as Moffatt has it. It is the conative imperfect. The two men of destiny are face to face for the first time apparently. The Coming One stands before John and he recognizes him before the promised sign is given.
To fulfil all righteousness (πληρωσα πασαν δικαιοσυνην). The explanation of Jesus satisfies John and he baptizes the Messiah though he has no sins to confess. It was proper (πρεπον) to do so else the Messiah would seem to hold aloof from the Forerunner. Thus the ministries of the two are linked together.
The Spirit of God descending as a dove (πνευμα θεου καταβαινον ωσε περιστεραν). It is not certain whether Matthew means that the Spirit of God took the form of a dove or came upon Jesus as a dove comes down. Either makes sense, but Luke (Luke 3:22) has it "in bodily form as a dove" and that is probably the idea here. The dove in Christian art has been considered the symbol of the Holy Spirit.
A voice out of the heavens (φωνη εκ των ουρανων). This was the voice of the Father to the Son whom he identifies as His Son, "my beloved Son." Thus each person of the Trinity is represented (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) at this formal entrance of Jesus upon his Messianic ministry. John heard the voice, of course, and saw the dove. It was a momentous occasion for John and for Jesus and for the whole world. The words are similar to Psalms 2:7 and the voice at the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:5). The good pleasure of the Father is expressed by the timeless aorist (ευδοκησα).
The Robertson's Word Pictures of the New Testament. Copyright © Broadman Press 1932,33, Renewal 1960. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman Press (Southern Baptist Sunday School Board)
Robertson, A.T. "Commentary on Matthew 3". "Robertson's Word Pictures of the New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/
the First Week of Advent