Observe here, 1. The preacher sent by God, John the Baptist, a pattern of mortification, and a preacher of repentance.
Observe, 2. The place he is sent to preach in, The wilderness of Judea; not in populous Jerusalem, but in a barren wilderness, where the inhabitants are few, and probably very ignorant and rude.
Learn hence, That it is God's prerogative to send forth the preachers of the gospel, when and whither, and to what people he pleases; and none must assume the office before they be sent.
Observe, 3. The doctrine that he preaches; namely, the doctrine of repentance, Repent ye. This was to prepare the people for the Messiah, and the grace of the gospel.
Learn thence, that the preaching of the doctrine of repentance is absolutely necessary, in order to the preparing of the hearts of sinners for the receivimg Christ Jesus and his holy doctrine.
Observe, 4. The motives which St. John uses to enforce the exhortation to repentance. The kingdom of heaven is at hand.
That is, now is the so-much-expected time of the appearing of the Messiah come; the Old Testament dispensation is now to be abolished, and the mercy and grace of the gospel is now to be revealed; therefore repent, and amend your lives.
Note thence, That the free and full tenders of grace and mercy in the gospel, are the most alluring arguments to move a sinner to repent, and to convert to God.
The Papists, from John the Baptist's living in the wilderness, would make him the first founder of the order of the hermits, but very groundlessly.
For, 1. What he did was by God's command; what they do is by the dictates of their own fancy.
2. He busied himself in preaching in the wilderness; they bury themselves alive, and do nothing.
3. He lived in the wilderness but for a time, afterwards we find him at court, preaching a sermon to Herod; but they bind themselves by a vow to live and die hermits.
The plainness of John the Baptist's habit and diet is here declared: He was habited in a plain suit of camel's hair, much as Elijah was before him; and as his habit was plain, so his diet was ordinary, feeding upon herbs, and such things as the wilderness affords.
Hence it was that Nazianzen said, He was all voice; a voice in his habit, a voice in his diet, and a voice in his whole conversation. His example teaches us, that the ministers of the gospel are not to affect bravery in apparel, or delicacy in diet; but having the necessary comforts and needful conveniences of life, to be therewith content.
Observe here, The great encouragement which John had in his ministry, from the people's attendance upon it: he was now fishing for souls, and God brought the people very thick about the net of the gospel, and multitudes were enclosed, no doubt, to his joy and great satisfaction. For it is matter of great rejoicing to the ministers of Christ, when they find their people forward to encourage their ministry by a diligent attendance.
This place the papists bring to support their doctrine of auricular confession; but very groundlessly.
For, 1. The confession of those converts was voluntary, and not constrained.
2. It was general, and not of every particular sin.
3. It was public and open, not in the ear of a priest.
4. It was a confession of sin committes before baptism, not after they were baptized: in all which circumstances it differs from the auricular confession of the church of Rome very greatly.
Note, That confession of sin past, together with a profession of faith in and obedience to Christ for the time to come, are necessary requisites and qualifications in all persons of riper years that are admitted to baptism, upon their confession of sin, and promise to become better, may be admitted to the holy sacrament, provided that we warn them, as the baptist did these, not only to make profession of repentance, but to bring forth fruits worthy of repentance.
Here we have the entertainment which John gave to his unexpected auditors, the Pharisees and Sadducees, which came to hear him, and to be baptized by him.
He gives them first a quick and cutting compellation, O generation of vipers!
Next a sharp and severe reprehension, Who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
It was matter of wonder and admiration to see such men turn proselytes.
Note thence, That the condition of proud Pharisees, pretending and false-hearted hypocrites, though it be very dangerous, yet is not hopeless and desperate; and their salvation, though very improbable, yet must not be despaired of as impossible: and accordingly, the Baptist having given them a smart reproof, subjoins a seasonable exhortation, Bring forth fruits meet for repentance; as if he had said, Do not satisfy yourselves with a bare profession of repentance, but let us see the fruits of repentance in your daily conversation.
Learn thence, that sincere repentance is not a barren thing but constantly brings forth the fruits of holiness answerable to its nature. As the body without the spirit, and as faith without works is dead also.
Observe farther, How he enforces his exhortation with a necessary caution; Think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father, &c.
As if he had said, Trust not to your outward privilages, and glory not in them, flatter not yourselves, that because you are Abraham's seed and the only visible church, that therefore the judgments of God will not reach you; for God can out of the obdurate Gentile world, who now worship stones, raise up a people to himself, and take them into covenant with himself, and cast you all out, who have Abraham's blood running in your veins, but nothing of Abraham's faith in your hearts, nor of his obedience in your in your lives.
Now from St. John's plain-dealing with these hypocritcal Pharisees, we learn, That it is the duty, and ought to be the endeavour of the ministers of Christ, to drive hypocrites from their vain confidence who do constantly bear up themselves upon their external privileges, in the enjoyment of which they promise themselves a freedom from the judgments of God. Think not to say within yourselves, We have, &c.
The baptist had preached the doctrine of repentance in the former verses, he backs it with a powerful motive in this verse, drawn from the certainty, the severity, and suddenness of that vengeance which would come upon them, if they continued impentent: Now is the ax laid to the root of the trees.
Learn, 1. That those whose hearts are not pierced and destroyed by the ax of his judgments.
Learn, 2. That it is not unsuitable for gospel preachers to press repentance and holiness of life upon their hearers from arguments of terror: John does it here, and Christ elsewhere.
Observe farther, That forasmuch as the sin here specified, is a sin of omission, which brings this sore and severe judgment, Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit, as well as that which bringeth forth evil fruit, is hewn down, and cast into the fire; we may gather, that sins of omission are certainly damning as well as sins of commission; the neglects of duty are as dangerous and damnable as the acts of sin. Such trees as stand in God's orchard, and bring forth no good fruit, are marked out as fuel for the devil's fire.
In these words John declares the excellency of Christ's person and ministry above his own.
As to his person, he owns that he was not worthy to carry his shoes after him, or to perform the lowest offices of service for him.
And as to his office, he declares that Christ should not baptize as he did, with water, but with the Holy Ghost and with fire; that is, should plentifully pour down of the gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit upon his proselytes, which, like fire, in their operation should purify their hearts from sin, consuming their lusts, and corruptions: but at the same time he has a fiery indignation, and flaming judgments, to destroy and burn up impenitent sinners like combustible stubble.
Where Observe, How Christ is represented by one and the same metaphor of the fire, in a way of comfort to his children, and in a way of terror unto his enemies, he is a fire unto both: He sits in his church as a refiner's fire; he is amongst his enemies as a consuming fire: a fire for his church to tke comfort in, a fire for his enemies to perish by.
In these words the baptists compare Christ, the promised Messiah, to an husbandman, the Jewish church to a barnfloor. The office of the husbandman is to thresh, fan, and winnow his corn, separating it from the chaff: preserving the one and consuming the other .
Learn hence, 1. That the church is Christ's floor.
2. That this floor Christ will purge and that thoroughly.
3. That the word of Christ is the fan in his hand, by and with which he will thoroughly purge his floor.
The church is compared to a floor, upon the account of that mixture which is in the church; in a floor there is straw as well as grain, chaff as well as corn, tares as well as wheat, cockle and darnel as well as good seed.
Thus in the church there is and will be a mixture of good and bad, saints and sinners, hypocrites and sincere Christians. But this floor Christ will purge; purge it, but not break it up: purge out its corruptions, but not destroy its essence and its existence:
And the fan with which he will purge his floor is his word, accompanied with the wind of discipline. The fan detects and discovers the chaff, and the wind dissipates and scatters it; and by the help of both the floor is purged. His fan is in his hand, &c.
Here we have our Savior's solemn inauguration and public entrance upon this prophetic office, by baptism, or washing with water, according to the manner of the priests under the ceremonial law, Exodus 29:4.
Where we have observable, 1. The circumstance of time: Then cometh Jesus: that is, after he had lain hid in Nazareth thirty years he comes abroad, and enters upon his public ministry.
Teaching us by his example, That when we are ripe and fit for public service, we should no less willingly leave our obscurity, than we took the benefit of it for our preparation.
Observe, 2. The action itself, Christ is baptized now, as he was circumcised before; not because there was any impurity in him, either filth, or foreskin, which wanted either the circumcising knife, or the baptismal water; yet purity itself condescends to be washed, Christ to be baptized; for these reasons:
1. That by this symbol he might enter himself into the society of Christians, as by circumcision he had done into the society of Jews; as a king condescends sometimes to be made a free man of a city or corporation.
2. That he might by his own baptism sanctify the ordinance of baptism unto his church.
3. That thereby he might fulfil the righteousness of the ceremonial law, which required the washing of the priests in water, when they entered upon their office as appears from Exodus 29:4.
Observe, 3. The great condescension of Christ, in seeking and submitting to the baptism of John; Christ cometh to John, not John to Christ.
Behold! the Lord seeketh to his servant, Christ will be baptized of his messenger! Our Savior's design hereby no doubt was, to put honour upon the ministry of John.
Oh! how dare the greatest upon earth despise the ministry of man being appointed by God, which Christ honoured in his own person, and graced with his own presence!
Note here, 1. The modesty of John's refusal: John forbade him, and refused to admit him. But why? 1. In regard of Christ, because he knew he needed it not: such was his majesty and greatness, that he was above it: and such was his purity and holiness, that he could not want it.
2. In respect of himself, he knew his own uncleanness: I have need to be baptized of thee, &c. He thought it unsuitable that a sinner should baptize and wash him that was no sinner.
3. With respect to the people; lest they seeing Christ baptized should apprehend him to be a sinner, and one that wanted the baptism of repentance as well as themselves.
Observe, 4. As the modesty of John's refusal, so the reason he assigns for it: I have need to be baptized of thee; as if he had said, "Thou art purity, I am pollution; thou art spirit, I am flesh; humble apprehension has this holy man of himself.
Learn, That the more holy a person is, the more sensible he is of his unholiness; where there is most grace, there is the greatest sense of the want of grace.
These words contain our Saviours's reason why he submitted to John's baptism, because it became him to fulfil all righteousness; that is, to own every divine institution, particularly the righteousness of the ceremonial law, which required the washing of the priests in water, when they entered upon their office, Exodus 29:4.
Learn hence, 1. That whatever the law required in order to perfect righteousness, that Christ fulfilled in most absolute perfection.
2. That as it became Christ to fulfil the righteousness of the ceremonial law for himself, so it is our duty and interest to fulfil the righteousness of the moral law for ourselves, as an exidence of our being righteous in God's sight, He that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous. 1 John 3:7
Here we have the solemn inauguration of Christ into his prophetic office, accompanied with a threefold miracle.
1. The opening of the heavens.
2. The descent of the Holy Ghost upon him, like as a dove descends.
3. God the Father's voice concerning his son.
The heavens were opened to shew that heaven, which was closed and shut against us for our sins, is now opened to us, by Christ's undertaking for us. As the first Adam shuts us out of heaven, the second Adam lets us into it; he opened heaven, to us by his meritorious passion, and he keeps it open by his prevailing intercession.
Next, the Holy Ghost descends like a dove upon our Savior: here we have an evidence of the blessed Trinity; the Father speaks from Heaven, the Son comes out of the water,
Hence we gather, That the Holy Ghost is not a quality, or an operation, but a person, and a person really distinct from the Father and the Son.
But why did the Holy Spirit now descend upon Christ, seeing he was mow truly and really God?
Answer The divinity of Christ was quiescent in him, till he entered upon his prophetic office at thirty years old, and after.
And the Holy Ghost now descends, first, for the designation of his person, to shew that Christ was the person set apart for the work and office of a mediator.
Secondly, For the qualification of his person for the performance of his office. This was Christ's unction, Isaiah 61:1 when he was anointed above his fellows, to be the king, priest and, prophet of his church.
Last of all, We have the audible voice of God the Father pronouncing,
1. The nearness of Christ's relation to himself, This is my Son, not by adoption, but by eternal generation.
2. The endearedness of his person, This is my beloved Son.
3. The fruit and benefit of this near and dear relation unto us; In him I am well pleased.
Note, 1. That there is no possibility for any person to please God out of Christ; both our persons and our performances find acceptance only for his sake.
2. That in and through Christ, God is well pleased with all believers: This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased, &c.
Lord! what revivng news is this to thy church, to hear that her head and husband, her surety, mediator, and intercessor, is that only Son of God in whom his soul is delighted and ever well pleased! That Son who always pleased thee, and by and through whom thou art well pleased with, and reconciled to, thy offending creatures!
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Burkitt, William. "Commentary on Matthew 3". Expository Notes with Practical Observations on the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Sunday after Epiphany