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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Matthew 3

 

 

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Verse 1

‘And in those days comes John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, saying,’

‘In those days’ is a loose connection timewise with what has gone before. ‘Those days’ in context probably refer to the pre-Messiah days, the days of preparation prior to the revealing of the Messiah, which commenced with His birth and continued with what followed, and has culminated in John’s ministry. It indicates the ‘then’ and ‘now’ idea so common in the New Testament. Note in this regard how later in Matthew Jesus distinguishes the time of His own ministry from all that has gone before, thus thinking in terms of ‘these days’ and ‘those days’ - Matthew 11:11-13). Thus ‘in those days’ deliberately connects with the central themes which have gone before, indicating that they were a part of the preparations for the presentation of the Messiah which were now well on their way to fruition.

‘John the Baptist.’ John stands out from all others because he ‘baptises’, drenches people with water. This is so regularly connected in the present day with Old Testament ‘washings’, (and was so even by Josephus who also did not understand it), that it is difficult to remove the impression. Nevertheless we must seek to do so. There is in fact no hint anywhere in John’s preaching of ritual washing (which in the Old Testament never cleansed, but only preceded cleaning), nor indeed of being washed. The thought is all of fruitfulness and growth, (or otherwise), resulting from the pouring out of rain, (or the lack of it) (Matthew 3:8; Matthew 3:10; Matthew 3:12). Thus John’s baptism is a symbolic acting out of the promises about the pouring out like rain of the Holy Spirit as described by the prophets, promising the soon coming pouring out of the Holy Spirit through the Messiah on those who come for baptism in genuine repentance (Matthew 3:11; compare Isaiah 32:15; Isaiah 44:1-5; Isaiah 55:10-13; Ezekiel 36:25-28). His baptism therefore depicted the spiritual rain, and was administered by him personally (baptised by him - Matthew 3:6; Matthew 3:11), something never true of ritual washings. It is noteworthy in this regard that the Pharisees never raised any objection to his actual practise of baptism, only to what he was claiming to be by doing it (John 1:25). They would certainly have raised an objection to the practise if they had thought that he was depicting proselyte washing for Jews, which they would have found offensive, or was saying that their own washings were insufficient.

While not wishing to go into the matter in depth here, we should note that the vast majority of references to baptism in the New Testament have nothing to do with ‘ritual washing’. They have to do with the coming of the Holy Spirit on men, and on the idea of dying and rising again to a new life (Romans 6:3-4), in a similar way to seeds springing up into fruitfulness (John 12:24). They have to do with the washing of new birth and renewal of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5). Indeed Peter denies that baptism should be seen in terms of ritual washing, connecting it rather with spiritual change and with the resurrection (1 Peter 3:21).

John comes in the wilderness of Judaea. The ‘wilderness’ is not desert, but is nevertheless not fruitful land. Here it is the hot, dry land by the River Jordan. Both Moses and Elijah were also closely connected with the wilderness, so that John is being depicted as in the true prophetic line, leaving the distractions of the world, and coming to a place where men can hear the voice of God. And if men wanted to hear that voice, they too must come out into the wilderness in order to hear what he has to say. It is there that God will speak with them.

Furthermore it was in the wilderness that God was to plead with the people once their trial by exile was over (Ezekiel 20:35-36; Hosea 2:14). Thus there is in this an indication that God is now seeking to speak to His people. But the chiasmus also suggests that we may see an indication in this that Judaea is itself ‘a wilderness’ because of the state of its people, a wilderness that needs to be transformed in order to become fruitful (Matthew 3:4; Matthew 3:6).


Verses 1-10

The Ministry of John (3:1-10).

The ministry of John is first described. He has come to the Judaean wilderness with a message of fruitfulness and hope, calling for a change of heart towards God and towards sin, and this in accordance with the words of Isaiah. And his call is for them to openly admit their sins and produce the fruit that demonstrates true repentance. But attached to his message is also a warning of what will happen to those who do not. This smaller passage is also in the form of a chiasmus:

a And in those days comes John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea (Matthew 3:1),

b Saying, “Repent you, for the Kingly Rule of Heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2).

c For this is he who was spoken of through Isaiah the prophet, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make you ready the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Matthew 3:3).

d Now John himself had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leather girdle about his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey (Matthew 3:4).

c Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about the Jordan, and they were baptised of him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:5-7).

b “Bring forth therefore fruit worthy of repentance, and think not to say within yourselves, ‘We have Abraham to our father,’ for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Matthew 3:8-9).

a “And even now the axe lies at the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bring forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire” (Matthew 3:10).

Note how in ‘a’ John has gone out into the wilderness of Judaea, and in the parallel the spiritual ‘wilderness of Judaea’ is described. In ‘b’ he calls for repentance, and in the parallel calls for fruit worthy of repentance. In ‘c’ he is the one whom makes ready the way of the Lord, and in the parallel is described how he does it by baptising the repentant and warning the rebels. Centrally in ‘d’ his prophetic status as the coming Elijah (Malachi 4:5-6) is made clear.


Verses 1-17

The Ministry of John the Baptist. The Messiah Is Revealed To The World (3:1-17).

Many years had passed by of which Matthew tells us nothing. He is not concerned to give us a biography of Jesus’ life. He is more concerned with Him in connection with His mission and purpose in coming into the world. For he has already informed us that He has come into the world as the Messiah (Matthew 1:1; Matthew 1:16), in order to be a Saviour from sin (Matthew 1:21).

He has told us that the Messiah has come into the world:

· As the One Who would bring to completion the promises of God to Abraham and David (Matthew 1:1), and would ‘fill full’ the history of Israel as encompassed and delineated in their kings and in the Exile (Matthew 1:2-17).

· As the One miraculously born to fulfil the prophecies of Isaiah concerning the coming King and to save His people from their sins, a concept central to the second half of Isaiah (Matthew 1:18-25).

· As the King to Whom creation (the heavenly light - Matthew 2:2) and the Scriptures (Matthew 2:5-5) bore witness, and Who was honoured by the Gentiles (Matthew 2:1-12).

· As the One Who as the Representative of His people was a part of their exile and sufferings, and was called by God ‘out of Egypt’ in order to fill full the purposes of God as revealed in the Scriptures (Matthew 2:13-18).

· And as the One Who walked the path of lowliness as the prophets had foretold (Matthew 2:19-23).

Now, when the fullness of the time has come, He has to be introduced to the world and anointed for His work. And for this purpose God sent a forerunner, a herald, in the person of John the Baptist. He came ‘to make ready the way of the Lord’, (the way of both God and Jesus), and to prepare the path in front of Him, as men prepared the way before kings, just as Isaiah had said (Matthew 3:3). It was ever the practise when an important king was visiting a city that the roads were patched up and straightened, holes were filled in, rough places were smoothed, undulations were flattened out, and all was made ready for his arrival. This was figuratively what John the Baptist would do for Jesus. And the way in which he would do it was by calling on the people to make themselves ready, ‘prepare the way of the Lord, all of you’ (compare Luke 1:16-17).

This citation from Isaiah is the first of a number of such citations, in each case described as Isaianic, which will be made in the next ten chapters. Indeed, apart from one citation from the Psalms he cites no other. This suggests that Matthew saw these promises of the prophet Isaiah as underlying what he has written throughout these chapters. In them He will be revealed as both Son and Servant (Matthew 3:17), bearing their infirmities and diseases (Matthew 8:17, compare Isaiah 53:3)), bringing justice to the world while at the same time dealing gently with His people as He ministers through the power of the Spirit to both Jew and Gentile (Matthew 12:18-22, compare Isaiah 42:1-4), active among them as a people who are hardened, deaf and blind (Matthew 13:14-15, compare Isaiah 6:9-10), opening the eyes of the blind, enabling the lame to walk, cleansing the skin-diseased, making the deaf hear, and proclaiming the good news to the poor and lowly (Matthew 11:4-5, compare Isaiah 35:5-6; Isaiah 32:3; Isaiah 61:1-2), all as Isaiah had promised. These Scriptures are not casual, unconnected quotations, added on out of interest, for while they do not obviously influence the construction of the text they underlie His whole message.

Analysis of Matthew 3:1-17.

a In those days comes John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, saying, “Repent you, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:1-2).

b For this is he who was spoken of through Isaiah the prophet, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make you ready the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Matthew 3:3).

c Now John himself had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leather girdle about his loins, and his food was locusts and wild honey (Matthew 3:4).

d Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about the Jordan, and they were baptised of him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins (Matthew 3:5-6).

e But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7).

f “Bring forth therefore fruit worthy of repentance, and think not to say within yourselves, ‘We have Abraham to our father,’ for I say to you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Matthew 3:8-9).

g “And even now the axe lies at the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bring forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire” (Matthew 3:10).

f “I indeed baptise you in water to repentance, but he who comes after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear. He will baptise you in the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11).

e “Whose winnowing fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing-floor; and he will gather his wheat into the garner, but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12).

d Then comes Jesus from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptised by him (Matthew 3:13).

c But John would have prevented him, saying, “I have need to be baptised of you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14).

b But Jesus answering said to him, “Allow it now, for thus it becomes us to fulfil all righteousness (or ‘do fully what is right’).” Then he allows him (Matthew 3:15).

a And Jesus when he was baptised, went up immediately from the water, and lo, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming on him, and lo, a voice out of the heavens, saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16-17).

Note that in ‘a’ John came in the wilderness proclaiming the Kingly Rule of Heaven and calling for repentance, and in the parallel Jesus receives the Holy Spirit from Heaven, and needs no repentance (in Whom I am well pleased). In Him the Kingly Rule of Heaven has come. While John is a son of the wilderness, Jesus is God’s beloved Son. In ‘b’ John is to make ready the way of the Lord, and in the parallel this includes enabling Him to ‘fulfil all righteousness’. In ‘c’ John is clothed as a prophet from the wilderness, depicting his recognition of his own unworthiness, and in the parallel he acknowledges that Jesus has no such unworthiness. In ‘d’ Jerusalem and Judea and Beyond Jordan come to be baptised of John confessing their sins, and in the parallel Jesus comes to be baptised by him. The parallel is demonstrating that Jesus sums up in Himself the whole of Israel, and is being baptised as it were on their behalf, so that on their behalf He might receive the Holy Spirit, of which baptism is the symbol. In ‘e’ John warns the Pharisees and Sadducees (possibly members of the Sanhedrin coming to check him out) of the wrath to come, and in the parallel describes the work of the coming One Who will cleanse His threshing-floor and burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. In ‘f’ John calls on them to produce fruits worthy of repentance, and in the parallel reminds them that his baptism is a baptism unto repentance. They are not to look to Abraham, whose sons can be produced by God from stones, but to the Coming One who can drench them with the Holy Spirit and fire. And centrally in ‘f’ is the declaration that this is the time of salvation and the day of vengeance. The axe is being set against the root of the trees. Those which produce good fruit will be allowed to survive, those which do not will be cut down and cast in the fire.


Verse 2

“Repent you, for the Kingly Rule of Heaven is at hand.”

His message is simple, and yet profound. He is calling on them to ‘repent,’, to turn to God and to turn from sin, because all that the prophets had hoped for is now to come to fulfilment. The Kingly Rule of Heaven, that time when God will break through into the world in order to exercise His rule, is ‘at hand’.

‘Repent you.’ By these words Matthew is rooting John’s (and Jesus’ - Matthew 4:17) message firmly in the line of the Old Testament prophets (Jeremiah 8:6; Jeremiah 20:16; Ezekiel 14:6; Ezekiel 18:30). He is proclaiming that in the words that he is speaking what the prophets prophesied concerning the coming of the final Kingly Rule of God was in process of fulfilment (e.g. Isaiah 9:6-7; Isaiah 11:1-10; Ezekiel 37:22-28).

The prophets make clear what is meant by ‘repentance’. It is the opposite of ‘holding fast to deceit and refusing to return to God’ (Jeremiah 8:5). It is the opposite of ‘failing to speak what is true and right’ (Jeremiah 8:6). It is ‘repenting from wickedness’ by saying ‘what have I done?’ (Jeremiah 8:6). It is a turning away from holding on to the things that caused God in the past to bring judgment on cities (Jeremiah 20:16). It is turning away from all idolatry and abominations (Ezekiel 14:6). It is a turning away from all transgressions against God’s Law (Ezekiel 18:30). It is thus a turning to God and a turning away from all that is seen to be sinful and wrong.

The idea of ‘turning to God’ is emphasised in Hosea 6:1-2, where the call is to ‘return to the Lord’ in order to be healed and restored (compare Hosea 14:1). It was necessary for them to turn from sin and to return to God, because God alone could deal with their sins. But there is also the idea of ‘turning from all that is sinful and wrong’, which is emphasised in Isaiah 1:16-17, in which it is made clear that a turning from their evil ways and doings will issue in forgiveness and total cleansing from sin (Isaiah 1:18). Both are brought together in Hosea 12:6, ‘Turn to your God, keep mercy and righteous judgment, and wait on your God continually’. And we might parallel that with Micah’s words, ‘What does the Lord require of you but to do what is right, to love compassion and to walk humbly with your God?’ (Micah 6:8).

‘The Kingly Rule of Heaven.’ The whole of the Old Testament had looked for the establishment of God’s Rule over His people. That was why God had called Abraham so that He might provide the means by which such a Kingly Rule might be established (Genesis 12:2-3; Genesis 17:6; Genesis 35:11). That was the motive of the giving of the covenant in the form of a ‘suzerainty treaty’, through which YHWH would be established as overlord over His people because of what in His mercy He had done for them (Exodus 20:1-18). That was the purpose of the raising up of David to be prince over God’s people (2 Samuel 7:12-16). That was the hope of all the prophets as they looked forward into the future when God would restore His true people. All longed for the establishment of the Kingly Rule of God. And that was to be the purpose of the coming of the Messiah, the final establishment of the Kingly Rule of God, when Messiah would rule over God’s true restored people in the everlasting Kingdom (Isaiah 9:6-7; Isaiah 11:1-10; Ezekiel 37:24-28; Daniel 7:13-14).

Matthew uses the term ‘Kingly Rule of Heaven’ over against the use of ‘Kingly Rule of God’ by the other evangelists, andin many cases in exactly the same contextdemonstrating that it is a parallel phrase and mainly a matter of translation, the Aramaic words of Jesus being the same in both cases. This brings out Matthew’s Jewishness. Jews tried to avoid excessive use of the word ‘God. Thus they replaced it with words such as ‘Heaven’, ‘the Blessed’, and so on. They were referring to God, but without actually using His name. Jesus, therefore, probably mainly said ‘the Kingly Rule of Heaven’ with Mark and Luke translating as ‘God’ (which was what Jesus meant) for their Gentile readers.

Certainly we may also see that ‘Heaven’ makes clear the heavenly nature of the Kingdom, but then so does the term ‘God’. (Our danger is that we can begin to see God almost as a personal name rather than as conveying the idea of His ‘heavenliness’). And in fact Matthew does use the expression ‘Kingly Rule of God’ five times (Matthew 6:33; Matthew 12:28; Matthew 19:24; Matthew 21:31; Matthew 21:43). He represents it as something that they are to seek in their daily lives rather than food and clothing (Matthew 6:33), as something that has come among them at that present time in the Holy Spirit’s activity of casting out evil spirits (Matthew 12:28), as something which it is hard for a rich man to enter because his riches hold him back (Matthew 19:24), as something which the tax-gatherers and sinners are entering in priority to the Scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 21:31), and as something which is being taken away from the nation of Israel in order to be given to a new nation which will produce its fruits. (Matthew 21:43). This last is simply a way of saying that not all who see themselves as Israel will enjoy the Kingly Rule of God, but only those who respond to God’s Kingly Rule and begin to live accordingly (and as we shall later see we could add, including both Jew and Gentile). They will become God’s new nation (1 Peter 2:9). It will be noted that in each of these examples there is a sense of immediacy, a sense of urgency, and an emphasis on present personal experience, with some included who are unexpected, and others excluded who should have been entering. Perhaps we may put it that when Matthew uses the term Kingly Rule of God (rather than Heaven) there is an emphasis on the need for men and women to ‘know God’ personally, in the way that many of the Psalmists are seen as knowing Him. Perhaps Matthew thought that the translation ‘Heaven’ would have taken away the personal emphasis in these particular references. In other words he forewent the need to indicate respect for God’s name, because he wanted to emphasise something deeper. It was not a different concept, but a different way of expressing it. It may well be that Jesus also used two separate phrases, and that it is the other evangelists who have translated ‘God’ in both cases for the sake of their Gentile readers.

On the other hand Matthew uses the term ‘Kingly Rule of Heaven’ over thirty times. And that includes its use in very similar contexts to those just mentioned (e.g. Matthew 11:11-12). The terms are thus not mutually exclusive. But it also expands to include the idea of world outreach, and to look ahead to the future, glorious, everlasting Kingdom, concepts which in the other Gospels are actually applied to the Kingly Rule of God. The idea is that Heaven is breaking in among men, and bringing them under God’s effective rule, first on earth, and then by establishing a final everlasting, eternal Kingdom. But we must not make two kingdoms. Those who become His enter under the eternal Kingly Rule of God now, by being changed so as to have the openness towards God of ‘little children’ (Matthew 18:3-4). The eternal future is then a continuation of this as resurrected and fully transformed people, with a greater sense of immediacy to God. Now we see dimly as though in a mirror (1 Corinthians 13:12), but then face to face. But it is the same Kingly Rule. Those who become His are even now translated out from under the tyranny of darkness into the Kingly Rule of His beloved Son (Colossians 1:13). And in that Kingly Rule we enjoy ‘righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’ (Romans 14:17).

‘At hand.’ That is, it is about to break in on them, and shortly to be enjoyed by many of them, for it is there among them within reach, especially in the coming of the King. But that it was more than just ‘very near in time’ in the time of John, Jesus makes clear, for He tells the Chief Priests and the Elders of the people, ‘Truly I say to you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes go into the Kingly Rule of God before you, for John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and prostitutes believed him, and even when you saw it you did not afterwards repent and believe him’ (Matthew 21:31-32). In the last part it is made clear that He is speaking about the time of John the Baptist, when the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him and believed in the way of righteousness, while the Chief Priests and Elders did not, for He stresses that the latter did not even believe in John after the tax collectors and prostitutes had believed. That stresses also that the tax-collectors and prostitutes are seen as having believed in the way of righteousness in the time of John and as having thus entered under the Kingly Rule of God. So He connects this with the tax-collectors and the prostitutes going into the Kingly Rule of God before them, while they themselves will not even enter afterwards. It is difficult therefore to see how a fair assessment of this can fail to see in it an indication that they entered the Kingly Rule of God in the time of John.

This being so the Kingly Rule of God must then have been ‘at hand’ by being there and available to all who would respond, and not just as something in the future. And yet John himself is not seen as being in the Kingly Rule of Heaven as he was in his prophetic status, for ‘he who is last in the Kingly Rule of Heaven is greater than he’ (Matthew 11:11). What we are intended to see by this is the distinction between the old age and the new. It did not mean that John was totally excluded from the Kingly Rule of Heaven when he came to it as a repentant sinner submitting to the King, only that in his official status as a prophet he was outside it and ‘came before it’, simply because as such he was pointing towards it. But no doubt as a humble sinner along with the tax-collectors and prostitutes he was able to enter it when he submitted to Jesus. For what this does emphasise is that the Kingly Rule of Heaven must be seen as having been available and present at some stage in the time of John, possibly potentially, and becoming a reality once the King had been confirmed at His baptism. Although in fact God’s rule over those who were truly His people goes right back to the beginning of things (compare 1 Samuel 8:7). For a fuller treatment of the Kingly Rule of Heaven see our introductory articles.

It is often noted that Matthew omits the idea of forgiveness that is found in Mark 1:4. That may be because he wanted to retain the mentioning of forgiveness for Jesus’ ministry (Matthew 6:12; Matthew 6:14-15; Matthew 9:2; Matthew 9:6; Matthew 18:21-35) as the One Who will save His people from their sins, but the absence is more apparent than real. The whole point of repentance, and openly admitting their sin, and signifying their desire for the coming work of the Holy Spirit, assumes that forgiveness will be given. That is the whole reason for it (compare Isaiah 1:15-18). They have turned back to God, and turned away from their old sins. They have committed themselves to a totally new way of living. They are looking for the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. And that can only be because they believe that God will forgive them as a result of their repentance. And that is indeed what He had promised in Isaiah 1:16-18. And we may add that forgiveness was one of the blessings especially associated with the last days (Isaiah 43:25; Isaiah 44:22; Isaiah 55:7; Jeremiah 50:20; Ezekiel 36:24-26). It will indeed be as a result of this that their lives will be fruitful. Repentance and forgiveness come first. The fruitfulness then follows.


Verse 3

‘For this is he who was spoken of through Isaiah the prophet, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make you ready the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” ’

We now learn that the arrival of John was no accident. He had come, as God had foreordained and declared, in order to bring about all that Isaiah had spoken of (Isaiah 40:3). His arrival was the arrival of the one who was to persuade the people to prepare the way for God finally to act, and who was to call on them to smooth the way for His coming, to smooth the way for the coming of the King. The Isaianic prophecies are in process of being ‘filled to the full’. The difference now is that ‘the Lord’ will come among men as a human being.

Thus the way was to be smoothed for the Lord’s coming by the effect of Johns preaching on them which would make them also smooth the way for His coming (compare Malachi 4:5-6), in a way similar to that in which the prominent townspeople of a town would repair the roads that led to the town and make them level if some great king was coming. For in Him was coming the Isaianic King and Servant (see Matthew 3:17), and the way had to be prepared for Him spiritually in the hearts of men.

‘Spoken of through Isaiah the prophet.’ As we have already seen, there is surely no coincidence in the fact that Isaiah is here named for the first time (in contrast with the anonymous Matthew 1:23) and that the quotations which are pinpointed in the next few chapters (up to Matthew 13:14) are all from Isaiah and are all specifically referenced with his name (as against mainly anonymous quotations elsewhere, with the exception of Jeremiah). Thus we may consider that this opening formula to the Isaiah sayings is worded differently so as to open the series. Matthew wants us to see Jesus over this period as very much the King and Servant of Isaiah, and as fulfilling all that Isaiah had declared and revealed.


Verse 4

‘Now John himself had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leather girdle about his loins, and his food was locusts and wild honey.’

John is described in prophetic terms. His raiment of coarse camel’s hair, his leather (dried skin) girdle and his wilderness food all depict the prophet (compare 2 Kings 1:8; Zechariah 12:4). He is a man of the wilderness, separated to God, and away from the world, unfettered by the things of this life, seeking first the Kingly Rule of God and His righteousness. Locusts were regular desert food, and wild honey was freely available in the wilderness. John lived at the minimum.

There are a number of similarities between John and Elijah. Both appear suddenly, both live a solitary life, both wear ascetic clothing, both become objects of revenge from the king’s wife. As Jesus will explain (Matthew 11:14; Matthew 17:12), John is in fact the new Elijah spoken of by Malachi 4:5. John in fact also exemplifies the one who seeks first the Kingly Rule of God and His righteousness in preference to food and clothing (Matthew 6:33). He is an example to be followed.

It has been suggested that John was connected with the Qumran community. However, while he would almost certainly have had contact with them he was not inward looking and aiming to start a closed community. He did not try to gather a community around him but rather encouraged an open and more loose community where people returned home to live out their lives there, in contrast with the Qumranis inward looking attitude. Nor did he establish a series of ritual washings, or produce detailed regulations for the conduct of their lives. There is thus no real reason why we should connect him too closely with them. Like Jesus after him, he was content that the people continued to hear the teaching of the Scribes. What they had to do was avoid their tendency to hypocrisy (Matthew 23:2).


Verse 5-6

‘Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about the Jordan, and they were baptised of him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.’

The impact of John’s ministry is made clear, covering Jerusalem, Judaea and the Region Round Jordan. Jerusalem had always seen itself as distinctive from Judaea. It was the city of David. Judaea was the southern part of the ancient Israel, south of Samaria. Round Jordan were the towns and cities in the Jordan valley and on the surrounding slopes, including in Peraea. ‘All’ is not of course to be taken literally. It simply indicates a great number, so much so that it seemed that all were there. And they came to be baptised and to admit their sins before God. It was a great revival movement. This too was the work of the Holy Spirit, for without the Spirit of God no such work could have taken place. The point about the later coming of the Spirit was that it would have a wider scope and a wider outreach, and reach out more extensively, not that it would be the first time that the Spirit was at work.

We should note how abbreviated this description of John’s ministry is. They would in fact first go out to hear him preach. Then moved with conviction of sin, they came to openly admit their sins to God (to ‘confess’, to say along with God, ‘this is sin’). The purpose of such confession was in order to receive forgiveness, but that is not mentioned either, probably because of the brief nature of the description. Yet it would be assumed. For Isaiah had made quite clear that if men turned from their evil ways their sins would be forgiven (Isaiah 1:16-18; Isaiah 43:25; Isaiah 44:22 compare Exodus 34:7; Psalms 25:18; Psalms 32:1).

Once this was accomplished they would be baptised. By this prophetic acting out they were indicating their desire to partake in the soon coming Holy Spirit that had been promised by the prophets, often in terms of rain (Isaiah 32:15; Isaiah 44:1-5; Joel 2:28; Ezekiel 36:25-28).


Verse 7

‘But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

It is not clear whether the Pharisees and Sadducees actually came to be baptised, or whether they had in fact come in order to decide whether John should be authenticated. It may well be that this indicates an official investigative body from the Sanhedrin. It was the responsibility of the Sanhedrin to see to the vetting of such religious figures. Note that they are seen as a combined unit by the one definite article applying to both. The only thing that could have united these bitter opponents was official duty. They had to work together in the Sanhedrin against a common ‘foe’ whether they liked it or not. On the other hand the suggestion that they are depicted as possibly heeding God’s warning might suggest that some at least were indeed coming genuinely. Then the common article would indicate that even such great enemies were being united by the ministry of John. So we may see John as just being hopeful, and even possibly a little sarcastic. On the other hand it could be that some among them did come forward for baptism, and yet possibly with such arrogance and with such a desire not to be contaminated by the common people that John was moved to his open criticism.

John would have got on no better with them than Jesus did, and they themselves admitted that most of them had not listened to John (Matthew 21:25). The Pharisees laid great stress on ritual washings, on tithing, on fasting, and on good works. As well as believing in the Scriptures they held to the ‘secret’ teaching of the Elders, ‘the traditions of the elders’, the words of the Scribes which they claimed had been passed down, and which Jesus pointed out often distorted what the Scriptures said. John may well have feared that they would see his baptism as just another ritual washing. The Sadducees restricted themselves to the Scriptures, with a major emphasis on the Law. But to them the ritual of the Temple was all important. They above all wanted to maintain the status quo. John’s straight talking and ‘revolutionary ideas’ must have made them shudder. Both were therefore natural opponents of both John and Jesus.

“You offspring of vipers.” The psalmists likened men to vipers because of the venom of their mouths (Psalms 58:4; Psalms 140:3) and because of their deafness in the face of entreaty (Psalms 58:4). Thus John may be warning them not to be like their fathers had been, venomous and deaf. However, behind the picture is the idea of the snakes who fled from the cornfields when they were reaped or when the stubble was burned. Note also the beautiful picture in Jeremiah 46:22 of the snakes slipping away before the axes of their enemies (compare Matthew 3:10). So what he is saying to them is that it is useless for them to be like snakes who merely flee from the flames or from the axes, but are deaf to entreaty. They must rather undergo a real change of heart and mind. They must recognise that the wrath to come is not so easily avoided. The idea of ‘wrath’ is of God’s innate antipathy towards sin, which must inevitably result in judgment for those who refuse to repent.

Luke has these words addressed to all. In a sense, of course, they were. But Matthew may well have learned from those who were there that John had been looking especially at the party of Pharisees and Sadducees when he spoke.

We should note here that Jesus takes up John’s description of the Scribes and Pharisees as ‘the offspring of vipers’ in Matthew 12:34; Matthew 23:33. There is a tendency with some to see John as the fierce preacher, and Jesus as the prophet of love. However, there can be no question but that Jesus’ preaching could be equally as fierce as that of John, and that John is being slightly misrepresented simply because it is the eschatological aspect of his teaching that is mainly presented in the Gospels, so that he is rarely seen as a moral preacher in his own right. But if we look at Luke 3:10-14 we see that this is partly redressed. And Jesus in fact learned much from him, for He made good use of John’s images.


Verse 8-9

“Bring forth therefore fruit worthy of repentance, and think not to say within yourselves, ‘We have Abraham to our father,’ for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”

These words are probably now more generalised. All who are listening to him are therefore to bring forth fruit which is worthy of ‘repentance’, of indicating that their hearts and minds are truly changed (truly repentant) by bringing forth fruit which will indicate that God has rained on them with the water of His word and Spirit (Isaiah 32:15; Isaiah 44:1-5; Isaiah 55:10-11; Ephesians 5:26; Titus 3:5), as his baptism indicates. Serpents were always looked on as worldly wise (Matthew 10:16). That might mean that he saw the purpose of some of these who came to him for baptism as a rather naive way of attempting to obtain blessing without true response.

Nor were they to assume that because they could claim Abraham as their father all would be right. They needed to recognise that being ‘a son of Abraham’ was of no value unless they believed and walked like Abraham. Indeed let them recognise that God could even take the stones that they saw around them, and could turn them into sons of Abraham.

Many Israelites did in fact believe that being a pure-bred son of Abraham would mean that their inheritance in the eternal Kingdom was ensured. And they regularly ensured marriage with similarly minded people in order to preserve their position. John is making quite clear that this was not so. (As a priest’s son he could not be accused of sour grapes, for it meant that his own lineage would be seen as pure). Their hearts had to be genuine, for let them not be in any doubt, God was not restricted in whom He could turn into sons of Abraham. While John probably mainly had in mind the tax-gatherers and sinners, and those of despised trades, the fact that he also welcomed soldiers suggest that he was not averse to including some Gentiles, for local auxiliary soldiers would be mainly local Gentiles.

The idea of a connection with stones may spring from Isaiah 51:1 where Israel were told to seek the Lord and look to the rock from which they were hewn and the quarry from which they were dug, namely to Abraham their father. Thus Abraham was there seen as a rock from which stones were hewn. This could then be a sarcastic statement that they should recognise the folly of their position. God can produce children to Abraham from any kind of rocks. Coming from Abraham means no more than coming from the rocks around them, unless their hearts are like Abraham’s. Thus being a son of Abraham counts for nothing unless they walk in his ways (compare Galatians 3:6-9; Galatians 3:29; Romans 4).

He may also have been influenced by the similarity between abnayya (stones) and benayya (children) in Aramaic thus saying sarcastically ‘from these abnayya God can raise up benayya’ (John would be speaking in Aramaic), just as He had previously raisedthemup from the rock that bore them. And those raised up from the stones would then have the same standing before God, for it was not physical birth from Abraham that counted, it was spiritual birth. It was in a sense prophetic. For God would in future raise up sons to Abraham from among the Gentiles who became his sons through faith (Galatians 3:29).

So he makes clear that his baptism will be totally ineffective unless their lives and hearts are changed. Those who would come for baptism must have begun (or have determined to begin) fruit-bearing lives or their baptism will mean nothing.


Verse 10

“And even now the axe lies at the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bring forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.”

For he wants them to be clear about the fact that his baptism in itself is no protection against the axe of God, nor is their descent from Abraham. The only way of escape is by fruitfulness, by the evidence of changed hearts and lives (resulting from the pouring out (drenching) of the Spirit - Matthew 3:15). So they need to recognise that God’s axe is ready to start work (see Isaiah 10:33-34; and note Jeremiah 46:22, where however the emphasis is more like Matthew 3:7), and that He is ready to start cutting at the root of all the trees which do not produce good fruit (compare Matthew 13:7-9). And once He has cut them down He will cast them into the fire. Fire is a favourite description of judgment throughout Scripture (compare Matthew 7:19; Matthew 13:30; Matthew 13:42; Matthew 18:8-9; Matthew 22:7; Matthew 25:41; John 15:6; Amos 2:5; Amos 5:6; and often in the Old Testament). Its searing heat destroys until nothing is left. Thus it is necessary for them to be totally genuine towards God if they are to escape His judgment.

Being put ‘to the root of the trees’ may indicate the marking of a tree for cutting down, for normally the cutting down would occur above the roots. On the other hand, John may have deliberately been speaking of the roots in order to demonstrate that they would be destroyed from their very roots. Alternately the term for ‘axe’ may indicate a wedge put in place at the base of the tree ready to be driven in so as to bring the tree crashing down.

‘At the root of the trees.’ Compare Isaiah 5:24. He may especially have in mind here that ‘the Pharisees and Sadducees’ are to be included (they would have agreed wholeheartedly about the common people not bearing sufficient fruit), as the root from whom Israel should have been receiving its life, but who only ministered death to them, because they were barren themselves. Thus it may be that John wants them to know that God’s axe will also be levelled at them, and that unless they do repent God will bring them crashing down because of His holiness.

‘Hewn down and cast into the fire.’ Such trees have only one use, to be burned for cooking purposes, and thus turned to ashes. It may, however, be that John has in mind an even bigger bonfire. He may have been thinking in terms of Isaiah 66:24. Compare Ezekiel 5:4.

Compare here Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:19. This whole picture built up by John is in Jesus’ mind there. He had probably heard this constant message of John and demonstrates that He wholeheartedly approved of it, and concurs with it. In fact Matthew deliberately parallels his summaries of John’s teaching with that of Jesus in this way. See also Matthew 3:2 with Matthew 4:17. It is his way of indicating that they have brought the same message, and that Jesus is continuing what John had commenced. But he has no doubt that in the end the difference between them is a large one, for he make clear that while John was the Herald, Jesus is the fulfilment. Both brought the good news about the Kingly Rule of Heaven , but only Jesus is the King in Whom that Kingly Rule is physically manifested. John is still a part of ‘the Law and the Prophets’ (Matthew 11:13). He is the Elijah who was to precede the Lord’s coming (Matthew 11:14).

It will be noted that this verse is paralleled in the chiasmus to the passage (see above) with John’s being in the wilderness of Judaea. Here the thought is of trees that are barren and fruitless, just like trees in the wilderness. It is this latter condition in ‘the wilderness which is Judaea’ which John is seeking to put right and bring back into fruitfulness (compare Isaiah 5:1-7 with Isaiah 4:2; Isaiah 27:1-6; see Jeremiah 2:13; Jeremiah 2:17; Jeremiah 2:21; Jeremiah 11:16-17 ).


Verse 11

“I indeed baptise you in water to repentance, but he who comes after (or ‘behind’) me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear. He will baptise you in the Holy Spirit and fire,”

John has ever before his eyes the One Who is coming. That is why he is baptising in water. His baptism is as an acted out prophecy of what is coming, and in order to prepare men for it. It is a picture of the fact that the One Who is coming will fulfil the promises of the prophets and drench them with the Holy Spirit and fire. He, John, is preparing them for it, but he wants them to be aware of the fact that one day soon the greater reality will come. See Isaiah 32:15; Isaiah 44:1-5; Joel 2:28; Ezekiel 36:25-27; Malachi 3:1-3; Isaiah 4:4; Zechariah 13:9.

‘He who comes after (opisow) me.’ ‘After’ (opisow) is not usually a time word (never elsewhere in Matthew, see Matthew 4:19; Matthew 10:38; Matthew 16:24), although instances are known. The thought may therefore be that John knows that the Coming One will become his follower (come after him), but will in the end prove to be high above him. Alternately we may see it as a rare use of it as meaning ‘after’ in time.

‘I indeed (ego men).’ This is a typical Matthaean emphasis bringing out a contrast. Here it signifies ‘I in contrast with Him’.

“I indeed baptise you in water to repentance.” He recognises that his baptism is the lesser work of God, a prophetic acting out of a greater reality yet to come. ‘To repentance’ is probably better rendered ‘because of repentance’. It was not inducing repentance but accepting that it had taken place, as the very coming of the people to him, and their open admission of sins, revealed. But that was all that John could do. While God could change their inner hearts, there was nothing that he himself could do about it except preach and then leave it to God. How different it would be in the case of the One Who was coming Who had the power within Himself to give life (John 5:21), and Who could drench men in the Holy Spirit.

‘He is mightier than I.’ The Coming One would be the Reality to which John was the shadow. John wants all to know that although he himself may be a prophet, and powerful through God, he is but in the end an ordinary man. But this One Who is coming is God’s ‘Superman’, with a power that will be far greater than his. He is the mightier than John. Indeed, as we learn later, while Satan can be thought of as a ‘strong man’ (Matthew 12:29) Jesus is ‘the stronger than he’ (Luke 11:22), a fact which will shortly be demonstrated by Jesus in the same wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). Thus His mightiness is here first revealed by John in order for it to be demonstrated by His resistance to the wiles of the Devil. He will be all-powerful and all-prevailing. We could add with Isaiah, ‘He will be the Mighty God’ (Isaiah 9:6). But how far John was aware of the full implications of this we do not know.

For we should note that it is possible to be aware of the divinity of Jesus without being able to put it into words. The inner sense is there even when it cannot be verbalised. Indeed throughout the ages no one has been able to put it into words in a full satisfactory way, for human language does not have the means to do so. Many who have been heretics in their words have been orthodox in their hearts. Many an Arian died willingly for Christ out of love for Him, and not all have the refined ability of the advanced theologian. And many church members today are heretics without knowing it because of what they would say that they believed about Jesus as the Son of God, although their hearts would say otherwise, because their belief has never been tested out or corrected. But fortunately God looks at the heart and understands the problem. He knows how difficult it is for us to grasp the full significance of His tri-unity.

And John sees Him as not only greater than he but as holier as well, for John sees himself as not fit even to take off and carry His shoes (the carrying of the shoes assumes that they have either just been taken off or are about to be put on, so that it also indicates the taking off of the shoes). Dealing with a man’s shoes in this way was the task of the lowest slave, (the Rabbis declared that even a Teacher in those days would not expect his disciples, who would perform most general tasks for him, to perform a task like this for him), and thus by these words John is humbling himself into the very dust. He is declaring that he is not even fit to be the Coming One’s humblest slave. So the Coming One will be mighty and holy. In the words of Isaiah He will be the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace, the One Who is powerful, compassionate and merciful (Isaiah 9:7). Note how these two aspects described by John, His mightiness and His holiness, will be brought out in the parallel where the voice from Heaven will declare Him to be God’s beloved Son, and the One Who is totally pleasing to God (Matthew 3:17).

But as we shall later see, while John was right in what he said about Him, he was not fully right in his own interpretation of it. He saw the Coming One as the One Who would come like a powerful wind, a wind of the Lord driving a rushing river (Isaiah 59:19), a powerful tempest toppling trees before Him, a sweeper away and burner of chaff. He was a little short on what stamped Jesus off as unique, His love, and compassion, and mercy; His gentleness and tenderness. As Jesus would later have to point out to an anxious John, lying puzzled in his stinking and dark prison, while it was true that He had come like ‘a rushing wind’, it was first of all as a wind of healing and of hope as Isaiah had also prophesied, dealing gently with the bruised reeds and fanning the dying embers of the flax into flame, rather than dousing them in His fury (Matthew 11:1 to Matthew 12:21).

‘He will baptise (drench, overwhelm) you in the Holy Spirit and fire,” John’s baptism pictured this forthcoming climax. He would come like deluging, life-giving rain, and purifying and consuming fire. On those who were ready to receive Him He would come like the life-giving rain, the Holy Breath, in the ‘washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit’ (Titus 3:5). He would produce fruitfulness and blessing as the prophets had made clear (Isaiah 44:1-5; Ezekiel 34:26; Ezekiel 36:25-27; Ezekiel 37:1-10; Ezekiel 37:14; Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalms 72:6; Zechariah 10:1). And He would come like refining fire (Malachi 3:1-2; Zechariah 13:9). Purity, holiness and goodness would abound. But the same fire that would refine would also burn up what was only chaff (Isaiah 5:24; Isaiah 66:16; Isaiah 66:24; Ezekiel 15:6-7; Ezekiel 22:21-22). His fire would not only purify, but would also destroy. The message is one of sharp division. To those who believe, life and blessing, refreshing rain and a purifying wind, and along with it the purifying fire, but to those who do not believe He would be a scattering tempest and a fire of destruction.


Verses 11-17

The Coming One (3:11-17).

John’s large-scale ministry having been established in these few verses, Matthew now turns his attention to Jesus. We do not know how long John had been preaching before this incident now described occurred, but that he had a widespread and effective ministry, possibly over a number of years, Josephus also testifies. What we do know from external sources is that his ministry was so effective and so far reaching that disciples of John were found around the world for decades to come (compare Acts 18:24-25; Acts 19:1-6).

But John was ever aware that he was preaching in readiness for ‘the last days’ and that the Coming One would soon arrive. This was central to his message. And yet, as his later doubts would reveal, he no more than anyone else was expecting someone like Jesus. He was anticipating someone a little more fierce and somewhat more politically active than Jesus, and as he later lay in prison waiting for the great movement and climactic events that he thought would be necessary in order to justify what he had taught, he could not understand why so little seemed to be happening (Matthew 11:3). He genuinely began to wonder whether Jesus really was the Coming One. Like so many, he had in the end a wrong appreciation of the Kingly Rule of Heaven, even though he understood what lay at its roots. It was its outworking that he could not understand.

But at this stage he had no doubts about Jesus’ superiority, even though he had not yet learned the full truth about Him. Jesus was his cousin, and he knew enough about Him to recognise and acknowledge His infinite superiority to himself. (There is no reason to think that John had cut off all communication with his wider family after his parents had died, especially as he must have known something about the mystery of Jesus’ birth, even if not the full story). Here was One Whom he knew put his own life to shame. And now God would shortly reveal to him that Jesus was indeed the Coming One, for he himself would witness His being anointed by the Holy Spirit (an experience made very clear in John 1:32-34).

Analysis of Matthew 3:11-17.

a “I indeed baptise you in water to repentance, but He who comes after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear” (Matthew 3:11 a).

b “He will baptise you in the Holy Spirit and fire, Whose winnowing fork is in His hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing-floor, and He will gather his wheat into the garner, but the chaff He will burn up with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:11-12)

c Then comes Jesus from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptised by him (Matthew 3:13).

d But John would have prevented him, saying, “I have need to be baptised of you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14).

c But Jesus answering said to him, “Allow it now, for thus it becomes us to fulfil all righteousness (or ‘do fully what is right’).” Then he allows him (Matthew 3:15).

b And Jesus when He was baptised, went up immediately from the water, and lo, the heavens were opened to Him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming on Him (Matthew 3:16).

a And lo, a voice out of the heavens, saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).

Note that in ‘a’ John is aware of Jesus’ holiness and righteousness, and that He is the Mightier One, and in the parallel it is confirmed by God, that He is His beloved Son, and that He is well pleasing to Him. In ‘b’ He is the One Who will ‘baptise’ (drench) in the Holy Spirit and fire, and in the parallel He is depicted as receiving the Holy Spirit for that purpose. In ‘c’ Jesus comes to John in order to be baptised by him, and in the parallel He persuades him to do it. Centrally in ‘d’ is John’s declaration that it is he who should be baptised by Jesus. That Jesus is greater than he.


Verse 12

“Whose winnowing fork (or ‘shovel’) is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing-floor; and he will gather his wheat into the garner, but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire.”

The ancient way of threshing grain among the relatively poor was to toss it into the prevailing wind with a winnowing fork, and then with a shovel. The good grain would then fall to the ground, and would be shovelled away and taken to the barn, and the useless chaff would be blown to one side, some to be gathered up and burned, other to be blown away on the winds and lost for ever. And this is the activity that John pictures with regard to the coming Mightier One as the Great Winnower.

Thus here the whole of Israel (and the whole world) is seen as God’s threshing floor. All are as it were gathered there, multitudes, multitudes in the Valley of Decision (Joel 3:13-14). The world is His threshing-floor. And that threshing-floor will then be thoroughly cleansed. Nothing will escape His attention. All will in the end be dealt with and that with the thoroughness of God. Those who have repented and openly admitted their sins to God, and have become fruitful, and have enjoyed the life-giving showers of the Holy Spirit, will prove to be like harvested grain. And they will be gathered into God’s Barn. But those who have proved themselves to be chaff will be blown to one side, gathered up and burned in the fire that can never be quenched (Isaiah 66:24; Isaiah 1:31; Isaiah 34:10; Jeremiah 4:4; Jeremiah 17:27; Jeremiah 21:12; Ezekiel 20:47-48).

That Matthew saw this process as going on in the ministry of Jesus is unquestionable. We must not interpret Matthew by Luke. What Luke would write later was unknown to Matthew (and Luke also would have the Holy Spirit active throughout the life of Jesus - Luke 4:1; Luke 4:18; Luke 11:13). We must recognise therefore that Matthew is to be seen as providing his own answers. And it is inconceivable that he would show this ‘drenching with the Holy Spirit’ as lying at the very root of what the Anointed One was coming to do and then not show in what followed how He would bring it about. To Matthew therefore Jesus’ presence and great success demonstrated that the Spirit had come in the coming of the Kingly Rule of Heaven in Jesus (Matthew 12:28). He was here as the Spirit-filled Servant of Isaiah (Matthew 12:18). That was why men could even now pray in expectancy for the ‘good things’ of the Messianic age (Matthew 7:11) which Luke describes in terms of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 11:13). And that was why his description of the ongoing future was in terms of the presence of Jesus with His people (Matthew 28:20). To Matthew, Jesus as the Anointed One among His people was the absolute proof of the presence and outworking of the Holy Spirit, as He continued His work through Him, satisfying men’s thirst and welling up in men in eternal life (John 4:10-14).

Our problem is that by misinterpreting Luke, who in fact also makes clear the presence of the Holy Spirit from the beginning (Luke 1-2) and as continuing throughout the ministry of Jesus (Luke 4:1; Luke 4:18 and onwards, see our commentary), we overlook Matthew’s vital message, that the work of Jesus as the Drencher with the Holy Spirit began immediately that He commenced His ministry. John also makes this absolutely clear (John 3:1-4; John 4:10-14; John 7:38 where the drinking had begun even though the floods would come later). What would occur later in Acts 2 was the wider outreach of this Drenching reaching out to the wider world, the inauguration of the people of God as the living evidence of God’s presence in the world in the absence of the physical Jesus because of His resurrection, ascension and enthronement. It was in order that they might replace Jesus as God’s physical witness to the world on earth, by being indwelt by the Holy One Himself, Who was there manifested in wind and fire. They would now be the channels of the Holy Spirit. But Pentecost was by no means the commencement of the work of the Holy Spirit, as Luke makes clear in Matthew 11:13, and as John’s Gospel makes clear in Matthew 3:1-6; Matthew 4:10-14), especially when he speaks of Jesus’ words about the drinking of the Holy Spirit as occurring at the time that Jesus was on earth, while in the next breath speaking of the future outpouring as following Jesus’ glorification (John 7:37-39). This is something that Jesus also makes clear in the Upper Room after His resurrection where He breathes on His Apostles and tells them to receive the Holy Spirit, which is there the Spirit in His function of leading them into all truth (John 20:22; compare John 16:13) as He enthrones them on their ‘thrones’ over His people, ‘the twelve tribes of Israel’ with the power to bind and loose (John 20:21-23, compare Matthew 19:28; Luke 22:30 in context).

So Matthew pictures this drenching with Holy Spirit and fire as going on in the ministry of Jesus, as continuing in the ministry of the Apostles, and as resulting also in the destruction of Jerusalem by ‘burning’ (Matthew 22:7), (which burning did not literally fully occur in Jerusalem apart from the Temple, but the parable does not say that it was speaking specifically of Jerusalem), and in the end of all things (Matthew 13:30; Matthew 13:42; Matthew 13:50).


Verse 13

‘Then comes Jesus from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptised by him.’

Having described what is to be, Matthew now moves on to the first stage of its coming into fruition. Jesus travels from Galilee to where John is preaching by the Jordan in order to be baptised by him. This was an act of deliberate and determined choice. By it Jesus demonstrated that He thoroughly approved of the ministry of John, and saw it as the work of God on behalf of Israel. It was the picture of what God was about to do in Israel and He wanted to indicate that He was at one with His people in it. Being baptised by John was the right thing for all men to do, and therefore it was necessary for Him to be a part of it. For He must demonstrate that He was fully a man among men, and at one with all who sought righteousness. It is probable that He also saw the need for Him to admit the need for repentance, not on His own behalf, but on behalf of His people, as the One Who stood in their place to act as their Representative in order to plead on their behalf (see Isaiah 59:16-17; Isaiah 59:20). His was a representative repentance as he manifested His people’s repentance before God on their behalf.


Verse 14

‘But John would have prevented him, saying, “I have need to be baptised of you, and do you come to me?” ’

When John saw Jesus coming he felt himself unworthy to baptise Him. As his cousin he had good reason to know of Jesus’ purity of life and special holiness towards God. While he did not yet know that He was the Anointed One (John 1:33), he knew that He was better far than he was himself. How then could he baptise Someone who was so far his moral superior? He recognised therefore that if anyone should do the baptising here it should be Jesus. And so he sought to prevent Him, not from being baptised, but from being baptised by him. He probably did not think through the fact that there was no one else fit to baptise Him either. The One Who had perplexed the great Teachers in the Temple (Luke 2:41-51), was now perplexing the greatest of all the Prophets. In both cases they had never met His like before. How then could they deal with Someone like this?

Alternatively by ‘I have need to be baptised by You’, John may have been referring to His baptising him in the Holy Spirit and fire’. Both alternatives were in fact true. But as at this stage he would not seem to have been sure that Jesus was the Coming One, it is unlikely that this was what he meant.

We have only to think to realise what a problem this must have been for John. It was not a question of trying to show that Jesus was superior to John. Of that there was no doubt, either in John’s mind or in the minds of all who really knew them both. It had been so from birth. No one could have lived the life that Jesus lived without being remarked on. His life had shone with unsullied purity from the beginning, even in the carpenter’s shop. How then could a spiritually and morally minded man like John not have been fully aware of it? But it is clear from this that even a man as holy as John was, felt himself utterly unworthy before Him. And being aware of it, how could he not then feel himself unworthy to baptise Him?

Incidentally this confirms that John did not perform mass baptisms, with many flocking into the water and baptising themselves. Had that been so Jesus could have slipped into the water and enjoyed such a baptism without John being troubled. It was because John was conscious of being the personal agent of God when he baptised that the problem arose.


Verse 15

‘But Jesus answering said to him, “Allow it now, for thus it becomes us to fulfil all righteousness (or ‘do fully what is right’ or ‘advance the way of righteousness to the full’).” Then he allows him.’

But Jesus then set about persuading John. He clearly knew how baptising Him would make John feel, but He asked him to allow it. By this He was emphasising how important He saw His being baptised to be. It was not just to be a matter of doing what others did. It was to have a deeper significance.

We can understand John’s dilemma. How could he be expected to baptise One Whom he knew was so far above him morally? And for us the question comes with even more force, for we must ask, why should the One Who had come to save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21), and was Himself sinless and in no need of repentance, be baptised with a baptism which seemingly indicated repentance? But while we recognise the dilemma we should note what John’s problem was. It was not the same as ours. In his eyes the problem was not concerning whether Jesus should be baptised. Of that he seemingly had no doubt. His problem lay in the sense of his own unworthiness. This suggests that John did not quite see his baptism in the way that we interpret it.

It therefore initially raises the question of the significance of John’s baptism. It is true that it was a baptism ‘in view of (‘unto’) repentance and forgiveness of sins’, that is, because those who were baptised had repented of their sins and had been forgiven. But what was the baptism itself really signifying? John in fact in his proclamation makes this clear, for he parallels his baptism with the Coming One’s action in pouring out the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:11). This suggests that he saw his own baptism as a prophetic portrayal of the expected pouring out of the Holy Spirit, the drenching with the Spirit promised by the prophets (Isaiah 32:15; Isaiah 44:1-5; Ezekiel 36:25-27). It was an acting out of what the prophets had promised in readiness for its final fulfilment, and by being baptised people were declaring their desire to have a part in His working. And this is confirmed in the remainder of John’s preaching where his emphasis is on fruitfulness and harvest, which are both the products of the pouring down of the rain. This would therefore indicate that by being baptised Jesus was simply indicating His desire to partake in the coming outpouring of the Holy Spirit. And as we know this is what He did then do in Matthew 3:16.

Note on the significance of John’s Baptism.

It is probable that whatever commentary or article you read on baptism, it will refer in explaining it, to being cleansed from sin (with the inference of being washed), and to Old Testament ritual washings, combined with the idea of proselyte baptism. And that is also how Josephus saw it. We must, however, remember in this regard that Josephus had among other things a Pharisaic background and we might therefore have expected him to see it in that way if he did not really stop to think about it. And modern men are steeped in long centuries of misinterpretation. But it is quite frankly difficult to see how anyone who considers it in its context, and does stop to think about it, can see it in those terms. For there is absolutely nothing in John’s preaching that would suggest this, nor interestingly is there any indication in the attitude of the Scribes and Pharisees that would seem to confirm it. We will deal with this latter fact first.

The Scribes and Pharisees do not appear to have questioned the act of baptism itself, for they seem to have assumed that had John been the Messiah, or the coming Elijah, or the coming Prophet it would have been explicable (John 1:25), although they do not say why. It would suggest, however, that they saw it as a prophetic action and not a priestly one. And the prophetic link with water is of it as a picture of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit.

There is nothing about John’s baptism which parallels Pharisaic washings, Old Testament washings or proselyte washing. In all cases but proselyte washing the washings had to be continually performed, and in all cases, including proselyte washing they were self-administered. In all cases they were ritualistic, and connected with other rituals. John’s baptism on the other hand stood alone, apart from all ritual, was administered by him, and was once for all. Furthermore in all cases ritual washings were not seen as cleansing from sin, but as removing defilement (the only exception is where the water is treated with sacrificial ashes). In the case of the Old Testament washings we have the constant refrain that the one who performed the act had then to separate himself and would ‘not be clean until the evening’. This indicates that the washing was not seen as cleansing, but as preparatory to later cleansing. It was a washing away of the ‘filth of the flesh’ so that the person in question could wait on God until the evening, the latter resulting in the cleansing. The Pharisaic washings were similarly for ritual purification, that is, for the removal of the defilement caused by contact with an impure world, that is, a world which did not conform to Jewish requirements for the maintenance of ritual purity. Proselyte washing was similarly a once for all act of removing the defilement of the Gentile world. There is nothing in all this about cleansing from sin (which was seen as resulting from the sacrifices). And in regard to all this we should note that Peter makes quite clear that baptism was not for the purpose of removing such defilement. It was not for the removal of ‘the defilement of the flesh’ (1 Peter 3:21). We would also suggest that if the Pharisees had considered that John was indicating the need for Jews to have a proselyte baptism they would have been more than irate. They were no doubt angry enough at his suggestion that being a child of Abraham was no grounds for their acceptance by God. To suggest beyond that that they required the same baptism as that required by Gentile proselytes would have added fuel to the fire. They would hardly have refrained from commenting on the matter.

John also gives no indication whatsoever in all his preaching that this is how he saw it. He certainly saw it as connected with repentance, that is, with a change of heart and mind and a turning to God, but the only actual indication of its significance lies in his paralleling it with the Coming One’s ‘drenching in Holy Spirit’ in accordance with the prophets (Isaiah 32:15; Isaiah 44:1-5; Ezekiel 36:25-27, compare also Isaiah 35:6-7; Isaiah 55:10-11; Ezekiel 47:1-12). And this ties in with his constant reference to fruitfulness and harvest, both the results in Palestine of rain poured from above. In an agricultural community that was the main benefit of water.

We should also note in this regard that the main emphasis elsewhere in the New Testament is also of baptism as a sign of the renewal of life (e.g. Romans 6:3-4) and of the ‘washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit’ (Titus 3:5), rather than as cleansing by washing. Where washing is referred to it is as ‘the washing of water with the word’, which could again well signify the washing of regeneration (compare Isaiah 55:10-13 where word and Spirit are connected), but has to be manipulated in order for it to refer to baptism. The only possible exception in Acts 22:16 is ambiguous, for there the washing away of Paul’s sins connects more directly with his calling on the name of the Lord than with his being baptised (compare Romans 10:9-10 and see Isaiah 1:16-20 which is in total contrast with ritual activity as depicted in Isaiah 1:11-15) . It should be noted that in the parallel Acts 9:17-18 Paul’s baptism is connected with his receiving his sight and being filled with the Holy Spirit. Furthermore whatever the significance with regard to Christian baptism, this should not be read back into John’s baptism.

End of note.

Jesus’ reply to John’s questions as to why He should be baptised by John is that it is in order ‘for us to fulfil all righteousness’. So the question that we must then consider is as to what exactly He means by that.

We must first note that in any interpretation of these words we must take into account the ‘us’. By saying ‘us’ Jesus is indicating that He is involving more than just Himself in His action. Any interpretation cannot thus just be personal to Him. This ‘us’ may therefore be seen in one of two ways, either as linking Jesus with John in the action, or as linking Him with the crowds of believers gathered for baptism as He is being baptised along with them. If we see it as linking Him with John in the action there are at least two possible alternative explanations.

  • He may be indicating that just as it is right for all men to be baptised (assuming their repentance) then John must baptise Him along with them. This would be in order that He might do ‘what is right’ and be included, along with all those who are being declared to be acceptable to God, as a ready recipient of the coming Holy Spirit. (It is not to be forgotten that in His case the Holy Spirit did descend on Him once He had been baptised by John). And this because He Himself is above all others acceptable to God (Matthew 3:17). By it He would therefore, with John’s cooperation, be doing what was fully right, and putting the cap on all that He had done up to this point. He would be ‘filling to the full’ all righteousness.

  • He may be indicating that He is by it uniting Himself with John in his ministry and in his ‘coming in the way of righteousness’ (Matthew 21:32). By it He is capping what John has come to do. John has come ‘in the way of righteousness’ to turn the hearts of the people to God in preparation for ‘the great and terrible Day of the Lord’ (Malachi 4:5). He Himself is therefore now signifying His full part in this work by being baptised by John. He is making clear that He will be bringing to completion John’s work, by participating it and carrying it forward to its ultimate conclusion, and thus bringing to completion all righteousness.

If we see Him as linking Himself with the believing crowds in His action we may see in it that:

1). Jesus linking Himself with the people as their Representative. By it He is identifying with these sinners by being baptised along with them, in order that He might continue to represent them in the future. He had already ‘come out of Egypt’ on their behalf (Matthew 2:15). Now He will, as it were, ‘repent’ on their behalf, because of His oneness with their sins (compare Matthew 1:21; Matthew 8:17; Matthew 20:28), and all so that in the future He might die on behalf of their sins (Matthew 20:28). As a result of His baptism He will then on their behalf receive the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:17), Whom He will subsequently pour out on all who truly become His, and from this will result an even greater growth in the establishment of the way of righteousness, which will result in the ‘fulfilling of all righteousness’ as God’s ways are brought to completion. And through this means a new Spirit-endued Israel will be established as the prophets had promised. Thus His cooperation with John and his ministry is to be seen as a part of God’s overall plan without which that plan will not come to full fruition. And by His being baptised He is thus to be seen as validating John’s baptism and fulfilling its significance as pointing forward to the work of the Holy Spirit.

This serves to confirm that Jesus is very much aware that it is precisely by His being associated with John’s baptism that His own future will come to fulfilment, simply because that is God’s declared plan and purpose. He must do His Father’s will. First must come the forerunner, and then the Messiah Who has been involved with the forerunner in his work. And thus by being baptised He will be identifying Himself with that work.

And as John’s Gospel makes clear, Jesus did in fact constantly refuse to supplant John all the time that John was preaching, and rather preached alongside him, with His disciples baptising as John did, so much so that when it did seem that He might be supplanting John He withdrew to Galilee (John 4:1-3). He was determined that the work of His forerunner would fulfil its course and not be interfered with. And His recognition of the unique work of John was indeed one reason why, when He did begin His own ministry, He began it in Galilee. For it was important, when He did commence it, that it was not just seen as a continuation of John’s ministry, as Elisha’s had been of Elijah. It was in order to demonstrate that He had a greater ministry than that of John, one that was independent and not just a follow-up to John’s.

2). It may be that He is intending by it to stress His oneness with the crowds in the whole work of God that is going on. In other words it is His way of declaring the need for Him to be one with the crowd in John’s baptism, because without it their baptism will be incomplete. As the Baptiser with the Holy Spirit He knew that He could not be excluded from being a part with those whom He would baptise as their community Head. Thus as the One Who was about to receive the Holy Spirit on behalf of all, something that He considered that He could only do once He had been united with them and identified with them, it was necessary for Him to participate with them in the same baptism, which was to be seen as uniting all the baptised in the coming work of the Spirit. The idea is then that John must baptise Him in order that He might be one with the community of the baptised, so as to receive the Holy Spirit on their behalf. Then, as a result, all would grow together into the fullness of righteousness (Ephesians 4:12-16).

So by being baptised by John, Jesus would both validate John’s baptism, and at the same time be identified by it with righteous Israel, and be shown as ‘repenting’ along with them on their behalf. He had come bringing ‘righteousness and salvation’ (Isaiah 59:16-17; Isaiah 59:20). He had come to bring them repentance and forgiveness of sins. And He was thus demonstrating by this that without their repenting and receiving the Holy Spirit there could be no righteousness and no salvation. And at the same time He would Himself be fulfilling the perfect way of the righteous man on Israel’s behalf. (Compare here Luke 3:21). So by being baptised by John, and then walking in the way of the Holy Spirit that that baptism signified, both on behalf of Himself and on behalf of Israel (on whose behalf He had come out of Egypt - Matthew 2:15), He would then ‘fill to the full’ all righteousness on their behalf, and would draw after Him all who were truly His, who would also walk in the same way of righteousness. And it would all be seen as commencing with John’s baptism which under God’s hand would unite them together under that baptism’s portrayal of the uniting Holy Spirit. For John had come from God ‘in the way of righteousness’ (Matthew 21:32), and this way of righteousness, which was open to all who responded in repentance, was now to find its completion in Him. He would move it forward in the way that John had begun it and would ‘fill it to the full’.

To put it another way, by being baptised by John He would be identifying Himself with what John had begun, would be doing what was truly right for all men, indeed was at this time necessary for all righteous people to do, and would be identifying Himself with His people in doing so, as the One Who would bring it all about on their behalf. For in the end all needed to partake in the new work of the Holy Spirit, both He Who would receive the Holy Spirit in order to ‘dispense’ Him, and those who would receive Him from Jesus. In this sense ‘all righteousness’ would thus spring from the significance of John’s simple act of baptising Him. For the point was that John’s baptism was not just John’s own idea. He had been sent by God to baptise with water (John 1:33), as the precursor to what was to come, and it was therefore necessary for Jesus to be aligned with it in the continuation of God’s purpose.

Jesus Himself might also have quietly seen in His act of being baptised His own submission to His future death on the cross, something which baptism came later to symbolise (Romans 6:3), and something which John the Baptist also soon came to see. From John 1:29 it is clear that John came to understand the Coming One in terms of the Servant of Isaiah 53. Thus as the Lamb of God Who would take away the sin of the world Jesus is now recognising that He must die in order to rise again in newness of resurrection life, something which He is now symbolising by His being baptised.

Had John thought about it he would have recognised that all His life Jesus had so identified Himself with a sinful people. Offerings had been offered for Him Who needed no atonement, by unworthy priests, as revealing His thanksgiving to, and worship of, God, and oneness with His people. He had regularly partaken of the Passover and other aspects of the feasts of Israel. For in all things He had wanted to show that He and His people were one. Thus His being baptised as an indication that He too was repentant on their behalf, and would partake in the Holy Spirit as well as they, was all one with all that had gone before.

This serves to demonstrate quite clearly that baptism did not symbolise washing from sin. For that Jesus could not have partaken in (as He no doubt never offered a sin or trespass offering). What baptism did symbolise was that the one who was being baptised was putting away any sin of the past, if there was any, by repentance, and was seeking to be a part of the work of God’s Holy Spirit upon his life for the future. As with the offerings only a part of this applied to Jesus. And what followed then emphasised the significance of baptism.

Other interpretations of why He was baptised include:

· By this He fulfilled the Law to the full. But John’s baptism was not obtained from the Law. Nor did it indicate fulfilment of the Law.

· By this His life was revealed as fully righteous. This was, of course, true, especially as He would have had no sins to confess. But it is doubtful if we can stop at the idea of a personal significance in One Who was the Messiah of Israel.

· By this He would be fulfilling all that the prophets had spoken, for by taking on Himself as Israel’s representative the symbol of God’s future working, He would be demonstrating that He was here to fulfil all righteousness in terms of the prophetic pronouncements and purposes of God concerning Him. He was being numbered with the transgressors, in order to establish righteousness among men through His own righteousness (Isaiah 53:11-12). This was certainly true, but probably not what He would have expected John to fully grasp, especially as John was not yet fully aware of Who He was. John would, however, grasp it soon enough once he had witnessed what happened at Jesus’ baptism (John 1:29). This suggestion does tie in very closely with that above, simply adding the Old Testament prophecies to John’s message as the last of the prophets.


Verse 16

‘And Jesus when he was baptised, went up immediately from the water, and lo, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming on him,’

Having been baptised by John, Jesus came out of the water, and immediately ‘the Heavens were opened’. Nothing visible would have been seen which was being described in these words. The opening of the Heavens was a way of speaking of God acting from Heaven. God as it were opens the door of Heaven so that Heaven may break through on earth. But the only thing that was actually visible was ‘the Spirit of God’ (Luke - ‘the Holy Spirit’) coming down from Heaven like a dove and settling on Jesus. Luke makes absolutely clear that what was seen was something ‘physical’ with an appearance almost like a dove. While too much dogmatism is ruled out, what is important is that something that appeared physical was actually seen. A phenomenon was actually observed.

The Spirit of God (or the Lord) coming on someone is a common feature in the Old Testament where the Spirit comes on charismatic leaders (the Judges, Saul and David), on prophets, on the coming Righteous King (Isaiah 11:1-4), on the Servant of YHWH (Isaiah 42:1-4), and on the Anointed Prophet (Isaiah 61:1-2). The idea of the Servant of YHWH is most apposite in view of Matthew 12:18-21, because it is clearly something that Matthew has in mind. On the other hand it is the Coming King Who has been most in view up to this point in Matthew. We can really discount the Spirit coming on the charismatic leaders and the prophets as being too closely associated with what happened, for there was no thought that they would receive the Spirit in order to pass Him on to many as a means of transforming the people of God, (it is true that the Spirit of Moses is passed on from Moses to seventy elders, but that is simply a larger example of what happened when Elijah passed on the Spirit on to Elisha. It was an empowering of men appointed for a particular service, not a general effusion of the Spirit). And mention of the Spirit coming on people ends with David. Thus we may see it here as indicating that the Coming King, Servant and Prophet of Isaiah was being authenticated as the King and Servant by the Voice from Heaven, and as the Prophet by Jesus’ words in Luke 4:18. This also ties in with Matthew’s continual and pointed emphasis on Isaiah’s prophecies from Matthew 3:3 to Matthew 13:17, a passage which then continues through to Matthew 20:28. In other words Jesus is to fill to the full the prophecies concerning the King, the Servant and the Prophet in Isaiah.

That then was a most momentous event. But what is even more startling is the reference to the Spirit visibly descending (in Luke ‘in bodily form’). This is unique in Scripture. The whole pattern of references to the Spirit in the Old Testament point to the fact that He represents the invisible activity of God revealed in its results. The Spirit is never seen. It is the Angel of YHWH Who is seen, but not the Spirit. When the Spirit works something happens and men are aware that it is due to the Spirit of God simply because of the results. But the Spirit is never visibly ‘seen’, only His effective working is seen. The same also applies in the New. (The fire at Pentecost is not actually said to be the Spirit. It is God appearing in fire. The Spirit does the filling for the purposes of prophecy and tongues - Acts 2:1-4). No wonder then that Luke felt that he had to emphasise the unique fact of what happened by calling it ‘bodily’. It was almost incredible for anyone who knew the Scriptures that the Spirit would come visibly. It must here therefore indicate something very special indeed, something that was totally unique, and with a unique significance.

One thing that it does suggest is that for the first time ‘the Spirit of God’ is being portrayed as in some way distinctive from the One Who sent Him. He has proceeded from the Father, and yet is in some way distinct from the Father. For here He is in visible form. It also appears to indicate that when Jesus receives the Spirit it is not as a kind of temporary loan from the Father, with Himself as an extension of the Father, (as the war leaders and prophets had been an extension of God’s mighty arm, or had been enclothed with Him - for ‘the Spirit of God clothes Himself with Gideon’), but as an outright giving of the Spirit to be under His control. Symbolically the Spirit has, as it were, come from the Father and has come to the earthly Jesus. He Himself can therefore drench men in the Holy Spirit on the basis of His own will precisely because the Holy Spirit now proceeds from Him.

How long it took those closest to Jesus to recognise that this experience indicated this fact we do not know, but it does explain why John the Baptiser was able to declare, ‘I saw and bear witness that this is the Son of God’ (John 1:34). He instinctively recognised the significance of what he had seen. None but the true and only beloved Son could receive the Spirit in this completeness, going far beyond anything experienced on earth before.

By this God was indicating, not just that Jesus was filled with the Spirit, but that the Spirit was on earth in bodily form in Jesus, as in no other before or since. In Jesus earth and Heaven had been combined from the beginning through His birth (Matthew 1:18; Matthew 1:20), and now they were uniquely combined for His future task. By it God was indicating what the situation now was. Jesus in His physical presence was the spiritual connection between earth and Heaven (compare John 3:13), with all the resources of God available to Himon earth. That did not mean, of course, that He acted separately from the Father. Indeed He would go out of His way to emphasise that He and His Father always acted together (John 5:19; John 9:3-4). But it drew out that He could be compared with no other. All others received the Spirit by measure. He alone received the Spirit in all His fullness (John 3:34). And that was why Matthew saw so clearly that in the presence of the King there was the activity of the Spirit, whether on earth or in Heaven. That was why Jesus could cast out evil spirits by the Spirit of God (Matthew 12:28). It was in this way that the Kingly Rule of Heaven was now on earth in all who enjoyed the Spirit’s working as gifted to them by Jesus (Matthew 11:27). (The Apostles would also cast out evil spirits by the Spirit of God as imparted to them by Jesus - Matthew 10:1)

‘Like a dove.’ More strictly we should say ‘like a bird’, such as a dove or a pigeon. Bird types were not then as strictly differentiated as they are today. This would be a reminder of the Spirit of God hovering over creation when God began His creative work (Genesis 1:2), and may thus be seen as indicating that God was as it were beginning a new creative work. It would also be a reminder of the dove who returned to the ark with the symbol of coming fruitfulness in its beak (Genesis 8:11), the symbol that judgment was at least temporarily put aside and of a new opportunity for creation to begin again. But important too is the idea that it was no eagle Who descended here. Here it was a gentle bird with peaceful intent (compare Matthew 10:16). It symbolised what would lie beneath the activity of ‘the Holy Spirit and fire’. The idea is quite remarkable. No combination of pictures could better express the ministry of Jesus. The dove depicts the One Who is meek and lowly in heart (Matthew 11:29), the One Who does not break the bruised reed or quench the still smoking flax (Matthew 12:20), Who through His Spirit gives life to those who seek Him (John 6:63), producing righteousness within them through the soft refreshing rain of the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 44:1-4), and yet the fire depicts One Who is harsh with sin, and will if necessary refine it with fire (Matthew 3:12; Malachi 3:3), and Who in the end will be harsher still with those who harden themselves against repentance and must receive the full weight of His fiery judgment (Matthew 3:13; Isaiah 5:24; Isaiah 66:16; Isaiah 66:24; Ezekiel 15:6-7; Ezekiel 22:21-22).

‘He saw’ almost certainly refers to John, as the voice in the third person in Matthew 3:17 makes clear. This was a manifestation to John as well as to Jesus. Whether anyone else saw it we do not know.

We should recognise that this was the initial true ‘Pentecost’. This was the moment from which the Holy Spirit’s mighty work would blossom out from the King and would fan out to those of Israel who were ready to receive Him. What happened at the ‘other’ Pentecost (and in the Upper Room - John 20:22) would be a repeating of this on the whole body of Christ (and on the whole band of Apostles) at the time. But there, if the signs are to be seen as indicating the Holy Spirit and not the God of Sinai Himself, the dove was replaced by the wind and fire, possibly based partly on John’s symbolism.

The coming of the Holy Spirit on Jesus was like a coronation. It was an anointing of Him (already the Anointed One) as God’s Messiah (Acts 4:27; Acts 10:38). It was the revelation that now, from Him, the Holy Spirit would reach out to all around Him, through His words, through His healings, through His casting out of evil spirits, and through His whole life (Luke 4:18-19; Isaiah 61:1-2). From now on the rain of the Spirit would fall and the fire of the Spirit would burn, and it would make many responsive and fruitful, would purify many, and would sadly cause others to wither and die. For now that the King was present and operative, men must either enter under His Kingly Rule and obey His words, or they must turn from His Kingly Rule and refuse to acknowledge Him. And sadly even some who professed to come under His Kingly Rule would not in fact do so. They would draw near to Him with their lips and honour Him with their mouths but their hearts would be far from Him. There would even be those who drew back and remained no longer with Him (Matthew 15:8; Matthew 7:21-22; John 6:66).


Verse 17

‘And lo, a voice out of the heavens, saying, “This is my beloved Son, (or ‘My Son, the Beloved’) in whom I am well pleased.” ’

And then the Voice spoke from Heaven. Here was no whisper of a voice, the quiet ‘bath qol’ (daughter of a voice) spoken of by the Scribes and Pharisees which had replaced the resounding words of the prophets. It was the voice of God Himself, loud and clear, although who it was clear to we are not told. Perhaps to many it sounded like thunder (compare John 12:29). But it was clear to both John and Jesus. This is made openly apparent by the evangelists. Matthew has John in mind when he translates as, ‘This is My beloved Son’. Mark and Luke had Jesus in mind when they translated as ‘You are My beloved Son’. The Aramaic (or even possibly Hebrew) was presumably less clear, with no initial pronoun in the sentence. The Voice may well have said, “My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased,” the indicating pronoun being assumed, as it often is in Aramaic. But when God is speaking who can dogmatise as to what is heard, or how it is heard?

The Voice described Jesus in terms of two Old Testament figures. ‘You are My Son’ identifies Him with the anointed King in Psalms 2:7. ‘My beloved in Whom I am well pleased’ (see Matthew 12:18) identifies Him with the Servant of YHWH of Isaiah. And this is the pattern of Matthew’s Gospel. It begins and ends with great emphasis on Jesus as the Anointed One, the King, the Son of David par excellence (1-2; Matthew 3:3 - the way is prepared for a king; Matthew 4:15-16 in its Isaianic context; Matthew 21:5; Matthew 22:1-14; Matthew 22:44-45; Matthew 25:31-46; Matthew 26:63-64; Matthew 27:11; Matthew 27:17; Matthew 27:22; Matthew 27:37; Matthew 28:18). But in its central part his Gospel also lays great emphasis on Jesus as the Servant of the Lord (here, Matthew 8:17; Matthew 12:18-21; Matthew 20:28, and the contexts in which they are found). We will expand on these themes as we go through the Gospel.

But the idea of sonship must be seen as going beyond that of just a son of David. He is ‘the beloved’, and the beloved is the Servant of YHWH (Matthew 12:18) and the transfigured One (Matthew 17:5). He is a unique eschatological figure. Furthermore the Devil will challenge Him with the fact of His awareness that He is the Son of God with almost limitless powers, powers that can create bread from stones, that can enable Him to throw Himself from the top of the Temple into the valley far beneath without hurt, and that can enable Him with the Devil’s assistance to conquer the world. And had Jesus not thought that He could do these things they would have been no temptation. (Most of us have never felt tempted to do any of them). And it is because He is the Son of God that evil spirits do His bidding (Matthew 8:29). Add to this that He is the only Son (in Luke ‘My beloved son’) in contrast with the prophets (Matthew 21:37-38, compare Matthew 22:2) and David’s Lord (Matthew 22:44) and we recognise that He stands alone uniquely apart as God’s Son, Whom no one knows but the Father (Matthew 11:27), and Who Himself uniquely knows the Father but can reveal Him to His own (Matthew 11:27), because he who has seen Him has seen the Father (John 14:9).

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Matthew 3:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/matthew-3.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, October 20th, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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