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Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament
Matthew 3

 

 

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Verse 1

Matthew 3:1. In those days. Nearly thirty years after the events mentioned in the last chapter (comp. Luke 3:23). Of that long period of private discipline and preparation in Nazareth, only one incident is preserved in the Gospels (Luke 42-52). The Apocryphal histories ‘of the Infancy’ are as foolish as false. This silence of Scripture suggests lessons of obedience and reverence to parents, of patience and perseverance in the long processes of education for our life-work.

Cometh, makes his appearance as a public personage; probably at the Levitical age of thirty years, as in the case of our Lord (Luke 23). This chapter is then the history of six months.

John, Hebrew: Johanan (the Lord graciously gave) allied to the Phenician name Hannibal (German, Gottlieb). On the remarkable circumstances attending his birth and naming, see Luke 1. He was related to the holy family, through his mother (Luke 1:36).

The Baptist, well known as such. This title is transferred from the Greek. Mark (Mark 6:14; Mark 6:24) twice calls him ‘the Baptizer’ (‘he who baptized’). Baptism was a prominent and, as far as previous usage was concerned, a distinctive rite in his ministry.

Preaching. Proclaiming, or publishing, as a herald does; so throughout the New Testament. Not so much the act of formal religious instruction, as the announcing of facts, the heralding of a person. Preaching should still be thus distinguished from lecturing, catechising, etc. John was emphatically a herald (comp. Matthew 3:2-3), and in the truest sense a prophet

In the wilderness, i.e. a region ‘not regularly cultivated and inhabited, but used for pasturage, being generally without wood, and deficient in water, but not entirely destitute of vegetation.’ This wilderness was a rocky tract in the eastern part of Judea, toward the Dead Sea. This appearance in the wilderness was not only a fulfilment of prophecy, but characteristic of the mission of John: whom men should go out to see (Matthew 11:7-9), and symbolical of the isolation of the Jews under the old covenant.


Verses 1-12

John the Baptist, his mission, character, and preaching. The section takes up the Old Testament prophecy (Matthew 3:3), and concludes with an announcement of the coming Messiah (Matthew 3:11-12), whose baptism is next recorded. John combines the characters of Moses and Isaiah, joins law and promise in his preaching; the last of the Old Testament and nearest to the New (comp. chap. Matthew 11:11). He decreases that Christ may increase (John 3:30); preaches the law (repentance), because the gospel is at hand (Matthew 3:2); stern in rebuke of sinners (Matthew 3:7), he is poor in spirit before the Saviour (Matthew 3:11). A herald of the kingdom (Matthew 3:2), yet not of it (chap. Matthew 11:11), he came in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1:17; comp. Matthew 11:14), to be the connecting link between the Old and New Dispensations. His inspiration (comp. Luke 3:2 : ‘the word of God came to John,’ the Old Testament formula) was ‘more of a sudden overpowering influence, as in the prophets, than a gentle indwelling, manifested through the individual character, as in the apostles and evangelists’ (Alford). His doubts about the mission of Christ (chap. Matthew 11:3) recall the impatience of Elijah, at Horeb (1 Kings 19). Yet his baptism had a greater significance than the Mosaic ritual washings, and his preaching was an advance on all previous teaching. The former culminated in the baptism of Christ (Matthew 3:15-17), the latter in the announcement, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world’ (John 1:29).


Verse 2

Matthew 3:2. Repent. Not mere remorse, but conversion and reformation, or turning away from sin and unto God. The Greek word means change of mind or heart. A necessary exhortation, because the people were corrupt, but especially now: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand, i.e., has become and is now near in time. ‘The kingdom of heaven’ is equivalent to ‘the kingdom of God,’ and is used by this Evangelist alone. It is in the world, but not of the world, heavenly in its origin, character, and destination. It is the kingdom from heaven, for the Messiah, the King, came from heaven. The Jews, however, thought it was to be a temporal kingdom. Hence they rejected an humble Saviour, and yet used this view against Him before Pilate (Luke 23:2; John 19:12). From this Jewish error the Apostles were not entirely freed until the day of Pentecost. It does not refer exclusively to a kingdom still future, but to the reign of the Messiah both in its inception (at the Advent) and its consummation (at the future ‘coining’) The former is the prominent thought here, in other cases the latter. In the widest sense, it includes the Old Testament theocracy as a preparation. Matthew’s exclusive use of ‘heaven,’ is probably in contrast with the external (and worldly) Jewish notions.


Verse 3

Matthew 3:3. For. He thus preached, because he was sent to fulfil this prophecy.

Is he. All the Evangelists and John himself thus apply the prophecy, which is more than a typical one. Even if the primary reference was to a return from captivity, the entire fulfilment was in the mission of the Baptist.—Isaiah, Isaiah 40:3. Here, as in Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4, the Evangelist quotes; in John 1:23, the Baptist applies the prophecy to himself.

The voice. From the Septuagint. Literally ‘a voice.’ Some suppose John is represented as a ‘voice,’ in contrast with Christ as ‘the Word,’ others because his life was vocal,’ the whole man being as it were a sermon,’ perhaps with reference to the long silence since the prophet Malachi.

In the wilderness is connected, in the Hebrew, with ‘prepare,’ here with ‘crying.’ The sense remains the same. ‘The wilderness’ here (and probably in the original prophecy) refers to the spiritually desolate condition of God’s people.

The way of the Lord, i.e., Jehovah. By implication the coming One was Jehovah. An allusion to the Eastern custom of removing obstacles before the approach of a royal personage. Hence the prophecy did not primarily refer to the return of the Jews from captivity, when no King was present.


Verse 4

Matthew 3:4. How John himself. The dress and habits of John confirm the statement of Matthew 3:3. His dress, like that of Elijah, corresponded with his preaching. The resemblance to Elijah was possibly in the mind of the Evangelist, since our Lord in his public teaching (chap. Matthew 11:14; Matthew 17:12-13), referred the prophecy of Malachi (respecting Elijah) to John.

Camel’s hair. The coarse cloth woven of the hair shed each year. The fine cloth called camlet, is made of the softer hairs. Zach. Matthew 14:3, suggests that this was the distinctive dress of the Old Testament prophets, but this is not certain. Elijah was thus distinguished (comp. 2 Kings 1:8).

A leathern girdle, such as Elijah wore, of undressed hide. The austere dress befitted the austere preacher of repentance, whose ministry, like that of Elijah, aimed at bringing back the people to the spirit of their fathers (see Matthew 3:8-9).

His food. A more exact rendering than ‘meat.’

Locusts are still eaten in the East by the poorest class, and were allowed to be eaten by the Mosaic law (Leviticus 11:22). The older expositors, not aware that locusts were eaten, give conjectural explanations: Shrimps, cakes, etc.—Wild honey. Abundant in Palestine, which is described as ‘flowing with milk and honey.’ The term is, however, used by other ancient authors, of a kind of honey which issued from fig trees, palms, and other trees. A still more meagre diet.—Thus John came ‘neither eating nor drinking,’—a Nazarite. He probably did not enjoin this mode of life upon others. His position demanded it of him, and his actual self denial had a symbolical meaning, pointing to the repentance he preached. John was the forerunner of Christ; repentance the practice of baptizing proselytes, but this is uncertain, as is also the antiquity of this practice. The objection to this view of the derivation of John’s baptism, is that it would have presented him as the founder of a new sect, rather than as the restorer of the ancient ways. There is no hint that he was thus regarded. Only on this theory can the baptism of John be identified with Christian baptism. The children of proselytes were also baptized. A better view is that John, by his preaching of repentance, declared the uncleanness of the Jewish people, and baptized the individual Jew upon confession, as a sign of purification. Thus the rite was essentially a Jewish one, the final preparatory rite of the Old Testament economy, and hence not identical with precedes the assurance of salvation in our consciousness, but the coming of salvation is the great motive to repentance: ‘Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’


Verse 5

Matthew 3:5. To him, i.e., to the banks of Jordan.

Jerusalem. The inhabitants of the capital city are first referred to.

All Judea, the multitude was great enough to justify this expression.

Bound about Jordan. An indefinite expression, which may include parts of Samaria and Galilee, but the most remote locality seems to have been put first and the nearest last. Continued action is here asserted. John’s spiritual power was so great, that it became quite the fashion, even among the self-righteous Jews, to go out into the wilderness to be baptized.


Verse 6

Matthew 3:6. And they were baptized by him. ‘They’ is to be supplied, since Matthew 3:5 speaks of the regions. Baptism was essentially a symbolical or ceremonial washing, prescribed at first by the Mosaic law, as a sign of moral renovation, joined with sacrifice. John may have derived his rite from Christian baptism. Those who had received John’s baptism were rebaptized (Acts 19:4); Christ himself was the subject of the rite, as a Jew (see next section), while it had a more profound significance than the ceremonial lustration, yet it was not a baptism ‘unto his death’ (Romans 6:3), but ‘unto repentance’ (comp. Matthew 3:11).—Details of external form are not made prominent in the religion of Christ. If the rite is not identical with Christian baptism, the mode practised by John cannot conclusively determine the proper mode of Christian baptism. The subjects went into the river and were either immersed by John, or water was poured on them. The Greek verb baptize (from the root bapto, to dip) is a technical term for a symbolical washing, with a view to spiritual purification. It is better in any case to retain the word ‘baptize,’ as marking more distinctly this technical sense.

In the liver Jordan. This follows the better sustained reading.

Confessing their sins. This they did in every case, usually in a particular and public manner; yet the form probably varied. Some explain, ‘on condition of confessing their sins;’ but this is too strong.


Verse 7

Matthew 3:7. But when he sawcoming to his baptism. Not ‘against his baptism,’ though he opposed them. They came to be baptized (‘for baptism’ is the sense of a briefer reading), but John saw they were not fit subjects. Luke represents John as speaking thus ‘to the multitudes.’ The coming of these leading people probably attracted a crowd to whom the language was equally applicable; or the Pharisees and Sadducees themselves formed ‘the multitudes,’ more closely defined by Matthew in accordance with the character of his Gospel.

The Pharisees and Sadducees. Two opposing parties, here classed together in the same unworthy category. They afterwards stood together against Christ. According to Josephus, both parties originated about the same time, B.C. 154-144. The Pharisees were the upholders of strict orthodox Judaism, including the traditions of the elders. The name probably means, Separatists, but implies, not a separation from the rest of the people, although this occurred to some extent, out their desire to separate the Jews from other nations. They represented one great form of religious error, that of outward legalism and traditionalism, hence of superstition, of self-righteousness, of hypocrisy, of lifeless orthodoxy,—a pernicious tendency that has continued. While our Lord lived on earth, they were his bitterest opponents.

The Sadducees (so named from their supposed founder, Zadok), represent the opposite tendency of skepticism, rationalism, and unbelief. They rejected tradition, and probably even the later books of the Old Testament, denied the immortality of the soul, the existence of angels, etc., and conformed greatly to heathen customs. Out of Christ the majority of men belong to one or the other of these schools.

A third school existed, the Essenes. They are not mentioned in the Gospels, probably because they stood aloof. Their daily lustrations would lead them to attach little importance to the baptism of John. They may be called the Jewish mystics, and represent a tendency less universal than the other two schools. They stood no nearer to Christianity than the Pharisees and Sadducees, for they adopted both Jewish purifications, and Alexandrian philosophy. Among the Greeks and Romans the Stoics correspond to the Pharisees, the Epicureans to the Sadducees, the Platonists to the mystical and ascetic Essenes.

The two leading schools seem at first to have recognized John as a prophet, but his words soon aroused dislike. This grew into enmity when he announced Jesus as the Messiah, so that afterwards they tacitly denied his authority (comp. Luke vii 30; Matthew 21:25-27). The new teacher lost popularity when he rebuked sin and pointed to Christ.

Brood of vipers. The phrase characterizes them as both deceitful and malicious. John probably alludes to the expression, ‘seed of the serpent’(Genesis 3:15); in spite of their descent from Abraham, he thus classes them among those over whom the seed of the woman should obtain the victory. This explanation takes away the apparent harshness, is in keeping with what follows, and appropriately applied by one who heralded the coming of Christ, to those who caused His death (thus bruising his heel).

Who warned you? Intimated to you, gave you a hint of. John expresses surprise that such as they could take the hint.

To flee, i.e., to attempt to escape, as they were professing to do, or were actually doing. If the first be the sense, then John doubted their sincerity; if the latter, he would insist on thorough work.

The wrath to come, or, the coming, impending wrath of God, here identified with punishment itself. Foretold by Malachi (Matthew 3:2; Matthew 4:5), in connection with the forerunner of the Messiah. Hence troublous times were anticipated. The fear of these times rather than of the future judgment moved the Pharisees and Sadducees, while John himself foretold the fate of the Jewish nation as part of the ‘impending wrath.’


Verse 8

Matthew 3:8. Bring forth therefore. ‘Therefore,’ i.e., if you are really fleeing as you profess to be, then bring forth fruit (the singular is found in the original) worthy of repentance (or, your repentance). The fruit or result, worthy of repentance, implies a good tree to produce the fruit. The germ of the great gospel truth: ‘Ye must be born again,’ since natural birth, or descent from Abraham (Matthew 3:9), did not insure the worthy fruit.


Verse 9

Matthew 3:9. Think not to say, or, ‘that you may say.’ Do not say, nay, do not think that this is a plausible defence, even within yourselves, in your own hearts: We have Abraham to our father, or ‘for a father,’ i.e., we shall escape, or be saved, because we are natural heirs to the promise made to him. This was the Jewish boast, the Jewish error; John’s preaching went to the heart of the matter.

For. The reason the Jewish boast was not valid.

God is able of (or, ‘out of’) these stones, i.e., lying loose on the banks of Jordan, where the words were uttered—sarcastic. No figurative reference to heathen, or to monuments.

To raise up children unto Abraham. Very emphatic. God could create others to take their place as heirs of the promise. Probably a reference to the spiritual offspring of the patriarch (Romans 4:16; Galatians 3:7). John, either consciously or unconsciously, predicts the calling of the Gentiles. Spiritual succession not dependent on natural or ecclesiastical (even ‘apostolic’) succession.


Verse 10

Matthew 3:10. And even now, while I am speaking.

The axe is lying at the root of the trees. The figure of Matthew 3:8 (‘fruit’) is carried out. The axe (Divine judgments) has not been applied as yet, but is ready for use, implying that ‘the trees’ were unfruitful, or of a bad kind. A striking declaration of imminent destruction.

Therefore, because of the position of the axe.

Bringeth not forth good fruit. There may be blossoms, professions, and yet no fruit, or the fruit may be bad.

If hewn down. Not ‘will be;’ the present tense represents a certain and immediate future action, or a general law of the ‘kingdom’ which John heralded.

Into the fire, continued figure, setting forth the effect, God’s wrath.


Verse 11

Matthew 3:11. I indeed. Contrast between himself and the One he heralded. He was not the judge; the Messiah would be.

With (literally ‘in’) water. The person baptized stood in the water as the most convenient place, and may have been immersed, or the water was taken up and poured on his head.

Unto, i.e., with a view to repentance.

He that cometh after me, the Messiah; assuming his speedy appearance, and that the hearers also expected him.

Mightier. In himself stronger and about to exert that strength.

Whose sandals I am not worthy to bear. Sandals were fastened with a strap; comp. Mark 1:7, where there is a reference to unloosing this strap, here to carrying the sandals away after being unloosed. To perform for the Messiah this menial office of the meanest slave, was too honorable for one to whom all Judea resorted. This unexampled humility was stronger evidence of true greatness than the power he exerted as a preacher. A fit forerunner of the ‘meek and lowly’ Messiah. Here the official superiority of Christ is spoken of, the superiority of nature is declared in the Gospel according to John, John 1.

He shall baptise you. Christ himself did not baptize (John 4:2). The contrast is between John’s baptism unto repentance, and the spiritual power which Christ would give (not the Christian rite), for full and entire salvation. The second baptism is figurative; hence nothing is suggested for or against the identity of John’s baptism and the Christian rite.

With, literally, ‘in.’ The parallel passage (Mark 1:8), makes it doubtful whether the literal sense is to De adhered to; see below also.

The Holy Ghost. The third person of the Trinity; not a contrast between external water and internal spirit.

Fire. ‘With’ is not to be supplied. Some refer this to the fire of judgment, as in Matthew 3:12; but the close connection with what precedes, and the actual appearance of ‘fire’ on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:13), favor a reference to the powerful and purifying influences of the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 4:4; Jeremiah 5:14; Malachi 3:2). ‘In’ must not be pressed in either case, since the Holy Ghost is represented as poured out, and the fire on the day of Pentecost came down upon the disciples.


Verse 12

Matthew 3:12. Whose winnowing-shovel, etc. A new figure, including a reference both to the saved and the lost; ‘the axe’ referred to the latter alone. The ‘winnowing-shovel,’ for separating the chaff and the wheat, was ready for use, in his hand, and thus equipped, he will cleanse thoroughly (from one end to the other) his threshing floor. The threshing floor was a circular space on the farm, either beaten hard or paved, where the grain was trodden out by oxen or horses. The threshing floor of the Messiah becomes larger as the course of history moves on. The thorough cleansing of the floor itself will be completed when the end of the world comes, but the process of winnowing is included, i.e., the disciplinary and punitive leadings of God with men.

And he will gather. The punctuation of the common version should be altered. The cleansing process is spoken of first in general, then the twofold result is set forth in contrasted clauses.

His wheat, the fruits of the husbandry, the persons saved, hence ‘His.’

The garner, the storehouse; either the kingdom of heaven on earth, or heaven itself, probably both, since Christ’s salvation includes both words.

The chaff, the refuse, not ‘His,’ when separated will be burned up. As in the case of the ‘wheat,’ persons are meant, and the punishment may begin, like the blessing, in this world.

Fire unquenchable. The violent, uncontrollable blaze of a straw fire is the figurative representation of an awful reality. Once begun, the fiery judgment continues, until the unquenchable fire of Gehenna is kindled.


Verse 13

Matthew 3:13. Than. Probably about six months after John began to preach; comp. Matthew 3:1.

Cometh, as in Matthew 3:1, a coming forth into public view.

From Galilee, from His home in Nazareth, a long distance.

To be baptised by him. Jesus who was sinless, came to a baptism ‘unto repentance.’ This condescension formed a part of the obedience to the Divine law (see Matthew 3:15), rendered by Him as a member of the Jewish nation. The Jews were baptized in token of uncleanness, so He, ‘numbered with the transgressors,’ must needs go through the rites and purifications prescribed for them. This act closes the concealed life of quiet subjection and legal submission, opening the public life of mediatorial satisfaction. Hence He was baptized, both to fulfil all righteousness and to receive the Divine attestation; certainly not merely to honor John.


Verses 13-17

The culmination of the ministry of John in the baptism of Jesus. The accompanying attestation: to John, a revelation that this was the Christ; to Jesus his Messianic inauguration. It therefore marks an epoch in the Gospel history, and doubtless in the consciousness of the God-Man Himself (see notes on Matthew 3:16-17). While fulfilling all righteousness (Matthew 3:15), the well-beloved Son receives witness from the Father (Matthew 3:17), and is baptized with the Holy Ghost (Matthew 3:16). A solemn introduction into His public ministry.


Verse 14

Matthew 3:14. But John would have hindered him. Peculiar to Matthew. Began to hinder Him, by act rather than word.—I have need, continuous, habitual need.

Comest thou to me? A question of surprise, implying a recognition of Jesus as the Messiah. John’s knowledge of Jesus was sufficient to occasion the question. His subsequent declaration (John 1:33): ‘I knew him not,’ does not contradict this. He had not yet received the sign from heaven that would enable him to authoritatively proclaim Jesus as the Messiah. Compare the very decided declarations made by the Baptist immediately afterwards.


Verse 15

Matthew 3:15. Suffer it now. The propriety of John’s scruples is recognized; but he was ‘now’ or ‘as yet’ the minister of the law, which Jesus must fulfil. The relation between them would soon be changed.

It becometh us. Both John in his office and Jesus in His.

Righteousnes. The requirements of the law, regarded as including all that is right.

Suffereth him. More than ‘he baptized him’; Jesus was really the active person, since the rite was administered at His command and by His authority.


Verse 16

Matthew 3:16. From the water. Mark: ‘out of.’ They probably stood in the water, but as both accounts do not so assert, this is not the essential fact.

And lo, the heavens were opened. How, cannot be explained. Doubtless some miraculous appearance in the sky. Lange even suggests that the stars appeared. ‘Heaven, which was closed by the first Adam, is opened again over the second.’

Unto him and he saw, i.e., Jesus; though John also saw it (John 1:33). The two statements are not contradictory, but point to a real appearance, seen by both the persons who were concerned in this solemn inauguration. ‘Unto Him’ may also mean ‘for him, ‘for his advantage.

The Spirit of God. Only a Person could be thus embodied.

Descending as a dove. Luke says, ‘in a bodily form, as a dove.’ This statement, in which all four Evangelists agree, is to be understood literally. A temporary embodiment of the Holy Spirit occurred to publicly inaugurate our Lord as the Messiah. The accidental, or even Providential, appearance of a real dove would not call for such marked mention in all four Gospels. The dove symbolizes perfect gentleness, purity, fulness of life and the power of communicating it.

Coming upon him. John (John 1:32) says: ‘it abode upon Him;’ the outward sign was temporary, the anointing was permanent. His active ministry now begins.

The baptism with the Holy Ghost of One ‘conceived by the Holy Ghost,’ is a Divine mystery. In one light it was but the outward sign of that which was His already. At the same time our Lord had a human development (comp. Luke 2:40; Luke 2:52; Hebrews 5:8). It may aid us in apprehending the fact that the Son of God became a real man, to regard this event as marking the age of maturity; the attainment of the full consciousness of his nature and mission as the God-Man and Saviour. The time had come for Him to begin His official work, that time was marked by the visible sign of the Holy Ghost, here -spoken of; the Divine Spirit now entered ‘into some new relation with the Incarnate’ Son, with respect to the work of salvation, and the God-Man received some internal anointing for His work corresponding to the outward sign.’

Matthew 3:17. And lo, a voice out of the heavens. Heard by all who stood by, as on the mount of transfiguration (chap. Matthew 17:5).

This is. A declaration to John that ‘this is’ the Messiah. Matthew, who pays special attention to the proof of the Messiahship of Jesus, probably gives the exact language; Mark and Luke give the substance: ‘Thou art.’

My beloved Son, lit, ‘My Son the beloved!’ Used in a unique sense. No one else was or could be a ‘Son,’ or ‘Beloved,’ as this Person was. The Divine nature and eternal Sonship of Christ are obviously implied.

In whom. This clause is taken from Isaiah 42:1. See the direct quotation in chap. 12, 18.

I was well pleased. The clause might be paraphrased: ‘On whom I fixed my delight.’ This means perfect complacency. The original indicates a past time, not a continued state. The latter sense is a possible one, declaring the eternal good pleasure of the Father in the Son, but this would be only a repetition of the previous declaration. The more grammatical sense points to the complacency of the Father in the Son, when He assumed the office of Mediator (comp. Ephesians 1:4; John 17:24). Hence the reference is to the past, not to the time of his baptism. His preexistence is implied, and the meaning is peculiarly appropriate in the circumstances. The Godhead eternally existing as Trinity was manifested, as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, to us and for us in this occurrence, as throughout the economy of redemption. The revelation of the Trinity at the baptism of Jesus gives special significance to the formula of baptism: ‘in’ (or ‘into’) ‘the name of the Father,’ etc. By this attestation to his Sonship and Messiahship, Jesus was anointed as Prophet, Priest, and King. That such an occasion should involve miraculous events was to be expected. The supernatural becomes the natural in the life of a Divine human Person.

 


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Bibliography Information
Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on Matthew 3:4". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/scn/matthew-3.html. 1879-90.

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