MATTHEW CHAPTER 3.
The Ministry of John the Baptist. Matt. 3, 1-12.
V. 1a. In those days came John the Baptist. The method here used by Matthew to introduce a new section in his history of the Savior is one employed by the holy writers to refer to a preceding date or occurrence, Ex. 2, 11. 23; Is. 38, 1. It was during the residence of Jesus in Nazareth, during the period of His obscurity, when He was quietly growing in wisdom and age, and in favor with God and man, Luke 2, 52. Luke's narrative is here characterized by a most careful fixing of time, Luke 3, 1. 2, as befits so exact an historian, but our present passage is dramatically most effective. Those were memorable days and years to which our wistful, reverent gaze turns back, which the eyes of our spirit do not tire to behold. John, surnamed the Baptist, came in those days; he entered upon his ministry, for which he had been intended and prepared even before his birth, Luke 1, 15-17. 42-44. 76. 77. He is distinguished from John the Apostle and bears the name Baptist from the outstanding feature of his public work, since he baptized those that confessed their sins. It was necessary, to this end, that the hearts of the people be properly prepared, and therefore John came, v. 1 b. preaching in the wilderness of Judea. Not primarily as a teacher, but as a preacher and exhorter he came, solemnly proclaiming, heralding the approach of the kingdom of heaven. And this with all the greater impressiveness, since his abode was in the wilderness of Judea, away from the usual haunts of men, in the mountainous, rugged country toward the Dead Sea, and in the steppes, or pasture lands, sloping down from there to the valley of the Jordan. Interesting, because different!
The emphasis of John was on one fact: V. 2. And saying, Repent ye; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. That was the chief content, the matter, the burden, of his heralding, the admonition to repentance, the watchword which characterized his preaching. He deemed a complete change of mind and heart necessary as preparation for the advent of the Messiah. For His kingdom, the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven, has come near; it is about to be revealed in all its glory. It is a kingdom of the heavens in opposition to an earthly kingdom of which the Jews dreamed, since Jesus, the Lord of heaven, is its Ruler, and since this kingdom, whose beauty is here often hidden by the misery of this present life, will be fully revealed in the light of the future glory above. There all those that with sorrowful and contrite hearts accepted the Savior in His lowliness and humility will be partakers of His kingdom with its eternal splendor and majesty. Sincere repentance, followed by simple faith, opens the way to all this grandeur. "But this is repentance, if I believe God's Word, which reveals to me and accuses me of being a sinner and condemned before God, and am terrified with all my heart because I have ever been disobedient to my God, have not rightly looked upon and considered His commandments, much less kept the greatest or the least, and yet do not despair, but let myself be directed to Jesus, to seek mercy and help with Him, and also firmly believe I shall find it. For He is the Lamb of God, destined from eternity for this purpose that He shall bear the sins of the whole world and pay for them by His death." 22)
Matthew's manner of adducing the prophetic passage in this instance is peculiar: V. 3. For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make His paths straight. He sets him apart from others concerning whom there was a prophecy. This is the man whom Isaiah had in mind when he wrote his words of comfort for Jerusalem, Is. 40, 3. We have here an allusion to the well-known Oriental custom of heralding the coming of, and preparing the way for, princes in their travels. The typical prophecy of Isaiah became a distinct announcement in Malachi, chapter 3, 1. Cp. Mal. 4, 6; Luke 1, 17; Matt. 11, 10. 14; 17, 11. John was the herald of Jesus. The purpose of his ministry was by preaching and by baptizing to prepare the hearts and minds of the people for the coming of the great King of Mercy. The King's highway must be straight, without deviations of hypocrisy, without twists and turns of selfishness. That is the burden of the cry in the wilderness.
The appearance and habits of the Baptist should also be noted: V. 4. And the same John had his raiment of camel's hair and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey. John was an antitype of Elijah, the great prophet and preacher of Israel, both as to his personal appearance and bearing and as to the peculiar difficulties under which his message went forth, 2 Kings 1, 8; 1 Kings 19, 10. His raiment, his usual clothing, was not a complete dress or cloak, but a covering or garment thrown over the shoulder, woven out of camel's hair, a rough, uncomfortable protection against the elements. It was held together at the loins by a leathern girdle, without ornamentation. His main article of food was locusts, an edible species as named in Lev. 11, 22, still used as meat in the East: legs and wings stripped off, and the remainder boiled and roasted. To give at least some variety to the diet, or to serve for sustaining life when locusts were scarce, John used wild honey, such as was deposited by bees in trees and holes in the rocks, or the tree honey which exudes from fig-trees, palms, and other trees. The austere, ascetic appearance and mode of life of John corresponded with his message, which enjoined renunciation of the world and repentance.
The effect of his preaching: V. 5. Then went out to him Jerusalem and all Judea, and all the region round about Jordan. If not instantaneous, the success was rapid. The news traveled swiftly. First came those from the surrounding country, people from either side of the Jordan, whose homes were in or near the wilderness. Then the great movement spread in ever-widening circles into Judea. And finally, haughty, disdainful Jerusalem is drawn into the excitement. This the evangelist intimates by placing the capital city first; even conservative Jerusalem goes into the wilderness, a penitent at the call of John. A remarkable testimony for the power of the Word when openly and fearlessly proclaimed!
John performed his ministry to all: V. 6. And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins. His powerful, appealing call to repentance had its effect. In ever-increasing numbers they came. The guilt-burdened men and women, whose lives had been lived in sham and deceit, made a frank, explicit, public confession of their sins, voluntarily, now general, now special, as they came under the influence of John's personality and message. "This confession of sins by individuals was a new thing in Israel. There was a collective confession on the great Day of Atonement, and individual confession in certain specified cases (Num. 5, 7), but no great spontaneous self-unburdenment of penitent souls — every man apart. It must have been a stirring sight." 23) And as they came and made confession of their sins, in a practically unbroken stream, they were baptized by John in the river Jordan. It was an awakening such as the land had not witnessed since the time of the ancient prophets.
A perplexing, disagreeable situation: V. 7. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Matthew includes the members of both sects in one and the same category of unworthy intruders. The Pharisees excelled especially in their insistence upon outward observance of the Law and the traditions of the elders, and the Sadducees were rationalists that rejected all the inspired writings but the books of Moses. In either case their religion was nothing but a thin veneer of form and show of pomp, without the assent of the heart. All the more reprehensible, then, is their affront in appearing at John's baptism, where repentance, change of heart, was the primary demand. It may have been partly curiosity, partly fascination, since they could not remain indifferent to a movement which had assumed such proportions, that brought them to John. At any rate, they came upon the scene, they appeared at the place where John was baptizing. But their reception at his hands was anything but pleasant. "Generation of vipers" is the epithet he applies to them, offspring of serpents, imbued with the nature of the slimy, stinging reptiles. It is an outburst of intense moral aversion that causes him to shrink from, and openly denounce, these visitors as both deceitful and malicious, Ps. 140, 3; Is. 14, 29; 59, 5; Ps. 58, 4. It seemed indeed as though they were fleeing from the wrath to come by making application for entrance into the Kingdom, but there is every reason for distrusting their sincerity. It is impossible to escape from the wrath which will bring upon hypocrites the holy, penal justice of God, and thus the punishment itself, Rom. 1,18; Eph.2, 3.
Having thus unmasked them, the Baptist makes his demand: V. 8. Bring forth, therefore, fruits meet for repentance. An entire change of heart must precede the performing of truly good works, such as measure up to the standard of an honest repentance, as conform to a real amendment of life. John insists upon their producing proper, suitable, sufficient evidence of a true repentance, fruits of a divine flavor, before he can consent to administer Baptism to them. And his further warning is peculiarly fitting in the case of the Pharisees: V. 9. 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 unto Abraham. The fact that they were members, according to the flesh, of God's chosen people, the fact that they were descendants of Abraham, in a direct line, had ever been the boast of the Pharisees, John 8, 33. 39. But a mere external membership in God's Church is of no avail. He is a Judge of the hearts and minds and may, on that score, at any time reject them as spurious children. Besides, it would be a small thing for God, out of the very stones of the wilderness, to create for Himself new children, more genuine as to faith than the Pharisees and Sadducees. "We are (said they) God's people whom He has chosen before all nations on earth, and to whom He has given circumcision; so we have and observe the Law, visit God's Temple at Jerusalem, and exercise ourselves in the holy service which God Himself has ordered. In short, we go our way in the spiritual and worldly government, as both have been fixed and ordered through Moses by God's command; are also of the blood and tribe of the holy patriarchs: Abraham is our father, etc. What do we lack that we should not be pious and holy, dear and pleasing to God, and be saved? All this, he says, does not concern the matter. For God is not interested in knowing that you are proficient in boasting much and high concerning the Law, the Temple, the fathers, etc. He wants you to fear Him and to believe His promise, to obey and accept Him whom He has promised to you and now sends. The alternative is that He will reject and exterminate you with all your glory, with which He Himself has endowed and ornamented you before all nations." 24)
And this is not all: V. 10. And now also the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. The ax has been placed, it is even now ready to begin its work of just retribution, of stern justice upon every spurious descendant of Abraham. Every tree which proves itself hopelessly barren cannot escape the near inevitable doom. And John makes use of careful phrasing. Not only is fruit demanded, which may, under circumstances, be unpalatable and even poisonous, but his condition is that the tree produce good fruit. Unless this demand is met, there is no other alternative: The useless tree is condemned to be firewood; the unbelieving Jew will be excluded from the kingdom of the Messiah.
John's sermon would have been incomplete without a reference to Him whose way he was sent to prepare: V. 11. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire. His was merely a temporary and a symbolical mission. He was only the forerunner, the herald, and he was fully satisfied with this secondary and subordinate position. His baptism was merely preparatory. By inducing men to repent and by administering the washing of Baptism, he was getting them ready for the understanding of the higher mission of the Messiah. But He who is just coming, who follows immediately after me in point of time, who will shortly make His appearance, is stronger than I; to Him pertains almighty power. And with this power is combined divine dignity. So great, so august, so exalted is His personage that John does not feel himself worthy even to take off His sandals, the work of the lowest slaves in the Orient. The ministry of this man will stand out in wonderful contrast. Himself will baptize you, will give you a peculiar baptism, with the Holy Ghost and with fire. A twofold effect of Christ's work is here predicted: To those who with penitent hearts accept Him as Savior, He will give the precious boon of the Holy Spirit, with all His glorious gifts and powers, John 1,33; Mark 1,8; Acts 1, 5; but those whose impenitent hearts would reject the purchased salvation He will immerse in fire. They have refused to accept the Spirit with His invigorating and illuminating power, and therefore the omnipotence of His outraged holiness will submerge and devour them. 25)
This thought is carried out still further: V. 12. Whose fan is in His hand, and He will throughly purge His floor, and gather His wheat into the garner; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. The picture is that of a threshing-floor in the Orient, a flat, open space paved with stones. The husbandman has driven his oxen across the floor to tread out the grain from the hulls, or his workmen have beaten it out with flails. Now comes the purging of the floor to separate the stalks and the hulls from the grain, and the winnowing of the loose matter with a fan to blow away the lighter chaff and leave the heavier kernels. God's great threshing-floor is the earth. The test by which He decides the fate of every person in the world, by which He separates the wheat from the chaff, is the relation toward Jesus and His salvation. Those that are found secure in His redemption through faith are gathered safely into the garner of heaven. But those that are found too light, either on account of their reliance upon their own self-righteousness or because they esteem a mere external church-membership a sufficient guarantee of the joys of heaven, will find themselves subjected to the violent, inextinguishable fire, not only of the judgment, Mal. 4, 1, but of hell. Matt. 25, 41.
The Baptism of Jesus. Matt. 3, 13-17.
The time had now come for Jesus to enter upon His ministry, to be inducted into His office by a public ceremony: V. 13. Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. He now came forth from His concealment, while John was at the very height of his evangelistic career. He came down to John, not like the Pharisees and Sadducees, who really all the while rejected God's counsel against themselves, Luke 7, 30, but in an open, friendly manner, to enter into amicable relations with him, and incidentally to receive Baptism at his hands. So far as His coming in itself was concerned, there was no difference between His desire for Baptism and that of the multitudes.
And yet Matthew writes: V. 14. But John forbade Him, saying, I have need to be baptized of Thee, and comest Thou to me? This passage is not out of harmony with John 1, 31. 33, where John says that he did not know Jesus. The apparent contradiction is in the translation only. In the original the word used signifies "to recognize beyond the possibility of a doubt, to be sure of the identity." John had known of the existence of the Messiah, either from his mother or by direct revelation, but he did not know Him personally. When Jesus came, the majesty and dignity of His bearing caused John to surmise His identity, hence his hesitancy. But the actual identifying sign, which removed all doubts and made the recognition absolute, did not happen until after the baptism, as John relates in his gospel. In the mean time, John, impressed by the moral exaltation which emanated from the person of his visitor, sought, with some persistence, to dissuade and thus hinder Him from carrying out His intention. He cannot throw off the impression that this man is greater than he, and it behooves the smaller to receive Baptism at the hands of the greater. Well might John wonder as to the reason that actuates Christ in coming and seeking Baptism. "Why does He come and seek Baptism, as there is no sin and uncleanness in Him which Baptism would remove ? That will be a blessed baptism. John here is getting a sinner who in His own person has no sin, and yet is the greatest sinner, that has and bears the sin of the whole world. For this reason He permits Himself to be baptized and confesses with this action that He is a sinner. However, not for Himself, but for us. For He here takes my place and thy place and stands in our stead who are sinners, and since all, especially the arrogant saints, do not want to be sinners, He must become a sinner for all; He assumes the form of our sinful flesh and complains, as many psalms testify, on the cross and in His passion, of the weight of the sins which He bears." 26)
So Jesus overrules John's objection: V. 15. And Jesus, answering, said unto him, Suffer it to be so now; for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness. Then he suffered Him. Obedience and fulfillment were the outstanding traits of the Messiah's vicarious work. In applying these, He could brook no opposition. Every righteous ordinance, all religious usages that were enjoined upon the people. He wanted to fulfill. This Jesus gently, but firmly urged. It was the proper, the right, and the expedient thing to do. And so John acquiesced.
From ancient times the teachers of the Church have found here a wider, larger reference. "Jesus says: ... If that shall be performed that the poor sinners may come to righteousness and be saved, you must baptize Me. Because for the sake of sinners I have become a sinner, must therefore do what God has charged the sinners to do, in order that they may become just through Me." 27)
The occasion must needs be marked by preternatural accompaniments: V. 16. And Jesus, when He was baptized, went up straightway out of the water; and, lo, the heavens were opened unto Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting upon Him: v. 17. and, lo, a voice from heaven, saying, This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Here was a revelation of the divine essence. As soon as Jesus had been baptized, He at once walked up the bank away from the river. His baptism had been necessary, but the miracle which was now to take place was even more important as manifesting the relationship obtaining between Him and the other persons of the Godhead. In a wonderful manner, causing a surprised exclamation in the evangelist's narrative, the heavens were opened, a most glorious apparition, since it was an actual happening and not a vision, as in the case of Jacob, Stephen, and others, Gen. 28, 12; Acts 7, 55. 56; 10, 11. And he, John, saw the Spirit of God descending in a bodily shape like a dove upon Jesus, John 1, 32-34; Luke 3, 22. It is an idle speculation to inquire why the dove was chosen, and to find the comparison in the perfect gentleness, purity, and fullness of life of this bird. Let us rather emphasize the fact that God wanted to convey the idea of an unlimited imparting of the Holy Spirit to His Son, according to His human nature, Ps. 45, 8; Hob. 1, 9; Acts 10, 38. And the marvels were not yet ended. Once more Matthew calls out: Behold! God the Father is now also manifested by a voice from heaven, identifying both Him and the Son. Cp. Is. 42, 1; Ps. 2, 7. This man that was thus plainly distinguished and set apart from all the rest of the people there present is the true Son of God, beloved of Him in a unique sense. It is an eternal act of loving contemplation with which the. Father regards the Son. It is with the consciousness of the Father's good pleasure, His full and unequivocal consent and blessing, that Christ enters upon His ministry. The Triune God, at the baptism of Jesus, set the seal of His approval upon the work of redemption.
Summary. In the course of John the Baptist's ministry, during which he had occasion to administer a sharp rebuke to the Pharisees and Sadducees, Jesus also received Baptism at his hands, whereupon there occurred a marvelous revelation of the Triune God.