Matthew 3

Structure

Ministry of John the Baptist (3:1-12)

Verse 1-6 The Origins of John’s Baptism of Repentance

Verse 7-12 John Warns the Pharisees and Sadducees of the coming Judgment

Baptism of Jesus (3:13-17)

Verse 13-15 The Messianic arrival of the Son of God

Verse 16-17 Approval from Heaven

Theme

Matthew divides this chapter into two: the first speaking of, and explaining the ministry of John the Baptist as foretold in the Old Testament. Secondly, the arrival of the Son of Man on the scene of the world, and the seal which the Father gives Him. This is the chapter that transitions from Jesus’ childhood, to His full ministry.

Introduction

Jesus’ ministry does not start before the imprisonment of John the Baptist (ὁ βαπτιστής) (Matt. 4:12). So chapter 3 stays still with John’s ministry, predicted in Isaiah 40:3. John warns the Pharisees and Sadducees of the judgment of God (3:7-12), and later he baptizes Jesus (3:16-17) and sees the Spirit descending on Him. It is not before Matthew 4:17 that the ministry focus shifts from John to Jesus, and Jesus is tempted in the wilderness by Satan before His real ministry takes off.
The message of Jesus and John was very similar, as well as their lives. Both Jesus and John are perceived as prophets, rejected by authorities, executed and buried by their disciples;

Mt. 3:7 (“brood of vipers,” escaping judgment) with Mt. 23:33; cf. also Mt. 12:34

Mt. 3:8 (repentance) with Mt. 11:20–21; 12:41;

Mt. 3:8, 10 (producing good fruit) with Mt. 7:16–20; 12:33; 21:41, 43;

Mt. 3:9 (children of Abraham) with Mt. 8:11–12;

Mt. 3:10b (fruitless tree cut down and burned) exactly repeated in Mt. 7:19;

Mt. 3:11–12 (judgment by fire) with Mt. 5:22; 13:40–42, 50; 18:8–9; 25:41;

Mt. 3:12 (grain gathered into the granary) with Mt. 13:30.

Exposition of the verses

Verse 1-6 The Origins of John’s Baptism of Repentance

The transition between Matthew 2 and 3 covers almost thirty years. Only Luke gives one story of Jesus’ childhood (Luke 2:25-38), Jesus in the temple. From Luke we know two things:

First, his childhood development was indeed a normal human development. Luke 2:40, 52 indicates that Jesus “grew up” physically, socially, intellectually, and religiously.

Second, this normal child possessed paranormal insight into his identity and religious heritage. This is indicated by Jesus’s interchange with the teachers in the temple (Mt. 2:46–47) and his understanding of the temple as his Father’s house (note the wordplay with “father” in Mt. 2:48–49).

Matthew clearly focuses on Christ’s birth and his ministry.
Verse 1 starts with a vague prepositional phrase, ἐν δέ ταῖς ἡμέραις ἐκείναις (in those days). John seems to suddenly appear (παραγίνεται) and he starts preaching (κηρύσσων) in the Judean desert, west of the Dead Sea.
His message has an ethical imperative μετανοεῖτε (repent), γάρ (for) and then an eschatological reality, ἤγγικεν … ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν (the kingdom of heaven has come near). Turner defines repentance as a sorrow for sin, change of mind, initial conversion, and doing penance. In short, ‘It is the turning of the whole person from sin to God in obedience to the message of the kingdom. This entails recognition of need, sorrow for sin, a decision to turn from sin to God, and a subsequent obedient lifestyle. In the Old Testament characterized as נִחַם, being sorry and שׁוּב, turn. John calls for a radical repentance and return to God. Matthew says “kingdom of heaven” to avoid using the direct name of God, which is offensive in Judaism.
Repentance is urgent, pressed by the perfect-tense verb ἤγγικεν (approach/come near), also used in Mt. 4:17; 10:7; 21:1, 34; 26:45–46. Matthew 12:28 uses the verb ἔφθασεν, meaning ‘has come.’ The Kingdom (βασιλεία) is present and future at the same time.
Verse 3 starts bluntly with “This is the one spoken of by Isaiah the prophet.” John is the eschatological fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3, and also mentions Isaiah in the verses 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:14; 15:7, often mentioned together with the opposition of the Jews and the openness of the Gentiles toward Christ. This verse in Isaiah comforts the exiles in Babylon with the hope of return to the land, but more, the eschatological restoration of Israel with worldwide consequences experienced by all humankind (40:5).
In verse 4, John’s clothes are mentioned, clothes of a prophet. John resembles Isaiah (2 Kings 1:8; Zech. 13:4; cf. Mal. 4:5; Mt. 11:7–9, 14; 17:10–13; Heb. 11:37). Eating locusts was permitted by Scripture (Lev. 11:20–23), and wild (uncultivated) honey is mentioned several times (Gen. 43:11; Exod. 3:8; Deut. 32:13; Judg. 14:8; 1 Sam. 14:25; Ps. 81:16; Ezek. 27:17). John is not occupied by clothing and food and also encourages Israel to be occupied with the kingdom instead of earthy matters.
Verse 5-6 speaks of the response of the people. They were going out (ἐξεπορεύετο), and were being baptized ἐβαπτίζοντο. Jewish ritual baths included immersion. The people were at the same time confessing their sins (adverbial participle ἐξομολογούμενοι). The Hebrew Bible itself frequently alludes to water cleansing as a picture of forgiveness, spiritual purity, and eschatological blessing (Ps. 51:6–9; Isa. 4:4; 44:3; Jer. 4:11–14; Ezek. 36:24–27; Zech. 13:1). Three things stand out, namely that John did not baptize gentiles, his baptism was an act of confession and not just a ritual, and it was directed as the nation of Israel as a whole.

Verse 7-12 John Warns the Pharisees and Sadducees of the coming Judgment

The Pharisees and Sadducees (τῶν Φαρισαίων καὶ Σαδδουκαίων) who were first in conspiracy with Herod (2:4) are now being rebuked by John. They appear at the baptismal place of John, both groups being rebuked by him. Josephus argues that there were more than six thousand Pharisees.[footnote]”Accordingly, when all the people of the Jews gave assurance of their good will to Caesar, and to the king’s government, these very men did not swear, being above six thousand; and when the king imposed a fine upon them…” Josephus Ant. 17.2.4 §42[/footnote] According to Turner, the name Pharisee is derived from the Hebrew word פְרוּשִׁים meaning “separatist.” Their chief characteristic was rigorous adherence to the law, which in their view encompassed both their written Bible and the oral traditions that had grown up as a “fence around the law.” They had composed an oral law that was not written down in the Old Testament and consisted of all kinds of extra rules and regulations, and especially Jesus spoke strongly against this. The Sadducees were a smaller group, more pro-Roman, and claimed more freedom than the Pharisees. They did not believe in the resurrection and the after-life, and after the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70, they did not continue to exist.
You could argue that they came to be baptized, but the Greek ἐρχομένους ἐπὶ τὸ βάπτισμα αὐτοῦ is not very precise and might indicate that they “came for his baptism,” and not to be baptized themselves. John naming them “offspring of vipers” is repeated by Jesus in Mt. 12:34; 23:33, see also Ps. 58:4; Gen. 3:1; Isa. 14:29; 30:6; Jer. 46:22. “The sarcastic imagery of snakes wriggling away from an encroaching fire,” as France calls it. John’s question “Who warned you to flee …?” tells them that it was not him to warn them, and that they were not fit for the baptism he offered. They were hypocrites, and no good for the service of people and of God.
In order to be a true convert, they ought to bear fruit. Producing fruit as a metaphor for a repentant lifestyle occurs elsewhere in Matthew (Mt. 3:10; 7:16–20; 12:33; 13:8, 23, 26; 21:19, 33–44; cf. James 3:18) and is common in the Bible (Ps. 1:3; Prov. 1:31; 11:30; Isa. 3:10; 5:1–7; Hos. 10:1, 12–13.
To be merely a descendant of Abraham is not enough (3:9). Gentiles who share Abraham’s faith are no less his children than Jews (Rom 4:11–18; Gal 3:6–9, 14), and this was hard to swallow for the Jewish leaders. Yet their heart of stone was worth nothing in the sight of God.
There is a wordplay in Hebrew in these verses. If he spoke Hebrew, people could hear this wordplay between the word son בֵן and stone אֶבֶן Mt. 21:37, 42. Even if John is speaking Aramaic, where son is בַּר rather than bēn, the indirect wordplay would likely still be noticed by those familiar with both languages. The climax in the teaching of the fruit-bearing is shown in the condemnation of the leadership of the Jews as the tenants who have failed to deliver the produce of God’s vineyard (21:43), a situation which has been vividly illustrated by the destruction of the fruitless fig-tree outside Jerusalem (21:18–19).
In verse 10, John warns against the judgment that is about to come with the Kingdom to arrive. It is close. The axe is already (ἤδη) being laid (κεῖται), meaning that the process of chopping has already begun. The ones rejecting the message are ready to be cut down, is already chosen to be cut down. This is not pruning, but cutting the root of the tree means total removal of it. The fire that is mentioned is a sign of judgment itself (Mt. 13:30, 40–42, 50; 18:8–9; 25:41). The issue is not the root of descent from Abraham (Mt. 3:9) but the fruit of obedience. It is not the kind of tree that is growing, but whether or not it bears fruit that matters.

Verse 11-12 Announcing Christ

John announces Christ, who is not baptizing with water (ἐν ὕδατι) but with Spirit and with fire (ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ καὶ πυρί). It is Christ who has the axe in His hand and who has the power to execute the judgment (see also Ps. 1:4; Isa. 5:24; Dan. 2:35; Hos. 13:3). John clearly distinguishes himself from Jesus Christ, by using the conjunction tandem μέν … δε, (on the one hand… on the other hand…) and by using ἐγώ … αὐτός (I… He…). The disciple is not worth more than his teacher (Mt. 4:19; 10:38; 16:24). Though Jesus comes “after John,” John makes sure that it is Christ who is exalted and he himself being humbled, for though Jesus comes after John, it is John who is not worthy to even untie His shoe laces. The fact that Jesus comes with the Spirit and with fire indicates that He is the “stronger one.” He is the “better one.”
The Spirit is the one who works through cleansing water (Isa. 32:15; 44:3; Ezek. 36:25–27; 37:14, 23; 39:29; Joel 2:28–29) and refining fire (Isa. 1:25; 4:4; 30:27–30; Zech. 13:9; Mal. 3:1–3; 4:1; 4 Ezra 13:8–11; Acts 2:3. Christ will purify and judge at the same time.
After the snakes escaping the fire (Mt. 4:7), the tree cut down and burned (Mt. 4:10), and “baptism in the Holy Spirit and fire” (Mt. 4:11), John now adds another metaphor for judgment (also involving fire), that of the threshing-floor. The chaff needs to be separated from the grain before the grain can be collected and be taken in. A same kind of parable is mentioned in Mt. 13:30, 40–4, with the separation of the weeds by Christ. The punishment to those unrepentant is eternal, for the fire is ἄσβεστος (unquenchable). John’s preaching was radical, John did not care about the way it would come across like so many today, but he told the people the way it was. Though John’s message is full of warning, there is comfort too, for the grains will be gathered and safely stored, those who bear true fruit and who come after Christ, for those is the Kingdom of God.

Verse 13-17 The Messianic arrival of the Son of God.

Jesus came to be baptized by John. The verb παραγίνεται (historical present) shows a parallel with the arrival of Jesus to the arrival of John. Jesus went to Galilee as a young child, and now returns as an adult of about 30 years of age to be baptized. It is not clear why Christ needed to be baptized, and also John does not understand. Jesus ministry and public revelation starts with His baptism. There is a short discussion between Jesus and John, and John gives in to the request of Jesus to be baptized. Here, Jesus is endorsed by the Father, receives the Spirit, and will be immediately put to trial by Satan (Mt. 4:1-11).
The verb speaking of John’s reluctance to baptize Christ is shown in the imperfect verb διεκώλυεν (tried to prevent). It is unclear how John knows of the identity of Christ, perhaps his mother Elizabeth would have told him about his own conception and that of Mary, yet likely it was divine revelation in his heart. Matthew leaves this out.
“Fulfilling all righteousness” means to some, that Jesus is taking upon himself the obligation to obey the law that has been stressed by John. When Jesus speaks of us (ἡμῖν), He speaks of Himself and of John. Both Jesus and John both fulfill the prophesy, Jesus by fulfilling the righteousness of God (Isaiah 11). God required Christ to be baptized, and Christ came to do God’s will. Although Jesus has no sin to confess, his baptism nevertheless demonstrates his humility and anticipates his ministry to lowly but repentant people (Mt. 2:23; 11:19; 12:20; 21:5). Isa 53:11 speaks of the servant as “the righteous one” who “will make many righteous” by bearing their iniquities.

Verse 16-17 Approval from Heaven

There is a voice and a vision from heaven. The voice of the Father endorsing Jesus (Ps. 2:7; Isa. 42:1), and the vision of the Spirit coming upon Jesus (Isa. 11:1; 42:1; 61:1). Jesus left the water of baptism immediately (εὐθύς) and behold (καὶ ἰδού), the Spirit descends. Heaven opening is mentioned further in the Bible in Isa. 64:1; Ezek. 1:1; John 1:51; Acts 7:56; Rev. 4:1. Matthew is not as clear about the relationship between Christ and the Spirit, but does mention that it is the Spirit who led Christ in the desert, and that His power came from the Spirit of God (Matt. 4:1; 12:18, 28).
The voice of the Father from heaven expresses His delight (εὐδόκησα) in the Son. God the Father speaks for the first time directly to earth. Few commentators interpret this verse differently. According to Carson, if the usual historical sense of the aorist should be understood here, the pre-temporal election of Jesus may be implied. Yet some argue that it is the baptism of Jesus that is the specific event that pleases the Father and the translation should be something like “with him I have become pleased” (ingressive aorist). Other interpreters seem to view the aorist as gnomic, or timeless, reflecting the Father’s eternal intra-Trinitarian relationship with the Son. Whatever implications one may draw from and for systematic theology, Jesus’s baptism, for Matthew, is a crucial occasion for the Father’s pleasure (17:5)
Compared with Mark and Luke, Matthew’s account is unique in two ways. Only Matthew writes of the dialogue between Jesus and John in which John hesitates and Jesus ties the necessity of his baptism to the fulfilling of all righteousness (Matt. 3:14–15). This shows Matthew’s theme of fulfillment and righteousness. Another unique feature of Matthew is the Father endorsing the Son (3:17). The Father’s words are in the third person (“this is my son … with him I am pleased”) instead of the second person (“you are my son … with you I am pleased”). Isa 42:1 introduces this prophesy with the words, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one, in whom my soul takes pleasure.”
The image of the bird is unclear. There is a possible link to Noah’s dove flying above the waters of chaos (Gen 8:8–12), and the Spirit who hovered over the water at creation, (could link to Jesus as being the beginning of an entirely new creation), but no specific bird is mentioned there. So this image remains somewhat unclear.