Matthew 3:1 "In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea,"
In those days - The days here referred to cannot be those mentioned in the preceding chapter, for John was but six months older than Christ. Perhaps Matthew intended to embrace in his narrative the whole time that Jesus lived at Nazareth; and the meaning is, "in those days while Jesus still dwelt at Nazareth," John began to preach. It is not probable that John began to baptize or preach long before the Saviour entered on his ministry; and, consequently, from the time that is mentioned in the close of the second chapter to that mentioned in the beginning of the third, an interval of twenty-five years or more elapsed.
John the Baptist - Or John the baptizer - so called from his principal office, that of baptizing. Baptism, or the application of water, was a rite well known to the Jews, and practiced when they admitted proselytes to their religion from paganism. - Lightfoot.
Preaching - The word rendered "preach" means to proclaim in the manner of a public crier; to make proclamation. The discourses recorded in the New Testament are mostly brief, sometimes consisting only of a single sentence. They were public proclamations of some great truth. Such appear to have been the discourses of John, calling people to repentance.
In the wilderness of Judea - This country was situated along the Jordan and the Dead Sea, to the east of Jerusalem. The word translated "wilderness" does not denote, as with us, a place of boundless forests, entirely destitute of inhabitants; but a mountainous, rough, and thinly settled country, covered to some considerable extent with forests and rocks, and better suited for pasture than for tilling. There were inhabitants in those places, and even villages, but they were the comparatively unsettled portions of the country, (1 Samuel 25:1-2). In the time of Joshua there were six cities in what was then called a wilderness, (Joshua 15:61-62).
Matthew 3:2 "And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
Repent ye - Repentance implies sorrow for past offences (2 Corinthians 7:10); a deep sense of the evil of sin as committed against God (Psalm 51:4); and a full purpose to turn from transgression and to lead a holy life. A true penitent has sorrow for sin, not only because it is ruinous to his soul, but chiefly because it is an offence against God, and is that abominable thing which he hates, (Jeremiah 44:4). It is produced by seeing the great danger and misery to which it exposes us; by seeing the justice and holiness of God (Job 42:6); and by seeing that our sins have been committed against Christ, and were the cause of his death, (Zechariah 12:10; Luke 22:61-62). There are two words in the New Testament translated "repentance," one of which denotes a change of mind, or a reformation of life; and the other, sorrow or regret that sin has been committed. The word used here is the former, calling the Jews to a change of life, or a reformation of conduct. In the time of John, the nation had become extremely wicked and corrupt, perhaps more so than at any preceding period. Hence, both he and Christ began their ministry by calling the nation to repentance.
The kingdom of heaven is at hand - The phrases kingdom of heaven, kingdom of Christ, kingdom of God, are of frequent occurrence in the Bible. They all refer to the same thing. The expectation of such a kingdom was taken from the Old Testament, and especially from Daniel, (Daniel 7:13-14). The prophets had told of a successor to David that should sit on his throne (1 Kings 2:4; 1 Kings 8:25; Jeremiah 33:17). The Jews expected a great national deliverer. They supposed that when the Messiah should appear, all the dead would be raised; that the judgment would take place; and that the enemies of the Jews would be destroyed, and that they themselves would be advanced to great national dignity and honor.
The language in which they were accustomed to describe this event was retained by our Saviour and his apostles. Yet they early attempted to correct the common notions respecting his reign. This was one design, doubtless, of John in preaching repentance. Instead of summoning them to military exercises, and collecting an army, which would have been in accordance with the expectations of the nation, he called them to a change of life; to the doctrine of repentance - a state of things far more accordant with the approach of a kingdom of purity.
The phrases "kingdom of God" and "kingdom of heaven" have been supposed to have a considerable variety of meaning. Some have supposed that they refer to the state of things in heaven; others, to the personal reign of Christ on earth; others, that they mean the church, or the reign of Christ in the hearts of his people. There can be no doubt that there is reference in the words to the condition of things in heaven after this life. But the church of God is a preparatory state to that beyond the grave - a state in which Christ pre-eminently rules and reigns and there is no doubt that the phrases sometimes refer to the state of things in the church; and that they may refer, therefore, to the state of things which the Messiah was to set up his spiritual reign begun in the church on earth and completed in heaven.
The expression "the kingdom of heaven is at hand" would be best translated, "the reign of God draws near." We do not say commonly of a kingdom that it is movable, or that it approaches. A reign may be said to be at hand; and it may be said with propriety that the time when Christ would reign was at hand. In this sense it is meant that the time when Christ should reign, or set up his kingdom, or begin his dominion on earth, under the Christian economy, was about to commence. The phrase, then, should not be confined to any period of that reign, but includes his whole dominion over his people on earth and in heaven.
In the passage here it clearly means that the coming of the Messiah was near, or that the time of the reign of God which the Jews had expected was coming.
The word "heaven," or "heavens," as it is in the original, means sometimes the place so called; and sometimes it is, by a figure of speech, put for the Great Being whose residence is there, as in Daniel 4:26; "the Heavens do rule." See also Mark 11:30; Luke 15:18. As that kingdom was one of purity, it was proper that the people should prepare themselves for it by turning from their sins, and by bringing their hearts into a state suitable to his reign.
Matthew 3:3 "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."
The prophet Esaias - The prophet Isaiah. Esaias is the Greek mode of writing the name. This passage is taken from Isaiah 40:3. It is here said to have been spoken in reference to John, the forerunner of Christ. The language is such as was familiar to the Jews. and such as they would understand. It was spoken at first with reference to the return from the captivity at Babylon. In ancient times, it was customary in the march of armies to send messengers, or pioneers, before them to proclaim their approach; to provide for them; to remove obstructions; to make roads, level hills, fill up valleys, etc. Isaiah, describing the return from Babylon, uses language taken from that custom. A crier, or herald, is introduced. In the vast deserts that lay between Babylon and Judea he is represented as lifting up his voice, and, with authority, commanding a public road to be made for the return of the captive Jews, with the Lord as their deliverer. "Prepare his ways, make them straight," says he. The meaning in Isaiah is, "Let the valleys be exalted, or filled up, and the hills be levelled, and a straight, level highway be prepared, that they may march with ease and safety." See the notes at Isaiah 40:3-4. The custom here referred to is continued in the East at the present time. "When Ibrahim Pasha proposed to visit certain places on Lebanon, the emeers and sheiks sent forth a general proclamation, somewhat in the style of Isaiah's exhortation, to all the inhabitants, to assemble along the proposed route and prepare the way before him. The same was done in 1845, on a grand scale, when the present sultan visited Brousa. The stones were gathered out, the crooked places straightened, and the rough ones made level and smooth." - The Land and the Book, Vol i. pp. 105, 106.
As applied to John, the passage means that he was sent to remove obstructions, and to prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah, like a herald going before an army on the march, to make preparations for its coming.
Matthew 3:4 "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."
His raiment of camel's hair - His clothing. This is not the fine hair of the camel from which our elegant cloth is made called camlet, nor the more elegant stuff brought from the East Indies under the name of "camel's hair," but the long shaggy hair of the camel, from which a coarse cheap cloth is made, still worn by the poorer classes in the East, and by monks. This dress of the camel's hair, and a leather belt, it seems, was the common dress of the prophets, (2 Kings 1:8; Zechariah 13:4).
His meat was locusts - His food. These constituted the food of the common people. Among the Greeks the vilest of the people used to eat them; and the fact that John made his food of them is significant of his great poverty and humble life. The Jews were allowed to eat them, (Leviticus 11:22). Locusts are flying insects, and are of various kinds. The green locusts are about 2 inches in length and about the thickness of a man's finger. The common brown locust is about 3 inches long. The general form and appearance of the locust is not unlike the grasshopper. They were one of the plagues of Egypt Exo. 10. In Eastern countries they are very numerous. They appear in such quantities as to darken the sky, and devour in a short time every green thing. The whole earth is sometimes covered with them for many leagues, (Joel 1:4; Isaiah 33:4-5). "Some species of the locust are eaten until this day in Eastern countries, and are even esteemed as a delicacy when properly cooked. After tearing off the legs and wings, and taking out the entrails, they stick them in long rows upon wooden spits, roast them at the fire, and then proceed to devour them with great zest. There are also other ways of preparing them. For example: they cook them and dress them in oil; or, having dried them, they pulverize them, and, when other food is scarce, make bread of the meal. The Bedouins pack them with salt in close masses, which they carry in their leather sacks. From these they cut slices as they may need them. It is singular that even learned men have suffered themselves to hesitate about understanding these passages of the literal locust, when the fact that these are eaten by the Orientals is so abundantly proved by the concurrent testimony of travelers.
One of them says they are brought to market on strings in all the cities of Arabia, and that he saw an Arab on Mount Sumara who had collected a sackful of them. They are prepared in different ways. An Arab in Egypt, of whom he requested that he would immediately eat locusts in his presence, threw them upon the glowing coals; and after he supposed they were roasted enough, he took them by the legs and head, and devoured the remainder at one mouthful. When the Arabs have them in quantities they roast or dry them in an oven, or boil them and eat them with salt. The Arabs in the kingdom of Morocco boil the locusts; and the Bedouins eat locusts, which are collected in great quantities in the beginning of April, when they are easily caught. After having been roasted a little upon the iron plate on which bread is baked, they are dried in the sun, and then put into large sacks, with the mixture of a little salt.
They are never served up as a dish, but every one takes a handful of them when hungry" (Un. Bib. Dic.). Burckhardt, one of the most trustworthy of travelers, says: "All the Bedouins of Arabia and the inhabitants of towns in Nejd and Hedjaz are accustomed to eat locusts." "I have seen at Medina and Tayf locust-shops, where these animals were sold by measure. In Egypt and Nubia they are only eaten by the poorest beggars The Land and the Book, ii. 107). "Locusts," says Dr. Thomson (The Land and the Book, ii. 108), "are not eaten in Syria by any but the Bedouin on the extreme frontiers, and it is always spoken of as an inferior article of food, and regarded by most with disgust and loathing tolerated only by the very poorest people. John the Baptist, however, was of this class either from necessity or election." It is remarkable that not only in respect to his food, but also in other respects, the peculiarities in John's mode of life have their counterparts in the present habits of the same class of persons. "The coat or mantle of camel's hair is seen still on the shoulders of the Arab who escorts the traveler through the desert, or of the shepherd who tends his flocks on the hills of Judea or in the valley of the Jordan. It is made of the thin, coarse hair of the camel, and not of the fine hair, which is manufactured into a species of rich cloth. I was told that both kinds of raiment are made on a large scale at Nablus, the ancient Shechem. The 'leathern girdle' may be seen around the body of the common laborer, when fully dressed, almost anywhere; whereas men of wealth take special pride in displaying a rich sash of silk or some other costly fabric" (Hackett's Illustrations of Scripture, p. 104).
Wild honey - This was probably the honey that he found in the rocks of the wilderness. Palestine was often called the land flowing with milk and honey, (Exodus 3:8, Exodus 3:17; Exodus 13:5). Bees were kept with great care, and great numbers of them abounded in the fissures of trees and the clefts of rocks. "Bees abound there still, not only wild, but hived, as with us. I saw a great number of hives in the old castle near the Pools of Solomon; several, also, at Deburieh, at the foot of Tabor: and again at Mejdel, the Magdala of the New Testament, on the Lake of Tiberias. Maundrell says that he saw 'bees very industrious about the blossoms' between Jericho and the Dead Sea, which must have been within the limits of the very 'desert' in which John 'did eat locusts and wild honey'" (Hackett's Illustrations of Scripture, p. 104). There is also a species of honey called wild honey, or wood honey (1 Samuel 14:27, margin), or honeydew, produced by certain little insects, and deposited on the leaves of trees, and flowing from them in great quantities to the ground. See 1 Samuel 14:24-27. This is said to be produced still in Arabia, and perhaps it was this which John lived upon.
Matthew 3:5 "Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan,"
Jerusalem - The people of Jerusalem.
All Judea - Many people from Judea. It does not mean that literally all the people went, but that great multitudes went. It was general. Jerusalem was in the part of the country called Judea. Judea was situated on the west side of the Jordan. See the notes at Matthew 2:22.
Region about Jordan - On the east and west side of the river. Near to Jordan.
Matthew 3:6 "And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins."
Were baptized - The word "baptize" βαπτίζω baptizo signifies originally to tinge, to dye, to stain, as those who dye clothes. It here means to cleanse or wash anything by the application of water. See the notes at Mark 7:4. Washing, or ablution, was much in use among the Jews, as one of the rites of their religion, (Numbers 19:7; Hebrews 9:10). It was not customary, however, among them to baptize those who were converted to the Jewish religion until after the Babylonian captivity. At the time of John, and for some time previous, they had been accustomed to administer a rite of baptism, or washing, to those who became proselytes to their religion; that is, to those who were converted from being Gentiles. This was done to signify that they renounced the errors and worship of the pagans, and as significant of their becoming pure by embracing a new religion.
It was a solemn rite of washing, significant of cleansing from their former sins, and purifying them for the special service of Yahweh. John found this custom in use; and as he was calling the Jews to a new dispensation - to a change in their form of religion - he administered this rite of baptism (washing), to signify the cleansing from sin, the adopting of the new dispensation, or the fitness for the pure reign of the Messiah. He applied an old ordinance to a new purpose. As it was used by him it was a significant rite, or ceremony, intended to denote the putting away of impurity, and a purpose to be pure in heart and life. The Hebrew word טבל Tabal which is rendered by the word "baptize," occurs in the Old Testament in the following places, namely: Leviticus 4:6; Leviticus 14:6, Leviticus 14:51; Numbers 19:18; Ruth 2:14; Exodus 12:22; Deuteronomy 33:24; Joshua 3:15; Job 9:31; Leviticus 9:9; 1 Samuel 14:27 (twice); 2 Kings 5:14; 2 Kings 8:15; Genesis 37:31; Joshua 3:15.
It occurs in no other places; and from a careful examination of these passages its meaning among the Jews is to be derived. From these passages it will be seen that its radical meaning is neither to sprinkle nor to immerse. It is to dip, commonly for the purpose of sprinkling, or for some other purpose.
Thus, to dip the finger, i. e., a part of the finger, in blood enough to sprinkle with, (Leviticus 4:6). To dip a living bird, and cedar wood, and scarlet, and hyssop, in the blood of the bird that was killed, for the purpose of sprinkling; where it could not be that all these would be immersed the blood of a single bird, (Leviticus 14:6). To dip hyssop in the water, to sprinkle with, (Numbers 19:18). To dip a portion of bread in vinegar, (Ruth 2:14). To dip the feet in oil - an emblem of plenty, (Deuteronomy 33:24). To dye, or stain, (Ezekiel 23:15). To plunge into a ditch, so as to defile the clothes, (Job 9:31). To dip the end of a staff in honey, (1 Samuel 14:27). To dip in Jordan - a declaration respecting Naaman the Syrian, (2 Kings 5:14). The direction of the prophet was to wash himself (2 Kings 5:10), and this shows that he understood washing and baptizing to mean the same thing. To dip a towel, or quilt, so as to spread it on the face of a man to smother him, (2 Kings 8:15).
In none of these cases can it be shown that the meaning of the word is to immerse entirely But in nearly all the cases the notion of applying the water to a part only of the person or object, though it was by dipping, is necessarily to be supposed.
In the New Testament the word βαπτίζω baptizo, in various forms, occurs 80 times; 57 with reference to persons. Of these 57 times, it is followed by "in" ἐν en 18 times, as in water, in the desert, in Jordan; 9 times by "into" εἰς eis, as into the name, etc., into Christ; once it is followed by ἐπί epi (Acts 2:38), and twice by "for" ὑπέρ huper, (1 Corinthians 15:29).
The following remarks may be made in view of the investigation of the meaning of this word:
1. That in baptism it is possible, perhaps probable, that the notion of dipping would be the one that would occur to a Jew.
2. It would not occur to him that the word meant of necessity to dip entirely, or to immerse completely.
3. The notion of washing would be the one which would most readily occur, as connected with a religious rite. See the cases of Naaman, and Mark 7:4 (Greek).
4. It cannot be proved from an examination of the passages in the Old and New Testaments that the idea of a complete immersion was ever connected with the word, or that it ever occurred in any case. If those who were baptized went into the water, it is still not proved by that, that the only mode of baptism was by immersion, since it might have been by pouring, though they were in the water.
5. It is not positively enjoined anywhere in the New Testament that the only mode of baptism shall be by an entire submersion of the body under water. Without such a precept it cannot be made obligatory on people of all ages, nations, and climes, even if it were probable that in the mild climate of Judea it was the usual mode.
In Jordan - The River Jordan is the eastern boundary of Palestine or Judea. It rises in Mount Lebanon, on the north of Palestine, and runs in a southerly direction, underground, for 13 miles, and then bursts forth with a great noise at Cesarea Philippi. It then unites with two small streams, and runs some miles farther, and empties into the Lake Merom. From this small lake it flows 13 miles, and then falls into the Lake Gennesareth, otherwise called the Sea of Tiberias or the Sea of Galilee. Through the middle of this lake, which is 15 miles long and from 6 miles to 9 miles wide, it flows undisturbed, and preserves a southerly direction for about 70 miles, and then falls into the Dead Sea. The Jordan, at its entrance into the Dead Sea, is about 90 feet wide. It flows in many places with great rapidity, and when swollen by rains pours like an impetuous torrent. It formerly regularly overflowed its banks in time of harvest, that is, in March, in some places 600 paces, (Joshua 3:15; 1 Chronicles 12:15). These banks are covered with small trees and shrubs, and afford a convenient dwelling for wild beasts. Allusion is often made to these thickets in the sacred Scriptures, (Jeremiah 49:19; Jeremiah 50:44). On the reason why a river, or a place abounding in water, was selected for administering baptism, see the notes at John 3:23.
Matthew 3:7 "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?"
Pharisees and Sadducees - The Jews were divided into three great sects - the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. In addition to these, some smaller sects are mentioned in the New Testament and by Josephus: the Herodians, probably political friends of Herod; the Galileans, a branch of the Pharisees; and the Therapeutae, a branch of the Essenes, but converts from the Greeks. The three principal sects are supposed to have originated about 150 years before Christ, as they are mentioned by Josephus at that time in his history. Of course nothing is said of them in the Old Testament, as that was finished about 400 years before the Christian era.
I. The Pharisees were the most numerous and wealthy sect of the Jews. They derived their name from the Hebrew word Pharash, which signifies to set apart, or to separate, because they separated themselves from the rest of their countrymen, and professedly devoted themselves to special strictness in religion. Their leading tenets were the following: that the world was governed by fate, or by a fixed decree of God; that the souls of men were immortal, and were either eternally happy or miserable beyond the grave; that the dead would be raised; that there were angels, good and bad; that God was under obligation to bestow special favor on the Jews; and that they were justified by their own conformity to the law. They were proud, haughty, self-righteous, and held the common people in great disrespect, (John 7:49). They sought the offices of the state, and affected great dignity. They were ostentatious in their religious worship, praying in the corners of the streets, and seeking publicity in the bestowment of alms. They sought principally external cleanliness, and dealt much in ceremonial ablutions and washing.
They maintained some of the laws of Moses very strictly. In addition to the written laws, they held to a multitude which they maintained had come down from Moses by tradition. These they felt themselves as much bound to observe as the written Law. Under the influence of these laws they washed themselves before meals with great scrupulousness; they fasted twice a week - on Thursday, when they supposed that Moses ascended Mount Sinai, and on Monday, when he descended; they wore broad phylacteries, and enlarged the fringe or borders of their garments; they loved the chief rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues. In general, they were a corrupt, hypocritical, office-seeking, haughty class of men. There are, however, some honorable exceptions recorded, (Acts 5:34); perhaps, also, Mark 15:43; Luke 2:25; Luke 23:51; John 19:38-42; John 3:1; John 7:50.
II. The Sadducees are supposed to have taken their name from Sadok, who flourished about 260 years before the Christian era. He was a pupil of Antigonus Sochaeus, president of the sanhedrin, or great council of the nation. He had taught the duty of serving God disinterestedly, without the hope of reward or the fear of punishment. Sadok, not properly understanding the doctrine of his master, drew the inference that there was no future state of rewards or punishments, and on this belief he founded the sect. The other notions which they held, all to be traced to this leading doctrine, were:
1. That there is no resurrection, neither angel nor spirit (Matthew 22:23; Acts 23:8); and that the soul of man perishes with the body.
2. They rejected the doctrine of fate or decrees.
3. They rejected all traditions, and professed to receive only the books of the Old Testament. They were far less numerous than the Pharisees, but their want of numbers was compensated, in some degree, by their wealth and standing in society. Though they did not generally seek office, yet several of them were advanced to the high priesthood.
III. The Essenes, a third sect of the Jews, are not mentioned in the New Testament. They differed from both the Pharisees and the Sadducees. They were Jewish monks or hermits, passing their time little in society, but mostly in places of obscurity and retirement. It is not probable, therefore, that our Saviour often, if ever, encountered them; and this, it is supposed, is the reason why they are not mentioned in the New Testament. They were a contemplative sect, having little to do with the common business of life. The property which they possessed they held in common. They denied themselves, in a great measure, the usual comforts of life, and were exceedingly strict in the observance of the duties of religion. They were generally more pure than the rest of the Jews, and appear to have been an unambitious, a modest, and retiring sort of people. The two sexes were not in company except on the Sabbath, when they partook of their coarse fare (only bread and salt) together. They practiced dancing in their worship. Few of them were married; they were opposed to oaths, and they asserted that slavery was repugnant to nature. In regard to doctrine, they did not differ materially from the Pharisees, except that they objected to the sacrifices of slain animals, and of course did not visit the temple, and were not, therefore, likely to come into public contact with the Saviour. They perpetuated their sect by proselytes, and by taking orphan children to train up.
The other sects of the Jews were too insignificant to demand any particular notice here. It may be said of the Jews generally that they possessed little of the spirit of religion; that they had corrupted some of the most important doctrines of the Bible; and that they were an ignorant, proud, ambitious, and sensual people. There as great propriety, therefore, in John's proclaiming to them the necessity of repentance.
Generation of vipers - Vipers are a species of serpents, from 2 to 5 feet in length and about an inch thick, with a flat head. They are of an ash or yellowish color, speckled with long brown spots. There is no serpent that is more poisonous. The person bitten by them swells up almost immediately, and falls down dead. See Acts 28:6. The word "serpent," or "viper," is used to denote both cunning and malignancy. In the phrase "be ye wise as serpents" (Matthew 10:16) it means be prudent, or wise, referring to the account in Genesis 3:1-6. Among the Jews the serpent was regarded as the symbol of cunning, circumspection, and prudence. It was so regarded in the Egyptian hieroglyphics. In the phrase "generation of vipers" (Matthew 12:34), the viper is the symbol of wickedness, of envenomed malice - a symbol drawn from the venom of the serpent. It is not quite certain in which of these senses the phrase is used in this place. Probably it is used to denote their malignancy and wickedness.
Wrath to come - John expresses his astonishment that sinners so hardened and so hypocritical as they were should have been induced to flee from coming wrath. The wrath to come means the divine indignation, or the punishment that will come on the guilty. See 1 Thessalonians 1:10; 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9.
Matthew 3:8 "Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance:"
Bring forth therefore fruits ... - That is, the proper fruits of reformation; the proper evidence that you are sincere. Do not bring your cunning and dissimulation to this work; do not carry your hypocrisy into your professed repentance, but evince your sincerity by forsaking sin, and thus give evidence that this coming to Jordan to be baptized is not an act of dissimulation. No discourse could have been more appropriate or more cutting.
Fruits - Conduct. See Matthew 7:16-19.
Meet for repentance - Fit for repentance; appropriate to it the proper expression of repentance.
Matthew 3:9 "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."
And think not to say ... - They regarded it as sufficient righteousness that they were descended from so holy a man as Abraham. Compare John 8:33-37, John 8:53. John assured them that this was a matter of small consequence in the sight of God. Of the very stones of the Jordan he could raise up children to Abraham. The meaning seems to be this: God, from these stones, could more easily raise up those who should be worthy children of Abraham, or be like him, than simply, because you are descendants of Abraham, make you, who are proud and hypocritical, subjects of the Messiah's kingdom. Or, in other words, mere nativity, or the privileges of birth, avail nothing where there is not righteousness of life. Some have supposed, however, that by these stones he meant the Roman soldiers, or the pagan, who might also have attended on his ministry; and that God could "of them" raise up children to Abraham.
Matthew 3:10 "And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire."
The axe is laid at the root of the tree - Laying the axe at the root of a tree is intended to denote that the tree is to be cut down. It was not merely to be trimmed, or to be cut about the limbs, but the very tree itself was to be struck. That is, a searching, trying kind of preaching has been commenced. A kingdom of justice is to be set up. Principles and conduct are to be investigated. No art, no dissimulation, will be successful: People are to be tried by their lives, not by birth or profession. They who are not found to bear this test are to be rejected. The very root shall feel the blow, and the fruitless tree shall fall. This is a beautiful and very striking figure of speech, and a very direct threatening of future wrath. John regarded them as making a fair and promising profession, as trees in blossom do. But he told them, also, that they should bear fruit as well as flowers. Their professions of repentance were not enough. They should show, by a holy life, that their profession was genuine.
Matthew 3:11 "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:"
Whose shoes I am not worthy to bear - The word translated here as "shoes" has a signification different from what it has in our language. At first, in order to keep the feet from the sharp stones or the burning sand, small pieces of wood were fastened to the soles of the feet, called "sandals." Leather, or skins of beasts dressed, afterward were used. The foot was not covered at all, but the sandal, or piece of leather or wood, was bound by thongs. The people put off these when they enter a house, and put them on when they leave it. To unloose and bind on sandals, on such occasions, was formerly the business of the lowest servants. The expression in this place, therefore, denotes great humility, and John says that he was nor worthy to be the servant of him who should come after him.
Shall baptize you - Shall send upon you the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God is frequently represented as being poured out upon his people, (Proverbs 1:23; Isaiah 44:3; Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2:17-18). The baptism of the Holy Spirit is the same, therefore, as the sending of his influences to convert, purify, and guide the soul.
The Holy Ghost - The third person of the adorable Trinity, whose office it is to enlighten, renew, sanctify, and comfort the soul He was promised by the Saviour to convince of sin, (John 16:8); to enlighten or teach the disciples, (John 14:26; John 16:13); to comfort them in the absence of the Savior, (John 14:18; John 16:7); to change the heart. (Titus 3:5). To be baptized with the Holy Spirit means that the Messiah would send upon the world a far more powerful and mighty influence than had attended the preaching of John. Many more would be converted. A mighty change would take place. His ministry would not affect the external life only, but the heart. the motives, the soul; and would produce rapid and permanent changes in the lives of people. See Acts 2:17-18.
With fire - This expression has been variously understood. Some have supposed that John refers to the afflictions and persecutions with which men would be tried under the Gospel; others, that the word "fire" means judgment or wrath. According to this latter interpretation, the meaning is that he would baptize a portion of mankind - those who were willing to be his followers - with the Holy Spirit, but the rest of mankind - the wicked - with fire; that is, with judgment and wrath. Fire is a symbol of vengeance. See Isaiah 5:24; Isaiah 61:2; Isaiah 66:24. If this is the meaning, as seems to be probable, then John says that the ministry of the Messiah would be far more powerful than his was. It would be more searching and testing; and they who were not suited to abide the test would be cast into eternal fire. Others have supposed, however, that by fire, here, John intends to express the idea that the preaching of the Messiah would be refining, powerful, purifying, as fire is sometimes an emblem of purity, (Malachi 3:2). It is difficult to ascertain the precise meaning further than that his ministry would be very trying, purifying, searching. Multitudes would be converted; and those who were not true penitents would not be able to abide the trial, and would be driven away.
Matthew 3:12 "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."
His fan - The word used here and rendered "fan" means a winnowing shovel instead. It was used for throwing the grain, after it was threshed, into the air, so that the chaff might be driven away by the wind. This mode of separating the grain from the chaff is still practiced in the East. It is not probable that the fan, as the term is now used, was known to the Orientals as an instrument for cleaning grain. See the notes at Isaiah 30:24.
His floor - The threshing-floor was an open space, or area, in the field, usually on an elevated part of the land, (Genesis 50:10). It had no covering or walls. It was a space of ground 30 or 40 paces in diameter, and made smooth by rolling it or treading it hard. A high place was selected for the purpose of keeping it dry, and for the convenience of winnowing the grain by the wind. The grain was usually trodden out by oxen. Sometimes it was beaten with flails, as with us; and sometimes with a sharp threshing instrument, made to roll over the grain and to cut the straw at the same time. See the notes at Isaiah 41:15.
Shall purge - Shall cleanse or purify. Shall remove the chaff, etc.
The garner - The granary, or place to deposit the wheat.
Unquenchable fire - Fire that shall not be extinguished, that will utterly consume it. By the floor, here, is represented the Jewish people. By the wheat, the righteous, or the people of God. By the chaff, the wicked. They are often represented as being driven away like chaff before the wind, (Job 21:18; Psalm 1:4; Isaiah 17:13; Hosea 13:13). They are also represented as chaff which the fire consumes, (Isaiah 5:24). This image is often used to express judgments, (Isaiah 41:15); "Thou shall thresh the mountains and beat them small, and shalt make the hills as chaff." By the unquenchable fire is meant the eternal suffering of the wicked in hell, (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9; Mark 9:48; Matthew 25:41).
Matthew 3:13 "Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him."
Then cometh Jesus - The Saviour is now introduced as about to enter on his work, or as about to be solemnly set apart to his great office of Messiah and Redeemer. The expression "cometh" implies that the act was voluntary on his part; that he went for that purpose and for no other. He left the part of Galilee - Nazareth - where he had lived for nearly 30 years, and went to the vicinity of the Jordan, where John was baptizing the people in great numbers, that he might be set apart to his work. The occasion was doubtless chosen in order that it might be as public and solemn as possible. It is to be remembered, also, that it was the main purpose of John's appointment to introduce the Messiah to the world, (Matthew 3:3).
To be baptized of him - By him. Baptism was not in his case a symbol of personal reformation and repentance, for he was sinless; but it was a solemn rite by which he was set apart to his great office. It is true, also, that although he was personally holy, and that the baptism in his case had a different signification, in this respect, from that which is implied when it is administered now, yet that even in his case the great idea always implied in the ordinance of baptism had a place; for it was a symbol of holiness or purity in that great system of religion which he was about to set up in the world.
Matthew 3:14 "But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?"
John forbade him - Refused him.
I have need - It is more suitable that I should be baptized with thy baptism, the Holy Spirit, than that thou shouldest be baptized in water by me. I am a sinner, and unworthy to administer this to the Messiah.
Matthew 3:15 "And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffered him."
Thus it becometh us - It is suitable and proper. And though you may feel yourself unworthy, yet it is proper it should be done.
All righteousness - There was no particular precept in the Old Testament requiring this, but he chose to give the sanction of his example to the baptism of John, as to a divine ordinance. The phrase "all righteousness," here, is the same as a righteous institution or appointment. Jesus had no sin. But he was about to enter on his great work. It was proper that he should be set apart by his forerunner, and show his connection with him, and give his approbation to what John had done. He submitted to the ordinance of baptism, also, in order that occasion might be taken, at the commencement of his work, for God publicly to declare his approbation of him, and his solemn appointment to the office of the Messiah.
Matthew 3:16 "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:"
Out of the water - This shows that he had descended to the river. It literally means, "he went up directly from the water." The original does not imply that they had descended into the river, and it cannot be proved, therefore, from this passage, that his baptism was by immersion; nor can it be proved that even, if his baptism was by immersion, that therefore the same mode is binding on people now. In order to demonstrate from this passage that immersion is essential, it is necessary to demonstrate:
(a) that he went into the river;
(b) that, being there, he was wholly immersed;
(c) that the fact that he was immersed, if he was, proves that all others must be, in order that there could be a valid baptism.
Neither of these three things has ever been demonstrated from this passage, nor can they be.
The heavens were opened unto him - This was done while he was praying, (Luke 3:21). The ordinances of religion will be commonly ineffectual without prayer. If in those ordinances we look to God, we may expect that he will bless us; the heavens will be opened, light will shine upon our path, and we shall meet with the approbation of God. The expression, "the heavens were opened," is one that commonly denotes the appearance of the clouds when it lightens. The heavens appear to open or give way. Something of this kind probably appeared to John at this time. The same appearance took place at Stephen's death, (Acts 7:56). The expression means that he was permitted to see far into the heavens beyond what the natural vision would allow.
To him - Some have referred this to Jesus, others to John. It probably refers to John. See John 1:33. It was a testimony given to John that this was the Messiah.
He saw - John saw.
The Spirit of God - See Matthew 3:11. This was the third person of the Trinity, descending upon him in the form of a dove, (Luke 3:22). The dove, among the Jews, was the symbol of purity of heart, harmlessness, and gentleness, (Matthew 10:16); compare Psalm 55:6-7. The form chosen here was doubtless an emblem of the innocence, meekness, and tenderness of the Saviour. The gift of the Holy Spirit, in this manner, was the public approbation of Jesus (John 1:33), and a sign of his being set apart to the office of the Messiah. We are not to suppose that there was any change done in the moral character of Jesus, but only that he was publicly set apart to his work, and solemnly approved by God in the office to which he was appointed.
Matthew 3:17 "And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."
A voice from heaven - A voice from God. This was probably heard by all who were present. This voice, or sound, was repeated on the mount of transfiguration, (Matthew 17:5; Luke 9:35-36; 2 Peter 1:17). It was also heard just before his death, and was then supposed by many to be thunder, (John 12:25-30). It was a public declaration that Jesus was the Messiah.
My beloved Son - This is the title which God himself gave to Jesus. It denotes the nearness of his relation to God, and the love of God for him, (Hebrews 1:2). It implies that he was equal with God, (Hebrews 1:5-8; John 10:29-33; John 19:7). The term "Son" is expressive of love of the nearness of his relation to God, and of his dignity and equality with God.
I am well pleased - or, I am ever delighted. The language implies that he was constantly or uniformly well pleased with him; and in this solemn and public manner he expressed his approbation of him as the Redeemer of the world.
The baptism of Jesus has usually been regarded as a striking manifestation of the doctrine of the Trinity, or the doctrine that there are three Persons in the divine nature:
(1) there is the Person of "Jesus Christ," the Son of God, baptized in Jordan, elsewhere declared to be equal with God, (John 10:30).
(2) the Holy Spirit descending in a bodily form upon the Saviour. The Holy Spirit is also equal with the Father, or is also God, (Acts 5:3-4).
(3) the Father, addressing the Son, and declaring that He was well pleased with him.
It is impossible to explain this transaction consistently in any other way than by supposing that there are three equal Persons in the divine nature or essence, and that each of these sustains an important part in the work of redeeming people.
In the preaching of John the Baptist we are presented with an example of a faithful minister of God. Neither the wealth, the dignity, nor the power of his auditors deterred him from fearlessly declaring the truth respecting their character. He called things by their right names. He did not apologize for their sins. He set their transgressions fairly before them, and showed them faithfully and fearlessly what must be the consequence of a life of sin. So should all ministers of the Gospel preach. Rank, riches, and power should have nothing to do in shaping and gauging their ministry. In respectful terms, but without shrinking, all the truth of the Gospel must be spoken, or woe will follow the ambassador of Christ, (1 Corinthians 9:16).
In John we also have an example of humility. Blessed with great success, attended by the great and noble, and with nothing but principle to keep him from turning it to his advantage, he still kept himself out of view, and pointed to a far greater Personage at hand. So should every minister of Jesus, however successful, keep the Lamb of God in his eye, and be willing - nay, rejoice - to lay all his success and honors at Jesus' feet.
Everything about the work of Jesus was wonderful. No person had before come into the world under such circumstances. God would not have attended the commencement of his life with such wonderful events if it had not been of the greatest moment to our race, and if he had not possessed a dignity above all prophets, kings, and priests. His "name" was to be called "Wonderful, Councillor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace;" "of the increase of his government and peace" there was to be "no end;" "upon the throne of David and of his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice forever" (Isaiah 9:6-7); and it was proper that a voice from heaven should declare that he was the long-promised prince and Saviour; that the angels should attend him, and the Holy Spirit signalize his baptism by his personal presence. And it is proper that we, for whom he came, should give to him our undivided affections, our time, our influence, our hearts, and our lives.
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