Matthew 3:1-12. 1 In those days John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea 2 (and) saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” 3 It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said:“A voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’” 4 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him 6 and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. 7 When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. 9 And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. 10 Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Notes. Our look at the text so far has “leaned into” an Advent understanding of things. If you are interested in Matthew 3:1-12 apart from Advent, these notes should supply some insight.
Matthew 3:1 in those days: This is an OT expression that marks the beginning of the new period, not necessarily a precise indication of time (see Mt 13:1; 24:22, 29, 36; 26:29). Here it marks the time-shift from the infancy narrative to the adult Jesus’ appearance. the desert of Judea: wilderness would perhaps be the better word for modern English. The area is the barren region west of the Dead Sea extending up the Jordan valley.
Matthew 3:2 Repent: the biblical idea of repentance involves a willingness to turn one’s life around in the sense of a complete re-orientation. the kingdom of heaven is at hand: “heaven” (literally, “the heavens”) is a substitute for the name “God” that was avoided by devout Jews of the time out of reverence. The expression “the kingdom of heaven” occurs only in the gospel of Matthew. It means the effective rule of God over his people. In its fullness it includes not only human obedience to God’s word, but the triumph of God over physical evils, supremely over death. In the expectation found in Jewish apocalyptic, the kingdom was to be ushered in by a judgment in which sinners would be condemned and perish, an expectation shared by the Baptist. This was modified in Christian understanding where the kingdom was seen as being established in stages, culminating with the parousia of Jesus.
Matthew 3:3 the prophet Isaiah had spoken: The quotation that follows is from Isa 40:3 as found in the Septuagint (LXX). This is a repunctuation and reinterpretation (as in the synoptic gospels and Septuagint) of the Hebrew text of Isaiah 40:3 which reads, “A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the Lord.” Isaiah 40:3 comes at the very beginning of the second part of Isaiah (40–56), in which the prophecy shifts abruptly from present judgment to future restoration after the Babylonian captivities. Chapter 40 begins this part of the book with the proclamation of comfort and tender speech to Jerusalem, whose sins, God assures, have been forgiven (vv. 1–2). Isaiah 40:3 harks back to the imagery of 26:7 with its teaching about God making the ways or paths of the righteous smooth. But even the land and its topography are metaphorically changing, as 40:4 describes the leveling of the mountains, the elevation of the valleys, and the smoothing out of rugged places. Then the Lord’s glory will be revealed and all humanity will see it (40:5). Nothing in the immediate context of Isa. 40 suggests that Isaiah is referring to anyone other than Yahweh himself returning to Israel as king but the references to special sons in Isa. 7–9 and to the messianic branch in Isa. 11, along with the Servant Songs yet to come (beginning in Isa. 42), do indicate God revealing himself through a specially anointed agent. The “shepherding” imagery of a text as close to ours as 40:11 also dovetails with other prophecies in which a messianic figure is likened to a shepherd (esp. Ezek. 34).
Matthew 3:4 clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist: The clothing of John recalls the austere dress of the prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1:8). The expectation of the return of Elijah from heaven to prepare Israel for the final manifestation of God’s kingdom was widespread, and according to Matthew this expectation was fulfilled in the Baptist’s ministry (Matthew 11:14; 17:11-13).
Matthew 3:5 Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him: the tense of the Gr. verb (imperfect) implies that there was a steady stream of people regularly going out to John. The three place names and the words “all” and “all over” add to the impression that the response to John was astounding – enough to raise concern among the religious leadership of Israel.
Matthew 3:6 being baptized: Ritual washing was practiced by various groups in Palestine between 150 B.C. and A.D. 250. John’s baptism may have been related to the purificatory washings of the Essenes at Qumran. acknowledge their sins: many other translations well use the word “confess.” The basic meaning of exomologeomai is “to acknowledge an inward fact publicly.” Interestingly exomologeomai also means “promise.”
Matthew 3:7 many of the Pharisees and Sadducees: the former were marked by devotion to the law, written and oral, and the scribes, experts in the law, belonged predominantly to this group. The Sadducees were the priestly aristocratic party, centered in Jerusalem. They accepted as scripture only the first five books of the Old Testament, followed only the letter of the law, rejected the oral legal traditions, and were opposed to teachings not found in the Pentateuch, such as the resurrection of the dead. Matthew links both of these groups together as enemies of Jesus (Matthew 16:1, 6, 11, 12; cf Mark 8:11-13, 15). The threatening words that follow are addressed to them rather than to “the crowds” as in Luke 3:7. coming to his baptism: the phrase is ambiguous. It can also be translated as “coming against baptism.” Some older translations read “coming to watch his baptism;” however, there is no verb indicating a “watching” activity. vipers: a genus of snakes prevalent in wilderness areas. The term is used metaphorically for evil or evil people (cf. Mt 12:34; 23:3). The accusatory description of the Pharisees and Sadducees as an evil “brood of vipers” is twice echoed by Jesus (12:34; 23:33, cf. Gen 3:1; Ps 58:4). the coming wrath: the judgment that will bring about the destruction of unrepentant sinners.
Matthew 3:8 produce fruit: The Pharisees and Sadducees are warned that mere ritual is inadequate and will not preserve them from God’s wrath. Rather they must do good deeds that are appropriate to genuine repentance in view of the coming kingdom. Producing fruit as a metaphor for a repentant lifestyle occurs elsewhere in Matthew (3:10; 7:16–20; 12:33; 13:8, 23, 26; 21:19) and is common in the OT (Ps 1:3; Isa 3:10; 5:1–7; Hos 10:1). The image of Israel as the tree from which fruit is expected echoes Hosea 9:16; Isaiah 27:6; Jeremiah 12:2, 17:8; and Ezekiel 17:8-9, 23.
Matthew 3:9 we have Abraham as our father: There may be a reference to the rabbinic idea of the “merits of the fathers” according to which the righteousness of the patriarchs is charged to the account of Israel. children to Abraham from these stones: In Aramaic and Hebrew there is a clear play on the words ‘abnayya (stones) and bēnayya (children). The message is that God’s power far surpasses the laws of natural heritage. In Galatians 3 and Romans 4, St Paul develops arguments about the true children of Abraham and concludes that the true children are those who follow his example of fidelity.
Matthew 3:10 cut down and thrown into the fire. A vivid picture of judgment. A similar picture of false prophets as unfruitful trees is found in 7:19 (cf. Isa 10:15–19; Jer 11:16), and 13:24–30 pictures the weeds among the wheat being thrown into the fire at the harvest (cf. the chaff in 3:12). Jesus’ cursing the unfruitful fig tree in 21:19 is another similar image. The burning of unfruitful trees is also related to the punishment of evildoers (5:22; 13:42, 50; 18:8–9; 25:41). The vividness of the picture is heightened by the words “already,” which depict the chopping down of unfruitful trees as a process that is presently occurring.
Matthew 3:11 for repentance: Where Matthew had avoided using the word “repentance” in 3:2, here he takes up the word as a necessary action prior to the coming events/end. coming after me does not refer to one coming ‘later’ (opisō, ‘behind’, is not used of time elsewhere in the New Testament), but is a regular description of a follower or disciple. (Opisō is so used, e.g. in 4:19; 10:38; 16:24; Luke 21:8; John 12:19) Jesus first appeared as a follower of John when he came to his baptism. to carry his sandals: A Rabbi’s disciple was expected to act virtually as his master’s slave, but to remove his shoes was too low a task even for a disciple (Ketuboth 96a). baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire: the water baptism of John will be followed by an “immersion” of the repentant in the cleansing power of the Spirit of God, and of the unrepentant in the destroying power of God’s judgment. In contrast to John’s baptism with water, Jesus is said to baptize with the holy Spirit and with fire. From the point of view of the early Christian community, the Spirit and fire must have been understood in the light of the fire symbolism of the pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1–4); but as part of John’s preaching, the Spirit and fire should be related to their purifying and refining characteristics (Ezekiel 36:25–27; Malachi 3:2–3).
Matthew 3:12 winnowing fan… threshing floor…gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn: The discrimination between the good and the bad is compared to the procedure by which a farmer separates wheat and chaff. The winnowing fan was a forklike shovel with which the threshed wheat was thrown into the air. The kernels fell to the ground; the light chaff, blown off by the wind, was gathered and burned up. The scene echoes OT passages such as Ps 1:4; Prov 20:26; Isa 41:14–16; Jer 15:7; 51:33; Dan 2:35; Hos 6:11; 13:3; Joel 3:13; and Mic 4:12–13.
- Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994) pp.154-61
- Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000) p. 94
- R. T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 1, ed. Leon Morris (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989) pp. 94-98
- Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) pp. 50-61
- Daniel J. Harrington, “Matthew” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Diane Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) pp. 866-67
- John P. Meier, Matthew, New Testament Message 3 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990) pp. 21-5
- D. Turner and D.L. Bock, Matthew and Mark in the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, vol. 11 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005) pp. 56-61
- G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007) pp. 11-14
- Brian Stoffregen, “Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes” at www.crossmarks.com
- D. N. Freedman, ed., The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1996) Paul W. Hollenbach, “John the Baptist”, 3:887-99