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Matthew 3


The Preaching of John the Baptist John the Baptist Prepares the Way Activity of John the Baptist The Preaching of John the Baptist The Proclamation of John the Baptist
3:1-6 3:1-12 3:1-6 3:1-3 3:1-12
3:7-12   3:7-10 3:7-12  
The Baptism of Jesus John Baptizes Jesus Jesus' Baptism The Baptism of Jesus Jesus is Baptized
3:13-17 3:13-17 3:13-17 3:13-14 3:13-15


READING CYCLE THREE (from "A Guide to Good Bible Reading")



This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects. Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

1. First paragraph

2. Second paragraph

3. Third paragraph

4. Etc.



A. Between Matthew 2 and 3 are the silent years of Jesus' childhood. Except for one experience at the age of twelve, details about Jesus' childhood are not known. There has been much interest and speculation by believers. Several extra-canonical pseudepigraphic gospels record other specific events, which are supposed to have occurred during His adolescence, but these years are simply unrecorded in the Bible.


B. The parallel passages for Matt. 3:1-12 are Mark 1:3-8, Luke 3:1-17, and John. 1:6-8, 19-28.


C. The parallel passages for Matt. 3:13-17 are Mark 1:9-11, Luke 3:21-22, and John. 1:31-34.



 1Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, 2"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." 3For this is the one referred to by Isaiah the prophet when he said,
 "The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
 'Make ready the way of the Lord,
 Make His paths straight!'"
 4Now John himself had a garment of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then Jerusalem was going out to him, and all Judea and all the district around the Jordan; 6and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins.

3:1 "in those days" This is a transition idiom. It does not attempt to locate a specific time.

▣ "John" This was the shortened form of the name " Johanan," which meant "YHWH is gracious" or "gift of YHWH." His name was significant because, like all biblical names, it pointed toward God's purpose for his life. John was the last of the Old Testament prophets. There had not been a prophet in Israel since Malachi, around 430 b.c. His very presence caused great spiritual excitement among the people.

▣ "the Baptist" Baptism was a common rite among Jews of the first and second century.

1. preparation for worship a the temple (i.e., cleansing rite)

2. the self baptism of proselytes

If someone from a Gentile background were to become a full child of Israel, he had to accomplish three tasks:

(a) circumcision, if male

(b)  self-baptism by immersion, in the presence of three witnesses

(c) sacrifice in the Temple

In sectarian groups of first century Palestine, such as the Essenes, baptism was apparently a common, repeated experience. However, to mainline Judaism, John's baptism of repentance would have been humiliating for a natural child of Abraham to undergo a Gentile ritual.

Some OT precedents can be cited for ceremonial washing.

1.  as a symbol of spiritual cleansing (cf. Isa. 1:16)

2.  as a regular ritual performed by the priests (cf. Exod. 19:10; Lev. 15)

It should be noted that all other baptisms in first century Jewish culture were self-administered. Only John's called for him to administer this rite. Apparently John made a spiritual evaluation of the spiritual qualifications which denoted a personal repentance (cf. Matt. 3:7-10).

▣ "came preaching in the wilderness of Judea" "Wilderness" was uninhabited pasture land, not an arid desert. John not only dressed like Elijah (cf. 2 Kgs. 1:8), he also lived in the same arid setting. John was claiming a prophetic position (cf. Zech. 13:4). His nomadic life resembled the wilderness wandering of Israel, which was an idealized time of an intimate relationship between YHWH and Israel.

Parallel passages suggest the geographical location of John's preaching was somewhere close to the city of Jericho just north of the Dead Sea, near the Jordan River.

3:2 "Repent," This is a present imperative which is an ongoing command. Without repentance, it is impossible to be saved (cf. Luke 13:3). The Hebrew equivalent meant "to change one's actions," while the Greek word meant "to change one's mind." It implied a willingness to change. Salvation requires faith in Christ and repentance (cf. Mark 1:15; Acts 3:16, 19; 20:21). John's ministry was one of spiritual preparation for the coming of Jesus the Messiah and His message.

Jesus also called on His hearers to repent (cf. Matt. 4:17; Mark 1:15).


▣ "for the kingdom of heaven" Matthew, writing to Jews, is sensitive to their aversion to using God's name, so he uses a circumlocution, "kingdom of heaven" (cf. Matt. 4:17), whereas the other Synoptic Gospels use "kingdom of God" (Matthew used "kingdom of heaven" 32 times and " kingdom of God" only 4).

The Kingdom of God refers, in an OT sense, to the reign of God, not to a geographical area. God is King of creation! See Special Topic at Matt. 4:17.

NASB, NKJV"is at hand"
NRSV"has come near"
TEV"is near!"
NJB"is close at hand"

This is a perfect tense verb which describes the culmination and continuing results of a process started earlier. The nearness of the kingdom is stressed in the Gospels (cf. Matt. 4:17; 10:7; Mark 1:15; Luke 10:9-11; 11:20; 21:31). "Near" can be understood in one of two ways: (1) near in location or (2) near in time (cf. Matt. 12:28). This is the tension of "the already" and "not yet" of the New Age. It describes the time between the two comings of Christ. It is the overlapping of two Jewish ages.

3:3 "The voice of one crying in the wilderness" This is a quote from Isa. 40:3 in the Septuagint (LXX). The same idea was also reflected in Isa. 57:14 and 62:10, and Mal. 3:1. John saw himself as being the preparer for the coming of the Messiah (cf. John. 1:23). This fulfilled the predictions concerning Elijah found in the Mal. 3:1 and 4:5. All four Gospels record these words of John (cf. Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4; John 1:23).

▣ "Make ready the way of the Lord, Make His paths straight" These phrases are poetic parallels. The second phrase was usually a metaphor for preparing for a royal visit. It is significant to note that in Isa. 40:3 the term "the Lord"referred to YHWH, which in this quote referred to Jesus of Nazareth. The NT authors use several literary ways to assert the Deity of Jesus.

1. OT titles for YHWH applied to Jesus

2. OT actions of YHWH seen in Jesus

3. OT quotes relating to YHWH now used of Jesus

4. both God and Jesus as the grammatical object of one verb or one preposition

"Straight" was often used metaphorically for the character of God (similar to " right," " righteous," " just," " justify"). Most of the Hebrew as well as Greek words for sin reflect a deviation from a standard or "measuring reed." The standard is God Himself (cf. Lev. 11:44; 19:2; Matt. 5:48; 20:7,26; 1 Pet. 1:16).

3:4 Compare this to the clothing and lifestyle of Elijah recorded in 2 Kgs. 1:8 and reflected in Mal. 4:5. Camel-hair clothes were the cheapest available. John was accustomed to living in a desert and eating the diet available there. Locusts were a food allowed by the Mosaic legislation (cf. Lev. 11:22). The term was also used of the beans of the locust, or carob, tree.

3:5 The Jewish people of Judea saw John as a prophet (cf. Matt. 21:26). This verse shows the great hunger for God of the first century Jews. Even the religious leaders came. This verse is obviously a hyperbole, but it communicates the religious fervor which John caused.

3:6 "as they confessed their sins" The Greek term " confess" [homologeo] meant "to say the same thing." It implied both a public confession and a profession of faith (cf. Acts 19:18; James 5:16). The people as a whole recognized the need for spiritual renewal. OT precedents are found in Lev. 5:5 and 26:40. See special topic on confession at Matt. 10:32.

 7But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; 9and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham for our father'; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. 10The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

3:7 "But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them" John's statements to these religious leaders are shocking in their intensity (i.e., "you brood of vipers," cf. Luke 3:7; and used by Jesus in Matt. 12:34; 23:33). Several theories have been advanced about why he reacted so strongly.

1. he saw them as Satanic agents

2. he saw them as spiritually dead to the true faith

3. he saw them as fakes

4. he saw them as being manipulative leaders whose public professions did not match their attitudes and motives

It is significant that these leaders were considering baptism themselves. Possibly they wanted to identify with the multitude and thereby retain their leadership status. John recognized their true motives.

For a full discussion of the origin and theology of the Pharisees see Special Topic at Matt. 22:15 and for Sadducees see Special Topic at Matt. 22:23.

▣ "to flee from the wrath to come" From the parallel of Mal. 3:2-3, it is clear that judgment was coming upon Israel because of her violations of the Mosaic Covenant (cf. Deuteronomy 27-28). Amos called it "the day of YHWH" (i.e., Amos 5:18), which inaugurated the New Age of Righteousness or the Messianic Kingdom. Here John confirms Malachi's judgment motif. Note that John's message was not national or corporate like Malachi's, but individual (cf. Ezek. 18; 33; Jer. 31:31-34).


NASB"bear fruit in keeping with repentance"
NKJV, NRSV"bear fruit worthy of repentance"
TEV"Do the things that will show that you have turned from sins"
NJB"But if you are repentant, produce the appropriate fruit"

Even in the OT, faith was more than simply ritual or membership in a national group (cf. Deut. 10:12, 16; Matt. 7:15-23; Rom. 2:28-29). Faith was and is both corporate and individual, both faith and works (cf. James 2:14-26)! Their lives must show their new relationship with God (cf. Matt. 7:16-20; 12:33; Luke 6:43-44; Acts 26:20). For "repentance" see full note at Matt. 4:17.

3:9 "and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham for our father'" This same dependence on national descent can be seen in John. 8:31ff. and the Talmud's "Sanhedrin" 10:1. The Jews believed that the merit of Abraham's faith was applied to them. However, Mal. 3:2ff. and 4:1 show that judgment would come upon the Jews for their violations of the Covenant (also note Matt. 8:11-12). Lifestyle faith, not lineage, is the way to recognize a true child of Abraham (cf. Rom. 2:28-29).

▣ "stones. . .children" This was a word play using the Aramaic words for "stones" ('ebnayya) and "children" (benyya), which sounded similar. See G. B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of The Bible, p. 48.

3:10 "the axe is already laid at the root of the trees" This judgment motif is similar to Malachi's. A parallel can be seen in Isa. 10:33-34. One reason John the Baptist wondered whether Jesus was really the Messiah was because His message was not one primarily of judgment as John anticipated.

 11"As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."


NASB"I am not fit to remove His sandals"
NKJV, NRSV"whose sandals I am not worthy to carry"
TEV"I am not good enough even to carry his sandals"

This term may be translated two ways (1) following the usage in the Egyptian papyri, "to take off and carry a visitor's shoes to the storage place" or (2) to " untie and remove." Both acts were traditionally done by slaves. Not even the students of rabbis were asked to perform this task. This was an idiomatic statement of John's understanding of the superiority of Jesus.

▣ "He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire" Only one preposition and one article in the Greek text link the Holy Spirit and fire, implying that they are parallel (note Isa. 4:4). However, as in Luke 3:17, fire may refer to judgment, while the Holy Spirit referred to cleansing or to purity. It is possible both refer to the Pentecostal experience of Acts 2. Some have seen this as a two-fold baptism: one baptism for the righteous and one for the wicked, or Jesus baptizing as Savior or as Judge. Others have related it to conversion before Pentecost and the special endowment at Pentecost. 1 Corinthians 12:13 implies that Jesus is the baptizer "in," " with," or "by" the Spirit (cf. Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John. 1:33; Acts 1:5; 2:33).

3:12 "but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire" The metaphor Jesus used to describe the eternal judgment of God (cf. Isa. 66:24) was Gehenna (contraction of "the valley of the sons of Hinnom"), the garbage dump located south of Jerusalem (cf. Mark 9:48; Matt. 18:8; 24:41; Jude 7). A Canaanite fire and fertility god had been worshiped (an activity known as molech) at Gehenna in Israel's past by sacrificing of children (cf. Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5; 1 Kgs. 11:7; 2 Kgs. 21:6; 23:10). This aspect of eternal judgment is shocking to modern readers, but it was evident (rabbinical teaching) and expressive to first century Jews. Jesus did not come as judge, but all who reject Him will be judged (cf. Luke 3:16-17, John. 3:17-21). A possible OT precedent for this metaphor was Isaiah 34 which described God's judgment on Edom.


 13Then Jesus arrived from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John, to be baptized by him. 14But John tried to prevent Him, saying "I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?" 15But Jesus answering said to him, "Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." Then he permitted Him. 16After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on Him, 17and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased."

3:13 "Then Jesus arrived from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John, to be baptized by him" The Gospels differ in their early chronologies of Jesus' ministries in Galilee and Judea. It seems that there was an early Judean ministry and a later one, but all four Gospels'chronologies must be harmonized in order to see this early Judean visit (cf. John. 2:13-4:3).

Why Jesus was baptized has always been a concern for believers because John's baptism was a baptism of repentance. Jesus did not need forgiveness for He was sinless (cf. John 8:46; Acts 3:14; Rom. 8:3; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15; 7:26; 1 Pet. 2:22; 1 John 3:5). The theories have been as follows:

1. it was an example for believers to follow

2. it was His identification with believers'need

3. it was His ordination and equipping for ministry

4. it was a symbol of His redemptive task

5. it was His approval of the ministry and message of John the Baptist

6. it was prophetic of His death, burial, and resurrection (cf. Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12).

Whatever the reason, this was a defining moment in Jesus' life. Although it does not imply that Jesus became the Messiah at this point (adoptionism, cf. The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture by Bart D. Ehrman, pp. 47-118), it held great significance for Him.

3:14 "But John tried to prevent Him" This is an imperfect tense verb. Many commentators have struggled with why John tried again and again to prevent Jesus from being baptized. Some theories are:

1. some see this as John having previous knowledge of Jesus, but this conflicts with John 1:31,33

2. some see this as John acknowledging that Jesus was a righteous Jew, but not that He was the Messiah

3. in modern Near Eastern culture one must insist three times to be considered sincere


3:15 "But Jesus answering said to him" Verses 14-15 are found only in the Gospel of Matthew. They do not provide enough information to completely answer the question of verse 14. It is certain, however, that the baptism had meaning both for Jesus and John and that it was God's will for both their lives.


NASB"Jesus came up immediately from the water"
NKJV"came up immediately from the water"
NRSV"just as he came up from the water"
TEV"Jesus came up out of the water"
NJB"he at once came up from the water"

This verse has been used by those who support immersion as the only biblical mode of baptism to prove that Jesus was immersed. However, it could be understood to mean that He went up on the bank out of the water (see Michael Magill, New Testament TransLine, p. 9, #35 and 36).

▣ "the heavens were opened" This is a metaphorical way of showing God's will (cf. Isa. 22:22; Rev. 3:7). Only God can open heaven (cf. Mal. 3:10; Rev. 4:1). God opens blind eyes (i.e., Matt. 9:27-31; 12:22-23; 20:29-34; note Isa. 29:18; 35:5; 42:7,16) and answers prayer (cf. Matt. 7:7,8).

It is surely possible that this metaphor is from Isa. 64:1.

▣ "and he saw" The Greek text has only the pronoun "he," which could refer to either John or Jesus. Some ancient Greek uncial manuscripts (אi1, C, D, L, and W), some ancient translations (the Vulgate and Coptic), and the Greek texts used by early church fathers (Irenaeus, Eusebius, Chrysostom, Jerome, and Augustine) imply that only Jesus saw the dove coming, in the phrase "the heavens were opened to Him." However, the dove was also a sign to John to point out the true Messiah (cf. John. 1:32).

▣ "the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on Him" This is recorded in all four Gospels (Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32). Was it like a dove or was it a real dove? The question cannot be fully answered (cf. Luke 3:22). This is related to Isa. 11:2; 42:1; 48:16; 61:1. The specific form of the Spirit is not as significant as the Spirit Himself coming upon Jesus. This does not imply that before this time Jesus did not have the Holy Spirit, but that this was a special inauguration of His Messianic task.

The symbolism of the dove has been discussed a great deal as to its origin and purpose.

1. it goes back to Genesis 1, where the Spirit brooded over the waters

2. it goes back to Genesis 8, where Noah sent a dove out from the ark

3. the rabbis said that the dove was a symbol of Israel (cf. Ps. 68:13; Hos. 7:11; 11:11; The Talmud San. 95A and Ber. R. 39; II Esdras 5.26)

4. Tasker, in the Tyndale New Testament Commentary Series, says that it refers to gentleness, which is to be contrasted with the fire in verse 11 (cf. Rom 11:22; Matt. 11:29; 25:40).


3:17 "a voice out of the heavens" This phrase is significant for several reasons. During the inter-biblical period, when there was no true prophet, the rabbis said that God confirmed His choice and decisions by means of a bath kol, which was a voice from heaven. Also, this voice was a sign from God in a cultural way these first century Jews could understand (cf. Acts 10:9-16; 11:7-9; Rev. 1:10; 4:1; 10:8; 11:12). It was apparently as meaningful to Jesus as it was to John and possibly to the crowd which observed His baptism.

The combination of the quote "My Son in whom I am delighted" links the royal Messianic, Davidic emphasis of Ps. 2:7 with the Suffering Servant motif of Isa. 42:1. Here, in this quote, the royal Messiah is linked to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah.

This phrase, "My Beloved Son" (also note 17:5) is the possible origin of the phrase "Son of God," which is found in Matt. 4:3, 6. It is significant to note that in Mark 1:11 it was translated "You are My beloved Son," which showed that the Father directed His words to Jesus, while in Matthew 3, it was translated in such a way as to indicate that God spoke to John and the crowd. See Special Topic: Son of God at Matt. 27:54.

Verses 16-17 involve all three persons of the Trinity. The term "trinity" is not in the Bible, but the concept is surely scriptural. The fact that the Bible asserts the oneness of God (monotheism, Deut. 6:4) must be balanced with the deity of Jesus and the personality of the Spirit. There is one divine essence and three eternal personal manifestations. The three divine personalities are often mentioned in the same context (i.e., Matt. 3:16-17; 28:19; Acts 2:33-34; Rom. 8:9-10; 1 Cor. 12:4-6; 2 Cor. 1:21-22; 13:14; Eph. 1:3-14; 4:4-6; Titus 3:4-6; 1 Pet. 1:2).



This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought provoking, not definitive.

1. Of which OT prophet does John the Baptist remind you? Why?

2. Define repentance.

3. Why does Matthew use the phrase "kingdom of heaven" and Mark and Luke use " kingdom of God" ?

4. What is the significance of the quote from Isaiah 40 (Matt. 3:3)?

5. Why did the religious leaders want to be baptized? What did baptism symbolize in that day?

6. Why is the emphasis of John the Baptist's message on judgment and not on salvation?

7. Why was Jesus baptized with a baptism of repentance?

8. What is the significance of God speaking out of heaven? Identify the two OT sources of the Father's quote and explain their significance.


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