Anchor Sunday School Class
Matthew Chapter 3
Life Application Commentary
JOHN THE BAPTIST PREPARES THE WAY FOR JESUS / 3:1-12 / 16
When John "came preaching" (3:1), the people were excited. They considered John to be a great prophet, and they were sure that the eagerly awaited age of the Messiah had come. Indeed, it had, and God was ushering in a brand-new covenant and a new era in his dealings with humanity. John spoke like the prophets of old, saying that the people must turn from their sin to avoid punishment and turn to God to experience his mercy and approval. This is a message for all times and places, but John spoke it with particular urgency—he was preparing the people for the coming Messiah and for his kingdom. Our calling is similar to John's, for we, too, can prepare the way for others to come to Jesus. How much urgency do you feel for those who still need to hear the message?
3:1 In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea.NKJV "In those days" is an Old Testament phrase that points to a critical period of time. It relates to 2:23, loosely referring to the days when Jesus lived in Nazareth. However, twenty-eight to thirty years have elapsed since Joseph returned with the young Jesus and Mary from Egypt back to Israel. He did not settle in Judea but moved north instead to Galilee and the city of Nazareth.
But in the wilderness of Judea (the rugged land west of the Dead Sea), a significant event began to occur: John the Baptist came preaching. In these five words, Matthew summed up the story that Luke would record in greater detail (see Luke 1:5-25, 39-45, 57-80). John was a miracle child, born to Elizabeth and Zacharias (Zechariah, in some Bible versions). Elizabeth was unable to have children, and advanced age rendered her and Zacharias certain to remain childless.
Zacharias was a priest. One day, while he was carrying out his duties in the temple, the angel Gabriel appeared to him and explained that Zacharias and Elizabeth would have a baby boy whom they should name John. Then he added: "He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord" (Luke 1:16-17 nrsv). There had not been a prophet in Israel for more than four hundred years. It was widely believed that when the Messiah came, prophecy would reappear (Joel 2:28-29; Malachi 3:1; 4:5). John was that prophet, preaching a message of repentance. The word translated "preaching" comes from the Greek word meaning "to be a herald, to proclaim." Matthew described John as a herald proclaiming news of the coming King, the Messiah. The title "the Baptist" distinguished this John from many other men with the same name—baptism was an important part of his ministry (3:6).
To us also John the Baptist must come if we shall properly appreciate the Redeemer. We must expose ourselves to the fire, the ax, the winnowing-fan, that we may learn what we really are, and come, like Paul, to reckon our own righteousness as loss if only we may win Christ and be found in him.
F. B. Meyer
John's mother, Elizabeth, was a cousin to Jesus' mother, Mary. Thus, Jesus and John the Baptist were distant cousins. It is likely that they knew of each other, but John probably did not know that Jesus was the Messiah until Jesus' baptism by John (see 3:16-17).
3:2 "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."NRSV John the Baptist's preaching focused specifically on one message—preparing hearts for the coming Messiah. Preparation could only occur through repentance. John called the people to repent—to turn away from sins and turn toward God. To be truly repentant, people must do both. Without apology or hesitation, John preached that the people could not say they believed and then live any way they wanted (see 3:7-8). They had to understand that they were sinners, that sin is wrong, and that they needed to change both their attitude and their conduct. Repentance was a radical concept for Jews who considered themselves already "the people of God." In the Old Testament, "repent" means the radical return to God of those who have broken the covenant with him. John used the word this way.
Why did they need this radical repentance? Because the kingdom of heaven had arrived. The kingdom of heaven began when God himself entered human history as a man. Passages referring to God's kingdom appear 50 times in Matthew's Gospel alone; the phrase "kingdom of heaven" occurs 33 times. Mark and Luke refer to it as the "kingdom of God." This is a "kingdom" where God reigns. The phrase indicates a present reality and a future hope. Matthew's use of "kingdom of heaven" relates to his Jewish audience and their reluctance to use the name of God. But there is no theological distinction implied between "kingdom of heaven" and "kingdom of God." Today Jesus Christ reigns in the hearts of believers, but the kingdom of heaven will not be fully realized until all evil in the world is judged and removed. Christ came to earth first as a suffering Servant; he will come again as King and Judge to rule victoriously over all the earth.
The phrase "has come near" portrays that God has interrupted history with a dramatic new revelation of his power. Discussion of the timing of the arrival of God's kingdom fills many pages of scholarly work. The issues seem to fall into three main views:
Futurist—Since the Old Testament view of the kingdom of God refers to his rule over a geographical area and in a political reality, this rule must be in the future. Thus, Jesus was announcing that the rule was "near" or "at hand." Most Jews held this view and would not accept the message of repentance.
Realized—This view sees God's kingdom as announced and inaugurated with Jesus' ministry on earth. The rule of Satan's kingdom was broken as Jesus cast out demons. With Jesus' initiation of God's rule on earth, all humanity must carry out his will by living in love and peace on earth.
Two-pronged approach—This view recognizes the kingdom of God as both present and future. The rule of God transcends all time. God ruled before Christ came to earth, but in the ministry of Christ, new power was released through Christ, requiring people to encounter and decide to follow God. This looks forward both to the Resurrection and to Pentecost for further authentication and enabling. However, God's geographical and political rule will be revealed at a future time when Christ returns.
John the Baptist's theme was "Repent!" Repentance means doing an about-face—a 180-degree turn—from the kind of self-centeredness that leads to wrong actions such as lying, cheating, stealing, gossiping, taking revenge, abusing, and indulging in sexual immorality. A person who stops rebelling and begins following God's way of living prescribed in his Word is a person who has repented. The first step in turning to God is to admit your sin, as John urged. Then God will receive you and help you live the way he wants. Remember that only God can remove sin. He doesn't expect us to clean up our lives before we come to him.
This third view integrates the Scriptures and explains the teachings of Christ most satisfyingly. It enables us to see God's kingdom as both present (Matthew 12:28; Luke 7:22-23; 17:20-21) and future (Matthew 6:10; Mark 9:47; Luke 13:28-29).
3:3 For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying: "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.'"NKJV The prophet quoted is Isaiah (Isaiah 40:3), one of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament and one of the most quoted in the New. Here Matthew quoted from the Septuagint (often abbreviated as LXX), the Greek version of the Hebrew Old Testament. The second half of the book of Isaiah is devoted to the promise of salvation. Isaiah recorded God's promise to bring the exiles home from Babylon. He also wrote about the coming of the Messiah and the person who would announce his coming, John the Baptist (Isaiah 40:3). Like Isaiah, John was a prophet who urged people to confess their sins and live for God. Both prophets taught that the message of repentance is good news to those who listen and seek the healing forgiveness of God's love, but terrible news to those who refuse to listen and thus cut off their only hope.
Matthew understood that John the Baptist was, in fact, the voice that came crying out to the people of Israel. The Greek word for "crying" is boao, meaning "to cry out with great feeling." John the Baptist's message was full of emotion and came directly from God. John was merely God's mouthpiece for the important message that God was sending to his people: Prepare the way of the Lord. How were they to do this?
The word "prepare" refers to making something ready; the word "way" could also be translated "road." The picture could come from the ancient Middle Eastern custom of sending servants ahead of a king to level and clear the roads to make them passable for his journey. The people in Israel needed to prepare their minds to eagerly anticipate their King and Messiah. The verbs are in the imperative, meaning that John spoke them as a military general would speak commands—to be obeyed immediately and without hesitation. Those who accepted John's status as a true prophet from God understood these words as God's words to them, humbled themselves, repented, received baptism, and opened the "way" for their Messiah to take hold of their lives.
John's call to make His paths straight meant much the same as preparing the way. The "paths" are the way to people's hearts. For Jesus to be able to reach them, people needed to give up their selfish way of living, renounce their sins, seek God's forgiveness, and establish a relationship with almighty God by believing and obeying his words (Isaiah 1:18-20; 57:15). Again, the verb is in the imperative; John was issuing an impassioned command to his fellow Israelites (see also Luke 7:24-28).
Why did this voice come from the wilderness? The word "wilderness," also translated "desert," refers to a lonely, uninhabited place. John preached in the Judean wilderness, the lower Jordan River valley. Isaiah's use of the word "wilderness" alludes to the wilderness experience of the children of Israel on their exodus from Egypt to Canaan. The wilderness represents the place where God would once again act to rescue his people and bring them into fellowship with him.
John the Baptist's powerful, to-the-point preaching and his wilderness living made him a curiosity, separated him from the false piety of many of the religious leaders, and gave him an unmistakable resemblance to the ancient prophets. We can only speculate on John's motives for living in the wilderness. Perhaps he wanted (1) to get away from distractions so he could hear God's instructions; (2) to capture the undivided attention of the people; (3) to symbolize a sharp break with the hypocrisy of the religious leaders who preferred their luxurious homes and positions of authority over doing God's work; and (4) to fulfill Old Testament prophecies that said the Messiah's forerunner would be preaching "in the wilderness."
John the Baptist "prepared" the way for Jesus. People who do not know Jesus need to be prepared to meet him. We can prepare them by explaining their need for forgiveness, demonstrating Christ's teachings by our conduct, and telling them how Christ can give their lives meaning. We can "make straight paths for him" by correcting misconceptions that might be hindering people from approaching Christ. Someone you know may be open to a relationship with Christ. Can you be their "John the Baptist"? Are you ready to explain, to challenge, and to win others? Take the first step today.
3:4 Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.NRSV John must have presented a strange image! He was outfitted for survival in the wilderness—like a desert monk. He dressed much like the prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1:8). Elijah too had been considered a messenger preparing the way for God (see Malachi 3:1; 4:5). John's striking appearance reinforced his striking message, distinguishing him from the religious leaders, whose flowing robes reflected their great pride in their position (12:38-39). Having separated himself from the evil and hypocrisy of his day, John lived differently from other people to show that his message was new. John not only preached God's law, he "lived" it. Many people came to hear this preacher who wore odd clothes and ate unusual food. John's appearance and food fit the description of the Nazirite vow (see Luke 1:15; also Numbers 6:1-8). Some people probably came simply out of curiosity and ended up repenting of their sins as they listened to his powerful message. People may be curious about your Christian lifestyle and values. You can use their simple curiosity as an opener to share how Christ makes a difference in you.
His diet, locusts and wild honey, was common for survival in the desert regions. Locusts were often roasted and were considered "clean" food for the Jews (Leviticus 11:22); wild honey could be found in abundance, made by the wild bees who nested in the clefts of rocks and in the trees of the valley.
John's appearance and lifestyle dramatically contrasted with the people of his day. He looked and lived as he did both out of necessity and to further demonstrate his message. Some people go to great extremes today to demonstrate their loyalty to sports teams: They buy jackets, license plates, ties, and collectibles.
Since the days of the early church, faithful Christians have shown loyalty in many ways. Some have adopted clothes and eating habits similar to John's. Some have tried to imitate Peter or other early Christian leaders.
Today, with so much loyalty evident on any city block (just count the baseball caps), Christians need "caps" to show their commitment to Jesus. And the Bible suggests the most important emblems: attitudes like loving others, being hopeful under stress, and trusting in God for daily needs. Badges like these show others how faith in the living God makes a difference in your life. What loyalties does your life portray?
3:5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan.NIV The verb form of "went out" is in the imperfect tense, indicating continuous action. From Jerusalem (the holy city of the Jews) and from the whole region of the Jordan, a stream of people constantly flowed into the wilderness to hear John the Baptist preach.
John attracted so many people because he was the first true prophet in four hundred years. His blasting of both Herod and the religious leaders was a daring act that fascinated common people. But John also had strong words for the others in his audience—they too were sinners and needed to repent. His message was powerful and true. The people were expecting a prophet like Elijah (Malachi 4:5; Luke 1:17), and John seemed to be the one!
3:6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.NIV Many of the people who "went out" to hear John (3:5) came confessing their sins. Confession is more than simply acknowledging one's own sinfulness; it is agreeing with God's verdict on sin and expressing the desire to get rid of sin and live for God. Confessing means more than verbal response, affirmation, or praise; it means agreeing to change to a life of obedience and service.
Then they were baptized. When you wash dirty hands, the results are immediately visible. But repentance happens inside with a cleansing that isn't seen right away. So John used a symbolic action that people could see: baptism. The Jews used baptism to initiate Gentile converts, so John's audience was familiar with the rite. Here, John gives baptism a special meaning: It was used as a sign of repentance and forgiveness.
For baptism, John needed water, and he used the Jordan River, which is about seventy miles long, its main section stretching between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. Jerusalem lies about twenty miles west of the Jordan. Many significant events in the nation's history took place by the Jordan River. It was here that the Israelites renewed their covenant with God before entering the Promised Land (Joshua 1-5). Here John the Baptist called them to renew their covenant with God, this time through baptism.
Christians have long pondered the proper mode and timing for baptism and what it really means. Some churches have nearly abandoned baptism as a "ritual," while others claim you can't go to heaven without it.
Baptism is important for all who say to God, "I belong to you." Baptism tells everybody where your loyalties really are, who you really depend on, and what direction your life is taking. Baptism says, "I follow Jesus."
Churches practice different traditions, but all believe that baptism is the outward sign that separates people from the world and attaches them to Christ. God promises blessing to all who take this step.
3:7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?"NRSV John gladly baptized the many repentant men and women who came to him, confessing their sins and desiring to live for God. But when John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he exploded in anger at their hypocrisy.
The Jewish religious leaders were divided into several groups. Two of the most prominent ones were the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Pharisees separated themselves from anything non-Jewish and carefully followed both the Old Testament laws and the oral traditions handed down through the centuries. The Sadducees believed the Pentateuch alone (Genesis—Deuteronomy) to be God's Word. They were descended mainly from priestly nobility, while the Pharisees came from all classes of people. While the two groups disliked each other greatly, they both opposed Jesus.
Most likely, these distinguished men had come to John not to be baptized but simply to find out what was going on. John spoke to them with harsh words. John had criticized the Pharisees for being legalistic and hypocritical, following the letter of the law while ignoring its true intent. He had criticized the Sadducees for using religion to advance their political position. He obviously doubted the genuineness of their desire for baptism and was suspicious of them for even showing up. John called them a brood of vipers (Jesus also used this term, see 12:34; 23:33). The term literally means "snakes." It conveys how dangerous and cunning these religious leaders were and suggests that they were offspring of Satan (see Genesis 3; John 8:44). His question stung with sarcasm, "Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" In other words, "Who said you were going to escape God's coming judgment?" The religious leaders applied the "day of the Lord" to judgment on the Gentiles; John applied it to the religious leaders. The reason for John's harshness is revealed in his words that follow.
RIGHTEOUS, AND PROUD OF IT!
The Pharisees and Sadducees were proud of their knowledge and position. Religious people must struggle with their pride over spiritual attainments. Who gets big egos? It can happen to wealthy donors, to popular preachers, and to normal, everyday Joe and Jane Sundayschool—anyone who starts believing that he or she is much better than others.
John warned the most religious people in his region that their version of religion was keeping them from a relationship with God. How odd—people whose minds were packed with knowledge of the Scriptures were cut off from the truth because of their pride over spiritual achievements.
Stay close to friends who will be honest with you, who will check your bloated ego; keep your feet on the ground and your heart humble. Without friends like these, you could become as self-righteous as the esteemed Pharisees and Sadducees.
3:8 "Produce fruit in keeping with repentance."NIV Those who refuse to repent will face judgment; those who repent will escape judgment; however, true repentance is seen by the fruit (actions and character) it produces. The Pharisees and Sadducees thought they had a corner on righteousness, but their fruit revealed their true character. Only if they could produce fruit in keeping with repentance—if they truly repented and lived for God—then and only then would they be able to "flee from the wrath to come" (3:7).
John the Baptist called people to more than words or ritual; he told them to change their behavior. If we are to produce fruit in keeping with repentance, our words and religious activities must back up what we say. God judges our words by the actions that accompany them. Do your actions match your words?
The religious leaders trusted in Abraham's faith and in their own genetic and religious history. When your life takes a wicked bounce, you're stressed to the max, and you need help fast, where do you turn? Some people hang charms on their wrist or emblems from a car's rear view mirror. Some people repeat the names of early Christians. Wouldn't John the Baptist be surprised to discover that his own name is used by some people to ward off trouble?
If you trust in knickknacks or depend on long-departed Christians to help you wiggle through a tight spot, give it up. Our faith should not be in objects or people, but in God alone. God is your help in trouble, and Jesus, your Lord forever. Trust in his truth.
3:9 "And do not think you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham."NIV The pious Pharisees and Sadducees may have sneered at John's outrage. "After all," they thought to themselves, "we are descendants of Abraham; therefore, we are guaranteed God's blessings." Somewhere over the years, the Jews erroneously decided that the promise given to the patriarchs was guaranteed to all their descendants, no matter how they acted or what they believed. John explained to them, however, that relying on Abraham as their ancestor would not qualify them for God's kingdom. John probably pointed at stones in the riverbed and said out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. John may have used a play on the Aramaic words for "stone" and "children" in making his point that God can make a nation for himself from whomever he chooses. Only those who "produce fruit in keeping with repentance" (3:8) would qualify for God's coming kingdom. The apostle Paul would later explain this to the Romans: "Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham's children. . . . It is not the natural children who are God's children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham's offspring" (Romans 9:6-8 niv).
3:10 "Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."NRSV God's message hasn't changed since the Old Testament—people will be judged for their unproductive lives. Just as a fruit tree is expected to bear fruit, God's people should produce a crop of good deeds (3:8). John compared people who claim that they believe God but don't live for God to unproductive trees that will be cut down. "The kingdom of heaven is near" (3:2); judgment was at hand. The ax is lying at the root of the trees, poised and ready to do its work, cutting down those trees that do not bear good fruit. Not only will the trees be cut down, but they will be thrown into the fire, signifying complete destruction.
Jesus used the same illustration in 7:19, "Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire" (nrsv). Jesus was describing how to recognize false teachers. He explained that we can know them by their fruits, their lives. In the same way, God has no use for people who call themselves Christians but do nothing about it. Like many people in John's day who were God's people in name only, we are of no value if we are Christians in name only. If others can't see our faith in the way we treat them, we may not be God's people at all.
So how are we to bear good fruit? God calls us to be "active" in our obedience. To be productive for God, we must obey his teachings, resist temptation, actively serve others, and share our faith.
3:11 "I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."NRSV Turning his attention away from the self-righteous religious leaders and back to the sincere seekers who came for baptism, John explained that his baptism with the water of the Jordan River demonstrated repentance—willingness to turn from sin. This was the beginning of the spiritual process. John baptized people as a sign that they had asked God to forgive their sins and had decided to live as he wanted them to live. Baptism was an "outward" sign of commitment. To be effective, it had to be accompanied by an "inward" change of attitude leading to a changed life. John's baptism did not give salvation; it prepared a person to welcome the coming Messiah and receive his message and his baptism.
John's statement He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire revealed the identity of the one who is more powerful coming after John as the promised Messiah. The coming of the Spirit had been prophesied as part of the Messiah's arrival:
"I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants" (Isaiah 44:3 niv).
"The time is coming. . . . I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. . . . For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more" (Jeremiah 31:31-34 niv).
"I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws" (Ezekiel 36:26-27 niv).
"And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days" (Joel 2:28-29 niv).
The Old Testament promised a time when God would demonstrate his purifying power among people (Isaiah 32:15; Ezekiel 39:29). The prophets also looked forward to a purifying fire (Isaiah 4:4; Malachi 3:2). This looked ahead to Pentecost (Acts 2), when the Holy Spirit would be sent by Jesus in the form of tongues of fire, empowering his followers to preach the gospel. All believers, those who would later come to Jesus Christ for salvation, would receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit and the fire of purification (one article precedes these words, indicating that they were not two separate baptisms, but one and the same). The experience would not necessarily be like that recorded in Acts 2, but the outcome would be the same. This baptism would purify and refine each believer. When Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit, the entire person would be refined by the Spirit's fire. So, for those who believe, "the fire" is positive, but for unbelievers, "the fire" brings awful judgment, as is described in the next verse.
John knew that the Messiah would be coming after him. Although John was the first genuine prophet in four hundred years, Jesus the Messiah would be infinitely greater than he. John was pointing out how insignificant he was compared to the one who would come. John pointed out three main differences between himself and the one coming after him: (1) Jesus' baptism transcends John's because it includes full redemption—John's was limited to repentance; (2) Jesus would be "more powerful," referring to eschatological power; (3) John was not even worthy of doing the most menial tasks for him, like carrying his sandals, an act considered so low that only slaves did it. (Not even disciples were required to carry their rabbi's sandals because the dusty shoes symbolized the sins of life.)
John the Baptist said, "He must become greater; I must become less" (John 3:30 niv). What John began, Jesus finished. What John prepared, Jesus fulfilled.
3:12 "His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire."NIV Threshing was the process of separating the grains of wheat from the useless outer shell called chaff. This was normally done in a large area called a threshing floor, often on a hill, where the wind could blow away the lighter chaff when the farmer tossed the beaten wheat into the air. A winnowing fork is a pitchfork used to toss wheat in the air in order to separate wheat from chaff. The wheat is the part of the plant that is useful; chaff is the worthless outer shell. Chaff is burned because it is useless; wheat, however, is gathered. "Winnowing" is often used in the Bible to picture God's judgment. Jesus used the same analogy in a parable (13:24-30). John spoke of repentance, but he also spoke of judgment upon those who refused to repent. The message is always the same; there is no middle ground and no gray area. Repent, turn to Christ, and be saved; or refuse to repent, refuse to turn to Christ, and be destroyed.
The wrath of God is like great waters that are dammed for the present; they increase more and more, and rise higher and higher, till an outlet is given; and the longer the stream is stopped, the more rapid and mighty is its course, when once it is let loose.
JOHN BAPTIZES JESUS / 3:13-17 / 17
The beautiful story of Jesus' baptism by John in the waters of the Jordan River reveals a God of love, who came to earth as a human being, identifying with humanity. If Jesus was going to offer salvation to sinners, he needed to identify with sinners. He did this by submitting to John's baptism for repentance and forgiveness of sins. Then God miraculously showed his love for the Son. The opened heavens, the dove, and the voice revealed to everyone (and to us as readers of this wonderful story) that Jesus was God's Son, come to earth as the promised Messiah to fulfill prophecy and to bring salvation to those who believe. Have you believed in Jesus? Have you made him Lord of your life?
3:13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him.NKJV John had been explaining that Jesus' baptism would be much greater than his (3:11) when suddenly Jesus came to him and asked to be baptized! Galilee was the name of the northern region of Palestine; the other two regions were Samaria (central) and Judea (southern). At this time, Jesus was probably about thirty years old (Luke 3:23). He traveled the long distance on foot (see map "Jesus Begins His Ministry"), along the dusty roads of Galilee and Samaria and into Judea, to meet John the Baptist and be baptized by him.
3:14-15 But John tried to deter him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" Jesus replied, "Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness." Then John consented.NIV When Jesus arrived, John balked at his desire to be baptized. John did not think that Jesus needed to be baptized for repentance. John tried to deter Jesus, explaining that he wanted to be baptized by Jesus. There are two main views regarding what John meant. (1) Some scholars suggest that John wanted the Holy-Spirit-and-fire baptism that Jesus would bring (3:11). (2) Others say that John simply knew of Jesus' superiority, so John wanted Jesus to baptize him.
Jesus explained that he had come to be baptized because it would be the proper way for them to fulfill all righteousness. What did this mean? It could not mean to fulfill the law, because no law required baptism. While "fulfill" generally refers to prophecy, there are no clear connections to baptism in prophecy. Most likely it refers to fulfilling a relationship with God by obeying him in every aspect of life. When Jesus said this, John consented and baptized him.
Jesus Begins His Ministry
Jesus launched his ministry from his childhood home, Nazareth. He was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River and tempted by Satan in the wilderness; then he returned to Galilee. Between the temptation and his move to Capernaum (4:12-13), Jesus ministered in Judea, Samaria, and Galilee (see John 1-4).
Why did Jesus ask to be baptized? Jesus saw his baptism as advancing God's work. While even the greatest prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel) had to confess their sinfulness and need for repentance, Jesus didn't need to admit sin—he was sinless (John 8:46; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15; 1 John 3:5). Although Jesus did not need forgiveness, he was baptized for the following reasons: (1) to confess sin on behalf of the nation, as Isaiah, Ezra, and Nehemiah had done (see Ezra 9:2; Nehemiah 1:6; 9:1ff.; Isaiah 6:5); (2) to accomplish God's mission and advance God's work in the world; (3) to inaugurate his public ministry to bring the message of salvation to all people; (4) to show support for John's ministry; (5) to identify with the penitent people of God, thus with humanness and sin; and (6) to give us an example to follow.
John's baptism for repentance was different from Christian baptism in the church. When the apostle Paul taught some of John's followers about Jesus, they were baptized again (see Acts 19:2-5). Jesus, the perfect man, didn't need baptism for sin, but he accepted baptism in obedient service to the Father, and God showed his approval. Jesus wanted to show that his mission was to take on the sin of humanity, and thus to absolve it. Jesus took the baptism seriously, not merely as an object lesson for observers. He acknowledged God's holiness, humanity's sin, and said, "I will take it, and I will clear it." That is the essence of the Good News.
LET GO OF EGO
Put yourself in John's shoes. Your work is going well; people are taking notice; everything is growing. But you know that the purpose of your work is to prepare the people for Jesus (John 1:35-37). Then Jesus arrives, and his coming tests your integrity. Will you be able to turn your followers over to him? John passed the test by publicly baptizing Jesus. Soon he would say, "He must become greater; I must become less" (John 3:30 niv). Can you, like John, put your ego and profitable work aside in order to point others to Jesus? Are you willing to lose some of your status so that everyone will benefit?
3:16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.NRSV Apparently the action of the Spirit of God descending from heaven like a dove was a sign that Jesus was the Messiah and that the age of the Spirit predicted by the prophets was formally beginning (Isaiah 61:1). John knew that the Messiah would come, but it is uncertain when he knew that his cousin Jesus was the one. By recording this miraculous opening of the heavens, Matthew left no doubt for his readers as to Jesus' true identity.
The Bible does not tell us that anyone but Jesus saw the heavens . . . opened. It says they were opened to him. According to the Gospel of John (1:29-34), this event, and the Spirit of God descending like a dove, revealed the Messiah to John. The opening of the heavens presented God's intervention into humanity in the human presence of God in Jesus Christ. It was as if the heavens rolled back to reveal the invisible throne of God (Isaiah 63:19-64:2).
The second sign, "the Spirit of God descending like a dove," was probably visible to all the people, for Luke recounts that "the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove" (Luke 3:22 nrsv). The descent of the Spirit, and the form of the dove itself, represented to Israel God's mighty workings in the world. At creation, "the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters" (Genesis 1:2 niv). After the great Flood, the dove carried the news to Noah of the receding waters (Genesis 8:8-12). The descending of the Spirit signified God's workings in the world; therefore the arrival of the Messiah would have been marked by the descending of the Spirit, in this case, in the form of a dove. Later, Jesus would read from the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 61:1-2), "'The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor'" (Luke 4:18-19 niv).
The church uses the dove as a symbol for the Holy Spirit; however, the bird itself was not important. The descent of the Spirit "like" (or "in the form of") a dove emphasized the way the Holy Spirit related to Jesus. The descending Spirit portrayed a gentle, peaceful, but active presence coming to anoint Jesus. It was not that Jesus needed to be filled with the Spirit (as if there was any lack in him) because he was "from the Holy Spirit" (1:20) since his conception. Rather, this was his royal anointing (see Isaiah 11:2; 42:1).
John the Baptist, and we who study this important event, can learn not only who the Messiah was, but also what kind of Messiah he would be (how his power would be demonstrated and used). His nature was revealed not by a thunderclap or lightning bolt, nor by an eagle or a hawk, but with a gentle dove. Jesus the Messiah would have a different way and a different message than even John expected.
3:17 And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."NKJV The Spirit descended like a dove on Jesus, and a voice came from heaven proclaiming the Father's approval of Jesus as his divine Son. This voice came from the heavenly realm that had been briefly opened in 3:16. The voice said, This is My beloved Son. In Greek, the literal translation of this is "As for you, you are my Son, the beloved one." While all believers would eventually be called "sons of God" (or "children of God"), Jesus Christ has a different, unique relationship with God; he is the one unique Son of God. "This is" means that these words were spoken publicly—to Jesus, John, and the crowd.
The phrase "in whom I am well pleased" means that the Father takes great delight, pleasure, and satisfaction in the Son. The verb in Greek conveys that God's pleasure in the Son is constant. He has always taken pleasure in his Son.
The words spoken by the voice from heaven echoed two Old Testament passages. First, Psalm 2:7, "He said to me, 'You are my Son'" (niv). Psalm 2 is a messianic psalm that describes the coronation of Christ, the eternal King. The rule of Christ described in the psalm would begin after his crucifixion and resurrection and will be fulfilled when he comes to set up his kingdom on earth. Second, Isaiah 42:1, "Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight" (niv). Isaiah 42:1-17 describes the Servant-Messiah who would suffer and die as he served God and fulfilled his mission of atoning for sin on behalf of humanity. Thus, in the two phrases spoken, the voice from the throne of heaven described Jesus' status both as the Servant who would suffer and die and as the King who would reign forever. In the intertestamental period, the Jews believed that God no longer spoke directly (as through the prophets), but indirectly by teachers and rabbis. The voice of God, heard by everyone, was a direct sign of the arrival of the messianic age.
In 3:16-17, all three persons of the Trinity are present and active. The doctrine of the Trinity, which was developed much later in church history, teaches that God is three persons and yet one in essence. God the Father speaks; God the Son is baptized; God the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus. God is one, yet in three persons at the same time. This is one of God's incomprehensible mysteries. Other Bible references that speak of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are Matthew 28:19; John 15:26; 1 Corinthians 12:4-13; 2 Corinthians 13:14; Ephesians 2:18; 1 Thessalonians 1:2-5; and 1 Peter 1:2.
Life Application Bible Commentary - Life Application Bible Commentary – Matthew.
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