Matthew 3 Study Notes


3:1 In those days means “during the time of Jesus’s residence in Nazareth” rather than “during the reign of Archelaus.” After all, Archelaus reigned from 4 BC to AD 6, too early for John the Baptist to have begun his ministry since he would have been under age twelve. In OT usage, “in those days” often refers to a time of prophetic fulfillment (Is 10:20; Am 9:11; Zph 1:15; Zch 12:3-4). Matthew probably used the phrase in conjunction with his references to fulfilled prophecy to emphasize that God’s promises were being fulfilled through Jesus and John the Baptist, herald and predecessor of Messiah. The location of John’s ministry (wilderness of Judea) is reminiscent of the ministry of the prophet Elijah (1Kg 17:3; 19:3-18; 2Kg 2:1-12), whom many Jews believed would appear again to prepare the way for Messiah (Mt 17:10-13). Josephus described John’s ministry in a way that closely matches the Gospel accounts (Ant. 18.114-119).

3:2 John’s message focused on repentance and the coming kingdom of heaven. Jesus emphasized the same thing from the outset of his ministry (see note at 4:17). The kingdom is defined as the rule that God exercises through the person, work, and teachings of Jesus. The call to repent means we must abandon sinful lifestyles and express sorrow for sins.

3:3 Matthew’s application of Is 40:3 to John the Baptist tells us as much about Jesus as it does about John. After all, in its original context the prophecy spoke of one who prepared the way for the coming of the Lord, God himself. By using a text about the coming of the Lord to describe the coming of Jesus, Matthew proclaims that Jesus is divine.

3:4 John’s garment was similar to Elijah’s (2Kg 1:8) and his ministry and lifestyle paralleled Elijah’s also, including his residence in the Judean wilderness, his austere diet, his call for Israel to repent, and his confrontation with an evil king and his wife. Jesus explained the significance of these parallels in Mt 11:14; 17:12-13.

3:5-6 Although Jews required Gentiles to immerse themselves in water in order to convert from paganism to Judaism, John demanded that repentant Jews be baptized as well. This bold move implied that Jews did not belong to God merely by virtue of their descent from Abraham (see note at vv. 7-9). Like anyone else, ethnic Jews needed to repent in order to enter the coming kingdom. Unlike the repetitive ritual washings of other religious groups, John’s baptism appears to have been a one-time event associated with a permanent repentance and a transformed life.

3:7-9 In Mt 2:4 the chief priests and scribes identified the place of Christ’s birth but made no effort to visit him. Their attention was on worldly power instead. That negative portrayal is now followed by John’s charge that the leading priests of the Jews were a brood of vipers (see 12:34; 23:33) fleeing from God’s coming wrath. The Pharisees were the largest and most important Jewish religious group. They controlled the synagogues and exercised great control over the population. The Sadducees were an aristocratic party of high priestly families. They had charge of the temple and accepted only the Pentateuch (first five books of the OT) as authoritative. John stressed that the coming kingdom would be accompanied by blessing for God’s people and by punishment for the unrepentant. John knew that the Pharisees and Sadducees had no intention of confessing their sins because they presumed that descent from Abraham guaranteed that they would escape God’s wrath. This belief was reflected in the Mishnah, which stated: “All Israel will have a share in the world to come.” John’s statement about raising up children for Abraham from these stones involves a wordplay in Aramaic. The word “child” (ben ) sounds similar to the word “stone” (eben ). A stone has no intrinsic value, yet Almighty God can transform worthless rock into a person and include him in his covenant people if he so chooses (Is 51:1-2). Consequently, descent from Abraham gave the Jews no grounds for boasting. John’s warning foreshadows the incorporation of believing Gentiles into the people of God, an important theme in Matthew’s Gospel.

3:10 Just as the owner of an orchard laid the ax to barren trees, so too God will punish those who fail to produce “fruit consistent with repentance” (v. 8). In the teachings of John and Jesus, fruit represents good works that result from a miraculous inner transformation (7:15-20; 12:33; 13:23). Later, the cursing of the fig tree and the parable of the wicked tenants illustrated the consequences of failing to produce good fruits (21:18-22,33-43).

3:11 Removing the master’s sandals was a task so menial that Hebrew slave owners could not require it of Hebrew slaves. John, however, saw himself as unworthy to perform for Jesus the very task that slaves were spared from performing. John expressed this deep humility because Jesus was more powerful than he, and this greater power expressed itself through a new baptism that was vastly superior to John’s. John’s baptism was a public expression of repentance, but his baptism could not change a person’s heart. Jesus, however, baptized the repentant with the Holy Spirit, making them holy through inner transformation. Matthew’s quotation from Jr 31:15 in Mt 2:18 was probably intended to remind his readers of the promise of the new covenant (Jr 31:31-34). The reference to baptism with the Spirit recalls the related promise in Ezk 36:27 in which God declared, “I will place my Spirit within you and cause you to follow my statutes and carefully observe my ordinances.” This work of the Spirit was highlighted again at Jesus’s baptism (3:16). Jesus would have the power to transform human character in a way that John could not. Jesus would also baptize people with fire, a reference to divine judgment against unrepentant sinners.

3:12 A winnowing shovel was used to toss grain into the air. The wind would blow the useless husks (called chaff) aside, while the heavier grain kernels fell to the threshing floor. The chaff would then be gathered up and burned. John’s parable thus described a coming divine judgment in which all people are sifted, with the result that Christ’s followers will be preserved by God, while the unrepentant are gathered for punishment. Though chaff is highly flammable and burns away quickly, possibly giving the impression that divine judgment is only temporary, John made clear that the fire that awaits the unrepentant will never go out. God’s punishment against unrepentant sinners is eternal.

3:13 Apparently Jesus and his family still lived in Nazareth (in Galilee) at this time.

3:14 John tried to stop him because he recognized Jesus’s superiority. By his protest John further identified Jesus as the one who would come after him (v. 11). John knew that he needed Jesus’s baptism, the baptism of the Spirit, but he also understood that sinless Jesus did not seek water baptism as an expression of repentance.

3:15 Jesus explained that baptism was essential to his perfection. Jesus wished to please his Father by obeying the commands of the prophets (John was the greatest of the prophets, 11:9-13) and by identifying with God’s righteous cause among the people. If he had refused to participate in John’s baptism, Jesus would have seemed like a rebel rather than one who came to fulfill all righteousness.

3:16 The opening of the heavens demonstrates that both the voice and the descending Spirit came from heaven and were divine. First-century Jews associated the dove with the Spirit since Gn 1:2 describes the Spirit as hovering over the primeval waters. The Hebrew verb translated “hover” is the same word used to describe a bird rapidly fluttering its wings. Consequently, both the Qumran Scrolls and the Talmud associated God’s Spirit in Gn 1:2 with the dove. The descent of the Spirit thus alludes to Gn 1 and identifies Jesus not only as one empowered by the Spirit but also as one who brings new creation (2Co 5:17; Gl 6:15).

3:17 The Father speaks directly only twice in Matthew—here at Jesus’s baptism and later at the transfiguration. On both occasions he identified Jesus as his Son and expressed approval of him (see 17:5). The Father’s words at Jesus’s baptism blend together two important OT texts: Ps 2:7 and Is 42:1. Psalm 2 was a song sung at the crowning of Israel’s kings. The Father’s application of this text to Jesus identified him as a divinely appointed King who would rule with divine authority and whose kingdom would extend to the ends of the earth (Ps 2:1-12). The allusion to Is 42 identified Jesus as the Servant, the messianic figure whom Is 53:5 promised would be “pierced because of our rebellion, crushed because of our iniquities.” Matthew 12:18-21 explicitly applies Is 42 to Jesus, and Mt 8:17 explicitly applies Is 53 to Jesus. With this OT background in mind, we see that the Father’s words identify Jesus as King and Savior.