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Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament

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Matthew 3

PREPARATION FOR HIS MESSIANIC WORK, THE HERALD, BAPTISM, TEMPTATION, AND HIS PUBLIC IDENTIFICATION BY JOHN THE BAPTIST


 
Verses 1, 2
And in those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, saying Repent ye; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

In those days ...
that is, some thirty years after the events recorded in the previous chapter. This is typical of Matthew's slight attention to chronology. Jesus was about 30 years of age when he was baptized. The date of John's ministry is also given by Luke as occurring in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar (Luke 3:1).

John the Baptist ...
John is called "the baptist" because he baptized people. McGarvey identified John as the originator, under God, of the ordinance of baptism. F1 Dummelow commented on the immense popularity of John the Baptist, "The public appearance of the Baptist marked a new era. He came forward in the two-fold capacity of a prophet and forerunner of the Messiah. Since prophecy had been silent for 400 years, and all patriotic Jews were longing for the coming of the Messiah to deliver them from the Roman yoke, it is not surprising that he was welcomed with enthusiasm; and that those who ventured to doubt his mission found it expedient to dissemble (Matthew 21:26)." F2 Jesus had the highest opinion of John (Luke 7:28). The Jewish priests said he was possessed by a demon (Matthew 11:18), but this poor opinion of John was a reflection upon themselves and sprang out of the evil in which they were engrossed.

The wilderness of Judaea ...
was a strip of waste land also called a desert (Luke 1:80), lying west of the Dead Sea near the mouth of the Jordan. This wilderness platform of John's preaching served to identify him as "the voice of one crying in the wilderness." That John the Baptist was most certainly the person spoken of by the prophet, Isaiah, "is evident from the fact that he alone, of all the great preachers known to history, chose a wilderness as his place of preaching." F3

Repent ye ...
John's message was one of repentance. Benjamin Franklin, pioneer Restoration preacher, proclaimed that God appointed three changes in conversion and three actions designed to effect those three changes. These are FAITH to change the heart (mind); REPENTANCE to change the will; and BAPTISM to change the status. Repentance involving a change of the will is far more than mere sorrow for sin (2 Corinthians 7:10). Repentance is an instantaneous change of the will, induced by godly sorrow, and issuing forth in a reformation of life, and marked by restitution wherever possible. See under Matt. 18:3.

The kingdom of heaven ...
This is the kingdom of Daniel 2:44. John was the herald of this approaching king, Christ, in his kingdom. That this wonderful new kingdom was not to be a kingdom of this world in the ordinary and secular sense was a fact unknown to the Jews and only dimly appreciated by the Twelve themselves, especially at first. The kingdom of God and the church are one and the same institution, and this fact is more and more apparent. See under Matthew 16:13-19.

Is at hand ...
With the ministry of John the Baptist, the kingdom was near but not yet established. Moffatt's translation of this place is: "The reign of heaven is near." In Mark 9:1, Christ emphatically declared that the kingdom of God would be established with power within the lifetime of the apostles, saying, "Verily, I say unto you, There are some here of them who stand by, who shall in no wise taste of death, till they see the kingdom of God come with power." Both Christ and Judas Iscariot were to taste of death before the kingdom began; and, therefore, the words "some of them" are most precisely accurate.


 
Verse 3
For this is he that was spoken of through Isaiah the prophet, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make ye ready the way of the Lord, Make his paths straight.

The passage here quoted is Isaiah 40:3, but Isaiah is not the only prophet who prophesied of the mission of the great herald of the gospel age. Another equally significant prophecy is Malachi 4:5,6 in which the office and work of the herald are explicitly foretold. It is from Christ himself that one learns this passage's application to John. Jesus had identified himself as the Messiah to his disciples, but the disciples had been troubled by the objection of the scribes that "Elijah must first come" (Matthew 17:9-13). Christ then identified John as the "Elijah" foretold by Malachi. The Pharisees should have known that truth already, because it was to one of the priestly group, Zacharias, that the angel announced the birth of John, using almost the identical words of Malachi's great prophecy. Compare Malachi 4:5,6 and Luke 1:15-17. Only willful blindness on the part of the Jewish leaders can account for their failure to recognize John as the "Elijah" who was to precede the Messiah.


 
Verse 4
Now John himself had his raiment of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his food was locusts and wild honey.

John had evidently been schooled in the knowledge that he was to be another Elijah, and he promptly adopted the type of dress that would identify him as "Elijah." In 2 Kings 1:8, Elijah's garb is mentioned, especially the leather girdle. This type of clothing was worn by the prophet for another reason, and that was as a protest against the luxury of the ruling classes in Jerusalem. His austere manner of dress and the wilderness residence pointed the way to the self-denial and repentance which would be the burden of John's preaching.

Locusts and wild honey ...
comprised the diet of the herald. The locusts were probably insects somewhat similar to large grasshoppers in the United States. Locusts are still considered edible in many parts of the world. Some believe the "locusts" refer to the pods of the carob tree, called "St. John's bread" by the Jews, and still sold in New York City markets. The prodigal son is represented as eating the pods of the carob beans; and certainly John the Baptist could have eaten such carob pods; however, we are confronted with the simple statement that what he did eat was locusts and wild honey!


 
Verses 5, 6
Then went out unto him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan; And they were baptized of him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

All Judaea ...
Matt. 3:5 is hyperbole in which there is an intentional exaggeration for the sake of emphasis. There are many figures of speech in the Holy Scriptures, and a proper understanding of them is necessary to a true understanding of God's word. There are other figures which shall be noted in this chapter. Matt. 3:5 merely means that the great majority of the people of that time and place accepted the baptism of John the Baptist. It is specifically declared in the Scriptures that the Pharisees and lawyers did not accept it (Luke 7:30).

In the river Jordan ...
John selected this river as the scene of his many baptisms for a reason, and the reason is given in John 3:23, "because there was much water there." This makes it imperative that immersion be understood as the "form" of baptism practiced by John, since "much water" could not possibly have been required for any other "type" of baptism.


 
Verse 7
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said unto them, Ye offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

Pharisees ...
were a very wealthy, zealous, and powerful sect among the Jews. They were proud, conceited, worldly, and vigilant enemies of our Lord; and yet they were the leaders among the ancient Jews and doubtless had many fine and commendable qualities which tend to be obscured by the fact that they opposed the work of Christ. Ledlow lists seven distinct classes of Pharisees, as follows:

(1) The Shoulder Pharisee who wore all his good deeds on his shoulder and did his alms to be seen of men (Matthew 6:5); (2) The Wait-a-Little Pharisee who always suggested something else to do first. Of this type was the man who when asked to follow Christ said, "Suffer me first to go and bury my father" (Luke 9:59,60); (3) The Bruised Pharisee who was too pious to look upon a woman and who shut his eyes when one approached, which caused him to stumble into a wall and be bruised or cut; (4) The Pestle and Mortar Pharisee who walked with his head down in mock humility, also called the Hump-Backed Pharisee; (5) The Ever-Reckoning Pharisee who kept a ledger of good deeds and bad deeds in an effort to balance accounts with himself; (6) The God-Loving Pharisee, the noblest of the group; and (7) The Timid Pharisee who was the schizophrene of his day. It was probably to this latter class that Jesus addressed his warning that no man can serve two masters (Matthew 6:24). F4

Sadducees ...
constituted another powerful sect, though not as large as the Pharisees. They were the crass materialists of their day, denying the existence of angels or spirits and refusing to believe in the resurrection. They made fun of the idea of heaven as seen from the question propounded in Matthew 22:23ff. Although they were mortal enemies of the Pharisees, they made common cause with them against Christ. Their difference with the Pharisees, however, was always close to the surface. See Acts 23:8.

Ye offspring of vipers ...
The total corruption of the Jewish leaders of that day is seen in this passage. John's vehement denunciation of these wicked men is exceeded only by the far greater condemnation heaped upon them by Christ. Their corruption was an open shame, known to all, denied by none, and justly deserving the words of condemnation uttered against them both by John and by the Christ.

The wrath to come ...
could mean either of two things, or perhaps both. It might refer to the overflowing of God's wrath against the Jewish nation because of their rejection of Christ and culminating in the overthrow of their temple and religious system in the year 70 A.D. by the conquering armies of Vespasian and Titus. It might also refer to the final overthrow of the wicked in hell. In this context, there is no reason why the passage should not refer to both, since both were "to come"!


 
Verses 8, 9
Bring forth therefore fruit worthy of repentance: 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.

Fruit worthy of repentance ...
suggests the true relationship between repentance and reformation of life. Reformation of life is not repentance but issues forth from repentance and is a direct result or "fruit" of repentance. That repentance cannot be reformation of life is seen in the words of Christ who allowed that it is possible to repent many times in one day (Luke 17:4), a thing that cannot be understood of reformation.

Think not to say ...
Here Christ answered an alibi and destroyed a refuge of these ancient sinners. They supposed themselves safe because they were the seed of Abraham to whom the promises of old had been truly certified. However, in this place John blasts their complacency and opens the door for the "spiritual sons" of Abraham (Galatians 3:26-29). Here in the preaching of John the Baptist was the beginning of that truth so fully expounded by Paul in which it appears that "He is not a Jew who is one outwardly ...." (Romans 2:28,29).


 
Verse 10
And even now the axe lieth at the root of the trees: every tree therefore that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.

Axe ... root of the trees
This is a bold metaphor, here directed against the Jewish nation, but applicable with equal force against all sinful and rebellious people who reject God's will. The "axe" is the army of destruction God would send against Jerusalem. "The root of the trees" refers to those great national institutions, the root and springs of Jewish culture, which would be destroyed when Titus razed the temple, prohibited the daily sacrifice, and destroyed the national polity of the Jewish people. "The fire" refers to the sorrows and tribulations through which the people would have to pass. The words "even now" suggest the near approach of the doom of Jerusalem, a theme which Christ himself more fully expounded later in his ministry.


 
Verse 11
I indeed baptize you in 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 in the Holy Spirit and in fire.

Seven baptisms are mentioned in the New Testament, three of which are mentioned in this verse. They are:

1. The baptism unto Moses (1 Corinthians 10:2).
2. The baptism of sufferings (Mark 10:38,39).
3. The baptism for the dead (1 Corinthians 15:29).
4. The baptism of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:11,; 3:11, see ).
5. The baptism of fire (Matt. 3:11, see above).
6. The baptism of John the Baptist (Acts 19:3).
7. The baptism of the Great Commission (Mark 16:15,16; Matt. 28:18-20).

In spite of the fact that all these baptisms find mention in the New Testament, there is, nevertheless, but ONE baptism in force. See Ephesians 4:4. To determine which baptism is in force, or which one is IT, one only needs to observe these facts: No. 1, above, applied only to Jews. No. 2 is altogether figurative, being in no sense a ceremony. No. 3 was a practice of non-Christians as witnessed by the third person pronouns and was never connected in any way with the Christian religion. Nos. 4 and 5 are both promises of what God will do and cannot be obeyed in any sense. No. 6, John's baptism, was clearly and categorically set aside by the baptism of him that is greater than John, even Christ. See Acts 19:3. Thus, the ONE baptism of Ephesians can be none other than the baptism of the Great Commission.

In the Holy Spirit and in fire ...
is seen as a reference to two baptisms, rather than merely one, because John emphatically divided his hearers into two classes, reinforcing the point with a double metaphor, first of the unfruitful tree, and again of the threshing floor. Both at Pentecost and at the household of Cornelius was the baptism of the Spirit received (Acts 1:5; 2:4; 11:15,16). It is significant that both Jews and Gentiles are represented in these two groups and that there are no other examples of this baptism in the New Testament. It is also possible to construe "baptism in the Spirit" as a reference to the overwhelming guidance and direction of God's people through the office of the Holy Comforter. In this sense, it applies to all believers.

In fire ...
likely refers to the overwhelming of the wicked at last in hell. This is based on the fact that the term "fire" is the same as that used for the unfruitful tree and for the chaff in John's great metaphors. McGarvey said, "It is clearly the wicked who are to be baptized in fire, and the fulfillment of the prediction will be realized when they are cast into the lake of fire" (Revelation 21:8). F5


 
Verse 12
Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshingfloor; and he will gather his wheat into the garner, but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire.

Whose fan is in his hand, etc. ...
Note the following analogies in this remarkable metaphor: the fan is the judgment; the wheat refers to the just; the chaff stands for the wicked; the fire is the Gehenna in which the wicked shall perish; the threshingfloor is Palestine or the world; the one with the winnowing fan in his hand is the Lord, Judge of all the earth. Significantly, God classifies people in only two categories, good and bad, wheat and chaff, sheep and goats.


 
Verse 13
Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to the Jordan unto John to be baptized of him.

Matthew Henry saw in the baptism of our Lord a mark of his wonderful humility. He said, "As soon as ever Christ began to preach, he preached humility, preached it by his example; designated for the highest honors; yet, in his first step, he thus abases himself." F6

With reference to WHY Christ was baptized, it should be noted that he was not baptized for the remission of sins (Hebrews 4:15), nor to set an example for people as to how they should "follow Christ in baptism" (Jesus was about 30 years of age). The reason assigned by the Lord was that it became him to "fulfill all righteousness." RIGHTEOUSNESS, in the Scriptural view, refers to keeping God's commandments or ordinances (Psalms 119:172; 119:172 and Luke 1:8). Although Christ was sinless and needed not to be baptized for the usual reasons, yet he submitted to John's baptism because God had commanded it. How worthy of emulation is that sublime attitude of Jesus; and how unlike that attitude is that of men who set aside even the baptism that is greater than John's, making it a non-essential, an elective privilege, rather than receiving it for what it is, namely, a divinely-imposed condition of eternal salvation, which if spurned cannot fail to bring everlasting remorse.

The very fact that the ordinance of baptism was to be brought over into the New Covenant by the Lord Jesus and elevated to an even higher status than the ordinance enjoyed under the preaching of John would lead the student of the Bible to seek in Christ's baptism some traces or suggestions of that expanded significance that would accrue to baptism in the New Covenant. After Jesus was baptized, he began to pray publicly (Luke 3:21); the Holy Spirit descended upon him as he came forth up from the water (Matthew 3:16); and, immediately upon his baptism, God the Father publicly proclaimed Jesus as his Son. These facts certainly suggest that the Christian's baptism marks the beginning of a significant new prayer life, the reception of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 4:6), and immediate enrollment in the Lamb's book of life!


 
Verse 14
But John would have hindered him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?

This testimony of John the Baptist to the sinless nature of Christ is doubly effective because he was a cousin of our Lord. From the intimacy of the family circle, the testimony of Jesus' perfect life was attested, no less than from his public deeds. John preached the "baptism of repentance for the remission of sins"; and since Christ had no sins of which to repent, and as John did not know of our Lord's other reason for being baptized, he would have prevented it.


 
Verse 15
But Jesus, answering, said unto him, Suffer it now: for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness. Then he suffered him.

This was equivalent to saying, "Yes, I know I have no sins to be repented of and that I might claim an exemption from this duty proclaimed by the authority of God and binding upon all men; but, since this is God's ordinance, I wish to honor it anyway and am delighted to do so by obeying the commandment now."


 
Verse 16
And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway from the water: and lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon him.

Straightway from the water
strongly suggests immersion as the action, that constitutes Scriptural baptism. Immersion is the only "kind" of baptism in which the person being baptized goes to the water before the act and leaves the water behind after the act! Who had the authority to change the action called baptism? It cannot be allowed that any man ever had such authority. The Holy Scriptures affirm that men are "buried" by baptism (Colossians 2:12; Romans 6:3-5).

Spirit of God descending as a dove ...
This referred to the sign by which John was inspired to recognize the Messiah (John 1:32-34). Thus, it is clear the Holy Spirit adopted the shape of a dove on that occasion, otherwise John could not have seen and borne witness. As in all Scriptural symbolism, the dove was a creature most admirably suited to serve in that situation as a vehicle for suggesting the Holy Spirit. Note: (1) The dove was a "clean" creature under the ceremonial laws of the Jews; (2) it was used in their religious sacrifices, two, in fact, being offered upon the presentation of our Lord in the temple (Luke 2:24); (3) it is a monogamous creature! (4) it is a symbol of peace; (5) it is a marvel of gentleness, love, and affection; (6) it is a messenger (the homing pigeon is a dove); and (7) the dove has no gall, suggesting that there is no bitterness in the service of God. Brownville wrote, "It has been suggested that one reason for the gentleness of the dove is that the bird has no gall, the gall having been considered by naturalists of old as the source and fount of contention." F7


 
Verse 17
And lo, a voice out of the heavens, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

Three times, the Holy Scriptures represent God as speaking out of heaven in testimony for Jesus Christ: in this place, on the occasion of the transfiguration (Matthew 17:5), and in John 12:28-30.

Voice out of heaven ...
This passage is a stronghold of the Doctrine of the Trinity. Discernable by man's senses, all three persons of the Godhead appear in this passage. The Son is coming up from the waters of baptism, the Spirit of God in the form of a dove has alighted and remains upon Christ, and the Father himself speaks out of heaven! It should be remembered that the Trinity as a doctrine is not stated in the Bible, but Scriptures such as this verse and Matthew 28:18-20 strongly suggest it. It should not be considered strange that God is a Trinity, because man himself, in a certain sense, is a trinity also. For example, there are three institutions that minister to man's needs: (1) the asylum for the deranged, (2) the prison for the criminal, and (3) the hospital for the physically injured. Man, created in God's image, and manifesting at least some characteristics of a trinity in His own nature, should not stumble at accepting the higher truth that God Himself is a Trinity of three Persons - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. On this difficult question, Dr. Dummelow said, "Although the definition of the doctrine of the Trinity was the result of a long process of development which was not complete until the fifth century, the doctrine itself underlies the whole New Testament which everywhere attributes divinity to the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, and assigns to them distinct functions in the economy of redemption." F8 Perhaps the sharpest focus in the word of God on this subject is Matthew 28:18-20, in which passage baptism is commanded in the "name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
This declaration out of heaven in broad open daylight in the presence of a multitude was actually God's designation of Jesus Christ as the Messiah. The sonship of Christ is unique. He was the "only begotten" of the Father (John 3:18; 1 John 4:9). Many men may claim to be sons of God, and properly so; but only One could have been "the only begotten" Son of God. Surely, this was a true "sign from heaven," given long before the Pharisees asked for such a sign. (See under Matthew 16:1.)


Footnotes for Matthew 3
1: J. W. McGarvey, New Testament Commentary (Delight, Arkansas: Gospel Light Publishing Co.), p. 33.
2: J. R. Dummelow, One Volume Commentary (New York: Macmillan Company, 1937), p. 629.
3: J. W. McGarvey, op. cit., p. 34.
4: W. F. Ledlow, Jesus and His Method (Austin, Texas: Firm Foundation Publishing House), pp. 200-202.
5: J. W .McGarvey, op. cit., p. 39.
6: Matthew Henry, Commentary (Westwood, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell) on Matthew 3:17.
7: C. Gordon Brownville, Symbols of the Holy Spirit (Westwood, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1945), p. 19.
8: J. R. Dummelow, op. cit., cxiii.
9: B. W. Johnson, People's New Testament (St. Louis, Missouri: Christian Board of Publication) on this passage.
10: Adam Clarke, op. cit., on Matthew 2:16.
11: R. A. Torrey, Difficulties in the Bible (Westwood, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1907), p. 102.
12: Ibid., p. 103.
13: Roman Catholic Testament.
14: Revised Standard Version.
15: Emphatic Diaglott.
16: Goodspeed, New Testament in Modern Speech.
17: Williams, The New Testament.
18: Moffatt, The New Testament.
19: Paul Blanchard, American Freedom and Catholic Power (Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press), pp. 138-139.
20: J. W. McGarvey, Commentary on Matthew and Mark (Nashville, Tennessee: The Gospel Advocate Company), p. 16.
21: Ibid., p. 16.
22: Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Sermons, Volume 5 (New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company), p. 20.
23: Robert Milligan, Commentary on Hebrews (Nashville: World Vision Publishing Company), pp. 73-74.

Copyright Statement
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Matthew 3". "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament". <http://classic.studylight.org/com/bcc/view.cgi?book=mt&chapter=003>. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.  

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