Commentary on Matthew 3:1-12
Following the genealogy (1:1-17) and a relatively long birth and infancy narrative (1:18-2:23), Matthew jumps ahead over the decades to the time of Jesus as an adult.
He introduces us first to John the Baptist (3:1-12).
Then there are the stories of the baptism of Jesus by John (3:13-17) and the Temptation in the Wilderness (4:1-11). All this, in some ways, is a prelude to the actual ministry of Jesus, which begins at 4:12.
Many connections are made between the events and persons in the opening scenes and the chapters that follow. Among them, a connection is made between John the Baptist and Jesus as the Messiah. The book of Malachi had closed with a messianic promise, in which God declares: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (4:5) — a day of judgment.
Since Elijah did not die upon the earth, but was taken into heaven (2 Kings 2:1-12), so he can be sent again. Matthew makes the connection between that promise and John the Baptist. For Matthew, John signifies the return of Elijah: “He is Elijah who is to come” (Matthew 11:14; cf. 17:12).
The Gospel for the Day begins by introducing John in the wilderness of Judea (3:1-6). Matthew took material from the Gospel of Mark (1:2-6), but he altered it somewhat. According to Mark 1:4, John was “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Apparently unsatisfied with mere narration and indirect discourse, Matthew places the preaching of John into direct discourse: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (3:2). By doing so, Matthew aligns the preaching of John with that of Jesus, for the wording is identical to what Jesus says at 4:17.
At 3:3 Matthew quotes Isaiah 40:3, but not from the Hebrew text which has: “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God’” (as the NRSV renders the Hebrew). Quoting the wording of the Septuagint instead, Matthew (like Mark 1:3 and Luke 3:4) has “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness; ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
So John is the “one crying out in the wilderness,” and he is described in the likeness of Elijah (cf. 2 Kings 1:8). Going beyond what is written in Mark, Matthew says that not only the people of Judea and Jerusalem went out to hear John, but also people of “all the region along the Jordan” as well.
John’s baptism can most likely be understood in light of ancient Jewish proselyte baptism. When gentiles were received into membership in the Jewish community, they (both men and women) were baptized (males were also ritually circumcised), signifying a ritual cleansing, which was not otherwise required of Jews.
But according to John the Baptist, the people of Israel are no better off than gentiles; they are not prepared for the coming of the Messiah. John’s baptism was thus an occasion for Jewish people to repent, confess their sins, and thereby be prepared for the coming of the Messiah.
In 3:7-10 Matthew draws from Q material (cf. Luke 3:7-9), but he modifies it. Luke has amorphous “crowds” coming for baptism. Matthew is more specific, saying that it was “many Pharisees and Sadducees” who came (3:7). By making the change, Matthew brings the most pious of Israel on the scene. John addresses them as a “brood of vipers.” At 12:34 that image is used again of persons who “speak good things, when [they] are evil” (cf. also 23:33).
John exhorts his hearers to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” The imagery of bearing fruit is frequent in this gospel, meaning to do good deeds (3:10; 7:16-20; 12:33; 13:33; cf. 21:43). Physical descent from Abraham does not count as sufficient readiness for the coming reign of God (3:9).
By saying that, John in effect discredits Israel’s election; he levels the playing field between Jews and gentiles. Then, using apocalyptic language, John declares that judgment is taking place “even now” (3:10), as though the final judgment is merely a certification of what takes place in his ministry already. People are confronted with the last opportunity to repent and bear good fruit.
In 3:11-12 (also based on Q material; cf. Luke 3:16-17) John turns away from preaching repentance to proclaiming the Messiah’s coming. He makes a contrast between his own ministry of baptism and that of the Messiah. His own baptism is symbolic of repentance, a dying and rising to new life. But the Messiah, he says, “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (3:11).
The coming of the Spirit was anticipated with the arrival of the messianic age (cf. Joel 2:28-29; cf. also Isa 44:3). Fire was associated with the coming day of the Lord, a means by which God would purify his people (Amos 7:4; Mal 3:2). When the Messiah comes, the time of preparation will be over. It will be a day of judgment, and the act of judgment will be as swift and certain as winnowing, harvesting, gathering into barns, and burning what is to be discarded (3:12). The Messiah will come, judge, and create a purified community.
A sermon on this text may well pick up on the theme of judgment against presumed privileges. Like the Pharisees and Sadducees in this story, it is easy for Christians of today to become smug on the basis of their spiritual ancestries. Some people can trace their spiritual ancestry back several generations; for others, it may be less. But in any case, John’s words of 3:9 speak to every generation: “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”
In addition to the theme of judgment against presumed spiritual privileges, something should be said about John’s proclaiming the coming of the Messiah. The Messiah, he says, will come to judge. It is necessary then that persons prepare for his coming. They cannot rely on their spiritual heritage but, rather, must repent and bear good fruits (3:8, 10).
The character and ways of persons, like trees and their fruits, ought to be consistent — and consistently good. The saying of Martin Luther is fitting here: “Good works do not make a [person] good, but a good [person] does good works.”1
But the situation of the Christian today differs from that of John in an important respect. John anticipated the earthly ministry of Jesus. That ministry was concluded long ago. We live in the time after that ministry and after a series of events: the crucifixion, the resurrection, the command to baptize, and the sending of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
As a consequence of these things, the risen Christ and the Spirit have created a purified and renewed humanity, to which all Christians belong. Those who cling to Christ in faith are purified, cleansed by grace. As persons who declare that Jesus is Lord, they have the gift of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3), which provides guidance for living as disciples.
There is both gift and task in the life of a Christian, for it is a life that is gifted by the Spirit and that consequently produces the good fruits of the kingdom of God. What these good fruits will be cannot be specified in advance of their appearance, but they will emerge from persons who are devoted to Christ and who exercise love for others.
1 Martin Luther, “A Treatise on Christian Liberty,” Three Treatises (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1943) 271; the word “person” is substituted for “man” in the text quoted.