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The Ministry of John the Baptist

In those days John the Baptist came into the wilderness[a] of Judea proclaiming, “Repent,[b] for the kingdom of heaven is near.” For he is the one about whom the prophet Isaiah had spoken:[c]

The voice[d] of one shouting in the wilderness,
Prepare the way for the Lord, make[e] his paths straight.’”[f]

Now John wore clothing made from camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his diet consisted of locusts and wild honey.[g] Then people from Jerusalem,[h] as well as all Judea and all the region around the Jordan, were going out to him, and he was baptizing them[i] in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees[j] and Sadducees[k] coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Therefore produce fruit[l] that proves your[m] repentance, and don’t think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’[n] For I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones! 10 Even now the ax is laid at[o] the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 “I baptize you with water, for repentance, but the one coming after me is more powerful than I am—I am not worthy[p] to carry his sandals! He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.[q] 12 His winnowing fork[r] is in his hand, and he will clean out his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the storehouse,[s] but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire!”[t]

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  1. Matthew 3:1 tn Or “desert.”
  2. Matthew 3:2 tn Grk “and saying, ‘Repent.’” The participle λέγων (legōn) at the beginning of v. 2 is redundant in English and has not been translated.
  3. Matthew 3:3 tn Grk “was spoken of by Isaiah the prophet, saying.” The participle λέγοντος (legontos) is redundant and has not been translated. The passive construction has also been rendered as active in the translation for the sake of English style.
  4. Matthew 3:3 tn Or “A voice.”
  5. Matthew 3:3 sn The call to “make paths straight” in this context is probably an allusion to preparation through repentance.
  6. Matthew 3:3 sn A quotation from Isa 40:3.
  7. Matthew 3:4 sn John’s lifestyle was in stark contrast to many of the religious leaders of Jerusalem who lived in relative ease and luxury. While his clothing and diet were indicative of someone who lived in the desert, they also depicted him in his role as God’s prophet (cf. Zech 13:4); his appearance is similar to the Prophet Elijah (2 Kgs 1:8). Locusts and wild honey were a common diet in desert regions, and locusts (dried insects) are listed in Lev 11:22 among the “clean” foods.
  8. Matthew 3:5 tn Grk “Then Jerusalem.” In the Greek text the city (Jerusalem) is put by metonymy for its inhabitants (see E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech, 579).
  9. Matthew 3:6 tn Grk “they were being baptized by him.” The passive construction has been rendered as active in the translation for the sake of English style.
  10. Matthew 3:7 sn Pharisees were members of one of the most important and influential religious and political parties of Judaism in the time of Jesus. There were more Pharisees than Sadducees (according to Josephus, Ant. 17.2.4 [17.42] there were more than 6,000 Pharisees at about this time). Pharisees differed with Sadducees on certain doctrines and patterns of behavior. The Pharisees were strict and zealous adherents to the laws of the OT and to numerous additional traditions such as angels and bodily resurrection.
  11. Matthew 3:7 sn The Sadducees controlled the official political structures of Judaism at this time, being the majority members of the Sanhedrin. They were known as extremely strict on law and order issues (Josephus, J. W. 2.8.2 [2.119], 2.8.14 [2.164-166]; Ant. 13.5.9 [13.171-173], 13.10.6 [13.293-298], 18.1.2 [18.11], 18.1.4 [18.16-17], 20.9.1 [20.199]; Life 2 [10-11]). See also Matt 16:1-12; 22:23-34; Mark 12:18-27; Luke 20:27-38; Acts 5:17; 23:6-8.
  12. Matthew 3:8 sn Fruit that proves your repentance refers to the deeds that indicate a change of attitude (heart) on the part of John’s hearers.
  13. Matthew 3:8 tn Grk “fruit worthy of.”
  14. Matthew 3:9 sn With this statement John warns his hearers that physical descent from the patriarchs (Abraham) will not suffice to save them from the coming eschatological wrath of God.
  15. Matthew 3:10 sn Laid at the root. That is, placed and aimed, ready to begin cutting.
  16. Matthew 3:11 tn Grk “of whom I am not worthy.”sn The humility of John is evident in the statement I am not worthy. This was considered one of the least worthy tasks of a slave, and John did not consider himself worthy to do even that for the one to come, despite the fact he himself was a prophet.
  17. Matthew 3:11 sn With the Holy Spirit and fire. There are differing interpretations for this phrase regarding the number of baptisms and their nature. (1) Some see one baptism here, and this can be divided further into two options. (a) The baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire could refer to the cleansing, purifying work of the Spirit in the individual believer through salvation and sanctification, or (b) it could refer to two different results of Christ’s ministry: Some accept Christ and are baptized with the Holy Spirit, but some reject him and receive judgment. (2) Other interpreters see two baptisms here: The baptism of the Holy Spirit refers to the salvation Jesus brings at his first advent, in which believers receive the Holy Spirit, and the baptism of fire refers to the judgment Jesus will bring upon the world at his second coming. One must take into account both the image of fire and whether individual or corporate baptism is in view. A decision is not easy on either issue. The image of fire is used to refer to both eternal judgment (e.g., Matt 25:41) and the power of the Lord’s presence to purge and cleanse his people (e.g., Isa 4:4-5). The pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost, a fulfillment of this prophecy no matter which interpretation is taken, had both individual and corporate dimensions. It is possible that since Holy Spirit and fire are governed by a single preposition in Greek, the one-baptism view may be more likely, but this is not certain. Simply put, there is no consensus view in scholarship at this time on the best interpretation of this passage.
  18. Matthew 3:12 sn A winnowing fork was a pitchfork-like tool used to toss threshed grain in the air so that the wind blew away the chaff, leaving the grain to fall to the ground. The note of purging is highlighted by the use of imagery involving sifting though threshed grain for the useful kernels.
  19. Matthew 3:12 tn Or “granary,” “barn” (referring to a building used to store a farm’s produce rather than a building to house livestock).
  20. Matthew 3:12 sn The image of fire that cannot be extinguished is from the OT: Job 20:26; Isa 34:8-10; 66:24.