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Matthew 3 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Warnings of a Wilderness Prophet

Just as God revealed his purposes in advance to his prophets in ancient Israel (Amos 3:7; compare Is 41:22-29; 42:9; 43:9, 19; 44:7-8, 24-26; 45:21; 46:10; 48:6), God sent John the Baptist to prepare Israel for his climactic revelation in history. John was a wilderness prophet proclaiming impending judgment; for him repentance (Mt 3:2, 6, 8) was the only appropriate response to the coming kingdom (3:2), its fiery judgment (3:7, 10-12) and its final judge, who would prove to be more than a merely political Messiah (3:11-12). Given the widespread view in early Judaism that prophecy in the formal sense had ceased (Keener 1991b:77-91), John's appearance naturally drew crowds (3:5). (Modern proponents of the view that miraculous gifts have ceased have not been the first people in history surprised when God's sovereign activity challenges their presuppositions; see Judges 6:13; Deere 1993.)

The warnings in this passage serve two functions for Matthew's persecuted readers: judgment against persecutors both vindicates the righteous they oppress and warns the righteous not to become wicked (Ezek 18:21-24). Matthew's tradition probably mentioned the "crowds" in general (compare Lk 3:7), but Matthew focuses in on a specific part of the crowds: Pharisees and Sadducees (Mt 3:7). Like a good pastor, Matthew thus applies the text to the needs of his own congregations: their Pharisaic opponents were spiritual Gentiles (3:6, 9). Yet later chapters in this Gospel warn Matthew's audience that they can also become like these Pharisees if they are not careful (24:48-51; compare Amos 5:18-20).

John's Lifestyle Summons Us to Heed God's Call (3:1-4)

John's location, garb and diet suggest a radical servant of God whose lifestyle challenges the values of our society even more than it did his own, and may demand the attention of modern Western society even more than his preaching does.

First, John's location suggests that the biblical prophets' promise of a new exodus was about to take place in Jesus. So significant is the wilderness (3:1) to John's mission that all four Gospels justify it from Scripture (3:3; Mk 1:3; Lk 3:4; Jn 1:23; Is 40:3): Israel's prophets had predicted a new exodus in the wilderness (Hos 2:14-15; Is 40:3). Thus Jewish people in John's day acknowledged the wilderness as the appropriate place for prophets and messiahs (Mt 24:26; Acts 21:38; Jos. Ant. 20.189; War 2.259, 261-62).

Further and no less important to John's mission, the wilderness was a natural place for fugitives from a hostile society (as in Heb 11:38; Rev 12:6; Ps. Sol. 17:17), including prophets like Elijah (1 Kings 17:2-6; 2 Kings 6:1-2). John could safely draw crowds (Mt 3:5) there as he could nowhere else (compare Jos. Ant. 18.118), and it provided him the best accommodations for public baptisms not sanctioned by establishment leaders (see Jos. Ant. 18.117). Thus John's location symbolizes both the coming of a new exodus, the final time of salvation, and the price a true prophet of God must be willing to pay for his or her call: exclusion from all that society values-its comforts, status symbols and even basic necessities (compare 1 Kings 13:8-9, 22; 20:37; Is 20:2; Jer 15:15-18; 16:1-9; 1 Cor 4:8-13).

Although true prophets could function within society under godly governments (as in 2 Sam 12:1-25; 24:11-12), in evil times it was mainly corrupt prophets who remained in royal courts (1 Kings 22:6-28; compare Mt 11:8) as God's true messengers were forced into exile (1 Kings 17:3; 18:13). Most Jewish people in the first century practiced their religion seriously; but the religious establishment could not accommodate a prophet like John whose lifestyle dramatically challenged the status quo. A prophet with a message and values like John's might not feel very welcome in many contemporary Western churches either. (Imagine, for example, a prophet overturning our Communion table, demanding how we can claim to partake of Christ's body while attending a racially segregated church or ignoring the needs of the poor. In most churches we would throw him out on his ear.)

John's garment (Mt 3:4) in general resembled the typical garb of the poor, as would befit a wilderness prophet cut off from all society's comforts. But more important, his clothing specifically evokes that of the Israelite prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1:8 LXX). Malachi had promised Elijah's return in the end time (Mal 4:5-6), a promise that subsequent Jewish tradition developed (for example, Sirach 48:10; compare 4 Ezra 6:26; t. `Eduyyot 3:4). Although Matthew did not regard John as Elijah literally (17:3; compare Lk 1:17), he believed that John had fulfilled the prophecy of Elijah's mission (Mt 11:14-15; 17:11-13).

John's Elijah-like garb thus tells Matthew's readers two things: first, their Lord arrived exactly on schedule, following the promised end-time prophet; and second, John's harsh mission required him to be a wilderness prophet like Elijah. Following God's call in our lives may demand intense sacrifice.

John's diet also sends a message to complacent Christians. Disgusted though we might be today by a diet of bugs with natural sweetener, some other poor people in antiquity also ate locusts (3:4), and honey was the usual sweetener in the Palestinian diet, regularly available even to the poor. But locusts sweetened with honey constituted John's entire diet. First-century readers would have placed him in the category of a highly committed holy man: the pietists who lived in the wilderness and dressed simply normally ate only the kinds of food that grew by themselves (2 Macc 5:27; Jos. Life 11). Matthew is telling us that John lived simply, with only the barest forms of necessary sustenance. Although God calls only some disciples to such a lifestyle (Mt 11:18-19), this lifestyle challenges all of us to adjust our own values. Others' needs must come before our luxuries (Lk 3:11; 12:33; 14:33), and proclaiming the kingdom is worth any cost (Mt 8:20; 10:9-19).

For that matter, John's lifestyle, like that of St. Anthony, St. Francis, John Wesley or Mother Teresa, may challenge affluent Western Christianity even more deeply than John's message does. John's lifestyle declares that he lived fully for the will of God, not valuing possessions, comfort or status. Blinded by our society's values, we too often preach a Christianity that merely "meets our needs" rather than one that calls us to sacrifice our highest desires for the kingdom. Too many Western Christians live a religion that costs nothing, treats the kingdom cheaply and therefore does not demand saving faith. Saving faith includes believing God's grace so sincerely that we live as if his message is true and stake our lives on it. May we have the courage to trust God as John did, to stake everything on the kingdom (13:46) and to relinquish our own popularity, when necessary, by summoning others to stake everything on the kingdom as well.

John Has an Uncomfortable Message for Israel (3:5-10)

Although most Jewish traditions acknowledged that all people need some repentance (see 1 Kings 8:46; 1 Esdras 4:37-38; Sirach 8:5), John's call to his people (Mt 3:5-6, 8-9) is more radical. John's "repentance" refers not to a regular turning from sin after a specific act but to a once-for-all repentance, the kind of turning from an old way of life to a new that Judaism associated with Gentiles' converting to Judaism. True repentance is costly: the kingdom "demands a response, a radical decision. . . . Nominalism is the curse of modern western Christianity" (Ladd 1978a:100). In various ways John warns his hearers against depending on the special privileges of their heritage.

First, John's baptism confirms that he is calling for a once-for-all turning from the old way of life to the new, as when Gentiles convert to Judaism. Although Judaism practiced various kinds of regular ceremonial washings, only the baptism of Gentiles into Judaism paralleled the kind of radical, once-for-all change John was demanding. In other words, John was treating Jewish people as if they were Gentiles, calling them to turn to God on the same terms they believed God demanded of Gentiles. As F. F. Bruce puts it, "If John's baptism was an extension of proselyte baptism to the chosen people, then his baptism, like his preaching, meant that even the descendants of Abraham must . . . enter . . . by repentance and baptism just as Gentiles had to do" (1978:61).

Second, John's hearers were not all good descendants of their ancestors anyway. "Viper" was certainly an insult, and brood of vipers (offspring of vipers) carries the insult further. In the ancient Mediterranean many people thought of vipers as mother killers. In the fifth century B.C. Herodotus declared that newborn Arabian vipers chewed their way out of their mothers' wombs, killing their mothers in the process. Herodotus believed that they did so to avenge their fathers, who were slain by the mothers during procreation (Herod. Hist. 3.109). Later writers applied his words to serpents everywhere (Aelian On Animals 1.24; Pliny N.H. 10.170; Plut. Divine Vengeance 32, Mor. 567F). Calling John's hearers vipers would have been an insult, but calling them a brood of vipers accused them of killing their own mothers, indicating the utmost moral depravity. That Matthew applies this phrase to religious leaders may be unfortunately significant.

Third, employing the image of a tree's fruit, both John and Jesus demand that one's life match one's profession (3:8; 7:16-17; 12:33; 13:22-23; 21:34, 43). In contrast to some forms of modern Christianity, Judaism also insisted that repentance be demonstrated practically (m. Yoma 8:8-9; Montefiore 1968:2:15). Thus no one could simply appeal to ethnic character or descent from Abraham (compare Deut 26:5). Biblical tradition had already applied the image of a tree being cut down (Ezek 31:12-18; Dan 4:23) or burned (Jer 11:16) to the judgment of a nation. Most small trees that could not bear fruit would have been useful, especially for firewood (N. Lewis 1983:139).

Fourth, John's admonition that out of stones God could raise up children for Abraham (compare Gen 1:24; 2:9) warns his hearers not to take their status as God's people for granted. Jewish people had long believed they were chosen in Abraham (Neh 9:7; Mic 7:20; E. Sanders 1977:87-101), but John responds that this ethnic chosenness is insufficient to guarantee salvation unless it is accompanied by righteousness (compare Amos 3:2; 9:7). Prophets were not above using witty wordplay at times (Amos 8:1-2; Mic 1:10-15; Jer 1:11-12), and children and stones probably represent a wordplay in Aramaic; the two words sound very similar (Manson 1979:40). (At any rate, John's symbolism should not have been obscure: God had previously used stones to symbolize his people in Ex 24:4; 28:9-12; Josh 4:20-21.)

Salvation demands personal commitment, not merely being part of a religious or ethnic group. No one can take one's spiritual status for granted simply because one is Jewish, Catholic, Baptist, evangelical or anything else. As the saying goes, God has no grandchildren; the piety of our upbringing cannot save us if we are not personally committed to Christ. Even depending on our past religious experience is precarious. Whereas historic Calvinism teaches that the elect will persevere to the end and Arminianism allows that apostate converts may be lost, neither supports the now-common view that those who pray the sinner's prayer but return to a life of ignoring God will be saved. Yet at a popular level, vast numbers of people believe they are saved because they once prayed a prayer. If this modern popular misunderstanding of the once-saved-always-saved doctrine is false, it may be responsible for millions of people's assuming they are saved when they are in fact lost. John's message constituted a decisive challenge to false doctrines of his day that cost people their salvation; John's successors in our day must be prepared to issue the same sort of unpopular challenges.

John Proclaims the Coming Judge and Judgment (3:10-12)

In Matthew, John is mostly what narrative critics call a "reliable character": we can trust the perspective of most of what he says (11:7-11). The only point at which Matthew needs to qualify John's proclamation is John's inability to distinguish works inaugurated at the first coming of Jesus (such as baptism in the Spirit) from those inaugurated at the second (such as baptism in fire); Jesus addresses this lack of nuance in 11:2-5 (see comment there).

Although Matthew and Luke retain Mark's emphasis on the Spirit (the Spirit-baptizer himself becomes the model of the Spirit-empowered life-Mk 1:8-12; see Keener 1996: 29-30), they report more of John's preaching of imminent judgment than Mark does. Matthew emphasizes the kingdom, the Coming One and the judgment he is bringing (Mt 3:2, 7-12).

First, John emphasizes that the kingdom is coming. In Matthew's summary of their preaching, both John and Jesus announce the same message: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near (3:2; 4:17). Matthew intends us to see John's and Jesus' preaching about the kingdom as models for our preaching as well (10:7); the Lord is not looking the other way in a world of injustice but is coming to set matters straight. Therefore those who believe his warnings had better get their lives in order.

Most Jewish people in Palestine expected a time of impending judgment against the wicked and deliverance for the righteous. But most expected judgment on other peoples and on only the most wicked in Israel (compare m. Sanhedrin 10:1; E. Sanders 1985:96); Jewish people, after all, had certain privileges. Oppressed by surrounding nations, Israel had good reason to long for deliverance, but many people within the nation, including its political leaders, needed to look first to themselves. Amos sounded a clear warning, to his generation, to Jesus' generation and to ours, when we prove more quick to judge others than ourselves: "Woe to you who long for the day of the LORD," for it will be a day of reckoning (Amos 5:18). Sometimes skeptics appeal to evil in the world to deny God's existence; instead they should be applauding his mercy in giving them time to repent, because when God decisively abolishes evil, he will have to abolish them (see 2 Pet 3:3-9).

Second, John warns that the wicked will be burned, just as farmers destroy useless products after the harvest. Harvest and the threshing floor (3:8, 10, 12) were natural images to use in agrarian, rural Palestine. Earlier biblical writers had used these images to symbolize judgment and the end time (as in Ps 1:4; Is 17:13; Hos 13:3; Joel 3:13); Jesus (Mt 9:38; 13:39; 21:34) and his contemporaries (4 Ezra 4:30-32; Jub. 36:10) also used the image. (Fire naturally symbolized future judgment, as in Is 66:15-16, 24; 1 Enoch 103:8.) Villagers carried grain to village threshing floors; large estates worked by tenants would have their own (N. Lewis 1983:123). When threshers tossed grain in the air, the wind separated out the lighter, inedible chaff. The most prominent use of this chaff was for fuel (CPJ 1:199). But while chaff burned quickly, John depicts the wicked's fire as unquenchable. Many of his contemporaries believed that hell was only temporary (for example, t. Sanhedrin 13:3, 4), but John specifically affirmed that it involved eternal torment, drawing on the most horrible image for hell available in his day.

Many of us today are as uncomfortable as John's contemporaries with the doctrine of eternal torment; yet genuinely considering and believing it would radically affect the way we live. That John directs his harshest preaching toward religious people (Mt 3:7) should also arouse some introspection on our part (see also Blomberg 1992:142-43). Even for the saved, the knowledge that all private thoughts will be brought to light (10:26) should inspire self-discipline when other humans are not watching. Our culture prefers a comfortable message of God's blessing on whatever we choose to do with our lives; God reminds us that his Word and not our culture remains the final arbiter of our destiny.

Finally, John warns of the coming judge, who is incomparably powerful. Judgment is coming, but the coming judge John announces is superhuman in rank (3:11-12). Only God could pour out the gift of the Spirit (Is 44:3; 59:21; Ezek 36:27; 37:14; 39:29; Joel 2:29; Zech 12:10), and no mere mortal would baptize in fire (in the context, this clearly means judge the wicked-3:10, 12).

Further, whereas Israel's prophets had called themselves "servants of God" (as in 2 Kings 9:7, 36; Jer 7:25; Dan 9:6, 10; Amos 3:7), John declares himself unworthy even to be the coming judge's slave! In ancient Mediterranean thought, a household servant's basest tasks involved the master's feet, such as washing his feet, carrying his sandals or unfastening the thongs of his sandals (see, for example, Diog. Laert. 6.2.44; b. Baba Batra 53b). Although ancient teachers usually expected disciples to function as servants (as in Diog. Laert. 7.1.12; 7.5.170; t. Baba Mesi`a 2:30), later rabbis made one exception explicit: disciples did not tend to the teacher's sandals (b. Ketubot 96a). John thus claims to be unworthy to even be the Coming One's slave. Indeed, the One whose way John prepares is none other than the Lord himself (Is 40:3; Mt 3:3). Matthew's readers would not need to know Hebrew to realize that John was preparing the way for "God with us" (1:23). No wonder John is nervous about baptizing Jesus (3:14)!

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