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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – Warnings of a Wilderness Prophet (3:1-12)
Warnings of a Wilderness Prophet (3:1-12)

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).

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