Matthew Poole's Commentary
In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea,Matthew 3:1-4 The preaching of John the Baptist; his office, and
manner of living.
Matthew 3:5,6 He baptizeth in Jordan,
Matthew 3:7-12 and rebuketh the Pharisees.
Matthew 3:13-17 Christ is baptized, and receiveth a witness from heaven.
That is, in the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar, (as Luke expounds it, Luke 3:1) when John the Baptist and Christ also were about thirty years of age, Luke 3:23, for there was no great difference betwixt the age of Christ and John, as may be learned from Luke 1:31,41,57.
In those days, while Joseph and Mary, and our blessed Lord, dwelt in Nazareth. See Exodus 2:11. This phrase in those days is the same with in those years. It is an ordinary thing in the Hebrew to confound the words signifying a day and a year, and the Greeks did the same, as appears by the seventy interpreters, 1 Samuel 1:3,7. The evangelists pass over with a great deal of silence our Saviour’s minority, only mentioning his disputing with the doctors in the temple, Luke 2:46.
Came John the Baptist; John the son of Zacharias, Luke 3:2, called the Baptist, either because he baptized Christ, or because by him God instituted the ordinance of baptism, which before that time the Jews used in the admission of their proselytes.
Preaching according to his commission, Luke 3:2, where it is said the word of the Lord came to him.
In the wilderness of Judea; some parts of Judea, where houses and inhabitants were very few. None must think that the history of the second chapter is continued in this, there was a distance of twenty-eight or twenty-nine years; the evangelist designing not to satisfy men’s curiosity, but only to give us that part of Christ’s story which might be profitable to us to know.
And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.The evangelist only gives us the sum and scope of the Baptist’s doctrine, the other evangelists give us a more full account of his pressing also faith in Christ, John 1:29 3:29,36 so Acts 19:4. Repentance, faith, and new obedience ought to be the substance and scope of all our sermons. Repentance signifieth the change of the heart and reformation of the life, a turning from sin unto God.
For the kingdom of heaven is at hand; that blessed state of the church (foretold by the prophets) under the Messias, wherein God will exhibit his Son as the King in Zion, and exert his power and kingdom, both extensively, subduing all nations to the obedience of his gospel, and intensively, in all the administrations of his government; for the kingdom of heaven is not to be understood here of the kingdom of glory, but of the kingdom of grace, in all the administrations of it. This passage containeth the argument upon which the Baptist in his sermons pressed, repentance and faith, and obedience to the will of God revealed.
For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.It is not much material whether we understand these words as the words of the evangelist concerning John, as it should seem by Mark 1:3 Luke 3:4, or the words of John himself, for he thus spake, John 1:23. As the words of the prophet they are found Isaiah 40:3. The words are judged literally, but typically, to concern Cyrus and Darius, and either these princes, who were instrumental in the restoring of the Jews to their liberty from the captivity of Babylon, or those prophets who encouraged them to their return, or upon their return to build the temple and city. But they are confirmed by all the four evangelists, Mark 1:3 Luke 3:4 John 1:23, to have a special relation also to John the Baptist, who was to come more immediately before Christ, and with the fervency and in the spirit of Elias, Luke 1:17, crying,
Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. As the harbingers of great princes are sent before them to call to persons to remove things out of the way which may hinder their free passage, so John was sent before this great King in Zion, now coming forth to show himself, and to set up his kingdom in the world; to cry fervently to all people, by a true and timely repentance, to cast off those sinful courses, and to reject those false opinions, of which they were possessed, the holding of and to which might hinder the progress of this spiritual kingdom.
And the same John had his raiment of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.There are great and insignificant disputes about the habit and the diet of John the Baptist. The evangelists doubtless designed no more than to let us know, that John Baptist’s habit was not of soft raiment, like those who are in princes’ houses, but a plain country habit, suited to the place in which he lived; and his diet plain, such as the country afforded. In vain therefore do some contend that John wore watered stuff, fine and splendid, as art in our days hath improved camel’s hair; and others as vainly contend that he went in a camel’s skin raw and undressed: but he was habited in a plain suit of camel’s hair, such as ordinary persons of that country used, or else such a rough garment as is mentioned Zechariah 13:4, used by the prophets. Elijah had much such a habit, 2 Kings 1:8. There is likewise a variety of opinions about these locusts which John did eat; the most probable is, that they were true locusts, for locusts might be eaten, Leviticus 11:22. Nor is it to be thought that John did eat nothing else; all that is intended is, to let us know that John was a man not at all curious as to his meat or clothes, but was habited plainly, and fared ordinarily, as the men of that country fared; if there were any difference in his habit, it was to proportion himself to Elijah and the habit of prophets. In this the evangelist teacheth us what the ministers of the gospel should be and do. They should be men contemning the gaudery and delicacies of the world, and by their habit and diet, as well as other things, set an example of severity and gravity to others.
Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan,The preacher being described, the evangelist proceedeth to tell us what auditors he had. The term all here twice repeated, is enough to let us know, that it is often in Scripture significative no further then many, for it cannot be imagined that every individual person in Jerusalem and the region about Jordan went to hear John the Baptist, but a great many did. It is not to be wondered that there went out such a concourse of people to hear John the Baptist,
1. If it be true, that from Ezra’s time till now no prophet had appeared. Our Saviour speaking of John, What went ye out for to see? A prophet? Seems to hint that a prophet was a great rarity amongst them.
2. If we consider the severity of his life. Our Saviour saith he came neither eating nor drinking, that is, as other men.
3. If we consider the new doctrine he brought, and his fervency in the pressing it: he came to preach the Messias, whom the Jews had long expected; to tell them his kingdom was at hand.
4. Especially if we consider the new rite of baptizing, which he brought in. For admit their washing of proselytes in use before, yet he baptized Jews. He was sent to baptize with water, John 1:33. So as from this time the institution of the sacrament of baptism must be dated, and he did baptize many.
And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins.A great part of those who went out to hear John were baptized, that is dipped, in Jordan; but from hence it will not follow that dipping is essential to baptism, the washing of the soul with the blood of Christ (the thing signified by baptism) being expressed by sprinkling or pouring water, as well as by dipping or being buried in water, Isaiah 44:3 Ezekiel 36:25 Colossians 2:12. Whether they confessed their sins, man by man, by word of mouth, or by submitting to the doctrine of the gospel declared their renunciation of the righteousness of the law, and their engagement to a holy life, is not expressed; but it is most certain, that a profession of faith and repentance was ordinarily required before the baptism of adult persons. It may be wondered that this new practice of John (if it were wholly new) made no more stir amongst the Jews. Either (as some think) baptism was in use before that time, as an appendix to circumcision, (though circumcision only be mentioned), or they had some notion that Christ, Elias, and that prophet, when they came, should baptize; for, John 1:25, they asked John, Why baptizest thou then, if thou be not that Christ, nor Elias, neither that prophet. That which seemeth to me most probable is, that before that time there was a baptism in ordinary use amongst them after circumcising the child, beside the baptizing of proselytes. And as in the other sacrament Christ left out the typical part, and blessed the bread, used at last in that administration, and made use of that for the institution of the sacrament of the supper; so as to the ordinance of circumcision, he in the institution of that gospel ordinance left out circumcision, (which was typical also), and retained only the washing of the person with water, and so instituted the other sacrament of the New Testament. But yet there was so much new in the Baptist’s practice, (for he did not baptize proselytes only, but Jews, nor did he use it as an appendix to circumcision preceding, but baptized adult Jews), that if the state of the Jewish church had not been declining, and their power of discipline very little, (if any), they would more than have sent to John to know by whose authority he baptized: but they were under the Roman power, and their ecclesiastical officers were more pragmatical than mischievous, God in the wisdom of his providence having so ordered it, that the change of worship should be at such a time brought in when it should be least potently opposed.
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?We shall often meet with the mention of these Pharisees and Sadducees; we will therefore inquire here a little more largely concerning them. There were three more eminent religious sects among the Jews. The Essenes, of whom we read nothing in Holy writ: their main doctrine was fate, they ascribed all things to it. The two others are here mentioned, and often in other parts of the New Testament we read of the Pharisees and Sadducees: the latter were most acceptable to the great men amongst the Jews; the former were more popular, and acceptable to the people. The Sadducees were directly opposite to the Essenes; they ascribed nothing to fate, but maintained the liberty and power of man’s will in the most extravagant height: they denied the immortality of the soul, the resurrection, angels, &c., all which the Pharisees owned: this we may learn from Acts 23:8 where Paul wrought his own escape by setting these two factions on quarrelling about these points. In short, these were no better than atheists, for what must they be less that deny spirits and the resurrection? The Pharisees, as to their doctrine, were much more sober; they owned spirits and the resurrection; and though they held much of the freedom of, and a power in, man’s will, yet they also ascribed much to the providence and grace of God. They were the interpreters of the law, and, as Mr. Calvin thinks, had their name from thence, not from their dividing and separating themselves from others, as some think. They spent much of their time in fasting and prayer; but,
1. They held a righteousness by the works of the law to be our righteousness for which we are accepted of God.
2. They made a very jejune interpretation of the law, as may appear from our Saviour’s correcting it, Matthew 5:17-48.
3. They held many unwritten traditions of equal force with the law of God.
4. They were very hypocrites in their practice, neglecting the weighty things of the law, making long prayers for a pretence for their wickedness, and doing all they did but to be seen of men.
Some of these Sadducees and Pharisees came to John’s baptism, and no wonder, for, Mark 6:20: Herod observed him, heard him, did many things, and heard him gladly; but, Luke 7:30, it is said the Pharisees were not baptized of him. It is like they came out of curiosity.
He said unto them, O generation of vipers; the very language which Christ used to them, Matthew 12:34 23:33. The viper, to which he compares them, is the worst and most dangerous of serpents. We need give no account of the Baptist’s treating them so roughly, because our Saviour justifieth the term by applying it to them. Corrupt teachers are the worst of men, and of all orders of sinners, fewest of them repent and have their hearts changed.
Who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? What comes in your mind, who think there is no resurrection, no hell, or who think you are so righteous that you need fear none, to do any thing that might testify you are afraid of wrath to come?
Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance:You come here and thrust yourselves into a crowd of penitents, but this is not enough, true repentance is not a barren thing; neither are your leaves of external profession a sufficient indication of it, you must bring forth the fruits of holiness, fruits that may answer the nature of true repentance. The proper products of habits are called their fruits; thus we read of the fruit of sin, and the fruit of righteousness.
Fruits meet (answerable to amendment of life)
for repentance are works that are the proper product of repentance, or justly answering an external profession of repentance. As faith, so repentance, without works is dead.
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.All hypocrites bear up themselves upon something, upon which they promise good to themselves, and a freedom from the judgments of God. The Jews rested much upon their descent from Abraham, as appeareth also from John 8:39, by which means they entitled themselves to the covenant, Genesis 8:10, extended to his seed as well as to himself, as also to the name of the church, Abraham’s posterity by Isaac being all the visible church which God had upon the earth at that time. It is the great work of ministers to drive hypocrites from their vain confidences. This John doth here; as if he should say, I know what you trust to, you think with yourselves that, because you are the only church of God upon the earth, judgment shall not come upon you, God would then have no seed of Abraham to show mercy to, and to keep his covenant with; but mistake not, God, of stones, if he please, can raise up Abraham a seed. To keep covenant with papists and formalists have much the same presumption, though with this difference, the Jews were the true, the only church of God, these do but arrogate the name to themselves.
And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.A prediction, as some think, of that dreadful destruction which within a few years came by the Romans upon the whole Jewish nation. The sense is, The vengeance of God is very near to be revealed, men must repent now or never, for
every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit shall be hewn down, and cast into the fire; judgment now is as nigh unto men, as the tree is to falling, to the root of which the axe is already applied: whether it be to be understood of the judgment common to all unbelievers, all that know not God, and obey not the gospel of Christ, as 2 Thessalonians 1:8,9, or the particular destruction of this nation of the Jews. I shall not determine, though I rather judge the latter probable. The latter part of the text is made use of by our Saviour, Matthew 7:19, in the latter part of his sermon upon the mount. It letteth us know, that it is not improper, nor dissonant to the style of John Baptist, and Christ, and others the most eminent first gospel preachers, to press repentance, faith, and holiness of life, from arguments of terror.
I indeed baptize you with 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 with the Holy Ghost, and with fire:I am not the Christ, Mark 1:8 Luke 3:15,16 Joh 1:15,26, I am but the messenger and forerunner of Christ, sent before him to baptize men with the baptism of water, in testimony of their repentance; but there is one immediately coming after me, who is infinitely to be preferred before me, so much, that I am not worthy to carry his shoes, or unloose his shoe latchet. He shall baptize men with another kind of baptism, the baptism of the Holy Ghost and fire.
With the Holy Ghost, inwardly washing away their sins with his blood, and sanctifying their hearts: the Holy Ghost working in their hearts like fire, purging out their lusts and corruptions, warming and inflaming their hearts with the sense of his love, and kindling in them all spiritual habits. Or, with the Holy Ghost, as in the days of Pentecost, there appearing to them cloven tongues like as of fire, as Acts 2:3: thus the term fire is made exegetical of the term the Holy Ghost. Or, with the Holy Ghost, and with fire; changing and renewing the hearts of those that believe in him, by the operation of the Holy Ghost, and consuming and destroying others, that will not believe, as with fire.
Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.Judea is at present God’s floor, the only church he hath upon the earth; but there is chaff upon this floor, as well as wheat. Now he is come who will make a separation between the chaff and the wheat; who by his preaching the gospel will distinguish between Israel and those that are of Israel, Romans 9:6; between those who, living in the true expectation of the Messias, shall receive him now he is come, and those who, by their not owning and receiving him, shall declare that they never had any true expectation of him: shall separate them into distinct heaps, raising up a gospel church, and shall at the last day make yet a stricter discrimination, and
thoroughly purge his floor, taking true believers into heaven, and burning unbelievers
with unquenchable fire, casting them into torments like unquenchable fire.
Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him.Christ, who now was about thirty years of age, Luke 3:23, cometh from Nazareth, a city in Galilee, where Joseph lived, Luke 2:4, and whither he went with, Joseph and Mary, Luke 2:39, and again after he had disputed with the doctors at twelve years of age, Luke 2:46; cometh from thence to Jordan, the great river, where John was baptizing disciples, offering himself to be baptized of him. He showed his humility by going to him, and also made the action public. If any ask to what end Christ, who had no sin, was baptized, himself gives us an account, Matthew 3:15, to fulfil all righteousness (of which more in its place). He thus owned John’s ministry and mission to baptize, and confirmed the institution of baptism by water, and offered himself to that testimony which he knew his Father would give of him. He thus initiated himself in the Christian church, as by circumcision he had made himself of the Jewish church, and so was the Head both of the believing Jews and Gentiles. He was not (as others) baptized in testimony of his repentance, or for the remission of sins, for he was without sin.
But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?He did not absolutely repel him, but modestly excused himself for a time, knowing that Christ was already baptized with a more excellent baptism than he could administer to him, for God gave him the Spirit not by measure, John 3:34.
And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffered him.Jesus said unto him, Suffer it to be so now. The question is not whether thou or I be more excellent. It is thy duty to baptize, for my Father hath sent thee to baptize. It is my pleasure and duty to be obedient to my Father, whose will I know, though it be hidden from thee. Baptism is a new law of the gospel church, of which though I be the Head, yet I must be conformed to the members of it, concerning which my Father’s will is, that they should be baptized with water, as well as with the Holy Ghost. Besides that, I am to put an end to the Jewish typical circumcision, and to put a new face upon the church, by instituting another sacrament of initiation. It is therefore both just and equal that I should be baptized (though not for those ends for which others, that are my members, are baptized, not for remission of sins, but) for the fulfilling of all righteousness, in obeying my Father’s will.
Then he suffered him: he that erreth through ignorance will correct his error upon better information. We may learn from this example of Christ, that being baptized with the Holy Ghost will excuse none for contempt or neglect of baptism by water, because it is the revealed will of God, that all the members of his church should come under that ordinance; so as there is a fulfilling of righteousness in our case, as well as in Christ’s, though in a different measure.
And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him:See Poole on "Matthew 3:17".
And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.Ver. 16,17. This story is also related Mark 1:10,11 Lu 3:21. Luke saith that Jesus praying, the heaven was opened. Mark saith, cloven asunder. It is most probable that the opening of the heavens mentioned (though possibly far more glorious) bare a proportion to that opening of the heavens which we often see in a time of great lightning, when the air seemeth to divide to make the fuller and clearer way for the light.
Unto him; that is, unto John.
And he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him. The Spirit of God is an invisible substance, and cannot be seen by human eyes, but the shape assumed by any person of the Trinity may be seen. Whether it was a real dove, or only the appearance of a dove, is little material for us to know. It was certainly one or the other; nor could any representation at this time be more fit, either to let the world know the dove like nature of Christ, Isaiah 42:2, or what should be the temper of all those who receive the same Spirit, though by measure, and are by it taught to be innocent as doves. Not that Christ had not received the Spirit before, but that his receiving of it might be notified to others. This dove, or appearance of a dove, lighted upon Christ, thereby showing for whose sake this apparition was. Christ was not confirmed only to be the Son of God by this appearance of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and lighting upon him, but also by a voice from the excellent glory, saith Peter, 2 Peter 1:17; God forming a voice in the air which spake, saying,
This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. The word signifieth, a dearly beloved Son. The same voice was repeated at Christ’s transfiguration, Matthew 17:5. Peter from it concludes the certainty of the faith of the gospel, in the aforementioned text.
In whom I am well pleased: the word signifieth a special and singular complacency and satisfaction: I am pleased in his person, according to that, Proverbs 8:30; I am well pleased in his undertaking, in all that he shall do and suffer in the accomplishment of the redemption of man. We are made accepted in the Beloved, Ephesians 1:6. This text (as is generally observed) is a clear proof of the trinity of persons or subsistences in the one Divine Being: here was the Father speaking from heaven, the Son baptized and come out of the water, the Holy Ghost descending in the form or shape of a dove.