THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Lesson 3:  Chapter 3
Narrative #1: John the Baptist Proclaims the Coming of the Kingdom

Heavenly Father and Sovereign Lord,
The hopes and longings of Your holy Old Covenant people have been fulfilled in Jesus, the Messiah, and we are ever mindful that the great blessing of our salvation is a blessing meant to be shared.  As we study St. Matthew's theme of the Kingdom of Heaven, we remember that as members of Your holy family we are called to serve You as loving and obedient children, and as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven we accept our role as Your emissaries who are committed to carrying the Gospel message of salvation to all those outside the Church.  We ask for Your guidance, Lord, in our study of St. Matthew's Gospel and in our mission as apostles of Christ the King, as we pray in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen

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There we shall rest and see, we shall see and love, we shall love and praise.  Behold what will be at the end without end.  For what other end do we have, if not to reach the kingdom which has no end?
St. Augustine, De civitate Dei 22,30

Up to the time of John [the Baptist] it was the Law and the Prophets; from then onwards, the Kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is forcing their way into it.
Luke 16:16

The proclamation of the Kingdom of the Heavens (literal translation) in St. Matthew's Gospel is the assertion that the Law of the Sinai Covenant and the promises of the holy prophets are "fulfilled."(1)  By "fulfilled" St. Matthew means the hope the people of God placed in the Law to show them the path of life (Dt 30:15-20) and the hope they had in the promises of the prophets has not only come to pass but has also been perfected in Jesus the Christ.  In the presentation of the Kingdom of Heaven to his readers, another pattern can be detected within the structure of St. Matthew's Gospel in which he presents the coming of the Messiah's Kingdom as a drama in seven acts:

Note: St. Matthew's Gospel was first written in either Hebrew or Aramaic and was very soon thereafter translated into Greek.  The language that is being spoken in the events of Matthew's Gospel, is Aramaic.  Aramaic was a northwest Semitic language that became the primary language of trade and diplomacy across the Near East from c. 600 BC.  Slowly over time, Aramaic replaced Hebrew as the common tongue of the people of God in the Holy Land while Greek became the principle language of the Jews living in Egypt and in the Gentile nations/city states of Asia Minor and Mesopotamia after the conquest of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC.  Aramaic continued to be the common spoken language in the Galilee, Judea, Syria and Mesopotamia in the first period of Christian history; however, Greek had replaced Aramaic as the international language of trade and diplomacy.

Matthew 3:1-5 ~ St. John the Baptist Proclaims the Coming of the Kingdom

1 In those days John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea 2 [and] saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven [the heavens] is at hand!"  3 It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said: "A voice of one crying out in the desert, Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.'"  4 John wore clothing made of camel's hair and had a leather belt around his waist.  His food was locusts and wild honey.  5 At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him 6 and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. [..] = literal translation (The Interlinear Bible: Greek-English, vo. IV, pages 5-6).

Mt 3:1-2 In due course John the Baptist appeared; he proclaimed this message in the desert of Judaea, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven [the heavens] is close at hand.' 

The desert/wilderness had special significance in the history of the Old Covenant people.  It was in the crucible of the wilderness between Egypt and the Transjordan that God transformed a community of former slaves into the holy nation of Israel over a period of forty years (Dt 1:1-3).

Question: Who was St. John, who was his father and what was John's profession?  What was St. John's relationship to Jesus?  See Lk 1:5-17, 24-38.
Answer:

  1. John was the son of the priest Zechariah.
  2. His birth was foretold by the angel Gabriel. 
  3. He was filled with the Holy Spirit in his mother's womb.
  4. He was a kinsman of Jesus through Mary.
  5. His mission was to turn the people back to their God, leading them in the "spirit of Elijah," the 9th century BC prophet, to make them "fit for the Lord." 
  6. Like his father, John was a descendant of Aaron and was also a chief priest.  
  7. John was six months older than Jesus.

Question: Read Luke 1:36, 3:1 and 23.  According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus was six months younger than St. John the Baptist.  When did St. John the Baptist begin his ministry?  Please note that the ancients counted the first day or year in a sequence as #1.  They did not have the concept of zero place-value, which is why Jesus was in the tomb 3 days according to Scripture from Friday to Sunday instead of two days as we could count the days.  When you calculate the year, take into account that the Roman Emperor Tiberius began his reign on the 19th of August, 14 AD.
Answer:  St. Luke is very exact in stating that St. John the Baptist began his ministry in the 15th year of the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod Antipas was tetrarch of the Galilee, Philip was tetrarch of Itureaea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.  Tiberius' reign began in 14 AD; St. John was 30 years old in the 15th year of Tiberius' reign in the year 28 AD.

Historical documents and inscriptions provide us with the dates the men listed in Luke 3:1 were in power (also see the Chart "Rulers of Judea" in Charts/New Testament/Historical).

The Greek verb translated as "Baptist" is baptizein, which means "to dip, soak, or immerse into a liquid so that which is dipped takes on qualities of what it has been immersed in."  The title "immerser," translated "baptist," is applied to St. John in the New Testament.  He was the last and greatest of the Old Covenant prophets (Mt 11:13; Lk 1:76; 7:26) who was sent to prepare the way for the Christ.  His ministry was enthusiastically received by the people since no prophet had been sent by God to His people since the prophet Malachi in the mid 5th century BC.  St. John's title "immerser" stems from his practice of purifying the Jews in the waters of the Jordan River as a symbol of their repentance and renewal in preparation for the forgiveness of their sins and the coming of the Messiah.

There were many ways in which an Old Covenant believer might become ritually impure under the Law of the Sinai Covenant.  The entire sixth section of the Jewish Talmud-Mishnah oral Law is devoted to "cleansing rituals."  Becoming immersed or washing in clean, flowing waters was a prescribed means of ritual purification under the Law as outlined in Leviticus chapter 14-15.  For example Leviticus chapter 15 stipulates that a woman must ritually self-immerse in a ritual pool (called a mikveh) after her monthly menstrual period.  And according to the Law recorded in the Jewish Mishnah, every covenant member had to ritually immerse in a mikveh before entering the desert Tabernacle and later the Jerusalem Temple (Mishnah: Yoma, 3:3).  Ritual purifications in a ritual immersion pool occurred many times for a covenant member (see Mishnah: Miqvaot, 1:1-10:8).   However, every Gentile convert to the faith had the one-time experience of a profession faith in the God of the Patriarchs and ritually immersing as part of the conversion experience.  This act symbolized the washing away of the old life and rebirth as a member of the covenant community.

Ritual immersion as symbolic of purification or renewal was familiar to the Jews; however, St. John's ritual of immersion in the Jordan River for repentance and conversion was unique.  John's ritual baptism takes on aspects of purification from defilement (sin) coupled with the one time conversion experience of Gentile converts.  In John's baptism, which prefigured Jesus' baptism into death and new life, the people who came to him to repent their sins were not only turning away from the rebellion of sin and turning back to God in faithful obedience, but in one decisive act they were also turning to a new beginning in preparation for the coming of the Messiah and their journey to salvation.

In verse 2, St. John the Baptist calls the people to prepare for the coming of the Messianic Era and the new Davidic Kingdom.  Jesus will repeat this same statement in 4:17, calling for repentance in preparation for the Kingdom. 

The Old Covenant people of God understood the necessity of confession and repentance of sins to remain in fellowship with God.  All sin sacrifices began with confession of sin and all peace offerings (communion sacrifices) with a confession of praise.  These Old Covenant animal sacrifices prefigured the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ (Heb 10:1-10).

Question: Why is repentance necessary for admittance into the Kingdom of heaven?  What is the link between repentance, conversion and justification?  See CCC 1989-1995.
Answer: Repentance and conversion is the first work of grace of the Holy Spirit, effecting justification which follows God's merciful initiative of offering His forgiveness to the contrite and repentant sinner. 

In repentance of his sins, man turns toward God and away from his sin, accepting God's forgiveness and righteousness and opening the human heart to become a holy reservoir of divine love:  "Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man" (Council of Trent: DS 1529; CCC 1982).  Sin contradicts the love of God and separates man from God.  Justification separates man from sin and purifies his heart.  "When God touches man's heart through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, man himself is not inactive while receiving that inspiration, since he could reject it; and yet, without God's grace, he cannot by his own free will move himself toward justice in God's sight" (Council of Trent: DS 1525).

Question: Was St. John offering the forgiveness of sins through his baptism and was it the same as Christian baptism?  See Lev 4:32-35; 17:11 and CCC 535, 977-78, 1425-26.
Answer: No, St. John the Baptist was not offering forgiveness of sins through his ritual immersion.  Old Covenant priests could only offer forgiveness of sins by making atonement for the repentant sinner through the rites of blood sacrifice on the altar of God. 

Only Christian baptism in Christ Jesus offers forgiveness of sins.  However, John's baptism and Jesus baptism were both a call to conversion.  John's baptism was a call to conversion in preparation for the coming of the Messiah, and Jesus' baptism is a conversion to a new birth in the gift of life through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer.   It is the first step the professed Christian takes on the path to salvation.

Encouraging the people to make a declaration of confession and repentance, John was readying the souls of those who came to him to receive the Messiah and take part in the coming of His Kingdom.  St. John's call for repentance was the beginning of the process of the opening up of the Kingdom.  That process climaxed when justification was merited for man by the Passion of Christ Jesus when He offered Himself on the altar of the Cross in His blood sacrifice as a sinless victim.  In His holy offering, Jesus' blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of mankind (Rom 3:21-26), opening the gates of the Kingdom of Heaven to all repentant sinners seeking the grace of God (CCC 1026).  In the preaching of St. John the Baptist and Jesus, they both stress that there is an urgency to repent and turn back to God because "the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand" (see Mt 3:2 and 4:17).

for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!  In the New Testament, the Greek word basileia is translated "kingship" (an abstract noun), "kingdom" (a concrete noun) or "reign" (an action noun).

Question: The New Testament presents three apparently contradictory teachings about the Kingdom of God; what are these contradictions according to these passages: Mt 3:2; 4:17; 24:33; 25:1; Lk 17:21; Jn 18:36; and Acts 1:6-7.
Answer:

  1. The Kingdom of God is at hand/near (Mt 3:2; 24:33)
  2. The Kingdom of God is present (Mt 4:17; Lk 17:21).
  3. The Kingdom of God is yet to come in the future (Mt 25:1; Jn 18:36; Acts 1:6-7).

In reality there is no contradiction.  St. John the Baptist and Jesus announced the coming of the kingdom during their ministries.  In this present age, the Kingdom of God comes to all who put their faith and trust in Jesus and His message of salvation "but it comes partially.  To live in Christ through the Eucharist and to receive God's grace in the other Sacraments of His Church is to be journeying toward our salvation and to have peace in one's life even though there is no peace in the world.  However, when Christ returns at the end of this the Final Age of man, as He promised, He will unite the Kingdom of the Church on earth to His Kingdom in Heaven, inaugurating a Kingdom that is complete, as in St. John the Apostle's vision in the book of Revelation: A voice coming from the throne said: "Praise our God, all you his servants, [and] you who revere him, small and great."  Then I heard something like the sound of a great multitude or the sound of rushing water or mighty peals of thunder, as they said: "Alleluia! The Lord has established his reign, [our] God, the almighty.  Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory.  For the wedding day of the Lamb has come, his bride has made herself ready.  She was allowed to wear a bright, clean linen garment" (Rev 19:5-8).

The Catholic Catechism teaches: ... The Kingdom of God lies ahead of us.  It is brought near in the Word incarnate.  It is proclaimed throughout the whole Gospel, and it has come in Christ's death and Resurrection.  The Kingdom of God has been coming since the Last Supper and, in the Eucharist, it is in our midst.  The kingdom will come in glory when Christ hands it over to his Father (CCC 2816).

It is interesting that St. Matthew most often refers the coming of Christ's basileia/ kingdom as the Kingdom of Heaven (32 times), but in the other Gospels the reference is to the "Kingdom of God."  St. Matthew only uses the term "Kingdom of God" five times (Mt 6:33; 12:28; 19:24; 21:31 and 43).  However, according to Mt 19:23-24 he clearly means for the terms "Kingdom of Heaven" and "Kingdom of God" to be understood as the same: Then Jesus said to his disciples, "Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." 

Matthew's designation "Kingdom of Heaven" is probably a pious avoidance of the word "God" or the Divine Name (YHWH).  It had become a tradition not to invoke the name of God for fear of using God's name in a profane manner in violation of the commandments (Ex 20:7; Dt 5:11).  Therefore, in it became the tradition to refer to God by the word "Adonai" (Lord).  It is a tradition that is still observed today in the modern Jewish Tanakh (Old Testament) where G_d, Adonai (Lord), or HaShem (the name) replace references to God or YHWH and where malkhut-haShammayim (Kingdom of the Heavens) is used as a substitute for "Kingdom of God."  The same tradition to avoid using the Divine Name is observed in the New American Bible translation and in the Revised Standard Bible translation where the word LORD (in all capital letters) is used as a substitute.  Only the New Jerusalem uses the Divine Name translated as "Yahweh" where it is found in the Hebrew text of the ancient copies of the Old Testament.

Question: How is it that the 1st century AD Jews interpreted the words "Kingdom of Heaven" and what did St. Matthew mean by the "coming" of the kingdom?  See CCC 2816, 2818-19.
Answer: Most of the Jews interpreted the phrase as the fulfillment of the covenant promises made to David and the promises of the prophets in which a "son" of David (a descendant of King David) would restore the nation of Israel and would again rule God's people from the holy city of Jerusalem like another Solomon.  They were looking for a political restoration and an earthly Messiah.  St. Matthew, writing after the full meaning of the Old Testament prophecies had been revealed to him (Lk 24:44-49), is not referring to an earthly kingdom in the sense in which the kings of Israel and Judah ruled but rather in the sense of the perfection of that earth-bound, imperfect concept of a kingdom that is perfected in the sacrifice and victory of Jesus Christ.

Understanding the concept of the Kingdom of Heaven/God is crucial to understanding the Bible and God plan for man's salvation.  The Kingdom is a condition in which the authority of God's sovereignty is acknowledged by mankind, in heaven and also on earth (Mt 6:10) through His Church (the "pilgrim Church" or "Church militant" which is still involved in the struggle for salvation and the "Church glorified," the saints with God in heaven).(2)  The "Kingdom" is also a condition in which God's promise of a restored creation free from sin and death begins to be fulfilled when heaven's gates are thrown open to the redeemed (CCC 1026), and is completed upon a final trial, the return of the Messiah and the creation of a new heaven and a new earth:  Before Christ's second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers ... (CCC 675).   The Church still will enter the glory of the kingdom only through this final Passover, when she will follow her lord in his death and Resurrection.  The kingdom will be fulfilled, then, not by a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendancy, but only by God's victory over the final unleashing of evil, which will cause his Bride to come down from heaven.  God's triumph over the revolt of evil will take the form of the Last Judgment after the final cosmic upheaval of this passing world (CCC 677; see Rev 20:11-21:1-4).  

This is not to suggest there was no concept of the "Kingdom of God" before the Advent of the Messiah (i.e., Ps 22:28-29; 145:1, 11-13).  God ruled over the heavens and the earth from the time of Creation.  In the first Sanctuary in the Garden of Eden, Adam was commanded to serve and guard the Sanctuary and both Adam and Eve were commanded not to eat of the fruit of the forbidden tree.  In the Fall of man, Adam and Eve rejected God's divine sovereignty over them, preferring to decide for themselves what was good and evil.  And, when God redeemed the children of Israelites from slavery in Egypt, He established them as a "kingdom of priests, a holy nation," ruled by God as their king.

Salvation history can be divided into four periods of the "Kingdom of God":

  1. Before the Advent of Jesus Christ
  2. During Jesus' earthly ministry
  3. In this present (last) age of man
  4. In the age to come with the return of Christ to claim His Bride the Church

Matthew 3:3  It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said: "A voice of one crying out in the desert, Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.'"

Matthew is quoting Isaiah 40:3 to show that John's preaching in the desert and his proclamation of the coming of the kingdom of heaven is a fulfillment of the prophecy of the 8th century BC prophet Isaiah.  St. Mark will couple this prophecy with Malachi 3:1 (see Mk 1:2-3) and Luke will quote Isaiah 40:1-3 from the Septuagint (Lk 3:4-6).

Question: Please read Isaiah 40:3-11.  What is the context of Isaiah's prophecy?
Answer: The "voice" in the prophecy is calling the people to prepare the way for God to return to Jerusalem, to begin his reign, and to reveal His glory to all humanity.

Question: In attributing the fulfillment of this prophecy in St. John the Baptist, what is Matthew's message?
Answer: Matthew is saying that John son of Zechariah the priest is not simply one more priest-prophet calling the people to repentance and conversion.  He is identifying St. John as the great prophetic "voice" of Isaiah's prophecy who is the herald announcing the coming of God to His kingdom. 

Question: In identifying the prophetic voice as St. John the Baptist, what veiled revelation is Matthew making concerning the identity of Jesus?
Answer: If John is the prophetic voice who is announcing that God is coming to claim His kingdom, and if St. John is also calling the people to prepare the way for Jesus the promised Messiah, then it follows that Jesus, the Davidic Messiah, whose name means "Yahweh/God is salvation," is linked to the coming of God himself to restore Israel.

The Old Covenant people did not study prophecy of a single prophet in isolation from other prophetic texts.  If the Jews made the connection that St. John the Baptist was the prophetic voice proclaiming the coming of God to His people and that Jesus is the Davidic Messiah who is to be sent to "shepherd my people Israel" (Mt 2:6), they may have also recalled the well-known 6th century BC prophecy of the coming of the future Davidic Messiah by the priest-prophet Ezekiel.  In chapter 34 of the Book of Ezekiel, the prophet gave the people God's message condemning the priests of Israel for failing to properly "shepherd" His people, followed by the promise: For thus says the Lord God: I myself will look after and tend my sheep.  As a shepherd tends his flock ... I will appoint one shepherd over them to pasture them, my servant David; he shall pasture them and be their shepherd.  I, the Lord will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them, I the LORD [YHWH], have spoken (Ez 34:11-24; emphasis mine; [..] = literal translation from The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-English, vol. III, pages 1986-87). 

If they made the connection to the prophecies of Ezekiel, the Jews may also have connected John's ritual of water purification with the same section of Scripture, Ezekiel's prophecy of a new form of water purification with which God promised the restoration of Israel: I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all your impurities, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.  I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts.  I will put my spirit within you and make you live my statutes, careful to observe my decrees.  You shall live in the land I gave your fathers; you shall be my people, and I will be your God (Ez 37:25-28).

Note: the prophecies of Ezekiel were given in the 6th century BC after the last Davidic king of Judah was taken into exile by the Babylonians (King David died centuries earlier in c. 970 BC).

Matthew 3:4 John wore clothing made of camel's hair and had a leather belt around his waist.  His food was locusts and wild honey.

Matthew's description of St. John the Baptist confirms that he dressed like a prophet and the food he ate in the wilderness was "clean" in faithful observance of the Law (see Lev 11:20-23; bees were "unclean" but their honey was "clean" as food).  When the angel announced John's birth to his father Zechariah, the angel Gabriel told him that John was being sent in the "spirit and power of Elijah" (Lk 1:17).

Question:  In the book of 2 Kings, King Ahaziah's soldiers give a description of Elijah the prophet.  How is the prophet Elijah described in 2 Kings 1:8, and what is Elijah's connection to St. John the Baptist?
Answer: Elijah wore a distinctive hairy garment with a leather girdle just as John's clothing is described.

For religious Jews this information was significant.  It tied both John and Elijah to another prophecy concerning Elijah found in the last verses of the book of the last prophet of Israel, the prophet Malachi, whose name means "My Messenger."  Elijah was God's prophet in the 9th century BC and Malachi was God's prophet centuries later in the mid 5th century BC. 

Question: Read Malachi 3:22-24; in some translations it is listed as 4:4-5.  What two prophets are named in the passage and what will be the mission of God's messenger?
Answer: The prophecy names both Moses and Elijah.  Elijah is prophesied to return as God's messenger before the "day of the LORD comes" to call the people to repentance.

Question: What did the prophets St. John the Baptist (1st century AD) and Elijah (9th century BC) have in common in their ministry in addition to a similar taste in clothing?
Answer:

  1. Both prophets were sent to call the people to repentance and conversion.
  2. Both prophets had to face hostile kings.
  3. Both prophets were succeeded by prophets who were greater than they were.
  4. Both experienced a revelation of the Divine on the banks of the Jordan River.

Elijah's successor was his aide, the prophet Elisha, who performed twice the number of miracles as his predecessor, being filled with a double portion of Elijah's spirit (2 Kng 2:9-15).  St. John was succeeded by Jesus who came as Israel's definitive prophet, priest, and king (CCC 783, 904).

In Jesus time (and today), the Jews believed that the prophet Elijah will literally return to announce the Messiah.
Question: What was John's answer when the priests and Levites asked him if he was Elijah? See Jn 1:19-21. Why did he answer as he did? See Lk 1:17 and 2 Kng 2:9, 15. What did Jesus say about John and the prophet Elijah? See Mt 11:10-15; 17:10-13; and Mal 3:1, 22-24 (in some translations Mal 3:22-24 is 4:4-5).
Answer: John denied being Elijah "he was not literally the bodily reincarnation of Elijah. The angel Gabriel told John's father that John was Elijah in the sense that he came with the spiritual gifts of Elijah (power and spirit); just as the prophet Elisha received the spiritual gifts of Elijah. Jesus quoted Malachi 3:1 (Mt 11:10) and said told the Apostles on two occasions that John has come as the Elijah-messenger of the prophecies (Mt 11:13-15 and 17:11-12).

The Malachi's prophecies were fulfilled in St. John, who in the spirit of Elijah, called God's people to repentance and conversion in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. The spirits of both Old Testament prophets Moses and Elijah, named in the Malachi prophecy (3:22-23), will stand with Jesus on the Mt. of Transfiguration in the presence of Sts. Peter, James, and John Zebedee, bringing together the Old and New Covenants in the presence of the glorified Jesus (Mt 17:1-3).

Matthew 3:5At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him 6 and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.

The Jordan River flows from Mt. Hermon in the north, through the Sea of Galilee and flows southward to the Dead Sea.  The river descends from 696 feet below sea level at the Sea to Galilee to 1,286 feet below sea level at the Dead Sea.  Its average width from the Galilee to the Dead Sea is 90 " 100 feet and its depth is from 3 " 10 feet.  It is the largest river in the region, but to the people of God it was more than a river.  The Jordan River was a powerful symbol of the promised blessings of God.

Question: Where along the banks of the Jordan River was John offering his baptism for repentance and renewal?  See Jn 1:26-28; 10:40.
Answer: John was baptizing on the east side of the lower Jordan River.

The expression "beyond the Jordan" designates the region as Perea (Mt 4:25; Mk 3:8; 10:1; Jn 3:26). 

Question: Name three significant events that took place on the banks of the Jordan River near the same location.  See Num 22:1; Josh 1:1-2; 4:14-17; 2 Kng 2:6-13; 5:1-15.

Straining against the yoke of Roman domination, the Jews of the 1st century AD were actively looking for the coming of the Messiah.  There had been approximately one thousand years between Abraham and David and now there had been approximately one thousand years since King David conquered Jerusalem.  Many Jews felt that the time was ripe for the coming of the new David and they were coming from across the region, even from the northern Galilee, to receive St. John's baptism of repentance.  Jewish author Hayyim Schauss movingly writes of the deep longing that first century AD Jews felt for the promised Messiah:  It was during this period that the Messianic hope flamed up, and in the minds of the Jews the deliverance of the future became bound up with the first redemption in Jewish history: the deliverance from Egypt.  Jews had long believed that in the deliverance to come, God would show the same sort of miracles that he had performed in redeeming the Jews from Egypt.  This belief gained added strength in this period of Roman occupation and oppression.  Jews began to believe that the Messiah would be a second Moses and would free the Jews the self-same eve, the eve of Pesach.  So Pesach became the festival of the second as well as the first redemption; in every part of the world where Jews lived, especially in Palestine, Jewish hearts beat faster on the eve of Pesach, beat with the hope that this night the Jews would be freed from the bondage of Rome, just as their ancestors were released from Egyptian slavery (The Jewish Feasts, page 47).

The Jews who were coming to St. John's baptism on the east side of the Jordan River across from Jericho would not have missed the significance of the location in Israel's history.  John's baptism was inaugurating a new beginning for the people as they submitted to the ritual cleansing of the new Elijah and as they waited for the Messiah, who Matthew has identified as the new Moses and the new Joshua/Jesus sent by God to lead His people of the restored Israel into the Promised Land.

Matthew 3:7-12 ~ St. John the Baptist Condemns the Pharisees and Sadducees

7 When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?  8 Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.  9 And do not presume to say to yourselves, "We have Abraham as our father."  For I tell you, God can raise up children [sons = ben in Aramaric] to Abraham from these stones [eben in Aramaic].  10 Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees.  Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.  11 I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I.  I am not worthy to carry his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  12 His winnowing fan is in his hand.  He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."  [..] = literal translation (The Interlinear Bible: Greek-English, vol. IV, page 6).

In 1st century AD Judea, there were several rival groups who sought influence over the people; the two most influential groups were the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

  1. The Pharisees considered themselves to be the heirs of Ezra and believed the right exercise of their religion was centered upon strict observance of the Law, both the written Law and the oral traditions of the elders.  As such, they interpreted the obligations and prohibitions under the Law in the most severe way.  They believed in a future resurrection of the dead and in angels and spirits (Acts 23:8).  The Pharisees were very popular among the common people and are linked with the Scribes in the Gospels.(3)  The Pharisees are mentioned frequently in the Gospels as being hostile to Jesus' ministry.
  2. The Sadducees were numbered among the priestly aristocracy, and their supporters included the educated class of landowners and merchants.  The Sadducees only accepted the Torah of Moses as authoritative (first 5 books of the Old Testament).  They did not believe in a bodily resurrection of the dead (Mt 22:23; Lk 20:27), denied the existence of angels or spirits (Acts 23:8), and they supported peaceful cooperation with the Romans.  They were also hostile to Jesus, and they tried to trap Him on a question concerning levirate marriage and the resurrection (Mt 22:22-23).  The Sadducees were very hostile to the Apostles after Jesus' Ascension (Acts 4:1; 5:17).

Very little is known about these two groups of Jews outside of the New Testament and the writings of Flavius Josephus (1st century AD priest turned general and historian).  Both groups apparently sprung up during the reign of the Hasmoneans (162-63 BC).  It should be noted, however, that not all Pharisees were hostile to Jesus:

The influence of the Sadducees disappeared with the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD, while the influence of the Pharisees evolved into Rabbinic Judaism.  

Question: What is the point of John's insult to the Sadducees and Pharisees?  Why does he call them "vipers"?  Also see Gen 3:1, 14-15; Wis 2:24; Rev 12:9; 20:2; Mt 12:34 and 23:33.
Answer: Apparently John did not believe their show of repentance was sincere.  Vipers are little snakes.  John is essentially calling them the offspring of the big snake "the Serpent who is Satan.  His point is that like Satan they stand in opposition to God's plan for man.

Question: What did St. Paul say was evidence of repentance that these men were apparently lacking?  See Acts 26:20.
Answer: Good works are the evidence of repentance.

Matthew 3:9 And do not presume to say to yourselves, "We have Abraham as our father."  For I tell you, God can raise up children [sons = ben in Aramaric] to Abraham from these stones [eben in Aramaic].

Question: St. John uses a word play on the Aramaic words for "sons" (ben) and "stones" (eben).  What is John's point?  See Gen 17:5-14; Dt 10:16; Dt 30:6; Jer 4:4.
Answer: The Jews believed their ethnic identity as descendants of Abraham and the covenant ritual of circumcision guaranteed their special status as God's covenant people.  St. John is telling them that to be children in the family of God takes more than physical descent and more than an outward physical sign like circumcision.  God desires an inward transformation "He desires the genuine repentance of "circumcised hearts" if His people want to withstand His judgment.

It would not be missed that St. John's form of baptism is very similar to the ritual immersion of Gentile proselytes who desired to become members of the covenant family of God's holy people.  In this warning to the Jews, John is saying that even the descendants of Abraham must prepare for the coming of the kingdom by a declaration of a change of heart through repentance and baptism just as Gentiles converts had to do.  It is a shocking statement.

Matthew 3:10 Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees.  Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

In the symbolic imagery of the prophets, a covenant faithful Israel was depicted as a fruitful fig tree or a vine (Is 5:1-2; Ez 19:10-11; Jer 24:4-7), while an unfaithful Israel or wicked Gentile nations were depicted as trees that were destroyed (Ez 31:12; Dan 4:11; Is 5:3-6; Ez 19:12-14; Jer 8:13; Nah 3:12-15; also see the Chart "Symbolic Images of the Prophets").  John's warning is that God's judgment is coming and like unfruitful trees that are cut down and burned in fire, those who refuse to repent and turn back to God will experience His fiery wrath.  Like the prophet Jeremiah, Matthew applies the fiery judgment imagery to an unrepentant Judah (Jer 4:4).  Jesus will use the same unfruitful tree imagery for Judah when He symbolically curses the fig tree on Monday of His last week in Jerusalem (Mt 21:18-22; Mk 11:12-26; Lk 13:6-7).

Matthew 3:11  I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I.  I am not worthy to carry his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

It was a slave's duty, when required, to carry the sandals of his master.  To carry a master's sandals or to wash a master's feet was considered such a demeaning task that most Jewish slaves were not expected to perform such a service. 

In this verse John is now addressing those who have sincerely come seeking repentance through John's baptism.

Question: What two significant statements does John make about the one who is coming after him?
Answer:

  1. John defines the greatness of the one who is coming by saying that he does not consider himself worthy enough to even carry His sandals.
  2. John contrasts his baptism for repentance with the baptism of the one who is coming who will baptize with the Holy Spirit of God and with fire.

In the imagery of the prophets, "spirit" and "fire" were associated with purification and restoration.  The Old Testament prophets warned of a purifying fire that would refine the souls of God's people by burning away what was impure and purifying the souls of the repentant sinner (Is 4:4; 66:24; Joel 2:30; Zech 13:9; Mal 3:2-4/4:1).  They also promised an outpouring of the Spirit of God when God came to redeem His people (Is 32:15; 31:31-34; 40:24; 41:16; 44:3; Jer 4:11-16; 23:19; 30:23: 31:31-34; Ez 13:11; 36:25-27; 39:29; Joel 2:28-29).  These were prophecies that were very familiar to the people and the significant word clues and actions that John used would have triggered the recall of these prophecies.

John's promise of one who will baptize with God's "Holy Spirit" would have called to mind for the Jews another prophecy that was connected to the coming of the Davidic Messiah in Ezekiel 34:23-24.  In Ezekiel 36:25-27 God promises His people: I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all your impurities, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.  I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts.  I will put my spirit within you and make you live by my statutes, careful to observe my decrees (emphasis added).

St. John's judgment imagery continues with the "wheat" and "chaff" metaphors in his next statement: 3:12 His winnowing fan is in his hand.  He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

After the harvest, the grain was taken to a flat surface called a threshing floor.  Threshing floors were usually located at the top of hills where the wind would help in the separation of the fruit of the grain from its inedible chaff.  The grain was tossed into the air with a fork-like device called a winnowing fan.  The heavier pieces of the grain would fall to the floor while the lighter chaff was blown off by the wind.  The gain was gathered and stored, but the chaff was gathered and destroyed by fire. 

John uses what was a familiar image of the harvest as a symbolic image of the "great harvest" when God will separate the fruitful souls of the righteous from the souls of the wicked in the Final Judgment.  The righteous will enter His heavenly "storehouse," while the wicked will be consumed in the fire of divine judgment.  It is a vision another John (St. John the Apostle) will see of the Final Judgment in the book of Revelation (21:11-15).

The word "threshing floor" was another key word that is associated with both judgment and worship.  God commanded that the Jerusalem Temple was to be built on the threshing floor on top of Mt. Moriah (2 Chr 3:1).  In the Jerusalem Temple there was a courtyard where the Gentiles could come and receive instruction about the one true God.  God's invitation was for the nations to come and worship at His Temple, His great threshing floor, where the souls of the righteous were separated from the souls of the wicked, prefiguring the "final harvest" when the souls of the righteous would be gathered into God's storehouse in heaven.

The "threshing floor" imagery is also important symbol of judgment in the prophet Daniel's interpretation of King Nebuchadnezzar's dream of a statue and the destruction of four successive kingdoms that oppress the people of God (Dan 2:35).  Daniel prophesies a 5th kingdom set up by the God of heaven "a kingdom that shall never be destroyed or delivered up to another people but which shall stand forever (Dan 2:44).  Daniel's 5th kingdom will be fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

Matthew 3:13-17 ~ St.  John Baptizes Jesus

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him.  14 John tried to prevent him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?"  15 Jesus said to him in reply, "Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness."  Then he allowed him.  16 After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened [for him], and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove [and] coming upon him.  17 And a voice came from the heavens, saying, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."

Question: What was significant about the site of Jesus' baptism connected to His Hebrew name in the history of Israel?
Answer: Jesus' baptism took place on the east bank of the Jordan across from Jericho near the site where the children of Israel camped before Joshua/Yehoshua led them across the river from the east to the west into the Promised Land.  After His baptism, Jesus had to cross the river from the east into west to return to Judea.  He is the new Joshua/Yehoshua (His Hebrew name), leading His people on a new Exodus that will result in the promise of entering the Promised Land of heaven.

Question: At first, St. John is hesitant to give Jesus his baptism of repentance.  Why?
Answer: John recognized that Jesus was without sin and therefore had no reason to repent.

Matthew 3:15 Jesus said to him in reply, "Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness."  Then he allowed him. 

The words "fulfill/fulfilled," found 18 times in St. Matthew's Gospel, refers to the fulfillment of Scripture and the fulfillment of God's plan.  In the Bible "righteousness" is defined as obedience to God.

Question: Why does Jesus tell John that His baptism is "fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness"?
Answer: Jesus being baptized by John is "fitting" and "righteous" because John and Jesus are submitting themselves to the Father's will in fulfilling this aspect of God's plan of salvation. 

Jesus baptism by John is part of His acceptance of His mission and His inauguration as God's suffering Servant.  He has come among sinners: prostitutes, thieves, tax collectors, etc., to allow Himself to be numbered among them and is already anticipating His bloody baptism though which they can be forgiven their sins.

Matthew 3:16  After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened [for him], and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove [and] coming upon him.  17 And a voice came from the heavens, saying, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."

This event is the manifestation (Epiphany) of Jesus as the Messiah of Israel and the Son of God (see CCC 535-37).

Question: What three things happened at the moment Jesus came up out of the water?
Answer:

  1. The heavens opened
  2. The Spirit of God descended like a dove and came upon Him
  3. A voice was heard from heaven

Question: What is the significance of the heavens opening?  What catastrophic event happened when Adam and Eve fell from grace?
Answer: Since the time of the Fall of man, the heavens were closed.  With Jesus baptism by John, which anticipates Jesus baptism of blood, the gates of heaven are opened again to man.

It is a vision the inspired writer of the book of Revelation will see when he is taken in the spirit up into the heavenly court: After this I had a vision of an open door to heaven, and I heard the trumpetlike voice that had spoken to me before, saying, "Come up here and I will show you what must happen afterwards."  At once I was caught up in spirit (Rev 4:1-2a; emphasis added).

The Catechism teaches: ... At his baptism "the heavens were opened" "the heavens that Adam's sin had closed "and the waters were sanctified by the descent of Jesus and the Spirit, a prelude to the new creation (CCC 536).  Heaven was completely opened to righteous mankind by Jesus' death and Resurrection, which the Christian experiences through the rite of Christian baptism.

Question: What is significant about the Spirit of God taking the form of a dove?  See Mt 3:15; Mk 1:10; Jn 1:32).  What does the event in Genesis 8:8-12 prefigure concerning this event in Jesus' baptism?
Answer: God sent the waters of the Great Flood to address man's sin, cleansing the earth of the contamination of man's sin, to give mankind (through Noah's family) a new beginning (Gen 6:5-8, 11-13).  The Fathers of the Church interpreted the cleansing waters of the flood as prefiguring Christian baptism.  At the end of the flood, Noah released a dove.  The dove flew over the waters of chaos but found no place to land.  The second time Noah released the dove, it returned to him with a green sprig in its beak from an olive tree, a sign that the renewed earth was habitable again.  When Jesus came up out of the water after His baptism, God the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in the form of a dove and remained with Him.  This event signified and prefigured the new creation that the sacrament of Christian baptism will confer upon believers when the Spirit comes down and remains "in the purified hearts of the baptized" (CCC 701).

For Christians the dove has become a sign of the Holy Spirit, and He is always depicted this way in Christian iconography.(4)

Question: In this passage, for the first time in salvation history, a central mystery of Christian faith is revealed.  How is the mystery of the Holy Trinity revealed in Jesus' baptism and what is the significance in association with the event?
Answer: God the Father's voice is heard from heaven, the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove, and Jesus, God the Son, is present.  The significance of the event is:

  1. Jesus' baptism becomes His anointing as the Davidic-Messiah.
  2. It is the confirmation of His divine Sonship.
  3. It is a sign that prefigures Christian baptism.

According to the Gospel of John, a few days later Jesus returned to the site of His baptism, and St. John the Baptist identified Jesus to the crowd as the Messiah: The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.  He is the one of whom I said, A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.'  I did not know him, but the reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel."  John testified further, saying, "I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from the sky and remain upon him.  I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the holy Spirit.'  Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God" (Jn 1:29-34).

Jesus baptism is the beginning of His public ministry.  In His baptism, the Spirit of God, which Jesus possessed in fullness from His conception, came to rest upon Him (Jn 1:32-33; Is 11:2) as evidence that Jesus is the source of the Spirit of God for all humanity.

Questions for group discussion:

Question: How is Christian baptism different from John's baptism of repentance?  See Jn 3:3-5; 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15; Tit 3:5; CCC 1026, 1214-15.
Answer: In Christian baptism, the water symbolizes the catechumen's burial into Christ's death, from which he rises up by resurrection with Christ as a "new creature" (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15; CCC 1214).  In this "first resurrection," the Christian receives the "washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit," in which the believer experiences a new birth through water and the Spirit (Jn 3:3, 5) "without which no one can enter the kingdom of God" (Jn 3:5; Tit 3:5; CCC 1215).   Through the Sacrament of Baptism, Jesus Christ makes New Covenant believers (who remain faithful to His will) partners in His glorification (CCC 1026).

Question: In St. Matthew's Gospel, the dimensions of God's Kingdom are described as threefold: ethical, ecclesial, and eschatological (Mitch and Sri, The Gospel of Matthew, page 80). Discuss and describe each of the three dimensions of the kingdom.  Give Scripture references from Matthew to support your discussion using these passages: ethical (Mt 3:2; 4:17; 5:3-6:33; 18:1-4; 18:23-35); ecclesial (Mt 13:11; 16:18-19; 18:18-20); and eschatological, meaning "end times" (Mt 24:29-31; 25:31-46).

Possible answer:

  1. The kingdom is ethical because it demands the human response of repentance and conversion (Mt 3:2; 4:17) followed by humility (Mt 18:1-4), forgiveness (Mt 18:23-35) and in living the new Law of internal righteousness that is demonstrated in external actions as outlined in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:3-6:33).
  2. The kingdom is ecclesial because God's power and presence is mediated through the Church's Apostolic leaders and their successors (Mt 16:18-19; 18:18-19), and by the faithful of the Church community (Mt 18:20), to whom Jesus has entrusted the mystery of the kingdom (Mt 13:11).
  3. The kingdom is eschatological because even though the kingdom was coming in Jesus' earthly ministry and is being fulfilled in the present age, it is only when Jesus returns again to claim His Bride, the Church, that the full splendor of God's Kingdom will be revealed at the hour of the Final Judgment (Mt 24:29-31; 25:31-46).

It may even be ... that the Kingdom of God means Christ himself, whom we daily desire to come, and whose coming we wish to be manifested quickly to us.  For as he is our resurrection, since in him we rise, so he can also be understood as the Kingdom of God, for in him we shall reign."
St. Cyprian, De Dominica oratione, 13

Endnotes:

1. St. Matthew uses the words "fulfil and fulfilled" 18 times (Mt 1:22; 2:15, 17, 23 3:15; 4:14; 5:17, 18; 8:17; 12:17; 13:14, 35; 21:4; 24:24; 26:54, 56; 27:9, 35) and 7 of those passages times are quotes from Jesus (3:15; 5:17, 18; 13:14; 24:34; 26:54, 56).

2. There is also the "Church suffering," those souls who have received the gift of eternal life but must account for venial sins that were not confessed and repented before death or mortal sins that have been forgiven but for which full atonement has not been made.  See CCC 1030-32 and 1472.

3. The Scribes are often mentioned with the Pharisees in Matthew's Gospel.  Scribes were men who received special training in reading, writing and record-keeping.  Most of the Levitical lesser ministers like St. Matthew were trained scribes.  In the Jewish community they often served as judges and synagogue leaders.  They also served as assistants to the chief priest, as teachers of the Law, and were often, like St. Matthew, appointed by the Romans to serve as province administrators.

4. The dove is also a symbolic image used in the books of the prophets and in the wisdom literature (Ps 55:6; 68:13; SS 1:12; 2:10, 14; 4:1; 5:2, 12; 6:9Is 38:14; 59:11; 60:8; Jer 48:28; Ez 7:16; Ho 7:11; 11:1; Nah 2:7).

Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2010 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.

Catechism references for the Gospel of Matthew chapters 3-4 in this lesson (* indicates Scripture is quoted or paraphrased in the citation).

3:1

1720, 1989-1995, 2819

3:3

523*

3:7-12

678*

3:7

535*

3:13-17

5358, 1286*

3:13-17

535-37

3:13

1223*

3:14-15

608*

3:15

536, 1224

3:16-17

1224

3:16

202, 233-4, 237, 261, 265, 536, 701*