The Preaching of John the Baptist.* a 1In those days John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea* 2[and] saying, “Repent,* for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”b 3* It was of him that the prophet Isaiahc 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* d John wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him 6and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.*
7When 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?e 8Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. 9And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones.f 10Even 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. 11g 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* h 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.”
The Baptism of Jesus.* 13i 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?” 15Jesus said to him in reply, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed him. 16* j 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. 17And a voice came from the heavens, saying, “This is my beloved Son,* with whom I am well pleased.”k
* [3:1] Unlike Luke, Matthew says nothing of the Baptist’s origins and does not make him a relative of Jesus. The desert of Judea: the barren region west of the Dead Sea extending up the Jordan valley.
* [3:2] Repent: the Baptist calls for a change of heart and conduct, a turning of one’s life from rebellion to obedience towards God. The kingdom of heaven is at hand: “heaven” (lit., “the heavens”) is a substitute for the name “God” that was avoided by devout Jews of the time out of reverence. The expression “the kingdom of heaven” occurs only in the gospel of Matthew. It means the effective rule of God over his people. In its fullness it includes not only human obedience to God’s word, but the triumph of God over physical evils, supremely over death. In the expectation found in Jewish apocalyptic, the kingdom was to be ushered in by a judgment in which sinners would be condemned and perish, an expectation shared by the Baptist. This was modified in Christian understanding where the kingdom was seen as being established in stages, culminating with the parousia of Jesus.
* [3:4] The clothing of John recalls the austere dress of the prophet Elijah (2 Kgs 1:8). The expectation of the return of Elijah from heaven to prepare Israel for the final manifestation of God’s kingdom was widespread, and according to Matthew this expectation was fulfilled in the Baptist’s ministry (Mt 11:14; 17:11–13).
* [3:6] Ritual washing was practiced by various groups in Palestine between 150 B.C. and A.D. 250. John’s baptism may have been related to the purificatory washings of the Essenes at Qumran.
* [3:7] Pharisees and Sadducees: the former were marked by devotion to the law, written and oral, and the scribes, experts in the law, belonged predominantly to this group. The Sadducees were the priestly aristocratic party, centered in Jerusalem. They accepted as scripture only the first five books of the Old Testament, followed only the letter of the law, rejected the oral legal traditions, and were opposed to teachings not found in the Pentateuch, such as the resurrection of the dead. Matthew links both of these groups together as enemies of Jesus (Mt 16:1, 6, 11, 12; cf. Mk 8:11–13, 15). The threatening words that follow are addressed to them rather than to “the crowds” as in Lk 3:7. The coming wrath: the judgment that will bring about the destruction of unrepentant sinners.
* [3:11] Baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire: the water baptism of John will be followed by an “immersion” of the repentant in the cleansing power of the Spirit of God, and of the unrepentant in the destroying power of God’s judgment. However, some see the holy Spirit and fire as synonymous, and the effect of this “baptism” as either purification or destruction. See note on Lk 3:16.
* [3:12] The discrimination between the good and the bad is compared to the procedure by which a farmer separates wheat and chaff. The winnowing fan was a forklike shovel with which the threshed wheat was thrown into the air. The kernels fell to the ground; the light chaff, blown off by the wind, was gathered and burned up.
* [3:14–15] This dialogue, peculiar to Matthew, reveals John’s awareness of Jesus’ superiority to him as the mightier one who is coming and who will baptize with the holy Spirit (Mt 3:11). His reluctance to admit Jesus among the sinners whom he is baptizing with water is overcome by Jesus’ response. To fulfill all righteousness: in this gospel to fulfill usually refers to fulfillment of prophecy, and righteousness to moral conduct in conformity with God’s will. Here, however, as in Mt 5:6; 6:33, righteousness seems to mean the saving activity of God. To fulfill all righteousness is to submit to the plan of God for the salvation of the human race. This involves Jesus’ identification with sinners; hence the propriety of his accepting John’s baptism.