Confraternity Bible: New Testament and Supplemental Commentary

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MATTHEW - Chapter 3

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Matthew 3

Supplemental Commentary:


1.  The Preparation  3, 1 -- 4, 11

3, 1-12:  John the Baptist.  The Life of Christ as first told to the people by the Apostles began with the preaching of John the Baptist (cf. Acts 1, 21 f; 10, 37; 13, 24). This oral catechesis of the Apostles forms the basis of the three Synoptic Gospels.  From here on therefore Matthew usually has parallel passages in Mark or Luke or both.  The mission of John [the Baptist] was twofold: (a) to reform the moral life of the Jews, so that they would be spiritually fit to receive the Messias (cf. Luke 1, 16 f.76 f); this he did by the preaching of repentance, accompanied by the symbolic rite of baptism or bodily washing; (b) to point out the Messias to the people (cf. John 1, 31).    1-6.  This description of the appearance and general activity of the Baptist parallels Mark 1, 1-6 and Luke 3, 16.  In those days: This vague indication of time is typical of Matthew; Luke 3, 1 f gives the exact year.  (See Commentary there.)  The Baptist: this word taken over from the Greek, means, "The Baptizer."  The desert of Judea: the region northwest of the Dead Sea.  Desert in Scripture usually signifies not a barren sand waste but a region unfit for agriculture although used for pasturage, especially after the winter rains.    2.  Repent and "repentance" are important words in the preaching both of the Baptist and of Christ; they signify not regret for the past or the performance of "penance" but rather a change of mind and heart, a new outlook on life in keeping with the will of God.   The kingdom of heaven is almost always used in Matthew for Mark's and Luke's "kingdom of God."  Both expressions are therefore synonymous although either of them may have slightly different nuances according to the various contexts, such as the reign of God in the hearts of men, the Messianic kingdom, the visible society established on earth by the Messias, God's reign with the angels and saints in heaven, etc.  Here the sense is "the establishing of the Messianic kingdom, the coming of the Messias."    3.  These words from Isa. 40, 3 refer to the custom of having a herald precede a king when the latter is on a journey, to forewarn the inhabitants of his arrival so that they can repair their ill-kept roads.  The king of Isaias is the Lord leading back the Jewish captives across the desert from Babylon.  To Matthew the king is Christ and His herald is the Baptist.    4.  The garb of John recalls the appearance of Elias (cf. 4 Kgs. 1, 8).  Certain species of locusts could be eaten legally (cf. Lev. 11, 21 f) and today the Bedawin still relish them.  The wild honey would be either true honey from wild bees or the sweet sap of certain shrubs or trees which was also known by this name.  It was a sign of great mortification and trust in God's providence to subsist on such fortuitous food.    7-10.  This sample of John's preaching of repentance is parallel to Luke 3, 7-9.

7.  On the Pharisees and Sadducees see The New Testament Background.  Brood of vipers: the same invective against the same class of men is used by Christ in 12, 34; 23, 33.  Worthy offspring of their father, the devil (cf. John 8, 44), "the ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, who leads astray the whole world" (Apoc. 12, 9).  These hypocrites also, like a brood of vipers, deceive men to kill their souls with the poison of their false morality.  The wrath to come: eternal damnation (cf. 23, 33), God's judgment on the last day, or its foretype, the slaughter at the destruction of Jerusalem.    8.  Fruit befitting repentance: conduct in keeping with pretended conversion.    9.  Cf. John 8, 33.39 for this boasting of the Jews in their descent from Abraham.  It is only spiritual descent from Abraham, achieved by grace, that counts in God's eyes (cf. Rom. 9, 6 ff).    10.  Christ also employs the figure of the worthless tree that is cut down and burned up, to signify God's rejection and punishment of the wicked (cf. 7, 19.)    11 f.  This sample of John's preaching about the coming Messias parallels Mark 1, 7 f and Luke 3, 16 f. Cf. also John 1, 26 f.33. These words of the Baptist were also known to St. Paul (cf. Acts 13, 25).    11.  Baptize with water: literally, dip into water, immerse.  John's baptism was not a sacrament but a mere symbol giving external expression to the repentance of his converts.  This rite was merely preparatory: Christ on the other hand gives the spiritual reality, the baptizing or immersion of His faithful in the fire of the Holy Spirit.    12.  Winnowing fan: the shovel with which the threshed grain is thrown into the air so that the wind blows aside the lighter chaff while the heavier kernels fall back to the threshing floor.  Christ thus separates the good from the wicked not only on the Last Day but also during life according as men accept or reject His gospel (cf. Luke 2, 34 f; John 9, 39.)

3, 13-17:  The Baptism of Jesus.  Parallels in Mark 1, 9-11 and Luke 3, 21 f; cf. also John 1, 32-34.    13.  Jesus came to be baptized primarily that John might thereby recognize Him and make Him known to Israel (cf. John 1, 31 ff).  Other reasons are also given why Christ wished to be baptized: "that He might cleanse the waters and bestow upon them the power of sanctifying" (St. Thomas, P. 3, q. 39, a. 1); that He who took upon Himself the sins of the world might give us an example of humility and repentance.  We might also consider His baptism as a solemn inauguration of His public ministry, but not in the sense of the rationalists who falsely interpret this scene as the awakening of the Messianic consciousness in Christ.  This latter opinion has not the slightest foundation in the Scriptures and is a denial of the divinity of Christ.    14.  Even before John baptized Jesus he recognized Him at least as a holy person. F or the harmonization of this verse in Matthew with the Baptist's statement in the Fourth Gospel, "And I did not know him," see Commentary on John 1, 31.    15.  To fulfill all justice: to carry out the will of the heavenly Father according to which Christ's baptism was a part of the divine plan of Redemption.    16 f.  Note that this manifestation from heaven takes place not during the baptism of Jesus but only after He had left the water.  The Holy Spirit comes down as a dove upon Christ, for the dove is the traditional symbol of peace and love.  The dove and the voice from heaven were perceived by the Baptist (cf. John 1, 32-34), and probably also by the bystanders, for this manifestation was for our benefit, not for Christ's.  The soul of Jesus possessed the plentitude of grace from His conception as man.  It would therefore be wrong to suppose that on this occasion Jesus received an increase of grace or that He was then chosen for His mission.  A special reason for this manifestation is the intimate connection between the Blessed Trinity and Christian baptism (cf. Matt. 28, 19).    17.  Cf. the words of the heavenly Father at the Transfiguration (17, 5).

Confraternity Bible:

John the Baptist  1 Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the desert of Judea, 2 and saying, "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."  3* For this is he who was spoken of through Isaias the prophet, when he said,
"The voice of one crying in the desert, 'Make ready the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.'" 
4 But John himself had a garment of camel's hair and a leathern girdle about his loins, and his food was locusts and wild honey.  5 Then there went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judea, and all the region about the Jordan; 6 and they were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.

7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, "Brood of vipers! who has shown you how to flee from the wrath to come?  8 Bring forth therefore fruit befitting repentance 9 and do not think to say within yourselves, 'We have Abraham for our father'; for I say to you that God is able out of these stones to raise up children to Abraham.  10 For even now the axe is laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that is not bringing forth good fruit is to be cut down and thrown into the fire.  11 I indeed baptize you with water, for repentance.  But he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to bear.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  12 His winnowing fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly clean out his threshing floor, and will gather his wheat into the barn; but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire."

The Baptism of Jesus  13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John, at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.  14 And John was for hindering him, and said, "It is I who ought to be baptized by thee, and dost thou come to me?  15 But Jesus answered and said to him, "Let it be so now, for so it becomes us to fulfill all justice."  Then he permitted him.  16 And when Jesus had been baptized, he immediately came up from the water.  And behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and coming upon him.  17 And behold, a voice from the heavens said, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."

3: Isa. 40, 3.