Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Matthew 3:1-12
God sent Jesus to the earth to bring His Kingdom and provide salvation for people to enter into it. There are many false sources of “truth” and hope in the world, but only one Jesus and only one message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!”
[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]
Introducing the Gospel of Matthew
I’m not ashamed to admit that when I first went to seminary as a rather biblically illiterate 25-yr-old, I was extremely interested in the book of Matthew for entirely selfish reasons (editor's note for those of you who don't know -- my name is Matthew). Everything was still a competition for me, so if I had been named after the best book, I would have a leg up on the other students. That's how that works, right? I learned everything I could about Matthew, and after all that, it is still my favorite book of the Bible (the rest are pretty good too).
Who Wrote Matthew and When?
If you’re like me, the controversy over this book is pretty incomprehensible. I also have come to believe that most Baptists take the conservative approach to these matters, so you probably won’t have to bring any of this up. But just in case, let me summarize the issue as best I can.
The document is anonymous, but the earliest evidence is unanimous that Matthew the disciple wrote Matthew the Gospel. Papias, a hearer of John, said so, as did the early church leader Irenaeus. So what’s the controversy? There are two.
Those early sources seem to say that Matthew collected the oral tradition in Hebrew. But language experts says that the Gospel of Matthew was clearly originally written in Greek and not translated from any other language (the Greek idioms are basically perfect). So, whatever Matthew wrote, those critical scholars say it was not the first Gospel.
Have you heard of Q? It cannot be avoided that Matthew, Mark, and Luke share some real commonalities. In fact, in some of their stories (“pericopes”), they are word-for-word identical.
Well, that led some critical scholars to come up with an origin story for the Bible: there were two early written documents, namely Mark and a lost document Q; the authors of Matthew and Luke took those documents and turned them into new Gospels. A popular compromise is to say that the author of Matthew took the Hebrew collection that the real Matthew compiled and combined it with Mark and Q, leaving Matthew’s name attached to this Gospel. (You can read my introductions to Mark and Luke, linked below, for more.)
Here are my responses to that.
Those early sources don’t have to mean that Matthew wrote in the Hebrew language, but that he wrote in a Hebrew framework. Jews and Greeks organized their thoughts differently, made arguments differently, viewed the world differently. Matthew wrote as a Hebrew.
This theory is based purely on speculation. No one has ever found the Q document or anything like it. Jesus’ followers would have been writing things down as they went along, and there’s no reason to believe they wouldn’t have compared notes and chosen the best “memoir” of an event; but that’s not what critical scholars are talking about when they mention Q.
As you can tell, I believe that Matthew the disciple wrote Matthew the Gospel, and he did so in Greek. As a tax collector for the Romans, he would have had to be fluent in both languages. The structure of the Gospel is so complex and careful as to imply a very educated and analytical author; who better in that day than a tax collector? But there’s more . . .
The earliest evidence says that Matthew was the first Gospel to be written, but based on the previous section, you can see where the controversy is going. Critical scholars say that Matthew was clearly dependent on Mark, and not the other way around, and those same scholars say that Mark was not written until the late 60s. They also say that the description of the fall of Jerusalem is so accurate as to have been written after the event, and the anti-Jewish rhetoric implies a very late date (after relations between the two had really soured).
As before, I am extremely unconvinced by those arguments. Of course the predictions are accurate! If anything, the fact that Matthew did not include an author’s note like “and this is what happened” as he does elsewhere tells me that he wrote long before the war against Jerusalem fired up. That war pretty much wiped out the Sadducees, and Matthew speaks of them without qualification. There is no mention of Paul’s writings, which would otherwise make perfect sense to include here. As for the connection with Mark, my theory is that the two of them had time together in Jerusalem, and they started working on their Gospels together before finishing them apart. Both could have been released in the 50s, and Luke would have consulted them as credible eyewitness testimonies when we wrote his Gospel not much later. [Note that when you read my introductions to the other Gospels, you'll see different information that points to different possibilities. I've decided that evidence can be used to support any number of theories, and none of it materially affects our interpretation of the Gospels. It's fascinating to study, but nothing to lose sleep over.]
The Purpose and Structure of Matthew
When we studied Hebrews, I tried to encourage us to place every lesson in the larger framework of the letter to help us understand the meaning of each part. Matthew is every bit as well-organized as Hebrews, so much of my explanations will simply be putting things in context. Matthew wrote as a Hebrew to Hebrews. As a result, the primary theme of the Gospel is demonstrating that Jesus is the prophesied Messiah and fulfillment of the Old Testament. There are lots of references to Scripture, to Jewish custom and law, and to Hebrew modes of thinking. But it’s not just about looking back, but also looking ahead. In the Jews, God wasn’t creating an ethnic nation, but showing the world the Kingdom of God, which would now be realized in a new community, the Church. Therefore, Matthew’s second theme is to summarize Jesus’ teaching on the ethic and identity of the people of the Kingdom of God. Who does God want us to be? How is it different from being a Jew? What about the sacrifices and the Law and the prophets? Matthew, by structuring his Gospel as he does, first gives Jesus’ answers to those questions, then demonstrates how Jesus proved His authority to give those answers. The radicalness of the Sermon on the Mount? Backed up by a series of miracles. His controversial teachings on how to enter heaven? Backed up by His mastery over the religious “experts” of the day. And so on . . .
Why Start in Matthew 3?
I suspect the real reason is they wanted to be studying the Nativity Narratives at Christmas, but we can work with this.
There are some famous lists of qualifications out there. For example, to be President of the United States, you have to be a natural-born citizen, have lived in the US for 14 years, and be at least 35 years old. If you don’t meet those criteria, you can’t be elected President. But most jobs have such a list. Here’s what you said about my job: 5 years experience, “simple church” philosophy, family-based approach to ministry, master’s seminary degree, ordained Southern Baptist. What was the point? “If you don’t meet these expectations, you don’t need to apply.” This is a wise business practice, and it saves much time on the part of the search committee/hiring department. It might be fun to talk about some of the stranger qualification lists you’ve seen for jobs or positions. (Don’t get bogged down into how such lists have also been used to discriminate; that’s not at all what God was doing with His job description for Messiah!)
The Messiah also had a job description and a long list of qualifications. Anyone who didn’t meet each one could claim all he wanted that he was the messiah, but a careful observer would know straight away that he was an imposter.
This Week's Big Idea: Qualifications of the Messiah
Having a forerunner in the mode of Elijah (see the sidebar on the next page) was only one of many qualifications the Jews were expecting of the Messiah. (1) Born of a virgin (Isa 7, although this was understood in several different ways by Jewish teachers). (2) Born of the line of David (Mic 5:2). (3) Born in Bethlehem (Mic 5:2). (4) Primary ministry in Galilee (Isa 9). (5) Would teach in parables (Psa 78). (6) Rejected by His own people (Isa 53). (7) Would enter Jerusalem on a donkey (Zech 9:9). And then there are all of the prophesies about His betrayal, trial, death, and resurrection.
Jewish readers would have been looking for each one of those characteristics, plus the many more that aren’t listed above, and there are places in Matthew and John where the people debate those very things! For example, the controversy in John 7 comes about because the people thought Jesus was born in Nazareth. If someone did not meet all of the given criteria for the Messiah, he could not be the Messiah!
So what does Matthew do in his Gospel? Start with a genealogy that traces Jesus directly to David, then say that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (Matthew just worries about the “what”; Luke goes into the “why”), then say that they moved to Nazareth, then introduce John the Baptist. Frankly, it’s the only way such a story could begin. If Matthew wants to prove to his Jewish audience that Jesus is their Messiah, Matthew must establish these details immediately. Over the course of the rest of the Gospel, he will continue to point out how little details fulfill more and more of Old Testament prophecy.
Part 1: Preparing the Way (Matthew 3:1-6)
1 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near!” 3 For he is the one spoken of through the prophet Isaiah, who said:
A voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight!
4 Now John had a camel-hair garment with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then people from Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the vicinity of the Jordan were going out to him, 6 and they were baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.
Your leader guide gives the illustration of the backyard garden and the amount of work it takes to turn an untended yard into a producing garden. I like that a lot. God had intended His people to be a blessing, producing spiritual fruit for the whole world. They had failed, so some work would have to be done, removing the weeds and tilling the soil for a new gospel seed to be planted. John the Baptist was chosen to be the first of those laborers.
According to Luke 3:1, we’re probably around 27-28 AD, or 30 years after chapter 2. Actually, Luke tells us everything we really know about John! Matthew focused on his message: repent! We know that in the Greek, this word means “to change one’s mind.” But John was most certainly speaking from a Hebrew mind and not a Greek one. In the Hebrew, the related concept specifically meant “to turn away from sin.” But to Matthew, not only the action but also the motivation was critical: because the kingdom of heaven has come near! In the other Gospels, the phrase is “the kingdom of God.” I was taught that Matthew changed this phrase out of respect for his Jewish audience who would have blanched at so many direct references to God, but there is no question that he means the same thing. The kingdom of heaven represented God’s active rule. Jews would have welcomed that, but John prefaced it with “repent” as a clear warning: “God is coming, and if you don’t change it won’t go well for you.” That is not what they expected to hear, especially the Pharisees who thought they were as close to God as any Jews in history! This would have ruffled the leaders’ feathers, but it would have spoken well to the common people who already had doubts about the programs and regimes coming out of Jerusalem. Matthew will explain this message throughout his Gospel: the Pharisees command you to work harder to keep the Law, but Jesus says to come to Him and rest. It is just as much a sin to work for salvation as it is to commit adultery! God’s chosen people needed to repent. We still need to repent today. Talk about the things we need to repent from in America today!
I know this means I won’t get through the whole lesson, but these verses are so rich! Matthew describes John as the type of wilderness preacher that recalled Elijah in his power. Camel hair had the practical traits of being a good insulator and absorbing water, making it good desert wear. But its importance here is the fact that it is terribly uncomfortable, coarse, itchy, and unrelenting. Only ascetics wore camel hair, and only those truly committed to their message were ascetics. Jews flocked to him from all around because it had been so long since anyone had seen a true prophet that they did not know what to look for, and John seemed to fit the bill. The people had grown tired of the Sadducees’ political scheming and the Pharisees’ law-keeping; John’s message of repentance with power spoke to them. (I think we’re seeing the same thing in our world today—young people see through our obsession with politics or pretty buildings; they want to see the evidence of the power of the Holy Spirit. John would do well here!)
John’s location at the Jordan River was a good 20 miles from Jerusalem, and it was a dangerous road to get there (the Jericho Road - see the Parable of the Good Samaritan). Matthew includes this detail to make John’s popularity clear. They came to him to be baptized in the river (one of the reasons why Baptists baptize by immersion, but let me say this about those Baptist historians who try to trace us back to John the Baptist: I want to be traced back to Jesus, not him!). Baptism was not something new to Jews. They had long baptized adult Gentile converts. But by baptizing adult Jews, John was declaring to the world that it was not enough to be a Jew by birth! You must repent and actively pursue the kingdom of God. The act of baptism demonstrated that these people were not satisfied with their ethnicity but wanted to follow God completely. When Jesus came along, He took this practice and put it in His name so that the people would understand exactly who it was they followed.
More about John the Baptist
John doesn’t get the love he should because he didn’t write his own book (I guess), but he is just about the most important person in the entire Bible. Jesus said of him, “I tell you the truth, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist . . . For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.” (Matt 11:11, 13)
The last prophet of the Old Testament was Malachi, some 400 years before Jesus (I say to mimic the years spent in Egypt), and here are the final words of God: “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers” (Mal 4:5-6). This means that the people were as much looking for Elijah as they were for the Messiah because they knew that Elijah must come first. Matthew makes it very clear that Elijah did come: John the Baptist.
The Desert of Judea is where we found the Dead Sea Scrolls; it was inhabited by ascetics and zealots, which is often how John’s strange attire and behavior is explained. The dominant group in the area was the Essenes, a rather radical group. They had an elaborate admission ritual which included ceremonial washing, and some have wondered if that’s where John got his idea for baptism. (Jesus kept it, so it must have been okay.) John was the ultimate check-box for Jesus, made all the more potent by Luke’s discovery that the two were related. No John/Elijah, no Messiah.
Part 2: Proclaiming the Truth (Matthew 3:7-10)
7 When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Therefore produce fruit consistent with repentance. 9 And don’t presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
Speaking of which, the next thing we see is John confronting the Jewish leaders about their hypocrisy and false directives. I give you more information about Pharisees and Sadducees on the back page, but the fact that both groups came in investigate John proves his widespread influence. The Sadducees wanted to preserve their power, so they were threatened by a grassroots Jewish movement; the Pharisees were the teachers of the day, so they were threatened by an unsanctioned rabbi. John didn’t have time for their games, so he cut to the chase with (1) the accusation that they came to him with selfish motives, (2) the command that they must also repent, (3) the correction that their ethnicity was not as valuable as they thought, and (4) the warning the judgment would come even on them. Not a very politically correct confrontation! The illustration he uses is very powerful: an ax at the root of a tree. No farmer would cut down a good fruit tree. And no woodsman would burn a tree that was good for lumber. The only trees that would be burned were those truly useless. Ouch!
Your leader guide is on the right track applying these words to us today. Why have we come to Jesus? What is the fruit of our repentance? On what do we base our favored relationship with God? What are the priorities in our lives and churches? John’s message calls us to reevaluate everything we think about salvation. Blessedly, this theme comes up regularly in our church, so I think we’re in much better shape than the Sadducees and Pharisees, but the truth is that lots of people still come to church for the wrong reasons and with the wrong expectations . . .
On the one hand, we should all be disturbed by the very clear trend that church membership doesn’t mean what it once did (or membership in other organizations, for that matter). Being an active part of the body of Christ doesn’t seem to be a priority. That’s bad. If there is anything good about that, it is that we have fewer "Pharisees" who think that their church membership or church involvement somehow impresses God. It doesn’t.
Part 3: Pointing to the King (Matthew 3:11-12)
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is more powerful than I. I am not worthy to remove[d] his sandals. He himself will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing shovel is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn. But the chaff he will burn with fire that never goes out.”
John understood his role, and it is a role that each one of us still has today. John understood that, like us, he could only deal with the outward. That’s what “baptism with water” is—an outward symbol. Jesus deals with our soul—His power is dealing with the inward reality. This is just about the clearest statement in the Bible that baptism doesn’t save anyone; only Jesus saves. Saying that he was not even “worthy to remove His sandals” is as self-debasing as possible, for the lowest slave was given the task of caring for crusty, stinky, dirty feet. (This image will show up again at the Last Supper.)
Then John gives one more graphic image, moving from a worthless tree to worthless chaff. Farmers would cut down stalks of wheat with a sickle, bind them together into sheaves and leave them out to dry, then take them to a threshing floor where they would beat the sheaves to loosen the kernels of wheat. Finally, they would take a type of shovel and toss the remaining pile into the air where the wind would carry away the husks and other plant material (chaff) leaving only good wheat. If you think you’re “wheat,” this image doesn’t bother you at all. But John’s point to the Pharisees and Sadducees was that they weren’t wheat, regardless of what they think. Though they could fool a mere man like John, they couldn’t fool the living God. John’s job wasn’t to judge the heart but only to proclaim the message. Jesus would come along soon enough to judge the heart. And don’t overlook that John has now mentioned “fire” twice with respect to rejecting Jesus.
That’s still our job today. We are messengers like John. We have the truth and we must declare the truth. We do not have the power to send someone to heaven or keep them out of heaven (our baptism in our churches is just a symbol), but we do have the message of salvation. We point people to Jesus. This season, as much as any throughout the year, people are interested in Jesus. They like a cute baby in a manger. But we have to tell them that Jesus is still God of eternity, and He has every soul in His hand.
But Matthew is building a very strong case that Jesus is indeed the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament! When John speaks as His forerunner, we can and should listen! Be preparing your hearts for Jesus’ birthday celebration!
Closing Thoughts: Pharisees and Sadducees
In the books of the Maccabees (which are not considered canon by Protestants but which are our best source of the history of this era) we learn that the Jews who did not want to become Greeks (i.e. adopt Greek culture) finally led a revolt against the Greeks. Because both the Ptolemies and Seleucids were greatly weakened by this point and fighting in other areas, and because the Jews adopted very effective guerrilla techniques, the Greeks walked away leaving the Jews free.
There were two major schools of thought in Jerusalem at this point: one group said they should press their advantage and liberate more regions around them, expanding Jewish influence; they ultimately morphed into the group we know as Sadducees. The other group said that such a policy was dangerous and would bring vengeance, that instead they should focus on getting their act together and restoring the blessings of God; they became the group called Pharisees.
Over time, the two groups coalesced around religious themes. Pharisees, obviously, were the more conservative with respect to the Law. Sadducees were more liberal, rejecting doctrines such as the resurrection. As with political parties, their influence waxed and waned. Sadducee power took a major hit with the coming of Rome, but slowly grew as people became more and more frustrated with Roman rule. In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees were considered the authority on doctrine and ethic, dominating the Sanhedrin; but by Paul’s day, Sadducees were wielding more power in that body (which is why he could play them against each other so easily). In the 60s, Nero’s reign had been a disaster for Rome, emboldening a number of revolts across the Empire. In the “anarchy,” a Roman governor stole silver from the Temple, pushing the Sadducees to incite full rebellion. Because Rome’s attention was elsewhere, they achieved victories. But then Rome sent a full army into Jerusalem, and that was the end of a Jewish nation for 2000 years.