Matthew 3:1-12


Reading Matthew With Discernment 

Discerning the Message of Jesus

With some exceptions, the Gospels do not necessarily give the actual words used by Jesus.
Jesus spoke Aramaic. The Gospels were written in Greek; and, for English readers, they have then been translated from Greek into English. Unfortunately, no translation can capture exactly the nuance of another language.
Matthew (and Luke) drew freely from the earlier Gospel written by Mark, and shared another longer document no longer in existence. They used their sources creatively. Passages that occur in the three Gospels rarely coincide word for word.
A further more important factor needs to be taken into consideration – the capacity of a person to understand the message of another, to make sense of it, and then, as required, to convey that message to others. People “hear” others according to their own capacity to understand and make sense of what is said. Their capacity to understand and to make sense is affected by a number of factors, including: 
  • their maturity, 
  • their culture, 
  • their language, 
  • their biases, fears and hopes (often unnoticed). 
They “hear” what they think the other says.
Matthew, no doubt, recounted what he believed Jesus said. He was not overly concerned to give the actual words (or their Greek translation), but he conveyed what he truly thought was their meaning. He worked within a community already familiar with the tradition and concerned to maintain its integrity. Their acceptance of his work provided the guarantee of its reliability.
Matthew was a product of his time and culture. He shared the mindset of the period – with its strengths and limitations. The inspiration of God’s Spirit respected Matthew’s humanity and worked within the confines of his cultural and intellectual development.
Today, as readers try to get beyond the words and meanings of Matthew to discover the mind and the heart of Jesus, they need to allow the same Spirit of God to work through their own human strengths and weaknesses, their levels of maturity and their general familiarity with the Scriptures. They do this through their own careful reading, reflection and prayer. In doing so, they need to situate their conclusions within the broader context of the believing Christian community. Private interpretation bows wisely to the discernment of the community.

Specific Issues

Some of the issues, where today’s readers might query seriously the interpretation adopted by Matthew, include the following:
Matthew’s apocalyptic view of God’s Kingdom. Apocalyptic thinking was the common framework of contemporary Jewish writing at the time of Matthew. In Matthew’s mind, worldly kingdoms were evil and totally resistant to gradual change from within. People felt so powerless before the oppressive might of the empires or kingdoms of the time, that they believed their only hope for justice lay in a definitive intervention of God to crush oppressive regimes, and to establish, once and for all, God’s own Kingdom. The early disciples believed that God’s intervention was imminent, as was the return of Christ. People needed to choose urgently to which kingdom they would belong. Their choice for God’s Kingdom meant personal conversion, living according to the values preached by Jesus, and dissociating from the ways of the world - by discipleship within the community of believers. They did not see their Christian task to improve the world and its structures by actively working for justice, but to make disciples and to call them into the alternative community of believers.
Simple Analysis. Apocalyptic thinking tended to interpret things in strict categories of good and evil, right or wrong. People were one or the other. Such thinking could not come to terms with the reality of human nature where, in fact, people are neither totally good nor totally evil, but an ever-changing mixture of both. It allowed little or no room for growth or for gradual conversion. It coped more easily with “either/or” than with “both/and” analyses.
This problem extended also to the ways people categorised groups. A whole group could be labelled as good or bad, depending on the judgment made of the behaviour of some few members of the group. Consistently, Matthew spoke of Pharisees as though they were all the same. He condemned all on the basis of the opposition of some.
Confusing Behaviour and the Person. Again and again, Matthew read Jesus’ criticisms of behaviour as condemnation of people who acted that way. He would critique Pharisees, for example, as though they were all hypocrites.
External Rewards and Punishments. Within the cultural approach of the time, most people thought of the outcomes of their behaviour in terms of external rewards or punishments. God would reward the good and punish the evil (on the presumption that they were clearly one or the other and not, as is normally the case, varying mixtures of both). As well, apocalyptic thought tended to relish more the imaginative and colourful descriptions of punishment than of the reward. With such a mindset, God’s forgiveness could only be temporary. Eventually, forgiveness would give way to punishment.
Matthew's depiction of the dire outcomes of inappropriate behaviour should not be read as God's eternal punishments.  They usually describe [in colourful language] the violence, suffering and chaos of this world when rivalry, conflict and violence run their inevitable course.
Along with many authors of his day, Matthew could not see that God’s love and faithfulness endured forever, or that the outcomes of people’s lives would be precisely the personal, undistracted and intense experience of the choices they made in this life. Mature people today realise that, if they allow themselves to be loved and forgiven, they would experience love and forgiveness forever. If they refuse to move beyond their own narrow boundaries, and to undergo the necessary death to self and the radical surrender of control involved in loving and being loved, they would remain unloving, self-focussed, lonely and isolated in eternity.
Matthew was convinced of the importance and urgency of people’s choosing the Kingdom, on the one hand, and of the need to express that choice consistently in appropriate behaviour, on the other. In this, no doubt, he reflected accurately the attitude of Jesus. Given the general difficulty in the culture to handle complexity, however, his own way to motivate people to both choice and consistency was to threaten them with eventual chaos and suffering, understood wrongly as God's punishment rather than the outcome of their personal choices.
Generalizations. Matthew and his community had experienced vigorous opposition and ostracism from their local Jewish synagogues. Much of this opposition was due to the efforts of many Pharisees of the time to preserve Judaism from losing its sense of identity after the chaotic destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (and the consequent redundancy of the Jewish priesthood). They insisted on strict conformity in matters of religious faith and moral practice, and saw the Christian movement as a threat to unity and cohesion.
Obviously, Matthew felt strongly about the local Pharisees who opposed his Christian community. In line with the conventions of his day, he attacked personally, not just their attitudes, but their characters, and extended his abuse to Pharisees in general. Apparently, he assumed that Jesus would have felt and responded as he did. He understood and conveyed Jesus’ references to Pharisees according to his own extreme stance. Indeed, his abuse of local Pharisees extended, not only to Pharisees in general, but even to Jews as a whole.
Unfortunately, later generations of Christians have sometimes taken more notice of Matthew’s opposition to Pharisees and Jews, than of the fact that Jesus was himself Jewish, as were most of the earliest disciples. His generalised abuse was sometimes used as an excuse for anti-Semitism.

Foreshadowing the Story – 2

Baptism and Temptations


Matthew gave no indication of how much time passed between Jesus’ going to Nazareth as a young child and the beginning of the ministry of John the Baptist. He said nothing of Jesus’ boyhood, because he knew nothing about it. From the total absence of any references to Joseph in the later narrative of Jesus’ public life, it would seem that he must have died in the interim. Matthew refrained even from calling Jesus a carpenter, though he would note that carpentry was his father’s occupation; and according to the custom of the time, sons normally adopted the vocation of their fathers.


The Baptist’s Role – Preparing the Way

At this stage of his narrative, Matthew relied on the earlier Gospel of Mark, though he used it freely, changing the order for the sake of greater clarity.


Matthew 3:1-12     The Proclamation of John the Baptist

[Mk 1:2-8; Lk 3:1-20]

1 The time came when John the Baptist appeared,
proclaiming this message in the Judean desert,
2 "Change your hearts, for the kingdom of the heavens has drawn near."
3 He is the one spoken of through Isaiah the prophet in the words:
'The voice of one crying out in the desert:
Get ready the way of the Lord, straighten out his paths'.
4 For his part, John wore clothes of camel hair,
with a leather belt around his waist.  
His food was locusts and wild honey.
5 Jerusalem, all of Judea and the whole district around the Jordan
came out to him. 
6 Publicly acknowledging their sins,
they were baptised by him in the Jordan river.

John announced the imminent coming of the Kingdom of the heavens. Consistently throughout his Gospel, out of customary Jewish deference to the name of God, Matthew would use the term Kingdom of the heavens in preference to Mark’s simpler Kingdom of God. 

Obviously, John considered the present social and religious structures as not reflecting the values proper to the Kingdom of the heavens  The whole country was under Roman occupation, with Galilee administered by the Roman puppet, the tetrarch Herod Antipas. Peasants were crippled by heavy taxation and debts. Arbitrary violence was the norm, even though Rome boasted that it had brought the “Pax Romana” (Roman peace) to its subject peoples. Certainly, it was a sort of peace, but one that favoured the wealthy and powerful elites.

The oppressive poverty of the majority ensured that sickness and disease were widespread throughout the region.

The religious authorities collaborated with the Roman administration in the interests of preserving “peace”. There were constant calls for religious reform: 

  • Pharisees sought to apply the Torah to the changing situation of the day.
  • Essenes despaired of reform and withdrew from public life altogether, to found their monastic communities down by the Dead Sea.
  • Zealots hoped for political liberation from Rome, though their sporadic active resistance did not become organised or general until some time after the deaths of John and Jesus.  

The ordinary people were regarded, generally, as sinners, and socially were relegated to the margins by the religious and social elites.

Contrary to general prophetic expectation, which saw Israel’s future tied to triumph and its vindication focussed on Jerusalem, John worked on the margins. He appeared in the Judean desert. Centuries before, Isaiah had proclaimed the return of the Babylonian exiles across the desert towards Jerusalem. Matthew (following Mark) interpreted the Baptist’s ministry in the desert as fulfilling the role of Isaiah’s messenger. 

John called for change of heart in response to the imminence of the Kingdom. He challenged the nation as a whole, rather than specific individuals (though their cooperation would be critical for change to happen). Radical change was needed: God’s Kingdom needed to replace the present kingdom, not by a change merely of its leadership, but by a radical and generalized transformation in social relationships, values, customs and lifestyles. Assumptions needed to be questioned; familiar ways of relating in society needed to be challenged; the insights that were basic to Israel’s reality as a covenant people needed to be rediscovered; and people’s sense of God needed to be purified and deepened.

John’s garb was reminiscent of the prophet Elijah’s. Later in the Gospel [17:13], Jesus would remark that John was indeed “Elijah returned”, who had appeared again to prepare Israel for the imminent coming of the Day of the Lord. Reflecting on the significance of Elijah, the Book of Sirach declared:

Then Elijah arose, a prophet like fire...
You were taken up by a whirlwind of fire,
in a chariot with horses of fire.
At the appointed time, it is written, you are destined
to calm the wrath of God before it breaks out in fury,
to turn the hearts of parents to their children,
and to restore the tribes of Jacob. [Sirach 48:1, 9-10]

John’s ministry attracted considerable crowds. Contrary to the prophets’ dreams of people streaming across the wilderness towards Jerusalem, people streamed out from Jerusalem towards the desert to hear the message of John.

How did John come to Recognise and to Accept his Mission?

Most readers’ attitudes to John are inevitably affected by Luke’s Infancy Narrative. There, Luke made a number of claims about John:

  • John’s conception was due to a particular intervention by God.
  • John was a cousin of Jesus. 
  • Zechariah, his father, was inspired to name him a prophet, marked out "to go before the Lord to prepare his way",

Against that background, it would be natural enough to assume that John was conscious of his unique role throughout all his life. But Matthew was not Luke. There is no particular reason to assume that Luke was conveying historical facts about John, rather than merely preparing his readers to understand him.

John’s insights and sense of personal authority must, therefore, have come from within his own spirit, triggered by:

  • his sense of the prophetic tradition, and hope in the saving will of God,
  • his sensitivity to the movement of God’s Spirit within him,
  • his reading of the signs of his own times,
  • and his freedom of spirit and courage to challenge the structures of power.

At the same time, while sensitive to the prophetic tradition, he was not tied into the details of their prophecies. Rather, it was the prophets’ sense of the heart of God that he shared.

Perhaps he shared, too, something of the courage and hope of Elijah, who confronted kings and was not dismayed by the faithlessness which he saw surrounding him. John’s recognition of a similarity of vocation and of spirit may have been his reason for dressing like Elijah.

People expressed their openness to change by being baptised by John in the Jordan River. Mark had connected their baptism with the forgiveness of their sins. Matthew stopped short of making that claim. He simply commented that people acknowledged their sins. He guarded forgiveness as Jesus’ domain.

Ritual cleansings were common activities in the culture. John’s differed from others in that it occurred out in the desert, and seems to have been performed only once. More significantly it differed in its purpose and meaning.

7 When he saw crowds of Pharisees and Sadducees coming for his baptism,
he said to them,
"You offspring of snakes,
who suggested to you to escape the fury that is coming? 
8 Well then, produce fruit fitting a change of heart. 
9 Do not think to yourselves, 'We have Abraham for our father’.  
I tell you that God can raise up children of Abraham from these stones.
10 Right now, the axe is being laid to the root of the trees.  
Every tree not bearing good fruit is being cut down and thrown on the fire.

Mark’s Gospel had given no account of the content of John’s preaching. For that, Matthew drew on another source which he shared with Luke. He modified it, however, to include Pharisees along with the Sadducees mentioned by Mark. Frequently in his narrative, Matthew would specify Pharisees and Sadducees for explicit condemnation. His attitude reflected the bitterness in his own community of disciples, occasioned by problems with the more argumentative members of local synagogues under the leadership of Pharisees.

John’s threats to the Pharisees resonated with Matthew’s own concern about the non-negotiable priority of action over other considerations of ethnicity, orthodoxy or status. Deep change, expressed through consistent behaviour, was critical. The present translation reads that the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism. Other scholars believe that the phrase could be translated as coming, not for baptism, but to oppose John’s baptism. That would serve better to explain his immediate verbal attack on them. 

Some Pharisees’ Response to John

Given the general restlessness of the times, perhaps it was not surprising that some Jerusalem Pharisees and Sadducees, conceivably members of the Sanhedrin, came to examine John’s practice. Commonly, those in the corridors of power are sensitive to issues of authority, and resistant to what they perceive as possible challenges to it. 

How do people generally assess the authenticity of otherwise competing claims? With the Pharisees, their criteria were authority and tradition. They were sons of Abraham, and they knew how things had always been done – their way.

John challenged them by another standard – their fruits. Jesus would use the same standard later in the Gospel. The issue would have retained its relevance for Matthew’s community of disciples in their arguments with members of their local synagogues. What mattered was, not external continuity with the way things had been, but inner faithfulness to the Spirit of God, a faithfulness that, of necessity, found expression in their actions.

The question retains its relevance in the Church today. How can new movements and practices be assessed? One instinctive response is to check “by what authority” and its conformity to the external shapes taken by the tradition. Another response might be to examine the inner truth of what is proposed - its relationship to the heart of the tradition - and to check its effects on the lives of those involved.

11 I am baptising you in water for a change of heart.  
But the one who is following me is stronger than I;
indeed I am not worthy to carry his sandals.  
He will baptise you in the Holy Spirit and in fire. 
12 His threshing shovel is in his hand
and he will thoroughly clean his threshing floor.  
He will gather the grain into the silo,
but the chaff he will burn up in unquenchable fire."

John referred to one who would follow him, one stronger than he. Actually, in the language of the Scriptures, to follow means to become a disciple [4:20,22]. It is not primarily a time reference. Though he might come as a disciple of John, this one’s ministry would surpass John’s in its power. He would baptise in the Holy Spirit and fire. Within the culture, water, fire and spirit were all seen as primal elements. John would seem to be referring to a baptism that would, indeed, be effective. Both spirit and fire could be connected with purification (salvation) and punishment. He left the outcome open. It would be up to people themselves to decide whether they associated themselves with the grain or the chaff. The outcome would depend on their active repentance.

Next >> Matthew 3:13-17