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Bible: What Does Matthew 3 Teach Us About John the Baptizer?

Updated on September 15, 2016

Matthew 3: The Ministry of John the Baptizer/Jesus' Immersion

John the Baptizer's Message of Repentance

Matthew introduces John the Baptist as a preacher of repentance who “held forth” from the desert; this locale—“the wilderness of Judea”—extends “along the W. shore of the Dead Sea” (v. 1; Ryrie, New Testament Study Bible, 10).

John’s message—that of repentance (metanoia- meta [change]; nous [mind])­­—demands that the people change their mind, specifically here about their sinfulness as it pertains to their relationship to a holy God.

Given the preceding context’s emphasis on Jesus’ lineage, Matthew’s “kingdom of heaven” must refer to the earthly reign of the promised Messiah (v. 2).

Verse 3 indicates that John fulfilled Isaiah 40:3: part of a prophecy foretelling the coming of a wilderness “voice” (synecdoche-“a figure of speech that substitutes a part for the whole or a whole for the part”) that commands Israel to prepare for Messiah’s rule.

Assessing clues from his dress and diet, an observer might suspect John to be the rustic, ascetic type (v. 4); nevertheless, God used him to draw multitudes seeking to get right with Him (vv. 5-6).

By totally immersing penitent sinners in the Jordan River, the prophet symbolizes both their spiritual preparedness to receive cleansing from their transgressions and their identification with the coming King and kingdom (v. 6).

Jesus and Pharisees


John Confronts the Jewish Religionists

On the other hand, Pharisees and Sadducees—Jewish religionists, curious about the fiery preacher—he excoriated, being fully aware that these self-righteous hypocrites had no intention of repenting from sins (of which they apparently had no consciousness), though he gave them the opportunity to do so (vv. 7-8).

Immediately, John confronts their belief that they had no need for justification because they were Abraham’s children (Jews, God’s chosen people; v. 9; see Ryrie 10 for more extensive notes).

He directs toward them his metaphor of the fruitless trees severed at the root—a figure of speech picturing judgment (v. 10)—, and then returns briefly to the subject of repentance, signifying it as the only way for them to escape that destiny (v. 11a).


Baptism by Immersion

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John Draws The Audience's Attention to Jesus

Drawing their attention away from himself, John straightway points them toward a Greater One, the Messiah, whose baptism will involve the Holy Spirit and fire (v. 11b).

John must have been speaking to the crowds about the Spirit’s baptizing ministry in general terms here.

This baptism identifies believers/wheat with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection, and portends the burning of unbelievers/chaff in a horrific, fiery punishment (v. 12).

[Should readers understand this latter metaphor as a proof text for the doctrine of the annihilationism of unbelievers?

Or should they put more weight upon the many other passages that clearly speak of the conscious, eternal punishment of the unsaved?

I believe interpreters should resist taking the analogy to the extreme position of annihilationism.]

Jesus' Baptism by Immersion

Now Jesus appears on the scene at the Jordan, and expects John to baptize Him (v. 13).

Confused by this desire, John questions the Lord, arguing that they ought to reverse their roles in this matter (v. 14).

[God oftentimes permits events that confuse His people, some of whom consider His will to be contrary to righteousness.

On these occasions, He asks them to trust His judgment and simply to believe that He infallibly knows what is the right thing to do.

He wants them to realize and accept that He can see the big picture, and they cannot.]

After hearing Jesus’ explanation, John characteristically submits to the Lord’s will, and he baptizes Him “to fulfill all righteousness” (v. 15).

[Perhaps with this ceremonial ritual, Jesus identifies Himself with His people as their Sin-Bearer, thus fulfilling a righteous requirement and pleasing God the Father (v. 17)].

Verses 16-17 provide an excellent example of the separate operations or functions of the three Persons of the Triune Godhead:

(1) The Son submits to baptism by immersion (complete submersion under water) as the Sin-Bearer;

(2) The Spirit, appearing to Jesus (or perhaps to John) as a dove (representing peace/reconciliation?), bears witness to and identifies Jesus as the Substitute;

(3) The Father voices His approval of His Son’s work.

© 2012 glynch1


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