Matthew skips approximately thirty years from the end of chapter 2 to the beginning of chapter 3. The scene shifts from Nazareth to the wilderness of Judea and John the Baptist moves to center stage. Matthew 3:1-4:11 describe the preparation for Jesus’ ministry and Matthew 4:12-25 introduce Jesus’ Galilean ministry.
Preparation for Ministry - Matthew 3:1-4:11
At the end of Matthew 2 Jesus was a small child in Nazareth. Beginning in Matthew 4:12 Jesus begins his ministry as an adult in Galilee. Between are the three sections that compose Matthew’s treatment of the preparation for Jesus’ ministry. 3:1-12 presents the ministry and message of John the Baptist. 3:13-17 describe the baptism of Jesus by John and 4:1-11 contain the narrative of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.
The Ministry of John the Baptist - Matthew 3:1-12
Luke introduces the ministry of John the Baptist with a careful historical introduction listing the year, the emperor, the rulers of the surrounding territories, and the high priest who was in office. Matthew introduces John’s ministry with a very general, "in those days." The point is not that Matthew was unaware of the interval of about thirty years that he is passing over. Rather, his purpose was to show that the birth of Christ and the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry are part of the same flow of God’s activity in salvation history. There are two major sections within this passage. Verses 1-6 introduce the ministry of John the Baptist while verses 7-12 summarize the message of John.
Matthew states that John the Baptist came preaching or proclaiming. The Greek word referred to public proclamation. The content will be given in the following verses, but it is important to note that John’s message was not a private matter nor a message confined to a small circle of "in people." It was public proclamation even though it took place "in the wilderness of Judea."
The wilderness of Judea was east of Jerusalem and west of the Dead Sea and the lower Jordan valley. The Greek word for "wilderness" is often translated desert, but the idea of the word is not simply a hot and dry place, but a deserted place. There was considerable travel along the edges of the Judean desert and John’s ministry likely took place somewhere near Jericho on the Jordan River. There would have been plenty of "traffic" in the vicinity.
Verse 2 states that John’s message was, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." Of the four gospels only Matthew uses the form of a direct quotation to summarize John’s message. He will use the exact same form and words to introduce the preaching ministry of Jesus in 4:17. The words "repent" and "repentance," both coming from the same root word in Hebrew, had an important history in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word used by the prophets literally meant "to turn around." The biblical concept of repentance is sometimes confused with confession in the modern evangelical churches. The New Testament was under no such delusion. Repentance is not expressing regret for sin (saying you are sorry); it is changing the direction of one’s life.
The announcement by John that the kingdom of heaven had come near is also important. Almost all New Testament scholars believe that the expression "kingdom of heaven" in Matthew and "kingdom of God" in the other gospels are equivalent. This study will frequently refer to "the kingdom" or "the kingdom of God" as equivalent to Matthew’s "kingdom of heaven." The phrase "the kingdom of God" (or heaven) was one of several synonyms for the Messianic Age. Many spiritual people in Judaism around the time of Jesus were very concerned that sin might be keeping the Messiah from coming. One of their sayings was, "When all Israel repents on the same day, Messiah will come." In that environment John’s pronouncement, "Repent, for the kingdom has come near," would have been heard as a call to prepare for the arrival of the Messiah.
All four gospels also quote from Isaiah 40 to confirm the importance of John the Baptist’s ministry. Matthew describes it as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 40:3. In the Hebrew text a voice cries out for a way to be prepared through the desert for God so he can lead Israel’s return from the Babylonian captivity. However, Matthew quotes from the Greek translation of the Old Testament (Septuagint) that spoke of the voice of a person crying out in the desert for a way to be prepared for the Lord. The Greek version fit with John the Baptist’s ministry in the desert which Matthew had already mentioned in verse 1.
Verse 4 describes John the Baptist's primitive clothing and desert diet. It appears that Matthew mentioned the detail of John's dress to call to mind a picture of Elijah, the Old Testament prophet, whose clothing is described in a very similar way in 2 Kings 1:8. Based on Malachi 4:5 Judaism had developed a view that Elijah would return as a forerunner of the Messiah. Thus the Elijah-like picture of John the Baptist would cause Matthew's readers to wonder if he was "Elijah," the forerunner of the Messiah.
There was a large response to John's Messiah-anticipating ministry. Matthew notes in verse 5 that Jerusalem, all Judea, and the region around the Jordan went out to see him. Verse 7 indicates that some of the visitors were Pharisees and Sadducees, representatives of the two most powerful religious groups in Judaism at that time. Matthew does not say that they came to be baptized, which would indicate repentance on their part. Rather they came to John's baptism, meaning they came to see what he was doing. Any suspicion of him that they may have had was matched by his suspicion of them.
John’s message directed to the Pharisees and Sadducees was a message of judgment. To call the most influential religious leaders of the time, "offspring of snakes" was not designed to bring popularity. He then challenged them to demonstrate actions worthy of repentance. It was a call for a genuine turning to God instead of regular religiosity. One wonders if John would issue a similar call to religious leaders today.
His demand to not presumptuously claim Abraham as their father was a direct challenge to their own understanding of their spiritual and national heritage. It is clear from his words that they had said to him, "We don’t need to be baptized, we are the chosen people." His pugnacious response is typical of the later developments in Christian theology. Paul argued that the real children of Abraham are the people who have the kind of faith Abraham had (Romans 4:9-12 and Galatians 3:7-9). John the Baptist argued that God could create children of Abraham from the stones. After all Abraham was as good as dead when he fathered the child of promise (Romans 4:19).
Both verses 10 and 12 speak of judgment using the metaphor of fire. John announced that God was ready to unleash a purging, cleansing process that would rid his people of everything worthless and evil. Those individual Jews might have refused to repent, John’s message was one of good news to the people. The coming judgment would end with a purified people fit for the coming of Messiah. Fire has been and still is used in many contexts to cleanse or purify something. When it is the symbol of judgment it is a positive symbol despite our own nervousness about THE judgment.
The Baptism of Jesus - Matthew 3:13-17
Even the most skeptical of scholars believe that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. It is hard to imagine the early church making up the story of Jesus’ baptism; it was too much of an embarrassment to them. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance, confession, and forgiveness of sins. From some of the first earliest documents written by Christians we know they believed in the sinlessness of Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15). These two facts seem to contradict each other. If Jesus was sinless there would have been no need for him to submit to a baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins.
Most scholars believe that Mark was the first gospel to be written and he does not seem bothered by the idea of John baptizing Jesus. The other gospel writers all show some discomfort with the idea. Luke separates the baptism of Jesus from John’s ministry by reporting John’s later imprisonment. He then mentions Jesus’ baptism without referring to John (Luke 3:20-21).
The gospel of John talks around the subject but never actually mentions Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist (John 1:19-34). Matthew confronts the issue most directly. In verse 14 John tries to avoid baptizing Jesus by suggesting that Jesus baptize him instead. Jesus’ reply in verse 15 is Matthew’s answer to the problem of why Jesus was baptized, "It is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness."
In Jewish thought righteousness was conduct that pleased God or was in accordance with God’s will. Simply put Jesus told John to go ahead and baptize him because that was God’s will. There is a significant contrast between Jesus’ willingness to be baptized when he did not need to be and the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ refusal to repent when they needed to. Jesus’ humility is obeying God and identifying with his people is an important lesson to us. Personal status or religious standing is never a reason to disobey God nor to distance ourselves from the people God loves.
The descent of the Spirit on Jesus is important for several reasons. Within the historical context of Jesus’ own ministry and among Matthew’s Jewish audience it was well known that the return of the Spirit would mark the coming of the Messiah. Thus Matthew relates this part of Jesus’ life to confirm his messiahship.
Second, in Jewish thinking a major role of the Spirit was to inspire prophecy (and prophets). The descent of the Spirit on Jesus marked him as a prophet. Though "prophet" is an inadequate title to express the full reality of Jesus’ identity, it is a true designation. Finally, though Matthew does not develop the idea, the descent of the Spirit on Jesus marked him as a bearer of the Spirit. As Luke and John point out it was Jesus who sent the Holy Spirit to minister in his stead.
The voice from heaven joins together two segments of Old Testament scripture. This is my son paraphrases Psalm 2:7 which states, "You are my son." Psalm 2 spoke of the king of Israel as a son of God. Themes of messiahship, sonship, and kingship permeate the second psalm. These words would have communicated to Jesus and to Matthew’s first readers insight about Jesus as messiah, as Son of God, and as the true King of Israel.
The final words of the voice from heaven, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased, paraphrases Isaiah 42:1. These words begin the Servant Songs of Isaiah and would have communicated to Jesus’ the servant role that his ministry would take. The culmination of Jesus’ ministry paralleled that of the servant as described in the final Servant Song in Isaiah 53.
The Temptation of Jesus - Matthew 4:1-11
The commissioning words from heaven, the descent of the Holy Spirit upon him, and Jesus’ obedient submission to God’s will in baptism should have prepared him to begin his ministry. However, all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) record a significant experience of temptation on the heels of Jesus’ baptism. Though we do not like it, testing is an important part of our preparation for service.
The twin themes of Jesus’ identity in Matthew thus far have been Jesus’ divine sonship and his messiahship. The baptism climaxed with the affirmation from heaven that Jesus was God’s son. The temptation will test both his confidence in really being the Son of God and his understanding of being a messiah. Scholars sometimes pose the question in an either/or form. Either Jesus’ sense of being Son of God was being tested or his understanding of being Messiah. If one is forced to choose, the testing of divine sonship is a more prominent theme in Matthew, but elements of both are present.
The first temptation was to change stones into loaves of bread. At the level of messianic understanding this was a temptation to perform a messianic sign. In at least some segments of Jewish thought there was the expectation that the Messiah would repeat the "miracle of the manna." Should Jesus turn the millions of small stones in the Judean desert into bread the result would be a new miracle of the manna. People would flock to him, but the servanthood revealed at his baptism would have been denied.
Also, the devil did not say, "If you are the Messiah . . ." but "If you are the Son of God. . ." Matthew has already used the title "Son" to connect Jesus and the people of Israel coming out of Egypt during the exodus (Matthew 2:15). As the new Israel-son of God Jesus is also in the wilderness facing the problem of hunger. Old Israel complained and rebelled against God. Jesus, as God’s Son and representing the new Israel, trusted God and refused to demand a miracle. His response to the devil in verse 4 quotes from Deuteronomy 8:3. Rather than demanding bread Jesus will wait for a creative word from his Father. The genuineness of his sonship passed the first test.
The second temptation (in Matthew’s order) has the devil taking Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem and suggesting that he jump off that pinnacle. The pinnacle of the temple was on the southeast corner of the huge retaining wall that supported the platform for the whole temple area on top of Mount Moriah. It towered almost 200 feet above the Kidron Valley below.
In terms of messiahship jumping from the pinnacle of the temple would have won Jesus instant acclaim. As a wonder worker the populace could have been easily won over to support his messianic claims. However, the temptation tested Jesus’ sense of sonship even more powerfully. The temptation was to challenge God to come through and rescue Jesus. The devil even quoted Psalm 91:11-12 suggesting that all Jesus needed to do was to claim his Father’s promises. The faithful Father would have to fulfill his promise.
But such an approach toward God is the very opposite of a true Father-son relationship. The mutual trust that comes from knowing each other’s heart and mind was totally lacking in the devil’s scenario. Jesus responded by quoting Deuteronomy 6:16 in which God himself told Israel that they were not to put him to the test. Such challenges to God are the opposite of trust.
The third temptation can also be understood from a messianic perspective. The goal of the Messiah was to become the king of all the kingdoms of the world. The devil offered Jesus the ultimate goal of the Messiah without having to pay the price of being a suffering servant. As a test of sonship this final temptation was most flagrant. The price demanded by the devil for all the kingdoms of the world was to worship him. Old Israel, as God’s children, failed to maintain the rich gift of monotheism that God had given them. Jesus as New Israel, God’s son, resisted the lure of idolatry and chose to worship his heavenly Father alone. His reply quotes Deuteronomy 6:18 to provide Scriptural support for his faithfulness to God.
Matthew’s temptation narrative ends with the comment that angels came and ministered to Jesus. Because Jesus did not demand anything of God, his Father was gracious to give him everything that he needed. The ministry of the angels illustrates this.
As the temptation narrative came to a close two conclusions stood out. Jesus had triumphed over Satan and he had won the right to be seen as the true Israel. In all three temptations his temptation parallel a test faced by Israel in the wilderness. Israel failed. Jesus trusted, obeyed, and succeeded. In that he is a model for us.
Beginning His Ministry-Matthew 4:12-25
Matthew’s introduction to Jesus’ ministry comes in three parts: interpreting Galilee as the center of ministry in 4:12-17; calling the first disciples in 4:18-22; and an overview in 4:23-25.
The beginning of the imprisonment of John the Baptist became the signal for Jesus to begin his ministry. Matthew records Jesus’ move from Nazareth to Capernaum, which became the headquarters for his ministry. For the seventh time in the opening four chapters Matthew describes this event as fulfilling prophecy. The quotation is from Isaiah 9:1-2 and portrays Jesus as the great light shining on the people in darkness. Galilee did not have a good reputation among the Jews who considered themselves most religious (that is to say the Jews of Jerusalem). Galilee included the ancient Israelite tribal territory belonging to Zebulun and Naphtali. This territory had always been on the northern edge of Old Testament Israel and it was most influenced by the baal worship of Phoenicia (see Baal Worship in the Old Testament). Frequently foreign invaders from Syria and Assyria occupied it. Even in the eighth century B.C. Isaiah of Jerusalem called it "Galilee of the Gentiles."
Matthew had begun his gospel with the Gentile magi worshipping Jesus. Now Jesus begins his ministry bringing the light of God to Galilee of the Gentiles. Yet the opening words that Matthew records are identical to John the Baptist’s first words, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." By this repetition Matthew pulls together the extremely Jewish oriented material on John the Baptist and Jesus beginning a Gentile mission. It was Matthew’s way of saying to Jews and to Jewish believers in Christ, "Jesus, the Messiah, the fulfillment of Jewish hopes, has opened the door of the gospel to the Gentiles."
The appropriate response to Jesus’ call to repentance is then immediately illustrated by the calling of the first four disciples. The abruptness of Jesus’ demand on Simon, Andrew, James, and John is difficult for most modern folks to accept. However, it represents the radical call of the kingdom of God to let go of all human sources of security and all human aspirations to embrace wholehearted total obedience to God. If repentance is a change of direction, then the first four disciples powerfully demonstrate repentance. They turned immediately from their own business - fishing for money - to the business of the kingdom - fishing for people.
Jesus’ first words to them, "Follow me," characterize the call to discipleship. The following words, "I will make you fishers of men," immediately turn their attention from the demand made upon themselves to the results that God expects in the lives of others. For Matthew Jesus introduces the task of mission at the same time he creates the church. There can be no mistaking the centrality of mission.
The final section of Matthew’s introduction to Jesus’ ministry is a summary overview in 4:23-25. The Greek text shows that Matthew was not describing specific events in these verses but giving a general statement of the patterns of Jesus’ ministry.
Verse 23 identifies the three main activities of that ministry: teaching, preaching the good news [gospel] of the kingdom, and healing. Some scholars have suggested that Matthew organizes each of his major sections in the book around one of these three central ministry activities. However, it is not always clear whether a section is intended to be teaching or preaching about the kingdom. What is clear is that Matthew will frequently hark back to this basic description of Jesus’ ministry. Not only are these three activities programmatic for Jesus, they are also directive to his followers. From Matthew’s perspective, ministry in the name of Christ is teaching, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing people of all kinds of diseases and illnesses.
The impact of this three pronged ministry was great crowds following Jesus from both Jewish and Gentiles territories. Their coming together creates the audience for Matthew’s first large block of teaching by Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you study each day ask the Lord to help you understand the Scriptures and to apply its meaning to your own heart and life.
First Day: Read the notes on Matthew 3:1-4:25. Look up the Scripture references given.
1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you. Why are they important?
2. Is there a spiritual truth in Matthew 3-4 that is especially significant for you? Write it down and explain why it is important for you.
3. Write a brief prayer asking God to help you respond to his call on your life to turn from relying on yourself to wholehearted obedience to him.
Second Day: Read Matthew 5:1-20. Now focus on Matthew 5:1-12.
1. Compare the Beatitudes (Blessed s) here in Matthew with the four in Luke 6:20-26. What themes do you notice in Matthew’s collection that are distinct from Luke’s treatment?
2. Most of the promises (the last half of each verse) in the Beatitudes are in the passive voice (for example: will be comforted). This was a Jewish way of alluding to God without mentioning his name. Summarize the activities of God that Jesus promises in these verses.
3. Do the Beatitudes create a sense of joy or of burden or dread in you? Why? What do you think Jesus hoped would be the response of people when they heard these words?
Third Day: Read Matthew 5:1-30. Focus in on Matthew 5:13-20.
1. Verses 13 and 14 portray the church as salt and light in the world. What do you think is the point of these illustrations? How are you (or could you be) helping your church become this kind of salt and light?
2. What view of Jewish law does Jesus give in verses 17-19? How is this consistent or inconsistent with what you have thought about Jesus’ view (and the Christian view) of the Jewish law?
3. Verse 20 calls for a righteousness greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees. Based on what you know about the scribes and Pharisees what kind of righteousness do you think Jesus wants? Is it present in your life? What do you need to do to meet Jesus’ expectation here?
Fourth Day: Read Matthew 5:1-42. Focus your attention on Matthew 5:21-30.
1. In verses 21-44 Jesus will say, "You have heard . . .[Old Testament quote], but I say to you." How does this pattern relate to what he has said about the law in verses 17-20?
2. How can Jesus compare murder and anger or adultery and lust? The first sin is forbidden by the 10 Commandments and is so much worse. What basis does Jesus have to even compare them?
3. What is the principle for worship given in verses 23-24? How would the life of the church be different if this principle was always followed? How would your life be different?
Fifth Day: Read Matthew 5:1-48. Now focus in on Matthew 5:31-42.
1. Does Jesus forbid divorce in verses 32-32? What does he say exactly? How does his teaching here compare with that found in Mark 10:2-12?
2. The main point of verses 33-37 is the word of Jesus’ followers should be absolutely dependable. What happens to you, to your relationships, and to society at large when the teaching of these verses is ignored?
3. Is Jesus’ teaching in verses 38-42 reasonable? Is it possible? Why do you think Matthew would report such teachings from Jesus? What response to them do you suppose God expects from you?
Sixth Day: Read Matthew 5:1-48. Now focus on Matthew 5:43-48.
1. How does verse 45 illustrate what Jesus means in verse 44? Is the teaching of verse 45 consistent with testimonies, prayers, and teachings you have heard in the church? How is it consistent or inconsistent?
2. What expectation does Jesus create for the church in the world by means of verses 46-47? In your experience do church people respond differently to life than unchurched people? What can you do to improve that track record?
3. Compare verse 48 with Luke 6:36 and 1 Peter 1:15-16 (quoting Leviticus 19:2). What picture of the Christian life emerges from these verses? What changes could help you live up to that picture better? What could you do to help other believers make progress in this area of their lives?