Study Notes on Matthew’s Gospel
Matthew 3:1-6 (NIVUK): “In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’
This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: ‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.”’
John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt round his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptised by him in the River Jordan.”
The Man: John the Baptist
In Matthew 11:11,14, we hear Jesus say something quite amazing about John: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. … And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
And what are we told about this amazing man, was there anything about his background that stood out, such that the average person would have been impressed by his status? Was he a powerful ruler, or an extremely wealthy man, or did he exert a great influence over the religious teachers and other celebrities of his time? No, he stood out because he appeared to be the opposite of a successful and influential leader of high social standing. In regard to social standing, John the Baptist had more in common with his young, carpenter cousin living in Nazareth than with the ruling royal class.
Jesus tells us that John the Baptist came in the spirit of Elijah (Matthew 11:14), meaning that there was going to be a prophet of similar nature to Elijah, who would proclaim the coming of the Messiah. This is not to say that John was literally Elijah.
[In John 1:21a, we hear this response from John to this question: “They asked him, ‘Then who are you? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’” That’s a very clear response.]
However, there are some intriguing similarities, we read in 2 Kings 1:8, “The king asked them, ‘What kind of man was it who came to meet you and told you this?’ They replied, ‘He had a garment of hair and had a leather belt round his waist.’ The king said, ‘That was Elijah the Tishbite.’”
Looking back to 1 Kings 17:1, Elijah appears (unannounced) on the scene when the northern kingdom under king Ahab has entered a particularly evil phase: “Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, ‘As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.’” If we compare this to the sudden appearance of John after years in the wilderness, Matthew 3:1, “In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea.”
Yet, the most striking similarity is their anointing of the Holy Spirit. Let’s look at Luke 1:14-17, “He (John) will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’”
It’s also clear that Elijah was anointed with God’s Spirit, 1 Kings 17:23b-24, “He gave him to his mother and said, ‘Look, your son is alive!’ Then the woman said to Elijah, ‘Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth.’”
Just before we leave this point that John was a man in the spirit of Elijah, we should look briefly at Elisha, 2 Kings 2:14-15a, “He took the cloak that had fallen from Elijah and struck the water with it. ‘Where now is the Lord, the God of Elijah?’ he asked. When he struck the water, it divided to the right and to the left, and he crossed over. The company of the prophets from Jericho, who were watching, said, ‘The spirit of Elijah is resting on Elisha.’”
In essence, the ‘spirit’ of Elijah is a manifestation of the powerful anointing of God’s Spirit.
John the Baptist key mission was to prepare the hearts of the people to receive the Messiah.
In the first 39 chapters of Isaiah we hear harsh words of judgment, and now let’s look at Isaiah 40:1-5, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’”
In addition, we have the last two verses of the Old Testament, which point to what will happen next – after a long period of silence; Malachi 4:5-6, “‘See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.’” (See Luke 1:17 above, he will turn people’s hearts from their evil ways, to prepare them for the Messiah’s message of salvation.)
Returning to Luke 1:67-80, Zechariah’s Song, regarding his son John: “His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: ‘Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us – to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.’
And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.”
This is a rather beautiful song: and it summarises perfectly the mission of John the Baptist: ‘to prepare the way for Jesus, to give God’s people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins’.
John’s message was simple: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near’ (Matthew 3:2). It was the same message to be preached by Jesus (Matthew 4:17).
Before we can continue. it’s important to have a clear understanding of what repentance means in a Christian context. It is not a general feeling of sorrow caused by an awareness that you have done or said something wrong. The wrong inflicted on another is not resolved by saying ‘sorry’, even non-Christians know it means more than that, and that it carries with it a resolve not to ‘trespass across the line’ in the future.
In the Christian context – repentance means total change – a re-birth into a new creation, in-Christ.
The Greek word used in Scripture for ‘repent’ means to ‘turn around’. To turn around your heart and mind away from sin to holiness. It means conversion from our old sinful nature to becoming a child of God, in the likeness of Jesus.
Jesus covers this aspect in His discussion with Nicodemus, John 3:5-8,17-18: “Jesus answered, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again.” The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’ … For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”
The good news is that salvation is found in Jesus; the bad news is that whoever does not believe, those who refuse to turn their lives around, ‘will be burnt up like chaff with unquenchable fire (Matthew 3:12)’.
This was the simple message of John the Baptist, that the Jews were not ready to accept their Messiah until they had repented of their sins.
THE SUCCESSFUL MINISTRY OF JOHN THE BAPTISTL
We are told that John’s ministry was successful. Matthew 3:5-6, “People went out to John the Baptist from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptised by him in the River Jordan.”
As John was speaking words of truth as inspired by the Holy Spirit, his words convicted the hearts and minds of those Jews who mourned their sinfulness, and they responded by coming from all parts of Judea, including Jerusalem, to publically declare their repentance through their baptism in the Jordan River. Such is the power of God’s Spirit.
Secondly, he knew his mission was over after he had baptised Jesus, (John 3:26-30: “They came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan – the one you testified about – look, he is baptising, and everyone is going to him.’ To this John replied, ‘A person can receive only what is given them from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, “I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.” The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.’“)
John the Baptist is a role model for all of us, he was recognised by Jesus as a great man and we have covered some of the reasons which contributed to his greatness. Yet Jesus had this to say: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Matthew 11:11)”
We are not necessarily greater than John in terms of human character but we are greater in terms of privilege when we understand that we “are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that we may declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9)”
- Bible Study Notes prepared by the late Rev. Eric Bird (mostly used for framework and headings). His notes were, in turn, based on the following primary source: “The MacArthur New Testament Commentary – Matthew, Volumes 1-5″, published by the Moody Bible Institute. [Note: I don’t fully endorse Dr John MacArthur’s work, so I’ll try to steer away from any detailed references or quotes.]
- Extensive on-line searches – especially in the area of translation variations.
- Notes on Matthew’s Gospel as compiled by Fr. Bernie Patterson, sourced from multiple references.
- Overall – I’ve selected material, which fits into my view of Matthew’s Gospel – naturally!