I.—ON THE HISTORY OF OUR LORD’S LIFE TO THE COMMENCEMENT OF HIS MINISTRY (Matthew 3).
A BRIEF review of the events that affected more or less directly the human life of the Christ will, it is believed, be helpful to most readers. Of the early childhood we have no record but the simple statement that “the Child grew, and waxed strong, being filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon Him” (Luke 2:40). Outwardly, we must believe, it presented no startling features. There was the simple life of home, and in due course the lessons given in the synagogue, and the worship of the Sabbath, and the habits of a devout household. The annual pilgrimage of Joseph and Mary to keep the Passover at Jerusalem (Luke 2:41) would be the one conspicuous break in the year’s routine of labour in the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth. At the age of twelve (A.D. 8) there was the first manifest unfolding of the higher life (see Luke 2:19), but, so far as we know, it stood absolutely alone, and the growth was quiet and orderly as before. Only in the absolute sinlessness, in the absence of the faults of childhood, could that growth have differed from the growth of other children of the same time and place. He too was subject to His parents, and worked with Joseph as a carpenter. And in that home (the question who they were being still reserved) were also the “brothers” of the Lord—James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas (Matthew 13:55), and His sisters. The death of Joseph must have left Him, in the common course of things, as the head of the household, and we may believe that the other members of it, more and more, looked to Him for guidance, and depended upon Him for their support. It is at least probable that the yearly visits to Jerusalem were not intermitted, and that He who was made “under the Law,” gave the same proofs of His obedience to it as were given by every devout Israelite. Partly as claiming descent from David, partly from the devout habits of His own life and that of His reputed father, He must have been prominent in the small community of Nazareth, and probably exercised the function commonly assigned to devout laymen, of reading the Sabbath lessons in the synagogue (Luke 4:16). Thus much we may venture to picture to ourselves of the outward life. Of the veil that shrouds the growth of the inward life we may hardly dare to lift a corner. Prayer to His Father in Heaven, in part with the one necessary exception) after the manner of the prayer which He afterwards taught His disciples, the patient expectation that waited till His hour should come, gentle and loving care for His mother and His brethren, not without the power to reprove when reproof was necessary, delight in the solitude of the hills, the changing aspect of the skies, and the beauty of the dowers of the field, all these made up a life of harmony and noble holiness. But as it passed on. it hardly appeared likely to be more than this. The very tranquillity of its growth must have made His mother’s heart sink within her, as with the sickness of hope deferred. It was not till the preaching of the Baptist showed that His hour had come, that there was outwardly more than the life of a man of the peasant class, of blameless purity and intense devotion.
In the mean time events were passing round Him, which more or less affected those whom His ministerial work was afterwards to embrace. Archelaus, after the massacre referred to in the Note on Matthew 2:22, went to Rome to defend himself before the Emperor against the charge of cruelty, and to maintain his right to the kingdom against the claims of Antipas. Augustus, true to the balancing policy of Roman rule, made Antipas Tetrarch of Galilee, and Archelaus Ethnarch of Judæa. The latter ruled with as much cruelty as ever. Complaints again multiplied, and in A.D. 6 he was deposed and banished to Gaul, and Judæa, as a Roman province, was placed under the direct government of a Procurator. The immediate effect of this was to move the dormant fanaticism of a population who fondly flattered themselves that they had “never been in bondage to any man,” and when the census taken at the time of our Lord’s birth was followed by actual taxation (the “tribute” or poll-tax of Matthew 22:17), the discontent broke out in the revolt of Judas of Gamala, commonly known as “of Galilee” (Acts 5:37). That province furnished the greater part of his adherents, and they took as their watchword, “We have no master but God,” and refused to pay tribute. The insurrection was suppressed, Judas himself slain, and his followers dispersed; but the party was not extinct, and Josephus writing seventy years afterwards, in the time of Vespasian and Titus, enumerates it, together with Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes, among the four sects of the Jews (Ant. xviii. 1, § 1). The question put by the Pharisees and Herodians, “Is it lawful to give tribute to Cæsar?” was one which must have been often discussed in Nazareth and the neighbouring villages from the time of our Lord’s childhood. The policy of the Tetrarch of Galilee led him, on the other hand, to court the favour of Rome. The new town of Tiberias (built A.D. 18), the new name, the Sea of Tiberias. which it gave to the Lake of Galilee, bore witness of Herod’s adulation of the Emperor who had succeeded Augustus in A.D. 14. Coming nearer to the time of the commencement of our Lord’s ministry we may note the Tetrarch’s divorce of his first wife, the daughter of Aretas; his incestuous and adulterous marriage with Herodias, the daughter of his brother Aristobulus, and the wife of his brother Philip; and the war with Aretas in which this act involved him. The government of Judæa, after the deposition of Archelaus, under five successive Procurators, presented no events of any striking importance, but in A.D. 25-26 we come to the more memorable name of Pontius Pilate. One of his first acts was to remove the Roman garrison from Cæsarea to Jerusalem. and the troops were accordingly stationed in the Tower of Antonius, which rose (as we see in Acts 21:34-35) from the precincts of the Temple. They brought with them the standards that bore the image of the Emperor, and this roused the population to a white heat of fury, to which Pilate at last yielded (Jos. Ant. xviii. 3, § 1). Other provocations, however, followed. Gilt shields bearing the names of heathen deities were suspended in the Procurator’s palace at Jerusalem, and were only removed by a special order from Tiberius. The consecrated Corban, or treasure of the Temple, was employed for the construction of an aqueduct, and the riot that followed (probably the insurrection which made Barabbas the hero of the people) was only suppressed by Pilate’s sending into the crowd soldiers in disguise, armed with concealed daggers, who massacred both rioters and unoffending spectators (Jos. Wars, ii. 9, §4). It is probable that the slaughter of the Galileans, whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices (Luke 13:1), was connected with this outbreak. Such was the state of things when the voice of the Baptist was heard in the wilderness of Judæa. In the mean time the influence of Roman rule was seen in language, government, customs, in the employment of the publicans, in the centurions stationed with their troops at Capernaum, in the adoption of Roman manners at the feasts of the Tetrarch’s Court, in the forced service to which the peasants of Galilee were subject, in the frequent use of the Roman punishment of scourging, in the crosses upon which rebels and robbers were exposed in shameful nakedness to die the most agonising of all forms of death.
Matthew 3:1In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea,III.
(1) John the Baptist.—For the birth and early life of the forerunner of the Christ, see Notes on. Luke 1. The manner in which he is mentioned here shows that his name was already well known to all readers of the Gospel. So, in like manner, Josephus names him as popularly known by the same title (Ant. xviii. 5, § 2), and describes his work as that of a preacher of repentance in nearly the same terms as St. Matthew. The symbolism of ablution as the outward sign of inward purification was, of course, derived from the Mosaic ritual. It was ordered for the consecration of the priests (Exodus 29:4; Leviticus 8:6), for the purification of the leper and other unclean persons (Leviticus 14:8; Leviticus 15:31-32). It had received a fresh prominence from the language of Isaiah 1:16, of Ezekiel 36:25, of Zechariah 13:1, and probably (though the date of the practice cannot be fixed with certainty) from its being used on the admission of proselytes, male or female, from heathenism. The question asked by the priests and Levites in John 1:25 implies that it was expected as one of the signs of the coming of the Messiah, probably as the result of the prophecies just referred to. That which distinguished the baptism of John from all previous forms of the same symbolism was, that it was not for those only who were affected by a special uncleanness, nor for the heathen only, but for all. All were alike unclean, and needed purification, and their coming to the baptism was in itself a confession that they were so. The baptism was, as the name implied, an immersion, and commonly, though not necessarily, in running water.
The abrupt way in which the narrative is introduced “in those days,” after an interval of thirty years from the close of Matthew 2, may be explained as referring to the well-known period of the commencement of John’s ministry; or it may loosely refer to Matthew 1:23, and imply that time had gone on with no change in the general circumstances. (Comp. Exodus 2:11. See Excursus on the intervening History in the Notes on this Gospel.)
Came.—Literally, with the vividness of the historic present, cometh.
Preaching.—Here, as everywhere in the New Testament, the word implies proclaiming after the manner of a herald.
In the wilderness of Judæa.—The name was commonly applied to the thinly populated region in the southern valley of the Jordan, and so was equivalent to “the country about Jordan” of Luke 3:3, including even part of the district east of the river. In this region John had grown up (Luke 1:80).
The kingdom of heaven.—The phrase is used by St. Matthew about thirty times, and by him only among the New Testament writers. In the Greek the form is plural, “the kingdom of the heavens,” probably as an equivalent for the Hebrew word, which was dual in its form. The name, as descriptive of the kingdom of the Messiah, had its origin in the vision of Daniel 7:13, where the kingdom of “one like the Son of Man” is contrasted with those of earthly rulers. To Gentile readers—to whom the term would convey the thought of the visible firmament, not of the invisible dwelling-place of God—the term might have been misleading, and therefore in the Gospels intended for them “the kingdom of God” (which occurs sometimes in St. Matthew also, 6:13; 12:28) is used instead of it. It is probable that both terms were used interchangeably by the Baptist and our Lord, and the systematic change is suggestive as showing that the writers of the Gospels did not feel themselves bound to a purely literal report or rendering of their words.
Is at hand.—Better, has come nigh.
Historically, the connection of the opening chapters of this part of Isaiah with the protests against idolatry (Isaiah 40:18-24; Isaiah 41:7; Isaiah 44:9-20), and with the name of Cyrus (Isaiah 44:28; Isaiah 45:1), shows that the prophet blended his glorious visions of the ideal polity of the future with the return of the exiles from Babylon. The return came, and the ideal was not realised. The kingdom of heaven seemed still far off. Now, the Baptist came to proclaim its nearness.
Prepare ye the way of the Lord.—The imagery is drawn from the great strategical works of the conquerors of the East. They sent a herald before them to call the people of the countries through which they marched to prepare for their approach. A “king’s highway” had to be carried through the open land of the wilderness, valleys filled up, and hills levelled (the words used are, of course, poetical in their greatness), winding bye-paths straightened, for the march of the great army. Interpreted in its spiritual application, the wilderness was the world lying in evil, and the making low the mountains and hills was the bringing down of spiritual pride. When the poor in spirit were received into the kingdom of heaven, the valleys were exalted; when soldier and publican renounced their special sins, the rough places were made plain and the crooked straight.
It is probable that the stress thus laid upon “the way of the Lord,” in the first stage of the Gospel, led to the peculiar use of the term “the way” by St. Luke, to denote what we should call the “religion” of the Apostolic Church (Acts 9:2; Acts 18:25-26; Acts 19:9; Acts 19:23; Acts 22:4; Acts 24:14; Acts 24:22).
Locusts and wild honey.—Locusts were among the articles of food permitted by the Law (Leviticus 11:21), and were and are still used by the poor in Palestine and Syria. They are commonly salted and dried, and may be cooked in various ways, pounded, or fried in butter, and they taste like shrimps. It is needless, when the facts are so clear, to go out of the way to seek the food of the Baptist in the sweet pods of the so-called locust-tree (Ceratonia Siliqua), with which it has been sometimes identified. The “wild honey” was that found in the hollows of trees (as in the history of Jonathan, 1 Samuel 14:25), or in the “rocks” (Deuteronomy 32:13; Psalm 81:16). Stress is laid on the simplicity of the Baptist’s fare, requiring no skill or appliances, the food of the poorest wanderer in the wilderness, presenting a marked contrast to the luxury of the dwellers in towns. The life of Banus, the hermit-master of Josephus, who lived only on herbs and water (Life, c. 2) presented analogous though not identical features.
O generation of vipers.—Better, brood, or offspring, of vipers. Our Lord takes up the same term, and applies it to them at the close of his ministry (Matthew 23:33).
Who hath warned.—Better, who taught you? Who had shown them the way without repentance by which they sought to escape? He had given them no such guidance, and they must have gained that notion from some other teacher.
The wrath to come.—This is spoken of as something definite and known, the thought resting probably on the pictures of the great day of the Lord in Malachi 3, 4.
Of these stones.—The words were obviously dramatised by gesture, pointing to the pebbles on the banks of the Jordan. In their spiritual application, they are remarkable as containing the germs of all the teaching of our Lord, and of St. Paul, and of St. John, as to the calling of the Gentiles, and the universality of God’s kingdom.
The ax is laid unto the root of the trees.—The symbolism which saw in “trees” the representatives of human characters, of nations, and institutions, had been recognised in Isaiah’s parable of the vine (Isaiah 5:1-7), in Jeremiah’s of the vine and the olive (Jeremiah 2:21; Jeremiah 11:16), and the Baptist’s application of it was but a natural extension. Judgments that were only partial or corrective were as the pruning of the branches (John 15:2). Now the axe was laid to the root, and the alternative was preservation or destruction. For the unfruitful tree there was the doom of fire.
He that cometh after me.—The words as spoken by the Baptist could only refer to the expected Christ, the Lord, whose way he had been sent to prepare.
Mightier.—i.e., as the words that follow show, stronger both to save and to punish; at once the Deliverer and the Judge.
Whose shoes I am not worthy to bear.—In Luke 3:16 we have the yet stronger expression, “The latchet (or thong) of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose.” Among Jews, Greeks, and Romans alike, this office, that of untying and carrying the shoes of the master of the house or of a guest, was the well-known function of the lowest slave of the household. When our Lord washed the disciples’ feet (John 13:4-5), He was taking upon Himself a like menial task which, of course, actually involved the other. The remembrance of the Baptist’s words may in part account for St. Peter’s indignant refusal to accept such services.
He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.—As heard and understood at the time, the baptism with the Holy Ghost would imply that the souls thus baptised would be plunged, as it were, in that creative and informing Spirit which was the source of life and holiness and wisdom. The baptism “with fire” would convey, in its turn, the thought of a power at once destroying evil and purifying good; not, in any case, without the suffering that attends the contact of the sinner’s soul with the “consuming fire” of the holiness of God, yet for those who had received the earlier baptism, and what it was meant to convey, consuming only what was evil, and leaving that which was precious brighter than before. The appearance of the “tongues like as of fire” that accompanied the gift of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost was an outward visible sign, an extension of the symbolism, rather than the actual fulfilment of the promise.
It seems right briefly to direct the reader’s thoughts here to what is recorded of the Baptist’s ministry in the other Gospels; the questions of the priests and Levites (John 1:19-25); the counsels given to publicans, soldiers, and others (Luke 3:10-14); the presence, among the crowd, of Galileans, some of whom were afterwards Apostles (John 1:35-42). A curious legendary addition, found in the Apocryphal Gospel according to the Hebrews, is worth noting, as preparing the way for what follows: “Behold, the mother of the Lord and his brethren said unto Him, ‘John the Baptist baptiseth for the remission of sins; let us go that we may be baptised by him.’ But He said unto them, ‘In what have I sinned that I should go and be baptised by him? unless, perhaps, even that which I have thus spoken be a sin of ignorance.’ “This was obviously an attempt to explain the difficulty of the Sinless One seeking a baptism of repentance. It was, of course, probable enough that the household of Nazareth, cherishing, as they did, hopes of the kingdom of heaven, should be drawn with other Galileans to the Baptist’s preaching.
Here, as before, it is instructive to note the legendary accretions that have gathered round the simple narrative of the Gospels. Justin (Dial. c., Tryph. p. 316) adds that “a fire was kindled in Jordan.” An Ebionite Gospel added to the words from heaven, “This day have I begotten thee,” and further adds, “a great light shone around the place, and John saw it, and said, ‘Who art thou, Lord?’ and again a voice from heaven, saying. ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’ And then John fell down, and said, ‘I beseech Thee, O Lord, baptise Thou me.’ But He forbade him, saying, ‘Suffer it, for thus it is meet that all things should be accomplished.’
More important and more difficult is the question, What change was actually wrought in our Lord’s human nature by this descent of the Spirit? The words of the Baptist, “He giveth not the Spirit by measure unto Him” (John 3:34) imply the bestowal of a real gift. The words that follow here, “He was led by the Spirit” (Matthew 4:1), “The Spirit driveth Him” (Mark 1:12), show, in part, the nature of the change. We may venture to think even there of new gifts, new powers, a new intuition (comp. John 3:11), a new constraint, as it were, bringing the human will that was before in harmony with the divine into a fuller consciousness of that harmony, and into more intense activity; above all, a new intensity of prayer, uttering itself in Him, as afterwards in His people, in the cry, “Abba, Father” (Mark 14:36; Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6). There also we may think of the Spirit as “making intercession with groanings that cannot be uttered.”