ANALYSIS OF MATTHEW CHAPTER 3
In this chapter, the Evangelist describes the preaching of John the Baptist in the desert, inculcating penance byword and example, thus preparing the way of the Lord, as was predicted regarding Him by the prophet Isaias (1–4). The crowds that flocked from Jerusalem to hear him and receive his baptism (5–6). His severe animadversions on the Pharisees and Sadducees, who were conspicuous among those who flocked to hear him, and his earnest exhortations to them to enter sincerely on the exercises of penance (7–8). The reasons assigned by the Baptist why they should not glory inordinately in their carnal descent from Abraham (9–10). The superiority of Christ’s Divine person and baptism, over himself and the baptism he administered (11). Our Lord’s judicial power and the severity of His punishment on obstinate, unrepenting sinners (12). The arrival of our Lord at the place where baptism was administered, for the purpose of receiving baptism from John, who modestly and humbly would decline so great a privilege until, yielding to our Lord’s wishes, he baptizes Him (13–16). The heavenly manifestations on the occasion of our Lord’s baptism, viz., the appearance of the Holy Ghost on the opening of the heavens, in the form of a dove descending on our Lord, and the voice of the Heavenly Father proclaiming Him from heaven to be His eternal, consubstantial Son (16–17).
Mat 3:1 Now in those days cometh John the Baptist preaching in the desert of Judea.
“Now, in those days.” “Now” has a transitive signification, expressing a transition from the narrative regarding one subject to another.
“Those days” refer to the time of our Lord’s dwelling in Nazareth with Mary and Joseph (c. 2:23). St. Luke (c. 3:1) is more circumstantial and detailed in describing the precise time. He notes the rulers, civil and ecclesiastical, by whom the Jewish people were then governed. The words do not always imply that the matter about to be narrated occurred immediately after the event previously narrated. Here an interval of twenty years elapsed between the events narrated (c. 2:23, and c. 3:1). St. Matthew says nothing of our Lord’s infancy, or of the time of His abode at Nazareth, where He lived “subject” to Joseph and Mary (Luke 2:51). Probably, he may have had no certain knowledge of the events of these periods; and moreover, they had nothing to do with the establishment of the “Kingdom of Heaven,” which he undertook to chronicle.
“Came,” publicly appeared.
“John the Baptist,” so styled from his office, divinely committed to him, of baptizing and of preaching the Baptism of Penance, as a preparation for the public appearance of the Son of God. Had our Lord not sent John to prepare the way and dispose the people to receive Him, He might be rejected altogether.
“Preaching,” delivering discourses on the necessity of Penance and Baptism as a preparation for the due reception of the Son of God.
“In the desert of Judea.” Origen, Nicephorus, Baronius, St. Jerome, &c., assure us, that while yet in his infancy, the Baptist was carried into the desert and concealed by his mother, Elizabeth, in the fissures of the rocks, to escape the cruelty of Herod, who, on account of the remarkable circumstances which attended his birth, and the declaration that he was to precede the Messiah, would not fail to secure his person, although outside his jurisdiction, and put him to death. Cedrenus (in Compendio Historiæ) informs us that forty days after their flight Elizabeth died, and that the child was cared by angels. It is more likely that this office was performed by some attendant of Elizabeth.
Independently of the above testimony, and the words of St. Luke (Lk 1:80), the very food and clothing of the Baptist would show that it was not in his father’s house, which was in the mountains, and not in the desert, of Judea, he led the austere life which fitted him to be afterwards the first preacher of penance, and was calculated to ensure him, owing to his retired holy life, living apart from men, and communing with God and His holy angels, that heroic sanctity which was suited to the office of the precursor of the world’s Redeemer. In this vast, wild solitude, he grew up till the term of “his manifestation to Israel” (Lk 1:80). From the interior of this desert, he came forth to the country about the Jordan, which, on account of its being thinly inhabited, is called “the desert of Judea.” In this way, is the narrative of St. Luke, who implies that John came from the desert into the country about the Jordan to preach, &c. (Lk 3:3), reconciled with that of Mark and Matthew, who say, he preached IN “the desert of Judea.” St. Luke refers to the vast desert where he resided. From that he came to preach. Matthew and Mark speak of the confines of the desert, where it was partly inhabited, on the banks of the Jordan. This desert was on this side of the Jordan, between the east and north, at the extremity of which were Ennon and Salim, where John was in the habit of baptizing (John 3:23).
It was meet that John should preach in the desert, and not the temple, which was reserved for Christ, of whom it was predicted, “Statim veniet ad templum suum Dominator,” &c. (Mal. 3:1), in order that the commencement of the New Law should correspond with the giving of the Old, which took place in the desert of Sinai. The Baptist is called by St. Chrysostom, owing to the life which he led, “the Prince of an Eremitical life” (Hom. in Matt., also St. Jerome in Vita Pauli).
The Baptist, as well as our Redeemer, prepared themselves in solitude for the great mission intrusted to them, till they reached the age of thirty. No one, as we learn from Jewish tradition and authorities—and, indeed, it is inferred from 1 Par. 23:3—could undertake earlier the office of priest or teacher among the Jews. At this time, our Redeemer was “about the age of thirty years” (Luke 3:23), having up to this, exercised the humble trade of carpenter in His home at Nazareth with Joseph—“Is not this the carpenter” (Mark 6:3), “and the carpenter’s son?” (Matt. 13:55)—to leave us an example of humility, and inculcate the necessity of a long course of retired and silent preparation for such as would exercise profitably the exalted functions of the sacred ministry of the New Law.
Mat 3:2 And saying: Do penance: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
“And saying: Do penance.” This is the theme with which our Redeemer also commenced His preaching (Mt 4:17). Looking to strict etymology, the Greek word for “do penance” (μετανοειτε) means a “change of heart and thought.” But, looking to what the term involves, the meaning attached to it by our Lord and His precursor is clearly and fully expressed by our Vulgate, pœnitentiam agite, “do penance,” implying the performance of penitential works. For, the Baptist explains it by saying (v. 8), “bring forth fruit worthy of penance.” Our Lord Himself, when speaking of the Ninevites—these model penitents whom He praises—tells us, “they did penance (μετενοησαν) at the preaching of Jonas” (Matt. 12:41). Jonas describes what this penance so much commended by the Son of God consisted in, viz., in fasting and other rigorous bodily austerities. (Jonah 3:6 ff) St. Paul (2 Cor 7:9 ff), describes penance (μετανοια) as involving, besides sorrow of heart, penitential works as its necessary complement. He distinguishes, between “sorrow” and “penance” as between cause and effect. “You are made sorrowful unto PENANCE, the SORROW that is according to God WORKETH PENANCE steadfast unto salvation,” &c. And he next points out the works which this steadfast salutary penance involves. Here, it involves the reception of John’s baptism and confession of sins as offences to God, excluding men from entering His kingdom. Penance, therefore, besides a sorrow of heart, embraces penitential works also. The Vulgate rendering of μετανοειτε in this passage has this advantage, that it more clearly conveys the true Catholic doctrine on the subject of penitential works, which are in every part of Scripture connected with the word, μετανοειτε (Joel 2; Matt. 11) “pœnitentiam egissent (μετενοησαν) in cinere et cilicio.” If the word merely meant change of mind or resipiscentia, it might be rendered in this passage, “they would have changed their mind in sackcloth and ashes,” which would be nothing short of ridiculous.
It is, however, a matter of perfect indifference, so far as the revealed Catholic doctrine regarding penitential works is concerned, whether μετανοειτε be rendered “do penance,” or “repent,” as it is rendered (Mark 1:15). The necessity of penitential works, as the necessary complement of the virtue of penance, is no way affected by it. For, as Dr. Kenrick well remarks (General Introduction to the Epistles, &c.), “Penitential works are necessary, not because the Vulgate has ‘pœnitentiam agite,’ or the Rhemish translator says, ‘do penance;’ but, because such works have been inculcated under the Old dispensation and the New, in the Scriptures and the Fathers, as evidences and fruits of compunction.”
“The kingdom of heaven.” These words are not found in the Old Testament, and this is the first place in the New where they are found. They are peculiar to St. Matthew, in the New. “Kingdom of God” is the form used by the other Evangelists to convey the same idea. (Mark 1:15; Luke 6:20, &c.)
“The kingdom of God” is called “the kingdom of heaven,” heaven being the chief and noblest part of, God’s dominions, where He holds His heavenly court and manifests Himself to the blessed.
“The kingdom of heaven,” or “of God,” has different significations in the New Testament. Sometimes, it denotes the reign of Christ in our hearts by His grace (Luke 17:21). Sometimes, His Church on earth (Matt. 25:1; 21:43; Col. 1:13, &c.; Rom. 14:17). Sometimes, the place of eternal beatitude for those who reign with God and His saints in glory. To this the reign of Christ on earth, whether in the hearts of the faithful or in His Church, is the threshold and necessary entrance.
“The kingdom of heaven” here directly refers to the kingdom of God’s glory, and indirectly to His kingdom or Church on earth, which was to be established by Christ as the necessary threshold or entrance to the former kingdom; also the consequent reign of Christ by grace in our hearts. No one can enter the sanctum sanctorum of heaven, who has not passed, in some sense, through the sanctum of God’s Church on earth, and experienced the reign of Christ in his heart.
These several meanings may be united here. The long-expected reign of the Messiah, in His glorious kingdom, which is not earthly, as the carnal Jews expected; but heavenly, “is at hand,” is now about to be opened by the blood of Christ—a kingdom into which “nothing defiled can enter;” therefore, it is, I exhort you, who are sinners, to blot out your sins and correct your bad habits by the salutary exercises of penance, if you wish to be partakers of the glory of this kingdom. Or, the reign of the Messiah in His Church is just now about to be universally established, wherein He is to reign in the hearts of His faithful people. This Church is the threshold of the kingdom of His glory, soon to be opened. In order that you may be properly disposed to be aggregated to this Church, and also to experience Christ’s peaceful reign within you by His grace and heavenly consolations, you must first prepare yourselves by the exercise of penance.
Mat 3:3 For this is he that was spoken of by Isaias the prophet, saying: A voice of one crying in the desert, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.
“For this is He that was spoken of,” &c. These words are commonly understood to be the words, not of the Baptist in continuation of his sermon, but of the Evangelist, historically describing and applying to the mission of the Baptist the prophecy of Isaias. Thus is shown that John preached in the desert, by Divine commission, and not from human delegation or natural impulse, since it was of him Isaias had spoken long beforehand, as destined to raise his voice in the desert and exhort the people to prepare for the coming of the Son of God.
“A voice (shall be heard) of one crying in the desert,” &c. These words are understood by some commentators to refer, in their primary historical sense, to the messengers who were to announce to the Jewish people their return from captivity; and in their secondary sense—which was the chief meaning intended by the Holy Ghost—to the preaching of the Baptist. The whole context of Isaias (Isa 40) renders it more likely that, even in their primary sense, they refer to the Baptist. For, some passages in this 40th chap. of Isaias could hardly apply to the return from captivity, and can be only understood of the blessings brought us by Christ, of whom the Baptist was the precursor.
“A voice of one crying” (vox clamantis) may refer to the voice of the Baptist himself. He was the voice of a herald proclaiming, by Divine commission, the liberation of God’s people from the servitude of sin and Satan; or, to the voice of God, whose herald he was. Hence, he says of himself, “I am the voice of one crying,” &c. (John 1:23), as if he said, “I am he,” of whom it is written, “A voice of one crying in the wilderness” (shall be heard). The Hebrew, Kol-Kore, may be also rendered, “a voice crying” (vox clamans), in which rendering, the distinction marked by the holy Fathers between John and Christ is quite intelligible. John was the voice—a mere inarticulate sound—Christ, the Word, for which the voice is the preparation (Epiph. Heresi 69).
The words are given in Isaias (Isa 40) as a proof, that God’s anger was appeased; because the voice of a herald calling on the people to prepare for the coming of the Lord shall be heard from the desert, &c.
The words of the Evangelist convey the sense of the Prophet, although the reading here slightly differs from the Septuagint, as well as from the Hebrew of Isaias (Isa 40).
Some commentators detach the words, “in the desert,” from the foregoing, and join them to what follows, “A voice of one crying out; in the desert, Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” &c., to correspond with the following words of Isaias (Isa 40:3), “make straight in the wilderness, the paths of our God.” But it is clear from the words of the Evangelist here, also (Mt 11:7), that it was in the desert John preached, and in the desert the voice of the preacher was heard. Hence, “in the desert” should be joined to the preceding, “a voice crying in the desert.”
“Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” is allusive to the Eastern custom of sending out men at the approach of kings or princes to prepare the roads, and remove every obstruction from the way by which they were to pass. Here the words mean, remove every obstruction that may prove offensive to the eyes of our Lord at His coming. Sin, the gratification of passion, occasions of sin—obstacles most offensive to God—should be deserted; and to effect this they should perform suitable penitential works, as a reparation for the past, as preparative dispositions for present grace, and as means to prevent relapse in future. “Do penance;” “bring forth fruit worthy of penance,” inculcated by the Baptist, are the same in sense, as the words of Isaias, “prepare the way of the Lord,” or rather, the former is but the application of the latter.
The Evangelist quotes Isaias in order to show the Jews, how inexcusable they were in not receiving Him, whose immediate precursor appeared among them, and had fulfilled in himself all that had been predicted, ages before, regarding him by one of their own prophets, both as to the time and place of his preaching the preparation of the way of the Lord, who was just coming after him.
Mat 3:4 And the same John had his garment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins: and his meat was locusts and wild honey.
This is added to show that the costume and manner of life of this first preacher of penance was perfectly in unison with his preaching, so that his life as well as his preaching would inspire contempt for the luxuries and pleasures of this life, and raise up men’s hearts to heavenly enjoyments. “Camel’s hair,” not fine camlet, which would not be in keeping with the Baptist’s austerity; but, rough cloth woven from camel’s hair, calculated to mortify the flesh by its pungency. Some say, it was a camel’s skin, with the hair on it. “Leathern girdle.” The Easterns wore loose flowing robes, and used girdles to gather them up round the body, lest they might obstruct them in journeying. While others used girdles of silk, wool, or cotton, John used this rough kind of girdle to press the coarse camel’s hair closer to his body. In this he resembles Elias, who is described as similarly clad (4 Kings 1:8).
“Locusts.” Regarding these, the most probable opinion is that they refer to these well-known small insects reckoned among the clean animals with the Jews (Lev. 11:22). St. Jerome (Lib. contra Jovinianum) tells us that the Eastern people used to feed on locusts. They salted and dried them, and afterwards used them as food (Pliny, Lib. vi. c. 30). The poor only used them.
“Wild honey,” deposited by the wild bees in the trees and clefts of the rocks, not so savoury as other descriptions of honey. His drink was, most probably, water, plentifully found in the desert, a drink in keeping with the coarse food he used. It was said of him, “He shall drink no wine nor any strong drink” (Luke 1:15).
Mat 3:5 Then went out to him Jerusalem and all Judea, and all the country about Jordan:
“Jerusalem and all Judea.” An hyperbolical form of expression, conveying the idea that very large numbers from Jerusalem and the parts of Judea adjoining the Jordan went out to hear the Baptist, attracted by the holy austerity of his life and his style of preaching, which may have vividly recalled to their minds the circumstances accompanying his birth. Possibly, they may have had some vague notions that he was their long-expected Messiah, whose advent was anxiously looked forward to at this time (John 1:19, 20, &c.; Luke 3:15).
Mat 3:6 And were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.
“Baptized,” strictly means, washing, particularly by immersion or plunging into water, the form used by the Jews, and the form of conferring Christian baptism in use in the early Church. This mode of conferring baptism being a mere matter of discipline, has been, for good reasons, since exchanged for that of infusion (Peronne De Baptismo). The baptism of John did not remit sin of itself, like the baptism of Christ. It only disposed men for that of Christ, and was an external sign of penance whereby men declared that they wished their souls to be cleansed from sin in a way analogous to the cleansing of the body by water. The Council of Trent (§§ vii. Can. 1 de Baptis.) defines it to be believed, under pain of anathema, “that the baptism of John and that of Christ had not the same force or efficacy.” According to the general opinion of the Fathers, the difference consisted in this; that John’s baptism neither remitted sins of itself by conferring sanctifying grace, nor impressed a character like that of Christ (St. Jerome, contra Lucifer; Greg. Great, Homil. 7 and 10 in Evang.; St. Leo, Epist. iv., cap. 6; St. Augustine, L. de Baptismo, Lib. v., contra Donatistas; St. Thomas, Part 3, Quest. 38, Article 6). St. Paul baptizes again those who received the baptism of John (Acts 19:5).
The definition of the Council of Trent was levelled at the Reformers, who denied that there was any difference between both baptisms, because, according to them, no sacrament confers grace of itself; all sacraments are but signs or seals of the justice which comes through faith, and faith alone. Whether John’s baptism was a sacrament or not, is disputed. If we take the word sacrament, in its general acceptation, to denote “a divinely instituted sign of a sacred thing,” it may be regarded as a sacrament. In this general signification, the word, sacrament, would embrace all the rites and ceremonies and sacrifices of the Old Law. The baptism of John not only contained an exhortation to penance; but, it also prepared for and prefigured the baptism of Christ. Hence, termed by St. Augustine (Lib. ii, contra Petilianum), “sacramentum lavaeri præursorium.” It was neither a sacrament, strictly speaking, of the Old Law nor of the New, but held a middle place between both. It expressly typified the baptism of Christ, as the sacrifice of Melchisedech typified the sacrifice of the Mass, both those types having the same matter as their antitypes. It is held by some that no form was used by John in his baptism; and, in reply to the argument from the words of St. Paul (Acts 19:4), “that they should believe in Him who was to come after him,” they say, these words contained no form, but only the subject of John’s preaching in general. They add, that the Greek clearly favours this view. Others maintain that the words just quoted (Acts 19:4), clearly prove that John baptized “in the name of Him who was to come after him,” and required, as a condition, that those baptized should believe in Him.
“Confessing their sins.” A similar form of expression (ἐξομολογουμενοι) is used in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 19:18), and there it clearly means, not that they confessed themselves to be sinners; but, that they confessed their sins in detail. For, by way of explaining what the word “confessing” meant, it is added, “and declaring their deeds.” Hence, here the word means, that they confessed their sins, at least the more grievous ones, in detail, as a sign of sincere penance, which dictates a horror, an aversion, and sorrow for sin, and urges the penitent sinner to unburden himself of the heavy weight of sin, and thus relieve his mind, by externally disclosing it to him from whom he expects consolation and remission, as the patient hesitates not to disclose his ailment to his physician. If the interior compunction reach the intensity of charity, it remits sin; if not, it disposes for the remission of sin.
The rite of confessing certain sins in particular, was practised among the Jews, and prescribed by the law of Moses. In Leviticus (Lev 5:4, 5), it is said of the person that sweareth … v. 5, “Let him do penance for his sins.” In the Hebrew, for “do penance,” it is, “let him confess what he sinned.” Also, Numbers (Num 5:7), “They shall confess their sins.” The fact of confessing that they were sinners, would involve no humiliation or mortification (for all must confess that they are such); and hence, it would hardly warrant the Evangelist in referring to it here, as an act of penance which the Baptist inculcates; or, as any of “the fruits worthy of penance,” which, no doubt, many of them brought forth. Besides, as Grotius well observes, the phrase, “confessing themselves sinners,” is quite different from the phrase, “confessing their sins.” The latter manifestly involves the exposure of sin in particular and in detail. This passage has nothing to do with the necessity of confession in the Sacrament of Penance, the proof of which consists in this, viz., that those on whom our Lord conferred the twofold power of binding and loosing—“whose sins you shall forgive … and whose sins ye shall retain,” &c. (John 20:23)—namely, the Apostles and their successors, could not exercise this power, as it was meant they should exercise it, so as to ensure its being ratified “in heaven,” viz., as just judges and faithful dispensers of God’s mysteries, without confession of his sins by the penitent. For, how could they exercise this twofold power of binding and loosing except they fully knew the nature of the cause, and the dispositions of the subject, on whom this judicial power was to be exercised, not capriciously or arbitrarily, but with discretion? Now, the cause in many instances embraces private sins of thought, known to God alone; sins against the Ninth and Tenth Commandments, which could not be known for adjudication, either as to number or magnitude, save through the confession of the penitent himself; nor could the inward dispositions necessary for pardon, so as to have the sentence passed on earth ratified “in heaven,” be known through any other source besides. Hence, the necessity of confession clearly involved in the twofold power of loosing as well as binding given by our Lord to His Church.
Mat 3:7 And seeing many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them: Ye brood of vipers, who hath shewed you to flee from the wrath to come?
And seeing many of the Pharisees and Sadducees,” &c. These were the two leading sects among the Jews. There was a third leading sect—the Essenes. These three sects were first heard of in the time of the Machabees. The Pharisees were so called from the Hebrew word Parash (he separated), because they regarded themselves as separated from the bulk of the people on account of their superior sanctity, their more accurate knowledge and religious observance of the law. They taught several traditions not in accordance with God’s law, as we see from several parts of the Gospel. They believed in the Resurrection—the immortality and transmigration of souls (Josephus de Bel.; Jud. Lib. ii, c. 8). They attributed some things, but not all, to fate (Idem. Antiq. xiii. 5). Their chief distinguishing characteristics were pride and hypocrisy; hence, the unsparing denunciations of them by our Blessed Lord everywhere in the Gospel; because, from pride and malice, they always opposed Divine truth. Owing to their external show of mere religious observance, they possessed the greatest influence among the people in general.
The Sadducees derived their name from tsedec (justice), because they made a profession of strict justice, in consequence of their excessive rigour in enforcing the punishments enacted by the law against transgressors, whenever they got hold of authority; or from Sadoc, their founder. These were a kind of freethinkers among the Jews—carnal unbelievers; Epicureans, in religion. They denied the resurrection, and the existence of angels or spirits (Acts 23:8). Denying fate altogether, they asserted that man’s happiness or misery altogether depended on himself (Josephus Antiq. xiii. 5). Against them were written the books of Wisdom and 2nd of Machabees. They rejected all unwritten traditions, and impiously perverted the meaning of SS. Scripture. Some say they admitted only the Pentateuch. While the mass of the people adhered to the Pharisees, the wealthy and higher classes attached themselves to the Sadducees, who allowed greater indulgence to the gratification of their corrupt passions. A bad example was given to this class by John Hircanus, the son of Simon Machabæus, who, in his old age, deserting the Pharisees, passed over to the Sadducees (Josephus Antiq., Lib. xiii. c. 8). Herod himself adopted the tenets of the Sadducees, and was a decided enemy of the Pharisees. Although maintaining doctrines seemingly heretical, and opposed to the law of Moses, still the Sadducees were not, like the Samaritans, excluded from the Synagogue. We find them, in passages of the New Testament, mixed up with the Priests and Pharisees, both in matters sacred and profane (Acts 4:1; 23:6). Their religious feuds with the Pharisees ceased a good deal under the Roman Governors, who proved equally favourable to both sects; and, however much they differed among themselves in principle, still they united in opposing and persecuting our Divine Redeemer—which is quite usual at all times with contending sects, where-ever the Church of God is concerned—a thing to be noticed, even at the present day. We shall treat of the Essenes and Herodians elsewhere. The doctrines and morals of all these sects are described by Josephus (Lib. ii., Bel. Jud., c. 7; Lib. xiii. Antiq. c. 9; Lib. xviii., c. 2). (See c. 22:23).
“Seeing many of them coming to (receive) his baptism”—“to be baptized by him” (Luke 3:7)—“he said to them.” St. Luke (3:7) says it was “to the multitudes that came forth to be baptized” he spoke. However, both narratives are easily reconciled, by saying that he addressed the Scribes and Pharisees whom he saw among the multitude, easily distinguishable by their dress and general appearance, so that when addressing the multitude, his words were meant for them; or, the words of St. Luke might be understood to mean that he spoke, in presence of the multitudes, words intended for the Pharisees and Sadducees.
“Ye brood of vipers.” These words are, probably, allusive to the old serpent who tempted Eve. Vipers were the most venomous description of serpents (Acts 28:3). Here, our Lord taxes the malignity of the Pharisees, &c., which consisted in calumniating and persecuting good and holy men. These haughty men prided in their descent from Abraham and the Patriarchs; and hence the Baptist, reminds them that, far from glorying in their descent, they should rather be humbled at considering that they were the descendants of vicious parents, persecutors of the prophet and of the just, whose vices they inherited and faithfully copied in their lives, rather than descendants of Abraham, whose virtues they practically ignored. They were the wicked offspring of wicked parents, whose malice principally consisted in persecuting holy men. This he says with a view of humbling them, and preparing them for penance, supposing that he regarded them as sincere; or, if we suppose that, divinely gifted with an insight into their hypocritical feelings, he regarded them as insincere, he addressed them thus, for the purpose of reproaching them with their vices, and deterring others from being seduced by their evil example, as our Redeemer did. (Matt. 23).
Who hath showed you to fly,” &c. These words are understood by some (A. Lapide, &c.) to mean: How is it possible that you could be persuaded by any one that you could escape the future damnation and pains of hell, in which you believe not (this would strike at the Sadducees) or have no apprehension of, from a false persuasion regarding your own justice (this would apply to the Pharisees)? This could only proceed from your own incredulity and vain presumption. Others regard the words of the Baptist as expressive of great admiration, as if he said: Since you are the wicked offspring of wicked parents, malicious persecutors and calumniators of just men, what could possibly influence you, who, either from incredulity, believe not in future torments, or, from vain presumption and a false sense of security, proceeding from a foolish feeling regarding your personal sanctity, fear them not, mixing yourselves up with the crowd of sinners, soldiers, and publicans, to come here, confess your sins, and receive my baptism? Surely, this cannot come from yourselves, but from the wonderful goodness and grace of God. This latter interpretation accords well with the following verse.
“The wrath to come,” is understood by some of the coming destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans; but it more probably refers to the future torments of hell, as in Matthew (23:33). The Baptist, who first proposes the future rewards of the kingdom of glory, also presents to our view the tortures of hell. Heretofore, the Jews were stimulated to the observances of the law, by temporal rewards and threats of temporal punishment. The Baptist proposes a new sanction altogether—the joys of heaven and the tortures of hell. Some read the word “showed” in the future—“who will show?” as if he said, Who can possibly teach you, who are in the habit of teaching others; who can instruct you and apply to you the proper remedies, who hypocritically conceal your inmost dispositions?
Mat 3:8 Bring forth therefore fruit worthy of penance.
Then, if through the grace of God you feel interiorly these sentiments of true sorrow, which you externally profess by coming here, prove the sincerity of your interior dispositions by performing the good works worthy of penance—the good works which penance inspires and dictates, and requires for its complement—mere internal feelings will not do. They must be shown externally in your conduct. These fruits of penance are satisfactory good works, opposed to the vices they indulged in. The greater the crimes and indulgence, the greater should be the satisfaction and reparation. The unchaste man should specially cultivate the virtue of chastity; the drunkard, temperance; the proud, humility; the thief and robber, after making restitution, should cultivate, in future, the virtue of justice, &c. “As they hitherto yielded their members to serve uncleanness unto iniquity; so, now, they would yield them to serve justice, unto sanctification” (Rom. 6:19).
Mat 3:9 And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham for our father. For I tell you that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
“And think not to say within yourselves.” Do not entertain and feel complacency or false security in the proud thought and false presumption: we are children of Abraham (John 8:33, &c.) to whom was promised a numerous progeny. Hence, whatever we do, we must be heirs to His promises, as God’s promise to Abraham cannot he made void. This the Baptist proposes as an objection, conceived within their minds, against the threats of eternal perdition, which he is after denouncing against them. To this he replies, as does St. Paul (Rom. 9:6, 7), that their rejection and final perdition would not in the least make void the promises made to Abraham. For the fulfilment and verification of His promises God could raise up from the very stones, children who would be heirs of His promises, even if the Jews were rejected, just as He raised the first man out of the slime of the earth, and vivified the dead and barren womb of Sara to give birth to Isaac, the father of the children of promise. “But in Isaac shall thy seed be called” (Rom. 9:7). It is not to flesh and blood, or to carnal descent from Abraham, the promise is attached, as is clear from the rejection of Ismael, the first born; but to faith and obedience. From the sincerity of faith, and not proximity of blood, the children of Abraham and the heirs of his promises are to be reckoned. For, the birth of Isaac was owing, more to the power and promise of God, than to carnal generation. Hence, were God, as a last extremity, to convert the very stones into men, whom He would inspire with the faith and obedience of Abraham, heirs to his promises would not be wanting. But, He had other means at hand, viz., the call of the Gentiles, whose stony hearts He softened with the influences of His divine and heavenly grace, who became sons, that is, imitators of the faith and obedience of Abraham. It may be, that, in speaking of “stones,” he referred to the Gentiles, whose hearts, obdurate in vice, were as hard as the statues of stones they were in the habit of adoring, “similes illis fiant qui faciunt ea” (Psa. 114:8), or, he may have in view, the “stones” strewn on the banks of the Jordan (“these stones”) which symbolized the hard hearts of the Gentiles. These, if converted into men by God’s power, would be spiritual sons of Abraham, by grace and faith.
Mat 3:10 For now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that doth not yield good fruit, shall be cut down, and cast into the fire.
This verse may be immediately connected with v. 8 in continuation of the metaphor of the tree and the fruit (the intervening v. 9 being regarded as an incidental reply to a tacit objection existing in their minds), as if he said: It behoves you to bring forth good fruit (v. 8.) For (v. 10) God is about to execute speedy (“now”) and irreparable ruin (“the root”) on all such as shall fail to do so without distinction of Jew or Gentile.
“Every tree,” that is, every man, whoever he be, whether carnally descended from Abraham or not, who shall fail to “yield good fruit, shall be cut down and cast into the fire,” i.e., of hell, which is “unquenchable” (v. 12). The words are allusive to the destination of worthless trees, left to be cut down and to wither. Their destination or end is the fire. Or, it may be immediately connected with the preceding (v. 9), and would then contain a second reason for removing the grounds of their false confidence, arising from having Abraham, as their father. The first reason is given in v. 9, “God is able,” &c. The second, here; as if he said, their confidence is ill-founded: for destruction awaits all without distinction, be their descent what it may, who shall fail to produce good fruit and perform good works. Some expositors understand this, of the approaching ruin of Jerusalem. It is better, however, to understand it, of the punishment awaiting every unrepenting sinner in the life to come. “Every tree … cast into the fire.” But, against this interpretation it may be objected; was it not always true that the judgment of God had, at all times, condemned to hell sinners who died in their sins? How then, say, that “NOW the axe is laid?” &c. If reference be made to future judgment, was it not very distant from the men whom the Baptist addresses? Yes, judgment of eternal damnation is at all times, from the beginning to the end of the world, inflicted on impenitent sinners, including as well those who in past ages, sinned in darkness and ignorance, as those who sin in the full blaze of Gospel light and knowledge. Hence, in Greek, we have the present tense, εκκοπτεταὶ, βαλλεται, “is cut down, is cast,” &c., embracing all time. But, in former ages, God seemed to dissemble His wrath and His punishment, which, although very heavy, would still be less severe on those who sinned in ignorance, than on those who sinned in the full blaze of Gospel light; and it is only now they are proclaimed far and wide, and openly made known through the Gospel, as near at hand. Hence, it is said, “NOW the axe,” &c.; because, in Scripture language, a thing is said to happen, when it is made known.
Others, not satisfied with the above interpretation, understand the words of the judgment of God in calling to, and rejecting from, His Church, “the Kingdom of Heaven now at hand,” which His Son is soon to establish on earth. In this interpretation, the Baptist would assign another reason why they should not rely too much on their carnal descent from Abraham; because, “now”—very soon—God will exercise His spiritual judgment on all mankind, whether born of Abraham or not, in rejecting them, or calling them, to His Church, as heirs of the promises of Abraham, according as they correspond with His gracious imitations to do penance, and reform their lives by performing the good works which His grace will inspire and aid them to perform; or, according as they reject the same, and merit, by their exclusion from the Church, to be finally reserved for everlasting fire.
Mat 3:11 I indeed baptize you in water unto penance, but he that shall come after me, is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you in the Holy Ghost and fire.
“I indeed baptize you,” &c. These words need not necessarily be connected with those of the preceding verse, as if spoken at the same time, or immediately after them, by the Baptist. From St. Luke (Lk 3:15) it would seem that they were spoken by him to refute a false notion, which he knew existed in the minds of the people regarding himself, as if he were their long expected Messiah. It may be, he knew their feelings from the faculty divinely granted him of penetrating the secret thoughts of their hearts; or, he may have learned their opinions from the discourses of the people, or from some of his own disciples who associated and moved among the people; or, it may be, if we consider these words spoken on the occasion recorded (John 1:19), that he learned it from those who were deputed to make inquiries of himself personally on this debated subject. Some commentators, however, think the occasion referred to (John 1:19–27) different from this, inasmuch as the occurrence, referred to in John, took place after Christ’s baptism by John, and the occurrence here recorded, before it. Moreover, he says (John 1:26), he speaks of our Redeemer as “standing in the midst of them,” of whom he before said, that, “He was to come after him;” here, and, St. Luke 3, he insinuates the contrary. If the three other Evangelists refer to the same occasion, referred to by St. John (Jn 1:19–27), it must be said, that they narrated by anticipation, as if occurring before Christ’s baptism by John, what only occurred after it. The people seeing the extraordinary sanctity of John, and the repute in which he was held, looked upon him as the Messiah, who was expected about this time by the Jews; because, the term marked out for His coming, in their ancient prophecies, had now expired. The rite of baptism which John administered, confirmed them in this impression, as the giving of baptism was considered a peculiar mark that was to distinguish the Messiah (John 1:25; Ezechiel 36, “effundam super vos aquam mundam,” &c.) This was divinely disposed, in order to show forth the humility of the Baptist, and add greater weight to his testimony regarding our Lord, while raising Him infinitely above himself, whom the people held in such high veneration for his extraordinary sanctity and austerity of life. The Baptist, in bearing testimony to our Lord, compares, 1st, his person; and, 2ndly, his baptism, with the Divine Person and the baptism of our Lord, and exalts the latter, in an infinite degree, as was meet, beyond the former.
First, as to His Person, he says, that our Lord, “who is to come after him,” his junior in point of birth in the flesh, and in regard to the time of his public preaching and manifestation to the world, to come after him, was “mightier” than he, as possessing within Himself infinite efficacy and power, which He displayed in all His actions, reaching not only the bodies, but the souls of men. The words, “mightier than I,” are probably allusive to the description of the qualities of our Lord as given by Isaias (9:7), who calls Him “the Mighty God.” His supereminent dignity is such that John is unworthy to be His servant, or to perform the most menial office for Him. One of the most menial offices assigned to servants or slaves of the lowest description among the ancients, Romans, Greeks, Jews, &c., was to carry, to bind and loose their master’s shoes. According to the other Evangelists it said, he is not worthy to stoop down and untie “the latchet of His shoes.” The meaning is the same as that conveyed by St. Matthew here, viz., that he is unworthy to perform the most menial office in His regard. Or, it may be that the Baptist used both forms of expression, viz., that he was unworthy to carry His shoes, or even to stoop down and untie them.
Secondly, as to his baptism, exalting Christ’s baptism above his own, he says his baptism merely reached the bodies of men. Its effect was merely to wash or baptize them with water, “unto penance,” as a sign of the spiritual cleansing which they needed, as a protestation of their need of penance for their past sins, but, of itself, it did not reach the soul, so as to impart grace or remit sin; whereas, the baptism of Christ, who was infinitely “mightier” and more powerful to impart efficacy to any rite He would institute, was not confined in its effects to the body; it reached the entire nature of mankind, it poured into their souls “the Holy Ghost,” who with the active properties of “fire,” cleansed and purified their whole interior, and lit up in them the burning flames of Divine love.
“He shall baptize,” &c. If the word, “baptize,” be taken in its plain, literal signification, then, it includes the rite of baptism, instituted by our Lord in water, as is indicated (John 3:5; Matt. 21:25), and the passage means: He shall institute a baptism, the effects of which shall not merely reach the body, and typify interior cleansing (like the baptism of John); but it shall confer the Holy Ghost, who will produce effects of cleansing, purifying, enlightening and warming, symbolized by the natural effects and active agency of “fire.” “And fire.” The word “and” signifies, that is, fire.
If the word, “baptize,” be taken figuratively to signify the effects of baptism in both cases; then, the words mean: the effect of my baptism is merely to wash the body externally, as a sign of the desired cleansing of the soul. But the effect of His baptism shall be, to pour the manifold gifts and energy of the Holy Ghost into the souls of men. It seems quite clear, that it is in this latter sense the words are to be understood; since, it is not the matter of his own baptism and that of Christ which John is here contrasting, but the effect of both, the latter being far more exalted, and as far superior to the former, as the cleansing of the soul is above that of the body: and the cleansing power and efficacy of fire, is above that of water. This latter sense is allusive to the signification given the word by our Redeemer Himself (Acts 1:5), where He speaks of the baptism of the Spirit; or, of receiving the gifts of the Holy Ghost; and the word, “baptism,” is taken figuratively elsewhere, to denote the gifts of sanctifying grace received through suffering, “habeo Baptismum … et quomodo coarctor,” &c. Hence, theologians distinguish the threefold baptism of water, blood, and the Spirit, the effect being substantially the same in all. The figurative understanding of the word, “baptize,” here does not, by any means, warrant the Methodists and Quakers in regarding baptism as a spiritual effect, and not as an external material rite; because, elsewhere (Matt. 27; John 3), the words must be taken literally, to mean an external rite. For, according to a received canon for interpreting SS. Scripture, the words should be understood literally, unless there be some reason or necessity for taking them figuratively. Now, in the passage referred to, there is nothing either in the context, or the laws of Hermeneutics, to warrant us in departing from the plain and obvious meaning of the words; whereas, in this present verse (11), we are forced by the very nature of the language employed, to understand the words figuratively; since, no one can, in the literal sense, be “baptized in the Holy Ghost and in fire.” The figurative use of a word in some passages of SS. Scripture would by no means force us to use it figuratively in every other passage, particularly when the context would imply the contrary. Now, the baptism of John was clearly an external rite performed with water; so was that also given by St. Peter to Cornelius, the Centurion. “Can any one forbid water, that these should not be baptized?” (Acts 10:44–48.) With water also did Philip baptize the Eunuch (Acts 8:38). The words, then, refer to the abundant effusion of the gifts of the Holy Ghost by our Lord on His faithful followers, through the rite of baptism, instituted by Him in water.
“Fire” is variously interpreted. But it is, most likely, meant to convey an idea of, and symbolize, the active properties and working of the Holy Ghost in the soul. The leading properties of fire are: to consume, enlighten, inflame, transforms all into itself. So it is with the Holy Ghost. Once He takes possession of the souls of men, like “fire,” He cleanses from their sins the truly penitent, who believe in Him. He enlightens, inflames, and transforms them into Himself.
Mat 3:12 Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his floor and gather his wheat into the barn; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
“Whose fan is in His hand.” In these words, the Baptist, after describing the great mercy and goodness of our Lord, in the plentiful redemption He bestows on the just and repentant, refers to Him, in His judicial character, and points out the rigorous judgment He shall execute on the unrepenting sinners, and on those who shall fall away from justice. This He does with the view of terrifying the unrepenting Jews, and also of removing any false feelings of undue confidence they might conceive, as if having once received the Holy Ghost, they need not be over cautious in regard to the future. The words convey a figurative allusion to the mode, employed by the Jews, of separating the chaff and other filth from the good grain, by means of a “fan” or winnowing shovel. By the “fan” is meant, the judgment which our Lord, “to whom His Father has given all judgment” (John 5:22), shall exercise at the last day, on all mankind. This judgment, although distant, is still virtually present and quite near. (“His fan is in His hand,” ready for execution.) This is intelligible, if we consider that the longest period of time, in the measure of God, and compared with eternity, is but a mere point; and, moreover, this judgment virtually takes place at death, which is quite near to each one.
“Thoroughly cleanse His floor,” that is, the grain on His floor. This may refer to His Church, in which are to be found good and bad; or, to the entire universe, which is “His.”
“The wheat.” The good, who persevere in the performance of good works.
“The barn.” Heaven.
“The chaff.” The wicked, the worthless, who have not done good, and have been workers of iniquity.
“Unquenchable fire,” that is, hell fire, which shall never be extinguished, as it needs no fuel, save the undying breath of an angry God. It means also, that the fire never destroys, or utterly consumes, but burns and tortures for ever, such as fall into it. The Greek (ασβεσῶ) means, unextinguished, unquenched, eternal, ever-enduring. The words contain an allusion to the passage of Isaias (66:24), “Vermis corum non moritur,” &c. “Quis de robis habitabit cum igne devorante … ardoribus sempiternis?” These words refute the heresy of Origen regarding the finite duration of the pains of hell, or their cessation after a certain period. Modern Origens on this subject are cropping up of late in this country.