Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Matthew 3.1-12
2nd Sunday of Advent - Year A

Other texts:

The 2nd and 3rd Sundays in Advent center on John the Baptist -- his early preaching this week and his questioning Jesus from prison next week (11:2-11). Perhaps if we want to properly prepare for the coming of Jesus, rather than looking in the manger (or the pre-Christmas hype and decorations and consumerism), we need to listen to John. While only two gospels mention the nativity, all four talk about John who prepares the way for the coming of Jesus.

Some of Matthew's emphases can be seen by comparing literal translation of Matthew and Mark -- an assumed source:

Matthew 3:1b-2a Mark 1:4
he appeared he came
John the Baptist John, who was
proclaiming  baptizing
in the wilderness of Judea in the wilderness
and saying, proclaiming
"Repent a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
for it has come the kingdom of heaven."

Matthew has a slightly greater emphasis on John's words than his action of baptizing. Only Matthew gives us a direct quote of John's preaching: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." These are exactly the same words Jesus speaks in 4:17, and quite similar to the words his disciples are to proclaim in 10:7. Matthew has a greater emphasis on Jesus (and John) as proclaimers.

Also, in Matthew, John never talks about forgiveness of sins! (More about this later.)


What is repenting? Literally the Greek (metanoeo) means, "to change one's mind." However, given Matthew's emphasis on "bearing fruit," his idea of "repentance" probably goes back to the Hebrew shuv -- "to change one's ways." It involves more than just thinking in a different way.

Perhaps the best and simplest definition of "repentance" I've read comes from Richard Jensen in Touched by the Spirit. He also relates it to baptism. (I have shared this many times before.)

The daily baptismal experience has many names. It may be called repentance. Unfortunately, repentance is often understood as an "I can" experience. "I am sorry for my sins. I can do better. I can please you, God." So often we interpret repentance as our way of turning to God. That cannot be. Christianity is not about an individual turning to God. Christianity is about God turning to us.

In repenting, therefore, we ask the God who has turned towards us, buried us in baptism and raised us to new life, to continue his work of putting us to death. Repentance is an "I can't" experience. To repent is to volunteer for death. Repentance asks that the "death of self" which God began to work in us in baptism continue to this day. The repentant person comes before God saying, "I can't do it myself, God. Kill me and give me new life. You buried me in baptism. Bury me again today. Raise me to a new life." That is the language of repentance. Repentance is a daily experience that renews our baptism. [p. 49]

Note that the command, "Repent," is in the present tense, which denotes continual or repeated actions: "Keep on repenting!" "Continually be repentant!" It isn't like a door we pass through once that gets us into the kingdom. Repentance is the ongoing lifestyle of the people in the kingdom.

Warren Carter (Matthew and the margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading) offers a slightly different understanding of repentance:

By repenting, people prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight. Both way and path are metaphors for God's will and purposes (Deut 5:33; Jer 7:23; Matt 7:13-14; contrast with Roman ways and roads). God's purposes, manifested in Jesus, will be experienced either as salvation or as condemnation depending on one's response to John's call to repent. To repent signifies, then, not only specific changes in structures and ways of living, but a basic receptivity to God's purposes. [p. 94]

However, Matthew doesn't seem to hold out much hope for repenting. The verb is used in the preaching of John and Jesus (3:2, 4:17). It is used of the people of Nineveh who repented at the preaching of Jonah (12:41); but the indications are that the people in Jesus' day will probably not repent (11:20, 21; also 12:41). The noun is only used twice, both times in our text: 3:8, 11. So if our preaching seems to fall on deaf ears, perhaps we can be consoled knowing that John's and Jesus' call to repent often seemed to be unheard.


"The kingdom of heaven" is uniquely Matthew's phrase. He often uses it in place of Mark's "kingdom of God." Perhaps, if we assume a Jewish background for Matthew, it is a way of avoiding saying the name of God. Robert H. Gundry (Matthew: A Commentary on His Handbook for a Mixed Church under Persecution) suggests: "Matthew prefers heaven to God so as to keep his readers from inferring that God the Father rules to the exclusion of Jesus. Rather, Jesus rules as God, as God's Son, and also as the son of man (see 13:41; 216; 28; 20:21; 25:31, all unique to the first gospel)." [p. 43]

basileia can refer to the area ruled by a king; or it can refer to the power or authority to rule as king. We probably shouldn't interpret the "kingdom of heaven" as a place -- such as the place we go when we die; but as the ruling power that emanates from heaven. We can understand the phrase to mean "heaven rules (through God and through Jesus)."

The verb eggizo is difficult to translate in this passage. It means, "to come near". It can refer to space, as one person coming close to another person; or to time, as "it's almost time". The difficulty is with the perfect tense of the verb, which usually indicates a past action with continuing effects in the present. For instance, these expressions in the perfect tense: "He has died" or "He has been raised" or "I have believed" can also be expressed with the present tense: "He is dead" or "He is raised" or "I believe". When we say with the perfect tense "The kingdom of heaven has come near." That implies that the kingdom is near or even that it arrived. Its "time has come" or "is now". Given the ambiguity of the perfect tense and the translation in the preceding paragraph, we might say: "Heaven's rule has arrived and is coming." There is both a present and future aspect to its coming. Heaven's rule comes with Jesus, but we are still waiting for it.


Ironically, in a chapter called "Worship," Mark Allan Powell in God With Us: A Pastoral Theology of Matthew's Gospel," states:

Still if worship is an appropriate response, it is not the ideal one. For Matthew, the ideal response to divine activity is repentance. . . . Indeed, Jesus never upbraids people for failing to worship or give thanks in this gospel (compare Luke 17:17-18), but he does upbraid those who have witnessed his mighty works and not repented (11:20-24). We know from Jesus' teaching in Matthew that people can worship God with their lips even when their deeds demonstrate that their hearts are far from God (15:3-9). Thus, the responsive worship of the crowds in 9:8 and 15:31 is commendable but will be in vain if performed with unrepentant hearts. [pp. 41-42]

What should be our response to the coming of heaven's rule? Surprisingly, it is not worship or praise, but repentance. Perhaps this is the big problem with the coming of the Kingdom or the coming of Jesus at Christmas or Palm Sunday -- we want to celebrate and praise, rather than repent -- to let the coming one change our lives.

What is involved in heaven's rule arriving? From Matthew 10:7-8, it means healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing those with leprosy, driving out demons; and freely giving as we have received. Jumping ahead a little in our text -- perhaps those are the good fruits worthy of repentance in 3:8 & 10.


John comes in the way of the OT prophets. Isaiah 40:3 is quoted (sort of). In Isaiah, "A voice cries out: 'In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.'" John's connection with the OT prophets is also indicated by his clothing which resembles the appearance of Elijah in 2 Kings 1:8: "A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist." In addition, John, like Elijah during the drought, was dependent upon God for his food. Locusts and wild honey are not the products of human labor.

Keener (A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew) after talking about the wilderness, John's clothing and food, states:

Matthew is explaining that John lived simply -- with only the barest forms of necessary sustenance. This was not the only lifestyle to which God called his servants, but Matthew believed that God called some disciples to it (Mt 11;18-19), and their lifestyle challenges all disciples to consider whether they have staked everything on the kingdom (13:46; cf. the emphasis in Lk 3:11; 12:33; 14:33; Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-35). [p. 119]


The requirement for John's baptism (which I don't believe is the same rite as Christian baptism), is "confessing their sins" (v. 6). The basic meaning of exomologeomai is "to acknowledge a(n inward) fact publicly." In our verse, it refers to acknowledging one's previous bad behavior. Its only other use in Matthew refers to Jesus acknowledging his thankfulness to God (12:25).

Keener notes that John's baptism is like that when Gentiles convert to Judaism, but John is "treating his fellow Jews as if they were spiritually Gentiles, calling them to turn to God on the same terms they believed God demanded of Gentiles" [p. 121]. Should we be calling our active church members to a repentance that we would expect of converts?

It should probably be a little disturbing to us grace-centered Lutherans that John, in Matthew, never talks about forgiveness! There is confession and repentance, but not forgiveness, (cf. Mk 1:4; Lk 3:3). As I mentioned above, he emphasizes the new life of proper fruit bearing more than the forgiveness of sins.

However, only Matthew has Jesus declaring the forgiveness of sins at the Last Supper: "for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (26:28, cf. Mk 14:24; Lk 22:20; 1C 11:25). Perhaps this is another indication of: (1) Jesus is more powerful than John; and (2) how Jesus makes heaven's rule come near -- something John declared, but didn't do.

Smith (Matthew) suggests a possible reason for this emphasis on bearing fruit language:

Members of Matthew's community may have been finding their security before God in the ceremony of baptism and in spiritual endowments. They may have somehow disconnected baptism from any thought of the deadly power of sin, from the solemn call to repentance, and from the summons to the new life of righteousness.... Matthew's report concerning John the Baptist amounts to pleas to his own community to rethink and reorder their lives. [p. 46-47]

John called God's own people to repent. He summons not outsiders but insiders to radical reorientation, calling religious people in particular to stop insisting that they know best and to cease resisting God, God's judgment, God's sovereignty. [p. 49]

Perhaps we need to proclaim to our people what life after baptism should mean. How do we proclaim "fruit-bearing," without it appearing to be "works-righteousness"? The difficulty is that those who are sitting in the pews are probably the ones who already know the truth of fruit bearing. How do we get the word out to those "not so active" members?


In Luke, we hear about "crowds" who come to be baptized by John, who are called "children of vipers" (Lk 3:7). In Matthew, it is the "Pharisees and Sadducees" (v. 7). However, there is a very significant translation/interpretation issue. The little Greek word epi carries a variety of meanings. The NRSV translates the phrase "coming for baptism." [Note: they ignore "his" (autou) in the verse.] This suggests that they were coming to be baptized, but epi is not usually used to denote purpose. Also, it seems unlikely that Matthew with his negative portrayal of them would have Pharisees and Sadducees showing repentance by undergoing John's baptism.

The NIV has "coming to where he was baptizing," using epi in its more common meaning to denote a place "on" or "upon". Thus they came to the place of his baptisms, but not to be baptized. More likely they came for critical observation.

Carter (Matthew and the Margins) goes a step further and notes that epi can mean "against". Thus the Pharisees and Sadducees are coming against his baptism. Thus Matthew already sets these religious authorities against God's purposes.

This opposition continued from John's time to Matthew's day. J. Andrew Overman (Matthew's Gospel and Formative Judaism: The Social World of the Matthean Community) suggests that Matthew's (Jewish) Christian community was developing along side of and in conflict with developing Jewish communities -- the strongest being Pharisaic Judaism which grew into rabbinical Judaism. The Sadducees were another Jewish group at the time who faded from the scene.

Each of these Jewish groups as well as the Jewish Christians of Matthew's community were forming their own identities and allegiance among the people. One of the characteristics of competing groups is portraying the others with polemical language as "the enemy". (Of course differing Christian denominations would never do that <g>.) Throughout Matthew, Pharisees and Sadducees are pictured as "the enemy" who taught and believed and lived in ways in conflict with the Christians' teaching, beliefs, and lifestyles. As I read this book, the thought struck me, which will probably come up often during the year in these notes, about how the Christian community today needs to establish its own identity and allegiance in contrast to the competing groups within our society and culture. As we will see, for Matthew, a large part of the difference is centered on "bearing fruit" -- what comes out of one's mouth and how one lives in obedience to God.

Smith (Matthew) presents a different view:

I think of Matthew as a Christian sage disturbed primarily by developments inside the Christian community. He recalls harsh words of Jesus against Pharisees and other leaders, not because he is locked in combat with the Pharisaic leaders of Jamnia, but because he is probing the mind of Jesus regarding issues of authority and leadership. At the same time he addresses issues of discipleship and followership. [p. 20]

Rather than directly attacking the leaders of his community, Smith suggests that Matthew lets them overhear Jesus talking to and criticizing religious leaders concerning their authority and leadership. Hopefully, they might see themselves in these conversations.

John's phrase, "offspring of vipers," is used in two other places by Jesus in Matthew. In 12:34 it is in relationship to bearing good fruit. In 23:33 it is directed against scribes and Pharisees, those hypocrites! I wonder if this phrase might be comparable to our derogatory title "SOB". It's probably not something I would wonder out loud in the pulpit, though. Malina and Rohrbaught (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels) write about this phrase: "'Brood of vipers' (literally, 'offspring of snakes,' 'snake bastards') would be as insulting a label as one could imagine in a society in which social standing and the honor bound up with it are fundamentally a function of birth. ... Such an insult places them at the lowest levels of illegitimacy in Israel, covering the full range of the term: physically, socially, and morally." [p. 38]

Keener (A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew) goes even further with this phrase. After noting that the term "viper" was an insult, he goes on:

More likely, Matthew may allude to a fairly widespread ancient view that vipers were mother killers. In the fifth century B.C. Herodotus declared that new-born Arabian vipers chewed their way out of their mothers' wombs, killing their mothers in the process. Herodotus believed that they did so to avenge their fathers, who were slain by the mothers during procreation; later writers applied his words to serpents everywhere. Perhaps in line with such thought a widely influential Greek drama had included the insult "mother-killing dragon"; more distantly but still relevant to the image of familial strife, a stepmother hostile to the children of the former wife is a "viper" to them. Calling his hearers vipers may have been an insult, but calling them "offspring of vipers" accused them of killing their own mothers, indicating the utmost moral depravity. The image of vipers fleeing wrath may derive from serpents fleeing the stubble set on fire to ready the fields for winter sowing or a tree-serpent fleeing those who will destroy the forest. One may guess that opponents of the Matthean community would bristle at the depiction of their predecessors in such terms. [pp. 122-3]

Overman (Church and community in Crisis: The Gospel According to Matthew) writes about Matthew's use of "Pharisees and Sadducees":

Here is an early indication of something that becomes painfully evident throughout the course of the Gospel. That is, Matthew's primary issue is with local leaders who claim to speak for the God of Israel but, Matthew believers, do not. They are false guides and teachers, they are not dikaios, and they do not "bear fruit." [p. 55]

It may be that we, who are leaders in Christian communities, need to read Matthew with ourselves in mind, letting it critique our lives. I think that we will discover that Matthew is much more critical of one's life than one's beliefs -- or, perhaps better stated: the life (or "fruit") that flows out of one's beliefs.


Is baptism the way to flee from the coming wrath (baptism as "fire insurance)? Not according to John. What is necessary is repentance and fruit-bearing worthy of the repentance. Neither can one rely on one's ancestors -- perhaps a sideways attack on the other Jewish groups who claimed Abraham as their father. Douglas Hare (Matthew) suggests: "The Christian equivalent of 'We have Abraham as our father' is 'We have Christ as our Savior.' While trust in Christ's salvation is a first requirement, it is not the last." [p. 20]

John's reference to children from stones has at least a couple of ironies connected with it. First of all, if he were speaking Hebrew or Aramaic, John is making a pun. The words for "son" and "stone" are nearly identical. In Hebrew son is "ben" and stone is "eben". Secondly, if God can produce "fruit" from a rock, then certainly God should be able to produce the proper fruit in those whom "heaven rules". I would think that God should be able to do more with us humans than with dumb, inanimate rocks -- but there are times when I have doubts about that. Sometimes rocks are preferable over some people <g>.

Carter (Matthew and the Margins):

The link between stones and Abraham derives from Isa 51:1-2; those who pursue righteousness and seek God are instructed, "Look to the rock from which you were hewn ... Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you, for he was but one what I called him, but I blessed him and made him many." The passage emphasizes God's action in calling, blessing, and multiplying Abraham. The rock is lifeless and cannot of itself produce offspring, just as it seemed the aged Abraham and Sarah were too old to bear a child, but God ensured it would happen (Gen 16:2; 17:17; 21:6). God's actions in human lives (Jew and Gentile) determines Abraham's children, not physical descent (so Jesus, 1:1, 18:25). Descent from Abraham by itself is not what ultimately matters, but God's action in the lives of those who live faithfully to God's gift and demand. [p. 98]

The "ax lying at the root of the trees" conjures up a number of different images. "Root" is used of ancestors. With its close proximity to father Abraham, could John be "cutting off" that ancestral root of faith and actions so that Christians might be grafted onto a new root? (see Romans 11:16-18). "Root" also has the meaning of "source, cause, or reason." Throughout Matthew, motives for one's actions are important. Bearing good fruit is not just doing good things, but also doing them for the right reasons. More literally, "root" means the "underground part of a plant." Or, we might say, the hidden part of its life. Part of "confession" as mentioned above, is making public what might be hidden. This use of the ax is not the pruning we read about in John 15. This ax gets right to the hidden source of one's life and kills it.

In addition, the ax was a symbol of Roman authority and a means of Roman execution. John puts the coming "Kingdom of heaven" against the kingdom of Rome. [Carter, pp. 98-99]

Only in Matthew does John use the "repentance" when he starts talking about the stronger one -- again emphasizing that this is the proper preparation for the coming -- and proper repentance results in fruit bearing for Matthew.

Only in Matthew does John talk about "carrying" the sandals. Mark (1:7) and Luke (3:16) have him unworthy to "untie" them. Matthew may be making another pun between "carry" and baptize." The words are bastazo and baptizo. The same word is used later in Matthew when he quotes Isaiah 53:4 about Jesus: "He took our infirmities and bore our diseases" (8:17b). Jesus bears our diseases. John can't even bear Jesus' sandals. That's how much greater Jesus is than John.


The word baptizo literally means "to dip," and secondly, "to wash, (often by dipping into the water)". I think that it can paint a new picture if we translate the word with "wash" or "cleanse" -- "I wash or cleanse you with water for repentance" and "He will wash or cleanse you with Holy Spirit and fire." The difference being that washing with water cleanses only the outside. Being immersed in the Holy Breath also cleanses the inside -- or one's entire life -- like oxygen in the air and in our breathing rejuvenating our blood and every part of our bodies.

What about the "wind and fire"? Are they both terms of purifying -- cleansing and refining God's people? Elsewhere, Matthew always uses "fire" in the sense of destruction (3:10, 12; 5:22; 7:19; 13:40, 42, 50; 17:15; 18:8, 9; 25:41). So, it is more likely that the "Holy Breath" refers to an inner cleansing, while "fire" refers to judgment.

Although Gundry (Matthew) rightly states: "Jesus will administer only one baptism in the Holy Spirit and fire, but its effect will differ according to good fruit or bad (cf. 13:24-30, 36-43, 47-50; 25:31-46, all peculiar to Matthew; and Isa 41:15-16)" [p. 49].

While we often picture Satan in a red suit with a pitchfork, perhaps we also need to picture Jesus with a fork (winnowing-type) in his hand. This utensil was used to throw the wheat plant into the air. The wind (= spirit!?) would blow the lighter chaff away and the heavier kernels would fall to the ground. Related to the earlier fruit bearing emphasis: the kernel -- the useful part or "fruit" of the plant is what is kept. The unfruitful chaff is destroyed. Like in the parable of weeds and wheat (13:24-30) -- the only other place "wheat" is used in Matthew -- the good and the bad grow up and mature together. It's not until the "harvest" that the separation occurs -- or is it?

There is a sense in Matthew that the kingdom community that lives by Jesus' teaching and bears the proper fruit is separated from the rest of society even in the present; but even in the kingdom community, the good and bad exist side by side. Even within our own lives as "simul iustus et peccator" ("simultaneously justified and sinful") people, we are wheat and chaff. Our cleansing means more than just "being dipped" (baptizo) but also, perhaps, being thrown into the air to let the "Holy Wind" blow away the worthless stuff. Heaven's rule has come -- and we are still waiting for its arrival. We have been baptized/cleansed -- and we are still waiting for our cleansing -- the removal of all the chaff/sin in our lives.

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901