Commentary on St. Matthew - Chapter 3
Jesus, up until this time lived in obscurity, and exercised a workman's craft with his father Joseph for nineteen years, to give to the world a memorable example of humility. He began to preach in his thirtieth year, that He might conform Himself to the customs and laws of the Jews. Amongst them it was not lawful for any one to execute the office of a doctor or a priest before his thirtieth year. Such is the Hebrew tradition, and the same thing may be gathered from 1 Chron. 23:3. Hence John began to preach in this same thirtieth year, but a little before Christ. Luke 3:23, "And Jesus himself was beginning about the age of thirty years: being (as it was supposed) the son of Joseph, who was of . . ."
Jesus also raised the dignity of the working class, being Himself and teaching that common labor can be used as a means of salvation. (See How Christ Changed the World, available through our sponser.)
Verse 1: Isaiah (40:3), prophesying concerning this desert of John, speaks of it as a wilderness. And this is plain from the circumstances. We see John's rough clothing of camel's hair, and his woodland food, the locusts and wild honey. Locusts eat vegetation, and there was plenty of water to baptize. Wilderness is similar to desert, when it means isolated or alone.
Verse 2: Kingdom of heaven, or God, is not used at all in the Old Testament; so St. Matthew is using this phrase for the first time. It can mean either the abode of the Blessed (Heaven), the Church on earth, or the reign of the Messiah.
Verse 3: Make straight his paths. Remove all obstacles which could be offensive to the Messiah, such as sin, gratification of the passions, etc.
Verse 4: S. Chrysostom and others, say "the clothing of his body spoke of the virtue of his soul." Eusebius of Emissa says that John's clothing was made of camel-hair sackcloth, since Syria abounds in camels. By this means he tamed his flesh in his youth, like as S. Paul says, "I chastise my body, and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway." (1 Cor. 9) For sackcloth, by its hairs and pointed bristles, pricking the flesh all over as with little needles, mortifies it greatly, and restrains its lusts. as they know who have made trial of it. SS. Hilarion, Anthony, Paul, Pachomius, according to the testimony of S. Jerome and others, were clothed in hair shirts, or sackcloth. S. Clare wore for twenty-eight years, even in sickness, a hair shirt made of hogs' bristles.
John had a girdle of skin about his loins, that it might press his sackcloth more closely to his body, and so the more mortify his flesh and subdue it to the Spirit.
Locusts; so the Vulgate, Syriac, and Arabic. The Egyptian translates grasshoppers, but it means locusts, which chirp like grasshoppers. So Origen, Hilary, Ambrose, Chrysostom, Augustine, understand by the word a kind of leaping insect, which is frequently eaten by the Ethiopians, Libyans, Parthians and other Orientals (Eastern dwellers). S. Jerome says, "Because clouds of locusts are found throughout the vast solitudes of the burning deserts, they are used as food; and this was what John the Baptist ate." So, too, the locust, because it leaps, was counted a clean animal, and was allowed by God to be eaten by the Israelites. (Levit. 11) Honey: S. Chrysostom, Theophylact believe that it was wild honey, made by wild bees, which they store in hollow trees, and which has a somewhat bitter and disagreeable flavor. The Ethiopic version has here, sedenae, which means a particular kind of honey, sweeter and more wholesome than the common honey. It is made by a kind of bee, less than the common bee, about the size of a fly.
Verse 6: The baptism of John was only a sign and affirmation of repentance, and a preparation for the baptism of Christ, that they might be justified by it. And so they were confessing their sins. For repentance, or sorrow for sin, causes a man to confess his sins, and seek for a remedy for them and for pardon. Thus the Jews in certain cases were obliged to confess their sins to a priest, as shown in Levit. 5:5, "Let him do penance for his sin", and 6:6, "Moreover for his sin he shall offer a ram without blemish out of the flock: and shall give it to the priest, according to the estimation and measure of the offense.", and also all of chapter 7, and Numbers 5:7.
But this confession was not a Sacrament, nor did it procure remission of sins, as in the confession instituted by Christ. For in that, as in a Sacrament, the priest, by the power conferred upon him by Christ in ordination, absolves the penitent from his sins. But that confession of the Jews was only a sign of penitence and compunction, or inward contrition.
Verse 7: There were among the Jews three leading religious and philosophical sects: the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes.
The Pharisees first appeared in the time of the Jonathan, the brother of Judas Machabees (acc. Josephus). They considered themselves superior to others because of their knowledge and observance of the Law, and so fell into pride and hypocrisy, but were still the most important religious group at the time of Jesus. They believed in the resurrection of the body and in the immortality of the soul. They also followed the faith and hope of the ancient Fathers, Abraham, Moses, and the Prophets; and the people were on their side.
The Sadducces, a smaller body than the Pharisees, were named from their founder, Sadoc, and were known for their rigorous justice in punishing offenders whenever they had any authority. The rejected oral tradition, and denied the resurrection of the body and the existence of angels. They followed some of the fables (pagan customs) of the Greeks.
The Essenes are not mentioned in Scripture (Josephus); they strove after purity (but not like the Pharisees) which meant freedom from contact with material things. So they lived separate from the world, in rigorous asceticism and strict secrecy.
Verse 7 cont.: Ye brood of vipers. This is a Hebraism, meaning, ye are vipers sprung from vipers, the very evil children of very evil parents, noxious, crafty, and poisonous, who propagate your pernicious morals and errors which you have derived and inherited from your wicked ancestors, in your disciples, as your children, whose souls you kill and destroy.
Christ explains John's words, saying (Matt. 23:31), "Wherefore you are witnesses against yourselves that you are the sons of them that killed the prophets. You also fill up the measure of your fathers. Ye serpents, generation of vipers, how will ye flee from the judgment of hell?"
The wrath to come means the wrath of Christ the Judge, which He will manifest to the wicked who are condemned in the Day of Judgment. It means the vengeance and sentence of condemnation which He shall then pronounce upon them, as Christ Himself explains. (Matt. 23:33) S. John the Baptist was a true preacher of the kingdom of heaven, promising it to those who repent, but a preacher likewise of the wrath of God and of hell, with these threatening the impenitent, such as were the Pharisees and Sadducees. Isaiah did the same (2:19), and Hosea (10:8), and Christ Himself (Luke 23:30).
Verse 9: Do not think that because you have Abraham as your father, you are therefore justified. God was able to form Adam out of the ground. As God turned Lot's wife into a pillar of salt, so is He able to turn stones into men, and even into children born of Abraham. God, by His infinite power, is able wholly to transmute any created substance whatsoever into any other substance, and that either as regards matter or as regards form. A real transformation can take place where the "accidents" only remain the same, as is the case in transubstantiation, where the whole substance of the Bread of the Holy Eucharist is converted into the Body of Christ, yet the "accidents" (i.e., a color or shape) do not change.
This also refers to the spiritual children of Abraham. For, as the Apostle says (Rom. 9:7), "Not they that are the children of the flesh are the children of God, but they that are the children of the promise are counted for the seed" - are reckoned as the seed and sons of Abraham. Mystically, God raised up out of stones children unto Abraham, when he made Gentiles to become sons of Abraham by imitation of his faith, piety, and obedience. For Abraham is the father of believers and of the just.
Verse 10: The axe is laid to the root, not to the branches; for that when the children of wickedness are removed, the branches only of the unfruitful tree are cut away. but when the whole offspring with their parent is carried off, the unfruitful tree is cut down by the root, so there is no remainder where evil shoots should spring up again.
This also represents the judgment of Christ, the King and the Judge, where He will cut off not only the noxious, but unfruitful trees - that is, the Pharisees and Sadducees - from the garden of the Church, and from the salvation and the blessing promised to Abraham and his children, and cast them into the eternal fire; and shall, in their stead, plant the Gentiles who believe in Him in the paradise of His Church, which is, as it were, the estate and heritage of Abraham, who is the father of all them that believe. John therefore threatens the Pharisees with the reprobation of the Jews, and intimates the calling of the Gentiles into their place, which was shortly afterwards accomplished by Christ; for He rejected the Pharisees and the Jews from the family of Abraham - that is, from the Church of the faithful, and consequently from the kingdom of God. Similarly, Jesus cursed the Fig tree because it did not bear fruit (Matt. 21:19).
Verse 11: John did not deem himself worthy to be the lowest of servants to Jesus. From the sanctity of his life and the fervor of his preaching, and from his baptizing, the people suspected that John was the Messiah, or the Christ. For none of the other prophets, except John and Ezekiel, had made use of baptism. (See Ezek. 36). Christ was mightier than John in miracles, because by a single word He raised the dead, drove out demons, healed the sick, changed the elements, whilst John by penance tamed the flesh that he might subdue it under the Spirit. Thus was the strength of Christ the weakness of John.
Holy Ghost, or Spirit: When He was about to ascend into heaven, alluding to these words of John, He said to His Apostles, "John indeed baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence." (Acts 1:5.) But invisibly He does it in the sacrament of baptism, and confirmation.
of fire: meaning the troubles of this life, per Sts. Gregory and Ambrose. Others believe it to be a strength of grace which cannot be overcome, a zealousness. Certain heretics, called Hermiani and Seleuciani, for this reason, baptized their converts with fire, as St. Augustine testifies.
Verse 12: The fan is that with which farmers winnow the corn which has been thrashed, in order that the wind may carry away the chaff, and leave only the good corn behind. The fan denotes the judgment of Christ, by which, as the fan separates the wheat from the chaff, He separates the good from the bad. The floor, denotes the Church, or the company of the faithful. The chaff are the wicked. The wheat are the just and the saints, whom He will gather into His barn, the kingdom of heaven.
The wicked are here called chaff, because, like chaff, they are very light, worthless and useless, and good for nothing save for fuel of Gehenna. S. Chrysostom gives an example of unquenchable fire: "Do you not discern that sun which ever burns and is never extinguished?
Verse 13: 1. That because He was born a man, he might fulfil all the righteousness and humility of the law.
2. That He might give a sanction to John's baptism.
3. That sanctifying the waters of Jordan by the descent of the Dove, He might show the coming of the Holy Ghost to the faithful.
4. A fourth reason was that by the Holy Spirit's coming down upon Christ in the form of a dove, and by the Father thundering from heaven, He might afford Himself an irrefragable testimony. So S. Jerome.
5. Christ took our sins upon Him. Therefore as guilty and a penitent He stood before John, that He might wash away and cleanse our sins in Himself. So St. John Nazianzen says, "John baptizes, and Jesus comes to him, sanctifying even him who baptizes, that especially He may bury the old Adam in the waters."
Verse 14: John recognized Christ by a secret instinct and revelation of God, which he had known thirty years before, when he leapt in his mother's womb for joy. This precept of baptism was given and promulgated by S. Peter on the Day of Pentecost, and therefore after John's death. Some gather from this place that John was soon afterwards baptized by Christ Himself, as were also the Blessed Virgin Mary, SS. Peter, James, and John, and the rest of the Apostles. This is stated by S. Evodius, who succeeded S. Peter as Bishop of Antioch, in an Epistle of his.
Some modern theologians and many others suggest that the Blessed Virgin had no need of baptism, as she was "full of grace". Our answer is: Although her baptism may seem unnecessary, the Blessed Virgin subjected herself to the laws of purification, which was unnecessary, and Jesus was circumsized, which was unnecessary. Was it necessary? Although she gave birth to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour, did she have a Christian nature, which is only imparted at baptism?
Verse 15: S. Ambrose, "that what you wish another to do, you should yourself first begin, and encourage others by your own example." And S. Gregory, "Of true humility is ever sprung secure authority".
Verse 16: S. Matthew says, as if a dove; Mark, as it were a dove; John, like a dove; Luke, in a bodily shape like a dove. There was therefore the appearance and similitude only, not the reality of a dove. Nor was there any need of a real dove, but of its likeness for a symbolical signification, that by such a symbol those gifts of Christ might be designated. In such a way were the heavens opened, not in reality, but in appearance. This was the opinion of Sts. Augustine, Ambrose and Chrysostom.
The dove is a most meek, simple, innocent, fruitful bird, very amiable, but very jealous. - And, has one other quality - one spouse for life.
St. Augustine: By the dove God wished to make it known that those who are sanctified by the Spirit should not retain any duplicity but should rather be animated by simplicity; and in order to show that this simplicity should not remain cold or inactive, the Lord willed to manifest Himself also by fire."
In various times, the Holy Spirit as a dove has descended upon illustrious Christians, S. Marcellinus in like manner, was designated bishop of the same city, A.D. 230. S. Fabian, in consequence of a dove lighting upon his head, was elected Bishop of Rome.
This was the reason why the impostor Mahomed tamed a dove, and accustomed it to fly to him, by placing in his ear grains of corn, which the dove picked and ate, and by this means he persuaded the people that the Holy Spirit was his friend, and dictated the Koran to him, and revealed the most secret purposes of God. He also caused the dove to bring him a scroll, on which was written in letters of gold, "Whosoever shall tame a bull, let him be king." But he had brought up a bull, which of course he easily tamed, and was thereupon saluted as king by the foolish people. So the authors of the Life of Mahomet.
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