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1. In those days. The phrase is indefinite, but always points back to a preceding date; in this case to the date of the settlement of the family at Nazareth. "In those days," i.e., some time during the nearly thirty years since that settlement.
John. Hebrew, meaning God has dealt graciously. Compare the German Gotthold.
Came (paraginetai). Rev., cometh. The verb is used in what is called the historical present, giving vividness to the narrative, as Carlyle ("French Revolution"): "But now also the National Deputies from all ends of France are in Paris with their commissions." "In those days appears John the Baptist."
Wilderness (th erhmw). Not suggesting absolute barrenness but unappropriated territory affording free range for shepherds and their flocks. Hepworth Dixon ("The Holy Land") says, "Even in the wilderness nature is not so stern as man. Here and there, in clefts and basins, and on the hillsides, grade on grade, you observe a patch of corn, a clump of olives, a single palm."
2. Repent (metanoeite). A word compounded of the preposition meta, after, with; and the verb noew, to perceive, and to think, as the result of perceiving or observing. In this compound the preposition combines the two meanings of time and change, which may be denoted by after and different; so that the whole compound means to think differently after. Metanoia (repentance) is therefore, primarily, an after-thought, different from the former thought; then, a change of mind which issues in regret and in change of conduct. These latter ideas, however, have been imported into the word by scriptural usage, and do not lie in it etymologically nor by primary usage. Repentance, then, has been rightly defined as "Such a virtuous alteration of the mind and purpose as begets a like virtuous change in the life and practice." Sorrow is not, as is popularly conceived, the primary nor the prominent notion of the word. Paul distinguishes between sorrow (luph) and repentance (metanoia), and puts the one as the outcome of the other. "Godly sorrow worketh repentance" (2 Corinthians vii. 10).
The kingdom of heaven. Lit., the kingdom of the heavens (h basileia twn ouranwn). An expression peculiar to Matthew. The more usual one is the kingdom of God. It is a kingdom of heaven because its origin, its end, its king, the character and destiny of its subjects, its laws, institutions, and privileges - all are heavenly. In the teaching of Christ and in the apostolic writings the kingdom of the Messiah is the actual consummation of the prophetic idea of the rule of God, without any national limitation, so that participation therein rests only on faith in Jesus Christ, and on the moral renewal which is conditioned by the same. It is the combination of all rights of Christian citizenship in this world, and eternal blessedness in the next. All its senses are only different sides of the same great idea - the subjection of all things to God in Christ.
Voice. John's personality is thrown into shadow behind Christ. "What would be the duty of a merely human teacher of the highest moral aim, entrusted with a great spiritual mission and lesson for the benefit of mankind? The example of St. John Baptist is an answer to this inquiry. Such a teacher would represent himself as a mere 'voice,' crying aloud in the moral wilderness around him, and anxious, beyond aught else, to shroud his own significant person beneath the majesty of his message" (Liddon, "Our Lord's Divinity").
1. That confession was connected with baptism. They were baptized while in the act of confessing.
10. Is laid (keitai). Not, is applied, as "She layeth her hands to the spindle" (Prov. xxxi. 19), but is lying.
Is hewn down and cast. The present tense is graphic, denoting what is to happen at once and certainly.
11. To bear. Compare to unloose, Mark i. 7. John puts himself in the position of the meanest of servants. To bear the sandals of their masters, that is, to bring and take them away, as well as to fasten or to take them off, was, among the Jews, Greeks, and Romans, the business of slaves of the lowest rank.
12. Fan, floor (Wyc. has corn-floor). The picture is of a farmer at his threshing-floor, the area of hard-beaten earth on which the sheaves are spread and the grain trodden out by animals. His fan, that is his winnowing-shovel or fork, is in his hand, and with it he throws up the mingled wheat and chaff against the wind in order to separate the grain. 3
Throughly cleanse (diakaqariei). Throughly (retained by Rev.) obsolete form of thoroughly, is the force of the preposition dia (through). In that preposition lies the picture of the farmer beginning at one side of the floor, and working through to the other, cleansing as he goes.
The whole metaphor represents the Messiah as separating the evil from the good, according to the tests of his kingdom and Gospel, receiving the worthy into his kingdom and consigning the unworthy to destruction (compare Matt. xiii. 30; 39-43; 48-50).
14. Forbad (diekwluen). The A.V., following Wyc. and Tynd., misses the meaning of the verb. As in so many instances, it overlooks the force of the imperfect tense, which expresses past action, either in progress or in process of conception, in the agent's mind. John did not forbid Jesus, but had it in mind to prevent him: was for hindering him. Hence Rev., properly, would have hindered him. Again, the preposition (dia) intensifies the verb, and represents strong feeling on John's part. He was moved to strenuous protest against Jesus' baptism by him.
16. As a dove (wsei peristeran). In the form of a dove, and not, as some interpret, referring merely to the manner of the descent - swiftly and gently as a dove (compare Luke iii. 22 "In a bodily form, as a dove"). The dove was an ancient symbol of purity and innocence, adopted by our Lord in Matt. x. 16. It was the only bird allowed to be offered in sacrifice by the Levitical law. In Christian art it is the symbol of the Holy Spirit, and that in his Old Testament manifestations as well as in those of the New Testament. From a very early date the dove brooding over the waters was the type of the opening words of Genesis. An odd fresco on the choir-walls of the Cathedral of Monreale, near Palermo, represents a waste of waters, and Christ above, leaning forward from the circle of heaven with extended arms. From beneath him issues the divine ray along which the dove is descending upon the waters. So Milton:
"Thou from the first Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread Dove-like sat'st brooding on the vast abyss And mad'st it pregnant."
In art, the double-headed dove is the peculiar attribute of the prophet Elisha. A window in Lincoln College, Oxford, represents him with the double-headed dove perched upon his shoulder. The symbol is explained by Elisha's prayer that a double portion of Elijah's spirit might rest upon him.
It has been asserted that, among the Jews, the Holy Spirit was presented under the symbol of a dove, and a passage is cited from the Talmud: "The Spirit of God moved on the face of the waters like a dove." Dr. Edersheim ("Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah") vigorously contradicts this, and says that the passage treats of the supposed distance between the upper and lower waters, which was only three finger-breadths. This is proved by Gen. i. 2, where the Spirit of God is said to brood over the face of the waters, "just as a dove broodeth over her young without touching them." "Thus the comparison is not between the Spirit and the dove, but between the closeness with which a dove broods over her young without touching them, and the supposed proximity of the Spirit to the lower waters without touching them." He goes on to say that the dove was not the symbol of the Holy Spirit, but of Israel. "If, therefore, rabbinic illustration of the descent of the Holy Spirit with the visible appearance of a dove must be sought for, it would lie in the acknowledgment of Jesus as the ideal typical Israelite, the representative of his people."