John the Baptist and Jesus’ Call (Matthew 3-4)

John the Baptist and Jesus’ Call (Matthew 3-4)

Matthew says nothing about the childhood or adolescence of Jesus, once he returns from Egypt. In 13:53-58 Matthew divulges some information about Jesus’ family:

  • Joseph his father is a τέκτων (builder, carpenter)
  • Mary is his mother and she has additional children
  • He has four brothers – James, Joseph, Simon, Judas – but is the oldest son
  • He has sisters
  • He was resident in Nazareth for these years.

We jump from the time when Jesus was 2-3 years old (2:23; c. 2-4 B.C.E.), to the time of John the Baptist’s ministry (Jesus is about 30 years old). Luke dates John’s ministry to “the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar” (Luke 3:1). Tiberius became Caesar in 14 CE and so this would mean John began his ministry around 29 CE. Luke also says that Jesus was himself “about thirty years old when he began his ministry.” (3:23). If this data is correct and we have no reason to doubt it, then about thirty years have passed between the end of Matthew 2 and the beginning of Matthew 3. Matthew’s general time reference “in those days” smoothed over this gap in chronology. We are sometime 26-29 CE.

We find four major stories in this segment:

John’s ministry and message                             3:1-12

Jesus’ Baptism by John                                     3:13-17

Jesus’ Temptation by Satan                               4:1-12

Jesus Begins his Ministry in Galilee                   4:13-25

Matthew introduces John the Baptist as a new witness to the significance of Jesus. Stories of John are found at the beginning of each Gospel narrative. Peter (Acts 10:37ff) and Paul (Acts 13:24-25) mention John in their preaching. Josephus also mentions John the Baptist and his information parallels that of the Gospels very closely.[1] Josephus’ description of John’s teaching is particularly significant:

[He] exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practice justice towards their fellows and piety towards God, and so doing to join in baptism (βαπτισμῷ]. In

his view this was a necessary preliminary if baptism (βάπτισις] was to be acceptable to God. They must not employ it to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed, but as a consecration of the body implying that the soul was already thoroughly cleansed by right behaviour.[2]

But who is he and why does he introduce us to Jesus in this way?



Matthew 3:1-12

Matthew tells us five essential things about John. Each of these is foundational to understanding the significance of Jesus. We also need to discern that John foreshadows in his own ministry many aspects of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus defines the significance of John in Matthew 11. A similar comparison occurs in Mark’s Gospel:

  • John and Jesus say similar things – 3:2 and 4:17
  • They are introduced in a similar fashion – 3:1 and 3:13
  • They are opposed by Jewish religious leaders – 3:7-10 and 12:34; 23:33
  • They appeal for repentance (11:16-19)
  • They act on the same authority, a heavenly authority (21:23-32)
  • They are considered prophets by the people – 11:9; 14:5; 21:11, 26, 46)
  • They are rejected and executed as criminals through the initiative of Jewish leaders – 14:1-12; 26-27)
  • They are buried by their own disciples – (14:12; 27:57-61)
  • Luke – miraculous birth for both and somehow related by family.
  1. He comes as the herald of God, proclaimer (as defined in the quotation from Isaiah 40:3). The place of his ministry, the wilderness, is also important. Because of Israel’s history, the wilderness was viewed in Jewish tradition as the place of eschatological renewal (Hosea 2:14-25; Ezekiel 20:33-38). This is probably why the Qumran community lived in the wilderness (CD. 8:12-15; 1QS 9:20 “This is the time for making ready the path to the desert and he will teach them about all that has been discovered so that they can carry it out in this moment and so they will be detached from anyone who has not withdrawn his path from all wickedness”). John summons the people to join him in the wilderness, an unusual direction for a prophet to take. Usually the prophet goes to the people. Various messianic pretenders in the first century gathered Jewish people in wilderness[3] areas in preparation for assault on Roman positions.
  2. In vv. 1-3 John comes in fulfillment of the prophecy given in Isaiah 40:3. His message is distinct and provocative; “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has drawn near.” Matthew’s emphasis is slightly different from Mark 1:4 and Luke 3:3, but is not contradictory to these reports. He wants to emphasize the identity between John and Jesus in terms of their message. We will seek to understand John’s message when we discuss 4:17. Matthew states explicitly that John is “this person who was spoken of by Isaiah the prophet.” This is a very direct statement of interpretation by Matthew. It is not, however, a formula quotation because there is no verb of fulfillment present. Isaiah’s prophecy speaks of God’s coming from the wilderness and the imperative for the people to prepare a perfect pathway for him. John interprets this preparation as a required personal spiritual and moral readiness, which, if neglected, puts the person in jeopardy of judgment.[4]

Mark begins his Gospel narrative with a composite quotation that includes reference to Isaiah 40:3. However, Matthew and Luke both use only Isaiah 40:3 in reference to John. Later in Matthew 11:10 and Luke 7:27 they use the composite version (Mal. 3:1/Ex. 23:20 and Isa. 40:3). The one change that Matthew makes is to alter “the paths of our God” (Isa. 40:3) to “his paths,” perhaps to make clear the connection with Jesus. Who is the “Lord” in Isaiah 40:3 and who is the “Lord” in Matthew 3:3? How does John prepare the way? Perhaps as Jesus reveals later in Matthew, it is because John is the prophesied Elijah (11:14; 17:11-13; cf. Mal. 3:1f) who calls for repentance and renewal. Matthew reverses the order in Mark, placing information about John and his message before the prophetic reference.

  1. Matthew refers to John with the intensive pronoun (3:4) – αὐτὸς δὲ ὁ Ἰωάννης – John himself, making the application of the prophetic reference specific. V. 4 describes the dress and diet of John. Although Matthew does not use periphrastic imperfects as Mark does (Matthew avoids this construction for some reason), he nevertheless has imperfect forms of the main verbs – “Now John himself used to have his clothing from camel’s hair…and his diet was locust…” In this he mirrors Elijah (1 Kings 1:8), using rough, simple clothing and having a very basic diet. Jesus comments on John’s diet at 11:18, suggesting that his diet was deliberate. It may also reflect his dependence upon God as a true disciple (6:25-34; cf. 10:9-10).

Perhaps we should consider vv. 3-4 as a parenthetical explanation marked by the conjunction γάρ (for), with τότε (then) in v. 5 picking up the discourse from the end of v. 2. The response to John’s message is quite extraordinary. Matthew puts “Jerusalem” first, in contrast with Mark, and uses the name of the city, rather than referring to the inhabitants. He continues the imperfects in vv. 5-6. The description of the response to Jesus, 4:24-25 includes these regions, but also incorporates Galilee, the Decapolis and the people of Syria, a much greater region. Whatever Matthew may describe about later Jewish response to Jesus, at least in the early stages of his ministry, many Jewish people responded favorably to both of them.

  1. Matthew categorizes John as ὁ βαπτιστής (the one who baptizes (‘dips, plunges’) and the ending on this noun normally defines an agent — the one who baptizes (3:1). What was John’s baptism? Was it the same as the washings of purification that the Essenes practiced daily? Was it the same as the washings of purification that the Pharisees observed regularly? Was it essentially cultic in its focus? Davies and Allison[5] note the following aspects that differentiate John’s Baptism from other Jewish ablutions:
  • It is something the entire nation is urged to receive
  • It is administered once and for all, not repeated
  • It is for Jews only (inferred from the reference to ‘stones’)
  • It has an eschatological referent
  • It marks a spiritual commitment, preparing people for what God is about to do.

In Matthew’s perspective baptism,[6] i.e., immersion, plunging – for ritual purification, primarily demonstrates repentance and preparation for God’s imminent action. Matthew does not mention forgiveness explicitly in the context of John’s baptism, as Mark does. It is Jesus who provides forgiveness. But “confessing their sins” probably implies this. In what other context did Jewish people confess their sins and for what purpose? This is not usual OT language. Presumably it is linked with John’s call for people to repent (v. 1). There are some contexts in the OT where sin and guilt are linked to calls for self-washing (Isaiah 1:16-17; Jer. 4:14). God sometimes metaphorically washes his people (Ps. 51:7-9; Ezek. 36:25-26; Jer. 33:8). What John specifically thought his baptism was doing remains somewhat difficult to discern. However, the connection with repentance would suggest purification was central, with a view to preparation for God’s imminent plans, participation in his service, and avoidance of imminent judgment.[7] If ritual washing was an act normally required and completed before entering the temple to worship God, this would indicate additional significance to this act. Jesus does not focus on baptism in his ministry, perhaps because the majority of those following him already had responded to John’s call for baptism. His inclusion of baptism in the Great Commission was necessary because of the universal call to respond to God. Is the “purification” aspect of John’s baptism still an important element in meaning of the Christian act of baptism? How does “forgiveness of sins” relate to the experience of Christian baptism?

  1. Up to this point in this chapter Matthew has followed essentially the Markan outline. In vv. 7-12, however, Matthew incorporates other material, as does Luke (3:7-18). Materials that Matthew and Luke have in common are usually referred to by the letter “Q” (abbreviation for the German word Quelle = source). What their source was, whether oral or written, remains unknown. The Q material seems essentially to be teachings of Jesus. What the writer of the Matthew narrative may have done is take a sayings source (perhaps originally written in Aramaic or Hebrew as tradition suggests) and integrated it with the Markan narrative. It is quite possible that Matthew the apostle may have written the original sayings source and then subsequently, with the publication of Mark’s account, written the Gospel of Matthew as we know it, integrating the two different elements.

The Jewish religious establishment “comes to his baptism.” The Pharisees, who are very prominent in all three Synoptic Gospels, constitute the primary opposition in Matthew’s Gospel to John and Jesus, aided and abetted by the Sadducees. Josephus tells us that the Pharisees accepted the Jewish canon, believed in resurrection, sought to live out the priestly requirements of the Torah in daily life, and followed an oral tradition of Torah interpretation. They were politically more nationalistic than the Sadducees. Josephus says they believed in divine sovereignty, but also human responsibility. Conversely the Sadducees controlled the temple cultus, including the priestly functions. They did not believe in resurrection and tended to be more open to accommodation with Hellenistic ideas, supporting Herod the Great’s political agenda. They placed much more emphasis upon human responsibility, according to Josephus. They do not seem to have been particularly excited about eschatological ideas. Matthew (3:7; 16:1, 6, 11, 12; 22:23, 34) pays much more attention to the Sadducees in comparison with Mark (12:18) and Luke (20:27; Acts 4:1; 5:17; 23:6, 7, 8), who engages them in the post-Pentecost context.[8] Why do these religious leaders come to John?[9] Their interest suggests the tremendous influence that John was having among the Jewish people and their need to control this. Presumably their motive is judgmental, given the response John makes. He attacks their unwillingness to repent and truly be willing to support God’s new action. He accuses them of not wanting spiritual change. Their failure to respond to God’s initiative in the ministry of John and Jesus will result in divine judgment. God will pass them by and accomplish His plans through others.

The theme of divine judgment is prominent in Matthew’s Gospel. However, 3:7 is the only context where the noun describing God’s wrath (ἀπὸ τῆς μελλούσης ὀργῆς orgēs) is used. The cognate verb occurs in 5:22 (human wrath); 18:34; 22:7 — divine wrath is portrayed in parables. John says it is coming or imminent. What does this refer to? Does Matthew see it as forecasting the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, that occurs 30 to 40 years later? If this judgment is coming, what triggers it?  The only way to escape its consequences is by repentance, i.e., responding to Jesus the Messiah. This requires a fundamental change of heart that results in new behaviour – “fruit worthy of repentance (ἄξιον τῆς μετανοίας metanoias)” – including baptism. A refusal to be baptized demonstrates a refusal to repent. John’s image of “the axe already lying at the root of the tree” emphasizes that Yahweh will soon act.[10] Time is of the essence. Jesus also uses the analogy of good and bad fruit/trees in his call for people to enter the kingdom (7:15-20). Note the use of the adverb “already” (ἤδη) and the present tense verb forms – God has already initiated this assessment and judging activity. These people stand at the precipice of God’s new, sovereign action. A correct response is an urgent, spiritual necessity. It sounds similar to the situation of the Ninevites at the start of Jonah’s proclamation to them.

John also attacks the supposition that ethnic linkage with Abraham and thereby inclusion in the covenant promises were sufficient reasons for people to escape God’s judgment. Salvation was not guaranteed through descent from Abraham.[11] Note the possible play on words in Aramaic between stones (ebenim) and sons (banim). If covenantal nomism[12] was the dominant understanding of God’s relationship with Jewish people, it was not John’s understanding of what God expected. He challenges here this fundamental, Jewish orthodoxy, as Jesus will do and Paul after him. He denies that all ethnic Israel will have a place in the world to come. It is God who defines who is a child of Abraham and this definition will now include repentance and response to his Messiah, Jesus. Paul takes this up in Galatians 3-4 and argues that non-Jewish Christians are now ‘sons of Abraham’ because of their faith response to Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit. We have to remember that Matthew probably is writing after Paul’s letters are in circulation.

The fire motif in relation to judgment in Matthew is emphasized (3:11-12; 5:22; 7:19; 13:40, 42, 50; 18:8, 9; 25:41). All of these contexts (except for 18:8, 9) are unique to Matthew.

Vv. 11-12 express John’s understanding of what God is about to do and why repentance is so critical. “One is coming after me”, he claims (Psalm 118(117):26; Mark 11:9-11). John knows he is not the Messiah, but only sets in motion events that culminate in the Messiah’s presence. While various theories are proposed as to John’s reference, the messianic reference is the most likely. The concept of strength (ischuros ἰσχυρός) is associated with the Messiah in Isaiah 11:1-2 and 53:12. This is echoed in Jesus’ parable (Matthew 12:29) where the strong man is bound. In what ways is Jesus “more powerful” than John? How does this concept of strength relate to the concept of the “Kingdom of God?” How does Jesus’ resurrection present the final statement of Jesus’ “strength?” Somehow this is related to his gifting of the Spirit and his ability to bring judgment, as John continues to declare in his prophecy. To baptize in Spirit would suggest purification and empowerment and to baptize in fire would suggest judgment. These verses are still addressed to the religious leaders and become then a declaration of God’s intent, a prophecy that they must consider and not reject. Matthew’s wording in v. 11 is different from Mark’s and may suggest the image, not so much of loosing sandals, as carrying sandals (bastasai βαστάσαι).

There is no apparent tradition in Judaism that the Messiah will dispense the Spirit. He will certainly be endued with and empowered by the Spirit (Isaiah 11:2; 42:1; 61:1). In what way is John’s prophecy about Jesus and the Spirit fulfilled during Jesus’ ministry, i.e., through his teaching, healings, and exorcisms – the evidence of the Spirit’s presence? Or is it only appropriately defined by what happens at Pentecost and afterwards?

A new image is introduced in v. 12. The winnowing fan is the instrument used to toss the grain and chaff in the air so that the wind can separate the chaff and grain. It is “in his hand” and so this process is about to begin. To cleanse[13] the threshing floor means to clear away all of the chaff so that only the grain remains. The farmer gathers the grain and stores it, and burns the chaff with “inextinguishable fire,” an image that emphasizes finality and completeness. According to John, who is doing the gathering? How does this relate to Matthew 16:18?

John’s message sets up for Matthew the prophetic dynamic that Israel must face. He is calling Israel to repent and respond to God’s imminent Messianic initiative. The current Jewish orthodoxy will not bring salvation to Jewish people. One of the more recent hypotheses about early Christianity and Judaism is that proposed by N.T. Wright.

Jesus was announcing that the Jewish exile was ending and that he himself was the agent of Israel’s peculiar return from exile (JVG 126-127). Wright uses the parable of the prodigal son to argue that Jesus was presenting the story of Israel in terms of exile and restoration. In Jesus’ day many, if not most, Jews regarded the exile as still continuing. The people had returned in a geographical sense, but the great prophecies of restoration had not yet come true. The real return from exile, including the real resurrection from the dead, is taking place in an extremely paradoxical fashion, in Jesus’ own ministry. Those who oppose place themselves in the role of the Samaritans, those who oppose the rebuilding of the temple, those who wish the covenant God were dead.[14]


Is John’s message agreeing with this perspective? He did announce that God was re-constituting Israel based upon repentance, baptism and the acceptance of God’s new work in “the coming one.” He rejects the ability of current Jewish orthodoxy to accomplish what God wants to do. He acts in the wilderness and he announces imminent, eschatological activity, particularly judgment – the kingdom of heaven has come near. Matthew interprets his work in the light of Isaiah 40:3, a prophecy describing Israel’s return from exile. Whether John was “collecting people in the Jordan wilderness”[15] might be disputed. He plainly was offering a remedy for sin that was outside of the normal temple practices. However, return from exile motifs do not seem to figure significantly in John’s message, even though the quotation from Isaiah 40:3 includes some of these motifs (i.e., road in the wilderness). Rather than return from exile there is prophecy about judgment, which seems rather odd if exilic return is the motif. In the Old Testament the exile was part of God’s judgment against Israel.

Matthew 3:13-17

Matthew marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry by his interaction with John, the forerunner. He uses the same verb (paraginetai παραγίνεται, historic present) as he did to introduce the Magi (2:1) and John the Baptist (3:1). Jesus comes from Galilee for the purpose of being baptized by John. There is specific intentionality in his journey. Why did Jesus desire this? I think it is linked with his response to God’s calling.[16] Further, he is affirming the message of John and embracing its truthfulness for Israel. Jesus wants to be ready for his role in God’s kingdom initiative. Finally, it is the beginning of his role to “fulfill all righteousness,” (i.e., to bring to fulfillment all of God’s covenant promises and demonstrate that God keeps covenant and is righteous) so that God’s people can live in right relationship with God. Jesus has a sense of divine necessity that requires specific action. Matthew uses the imperfect tense to describe John’s repeated attempts to dissuade Jesus (diekōluen διεκώλυεν).

We should note the frequent use by Matthew of the adverb “then” (tote τότε) to introduce new sections or new events (over 90x). This is double Mark’s use of his favourite term “right away, then” (euthus εὐθύς). His use of this adverb emphasizes the linear, progressive plot line in the Gospel narrative.

How John recognized that Jesus was the designated one, the coming one, is not explained by Matthew (nor by Mark). Yet, John does, even though later in Matthew 11 he seems to question whether Jesus is indeed the one. Here John declares his need to receive Jesus’ baptism, i.e., in the Holy Spirit and in fire (note the repeated preposition en (ἐν) in contrast with Mark’s syntax, as well as the different ordering of these statements in 3:11 (as in Luke 3:16-17) relative to Mark 1:7-8). He wants to participate in God’s kingdom activity as it is inaugurated by Jesus. John recognizes that he is paving the way and he wants to share in what God will do. He obeys the moral obligation to fulfill God’s will as reflected in the OT Scriptures.

Jesus’ first words (v. 15)[17] speak to the way their respective missions will enable God’s ways to be fulfilled. John may not fully appreciate how God’s calling will be carried out in Jesus. His reticence at baptizing Jesus may reflect a view of messianic propriety that also generates future doubt (Matthew 11; cf. Peter’s reticence in Matthew 16:20ff). Jesus refuses to be constrained by any Jewish messianic preconceptions, even those held by John. His struggles to accept how Jesus will fulfill all righteousness are precisely the same as those experienced by Jesus’ disciples. He assures John that this action is fully within God’s will – it is fitting for us and carries forward the covenant promises God made to Israel, i.e., enables God to be faithful to his promises.

John agrees. Just as Joseph obeys the angel’s revelation, so John obeys Jesus’ revelation.

The actual baptism is described in vv. 16-17. Matthew emphasizes that Jesus “immediately climbs up out of the water” after his baptism. Is there a note of urgency here? As he is on the shore, he has a vision directly into heaven, the throne room of God. We are not sure what text Matthew wrote here. Some texts read “were opened to him,” indicating that Jesus is the primary, if not sole recipient of this vision. The opening of the heavens occurs in texts describing judgment (Job 14:12; Isaiah 64:1), but it also describes the reception of a revelation by seers (Ezekiel 1:1; Acts 7:56; Rev. 11:19) and this is probably its significance here. Jesus saw “the Spirit of God descending as a dove and coming upon him.” Davies and Allison[18] suggest an analogy to creation language (Genesis 1:1-2), with the Spirit, the water, and the bird imagery being shared. If this is the intent, then God’s actions here may emphasize the new thing that he is doing and the Messiah’s role as the provider of the new creation. The Spirit was already present with Jesus at his birth and so his baptism is not the point at which the Spirit comes. Rather, this signals God’s affirmation of his calling and status and his empowerment for the ministry he is about to engage, as servant of the Lord. Perhaps it also is another sign that a new period in salvation-history is beginning. It also indicates that the boundary between “heaven and earth” is getting very thin at this point as God intervenes directly in human affairs.

Finally, God speaks directly and affirms his special relationship with Jesus and his approval of all that he says and does. The voice comes from heaven and so represents God’s announcement within heaven itself, but beyond. The language incorporates material from Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1.

Matthew 3:17   οὗτος ἐστιν ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἀγαπητός ἐν ᾧ εὐδόκησα (this is my son, the beloved, in whom I take great delight)

Psalm 2:7         υἱός μου εἶ σύ, ἐγὼ σήμερον γεγέννηκά σε  (you are my son, I today have begotten you) (Greek translation of the OT)

Isaiah 42:1       Ἰακὼβ ὁ παῖς μου ἀντιλήμψομαι αὐτοῦ. Ἰσραὴλ ὁ ἐκλεκτός μου προεδέξατο αὐτὸν ἡ ψυχή μου (Jacob is my servant; I will lay hold of him. Israel is my chosen; my soul has accepted him) (Greek translation of the OT)

Isaiah 42:1 as quoted in Matthew 12:18

ἰδοὺ ὁ παῖς μου ὃν ᾐρέτισα, ὁ ἀγαπητός μου εἰς ὃν εὺδόκησεν ἡ ψυχή μου. (Behold my servant whom I chose, my beloved in whom my soul will take delight)

How and in what ways this collocation of texts occurred remains conjecture. That God could do it himself should not surprise. The wording of Isaiah 42:1 in Matthew 12:18 would indicate that Matthew intends his readers to hear God’s words in 3:17 as fulfillment of or at least related to Isaiah 42:1 and the servant song incorporated within it. However, the wording of the first part seems to reflect Psalm 2:7, which would emphasize the divine son of God role, with kingship connotations. That Matthew puts this into third person format makes the announcement a more formal and public statement of identification. This is also the format of God’s address on the Mount of Transfiguration 17:5. By making this affirmation, God declares all who oppose Jesus to be His enemies. I would suggest that since the speaker is indicated as divine and the words in Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1 are also attributed to the divine, there is no problem for God to re-use his previous words to express in paraphrase these key ideas.

“Son of God” is a major Christological definition in Matthew (11:27; 16:16; 17:5; 26:63; 28:19), to which other Christological titles give further explanation (Messiah, Son of David, Son of Man, Servant, Lord). The Jesus/Israel typology discerned in chapters 1-2 also places special significance on this title. In the OT Israel is God’s “firstborn son.” In the Davidic covenant context (e.g., 2 Sam. 7) the king is characterized as “son of God.”

Within the event of Jesus’ baptism we see the Trinitarian God at work – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is commonly the case in baptismal texts elsewhere in the NT (Matt. 28:16-20; Jn. 1:33-34; Acts 2:38-39; 10:38; 1 Cor. 6:11; Tit. 3:4-6; 1 Peter 1:2). The pattern expressed in Jesus’ own baptism becomes the pattern that defines Christian baptism. We as believers have our sonship affirmed in our baptism. We sense the first elements of an imitatio Christi.

I think the aspect that emerges most significantly in the first half of Matthew 3 is the strong division between those who repent and those who do not. John says that Israel no longer possesses any privileged status. Privilege has shifted to those who are baptized and who give loyal obedience to the one who is coming. Matthew will emphasize this throughout his Gospel, particularly through the parables that Jesus taught. In so doing Matthew is not creating a new theme in Jesus’ teaching, but is affirming what Jesus himself taught and marking its fulfillment in the division that is occurring between the Messianic assembly (which includes Jews and non-Jews) and those who adhere to a form of Judaism or Hellenistic religion that rejects Jesus as Messiah.

Matthew 4:1-11 – Temptation

Mark expresses in two verses what Matthew now narrates in eleven. For Matthew this event carries more weight and significance, as it does for Luke. First, we note that it is Satan himself, described as “the tempter” (v.3) and as “the slanderer” (διάβολος v. 1), who leads this temptation, not merely a demon. Second, the Spirit deliberately “led Jesus up into the wilderness to be tempted/tested.” The wilderness is the place of danger, where evil forces lurk. Both God and Satan are involved in this activity. The verb peirasthēnai (πειρασθῆναι) signifies testing[19], if God is the primary agent, or tempting, if Satan is the primary agent. We face the same problem in the last part of the Lord’s Prayer – “lead us not into temptation/testing.” Third, the Israel/Jesus typology is emphasized by the reference to testing in the wilderness, the forty days, and the fasting motif (in Deuteronomy particularly this testing motif is identified and emphasized). As well, we know from the OT that Israel sometimes is defined as “God’s Son,” just as Jesus is. Fourthly, each testing attacks Jesus’ role and status as Son of God. The way Satan expresses himself assumes that he agrees that Jesus really is Son of God. This is what God has just declared in 3:17.  But what kind of Son will Jesus prove to be?  Fifth, Jesus refers to texts from Deuteronomy 6-8 in order to rebuff Satan each time. Moses gives Israel the Shema in Deut. 6, urges them to worship no other gods, promises prosperity if they will be loyal to Yahweh, reminds them of their testing by God through hunger so that they would acknowledge their dependence upon God, and concludes by warning them never to forget the Lord their God.

4:4 = Deut. 8:3

4:7 = Deut. 6:16

4:10 = Deut. 6:13.

The first temptation is built on the conditions of the forty day fast Jesus has completed and his extreme hunger. Surely the Son of God has privileges that can be used for personal benefit, the slanderer urges. Turn the stones into bread! Satan assumes that the status of Son of God carries with it the divine power to perform such a miracle. The temptation would have no force if this assumption was not fundamentally true. Jesus never denies he has this power, but responds that its use in this way would be inappropriate. God knows what his Son needs and will provide it at the appropriate time. The Son’s role is to be obedient. He is in the wilderness at the Spirit’s initiative and fasting is assumed to be appropriate. God will provide food when it is necessary.  He must submit his power to the purposes of God. Perhaps Satan is attacking the very nature of the incarnation and God’s way of making himself “visible” in this world, concealed and with deliberate, voluntary limitation of his powers.[20]

The second temptation moves from the wilderness, to the exalted pinnacle of the Jerusalem temple.[21] In so doing Satan shows something of his power. He has access to the very center of Jewish holiness – the temple, located in the “holy city” (v. 5).[22] Satan explains the nature of the temptation by quoting from Psalm 90(91):11-12. That Satan knew the Scriptures is another extraordinary insight. God had demonstrated his ability to protect and preserve his Son in Matthew 1-2. Now Satan calls on Jesus, as God’s Son, deliberately to place himself in a vulnerable situation that requires God to act for his preservation, to demand that God preserve him from harm. According to the Devil’s theology, there should be no martyrs. However, God does not promise this. And as Matthew’s narrative unfolds, we discover that God in fact does not preserve his own Son from execution (cf. Matt. 26:53-54). Jesus quotes from Deut. 6:16 where Moses urges Israel to respond to God’s future testings in a better way than they did at Massah (Exod.17:3, 7). It is not our place to dictate to God how he should keep his covenant commitments. By leaping from the temple pinnacle, Jesus would be acting in a proud and selfish manner.  “Jesus does not need to challenge God, to make God demonstrate his fidelity.”[23]

Satan takes Jesus to the highest mountain in Palestine, for the third temptation. He offers him “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” (v. 8). What are the implications of this claim regarding Satan’s power and influence? For Jesus to capitulate would mean abandoning his role as Son of God and swearing allegiance to Satan. This would be idolatry. That Satan could make such an offer reveals again the extent of his power and his influence in the world’s affairs of state. Satan offers an alternative way for Jesus to be Messiah, but he would be a false messiah, a political one (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:5-12 and the figure described as “the man of lawlessness”). In fact, I would suggest, that Satan here gives expression to current Jewish modes of thinking in regards to what the messiah would bring to Israel – world domination and the glory of the nations (cf. Jesus rejection of such ideas also in Matt. 16:21-23). Jesus rejects this as contrary to God’s design for his Son. He could “gain the whole world and lose his own soul!” He will not have his authority derive from Satan, nor will he adopt a Messianic agenda different from the one God has laid out for him. He quotes Deut. 6:13 in response and rejection. Satan is sent packing, as he is also in Matthew 16:23. When Satan leaves, God sends his own messengers “to serve” Jesus, i.e., to provide for all his needs. God responds to Jesus’ needs in his time and according to his plans, not in response to the demands of Satan.

Some commentators say that Matthew really does not focus on Satan in this passage, but rather on Jesus’ response to the temptations. However, I would suggest that the temptations have no reality apart from the power that Satan possesses. Further, as we work through Matthew’s narrative, we will see many places where Jesus attacks Satan, limits his authority, and challenges his right to destroy the lives of people. If sin is the result of Satan’s interference in human beings within a fallen creation, and Jesus offers forgiveness from sin and a new heart, then Jesus is attacking Satan directly and giving him significant attention in his teaching and actions. Jesus commands demons because he is the Son of God and has vanquished Satan himself.

If the messianic perspective expressed in Satan’s provocations is a parody of contemporary Jewish expectations which Jesus considers a “temptation” and thus a denial of God’s messianic program, then what does this say about these Jewish understandings of eschatology? Are they in Matthew’s perspective a Satanic delusion and thus a misunderstanding of their own Scriptures?

I think one of our spiritual challenges today revolves around the reality of Satan. Do we accept him and his interference in human beings as a key part of our worldview? If we do not, what are the consequences?

We should also consider the question of the order of the temptations in Luke’s Gospel. He has the final temptation located in Jerusalem. Which order is historical and why does either Luke or Matthew alter that order? Or is it even relevant given that these temptations occur in the spiritual realm. Thus the chronological sequence may not be significant.

Matthew 4:12-25 – Beginning of Jesus’ Ministry

The events in Matthew 2- 4:12 move from Nazareth in Galilee (2:21-23), to the Jordan valley (3:13), into the Judean wilderness (4:1) and then back to Nazareth in Galilee (4:12) and finally Capernaum (4:12). Jesus’ return to Galilee occurs when he hears that John was arrested. While he visits Nazareth occasionally (perhaps this is the context in which Jesus makes his inaugural statement in the Nazareth synagogue as reported in Luke 4), he makes his residence at Capernaum. Jesus moves into public action, as John’s mission comes to conclusion, although there seems to be some temporal overlap between their ministries.

It is important for Matthew that Jesus’ ministry be located in this region because of the prophecy of Isaiah 9:1-2. The traditional tribal boundaries would place Nazareth in Zebulun and Capernaum in Naphthali. As well, Capernaum is “by the sea,” located on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. Perhaps as many as 12,000 people lived in this region, with an economy based on fishing, agriculture and trade. There was a Roman garrison there, as well as a customs station (Matthew 8:5-13; 9:9-10; 17:24), because it was very close to the trade route between Damascus and Ptolemais (Acco). It was located in the territory of Herod Antipas, about two miles from where the Jordan River flows into the sea of Galilee. It served as an important centre for Jesus’ ministry.[24]

The quotation from Isaiah 9:1-2 essentially follows the LXX, but has some differences.

Isaiah 9:1-2 Matthew 4:15-16
χώρα Ζαβουλων, ἡ γῆ Νεφθαλιμ

[ὁδὸν θαλάσσης]

καὶ οἱ λοιποὶ οἱ τὴν παραλίαν κατοικοῦντες καὶ πέραν τοῦ Ἰορδάνου

Γαλιλαία τῶν έθνῶν

τὰ μέρη τῆς Ἰουδαίας.

ὁ λαὸς ὁ πορευόμενος ἐν σκότει ἴδετε φῶς μέγα

οἰ καταοικοῦντες ἐν χῶρᾳ καὶ σκιᾷ θανάτου φῶς λάμψει ἐφ’ ὑμᾶς.


O country of Zaboulon, the land of Nephthalim, [by way of the sea], and the rest who inhabit the seashore and beyond Jordan, Galilee of the nations, the parts of Judea. O you people who walk in darkness, see a great light. O you who live in the country and in the shadow of death, light will shine on you. (NETS)

γῆ Ζαβουλὼν καὶ γῆ Νεφθαλίμ

ὁδὸν θαλάσσης,


πέραν τοῦ  Ἰορδάνου

Γαλιλαία τῶν ἐθνῶν


ὁ λαὸς ὁ καθήμενος ἐν σκότει

φῶς εἶδεν μέγα


καὶ τοῖς καθημένοις ἐν χώρᾳ καὶ σκιᾷ θανάτου

φῶς άνέτειλεν αὐτοῖς


O land of Zaboulon and land of Nephthalim, by way of the sea,

beyond Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who reside in darkness have seen a great light

And for those who reside in the country and shadow of death a light has dawned (aneteilen ἀνέτειλεν)[25] for them.



The emphasis in Matthew is upon Galilee as the place of the Messiah’s ministry in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. The contrast of darkness and light, death and life, signals the significance of Jesus’ ministry. While originally the darkness referred to the deportation of these tribes by the Assyrians, Matthew would define the darkness in moral terms – people held captive by sin. Finally, Matthew makes full use of “Galilee of the Gentiles” to indicate the ultimate goal of Jesus’ mission – the nations of the earth (i.e., Matthew 28:16-20). The final phrase “a light has dawned for them” may also resonant with the light associated with the birth of Jesus and seen by the Magi (2:1-2). Does Matthew in his narrative make use of this theme of “light” in relation to the ministry of the Messiah? Isaiah 9 continues to describe the Messiah as the son given, who will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom. Jesus’ move into Galilee marks the beginning of the fulfillment of all these wonderful things that “the zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish.” Turner emphasizes that Jerusalem tended to despise the Galilean region as spiritually deficient, but it is precisely in this place that Jesus chooses to minister. Its close association with non-Jewish populations (e.g., the Decapolis region) perhaps prepares the reader for the final words of Jesus in 28:19-20. Note that in Matthew’s quotation the verbs are in past tense, whereas in the LXX the tenses are imperative and future. He contextualizes the quotation to his purpose.

  1. 17 marks the shift to the next section. These same words (17a) occur at 16:21 and 26:2. With the section 4:17 – 16:21, Matthew describes Jesus’ ministry in Galilee which focuses on Israel (4:17-11:1) and Israel’s rejection of Jesus’ message (11:2 – 16:20). Three major discourses occur in this section:

5-7       Sermon on the Mount

10        Discipleship

13        Parables

At 16:21 Jesus announces his intention to go to Jerusalem.

  1. 17b also incorporates the essential message of Jesus, given in the same words used by John (3:2). Matthew seeks to say that Jesus’ message is consistent with John’s, but will include much more, as the remainder of his narrative will soon disclose.

A key phrase in Jesus’ message relates to the “Kingdom of Heaven.” This expression is distinctive to Matthew.

Kingdom of Heaven 3:2; 4:17; 5:3,10,19,20; 7:21; 8:11; 10:7; 11:11,12; 13:11,24, 31,33,44,45,47,52; 16:19; 18:1,3,4,23; 19:12,14; 20:1; 22:2; 23:13; 25:1
Kingdom of God 12:28; 19:24; 21:31,43
Kingdom 4:23; 8:12; 9:35; 13:19,38; 24:14; 25:34
Kingdom of my Father 26:29
Kingdom of their Father 13:43
My (other pronouns) Kingdom 6:10(your),33(his); 20:21(your=Jesus); 13:41(his=Son of Man);16:28(his=Son of Man)


There does not appear to be any distinction in meaning (cf. particularly how 19:23-24 works) between Kingdom of Heaven and Kingdom of God.[26] Parallel passages occur where one Gospel has Kingdom of Heaven and another has Kingdom of God. Matthew prefers a more Jewish expression. Such language seems to speak of God being king or ruling. It depends primarily on material in passages such as Isaiah 24:23 and 52:7 where God says he will intervene to establish his rule and this brings salvation and judgment into the human context. Kingdom language is also associated with a “son of man” figure in Daniel 7: 22, 26-27. Jesus serves as God’s agent to initiate and express his rule. Pennington[27] argues that plural forms of “heaven” refer to the divine realm, whereas the singular (never used with Father or Kingdom) refers to the visible, earthly realm (sky). He concludes that Matthew employs “kingdom of heaven(s)” to “emphasize that God’s kingdom is not like earthly kingdoms, it stands over against them, and it will eschatologically replace them on earth.”[28] It is both a critique of Jewish expectations which excluded the nations and a critique of Roman political ideology, affirming God’s sovereignty in its superior and universal nature and thereby giving encouragement to the people of God.

Matthew (4:17), as does Mark, says that this kingdom “has drawn near.” Does this mean it has arrived? At this point in Matthew’s Gospel the writer has narrated the actions God has taken to send his Son, the Messiah. All that he has shared would lead us to think that the Kingdom is about to be expressed in Jesus’ teaching and ministry. Yet, the future component remains undiminished. The analogy of the fresh dawn in 4:16 illuminates the issue of nearness. Jesus’ healings and exorcisms, as well as teachings demonstrate the initial stages of its presence. Passages such as Math. 11:4-5; 12:28; 13:16-17; 15:31 would all support this contention. It is the reality of Kingdom presence in the person of Jesus that increases the urgency for human repentance. The last phase of salvation-history has started, but “not yet reached its climax.”[29] Notice how Matthew’s ordering of Jesus’ initial proclamation is different from Mark 1:15. Matthew places the command “repent” first, for emphasis, and then offers a reason for this.

The act of proclamation (often translated as “preaching” in English texts, but this is an anachronistic rendering) should not be overlooked. It is a prophetic activity, as illustrated first by John (3:1) and now by Jesus (4:17).

Jesus immediately begins to gather his own emergent community. Two sets of brothers, fishermen from Capernaum, Simon (also called “Peter”) and Andrew, James and John, are the first recruits. Both Simon and John are given some prominence in the Gospel narrative. Why they choose to follow Jesus so swiftly and unconditionally is not explained. Perhaps it is the unconditional nature of Jesus’ demand that captures their attention. Jesus does promise to train and develop them to “fish for human beings”, i.e., to draft people into the Kingdom of Heaven. Perhaps it was the proclamation about the Kingdom of Heaven, as well as John’s testimony, that led them to respond and signal their repentance.

For Jesus to call (ekalesen ἐκάλεσεν) people in such a fashion reflects God’s calling (same term is used) of people to specific roles in the Old Testament. This includes prophets (Isaiah 6, Jeremiah 1) and kings (Samuel anoints David at God’s direction) or leaders (Moses in Exodus 3-4). Jesus’ authority is the same as God’s. For these men to respond and abandon their way of livelihood is also significant. They must have anticipated that if the Kingdom of Heaven is “drawing near,” this was a very literal expression. We will have to discern whether all disciples are apostles in Matthew or whether the apostles form a sub-group within the larger sphere of Jesus’ disciples. The significance of forming a band of disciples in regard to Jesus’ self-conscious intention about his mission should not be overlooked. The term “disciple” means “a learner.” This co-relates to Jesus role as “teacher.” Note the connection of teaching, scribal training, and making disciples in 13:52; 28:19-20.

4:23-25 presents a summary of the kind of ministry pattern that Jesus follows. Teaching, proclaiming and healing are the primary functions. Synagogues form the primary locations for “teaching.” He “proclaims the good news of the Kingdom” in many public forums[30] and demonstrates its reality by the healings. No disease can withstand his authority. Note the repetition of similar language in 9:35 “The whole of Galilee” receives his attention. The results are incredible:

  • All Syria learns of his reputation – perhaps this is a reference to the Roman province and points to the non-Judean portion of this province.
  • People who are sick, demon-possessed, mentally ill (and/or epileptic), paralyzed – all seek his help and are not disappointed.
  • Crowds of people from all over the region follow him.

Such activities could not be ignored by either the political or the religious leaders.

Matthew does not emphasize the term ‘gospel’ (euaggelion εὐαγγέλιον) to the degree that Mark does. The seven occurrences in Mark are reduced to four in Matthew (4:23; 9:5; 24:14; 26:13). Nor should we make much distinction between the content of Jesus’ teaching and of his proclamation (compare 3:14-15 with 6:30), but its form and location do seem to differ. Yet at times teaching and proclaiming seem to describe the same activity. What Jesus does proclaim is the gospel, the good news, about the Kingdom. What makes this message “good news” for Israel? In Matthew 11:5 Jesus uses the words of Isaiah 61:1 to define his message as “the poor have the gospel proclaimed (euaggelizontai εὐαγγελίζονται) to them.” In Isaiah God’s promises to act for the salvation of his people are described as “good news” (Isaiah 40:1ff). They are royal announcements about the heavenly king’s actions to deliver his people, just as he did by rescuing them from Egypt. So this term carries with it the elements of:

  1. royal action – the gospel is the formal announcement of God’s salvation
  2. royal decree – God declares his intentions and nothing will stop him
  • royal commission – God appoints human agents to carry his message
  1. royal celebration – we rejoice to hear that God is acting to complete his plans.

Yet Jesus’ teaching/proclamation and his healing are the concrete means by which he releases people from “the shadow of death” and gives them light. Throughout, the repetition of terms like “all, whole, every,” points to the comprehensive nature of Jesus’ ministry. What is lacking is any specific reference to Samaria.

We conclude by considering the role of the crowds in Matthew’s narrative. Jesus is the primary character in Matthew’s narrative, but he is somewhat defined by the varying response of the other characters. The crowd functions as a collective character. In 4:25 Matthew says that “huge crowds followed him,” presumably because of the healings he accomplished. The people primarily would be Jewish, but since Matthew mentions the Decapolis, it is quite possible that some in the crowd, as well as some of those healed, were non-Jewish. Davies and Allison[31] propose that the crowd has several functions in Matthew’s narrative:

  • Because the crowds follow Jesus everywhere, they demonstrate that he is a charismatic figure.
  • They are a receptive audience, being amazed, astonished and reverentially fearful at the actions and teachings of Jesus. He is a prophet.
  • Jesus condemns the religious leaders, but has compassion on the crowds.
  • The crowd is distinguished from Jesus’ disciples. It does not represent the church.
  • The crowd is implicated in Jesus’ death.

The crowds are not neutral. They usually are supportive and responsive to Jesus.  They are “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

[1] Josephus, Antiquities 18.116-119

[2] Ibid., 117.

[3] Some hypothesize that John may have had contact with the Essene community at Qumran, that was also located in the Judean desert just south of Jericho, at the north end of the Dead Sea.

[4] Isaiah 40:3 was used by contemporary Jewish groups and interpreted in an eschatological manner: 1QS 8:12-16; Sir. 48:24; Bar 5:7.

[5] W.D. Davies and Dale Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew Vol. 1, 299.

[6] The Greek term βάπτισμα is transliterated into English as “baptism.” This is not a translation. The Greek term means “immersion, plunging, dipping” (BDAG, 165). The many pools and miqvoth in Jerusalem indicate that this often was a complete body experience and a well-known ritual practice in Judaism at that time.

[7] Some continue to suggest that the model of proselyte baptism by which converts were accepted into the Jewish community contributed to John’s use of baptism. However, we have difficulty in finding evidence that such proselyte baptism was indeed practiced at that time.

[8] Sadducees are not mentioned in John’s Gospel. The term γραμματεύς (scribes) occurs frequently in all three Synoptics, with one occurrence in John 8:13.

[9] Where are the Essenes in this? Are they unaffected by or unaware of John’s ministry? Did any from that Jewish sect respond?

[10] Consider the parable in Luke13:6-9 of the unfruitful fig tree.

[11] Isaiah 51:1-2 may be the OT background to this image – “Look to the rock from whence you were hewn and to the quarry from whence you were digged. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you.” If God could create the miracle child Isaac, as Abraham’s son, he can create new children in equally miraculous actions.

[12] For an understanding of what this phrase refers to, see Seyoon Kim, Paul and the New Perspective (Grand Rapids, Mi.: Eerdmans, 2002), 1-84.

[13] Matthew uses diakatharizō διακαθαρίζω, a verb not found previously in Greek literature, but Luke also uses diakathairō διακαθαίρω (3:17).

[14] Materials are taken from Carey Newman (ed.), Jesus and the Restoration of Israel and N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, p. 126-130.

[15] Wright, p. 160.

[16] In Matthew 20:22ff the writer does not include the reference to baptism as a metaphor of suffering as Mark does, in Jesus’ response to James and John.

[17] Ignatius in his letter to the Church at Smyrna, section I, composed before 115 AD says that Jesus was born of a virgin and was baptized by John in order “that all righteousness might be fulfilled in him.” This is our earliest evidence for the Matthean narrative.

[18] Davies and Allison, p. 334.

[19] In three places in Matthew’s Gospel the religious leaders ‘test’ Jesus – 16:1; 19:3; 22: 34-5. Jesus responds in each case by quoting or alluding to Scripture.

[20] Phil. 2:5-8. Is the focus on food in the first temptation also a reflection of the temptation that Eve and Adam encountered in Genesis 3 – eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil?

[21] Matthew uses an historic present to emphasize this action – paralambanei παραλαμβάνει (v.5), as he does also in v.8, using the same verb.

[22] Is this indicating that the Temple itself is somehow now part of Satan’s domain? If so, it is a devastating critique of the very centre of Judaism.

[23] Davies and Allison, p 369.

[24] Significant archeological remains exist at Capernaum. Some think that the location of Peter’s house can be determined. The remains of a third century CE synagogue are present and it may rest on the foundations of an earlier synagogue structure. Close by are the remains of the first century synagogue foundations at Magdala.

[25] The cognate noun is used in 2:9 (anatolē ἀνατολή). See also Balaam’s oracle in Num. 24:17 “a star shall dawn out of Iakob” (ἀνατελεῖ ἄστρον ἐκ Ιακωβ).

[26] In the Testament of Jacob the two expressions occur at 2:25; 7:11, 19, 20, 23, 27; 8:3.

[27] Jonathan Pennington, Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, Mi.: Baker, 2007), 149.

[28] Ibid., 341.

[29]Davies and Allison, p. 390.

[30] The verb κηρύσσειν is not associated with synagogues, but more public venues. It means “proclaim, publicly declare,” rather than “preach.”

[31] Davies and Allison, 419.