Gibbs, Jeffrey A. “Matthew 3:1-12: John the Baptizer Proclaims the In-Breaking Reign of Heaven.” St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006, pp. 151-174.
Gibbs observes that though years had passed between Matthew 2 and 3, from the childhood to adulthood of Jesus, Matthew glosses over it in very simple terms. He finds the link to be theological (Gibbs 2006, 157), in that the Scripture is being fulfilled.
The term used in Matthew 3:2 for repentance, μετανοεῖν, according to Gibbs, is used by Matthew to call for a turning from unbelief and to God in faith, rather than to call for sorrow and restoration. It is a call for the unbeliever to be reconciled to God, not for the believer to be strengthened in the faith (Gibbs 2006, 152).
The significance of tenses in Matthew 3:6 is not wasted on Gibbs, who notes that in 3:2, a call for repentance comes before baptism, in 3:6 the confessing is happening concurrently with baptism, and in 3:7 the Jewish leaders refuse to confess, which leads to their lack of baptism. Gibbs takes this to show that in 3:11 baptism is intended “to produce repentance as a goal (Gibbs 2006, 154, emphasis Gibbs’). Repentance, then, comes from the work of God’s Word.
There is a substantial difference between the view in Matthew 3:11 of John’s baptism and that of Jesus’ baptism in Matthew 3:12. Gibbs contends that neither verse 11 nor 12 refers to Christian baptism, but that John’s baptism is one of repentance and the baptism of fire and the Holy Spirit is an eschatological vision, not yet fulfilled (Gibbs 2006, 156).
Although Matthew 3:1 introduces John as the Baptizer, Gibbs notes that there is more emphasis on his work of preaching (Gibbs 2006, 158). The call to repent is a call to be converted from a condition of lost sheep to God’s flock. The conversion is made especially timely, as Gibbs translates it, because “the reign of heaven stands near” (v. 2) (Gibbs 2006, 159). Gibbs takes this to signify that we are considered to be in the last days and that God’s activity is right here. The eschatological hope of Jesus was vivid in the first century (Gibbs 2006, 160). Gibbs further identifies their hope as centered in God’s presence in time and space to establish his reign in his people. This is distinct from a relatively disembodied hope for release from this life (Gibbs 2006, 161).
We might wonder why John the Baptizer has the authority to speak as he does. Gibbs observes that Matthew 3:3 identifies him as the fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 40:3 (Gibbs 2006, 162). The coming one would be a herald and announce God’s good favor and mercy.
Gibbs notes that John’s appearance, including his clothing, make a parallel with Elijah (Gibbs 2006, 163). Matthew later shows Jesus identifying John as the promised Elijah (11:14).
What is the significance of John’s baptism? Gibbs acknowledges that we know relatively little about the numerous rituals of first century Judaism involving water and purification (Gibbs 2006, 164). What may set John’s baptism apart from the other rites is the close relation to his preaching, and that being a message of repentance and conversion to believe God’s reign. John’s baptism is clearly tied to repentance and faith.Gibbs goes so far as to say John (3:11) suggests the baptism results in or leads to repentance, something which John’s preaching also does (Gibbs 2006, 165).
The Pharisees and Sadducees, from Matthew 3:7-10, are not understood as the same group, but Gibbs sees Matthew tying them together conceptually because both groups failed to see that they needed to repent of sin (Gibbs 2006, 166). Gibbs acknowledges that we do not know enough about the groups to understand them in the way the first audience would. Many of the writings we have are several hundred years distant from the early first century, and contain elements from various time period (Gibbs 2006, 167). Gibbs finds the movement of the Pharisees to be recognizable by the mid 2nd century B.C. (Gibbs 2006, 168). It is not a priestly movement. There wre strong emphases on the synagogue movement, on oral tradition, ritual purity, and God’s commands. The Sadducees, less well known to us, were apparently an aristocratic and priestly movement centered in Jerusalem (Gibbs 2006, 168).
John’s statements to the Pharisees and Sadducees were very forceful (3:7-10). Gibbs, seeing the Pharisees and Sadducees as depending on their heritage under God’s covenant rather than on repentant faith, finds them in sharp opposition to John’s message (Gibbs 2006, 170). John’s preaching called for total dependence on God’s mercy, nothing less. This would cause most people some trouble. John is utterly unaccepting of compromise (Gibbs 2006, 171).
The difference between Jaohn’s baptism and Jesus’ baptism is the subject of Matthew 3:11-12. In John’s view, the work of Jesus is by far the greater. Gibbs observes that John is looking forward to what Jesus will do in the eschaton (Gibbs 2006, 172). Because of the eschatological view, Gibbs takes Jesus’ work of baptizing with the Holy Spirit and with fire to be a reference to something other than Christian baptism, which is not held off to be performed in the last day (Gibbs 2006, 173). In the last day the Old Testament is clear that we can expect an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The final judgment of God is regularly described as involving fire. Gibbs distinguishes between the two, with repentant people receiving the Holy Spirit but the unrepentant facing fire (Gibbs 2006, 173).