Verses 1-2: What function did the herald of a king serve in ancient times? Why did kings need heralds? Is John the herald of a king? Why does this King need a herald? Compare John’s message to Jesus’s message in Matthew 4:17. Why do you think Matthew uses almost exactly the same words in each case? What is he teaching? Given Matthew’s focus on Jesus’ royal birth, how are we to understand “the kingdom of heaven is at hand”? How many ways can you think of understanding that the kingdom of heaven is soon to come or is nearby? Does it help to know that the word “kingdom” might better be translated “reign”?
Verse 3: Matthew (like the other three synoptic Gospel writers) quotes from Isaiah 40:3 to describe John’s mission. (Matthew quotes from the Greek version rather than the Hebrew, which explains why there are differences between what he says and our version of Isaiah 40:3.) How does that verse from Isaiah explain John’s mission? Does it shed any light on what John means when he warns that the kingdom of heaven is at hand?
Verses 5-6: Notice the contrast that Matthew sets up between “Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan” in verse five, and the Pharisees and Sadducees in the next verse: everyone came to be baptized, confessing their sins—and many of the Pharisees and Sadducees came. Some scholars suggest that baptism was not practiced by the Jews of John’s day, except by the Essenes (W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann, Matthew: Introduction, Translation, and Notes, Anchor Bible vol. 25, [Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981] 25). Others suggest that though Jews of this time baptized converts to Judaism, they did not baptize those who were born Jews (Donald A. Hagner, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 33A: Matthew 1-13 [Dallas: Word Books, 1993] 49. The consensus of scholars appears to be that John didn’t adopt baptism from anyone in particular (David Noel Freedman, ed., Anchor Bible Dictionary [New York: Doubleday, 1992] 1:583-84). In any case, it was understood to be a ritual by which one entered into a religious community. So when John baptizes Jews, people would probably take this as comparing them to the Gentiles. Why would this part of John the Baptist’s message have been shocking?
Verses 7-8: The Pharisees and Sadducees seem not to have been political allies or allies otherwise. If anything, they probably very much disliked each other. Why does John the Baptist, and then Jesus, treat them as a group? Why does he single them out? Does his message to them differ from his message in general? How?
Verse 9: Against what mistake does John the Baptist warn the Pharisees and Sadducees? What would it mean for a Sadducee to say, “I have Abraham for my father”? For a Pharisee? Has God raised up children to Abraham that are not genetic children, children from stones, as it were? If so, who are they? Does this discussion of the seed of Abraham have anything to do with the fact that John baptized Jews (verse 6)?
Verse 10: Does “the axe is laid unto the root of the trees” mean the same thing here that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” means elsewhere? The idea of an unfruitful tree being cut down and burned is fairly common in the Bible. See, for example, Matthew 7:19 and 13:40, as well as John 15:6. Of course the same metaphor is at the heart of Jacob’s quotation from the prophet Zenos (Jacob 5). What makes that metaphor particularly appropriate?
Verse 11-12: Does verse 11 begin a new topic, or is this part of what he said to the Pharisees and Sadducees? What does John mean when he says that he isn’t worthy to carry the Messiah’s shoes? How is fire used metaphorically? What does cleansing by water suggest? What does cleansing by fire suggest? Can you think of any incidents of cleansing by fire in the Old Testament? Do they have any bearing on our understanding of these verses? What is the connection between the fire mentioned in verse 11 and that mentioned at the end of verse 12? Some early Christians, such as Origen (Hagner 42), understood these verses to refer to the fires of hell. Do you think that could be right? Why or why not? Might John’s audience have understood the purging of the granary floor as something that has already occurred in history, perhaps at the fall of Jerusalem? Compare verses 10-12 to Malachi 4:1.
Verse 15: What does “to fulfill all righteousness” mean? In the context in which Jesus said it, what did “righteousness” mean? What does Jesus’ baptism demonstrate about him? About us?
Verse 16-17: What does the dove symbolize in the story of the Flood? Does its meaning in that story help us understand its symbolism here? In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is announced as the king at his conception, at his birth, and here at his baptism. What do you make of that? The phrase “in whom I am well pleased” uses a verb that in Greek is in a kind of past tense, the aorist tense. A verb in the aorist tense indicates that the action of the verb is complete or fulfilled. What does that tell us about the Father’s relation to the Son? Does Matthew want us to see verses 15-17 as a fulfilment of John the Baptist’s prophecy that the kingdom of God is at hand?
Verses 1-2: Jesus goes into the desert for forty days. What does it mean to say that the Spirit led him so that he could be tempted of (“tried by” or “examined by”) the devil (“the seducer,” “the slanderer”)? What parallels do you see here between Jesus and ancient Israel? What do those parallels teach? Do Hebrews 2:18 and Alma 7:12 help us understand what happens in the desert?
Some Protestant scholars have noted parallels between Satan’s temptation of Jesus and his temptation of Eve:
|Temptation||Genesis 3||Matthew 4|
|Appeal to physical appetite||You may eat of any tree (vs. 1)||You may eat by changing stones to bread (vs. 3)|
|Appeal to personal gain||You will not die (vs. 4)||You will not hurt your foot (vs. 6)|
|Appeal to power||You will be like God (vs. 5)||You will have all the world’s kingdoms (vss. 8-9)|
If we see these parallels, what do they teach us? (I got these parallels from Arthur Bassett, of BYU’s Humanities Department.)
Verses 3-4: Satan tempts Jesus by challenging him to use his power to satisfy a basic human need. Jesus responds by quoting scripture, Deuteronomy 8:3. What does Jesus’ answer tell us about our priorities?
Verses 5-7: Satan tempts Jesus by challenging him to use his power to produce a sign of his divinity, and he quotes scripture (Psalms 91:11-12) to justify his challenge. Jesus responds by again quoting from Deuteronomy (6:16): “Ye shall not tempt [‘put to the test’] the Lord your God, as ye tempted him in Massah.” How did Israel tempt God in Massah? (See Exodus 17:1-7.) How is that relevant to this temptation?
Verses 8-10: Like the two previous temptations, the third temptation is also about power. What does Satan offer Christ? Jesus’ response this time begins with a dismissal: “Get thee hence.” Then Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:13: “Thou shalt fear the LORD thy God, and serve him, and shalt swear by his name.” In context, it is clear that this verse is a reminder that the Israelites are not to worship false gods. How is that relevant to understanding Satan’s temptation?
In each of the previous temptations, Satan addressed Jesus as “Son of God.” Why? Does it have anything to do with Matthew 3:17? Satan does not address him in that way for the third temptation? Why not? What is the significance of the fact that Jesus answers Satan each time by quoting from the Law? How do Jesus’ answers define his mission? How do they define for us what it means to be faithful?
Verses 12-16: Why does Jesus go to Galilee? Why does Jesus wait until after John’s imprisonment to begin his ministry? How does Matthew understand Jesus’ move to Capernaum as a fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy that the Gospel will go the Gentiles (Isaiah 8:23-9:1, using the Greek translation of Isaiah)?
Verse 17: Jesus begins his ministry. How does this message apply to us? How is it the message that we continue to preach?
Verses 23-25: Why is so much of Jesus’ mission dedicated to healing the sick? Does that healing have symbolic as well as literal significance? Is it related to Jesus’ experience in the desert? Does it help us understand scriptures like Mosiah 4:16, Mosiah 18:8-10, and D&C 81:5?
In verses 29-34, John bears his testimony of Jesus’ baptism and of the events of that baptism. Verses 35-51 tell us of the first disciples who followed Jesus. Why was it important for John to tell the story in verses 34-37 to the people of his day? Why is it important to us today?
What does John’s story about the first disciples tell us that Matthew’s did not? Why might that be? The conversation between Jesus and the two disciples of John in verses 38-39 is quite prosaic. Why do you think that John included it? Does it have any meaning for us? How might we understood Jesus’ question of them, “What do you want?” How might we understand their response, “Where do you abide?” How might we understand his advice, “Come and see”?
Why do you think Jesus changes Simon’s name? What connotations does the word “stone” have?
What does the story of Nathaniel’s call teach us? What does Jesus promise Nathaniel and how is that significant?
Please post any responses at Feast upon the Word.