All posts by Bill Pratt

Can Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount Be Reconciled with Luke’s Version of the Sermon?

Because the New Testament contains four biographies of Jesus (the four Gospels), there can be up to four parallel accounts of the events recorded about Jesus’s life. These accounts will contain similarities, but also differences, to each other because each of the four Gospel authors had different intentions and purposes when composing their biographies.

An example of this is the Sermon on the Mount, as recounted in Matthew 5-7. There is a sermon recorded in Luke 6 which bears clear likenesses to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. How can we reconcile these two accounts? Michael Wilkins, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible) analyzes the popular scholarly attempts to relate these two sermons.

He first notes the similarities:

[B]oth sermons come in the context of Jesus’ widespread speaking and healing ministry among the crowds (4: 23– 25; Luke 6: 17– 19); both begin with beatitudes; both give significant ethical teaching on love and judging; both emphasize the necessity of bearing fruit; both conclude with the parable of the wise builder.

But there also differences:

Matthew does not include the ‘woes’ of Luke’s beatitudes (Luke 6: 24– 26); Luke does not include the majority of the antitheses found in Matthew (5: 21– 48); Luke’s version of the ‘Lord’s prayer’ does not occur in his sermon but elsewhere (Luke 11: 1– 4); Luke 6: 17 puts the setting in a ‘level place,’ whereas Matthew describes a ‘mountain’ setting (5: 1).

Wilkins then examines three hypotheses about how the two sermons are related:

First, the similarities lead some to assert that Matthew and Luke present two distinct summaries of the same sermon (e.g., Bock 1994, 553; Carson 2010, 154; Osborne 2010, 160– 61).

Second, the differences lead others to suggest that Matthew and Luke record two different sermons, which Jesus gave on separate occasions but included similar content (e.g., Blomberg 1992, 96; Morris 1992, 93). Any good preacher will repeat effective illustrations and preaching points, a fact that lends support to this view.

Third, still others propose that either Matthew or Luke (or both) gathered together teachings that Jesus gave on separate occasions and presented them as if they were given in one sermon (e.g., Betz 1995, 44– 45; France 2008, 154– 155; Guelich 1982, 35; Hagner 1993, 69). The latter is usually suggested because there are parallels to Matthew’s sermon scattered throughout Luke’s Gospel (e.g., cf. 5: 13 in Luke 14: 34– 35; 5: 14 in Luke 11: 33, etc.; see Hagner 1993, 83, for a complete listing).

Wilkins’ take on these three hypotheses follows:

Since Matthew and Luke both imply that their sermons were given on one occasion, the third view is least likely. The first view is strengthened by observing the same general context, the general order, and the similar geographical setting (a mountainous area can feature flat spots) of both sermons. The second view is strengthened by recalling that Jesus went about teaching and preaching all through the countryside of Galilee for nearly two years, and he almost certainly repeated much of the same content on numerous occasions. Since nothing of great importance relies on the solution to this question, it may be best to say that until further insight is gained either the first or second view is preferable.

We don’t conclusively know how the two sermons are related, but we have some good ideas. As Wilkins says, the first and second views are preferable, but we need more evidence to decide between them.

Commentary on Matthew 5 (Sermon on the Mount)

In chapter four of Matthew, Jesus had commanded his followers to repent for the “kingdom of heaven is at hand.” This announcement would have caused those following him to ask questions. Louis Barbieri, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, places us in the mind of the Jews hearing Jesus.

Natural questions on the heart of every Jew would have been, ‘Am I eligible to enter Messiah’s kingdom? Am I righteous enough to qualify for entrance?’ The only standard of righteousness the people knew was that laid down by the current religious leaders, the scribes and Pharisees. Would one who followed that standard be acceptable in Messiah’s kingdom?

Chapters 5-7 in Matthew are known as the Sermon on the Mount and they consist of Jesus answering these questions for his disciples. Barbieri explains that

Jesus’ sermon therefore must be understood in the context of His offer of the kingdom to Israel and the need for repentance to enter that kingdom. The sermon did not give a ‘Constitution’ for the kingdom nor did it present the way of salvation. The sermon showed how a person who is in right relationship with God should conduct his life.

Verses 2-12 are known as the “Beatitudes.” Michael Wilkins, in Matthew, Mark, Luke: Volume One (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), explains the origin of the term:

The name ‘beatitude’ is derived from the Latin noun beatitudo, because the first word of each statement in the Latin Vulgate is beati (adj. related to the noun), which translates the Greek word makarios (traditionally rendered in English as ‘blessed’).

The Beatitudes are a description of the kinds of people who will populate the kingdom of heaven, which is both present, with Jesus, and future, when he returns to reclaim the entire earth for God at his second coming.

The “poor in spirit” are those who acknowledge their complete powerlessness and spiritual bankruptcy without Jesus. Those who are economically deprived (materially poor) are often more likely to acknowledge their reliance on God than those who are wealthy. The “poor in spirit” have the kingdom of heaven now and will have it more fully at the second coming.

Those who “mourn” are those who grieve over their personal sins and the sins of mankind in general. It could also refer to those who are suffering in this life. In the future kingdom of heaven, God promises to comfort these people.

The “meek” are those who are humble and gentle. They will rule with Christ over the new heavens and earth in the future kingdom.

Those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” yearn for God’s moral laws to be established and obeyed by all mankind. In the future kingdom, this will indeed be the case.

The “merciful” are those who are forgiving and compassionate toward others. They will receive this compassion from God in His kingdom.

The “pure in heart” are those who display a single-minded devotion toward God. Craig Blomberg, in vol. 22, Matthew, The New American Commentary, writes:

Purity in heart refers to moral uprightness and not just ritual cleanliness. The Pauline theme of the impossibility of perfect purity in this life should not be imported here. Rather, as with ‘righteousness’ in general for Matthew, what Jesus requires of his disciples is a life-style characterized by pleasing God . . .  . The ‘pure in heart’ exhibit a single-minded devotion to God that stems from the internal cleansing created by following Jesus. Holiness is a prerequisite for entering God’s presence. The pure in heart pass this test, so they will see God and experience intimate fellowship with him. This Beatitude closely parallels Ps 24:3–4.

The “peacemakers” are those who work to reconcile people to God and to each other. They will be subjects in God’s future kingdom.

Finally, in verses 10-12 Jesus explains that the person who does all these things will be persecuted because the world rejects this lifestyle. A person who is living for God will inevitably be attacked, but Jesus promises that they will be rewarded in his future kingdom.

In verses 17-20 Jesus answers his critics who claim that he is undermining the Hebrew scriptures (“Law and Prophets” is shorthand for the entire Old Testament) with his teaching. Jesus corrects them by saying that he is not contradicting the Scriptures, but rather he is fulfilling them. Through his teachings, life, death, and resurrection, he will not only fulfill the messianic prophecies, but he will explain and demonstrate the intended meaning behind all of God’s Word.

Jews at this time believed that the only way to enter the future messianic kingdom was to adhere to the legalistic rules laid out by the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus, however, clearly states that the righteousness attained by following their rules is insufficient. How so? The scribes and Pharisees were focused on external and outward obedience to God’s Word. Jesus will teach in the remainder of chapter five that obedience to God’s Word starts inside a person. It must be inside-out.

Jesus will give six examples of Pharisaical teachings and then correct them. What is he trying to accomplish with these six illustrations? Michael J. Wilkins, in Matthew, Mark, Luke: Volume One of Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, explains:

This section of the Sermon on the Mount is commonly called ‘the antitheses’ because six times Jesus says a variation of, ‘You have heard that it was said . . . but I tell you.’ This has been mistakenly interpreted to mean that Jesus makes his teaching the antithesis of the OT itself (e.g., Luz 2007, 277– 79), as if he were overturning and declaring incorrect the testimonies of the OT. But in reality Jesus is contrasting his interpretation of the OT with faulty interpretations and/ or applications of the OT. In each of the antitheses, Jesus demonstrates how the OT is to be properly interpreted and applied, and thus, how the Law and the Prophets are fulfilled (cf. 5: 17). This elevates Jesus above all interpreters, making his pronouncements equivalent with Scripture itself.

The scribes and Pharisees held sway over the common people, mapping out a course for attaining righteousness through their interpretation and application of the OT. They emphasized legalistic, external obedience to the Law without calling attention to an inner heart-obedience. They were therefore ‘hypocrites’ in their practice of the Law (see on 6: 1– 18), and were responsible for leading the people into hypocritical practices. Jesus looks at several examples of how they had done this, and demonstrates how correct interpretation and application of the Law must be based upon proper intent and motive. Jesus does not say, ‘Hear what the OT says,’ but rather, ‘You have heard it said.’ He is not negating the OT, but the people’s incorrect understanding and application of it.

Given time constraints, we will skip to the fifth illustration in verses 38-42. In these verses, Jesus teaches his followers about retaliation when they are wronged. The OT guidelines, captured in the saying “eye for an eye,” are meant to limit retribution or retaliation. A person can only be punished in proportion to his crime. For example, if you stole a relatively inexpensive object from your neighbor, your neighbor is not allowed to seek capital punishment, as this is clearly disproportionate punishment.

Jesus, however, teaches that his disciples need to go even further with regard to personal retaliation against those who are oppressing them. If a person insults you (a slap on the cheek in Jewish culture), do not retaliate with an insult back at that person.

If a person sues you to gain some disputed property (in this case a tunic), do not fight his legal case, but offer him an even more valuable piece of clothing, a cloak. Wilkins explains the historical context of the tunic and cloak:

The tunic was the basic garment, a long-sleeved inner robe similar to a nightshirt that a person wore next to the skin. It was often worn short by men and ankle length by the women. The ‘cloak’ was the outer robe (cf. 27:35; John 19:23–24), which was an indispensable piece of clothing. When it was given as a pledge, it had to be returned before sunset, because it was used by the poor as a sleeping cover.

Roman soldiers were legally allowed to force Jews to help them carry their equipment for a distance. In this situation, a disciple of Jesus should not resist, but instead offer to carry the equipment even further.

If people ask you for help, help them by giving to them or letting them borrow something they need.

The sixth illustration, in verses 43-48, is perhaps the most challenging to Jesus’s followers. Jesus commands us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. God Himself provides the blessings of sunshine and rain for all people, even those who hate Him, therefore we are to imitate Him.  Jesus points out that if you only love your family and friends, then there is nothing special about you. Even tax collectors and idol-worshiping pagans do that. Craig Blomberg adds:

Christians must love their enemies (v. 44). Otherwise they are no different than tax collectors and pagans, two groups classically despised by orthodox Jews—the first for working for Rome in collecting tribute from Israel and the second because of their false religion (v. 46). Almost all people look after their own. The true test of genuine Christianity is how believers treat those whom they are naturally inclined to hate or who mistreat or persecute them.

In verse 48 Jesus tells his disciples to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Is Jesus giving his disciples an impossible task? Blomberg writes:

The paragraph begun in v. 43 closes with a command that may equally summarize all six antitheses. ‘Perfect’ here is better translated as ‘mature, whole,’ i.e., loving without limits (probably reflecting an underlying Aramaic tamim). Jesus is not frustrating his hearers with an unachievable ideal but challenging them to grow in obedience to God’s will—to become more like him. J. Walvoord rightly observes, ‘While sinless perfection is impossible, godliness, in its biblical concept, is attainable.’ But such godliness cannot be comprehensively formulated in a set of rules; the ethics of the sermon are suggestive, not exhaustive.

Can the Pool of Bethesda Be Used to Prove the Gospel of John Is Historically Reliable?

One of the ways we can investigate whether an ancient document is historically reliable is to find corroboration of its claims in archaeological findings. Because the Gospel of John was written in the first century AD, we can look to findings dated in that time period to corroborate details recorded in the Gospel. How does the Gospel of John fare?

According to Andreas Kostenberger, in John, Acts: Volume Two (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), there are fourteen major archaeological findings that corroborate the Gospel of John. These include: 1) an inscription barring Gentiles from the temple, 2) Herod’s temple, 3) Jacob’s well, 4) Pool of Bethesda, 5) ancient fishing boat, 6) early synagogue, 7) Pool of Siloam, 8) Siloam inscription, 9) tomb of Lazarus, 10) Caiaphas tomb/inscription, 11) Pilate inscription, 12) stone pavement, 13) skeletal remains of crucified man, and 14) and garden tomb.

Let’s look specifically at the Pool of Bethesda. Walter Kaiser and Duane Garrett, in the NIV Archaeological Study Bible, describe what archaeologists have discovered.

The pool at Bethesda was a familiar locale among the Jews of Jerusalem. It was mentioned, for example, in Qumran’s Copper Scroll as the ‘place of poured out water.’ It was located near what are now the ruins of the basilica of Saint Anne to the north of the temple mount. The ‘pool’ was actually two pools surrounded by four porticoes, with a fifth portico situated between them. Coupled with the elegant porticoes, the pools must have been an impressive sight. While the lavish complex of John’s day likely dated to the reign of Herod the Great, the pools were probably in use before that and may have been the site of an intermittent spring.

The Biblical Archaeology Staff provide additional details in their article entitled “The Bethesda Pool, Site of One of Jesus’ Miracles.”

When Jesus heals the paralytic in the Gospel of John, the Bethesda Pool is described as having five porticoes—a puzzling feature suggesting an unusual five-sided pool, which most scholars dismissed as an unhistorical literary creation. Yet when this site was excavated, it revealed a rectangular pool with two basins separated by a wall—thus a five-sided pool—and each side had a portico.

The Jesus miracle story also tells how many people sought the Bethesda Pool’s healing powers. The first person to enter the pool when the waters were stirred up would supposedly be cured of his or her ailment. But, the paralytic tells Jesus, he can never get into the water quickly enough. So Jesus immediately cures him, and he is able to get up and walk.

This story about Jesus’ miracle suggests a long history of healing at the site. Roman medicinal baths constructed at the Bethesda Pool only a century or two later reflect this continued tradition. When Christians controlled Jerusalem in the Byzantine and Crusader periods, they liked to mark the sites of Jesus’ miracles and other important events in his life, so they added a chapel and churches that now cover the Bethesda Pool complex.

So why a pool with two basins? The archaeological evidence shows that the southern basin had broad steps with landings, indicating that it was indeed a mikveh. The northern basin provided a reservoir, or otzer, to continually replenish and repurify the mikveh with fresh water flowing south through the dam between them. Jerusalem’s pilgrims would flock to the Bethesda Pool and Siloam Pool to purify themselves in these public mikva’ot and, at times, to seek healing.

Archaeological findings, like the Pool of Bethesda, give us confidence that the author of the Gospel of John was an eyewitness of the events he was reporting, and, therefore, in a good position to report what actually occurred.

Commentary on John 5 (Jesus Heals at the Pool of Bethesda)

At the beginning of John chapter five, Jesus travels from Galilee to Jerusalem to attend a Jewish festival. We are not told which festival, but some scholars believe it to be the Feast of Tabernacles.

While in Jerusalem, Jesus visits the pool of Bethesda (see model below). The pool is where blind, lame, and paralyzed people would go to seek healing. At the pool, Jesus finds a man who has been an invalid for thirty-eight years.


Jesus asks the man if he wants to be healed and the man answers that he has nobody to help him get in the pool when the waters stir. The superstition surrounding the pool is that an angel would periodically stir up the waters and that the first one who entered the pool would be healed.

Ignoring the superstition, Jesus tells the man to get up off his mat, pick it up, and walk away with it. Miraculously healed by Jesus’s simple command, the man does indeed walk away with his mat.

As the man walks away with his mat, Jewish religious leaders (possibly members of the Sanhedrin) see the man and ask him why he is breaking the Sabbath rules about abstaining from work. D. A. Carson, in The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, explains:

The Old Testament had forbidden work on the Sabbath. But what is ‘work’? The assumption in the Scripture seems to be that ‘work’ refers to one’s customary employment; but judging by Mishnah (Shabbath 7:2; 10:5), dominant rabbinic opinion had analysed the prohibition into thirty-nine classes of work, including taking or carrying anything from one domain to another (except for cases of compassion, such as carrying a paralytic). By Old Testament standards, it is not clear the healed man was contravening the law, since he did not normally carry mats around for a living; according to the ‘tradition of the elders’ the man was breaking the law, since he was contravening one of the prohibited thirty-nine categories of work to which the law was understood to refer. It is not yet Jesus who is charged with breaking the law (e.g. for healing the man on a Sabbath, as in Mk. 3:1–6), though that will come (v. 18): for the moment, it is the healed man who must face the indignation of the Jews—here referring to the religious authorities in Jerusalem (cf. notes on 1:19).

The man answers that he was simply doing what he was told. When the Jewish leaders ask who told him to carry his mat, the healed man says he does not know.

Jesus finds the healed invalid soon afterward in the temple complex and commands him to sin no more lest something worse would happen to him. What could Jesus be referring to? Andreas Kostenberger, in John, Acts: Volume Two (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary) argues:

The comment seems to imply that at least sometimes—including in the case of the invalid?—sickness may be a result of sin (e.g., 1 Kings 13:4; 2 Kings 1:4; 2 Chron. 16:12). Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries generally held that suffering was a direct result of sin (cf. John 9:2). Given expression already by the ‘miserable counselors’ in the book of Job, rabbinic literature states the principle succinctly: ‘There is no death without sin, and there is no suffering without iniquity’ (b. Šabb. 55a with reference to Ezek. 18:20; attributed to R. Ammi [c. A.D. 300]). However, the Old Testament features several instances where suffering is transparently not a result of sin (e.g., 2 Sam. 4:4; 1 Kings 14:4; 2 Kings 13:14). Jesus himself, likewise, rejects simple cause-and-effect explanations (cf. Luke 13:1-5; John 9:3). Nevertheless, Jesus acknowledges that sin may well lead to suffering. In the present instance, the ‘something worse’ he threatens probably does not refer to a worse physical condition but rather to eternal judgment for sin (cf. 5:22-30).

The healed invalid then reports to the Jewish leaders that it was Jesus who healed him. The Gospel author, John, then explains that the religious leaders start persecuting Jesus because “he was doing these things on the Sabbath.” Carson adds,

The Synoptic Gospels record a number of incidents in which Jesus’ activity on the Sabbath becomes the focus of controversy (Mk. 2:23–3:6; Lk. 13:10–17; 14:1–6; cf. Mt. 12:1–14). All the Gospels report that disputes between Jesus and the Jewish authorities over the Sabbath were so sharp that they figured prominently in the rising desire to kill Jesus.

Jesus responds to the religious leaders that if his Father, God, is working on the Sabbath, then Jesus, the Son, should likewise work on the Sabbath. Even though the Book of Genesis records that God rested on the seventh day, that rest has to do with the creation of the universe. God “works” to sustain the creation every day. Carson writes:

The consensus amongst the rabbis, too, was that God works on the Sabbath, for otherwise providence itself would weekly go into abeyance. About the end of the first century, four eminent rabbis (Rabban Gamaliel II, R. Joshua, R. Eleazar b. Azariah, and R. Akiba) discussed the point, and concluded that although God works constantly, he cannot rightly be charged with violating the Sabbath law, since (1) the entire universe is his domain (Is. 6:3), and therefore he never carries anything outside it; (2) otherwise put, God fills the whole world (Je. 23:24); and in any case (3) God lifts nothing to a height greater than his own stature (Exodus Rabbah 30:9; cf. Genesis Rabbah 11:10).

Jesus is saying that if God is excused from the ban of Sabbath work, then Jesus is likewise excused because the same rules that apply to God apply to Jesus, the Son. The Jewish leaders seek all the more to kill Jesus because he is not only commanding people to break Sabbath laws, he is making himself equal to God!

In verses 19-23, Jesus clarifies his relationship with God the Father. Let’s unpack each of these verses. In verse 19, we learn that Jesus only does what he sees the Father doing; he never does anything of his own accord. As Carson puts in, “The Father initiates, sends, commands, commissions, grants; the Son responds, obeys, performs his Father’s will, receives authority. In this sense, the Son is the Father’s agent (cf. Bühner), though, as John goes on to insist, much more than an agent.”

In verse 20, we learn that God the Father loves Jesus, His Son, and therefore shows Jesus everything He does. Carson writes, “The love of the Father for the Son is displayed in the continuous disclosure of all he does to the Son (here in v. 20); the love of the Son for the Father is displayed in the perfect obedience that issues in the cross (14:31).”

In verse 21, John writes that as the Father raises the dead and gives life, so too can Jesus give life to whomever he chooses. Carson reminds us:

The Old Testament writers presupposed that the raising of the dead was a prerogative belonging to God alone: ‘Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life’ (2 Ki. 5:7). The same presupposition is amply attested in later Jewish tradition. Rabbi Johanan asserted that three keys remained in God’s hand and were not entrusted to representatives: the key of the rain cf. Dt. 28:12), the key of the womb (cf. Gn. 30:22), and the key of the resurrection of the dead (cf. Ezk. 37:13, SB 1. 523–524, 737, 895).

In verse 22, Jesus explains that he will also be given the prerogative to judge. Carson explains:

God had long been recognized as ‘the Judge of all the earth’ (Gn. 18:25). Throughout the pages of the Old Testament God had frequently exercised judgment in the lives of his covenant people and in the surrounding nations. But at the end of the age, there would be the last, great assize, when all would be judged, both small and great (cf. Rev. 20:11–15). Here, however, the Son insists that the office of judge, whether in the present or at the last day, has been entrusted to him. This does not mean Jesus will exercise judgment independently of the Father, for even the judgment he exercises is a reflection of his consistent determination to please the one who sent him (v. 30).

Finally, in verse 23, we learn the reason that the Father has entrusted all judgment to the Son. It is so that the Son will honored as the Father is honored. Carson summarizes how we should react to Jesus’s words:

Granted that the purpose of the Father is that all should honour the Son, it is but a small step to Jesus’ conclusion: He who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father, who sent him. In a theistic universe, such a statement belongs to one who is himself to be addressed as God (cf. 20:28), or to stark insanity. The one who utters such things is to be dismissed with pity or scorn, or worshipped as Lord. If with much current scholarship we retreat to seeing in such material less the claims of the Son than the beliefs and witness of the Evangelist and his church, the same options confront us. Either John is supremely deluded and must be dismissed as a fool, or his witness is true and Jesus is to be ascribed the honours due God alone. There is no rational middle ground.

What Does “Born of Water and Spirit” Mean in John 3:5?

In John 3:5, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” There has historically been much scholarly debate over the phrase “born of water and the Spirit.” Was Jesus referring to two births or one birth? Was he referring to baptism?

D. A. Carson, in The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, breaks down the different interpretations and then concludes with his preferred interpretation. Interpretation one:

Noting that v. 6 describes two births, one from flesh to flesh and the other from Spirit to Spirit, some interpreters propose that ‘born of water and the Spirit’ similarly refers to two births, one natural and the other supernatural. Natural procreation is not enough; there must be a second birth, a second begetting, this one of the Spirit. To support this view, ‘water’ has been understood to refer to the amniotic fluid that breaks from the womb shortly before childbirth, or to stand metaphorically for semen.

But there are no ancient sources that picture natural birth as ‘from water’, and the few that use ‘drops’ to stand for semen are rare and late. It is true that in sources relevant to the Fourth Gospel water can be associated with fecundity and procreation in a general way (e.g. Song 4:12–13; Pr. 5:15–18), but none is tied quite so clearly to semen or to amniotic fluid as to make the connection here an obvious one. The Greek construction does not favour two births here. Moreover the entire expression ‘of water and the Spirit’ cries out to be read as the equivalent of anōthen, ‘from above’, if there is genuine parallelism between v. 3 and v. 5, and this too argues that the expression should be taken as a reference to but one birth, not two.

Interpretation two:

Many find in ‘water’ a reference to Christian baptism (e.g. Brown, 2. 139–141). For Bultmann (pp. 138–139 n. 3) and others who have followed him, this is so embarrassing that he suggests the words ‘water and’ were not part of the original text, but added by a later ecclesiastical editor much more interested in Christian ritual than the Evangelist himself. There is no textual support for the omission. At the other end of the spectrum, Vellanickal (pp. 170ff.) suggests that when the Evangelist received this account there was no mention of water, but that he added it to provide an explicit reference to the rite of Christian initiation. Added or not, the simple word ‘water’ is understood by the majority of contemporary commentators to refer to Christian baptism, though there is little agreement amongst them on the relation between ‘water’ and ‘Spirit’. After all, reference is made in the near context to Jesus’ own baptismal ministry (3:22; 4:1), and John has connected water and Spirit in a baptismal context before (1:33, 34). Moreover John’s alleged interest in sacraments in ch. 6 encourages the suspicion he is making a sacramental allusion here. Many accordingly suggest the Spirit effects new birth through water (= baptism) (e.g. Ferrarro, Spirito, pp. 59–67).

Those who adopt this position, of course, are forced to admit that John’s words could have had no relevance to the historical Nicodemus. This part of the account, at least, becomes a narrative fiction designed to instruct the church on the importance of baptism. What is not always recognized is that this theory makes the Evangelist an extraordinarily incompetent story-teller, since in v. 10 he pictures Jesus berating Nicodemus for not understanding these things. If water = baptism is so important for entering the kingdom, it is surprising that the rest of the discussion never mentions it again: the entire focus is on the work of the Spirit (v. 8), the work of the Son (vv. 14–15), the work of God himself (vv. 16–17), and the place of faith (vv. 15–16). The analogy between the mysterious wind and the sovereign work of the Spirit (v. 8) becomes very strange if Spirit-birth is tied so firmly to baptism. . . .

The entire view seems to rest on an unarticulated prejudice that every mention of water evoked instant recognition, in the minds of first-century readers, that the real reference was to baptism, but it is very doubtful that this prejudice can be sustained by the sources. Even so, this conclusion does not preclude the possibility of a secondary allusion to baptism (cf. notes, below).

Interpretation three:

A variation on this view is that ‘water’ refers not to Christian baptism but to John’s baptism (Godet, 2. 49–52; Westcott, 1. 108–109, and others). In that case, Jesus is either saying that the baptism of repentance, as important as it is, must not be thought sufficient: there must be Spirit-birth as well; or, if Nicodemus refused to be baptized by the Baptist, Jesus is rebuking him and saying that he must pass through repentance-baptism (‘water’) and new birth (‘Spirit’). ‘To receive the Spirit from the Messiah was no humiliation; on the contrary, it was a glorious privilege. But to go down into Jordan before a wondering crowd and own [his] need of cleansing and new birth was too much. Therefore to this Pharisee our Lord declares that an honest dying to the past is as needful as new life for the future’ (Dods, EGT, 1. 713).

The argument presupposes that John the Baptist was so influential at the time that a mere mention of water would conjure up pictures of his ministry. If so, however, the response of Nicodemus is inappropriate. If the allusion to the Baptist were clear, why should Nicodemus respond with such incredulity, ignorance and unbelief (3:4, 9–10, 12), rather than mere distaste or hardened arrogance? Even if John’s baptism is mentioned in near contexts, the burden of these contexts is to stress the relative unimportance of his rite (1:23, 26; 3:23, 30). If John’s baptism lies behind ‘water’ in 3:5, would not this suggest that Jesus was making the Baptist’s rite a requirement for entrance into the kingdom, even though that rite was shortly to be superseded by Christian baptism? Moreover, as Dods sets out this proposed solution, it is assumed that Jesus is recognized as the Messiah who dispenses the Spirit, but it is far from clear that Nicodemus has progressed so far in his appreciation of Jesus.

Interpretation four:

Several interpreters have argued that Jesus is arguing against the ritual washings of the Essenes (a conservative and frequently monastic Jewish movement), or perhaps against Jewish ceremonies in general. What is necessary is Spirit-birth, not mere water-purification. But ‘water’ and ‘Spirit’ are not contrasted in v. 5: they are linked, and together become the equivalent of ‘from above’ (v. 3).

Carson mentions other less popular interpretations and then proceeds to offer what he thinks is the most plausible interpretation:

The most plausible interpretation of ‘born of water and the Spirit’ turns on three factors. First, the expression is parallel to ‘from above’ (anōthen, v. 3), and so only one birth is in view. Second, the preposition ‘of’ governs both ‘water’ and ‘spirit’. The most natural way of taking this construction is to see the phrase as a conceptual unity: there is a water-spirit source (cf. Murray J. Harris, NIDNTT 3. 1178) that stands as the origin of this regeneration. Third, Jesus berates Nicodemus for not understanding these things in his role as ‘Israel’s teacher’ (v. 10), a senior ‘professor’ of the Scriptures, and this in turn suggests we must turn to what Christians call the Old Testament to begin to discern what Jesus had in mind. . . .

Far more important is the Old Testament background to ‘water’ and ‘spirit’. The ‘spirit’ is constantly God’s principle of life, even in creation (e.g. Gn. 2:7; 6:3; Jb. 34:14); but many Old Testament writers look forward to a time when God’s ‘spirit’ will be poured out on humankind (Joel 2:28) with the result that there will be blessing and righteousness (Is. 32:15–20; 44:3; Ezk. 39:29), and inner renewal which cleanses God’s covenant people from their idolatry and disobedience (Ezk. 11:19–20; 36:26–27).

When water is used figuratively in the Old Testament, it habitually refers to renewal or cleansing, especially when it is found in conjunction with ‘spirit’. This conjunction may be explicit, or may hide behind language depicting the ‘pouring out’ of the spirit (cf. Nu. 19:17–19; Ps. 51:9–10; Is. 32:15; 44:3–5; 55:1–3; Je. 2:13; 17:13; Ezk. 47:9; Joel 2:28–29; Zc. 14:8).

Most important of all is Ezekiel 36:25–27, where water and spirit come together so forcefully, the first to signify cleansing from impurity, and the second to depict the transformation of heart that will enable people to follow God wholly. And it is no accident that the account of the valley of dry bones, where Ezekiel preaches and the Spirit brings life to dry bones, follows hard after Ezekiel’s water/spirit passage (cf. Ezk. 37; and notes on 3:8, below). The language is reminiscent of the ‘new heart’ expressions that revolve around the promise of the new covenant (Je. 31:29ff.). Similar themes were sometimes picked up in later Judaism (e.g. Jubilees 1:23–25).

In short, born of water and spirit . . . signals a new begetting, a new birth that cleanses and renews, the eschatological cleansing and renewal promised by the Old Testament prophets. True, the prophets tended to focus on the corporate results, the restoration of the nation; but they also anticipated a transformation of individual ‘hearts’—no longer hearts of stone but hearts that hunger to do God’s will. It appears that individual regeneration is presupposed. Apparently Nicodemus had not thought of the Old Testament passages this way. If he was like some other Pharisees, he was too confident of the quality of his own obedience to think he needed much repentance (cf. Lk. 7:30), let alone to have his whole life cleansed and his heart transformed, to be born again.

Commentary on John 3 (Nicodemus Meets Jesus)

Jesus travels to Jerusalem for the annual Passover celebration and while he is there, he receives a visitor during the night. The visitor is a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Nicodemus is also a member of the Jewish Supreme Court, the Sanhedrin. Andreas Kostenberger, in John, Acts: Volume Two (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), explains that the Sanhedrin is

[h]eadquartered in Jerusalem, [and] it was composed of Pharisees and Sadducees. When Judea became a Roman province in A.D. 6, the Sanhedrin became even more autonomous in handling internal Jewish matters. As John’s Gospel progresses, the Sanhedrin turns out to be the driving force in the plot against Jesus.

Nicodemus introduces himself by acknowledging Jesus as Rabbi (or teacher) and claims that he, and presumably a few other members of the Sanhedrin, recognize that Jesus is sent by God because of the miraculous signs Jesus has been performing in Jerusalem. Although Nicodemus offers restrained respect for Jesus, he clearly does not know who Jesus really is.

Jesus jumps straight to the heart of Nicodemus’s misunderstanding. He does this by telling Nicodemus that anyone who wants to enter heaven (the kingdom of God inaugurated at the end of the age) must be “born again” or “born from above” (either translation is possible). In other words, a person must experience a spiritual rebirth.

Jews at that time had a particular understanding of the future kingdom of God. Kostenberger elaborates:

Jews expected a future kingdom ruled by the Son of David (Isa. 9:1-7; 11:1-5, 10-11; Ezek. 34:23-24; Zech. 9:9-10), the Lord’s Servant (Isa. 42:1 -7; 49:1-7), indeed, the Lord himself (Ezek. 34:11-16; 36:22-32; Zech. 14:9). While not everyone was to be included in this kingdom, Jews in Jesus’ day generally believed that all Israelites would have a share in the world to come, with the exception of those guilty of apostasy or some other blatant sin (m. Sanh. 10:1).

Nicodemus doesn’t understand what Jesus is saying, so Jesus explains again that no human being enters heaven because of biology. Fragile and finite human nature only begets more fragile and finite human nature. The only way for a mortal human to enter heaven is for a spiritual intervention from God Himself. The fact that Nicodemus was born a Jew as a descendant of Abraham and Jacob, and is a devout member of the Pharisees, has no bearing on whether he will enter heaven. The effects of God’s spirit, like the wind, can be seen, but not controlled by human beings.

Nicodemus is shocked at what Jesus is saying, so Jesus asks how it is that a scholar of the Scriptures, a supposed expert on the Hebrew Bible, does not know about the activities of God’s Spirit. Edwin A. Blum, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, writes,

The Old Testament prophets spoke of the new Age with its working of the Spirit (Isa. 32:15; Ezek. 36:25–27; Joel 2:28–29). The nation’s outstanding teacher ought to understand how God by His sovereign grace can give someone a new heart (1 Sam. 10:6; Jer. 31:33).

Jesus rebukes Nicodemus for not trusting Jesus’s witness about the necessity of spiritual rebirth (earthly things). If Nicodemus does not believe what Jesus tells him about the elementary requirement for entering heaven, then there is no point in Jesus expanding on the grandeur and glory of heaven (heavenly things).

Jesus stresses to Nicodemus that Jesus (the Son of Man) is the only one to ever descend from heaven and then return. He is the only one uniquely qualified to tell Nicodemus about the things of heaven, because that is where Jesus is from. Kostenberger provides further background:

Jesus here contrasts himself, the ‘Son of Man’ (cf. Dan. 7:13), with other human figures who allegedly entered heaven, such as Enoch (Gen. 5:24; cf. Heb. 11:5), Elijah (2 Kings 2:1-12; cf. 2 Chron. 21:12-15), Moses (Ex. 24:9-11; 34:29-30), Isaiah (Isa. 6:1-3), or Ezekiel (Ezek. 1; 10). A whole cottage industry of intertestamental literature revolved around such figures and their heavenly exploits (e.g., 1 En.). While believers can expect to join Christ in heaven one day (cf. John 14:1-3; 17:24), only Jesus came down from heaven as well as ascended back up to heaven (cf. Luke 24:51; Acts 1:9; though note the similar ascent-descent pattern by angels in John 1:51).

Just as Moses lifted up a bronze snake to save the people of Israel from death (Numbers 21:4-9), Jesus will likewise be raised up (a reference to his future crucifixion and resurrection) and so that when people believe in him, they will enter heaven and have eternal life with God.

Verses 16-18 should be read as a unit. John explains, in verse 16, that God the Father loved the sinful world (not just Israel) so much that He sent His one and only Son, Jesus, to the cross, so that everyone who believes in him will go to heaven, and not perish. This verse should remind us of the Old Testament story of Abraham being asked by God to sacrifice his one and only son, Isaac.

Note that John 3:16 delineates both God’s and man’s role in salvation. Gerald Borchert, in vol. 25A, John 1–11, The New American Commentary, explains:

The full perspective is that God is the initiator and principal actor in salvation, and we should never think that salvation originated with us (cf. 1 John 4:9–10). God, however, has given humanity a sense of freedom and requires us to make a choice. Accordingly, people are responsible for their believing. It is unproductive theological speculation, therefore, to minimize either the role of God or of humanity in the salvation process. The Bible and John 3:16 recognize the roles of both.

Verse 17-18 make clear that God’s primary purpose in sending Jesus to the earth was to save people, not condemn them. We must remember that the entire world, because of the sin introduced by Adam and Eve, has been under a type of condemnation since the Fall. It’s not as if the world was morally neutral when Jesus arrived on the scene. This is why John stresses that whoever believes in Jesus is saved, but whoever rejects Jesus has already been condemned.

These verses do not settle the debate about what happens to those who never hear of Jesus, however, because John explicitly connects condemnation in this passage with the rejection of Jesus. But a person who has never heard of Jesus cannot reject Jesus. John is not concerned, in this passage, with those who never hear of Jesus; he is concerned about those who hear and turn away.

Why would anyone reject Jesus? In verses 19-21, John concludes that everyone who loves their sin (darkness) will shun Jesus (the light) because Jesus will expose their sins. They prefer to hide their sins in the dark. D. A. Carson, in The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, writes:

As the light of the world (8:12), Jesus is the revelation of God and the objectification of divine holiness and purity. But men loved darkness instead of light: they preferred to live without such knowledge of God, without such brilliant purity. The reason was fundamentally moral: their deeds were evil. They were not willing to live by the truth; they valued their pride more than their integrity, their prejudice more than contrite faith. Worse, anyone in this camp hates the light and refuses to come to it for fear that his deeds will be exposed (elengchthē). The verb suggests not only exposure but shame and conviction (cf. notes on 16:8ff.).

Did Jesus Drink Alcoholic Wine?

In John, chapter two, Jesus converts approximately 120 gallons of water into wine during a seven-day wedding feast. By performing this sign, was Jesus condoning the drinking of alcoholic wine? Biblical scholar Andreas Köstenberger tackles the issue of Jesus and alcoholic wine in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible). First, he explains the different kinds of wine that existed in first-century Palestine.

Fermented wine (oinos; e.g., Eph 5: 18; not from the most recent harvest) was usually mixed in the proportion of two or three parts of water to one part of wine (b. Pesahahim 108b). New wine (oinos neos; e.g., Matt 9: 17; Mark 2: 22; Luke 5: 37– 38; cf. Hos 9: 2; Hag 1: 11; Zech 9: 17; 1QS 6: 4– 6; 1QSa 2: 17– 18, 20; 1QH 10: 24) was made from the most recent harvest and was not fermented. Finally, there were wines that were non-alcoholic due to the process of fermentation being stopped by boiling the unfermented grape juice (called ‘must’). Wine was also, though less frequently, made from pomegranates (Song 8: 2) and raisins (b. Baba Batra 97b) along with apples, dates, honey, herbs, and figs.

Did Jesus drink fermented (alcoholic) wine?  Köstenberger argues “yes.”

The Gospels clearly portray Jesus as drinking fermented wine (Matt 11: 19; Mark 14: 25). The latter passage also intimates that wine will be drunk in heaven. In stark contrast to the portrayal of John the Baptist, Matthew and Luke indicate that Jesus ‘came eating and drinking’ and was promptly accused of being ‘a glutton and a drunkard’ (Matt 11: 19; Luke 7: 34). This shows that Jesus was known to have drunk fermented wine regularly while associating with his contemporaries.

What about the miraculous sign at the wedding in Cana?

The current passage in John recounts Jesus’ turning a large quantity of water into wine (oinos) at a family wedding in Cana of Galilee. This is Jesus’ first of a series of messianic signs selected by John for inclusion in his Gospel. There is no indication in these verses that Jesus would have turned the water into non-alcoholic wine. Instead, the use of oinos combined with Jesus’ use of fermented wines throughout the Gospels leads to the conclusion that Jesus turned the water into wine containing alcohol. That the chief servant made comment about the tendency of hosts to set out the ‘inferior’ wine last, after the guests have ‘drunk freely,’ confirms this conclusion, for if guests have drunk freely from non-alcoholic wine, they would not be duped by the inferior wine that followed (John 2: 10).

Whether a Christian today should drink alcohol depends on many factors that are outside the scope of this essay, but it seems unwise to argue that Jesus mandated abstinence from drinking alcohol. The evidence for this position, according to Köstenberger, is simply not there.

Commentary on John 1-2 (First Disciples, First Miracle)

The traditional view of the Gospel of John is that it was written by John the son of Zebedee and brother of James, the disciple “Jesus loved,” between AD 80-90. Some scholars have suggested that a different disciple named John wrote the Gospel, but thus far that theory has not gained majority acceptance.

John likely wrote the Gospel while he was living in Ephesus, toward the end of his life. The Gospel appears to be the first of five books he wrote, the next ones being the three NT letters that bear his name and the book of Revelation.

Andreas Kostenberger, in John, Acts: Volume Two of Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, explains the purposes of John in writing his Gospel:

To demonstrate that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, by presenting and commenting on seven selected messianic signs. To show that the Christian faith is universal, applying to Jews and non-Jews alike, and the only way to God. To equip believers for mission. To evangelize unbelievers by equipping believers to share the good news.

After Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist, his public ministry begins. In chapter one, verses 35-37, Jesus passes by John and John proclaims to two of his disciples that Jesus is the “Lamb of God.” John is likely referring to the messianic “lamb,” prophesied in Isaiah 53:7, who would take away the sins of the people. John is urging his disciples to follow Jesus and two of them do. The two are Andrew and an unnamed disciple. Most scholars believe that the unnamed disciple is John, the author of the Gospel.

As the two disciples approach Jesus, he asks them what they are seeking, and they, in turn, ask him where he is staying. The disciples follow Jesus to where he is staying and they remain with him the rest of the day. Gerald L. Borchert, in vol. 25A, John 1–11, The New American Commentary, explains:

Disciples, learners, or followers in the first century were quite literally people who followed (walked after) a teacher and learned from both the words and actions of their mentor. The fact that they asked Jesus where he was staying or abiding (meneis) confirmed their intention of becoming his disciples. As noted earlier (cf. 1:32), this theme of remaining or abiding is one of the key Johannine themes that in the mashal or parable of the vine and branches becomes a focal term for the evangelist in his enunciation of genuine qualities of discipleship (15:4–7).

Andrew immediately goes to find his brother Simon to tell him that he has found the Messiah (the Christ). When Simon comes to meet Jesus, Jesus gives him the nickname Peter, which means “rock.” Peter would, of course, become one of the most important disciples of Jesus. He would be the primary source for the Gospel of Mark and he would write two letters to the church that would be canonized (First and Second Peter).

The next day Jesus travels north to Galilee and finds Philip. Philip, who is from the same town as Andrew and Peter, becomes his fourth disciple. Philip goes to his friend Nathanael and tells him that he has found the one whom “Moses in the Law and also the prophets” wrote about. The “Law and Prophets” is an expression which means the entire Old Testament. He is referring to the messianic prophecies found throughout the OT being fulfilled in Jesus.

Nathanael is not mentioned in any of the other Gospels, but many scholars believe he is the disciple called Bartholomew in the other Gospels. Andreas Köstenberger, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible), writes:

The Synoptics never mention Nathanael, though John refers to him here and again in 21: 2. It is likely that this was the personal name of Bartholomew (Bar-Tholomaios = son of Tholomaios). Not only is Bartholomew absent from John’s Gospel, he is linked with Philip in all three Synoptic apostolic lists (Matt 10: 3; Mark 3: 18; Luke 6: 14; though not in Acts 1: 13), which corresponds to Nathanael’s connection with Philip in John’s Gospel. Since Bartholomew was a patronymic (a personal name based on the name of one’s male ancestor), it is very plausible that this man was also known by another name (Morris 1995, 143; Hill 1997, 47; cf. Carson 1991, 159).

Nathanael, hearing that Jesus is from Nazareth, questions how the Messiah could come from such a lowly village. Nazareth had a population of less than two thousand people and was never mentioned anywhere in the Scriptures as part of messianic prophecies, so Nathanael is rightly perplexed. Philip’s answer to him is to just “come and see.” Notice how simple evangelism is with the disciples. Their method is to simply bring people to meet Jesus.

As Nathanael approaches, Jesus says to him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Jesus is comparing Nathanael to the original Israelite, Jacob. Gerald Borchert writes:

Jesus designated Nathanael as a true or authentic (alēthōs, here used adjectivally) Israelite in whom there was no deceit or guile (dolos, John 1:47). In making this statement, Jesus contrasted Nathanael with his forefather Jacob, the usurper (Gen 25:26), who by duplicity or guile (dolou, Gen 27:35, LXX) deceived his father and cheated his brother out of the blessing, to say nothing of his dealings with his uncle Laban, who also was skilled in guile. At the same time the designation of being an authentic or worthy Israelite placed Nathanael within God’s great intention of transforming Jacob and his offspring.

Nathanael asks Jesus how he knows him, and Jesus tells Nathanael that he (supernaturally) saw him sitting under a fig tree before Philip approached him. Nathanael responds with amazement and declares Jesus to be the Son of God and King of Israel. Both of these are messianic titles based on OT prophecies (2 Sam 7: 14; Ps 2: 7). The title “Son of God” should not be understood in a divine or Trinitarian sense at this point in Jesus’s ministry. It is strictly a reference to Jesus’s messianic credentials. Jesus’s followers had not yet connected the Messiah with divinity at this early date.

Jesus commends Nathanael for recognizing who Jesus is, but he assures Nathanael that he hasn’t seen anything yet! He tells Nathanael, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” Whenever Jesus prefaces a statement with “truly, truly” we need to pay close attention. He is preparing his audience for an important truth.

In this case, he refers to heaven opening up and angels descending and ascending on the Son of Man, which is a title Jesus often gives himself. What does he mean by this? Edwin A. Blum, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, explains:

From 1:48, 51 it can be inferred that Nathanael was meditating on Jacob’s life, particularly on the incident recorded in Genesis 28:12. Jacob saw the angels going up and down a ladder. But Nathanael would see … the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. Just as Jacob saw angels from heaven communicating with earth, so Nathanael . . .  would see Jesus as the divine Communication from heaven to earth. The Son of Man, replacing the ladder, is God’s link with earth (cf. Dan. 7:13; Matt. 26:64). Perhaps Jesus was also indicating that He is the new ‘Bethel,’ God’s dwelling place (Gen. 28:17; John 1:14).

Why does Jesus use the title “Son of Man”? Gerald Borchert writes,

Within Jewish literature Son of Man terminology was employed in Ezekiel to refer primarily to the humanity of the person addressed (e.g., Ezek 3:1, 4; 4:1; 24:2; 37:3, 11; 38:2, 14). In Dan 7:13, however, the Son of Man takes on greater significance as an eschatological mediator between God (the Ancient of Days) and the world.

Thus Jesus, who is the fully human mediator between God and the world, appropriates this title for himself.

As chapter two begins, Jesus and his disciples are attending a wedding in Cana, a town about 10 miles from Nazareth. His mother, Mary, is also attending, which may indicate that it was the wedding of a relative or friend of the family.

Mary goes to Jesus and tells him that the host has run out of wine. Andreas Kostenberger, in John, Acts: Volume Two (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), explains the significance of wine at a Jewish wedding:

In Jewish thought, wine is a symbol of joy and celebration: “There is no rejoicing save with wine” (b. Pesah. 109a). In John, running out of wine at the Cana wedding may be symbolic of the barrenness of Judaism. Prophetic expectation cast the messianic age as a time when wine would flow freely. At a cultural level, running out of wine was considered to be a major social faux pas, since the host was responsible to provide the wedding guests with wine for seven days.

Mary is asking Jesus to intervene in a potentially embarrassing situation for the host. Craig S. Keener, in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, provides further background:

The women’s quarters were near the place where the wine was stored; thus Mary learns of the shortage of wine before word reaches Jesus and the other men. Her words probably suggest that he should do something; guests were to help defray the expense of the wedding with their gifts, and it seems that their friend needs some extra gifts now.

Jesus answers his mother, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” How are we to interpret what Jesus is saying here? Keener offers the following insights:

’Woman’ was a respectful address (like ‘Ma’am’) but hardly customary for one’s mother. Jesus’ statement here establishes polite distance (though ‘What have I to do with you’ is usually a harsh, not a polite, expression in biblical language). Because Jesus’ ‘hour’ in John refers especially to the cross, here Jesus is saying, ‘Once I begin doing miracles, I begin the road to the cross.’

Gerald Borchert comments:

It is here quite unlikely that Jesus was expressing hostility to his mother, but the statement does seem to imply that he wanted to set straight the parameters of his public relationship with his mother. Thus family relationships were not to be the determining factors in Jesus’ life. As his brothers later could not force Jesus’ timing of his destiny (John 7:3–9), so his mother here was not to govern his activity (2:4; cf. the temple scene in Luke 2:48–50; also cf. Mark 4:31–35). Although a Jewish mother might normally be able to exercise pressure on her children, it was not to be the case with Jesus.

Jesus came to do the will of his Father in heaven, not the will of his family or friends or disciples. His mother, by asking him to intervene in some miraculous manner, was overstepping her authority. Mary, however, is undaunted and commands the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them. She is confident her son will intervene.

Jesus instructs the servants to fill six stone jars with water. Each jar could hold between twenty and thirty gallons. He then tells them to draw a small amount of the water and take it to the master of the feast. Keener explains that the master of the feast

was a position of honor (Ecclus 32:1–2); one of his primary duties was to regulate the distribution of wine to prevent excess that would (especially in a Jewish context) ruin the party. At least in Greek banquets, guests elected this person to preside over the entertainment and to control the level of dilution for the wine; thus some observers might have held him partly responsible for the host’s running out of wine prematurely.

The master of the feast tastes the water (which has miraculously turned into wine) and remarks to the bridegroom that he has evidently saved the best wine for last. Typically, the better wine is served at the beginning of the week and the more diluted wine is served during the latter days of the week.

Verse 11 records that this was Jesus’s first miraculous sign and that it caused his disciples to believe in him as the Messiah. Borchert explains, “In John a sign is more than just a wonder; it is a powerful act for the one who has eyes to see because it points to the reality of who Jesus is.” Edwin Blum summarizes:

The significance of the miracle was explained by John as a manifestation of Christ’s glory. In contrast with the ministry of Moses who turned water into blood as a sign of God’s judgment (Ex. 7:14–24), Jesus brings joy. His first miracle was a gracious indication of the joy which He provides by the Spirit. The sign points to Jesus as the Word in the flesh, who is the mighty Creator. Each year He turns water to wine in the agricultural and fermentation processes. Here He simply did the process immediately. The 120 gallons of fine wine were His gift to the young couple. The first miracle—a transformation—pointed to the kind of transforming ministry Jesus would have (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17).

Does Matthew 3:16-17 Support Polytheism?

The doctrine of the Trinity simply states that God consists of three persons in one essence. The three persons are the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In Matthew 3:16-17, all three are present at the same time and in the same place. So, do these verses support the doctrine of the Trinity or do they instead point to tritheism, the idea that there are three distinct and separate gods (the position of Mormons)?

Michael Wilkins, writing in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible), argues that tritheism is not supported by the totality of the biblical witness.

At this early date of Jesus’ ministry, Matthew is only hinting at what will later be made clearer in his Gospel and in the rest of the NT— that there is one God, but within that oneness of essence there are three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Tritheism is certainly not a biblical option. The OT repeatedly affirms that there is but one God: ‘Listen, Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One’ (Deut 6: 4), and both Jesus and the apostles repeat this truth (Mark 12: 29; 1 Cor 8: 4, 6). Likewise, Jesus will emphasize the divine nature of Father, Son, and Spirit, and Matthew will begin pointing to this stupendous truth.

As Morris states, ‘Matthew has certain trinitarian interest’ (Morris 1992, 68). Matthew concludes his Gospel with another trinitarian allusion in Jesus’ instruction that new disciples are to be baptized in the singular name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (28: 19). This is the oneness of God in three personal distinctions.

Matthew lays out a clear picture of Jesus’ deity by drawing upon OT prophecies. Prior to the incarnation, the strong divine language of some of the prophecies could not be adequately understood, leading to diverse views concerning the nature of the Messiah (see Kaiser 1995). But for Matthew, the reality of the incarnation now makes clear God’s revelation through the prophets: Jesus is God the Son, who is in vital relationship with his Father God, in the power of the Spirit of God. That all three members of the godhead share the same essence does not lead to an expectation that they cannot be present and active in the same scene. If they could not simultaneously participate in a scene such as this, they would in fact not be three persons.

Norman Geisler and Ron Rhodes add in When Cultists Ask:

Matthew 3:16–17 supports the doctrine of the Trinity, though in itself it does not prove the doctrine. Trinitarians base their understanding of the nature of God on the accumulative evidence of the whole of Scripture. Taken by itself, all that the passage proves directly is that there are three different persons in the Godhead. It does not show that these three persons all share one and the same divine essence. . . .

Scripture taken as a whole yields the doctrine of the Trinity that is based on three lines of biblical evidence: (1) evidence that there is only one true God; (2) evidence that there are three Persons who are recognized as God; and (3) evidence for three-in-oneness within the Godhead. Scripture uniformly teaches that there is only one God (Deut. 6:4; 32:39; 2 Sam. 7:22; Ps. 86:10; Isa. 44:6; John 5:44; 17:3; Rom. 3:29–30; 16:27; 1 Cor. 8:4; Gal. 3:20; Eph. 4:6; 1 Thess. 1:9; 1 Tim. 1:17; 2:5; James 2:19; 1 John 5:20–21; Jude 25). Yet Scripture also calls three persons God—the Father (1 Peter 1:2), the Son (John 20:28; Heb. 1:8), and the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3–4). Scripture also indicates three-in-oneness in the Godhead (Matt. 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:14). The accumulative evidence of the whole of Scripture indicates that God is a Trinity.

Commentary on Matthew 3 (John Baptizes Jesus)

From the birth of Jesus to the beginning of Matthew 3, we skip about thirty years. John the Baptist’s ministry started between the years AD 26 and 28, so we would expect the events recorded in chapter three of Matthew to take place after John’s ministry had been established for a year or two.

John’s message is simple: turn away from your sins (repent) so that you are prepared for the inauguration of God’s kingdom on earth. Matthew quotes Isaiah 40:3 to show that John is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. John is the voice crying out in the wilderness.

Verse 4 connects John to the ministry of Elijah, for John dresses as Elijah did. They are both wilderness prophets who are poor and humble. Michael Wilkins, in Matthew, Mark, Luke: Volume One of Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, writes:

Locusts and wild honey were not an unusual diet for people living in the desert. The locust is the migratory phase of the grasshopper and was allowable food for the people of Israel to eat, as opposed to other kinds of crawling and flying insects (Lev. 11:20–23). They are an important food source in many areas of the world, especially as a source of protein, because even in the most desolate areas they are abundant. They are often collected, dried, and ground into flour. Protein and fat were derived from locusts, while sugar came from the honey of wild bees.

Verses 5-6 indicate that John is attracting large crowds to the Jordan River where he is preaching. The crowds would come to confess their sins and be baptized by John. Craig Blomberg, in vol. 22, Matthew, The New American Commentary, explains about baptism that

Jews seem regularly to have practiced water baptism by immersion for adult proselytes from pagan backgrounds as an initiation into Judaism. Qumran commanded ritual bathing daily to symbolize repeated cleansing from sin. But John’s call for a one-time-only baptism for those who had been born as Jews was unprecedented. John thus insisted that one’s ancestry was not adequate to ensure one’s relationship with God. As has often been put somewhat colloquially, ‘God has no grandchildren.’ Our parents’ religious affiliations afford no substitute for our own personal commitment (cf. v. 9).

The crowds coming to see John included members of two religio-political organizations, the Sadducees and Pharisees. Together, these two groups composed most of the membership of the Jewish Supreme Court, known as the Sanhedrin. Michael Wilkins provides some historical background on the identities of these two groups.

The name Pharisee is probably derived from the Hebrew/Aramaic perušim, the separated ones, alluding to both their origin and their characteristic practices. They tended to be politically conservative and religiously liberal and held the minority membership on the Sanhedrin.

They held to the supreme place of Torah, with a rigorous scribal interpretation of it. Their most pronounced characteristic was their adherence to the oral tradition, which they obeyed rigorously as an attempt to make the written law relevant to daily life. They had a well-developed belief in angelic beings. They had concrete messianic hopes, as they looked for the coming Davidic messianic kingdom. The Messiah would overthrow the Gentiles and restore the fortunes of Israel with Jerusalem as capital. They believed in the resurrection of the righteous when the messianic kingdom arrived, with the accompanying punishment of the wicked. They viewed Rome as an illegitimate force that was preventing Israel from experiencing its divinely ordained role in the outworking of the covenants. They held strongly to divine providence, yet viewed humans as having freedom of choice, which ensures their responsibility. As a lay fellowship or brotherhood connected with local synagogues, the Pharisees were popular with the common people.

The Sadducees were a small group with aristocratic and priestly influence, who derived their authority from the activities of the temple. They tended to be politically liberal and religiously conservative and held the majority membership on the Sanhedrin.

They held a conservative attitude toward the Scriptures, accepting nothing as authoritative except the written word, literally interpreted. They accepted only Torah (the five books of Moses) as authoritative, rejecting any beliefs not found there. For that reason they denied the resurrection from the dead, the reality of angels, and spirit life. They produced no literature of which we are aware. They had no expressed messianic expectation, which tended to make them satisfied with their wealth and political power. They were open to aspects of Hellenism and often collaborated with the Romans. They tended to be removed from the common people by economic and political status.

When John sees the Pharisees and Sadducees, he accuses them of being the offspring (brood) of poisonous snakes. They are shrewd and dangerous. Why does John accuse them of this? He perceives that they are only pretending to be interested in John’s message. In reality, they do not think they need to repent of anything.

In their way of thinking, they are descendants of Abraham, and therefore God automatically accepts them as His own. John corrects their faulty theology and forcefully asserts that God can make even stones His children if He so desires. The true children of God will repent of their sins and then lead lives of good works and righteousness. The people of Israel (the root of the trees), and especially the Jewish leadership, will be judged by God based on this criteria, not whether they are physical descendants of Abraham.

Starting in verse 11, John then speaks of the One who would do the judging. The One who is coming, the Messiah, is so mighty that John doesn’t even qualify to be His slave (slaves would carry the sandals of their masters). The Messiah, unlike John, will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Louis A. Barbieri, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, writes:

Those hearing John’s words would have been reminded of two Old Testament prophecies: Joel 2:28–29 and Malachi 3:2–5. Joel had given the promise of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Israel. An actual outpouring of the Spirit did occur in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost, but experientially Israel did not enter into the benefits of that event. She will yet experience the benefits of this accomplished work when she turns in repentance at the Lord’s Second Advent. The baptism ‘with fire’ referred to the judging and cleansing of those who would enter the kingdom, as prophesied in Malachi 3.

In verse 12, Blomberg explains, “John uses the image of a farmer separating valuable wheat from worthless chaff by throwing the grain into the air and allowing the two constituent elements to separate in the wind. The wheat, like believers, is preserved and safeguarded; the chaff, like unbelievers, is destroyed.”

In verses 13-17, Matthew records the official inauguration of the Kingdom of God on earth, the baptism of Jesus. Jesus travels south from Galilee to Judea to be baptized by John. John is confused by Jesus’s request because Jesus (the promised Messiah) should have no need of repentance and confession of sins, of which John’s baptism is symbolic.

Jesus insists that He be baptized by John because His baptism, firstly, authenticates John’s ministry as Jesus’s forerunner, and, secondly, officially marks the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry. After Jesus is baptized, the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus (John uses the metaphor of a dove) and God the Father speaks the following words: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Blomberg adds:

The heavenly voice cites excerpts of Ps 2:7 and Isa 42:1. Both texts were taken as messianic by important segments of pre-Christian Judaism (see 4QFlor 10–14 and Tg. Isa 42:1, respectively). Together they point out Jesus’ role as both divine Son and Suffering Servant, a crucial combination for interpreting Jesus’ self-understanding and mission.