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Bible Commentaries

James Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary

Matthew 3



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Verse 2


‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’

Matthew 3:2

Do not think that St. John was juggling with words. He meant what he said; he knew of and cared for the fears and hopes and longings and wants around him. We mean to-day what we say when we pray ‘Thy kingdom come.’ Jesus Christ is a King, Who knows our every need better than we know it ourselves, Who is touched with our infirmities, and feels our sorrows, and will right them if we will let Him. There was only one thing then, and there is only one thing now which prevents the reign of Jesus Christ, and that is man himself—man who will not have Christ to reign over him.

I. Christ claims a universal dominion.—He claims the whole world. Hence the missionary leaves home and friends and goes out in steady confidence. Here in this England of ours Jesus Christ claims an absolute sovereignty over it all. And yet how far we are from recognising it. Here as of old there are many wistful ears anxiously straining for the news of deliverance. There is the huge mass of indifference without God in the world; there is reckless waste and hopeless want; there is sin in all its terrible defiance of the very laws of human existence. There is suffering and misery, and, worse than all, an inability for a man to assert his powers as a man to make his own way in the world. There is confusion and difficulty, misunderstanding and suspicion, wherever we turn. Pray on, wherever you may be; pray for those dark spots of sin and those sad spots of sorrow which darken our Christian cities. The waves of the sea are mighty, and rage horribly; but He that dwelleth on high is mightier. The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand. Jesus Christ reigns.

II. The need of patience.—Patience—how we hate that word! But no lasting good is to be had without it. We can always cut the knot of a difficulty, but the truly great man wants to untie it. Of course it is true that destitution and hunger and want ought to be, and must be, attended to at once by wise remedies. They do not brook delay. But we want a solution of a recurring difficulty, the adjustment of what seems to be an inequality of opportunity. Be assured of this, that there is no lack of ardent desire on the part of every right-minded man to do all he can to help while these great questions are being worked out. There is always a danger of impatience. Think of the slaves! What was patience to them? It seemed as if Christ had nothing to say to their cruel grievance. His kingdom came and slavery stayed. But Christ had enunciated principles which tended to make slavery impossible, and gradually, through long years, slavery has been dying out. So it was with those blood-stained shows, in which men killed each other for sport: Christ seemed to have done nothing to stop them, when all of a sudden it was found that the whole system collapsed at the earnest preaching of one devoted man, because Christian principles had condemned it and made it impossible. So it has been with the position of woman; so it has been with wars of aggression; so it will be with the evils which paralyse us to-day. ‘Sirs, ye are brethren.’ ‘By this shall all men know that ye are My disciples, if ye have love one towards another.’ These are the laws of Christ’s kingdom; these He will set up and proclaim, if we will let Him. But we are all apt to think that we know better. ‘We can hurry man, but we cannot hurry God.’

III. The Kingdom of God is within you.—It is not only the cause and the measure which we must think of, but the man. If, therefore, you feel that God has called you to help solve a very difficult problem, let me beseech you each to look to yourselves. There are problems in our own lives as difficult as the problems in large cities. A man may be beaten down by temper, or by passion, or by desire—by a hundred things, so that he becomes useless for work in God’s service. Let us each, in our several ways, work towards the same end—the solving of a great and pressing difficulty—and to that end let us offer to God ourselves, each of us as we are and what we are. ‘Men make a city, and not walls,’ was said on a famous occasion; and it is the individual man who counts in carrying forward Christ’s kingdom. If God says ‘Speak to the children of Israel that they go forward,’ then we can advance, even through the Red Sea, towards our promised land; but, on the other hand, ‘except the Lord build the house, their labour is but lost that build it.’

—Canon Newbolt.


(1) ‘A modern writer, speaking of the impression left on his mind by a visit to the Grande Chartreuse, in the days when it was still occupied by its devoted band of religious men, describes to us the solemnity of the night offices and the suggestiveness of those solemn intercessions: “I heard them,” he says, “interceding for men who, at that moment of the dark night, were forgetting God, and truth, purity, and goodness. I heard the murmur of the solemn petition which had gone up to the throne of grace night after night for many centuries, prayers for the poor and the wretched, for the guilty and the crime-laden, for the dying and the dead, for the faint-hearted that they might hope again in God, for the light-headed lest they might forget Him.”’

Verse 8


‘Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance.’

Matthew 3:8

When we use these words we must be careful that we do not mean ‘Bring forth fruits,’ i.e. do works which would entitle you to receive the grace of ‘repentance,’ but do works worthy of, or corresponding to, the ‘repentance’ which you already feel and profess.

‘Repentance’ is an impression wrought upon the heart, by the grace of God, whereby, under a deep sense of sin committed against Him, the feelings are changed, the mind sees everything in a new light, and adopts a course the exact opposite to that which it previously was pursuing. What the Bible teaches us is this, that where that root is planted in the heart, it must bring forth ‘fruit’ to match. There must be something in the life correspondent with the feelings; otherwise, there is no vitality; the ‘repentance’ is unreal. The effect must be worthy of the cause which produces it.

I. Our own, not other people’s sins.—It would be very little good to-day if we were now to consider what may be the sins of other people. It is a very easy kind of’ repentance’ to confess the errors of our neighbours. We have nothing to do with that. What we have to do with is our own personal sins.

II. Abuse of money.—There is no doubt, that as a people, we have been growing very rich. I believe that the general prosperity of this country is almost, if not quite, unprecedented in the history of the world. But have we rendered back to God according to that which we have received from His hand? Now our charities, our church building, our home and foreign missions—have they kept pace with the immense increase of England’s wealth? Rather, is not the race for money inordinate? And is it not characteristically a selfish and luxurious age? See how lavishly money is spent on fashion and the indulgences of life, and how sparingly it goes into God’s coffers! What tremendous inequality there is between the rich and the poor in this country! How many societies are languishing for want of funds! What a deficiency there is in our great towns of churches and clergy! What is going back to God? ‘Shall I not visit for these things? saith the Lord.’

III. Neglect of Sunday.—And as it has been with money, so it has been with time. The seventh part of time, which He, the Great Proprietor of all time, claims in His sovereignty, has not been accorded to Him. Our Sundays have been increasingly violated. The multitude which take their pleasure on the Lord’s Day, and neglect the assembling of themselves together, is exceeding great. In our large towns, the attendance on public worship is scanty indeed. Yet remember, the Sabbath is God’s property, given us in trust for His glory, and for His creatures’ sake; and He will never allow it to be taken away. ‘Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed Me.’

IV. Our unhappy divisions.—And our divisions are very wide. Where does God see His own unity? Is not our own Church of England rent, till the marvel is, how its beautiful net-work can hold together till we reach the shore? We declare our belief in the real eternal oneness of the whole mystical body of Christ,—but where is it? In controversy? In harsh judgments, and hard speeches? In separations? In schism?

V. What must we do?—How shall we ‘bring forth worthy fruits of repentance’? Be very practical. Take care that your religion neither begins nor ends in a feeling or in a service. Amend your own ways. Give God His own. Observe the Lord’s Day by attendance at the Lord’s own service. Pray and work for unity.

—The Rev. James Vaughan.


(1) ‘As the length of the roots of a tree under the ground, so is the width and the breadth of its branches above; and the flavour of the sap may always be detected in the grain. Just so it is to be in that beautiful plant of godly sorrow. There must be a mellowedness and tenderness under it; you must “bring forth fruits meet for repentance.”’

Verse 11


‘He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.’

Matthew 3:11

There are three baptisms in the New Testament: the baptism of John unto repentance; the baptism of Christ for His people; the baptism at Pentecost. At Pentecost there appeared cloven tongues as of fire.

I. Guided by fire.—This manifestation is not altogether new in the providence of God. (Abraham’s sacrifice in the wilderness; Moses on Horeb; the pillar of fire that went before the Lord’s people in the wilderness. These were all guided by fire.)

II. Inspired by fire.—Let me place before you three considerations. There never will be a new Bible, but there will be many new readings of it. You open your Bible and you read it. But you never read like that before. It used to be ink and paper; now, as you read it, it is fire. Where does the inspiration come from? Is the Book newly inspired? No, but you are.

III. Purified by fire.—There never will be a new Saviour. ‘Jesus Christ the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever.’ But one day you looked at Him through your tears, and He seemed to you altogether new, and the Holy Ghost had fallen upon you and shown to you that you were altogether unlovely, and that your Saviour was altogether lovely. It was not that the Saviour was new, but God had given you a new and a purified heart. The fire of heaven has fallen upon you and purified your heart.

IV. Baptized by fire.—There will be no new Church. The Church is a very old Church; its altar was set up in the eternity of God. In the beginning it was baptized with the Holy Ghost and with fire at Pentecost. That is the Church, the Pentecost Church, the Christian Church. There is no other. ‘I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Holy Catholic Church,’ no new Church, no other Church. What does it all mean? If you are baptized, you are baptized into the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. I know you might go away and say, ‘But is not your idea and your explanation of the Holy Ghost’s Church a little vague? We want something more definite.’ Would you ask me to draw a line round the operations of the Holy Ghost? You ask too much. ‘I believe in the Holy Ghost; the Holy Catholic Church; the Communion of Saints; the Forgiveness of sins; the Resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.’ I believe that which I cannot define.

The Rev. A. H. Stanton.

Verse 12


‘He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’

Matthew 3:12

When the Lord Jesus Christ comes to purge His floor, He shall punish all who are not His disciples with a fearful punishment.

I. Man’s view.—Painful as the subject of hell is, it is one about which we must not be silent.

(a) Some do not believe there is any hell at all. They think it impossible there can be such a place. They call it inconsistent with the mercy of God. They say it is too awful an idea to be really true.

(b) Some do not believe that hell is eternal. They tell us it is incredible that a compassionate God will punish men for ever. He will surely open the prison doors at last.

(c) Some believe there is a hell, but never allow that anybody is going there. All people, with them, are good as soon as they die, all were sincere, all meant well, and all, they hope, got to heaven.

(d) Some believe there is a hell, and never like it to be spoken of. It is a subject that should always be kept back, in their opinion. They see no profit in bringing it forward, and are rather shocked when it is mentioned.

II. What says the Word of God?

(a) Hell is real and true. There is not a fact or doctrine which you may not lawfully doubt if you doubt hell. Disbelieve hell and you unscrew, unsettle, and unpin everything in Scripture. From ‘no hell’ to ‘no God’ there is but a series of steps.

(b) Hell will have inhabitants. The wicked shall certainly be turned into hell, and all the people that forget God. ‘These shall go away into everlasting punishment’ (St. Matthew 25:46). The same Blessed Saviour Who now sits on a throne of grace, will one day sit on a throne of judgment, and men will see there is such a thing as ‘the wrath of the Lamb’ (Revelation 6:16).

(c) Hell will be intense and unutterable woe.—It is vain to talk of all the expressions about it being only figure of speech. Bible figures means something, beyond all question, and here they mean something which man’s mind can never fully conceive.

(d) Hell is eternal. If hell has an end, Heaven has an end, too. They both stand or fall together.

(e) Hell is a subject that ought not to be kept back. It is striking to observe the many texts about it in Scripture. It is striking to observe that none say so much about it as our Lord Jesus Christ, that gracious and merciful Saviour; and the Apostle John, whose heart seems full of love.

III. The wheat of the earth.—But if you are willing to be one of the wheat of the earth, the Lord Jesus Christ is willing to receive you. Do you think He does not desire to bring many sons to glory? You little know the depth of His mercy and compassion if you can think such a thought! If you never came to Christ for life before, come to Him this very day!

—Bishop J. C. Ryle.

Verse 16-17


‘And Jesus, when He was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’

Matthew 3:16-17

I. Why did Christ need this manifestation of the Spirit?

(a) That witness might be borne to His Sonship. It was to assure, not Himself indeed, but others, of His Sonship. Though He needed no assurance of His Sonship, there are many of God’s children who do.

(b) To equip Him for conflict. Was it not significant that immediately after the reception of the Holy Spirit He should be brought into a personal encounter with the evil spirit? that immediately after such a manifestation of Divine favour there should be such a manifestation of Satanic power? (St. Matthew 4:1). Never let us forget that it is after the choicest seasons of Divine blessing that we may except the fiercest onslaughts of Satanic rage.

(c) To anoint Him for service. This was the opening of Christ’s missionary career. Up to this time He had lived a life of obscurity in Nazareth. If Christ needed this anointing, how much more must you and I need it also? How can we expect our service to succeed without it.

(d) To strengthen Him for suffering. His life henceforth was to be a living martyrdom. Suffering was to be His lot, and suffering is the portion still of those who are to be followers of the Lamb that was slain. We want strength to suffer, and we shall never get it except through the outpouring of the Holy Ghost.

II. The manner of this wonderful baptism of the Spirit.—How did the Holy Spirit descend upon Christ? As a dove—

(a) Swiftly; (b) sensibly; (c) symbolically.

The dove speaks to us of heavenly-mindedness and purity and peace.

III. The conditions of the reception of the Holy Spirit.—They are found in the circumstances in which Christ received the Spirit.

(a) He received the Holy Ghost at a time of uttermost obedience. The first condition is obedience (see Acts 5:32).

(b) It was a time of deepest humiliation. He went down among the common people (St. Luke 3:21). Have you thought what Christ’s baptism meant for Him? ‘We know that this man is a sinner’ (St. John 9:24). How did they know? Because He had submitted to the baptism of John. Christ lost His reputation at Jordan. Have we ever followed Christ so far? Have we been willing to lose our reputation for His sake, perhaps never regaining it entirely?

(c) It was at a time of prayer that Christ received the Spirit (St. Luke 3:21). Christ was praying. And yet some actually tell us that we must not pray for the Holy Spirit to come down! Prayer is the condition of receiving the Spirit.

Christ fulfilled the conditions, and according to His faith it was unto Him. Surely from that open heaven a voice speaks to us. ‘The Promise is to you and to your children.’

The Rev. E. W. Moore.


‘Rowland Hill on one occasion found himself in the company of some professedly Christian officials of the church where he had been preaching, when the conversation turned upon amusements. One of those present advocated theatre-going as a suitable amusement for Christian people. Mr. Hill expressed some surprise, and the speaker, perceiving that his views were not acceptable, attempted to modify them by saying, “Oh, well, Mr. Hill, I only go now and then for a treat.” “Indeed,” replied Mr. Hill, “I know what kind of bird that is that feeds on carrion for a treat!” Is it not sad to see how eyen Christian people can come to God for salvation and go somewhere else for pleasure?’


Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Matthew 3:4". Church Pulpit Commentary. 1876.

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