Matthew 3-4 is divided into the ministry of John the Baptist (3:1-12), the baptism of Christ (3:13-17), the temptations of Jesus (4:1-11), and the early Galilean ministry of Jesus (4:12-25).
The Doctrinal Foundation of the Ministry of John the Baptist
When Isaiah prophesied of the coming of Christ, he declared, “For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground” (Isaiah 53:2). Regarding this prophecy, Elder Bruce R. McConkie wrote that Jesus Christ “grew up in the arid soil of a spiritually degenerate society—in a Holy City that had become like Egypt and Sodom: among a people who chose darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil: and in the midst of a people who had a form of godliness but denied the power thereof. . . . He grew up in the arid and sterile soil of a Judaism where the priesthood was bought and sold; where his Father’s house had become a den of thieves; where sacrifices and feasts and fasts and Sabbaths all testified of a then?unknown Jehovah.”[i]
For the most part, the Jews had either strayed from the intent of the Law of Moses or from the law itself, which was to have governed Israel until the coming of the Messiah. With few exceptions, they had become an apostate people, spiritually dead! They were in need of spiritual rebirth.
The Lord told Adam that the process of spiritual rebirth was similar to the process of physical birth: “Therefore I give unto you a commandment, to teach these things freely unto your children, saying: That by reason of transgression cometh the fall, which fall bringeth death, and inasmuch as ye were born into the world by water, and blood, and the spirit, which I have made, and so became of dust a living soul, even so ye must be born again into the kingdom of heaven, of water, and of the Spirit, and be cleansed by blood, even the blood of mine Only Begotten” (Moses 6:58-59).
The process of physical birth begins with the conception of the child. Successful conception leads to gestation, lasting about nine months. During this period, enveloped in water and being sustained by the blood of the mother, the embryo grows into a fetus. Eventually the spirit enters into the fetus and gestation ends with the event of physical birth, giving life to the child.
Similarly, the process of spiritual rebirth begins when the person is awakened to their spiritual need (see Mosiah 4:1-5; Alma 5:6-7; 2 Nephi 1:13-14). There are “three essentials that are necessary to inspire one to live a Christlike life,” taught President Harold B. Lee. “The first essential I would name in order to qualify is: There must be awakened in the individual who would be taught or who would live perfectly an awareness of his needs.”[ii] The awakening leads to a child-like belief (for an example see Alma 22:1-8). This must be fortified with correct doctrinal teaching. An essential part of this teaching focuses on the fallen nature of man and the need for a redeemer (see Alma 22:12-14). Correct teaching leads to faith on the Lord Jesus Christ which brings about a hope of redemption. The process of spiritual rebirth continues as the person repents of his/her sins and seeks to enter into a covenant relationship through baptism.
Similar to conception and gestation which lead to the event of physical birth, the awakening, development of child-like belief, correct doctrinal teaching, exercise of faith and repentance, leads to the event of spiritual rebirth. Spiritual rebirth is brought about through ordinances. Joseph Smith declared, “Being born again, comes by the Spirit of God through ordinances.”[iii] The Savior taught what those ordinances are: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. . . Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:3,5).
These ordinances must be performed by legal administrators. Elder Orson Pratt, an early member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles explained: “A person cannot be born again legitimately without a legal administrator. If you are born of the Spirit, there must needs be a man authorized to administer that Spirit. Paul says, ‘Who hath also made us able ministers of the New Testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit, for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.’ Why? because he was authorized to lay his hands on baptized believers, and confirm upon them the gift of the Holy Ghost, that they might be born of the Spirit and become new creatures.”[iv]
The ordinance of water baptism is the first ordinance of spiritual rebirth. But in and of itself, it is insufficient. Without the baptism of the Holy Ghost, there is no spiritual rebirth. President Marion G. Romney taught, “One is born again by actually receiving and experiencing the light and power inherent in the gift of the Holy Ghost.”[v] This is exemplified in the baptism of Adam: “And it came to pass, when the Lord had spoken with Adam, our father, that Adam cried unto the Lord, and he was caught away by the Spirit of the Lord, and was carried down into the water, and was laid under the water, and was brought forth out of the water. And thus he was baptized, and the Spirit of God descended upon him, and thus he was born of the Spirit, and became quickened [Old English for “made alive”] in the inner man” (Moses 6:64-65).
The baptism of water, however, is preparatory for the baptism of the Holy Ghost. In water baptism, the recipient covenants to keep the commandments of God (see 2 Nephi 31:7). Having repented and entered into this covenant, the recipient is forgiven of his/her sins–the first part of remission of sins (see D&C 19:31). Having been forgiven, the recipient is now qualified to be spiritually born again or come into the presence of God. Speaking of this, President Joseph Fielding Smith taught when one receives the Gift of the Holy Ghost, “We are back in the presence of God. The question might naturally be raised: How do we come back into the presence of God if we do not see him? We do not see him now, but are we not in his presence when we have the gift of the Holy Ghost, one of the members of the Godhead, to lead and direct us in righteousness? We are back in his presence, if we keep the commandments and do not longer live in sin; then we are in spiritual life. That is an important thing in connection with baptism not generally understood.”[vi]
The Ministry of John the Baptist
The mission of John the Baptist was to get a people ready for the promised coming of the Messiah who would bring the gift of the Holy Ghost, and thus spiritual rebirth. John’s preaching was to create an awaken people who would have sufficient faith to repent, be baptized, and accept Jesus as the Christ along with his baptism of fire. Indeed, as Isaiah foretold, John would “Prepare . . . the way of the LORD,” and “make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isaiah 40:3).
In line with this, John the Baptist came in the spirit of Elias. Joseph Smith explained: “The spirit of Elias is to prepare the way for a greater revelation of God.” This preparatory mission “is the Priesthood that Aaron was ordained unto. And when God sends a man into the world to prepare for a greater work, holding the keys of the power of Elias, it was called the doctrine of Elias, even from the early ages of the world.”[vii]
The Baptist’s mission was similar to the prophet Elijah. As Elijah’s mission was to “turn” Israel’s “heart back again” to God and the covenant (see 1 Kings 18:36-37), so with John the Baptist. John’s message was “Repent [Gk., metanoeo] ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2). Metanoeo means in Greek to “note after, later,” “to change one’s mind,” “to adopt another view,” or “to change one’s feelings.”[viii] Hence, John’s mission was to help the Jews change their hearts and minds by adopting a new view of the covenant and the coming of the Messiah who had the power to remit their sins. In other words, John’s mission was to bring people to Christ and his kingdom.
The very manner of the Baptist’s dress would have reminded Israel of the prophet Elijah. As Elijah was “girt with a girdle of leather about his loins” (2 Kings 1:8) so the Baptist was dressed in a “raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins” (Matt. 3:4).
John ministered to the people under the authority of the Aaronic Priesthood which holds the keys of the preparatory gospel (D&C 84:26-27). The preparatory gospel “is the gospel of repentance and of baptism, and the remission of sins, and the law of carnal commandments” (D&C 84:27). Indeed, the preparatory gospel prepares one for spiritual rebirth through the Melchizedek Priesthood ordinance of the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost. Therefore, as part of his calling, John baptized the repentant (Matt. 3:6).
Though the preparatory gospel includes the remission of sins, it does not have power to actually remit sins in the fullest sense. It can begin the process of remission of sins in the life of a sinner. But a higher power is necessary for full remission of sins. Full “remission of sins” comes “by baptism, and by fire, yea, even the Holy Ghost” (D&C 19:31). Therefore, only through the power of the Melchizedek Priesthood by which the gift of the Holy Ghost is given can full remission come. Only through the Holy Ghost can man be cleansed from the effects of sin.
This is confirmed by Nephi: “the gate by which ye should enter is repentance and baptism by water; and then cometh a remission of your sins by fire and by the Holy Ghost” (2 Nephi 31:17). Joseph Smith declared: “John’s mission was limited to preaching and baptizing; but what he did was legal; and when Jesus Christ came to any of John’s disciples, He baptized them with fire and the Holy Ghost.”[ix] Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained further: “Thus the Aaronic Priesthood performs the outward ordinance of baptism, but it takes the Melchizedek priesthood to bring the inward and spiritual change by which sin and evil are burned out of a human soul as though by fire”[x]
In view of this, John taught the people of his day: “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and [with] fire” (Matt. 3:11). The one coming was Christ. It was his mission to bring the power whereby man may be free from the effects of sin.
The concept of cleansing by fire is brought up four times in John’s teachings. First, speaking to the Pharisees and Sadducees, John questioned: “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matt. 3:7) In other words, who warns the snakes and other vermin of the fire used by farmers to clear his field after the harvest? The answer is obvious: no one does! So who warned the Pharisees and Sadducees of the fire that will come in the future that will cleanse the earth? And why are they coming to John’s baptism? They have not repented or changed their view of the Law of Moses or the coming of the Messiah. Therefore, John declared that in order to avoid the future cleansing of this earth, they must “bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance” (Matt. 3:8).
Second, the Jews cannot think that because they are descendants of Abraham that their salvation is secure. Recall that Abraham’s descendants were to receive an “election of grace” (D&C 84:98-102; Rom. 11:1-5) which “has reference to one’s situation in mortality; that is, being born at a time, at a place, and in circumstances where one will come in favorable contact with the gospel.”[xi] But this election did not promise and unconditional salvation to Abraham’s posterity! They were promised that they would have the ordinances of the gospel necessary for full remission of sins. They still must repent. Therefore, the Baptist exclaimed that those who do not repent and follow God are like a tree that does not produce fruit. He warned: “And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire” (Matt. 3:9-10).
Third, has already been discussed. Repentance and baptism does not cleanse the effects of sin. Only through the gift of the Holy Ghost can sin be eradicated. Thus John taught: “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire” (Matt. 3:11).
Fourth, John taught that in the hand of the Savior is a fan or a winnowing fork. By it “he will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:12). The imagery behind this statement is that of the farmer who using his winnowing fork throws threshed wheat into the air, allowing the kernels to fall to the ground while the lighter chaff is blown away by the light winds. The wheat is then gathered while the chaff is burned. The mission of Christ was to divide the wheat from the chaff, the repentant from the non-repentant. The repentant will be cleansed by fire while the non-repentant will be destroyed by fire.
The Baptism of Jesus
Matthew’s section on the ministry of John the Baptist concludes with the baptism of Jesus. Even Christ needed to submit to the preparatory gospel by being baptized. When the Savior came to John, “John forbade him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?” To which the Savior replied, “Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness” (Matt. 3:14-15).
In what way did the baptism of Jesus “fulfil all righteousness”? The Greek word translated “righteousness,” is dikaiosunay, a legal term meaning the observance of law or the fulfillment of a duty.
In a religious sense it refers to proper conduct before God.[xii] When the Savior declared that he needed to be baptized because it was a necessary part of being righteous, he was saying that it is part of our legal duty and proper conduct before God.
As previously noted, when one is baptized, he covenants with God to be obedient to all God’s commandments. With this in mind, Nephi asked, “And now, I would ask of you, my beloved brethren, wherein the Lamb of God did fulfil all righteousness in being baptized by water?” He answered his own question, saying, “Know ye not that he was holy? But notwithstanding he being holy, he showeth unto the children of men that, according to the flesh he humbleth himself before the Father, and witnesseth unto the Father that he would be obedient unto him in keeping his commandments” (2 Nephi 31:7).
Thus, the Savior, like all of God’s children, had to enter into the strait and narrow path that leads to eternal life by being baptized. Through baptism, the Savior covenanted to fully submit His will to the will of the Father. The Savior honored his covenant with God which meant that if obeying the will of the Lord, the Savior suffered and died for man. Abinadi stated: “Yea, even so he shall be led, crucified, and slain, the flesh becoming subject even unto death, the will of the Son being swallowed up in the will of the Father” (Mosiah 15:7).
The concept of baptism is the complete submission of our will to the will of God. Elder Neal A. Maxwell posed this question, “Why do we need outward ordinances, anyway? God surely knows our inner thoughts and feelings, our hearts, minds, and intentions, and can judge us perfectly. So why not judge us without reference to any outward ordinances? After all, some in the world regard themselves as Christians but disdain any ordinances at all.” He answered: “Ordinances, in fact, are required for several vital reasons. To begin with, ordinances show our visible, outward obedience to the Lord and His plan of salvation.”[xiii]
Forty Days in the Wilderness
After the Savior’s baptism, he was led by the Spirit “into the wilderness, to be with God” (JST Matt. 4:1). During this time, the Savior “fasted forty days and forty nights” (Matt. 4:2). The only thing we are told as to what transpired between God and the Savior during the forty days is that the Savior “communed with God” (JST Matt. 4:2). This story is reminiscent of the exodus of ancient Israel. After the plagues forced Pharaoh to allow Israel to leave Egypt, the Israelites passed through the Red Sea (a symbol of baptism – 1 Corinthians 10:1-2) and then were taken to Mt. Sinai to be with God.
Further, the Savior’s going into the wilderness to be with God continues a theme established by Matthew in chapter two: Jesus is the Prophet that was to come that would be like Moses. The Lord said to Moses, “I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee” (Deut. 18:18). In chapter two, Matthew shows several similarities between the birth of Moses and the birth of Christ. Just as there was an attempt to destroy the infant Moses by Pharaoh (Exodus 1) so Herod attempted to destroy the child Jesus (Matt. 2:16-18 ). As Moses came from Egypt, so Jesus also came from Egypt where Joseph and Mary had fled to escape the butcherous hands of Herod’s soldiers (Matt. 2:13-15). Now, in chapter three, just as Moses fasted forty days and nights on the mountain while he was with God, Matthew records a similar experience with Christ. Further, like Moses who was taken to an “exceedingly high mountain,” was tempted by the devil (Moses 1:1,12), so Christ also was taken to an “exceedingly high mountain” where he was tempted by Satan (Matt. 4:1-11).
Though it is clear that during the forty days and nights, the Savior was instructed by God, it is evident that the instruction of the Savior was not complete at the end of the forty days for even during the period of temptation, the Savior was taken by the Spirit to the temple and to “an exceeding high mountain” (JST Matt. 4:5, 8). The instruction through the entire period must have consisted of a variety of things relative to understanding his mortal mission.
It may also be that during this time, the Savior received the rest of the ordinances necessary for salvation. Joseph Smith taught, “If a man gets a fullness of the priesthood of God he has to get it in the same way that Jesus Christ obtained it, and that was by keeping all the commandments and obeying all the ordinances of the house of the Lord.”[xiv] Joseph Smith does not tell us when the Savior received those ordinances. However, in light of the fact that this story continues the theme of Christ as the new Moses, it is interesting to note that on another occasion Joseph Smith taught that Moses received his temple ordinances while on a mountain: “The rich can only get them in the Temple–the poor may get them on the Mountain top as did Moses.”[xv] Therefore, it seems probable that while in the wilderness, the Savior received his ordinances and thus communed with God.
Matthew records three temptations that the Savior suffered. The temptations were intended to cast doubt within the Savior regarding his own divinity. For example, as the Messiah, the Savior would claim to be the Jehovah of the Old Testament. If he really was Jehovah he should have power to produce bread just as manna was brought forth by Jehovah in the Old Testament. Though the Savior would eventually show to the world that he was the Messiah by multiplying bread (Matt. 14:15-21; 16:32-38) – the single miracle recorded by all four gospels as well as 3 Nephi – it would not be at the insistence of Satan but according to the will of God. Therefore the Savior said to Satan, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matt. 3:4). Already, His baptismal covenant was being tested!
The testing of his baptismal covenant did not end there but continued through two more temptation experiences. The last temptation is very reminiscent of the temptation faced by Moses when he was “caught up into an exceedingly high mountain.” After he talked with God “face to face,” Satan appeared to Moses and said: “Moses, son of man [or, mortal man], worship me” (Moses 1:12). Similarly, after Christ had been taken by the Spirit “into an exceeding high mountain” where he was shown “all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them,” Satan appeared to Christ and said, “All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.” Christ, however, showed his discipleship by saying, “Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve” (Matt. 4:8-9).
After the third temptation, Matthew states: “Then the devil leaveth him” (Matt. 4:11). However, the Savior suffered further temptations before His death. Matthew records that while on the cross, the chief priests, scribes, and elders mocked him saying, “He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him” (Matt. 27:41-42). Once again, the “if” was used to cast doubt and prove His divinity. Had he given in it would have been at the insistence of Satan and the world instead of the will of God. The Savior did not succumb.
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