What does Matthew 3:1 mean?
ESV: In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea,
NIV: In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea
NASB: Now in those days John the Baptist * came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying,
CSB: In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea
NLT: In those days John the Baptist came to the Judean wilderness and began preaching. His message was,
KJV: In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea,
Verse Commentary:
Matthew's telling of Jesus' life jumps forward in time between chapters 2 and 3. The apostle reports nothing of what happened from when Joseph settled in Nazareth to the meeting between Jesus and John the Baptist in Matthew 3. Around 25–30 years have passed.

Luke gives a very thorough telling of how John the Baptist came to be born to Zechariah and Elizabeth, both of the priestly line of the Levites (Luke 1:5–25, 39–80), and the important part he would play in preparing the way for Jesus.

Before he was born, an angel of the Lord told John's father about the man John would become: "He will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared" (Luke 1:16–17). Matthew's gospel introduces John the Baptist already doing exactly that.

Matthew describes the time as "in those days." We can place the scene in this chapter more specifically between AD 26 and 29. The prophet has already taken up residence as a preacher in the wilderness of Judea, which was some rough, dry country located west of the Jordan River near the Dead Sea. His location meant that those who wished to listen had to come to John; he did not go to the high-traffic areas of Israel to be heard by those passing by.

John was called "the Baptist" because baptizing people as a sign of their repentance from sin was a cornerstone of his ministry.
Verse Context:
Matthew 3:1–12 introduces John the Baptist, preaching and baptizing in the wilderness of Judea near the Jordan River. John, dressed in camel hair and a leather belt in the style of the prophet Elijah, has a simple message: repent because the kingdom of heaven is coming. Crowds come from miles around, including even Israel's religious leaders. John calls those leaders vipers and warns that Messiah will bring the wrath of God against the unrepentant. The Messiah will baptize the repentant with the Holy Spirit and fire. The trees that do not bear fruit, spiritually speaking, will be cut down and burned.
Chapter Summary:
Matthew introduces John the Baptist as a fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3. He is the voice crying in the wilderness as he prepares the way for the Lord. John calls the crowds who travel to hear him to repent from their sins. The kingdom of heaven is close! He also warns of God's judgment, specifically on Israel's spiritually-barren religious leaders. Finally, the Messiah he has been speaking of arrives and insists that John baptize Him. When he does, the heavens break open, the Holy Spirit comes to rest on Jesus, and the voice of God the Father says Jesus is His Son and that He is pleased with Him.
Chapter Context:
Matthew's story of Jesus jumps forward several decades from the moment when His family settled in Nazareth. This passage finds John the Baptist preaching about repentance in the wilderness and baptizing those who are willing. Crowds come from all around to hear John preach in the look and style of Elijah, including Israel's religious leaders. John warns them of God's coming judgment on those who do not truly repent. Jesus arrives and insists that John baptize Him. As Jesus emerges from the water, the heavens break open, the Holy Spirit descends to rest on Jesus in dove-like form, and the voice of God declares that Jesus is His Son. After this baptism, Jesus will be led into the desert to be tempted by Satan, in chapter 4.
Book Summary:
The Gospel of Matthew clearly shows the influence of its writer's background, and his effort to reach a specific audience. Matthew was one of Jesus' twelve disciples, a Jewish man, and a former tax collector. This profession would have required literacy, and Matthew may have transcribed some of Jesus' words as they were spoken. This book is filled with references to the Old Testament, demonstrating to Israel that Jesus is the Promised One. Matthew also includes many references to coins, likely due to his former profession. Matthew records extensive accounts of Jesus' teaching, more than the other three Gospels.
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