This passage occurs in the Advent season of the Revised Common Lectionary (Year A).
Summary: The great fun of this passage is that everything is happening all at once and then over and over again. First, John commands the people to repent, but tells them to do this repeatedly. Then, people are continually getting baptized while at the same time continually confessing. The order of baptism-confession-repentance is not entirely clear. Well, actually, it is clear: They all happen at once. Over and over again. Does this mean baptism happens again and again? I think the baptism of fire does happen again and again, even if the ritual only happens once in our lives. The question is, does the baptism of the Holy Spirit happen more than once?
μετανοιετε ("repent"; 3:2). This verb is in the present tense. This is significant because it implies that the action ought to be on-going. In other words, the action of repentance is not a one time event, but a life-time one. Interestingly, this is the verse that begins the 95 thesis. When Luther read this passage in Mark in Greek, he saw that the Latin had removed this continuous aspect of the Greek and said, "Hey!" "When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said "Repent" he willed that the whole life is one of repentance."
βαπτισμα ("baptism"; 3:7). Originally, this word did not have religious meaning. It simply meant to dip. For your enjoyment, here are the Liddell-Scott hellenestic meanings of the word. Wow!
I. trans. to dip in water
2. to dip in poison
3. to dip in dye, to dye
4. to draw water
II. intransitive the ship dipped, sank
Try preaching that: Baptism as a dip in poison; as a dip in dye; as a drawing of water from God; as finally, a sinking ship!
πνευμα ("spirit"; 3:11). The word can mean "breath" as well. What is worth noting, especially as we begin the year of readings from Matthew's Gospel, that the Holy Spirit plays an integral role in Matthew's Gospel. It is not fair to simply say Luke is about the Spirit...In Matthew he is there too, connected with the birth of Jesus (1:18) and the command to make disciples (20:18).
This word also shows up in this week's Isaiah text (11:2). The "Spirit of the Lord" is upon me. The NRSV, always trying to avoid the Trinity in the OT, makes it "spirit of the Lord." Everyone else, of course, gets it right and makes it "Spirit of the Lord" if not "Lord's Spirit."
Greek and Hebrew punctuation. Well, they're ain't much! Especially in the earlier manuscripts when things were all capitals (in Greek). Anyway, there is some and Mark does a little slight of hand here:
"A voice cries in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the Lord." The Hebrew more accurately reads:
"A voice cries, "In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord." Ie, get ready to go back from exile on the road through the wilderness. Mark and Matthew take the verse and give it new meaning! A reminder of the freedom that the Spirit gives us to interpret the Word for our context. Or maybe a warning too!
Matthew 3:6 και εβαπτιζοντο εν τω Ιορδανη ποταμω υπ αυτου εξομολογομενοι τας ἀμαρτιας αυτων
Sometimes, before you divide and conquer, just try reading the sentence by sticking in vocab you know and see where you get. When it comes to this verse, if you know a bit of Greek, you should be able to get:
And baptize in the Jordan under/by/of him ?? the sins of them
Let's save that nasty participle and look at the first half of the sentence (ie, now divide)
και εβαπτιζοντο εν τω Ιορδανη ποταμω υπ αυτου
The key to translation here is to recognize that baptize is a passive voice verb. This allows you to make sense of "υπ αυτου" which is how Greek tells you who did the action in passive voice:
"And baptized in the river Jordan by him."
Now we nail down our verb a bit more: imperfect, 3rd person:
"And they were continuously being baptized in the river Jordan by him."
So, now onto: εξομολογομενοι τας ἀμαρτιας αυτων
τας ἀμαρτιας αυτων should be clear: Their sins or the sins of them.
However, the participle is a mess here. It turns out it means "confess" It is a middle present participle. Hmm...middle means you can translate it as active.
So: "confessing their sins."
What is the connection of this clause to the rest of the clause? Well, the participle is a circumstantial participle...but what circumstances? Well, the key here is the tense. It is present tense. That means the action is on-going. However, the main verb is in the imperfect. So does this mean the baptizing happened before the confessing? No! The present tense of the participle means that this action happens at the SAME time as the main verb. In other words, the people did not baptize and then confess; or vice verse. What is means is that while they were being baptized, they simultaneously were confessing. So we get:
"And they were continuously being baptized in the river Jordan by him, while they were confessing their sins."
In the wilderness of life, our baptism and confession...and repentance are all related.