Each new year many believers vow to read the Bible cover to cover within the next 12 months. I have tried and failed this objective many times. This year I want to try something different. I will study just a few books (starting with the Gospel of Matthew) of the Word instead of the whole book. And I will STUDY instead just monotonously churn through words as I have done in years past. I will read commentaries, blog posts, opinions, histories, and textual criticism. Pretty much anything about Matthew that I can get my hands on. So suggestions for study material would be appreciated.
I hope to periodically post notes and things I have learned from this endeavor. I imagine some of it will be apologetics, some may be pastoral, and some maybe just asking questions for further study. My hope in sharing is that someone else may be inspired to dig deeper into our Good Good Father’s Word. I have already benefited even in this short time.
So let’s begin.
In Those Days . . .
Thirty years goes by between Matthew Chapter 2 and Chapter 3. If a modern day biographer did something like that, many the eyebrows would indeed raise. But doubtful that ancient readers of the ancients texts cried, “What happened to adolescent Jesus? The teenage Jesus? You missed stuff about young adult Jesus!” No Matthew skipped over a lot of ground to get us to the meat of the story. It’s interesting that nine of Matthew’s 28 chapters are spent on the events of Jesus’ last days. So one third of the gospel. Writings of antiquity,unlike, say, modern biographies, often take this sort of lop-sided form.
So, it’s clear, dilly dallying isn’t on the menu. Matthew desperately wants to get his readers, the Jews, to the point where they learn who Jesus is and what He has done for them and how they should live with this knowledge. So doesn’t it seem odd that we open chapter three by introducing another man? Not putting Jesus front and center? This new character is John The Baptist. (JTB going forward)
The Historical John
As someone very interested in arguments for the Historical Jesus, that is, arguments that make the case for Him as an actual historical figure, I am thrilled to see John come preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” Why? Well, because JTB is an undisputed, to my knowledge, historical person. From Luke 1, he is also a distant relative of Jesus. His ministry was even mentioned by noted ancient Jewish historian Josephus. So people who are mentioned in genealogies and who have relationships with multiply-attested real historic persons are widely understood to also be ones of history as well, not myth.
Here’s what Josephus wrote about The Baptist in his work of ancient history, “Antiquities” (xviii. 116-119):
“Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and was a very just punishment for what he did against John called the baptist [the dipper]. For Herod had him killed, although he was a good man and had urged the Jews to exert themselves to virtue, both as to justice toward one another and reverence towards God, and having done so join together in washing. For immersion in water, it was clear to him, could not be used for the forgiveness of sins, but as a sanctification of the body, and only if the soul was already thoroughly purified by right actions. And when others massed about him, for they were very greatly moved by his words, Herod, who feared that such strong influence over the people might carry to a revolt — for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise — believed it much better to move now than later have it raise a rebellion and engage him in actions he would regret.
And so John, out of Herod’s suspiciousness, was sent in chains to Machaerus, the fort previously mentioned, and there put to death; but it was the opinion of the Jews that out of retribution for John God willed the destruction of the army so as to afflict Herod.”
The Poorly Told Lie
In current Jesus conversations with skeptics these days, all you need to do in mention Josephus to hear someone shout “Interpolation! The writings of Josephus were corrupted by Christian copyists or translators!” And yes, there is a very real possibility that one of the sections mentioning Jesus was tampered with (by whom, nobody knows). So some skeptics might reflexively imagine that the passage on John the Baptist was interpolated at the same time as the passage on Jesus. Yet, as John P. Meier states (“John the Baptist in Josephus,” p. 227):
“The account Josephus gives of the Baptist is literarily and theologically unconnected with the account of Jesus, which occurs earlier in book 18 and correspondingly lacks any reference to the Baptist. The passage about the Baptist, which is more than twice as long as the passage about Jesus, is also notably more laudatory. It also differs from (but does not formally contradict) the four Gospels in its presentation both of John’s ministry and of his death. Hence it is hard to imagine a Christian scribe inserting into book 18 of the Antiquities two passages about Jesus and the Baptist in which the Baptist appears on the scene after Jesus died, has no connection with Jesus, receives more extensive treatment than Jesus, and is praised more highly than Jesus.”
So as Meier believes, the injection of new Christian material into the JTB passage in Josephus in this way would amount to the telling of a poorly told lie. There would be many other bits of information more beneficially added to the passage that would further a Christian agenda or promote Christianity more fully. One of which would be to directly mention Jesus and form a strong connection between the two. As written, it is too well disguised as an independent report to have any purposeful evangelistic use due to those nefarious Christian interpolators!
Now! Introducing . . .
I think the best way to describe the function of JTB in the Gospels is that his job is that of a herald. Historically, a herald was an officer in medieval Europe who carried messages to and from different military commands. We also often think of heralds as announcers who inform us that an important person is about to enter the room. So to respond to my own comment above about it being odd that Matthew starts chapter three by shifting the focus to another character, he really isn’t doing that at all. John only points us and his audience TO Jesus Christ. He is the prophesied “voice of one calling in the desert. ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” (Isaiah 40:3).
The first chapter of the Gospel of John describes JTB this way:
“6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. 9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.”
“Great in the Sight of the Lord”
The Gospel of Luke describes JTB’s early family history. The book describes the miracle of his birth to a barren woman, Elizabeth. His father Zechariah, a Jewish priest who served in the Temple, received a message from the angel Gabriel about his son’s future arrival.
First of all, I wonder what it was like to know from a young age that you will be “great in the sight of the Lord” (Luke 1:15). If not for the next detail of being “filled with the Holy Spirit” (same verse), I imagine one could abuse such a situation. And many of us are told by our parents that God has a plan for us, but I imagine few of them have this knowledge corroborated by an angel.
The detail of Zechariah’s position as one in a division of temple priests also helps to shed some light onto JTB’s pre-Gospel history. John Meier, a scholar who has issues with the Infancy Narratives in Luke, makes this observation:
“. . . I think that if anything can be salvaged from Luke’s narrative, it is the idea that John was the only son of a priest who functioned in the Jerusalem temple. This would be a most significant nugget of information, for the only son of a Jerusalem priest would have the solemn duty to follow his father in his function and to make sure that the priestly line was continued by marriage and children. If this was in fact the historical situation, John at some point must have consciously turned his back on and—in Jewish eyes—scandalously rejected his obligation to be a priest in his father’s footsteps and to supply priestly descendents after him. Forsaking family duty as well as his priestly duty to the Jerusalem temple—therefore, forsaking all that was the most sacred to Judaism—he went into the wilderness of Judea to announce imminent judgment and the dire need for moral cleansing on the part of all the Jews.” (AMJV2 pp24.)
So John may have turned away from the norms and obligations of his culture in order to wait on his calling from the Lord. Dressed similarly to the prophet Elijah, coming out of the desert, possibly in a Qumran settlement, John did not seek to exchange niceties with approaching Pharisees and Sadducees. “Brood of vipers!” served as his opening greeting to the religious elites of the time. Then he flatly informed them that their reliance on their heritage as being people in the line of Abraham will not save them from the impending “unquenchable fire” (3:12). They must “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” to avoid the “coming wrath” (3:8). Gangster.
Fulfilling All Righteousness
So we now see how John’s story simply sets the stage for Jesus to re-enter to story. After establishing the workings of John’s introductory movement, Matthew set up the meeting between the “herald” and the most important person in history.
First, however, JTB needed to make clear that his baptism is different from that of the One coming. After all, he was sent to preach a message of repentance and deeds, clearing a path for the Savior from sin. John says in Matthew 3:11:
New Testament scholar Oscar Cullman explains that:
“This is then the new element in Christian Baptism according to the preaching of the Baptist. This new baptismal gift of the Holy Spirit is imparted neither by Jewish proselyte baptism nor by Johannine baptism. It is bound up with the person and the work of Christ.” (BINTNT p.10)
In chapter 3, verse 13, it is told that “then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. Maybe it’s a small detail, but one might read this as all occurring in one scene: John chastising religious leaders and preaching his message of repentance, then Jesus shows up. It very well could have happened this way I suppose, but I see this more as a compressed narrative where Matthew is stacking separate stories one on top of the other. Apart from careful reading, these connections almost appear seamless. However, the idea that the sinless Messiah needed to receive John’s baptism of repentance when he had nothing for which to repent is a difficult one to fathom. I am not embarrassed to say that I struggled with this one. Even John seemed shocked by the idea and suggested that it was he who needed the Messiah’s baptism, not the other way around. To this Jesus said, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”(v.15)
Let’s look closer at this response. One thing to note, this is the first time Jesus speaks in the entire New Testament, considering the traditional book order of the Gospels in your bible and excluding instances chronologically earlier. Next, when I read “Let it be so now. . . “ I read the now with emphasis, as if it is a command. Jesus here takes the role of someone lesser while simultaneously possessing the role of King. So when He says, “it is proper for us to do this . . .” he means this is okay, acceptable, the right thing to do. It is not that this needs to happen. And he convinces John that there’s no problem with doing this. This is what Jesus wants to do in order to “fulfill all righteousness”. I believe His baptism became a symbol of his joining fallen humanity because by joining us, he is fulfilling all righteousness by sharing our baptism of repentance.
The following is what happened next:
16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
It is unclear who heard the voice from heaven or saw the Spirit of God descend, but anyone who witnessed this happen could only be awe-struck. Were they surrounded by disciples of John or was this a more personal and private meeting? The text isn’t clear. What we do know is that this event kicked off Jesus’ ministry and started His journey to the Cross. Him be praised!
Here are some words taken from the Matthew Henry Commentary on Matthew that may sort this out a little more:
“At Christ’s baptism there was a manifestation of the three Persons in the sacred Trinity. The Father confirming the Son to be Mediator; the Son solemnly entering upon the work; the Holy Spirit descending on him, to be through his mediation communicated to his people. . . Out of Christ, God is a consuming fire, but in Christ, a reconciled Father. This is the sum of the gospel, which we must by faith cheerfully embrace.” (Henry)
May we all continue to cheerfully embrace faith in our Savior, Jesus Christ. Thank you for reading this installment. May God bless you and keep you.
http://peterkirby.com/john-the-baptist-authentic.html quoting “John The Baptist in Josephus” by John P. Meier. Pp 227.
Meier, John P. “A Marginal Jew Volume Two: Mentor, Message, and Miracles”. P.24.
Cullman, Oscar. “Baptism in the New Testament”. P.10.
Henry, Matthew. “Commentary on Matthew”.
All Scripture from NIV.