Wednesday, May 14, 2014

John The Baptist’s Ministry

Matthew 3:1-12

“In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, Mt 3:2 And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” (Matthew 3:1-2)

 In an effort to prevent further revolts, Ceasar Augustus divided the region Herod had ruled between Herod’s three sons in 4 BC.  Archelaus was over the southern part including Judea, Samaria, and the area along the edge of the Dead Sea known as Idumea, formerly called Edom.  Herod Antipas was given the northern area known as Galilee, and Philip received Lebanon. 

In 25 AD, Judea was separated from Idumea and Samaria in a further effort to bring stability and Pontius Pilate was named as governor.  Pilate insulted the Jews by initially bring in pagan idols and worshipping them in Jerusalem.  When he realized how offended the Jews were he withdrew them.

At the same time, Hillel’s school of interpretation of scripture led to greater power by the Pharisees, with their emphasis on Jewish tradition causing conflict with the wealthy Sadducees, who had largely adopted the Greek philosophy and lifestyle.  John the Baptist began his ministry in the midst of this political and religious turmoil.  His brief ministry and subsequent execution would serve to focus attention on the religious hypocrisy in much the same way that Rosa Parks focused attention on racial discrimination.

In focusing attention, John fulfilled the prophecy in Isaiah 40:3, “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God,” as well as the Malachi 3:1.  “Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts.”

“And the same John had his raiment of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.” (Matthew 3:4)

The Pharisees wore the traditional robes with special borders to identify them as Jews and phylacteries to demonstrate their spiritual focus, much like the Mormon missionaries in their white shirts and dark trousers or many preachers with their suit and tie.    The Sadducees  usually dressed in Greek style robes of the latest fashion.  By contrast, John was dressed in the cheapest and plainest workman’s clothing, the equivalent of cheap pair of blue jeans and a tee shirt.

The Sadducees feasted on gourmet delicacies from around the world, while the Pharisees ate only the most healthful organic foods available.  John the Baptist ate whatever he could get cheapest, even though most people would consider it just garbage.  Honey produced in carefully cared for hives and removed at ti’s peak had a better flavor and was cleaner than wild honey, and while locusts were everywhere, only those who had nothing else would eat them.

“Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan, And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins.” (Matthew 3:5-6)

People tend to be attracted to those with whom they most closely identify, and most of the people were not the rich Sadducees or the devout Pharisees.  They could identify with John’s everyday dress and inexpensive food choices.  They listened to what he had to say, and recognized their sin.  Confessing their sin, they were baptized as a demonstration of their repentance and commitment to stop.

“But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance: And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.   And now also the ax 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.

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:  Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:7-12)

The Sadducees believed the entire Jewish religion was mythological like the Greek religion, and really didn’t matter.  The Pharisees believed that they were okay because they followed the traditions, not realizing that the traditions they learned were far different from the law God had originally given.   Seeing the crowds who flocked to hear John both groups wanted to be part of the movement, just as people who have no interest in country music will flock to a concert simply because it is exciting.

John warned them that going through the motions of confessing their sin and being baptized would accomplish nothing without an actual change in behavior.  Repentance involves more than just saying you are sorry.  Being baptized as a demonstration of repentance with no commitment to real repentance makes a mockery of the baptism.  John baptized with water as a sign of repentance but when Jesus came he would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

As he pointed out, God is not so desperate he has to settle for just saying the words.  He is going to examine the reality and cut off what doesn’t measure up.  It is just as true now as it was then.  Christ will separate out those who sincerely believe from those who do not, and destroy those who don’t. 

This is essentially what Jesus said in Matthew 7:21-23, when he said, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.   Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?  And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.”

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