After our detour to look at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, we turn back to pick up the narrative in chapter 3 with the ministry of John the Baptist and the story of his baptizing of Jesus.
Who was this John and what is he doing here?
John was a common name in the first century, which makes it worth noting here that John the Baptizer is not the same person as the John who was one of Jesus’ Twelve Disciples nor the author (or authors) of the Gospel, Letters, and Revelation of John in the New Testament. He was a religious reformer in his own right, whom early Christians later regarded Jesus’ “Forerunner” (the title they subsequently gave him).
Wasn’t he Jesus’ cousin?
So Luke tells us. If Matthew knew that, he never mentions it. Even though comparing the gospels with each other can be very enlightening, it’s generally a good idea, as we read each one separately, not to supplement one gospel directly out of another. If we let each writer choose what he wants us to hear, we may get a better sense of the message he’s trying to impart.
For Matthew, the important thing seems to be that John fulfilled an ancient prophecy—”the voice of one crying in the wilderness”—and that his message focused on the approaching “Kingdom of Heaven.” He is poised, in other words, between the venerable tradition of Israel’s past and something new that is taking place.
Why the strange dress and food?
It shows that he had made a sharp break with the existing society. He lived off the land and dressed in cheap clothing and stayed on the fringes of civilization. He was an ascetic, who deliberately rejected the usual comforts of home and family. He also separated himself from the social structures of his world by living alone in the relatively deserted countryside along the Jordan River.
But people took notice. What kind of inner, spiritual strength did it take to walk away from all these things that other people treasured? And his message proved very attractive to people who felt themselves trapped in a world that they could neither escape nor find meaning in.
Why the baptizing?
Many religions use physical washing or purifying as a sacramental way of seeking spiritual renewal and nearness to God. In the religion of ancient Israel, it was a duty to cleanse oneself from physical impurities that might render you unworthy of coming close to God. John took that practice and made something new of it. His baptism wasn’t just a washing away of particular forms of impurity, such as menstruation for women or sexual ejaculation for men. It was a way, we could say, of starting one’s relationship with God all over again. People confessed their sins, received the washing, and were on a new footing with God.
John’s choice of the Jordan River for his ministry may have come partly just from its being a relatively deserted area. But it also reminds us that the people of Israel had long ago come into the Promised Land by crossing through the Jordan. John invited people to the Jordan to experience another, equally important personal crossing-over.
He seems to have welcomed most sorts of people. Why does he lash out at the Pharisees and Sadducees?
These two groups were the most influential religious leaders of their time and place and were locked in a struggle as to whose opinions would prove to be of greater weight. (By the time Matthew was writing, after the Jewish War and destruction of Jerusalem, the Sadducees had largely disappeared and only the Pharisees survived.)
John attacks these people savagely, perhaps more savagely than they deserved as individuals. We know of some Pharisees, like the great Rabbi Hillel, who were great saints and wise teachers. It is their role, rather, as figures of religious authority and people of high sacred standing that concerns Matthew, because he sees this as a source of corruption. This is not a narrowly Jewish issue for Matthew; as we’ll come to see, he is concerned that it will affect the Christian community as well as the Jewish one.
But why, then, would John have objected to baptizing Jesus?
Matthew tells us that John saw Jesus as belonging to the new reality that his mission was just bringing into existence. John’s mission was to help people enter the transition from the existing religious status quo to this new reality. And he says to Jesus, in effect, “You belong to the future, not the past. You are outside my commission.” Still, Jesus insists that all righteousness is to be fulfilled. Even as this great newness comes into being, Matthew emphasizes its continuity with all that came before.
Early Christians understood that some people considered John the truly significant figure and may have though of Jesus as a kind of renegade follower. This raises a large question: At what point does the new, even if is it is in continuity with the old, become a violation of the old? This is a problem that can never be answered fully in advance. It must always be an object of prayerful discernment, and will often be a source of controversy, as we find again and again in later Christian history.
Part of what Matthew is telling us about Christian faith here is that there is always a certain edge of uncertainty as we move through time. Jesus affirms his identification with the existing religion. But it will not prove to be enough. Jesus’ new work is confirmed to him by a vision of the heavens opened and the Spirit descending; Matthew doesn’t suggest that any one else saw it. A voice from the sky tells whoever is listening that this is God’s son. But we don’t know who was listening or how they responded—just as we do not always know clearly what we ourselves have heard or how to respond. Weaving old and new together is never an easy or obvious proposition.
Next up: THREE TEMPTATIONS AND THREE MOVES