Monday, April 23, 2012

The Importance and Unimportance of Appearances - Matthew 3:1-17

1 Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying,
2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
3 For this is the one referred to by Isaiah the prophet when he said,
4 Now John himself had a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey.
5 Then Jerusalem was going out to him, and all Judea and all the district around the Jordan,
6 and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins.

The Baptist of Many Faces

Let’s start out with a discussion of verse three – there’s actually a lot more there than it appears at first glance.  The Old Testament reference (Isaiah 40:3) is used to refer to John in all four Gospels.  This is a pretty rare occurrence, begging the question: Why?

Well, as we see in Scripture, there was a lot of confusion over who John the Baptist actually was at this time.  For example, in Matthew 16:13-16 when Jesus is asking who disciples who different groups say He is, they tell him that some groups think Jesus is a reincarnation of John the Baptist.  Herod certainly thought so (Matthew 14:1-2).  And in Mark 11:27-33, it becomes clear that many of the Jewish people thought John the Baptist was another prophet of old, whereas the “religious” crowd saw him as a charlatan.  We even see that Biblically, John both was and was not Elijah come again in the flesh (Matthew 11:13-14…that’s a weighty and fascinating issue we’ll get to in a couple of months when we get to Matthew 11).

With all these different theories going around, it makes sense why the Gospel writers wanted to identify precisely who this important character was: the prophesied prophet who would come to herald the coming of the Messiah.

There’s an important lesson here: a person can appear to be many things…and usually, only one is true.  We need to exercise great discernment and seek God’s guidance, especially in matters that affect our faith.

What’s with the Wild Get-Up?
So, clearly John was a bit of a rebel when it came to fashion and diet.  Was there a reason for it, or did he just prefer scratchy clothes and crunchy bugs?

I see three reasons:  First, it made another direct link to Elijah evident (see 2 Kings 1:8) – so, it served as another to point out who he was.  Second, it was really, really weird.  Think about it – if you have something to say and you want people to pay attention to you, what do you do?  You do something weird, because people are naturally drawn to weird stuff.  Throughout the Old Testament, you’ll see that a lot of the prophets actually did this in order to get people’s attention.  And third, he lived in the wilderness (another purposefully weird act), and these resources were available to him there.

7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
8 “Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance;
9 and do no suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham.
10 “The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.11 “As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
12 “His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

In Cognito

Among the swarming crowds that came to be baptized because they were genuinely repentant, there were also some Pharisees and Sadducees there for all the wrong reasons.  What were those reasons?  A couple of definite possibilities are: (1) It was the in vogue act of holiness of the day, and they wanted everyone to think of them as 100% holy so they could maintain their false sense of religious superiority (see Matthew 23:5-7).  (2) They were there to spy the situation out.  They felt threatened by John for the same reason outlined above – he was drawing attention away from them – so they probably wanted to find fault in him to trap him, like they did repeatedly to Jesus.

This teaches us something that is still very applicable in our world today: Just because someone looks like they’re doing all the “Christian” things does NOT mean they are a genuine believer or that you should trust their council without any critical thought.

So What is the Point of Baptism?

In this passage, John specifically differentiates between the Pharisees and Sadducees getting baptized for show, and the regular people getting baptized because they are compelled to repent.  So clearly, the physical act of getting dunked in the water means nothing – rather, it is tied to a heart issue.

We know from Colossians 2:12 and Romans 6:3-4 that baptism is symbolic of dying to ourselves just as Christ died (when we go into the water) and given a new life just as He rose from the dead (when we come out).  But…at the point where John is baptizing, these things hadn’t happened yet.  So what did it mean to the people who John baptized?

I think of it sort of like a marriage ceremony – it was a way to make a public declaration that this was something they were firmly committed to and were actually going to stick with.  This same purpose carries over into baptism today.
But we also see that there’s another sort of baptism – baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  Denominations get into huge fights over this and the issue would take an entire post of its own to sort out, but the basic understanding is that there are two types of baptism (bare bones here):

1 – The physical baptism in water.  This is the one everyone is familiar with – the submersion in water you get after becoming a believer that is a public declaration of faith and serves a symbolic purpose.

2 – Spiritual baptism.  It is important to understand here that the word baptism just means an immersion.  Okay, so when you become a believer, the Holy Spirit fills you, sealing you as “saved.”  But the Bible also addresses that in many cases, the filling with the Holy Spirit is two-fold.   The second part of the baptism of the Holy Spirit (which is generally accepted as a special empowering, perhaps when you get your spiritual gifts) is said Biblically to come through the laying on of hands (e.g. Acts 19:5-6).  This assumption is supported by Acts 2:1-4, which features a special filling of the Holy Spirit in already-saved people, and ties in the baptism of fire.

As you can see, this is a really complex topic, and many different views on it all have Biblical basis.  Here are a couple of excellent resources if you’re interested in learning more:

John the Trash-Talker

It drives me crazy when people make the false assertion that Christians can’t say anything bad about anyone.  The fact of the matter is, when someone’s doing something wrong, there are many times when we are actually supposed to say something (see THIS study for a more in-depth discussion of the topic) – evidenced by the fact that John is calling the religious hypocrites out here, something that Jesus also did many times.  So let’s look into what point he’s making:
·         They’re not bearing fruit (see Galatians 5:22-23)
·         They’re not genuinely repenting
·         They’re assuming that because they’re Jews (that is, descended from Abraham), they automatically have God’s favor regardless of what they do.  We see the same fallacy today when people assume that because they were raised in a Christian home, they’re Christians even though they don’t actually have a real relationship with Christ.

And so, John gives them a pretty stern warning: either be a good tree that produces fruit, or God will chop you down and throw you into the fire.  This is not cruel; this is justice.  This is further made clear in verse 12, when John teaches that Christ will have mercy those who follow Him (the “wheat”) but will send those who reject Him (the “chaff”) away from His presence.

13 Then Jesus arrived from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John, to be baptized by him.
14 But John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?”
15 But Jesus answering said to him, “Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting to fulfill all righteousness.”  Then he permitted Him.
16 After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on Him,
17 and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” 

Why Was Jesus Baptized?

It’s a logical question – even John the Baptist had to ask it.  But different people interpret Jesus’ answer, “to fulfill all righteousness,” different ways.

One explanation is that He did it for the sake of appearance – in a good way, of course.  Because many people at the time saw it as a basic means of showing loyalty to God, Jesus getting baptized would point this out.  It was also a way to show that He supported the practice of baptism.  In addition, it was a way for God to demonstrate His glory (verses 16-17).

Another explanation is that He was being baptized in the place of those believers who would not be able to be baptized.  You see, there are two “ordinances” that Christians are commanded to participate in in Scripture – communion and baptism.  Some people teach that these are necessary to salvation – as assertion that I vehemently disagree with.  That would be salvation through works, not through faith.  Participating in communion and baptism is obedience to His commands – therefore, it is evidence of our changed heart, not a way of earning entrance into heaven.  However, it still stands that they are a commandment.  But consider death bed conversions – including the thief on the cross next to Jesus to whom He said, “today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).  According to this explanation of Jesus’s baptism, He was baptized in the place of those who could not be, just as He died in our place.

My Beloved Son

Just imagine the scene: You’re one in a huge crowd of people all standing by the shore of the river waiting to be baptized by the famous prophet John, clad in camel hair.  You’ve been waiting for hours as the line progresses, and you’re next.  The man being baptized right before you looks perfectly normal.  But as he wades out to the prophet, John’s eyes get huge and they seem to be having an intense conversation.  Finally, John dips him below the water, and as he raises up, the clouds burst open with light, God’s voice *literally* thunders from the heavens, and a dove actually lands on the man’s shoulder.

Think about all the people who saw this – including the Pharisees and Sadducees.  And yet, only some of them chose to believe in the Christ.  Shocking, isn’t it, how much we can see and yet refuse to believe.  The same rings true today.

Let’s Make it a Discussion

What sticks out to you about this account?  What examples can you think of today that clearly speak the glory of God, yet people refuse to believe?  Is there anything else you’d like to comment on or ask?

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