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Friday, December 26, 2008

Plans for January

My series on John the Baptizer has concluded.

But beginning in January this site will run a new series on Paul's letter to the Romans, one of the most important books in the entire Bible. In Romans, Paul lays out God's plan for the salvation of his lost human creatures in a lucid and systematic way. This book lies at the heart of Christian theology, and every Christian should saturate his or her thinking in its statements.

So take a couple of weeks off and enjoy the Christmas holidays, but make sure to check back here early in January!


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

John's Death and his Continuing Influence

After John had officially designated Jesus as the "one who was to come" and baptized him—at Jesus' own request—he recedes into the background in our gospel accounts. but he continued to function as a prophet of God, calling the nation to repentance, which would naturally lead them to acknowledge Jesus as the messiah.

As you know if you have read the Old Testament prophets, prophets of God were compelled to speak out against all sin and injustice, but in Israel itself especially against violations of the law of God given through Moses.

It was intolerable that an Israelite ruler should deliberately disobey a law of God given in the Torah. John was a true prophet, and had to rebuke Herod Antipas for marrying the divorced wife of his brother. The sin was not in marrying any divorced woman, but a woman who had been married to his own brother. This was forbidden by the Mosaic law ("Do not have sexual relations with your brother’s wife" Lev 18:16 NIV).

The Leviticus law is not intended for a situation in which no divorce has taken place, in other words adultery. Rather it is a law against a kind of incest. Since according to biblical thinking, when a man and woman are joined in marital union, they have become "one flesh." For a man to subsequently sleep with a woman who had been his brother's wife was like sleeping with his own sister.

Herod Antipas knew this, and yet he followed the promiscuous lifestyle of his pagan Roman friends and laughed at the quaint Jewish laws that were his heritage. John could not remain silent. He rebuked Herod publicly for this act and brought extreme notoriety and embarrassment to both Herod and Herodias (his brother Philip's former wife). This led to John's imprisonment (Mark 6:17 = Matt. 13:3 = Luke 3:19) and eventual death at the instigation of Herodias.

But before his death, John sent some of his disciples with a message to Jesus (Matt. 11:2-6 = Luke 7:18-23). The message showed John's fears that he had not discharged the mission for which he was born: to prepare the way of the Lord's messiah.

"Why," you may ask, "would he have any doubts?"

You have to understand that we look at what Jesus accomplished through his death and resurrection with the benefit of hindsight. John didn't know this. What he expected was that the messiah would be acclaimed by the whole nation of Israel and would proceed to bring in the kingdom of God, a universal rule of righteousness and peace, with even the gentiles acknowledging the Lord's messiah.

This had not happened. Instead he saw opposition to Jesus from among his own people, and no sign of a worldwide turning to the God of Israel. It was quite understandable that he should now worry that he might have made a mistake. Under these circumstances, he did the right thing: he sent to Jesus himself and asked the direct question. "Are you in fact the messiah?"

Jesus' answer was for the messengers to tell John what they saw happening in Jesus' miracles:
"the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
These were the miracles of the messiah predicted by the ancient prophets. They spoke for themselves. But Jesus added: "blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me" which—paraphrased—means "I advise you not to have false expectations, which I will not fulfill." The gospels don't tell us how John reacted to this reply, but knowing what he was made of, I believe his faith was strengthened and he died in firm faith in Jesus.

After John's messengers departed, Jesus turned to his disciples and—suspecting that they might look down on John for having any doubts at all—he praised the prophet with these words:

“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. … and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen!” (Matthew 11:11-15 NRSV)

The actual account of John's martyrdom is found in Mark 6:17-29 = Matt. 14:3-12.

But that is by no means the end of the story. John's influence lived on. Sometime towards the end of the Apostle Paul's second Missionary journey, while he was founding the church in the Greek city of Corinth, there came to the city of Ephesus in western Asia Minor an eloquent and learned man from Alexandria in Egypt. His name was Apollos. He had been baptized as a disciple of John the Baptist. Luke tells us in Acts 18:25-26 "He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue."

Apparently, Apollos knew of Jesus through John's teaching and was eager to persuade fellow Jews that Jesus was the messiah. Two friends of Paul's, a couple named Prisca and Aquila, decided to help this man in his efforts. So they took him under their wing and tuaght him more about Jesus and about the gospel. As a result, he shortly thereafter sailed westward to Greece and continued Paul's ministry in the Corinthian church.
“When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him. On arriving, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. For he vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.” (Acts 18:27-28 NIV)
Faithful John did not live to see the resurrection of his Lord. But he paid the price of martyrdom for his bold faith, and long after his death his life continued to bear fruit in people like Apollos.

It should be our prayer that God in his mercy will allow us to plant seeds of faith in our children and friends and acquaintances that will bear fruit even after we may be gone.

[This is the end of my short series on John the Baptizer leading up to Christmas and New Years. In January this blog will begin a new series on St. Paul's Letter to the Romans. I hope you will continue as a follower of these postings. Merry Christmas and a Happy 2009!]

Monday, December 22, 2008

John's Public Ministry and Message of Repentance

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.  Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all mankind will see God’s salvation.’” … The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them. But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison.” (Luke 3:1-20 NIV)

Luke treats this section, dealing with John's public ministry, differently from the other gospel writers. For one thing, as he does elsewhere, he puts most of the historical, chronological and background material at the beginning instead of letting it emerge in the course of his narrative. While Mark presents John as first preaching a message demanding repentance, and which identifies himself as the voice of one crying in the wilderness; and only then describes John’s appearance in terms to remind us of Elijah: camel's hair garment and leather belt (Mark 1:6; Matt. 3:4-6), Luke doesn’t actually quote John’s call to repentance, but includes Mark’s words that he was “preaching a baptism of repentance”. Luke omits the description of John’s Elijah-like dress and diet, perhaps because he thought it would not communicate to his target audience, which had more Gentiles in it than Mark's or Matthew's.

And, although the gospel writers will later return to the Elijah comparison and include our Lord’s own comment about it, perhaps we should pause here to reflect on a few of the ways in which John’s ministry situation resembled that of Elijah. For it was not just that John looked like Elijah, or even that he lived in the wilderness like Elijah did, but that they both faced similar spiritual crises, similar kings, and demanded similar responses among the people.

Elijah faced a people of God who had been seduced into worshiping Baal, the storm-god and fertility-god of the Phoenicians. John was confronted with a people who had been seduced into the worship of twin idols:
  • the idol of seeking a political independence through a violent overthrow of the Roman government without any spiritual foundation of repentance and listening to God, and
  • the idol of selfish and materialistic collaboration with the Romans on the part of the high priests, Herod Antipas, and the tax farmers.
Both extremes led down the same road to idolatry: seeking happiness apart from obedience to the living God.

The parallel extends to the two kings Elijah and John faced as opponents. Elijah faced wicked but powerful king Ahab and his Phoenician wife-queen Jezebel, who together fostered Baal worship in Israel. Since it was thought that Baal could bring rain and crops and wealth through agriculture, his worship was popular in Israel, until the LORD through Elijah announced a lengthy drought, which meant crop failures and poverty. John faced Herod Antipas, an apparently successful young monarch, one of the sons of Herod the Great, who was “in” with the Romans and had a Jezebel-like wife, Herodias, who used his lusts for her daughter Salome to lure him ever deeper into opposing God’s prophet John. Both Elijah’s and John’s lives were threatened by their royal opponents, but although God spared Elijah’s life during this crisis, he did not spare John’s.

Now let us return to the gospel passages describing John's ministry. All four gospels connect the words of the prophecy in Isaiah 40:3 to John:
1 Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the LORD's hand
double for all her sins.
3 A voice of one calling:
"In the desert prepare
the way for the LORD;
make straight in the wilderness
a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
5 And the glory of the LORD will be revealed,
and all mankind together will see it.
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken."
Luke quotes more of the Isaiah passage than Mark or Matthew, including verse 4: “every valley shall be filled up and every mountain made low”, which resonates with Mary’s Magnificat themes (Luke 1:52), and the final verse 5: “and all flesh/mankind shall see the salvation of God”, which recalls Simeon’s Nunc dimittis words “for my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the sight of all people, light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:30-32).

All the gospel writers alike inform us that John called for a repentance that showed itself in a clear improvement in the simple and everyday aspects of life, not just in worship practices (such as Elijah’s attack on Israel's worship of the pagan god Baal). Luke even records his answers to specific sectors of society, including tax-farmers (the so-called 'publicans', who enriched themselves through a collaboration with Rome) and soldiers (perhaps even Roman soldiers). The instructions he gave to each were not as demanding as those Jesus would proclaim in his Sermon on the Mount, but they were appropriate as signs of the genuineness of their repentance.

In Luke 3:16-18 John's message to the people is described this way:
John answered them all, "I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.
Although John’s message was in many ways harsh and threatening, stressing God's judgment on sin, Luke characterizes it as “good news” (Luke 3:18), that is, “gospel”!

All gospel writers also agree that John was asked if he were the Messiah, and that he denied it, but made a statement about one coming after him, the latchet of whose shoes he was unworthy even to loosen, who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. This "One" was Jesus, whom John described as "the Lamb of God who takes upon himself the sins of the world".

John’s message reminds us today that
  • through Jesus, the kingdom of God has truly become a present reality (“at hand”) in our lives and requires from each of us a decision of what to do with this Savior and King. It asks of those who accept Him, a constant repentance and cleaning up of even the simplest and most routine areas of our behavior.
  • that it is “good news” even when God must take uncomfortable action to “clear the threshing floor” of our lives of the trash that so easily accumulates, and to burn up this "chaff" in order for the Savior to live in us and to bless others' lives through us.
May he do that in my life and yours, so that we may with clean and happy hearts worship Him this Christmas!

Merry Christmas to you!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Birth of John the Baptizer

“When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John.” They said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who has that name.” Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.” Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue was loosed, and he began to speak, praising God. The neighbors were all filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, “What then is this child going to be?” For the Lord’s hand was with him.” (Luke 1:57-66 NIV)
 Mary remains in the background in this part of the narrative, but Luke has let us know in the preceding episode that she remained with her cousin for the last three months of Elizabeth's pregnancy, which means she was present at the birth. How excited she must have been to see God fulfilling his promise to Zechariah and Elizabeth, although since Zechariah was still mute, he may not have been able to communicate in writing everything that the angel had said to him about John's role of preparing the way for the messiah. Apparently (v. 60) he had been able to communicate to Elizabeth that the angel had ordered them to name the boy John (Yohanan).

The later Church followed the example of this passage to associate giving of the Christian name (i.e., the "first name") to infants at the time of baptism. There is nothing in the Old Testament mentions of circumcision to indicate that the baby's name was officially declared at that time, but apparently by Second Temple times the custom was established in Jewish circles. Luke brings all of this up—although otherwise it might seem a trivial detail—because it indicates Zechariah's obedience to the vision and faith in God's promise, and causes the return of his speech (v. 64). One is reminded of St. Paul's words in 2 Corinthians:
“But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—“I believed, and so I spoke”—we also believe, and so we speak,” (2Corinthians 4:13 NRSV)
If we really believe what God tells us in his Word, God will open our mute mouths and help us to speak of it freely and naturally to others.

That Zechariah had been mute for nine months and then suddenly regains speech precisely when he confirmed the naming of his son was clearly a miracle and spread fear among the neighbors (v. 65) and the feeling that truly great things were in store for this child (v. 66). The "hand of the Lord" means miraculous things. If the boy's life began with miracles, it was assumed that it would always be accompanied by them. In fact, that was not the case. But what did accompany John as he grew up and during his brief adult life and ministry was to be filled with God's Holy Spirit, and what always accompanies that: moral clarity and outspoken criticism of all forms of disobedience to God's law. Such courageous attacks on sinful behavior is what led to his martyrdom at the hands of King Herod Antipas and his wife.
“His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us— to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.” (Luke 1:67-75 NIV)
We now come to another in the series of prophecies (called "canticles" = "little songs", because the Church has thought of them as sung) pronounced by the main figures in the birth narrative. In all cases the ones prophesying are said to be "filled with the Holy Spirit" (v. 67). The Church liturgical versions are named for the first word in each in the Latin version. This one begins "Blessed (be the Lord)" and is accordingly called the Benedictus.

Although Luke throughout his gospel and the Book of Acts stresses the Lord's intention to incorporate gentiles in the people of God, and this gospel in its final form was written after it had become clear that most Jews were not going to accept Jesus as the messiah, yet here he faithful preserves the accurate form in which Zechariah blessed God: as "the Lord (Adonai), the God of Israel" v. 68). The mighty Savior whom God raised up was for "us" (i.e., the Jews, since Zechariah was a Jew, v. 69). And, although the goal of the Savior's deliverance of Israel is that they might "serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness," the fear that is to be dispelled is fear of pagan Romans, and the Savior will save them "from their enemies and … all who hate us (Jews)" (v. 71).

So although in retrospect readers of the gospel know that Jesus did not present himself as a political or military Savior, the Holy Spirit speaking through Zechariah (v. 67) presented him just that way.

All of this was as a fulfillment of God's promises made long ago to Abraham and by the prophets (v. 70, 73). We do not usually think of God's promise to Abraham of a "seed" as having anything to do with repulsing Israel's enemies, but there is at least one such promise which the Holy Spirit caused Zechariah to recall:
“I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies,” (Genesis 22:17 NRSV).

The last four verses of the Benedictus are spoken directly to the newborn Yohanan:
“And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel” (Luke 1:76-80 NIV).
Gabriel had not given these specifics about the boy to be born, but the Holy Spirit now gave them to Zechariah. His son would be the Prophet of the Most High God (Hebrew navī El Elyōn). Here Luke quotes Zechariah as using "the Lord" (Greek kurios, Hebrew Adonai) for the messiah himself, whose forerunner Yohanan the prophet would be. By using the word "Lord" the deity of the messiah is hinted at.

As prophet, Yohanan would prepare the messiah's "ways" by calling the nation to repentance, and in identifying the messiah when he appeared, "to give knowledge of salvation to his (i.e., the messiah's) people by the forgiveness of their sins." There is some ambiguity here in the term "his people." It could refer to the entire Jewish people as God's elect covenant people, in which case the "knowledge of salvation" would only become effective if they believed. Or it might refer to the messiah's people as that smaller group of Jews who followed Jesus as his disciples, the first members of which came from "referrals" Yohanan gave from his own band of disciples. In that case the "knowledge of salvation" is seen as effective, because this group did believe.

The messiah—never called by that title explicitly here!—is portrayed here as like the dawn (NRSV; or the rising sun NIV) that gives light to those would were before in deep darkness, the very "shadow of death." All these things indeed were accomplished, just as the Holy Spirit allowed Zechariah to foresee.

Interestingly, Yohanan himself did not use these specific metaphors (deliverance from enemies, peace in which to serve God without fear, the tender mercy of God, the dawn or rising sun) in his description of the one whose coming he announced. Instead he used the powerful images of judgment: one who will burn up the chaff of sinners in supernatural flames. His was a message of warning, a call to repentance with no promise of deliverance from Rome.  But Zechariah's description nevertheless fits Jesus and what he brought to all who believed in him.

The final verse (v. 80) succinctly describes Yohanan's childhood and adolescence. It is instructive to compare and contrast it with the similar verse Luke later uses to describe this period in Jesus' life:
John:  “And the child grew and became strong  in spirit,  and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.” (Luke 1:80 ESVp)    
Jesus:  “And the child grew and became strong,
filled with wisdom.
And the favor of God was upon him.” (Luke 2:40 ESVp)
Both "became strong;" being filled with "spirit" is similar to being filled with "wisdom." But the last line differentiates the two men. John grew up in the wilderness, apart from normal social contacts, while Jesus showed the "favor of God" in his interactions with those in his village and the countryside. this difference underscores what was perceived by Jesus' enemies later in his life. John was an ascetic, while Jesus was at home in banquets and entertaining others with his fascinating stories and parables. Each served God in the way that was intended, but they made quite a pair of opposites just in terms of appearance and mannerisms.

This will always be true of God's people. You will not be a carbon copy of any other believer. Nor will I. But hopefully we will all strive to live lives of obedience to God's word and love for others.