Matthew Chapter Three

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I’m a beginner at poetry, so take it easy on me. I’ve titled this one, Matthew Chapter Three:

Sun-streaks pierce haunted clouds while Prophet John preaches
Anticipation: the Kingdom hovers close by.
Popularity piques powerful interests, though
Rebuffed with thunder reminiscent of Sinai.

And then he appears. Gentle, yet regal. The King.
Religious leaders disappear without fanfare.
Prophet John bows in deference, pausing to worship.
Creation halts, awaiting terrible warfare.

And yet, gentleness. No violent army summoned.
No commands bellowed. Instead, a simple request.
Prophet John balks at the idea: the True King in
Submission to him! He refuses in protest.

The King issues his first warm command: Let it be…
Prophet John engulfs his King in a liquid tomb,
Holding his breath until the Life-Giver exhales.
The Spirit descends. God’s voice roars at full volume.

And yet…
The chapter is incomplete without me.
I discover myself in the riverside crowd,
Challenged with the idea of following Jesus

Underneath a sun-streaked sky filled with haunting clouds.

COMMENTS:
It’s ironic that baptism was the main show in town in the religious world I grew up in, though the group that called themselves “Baptists” were seen as our main enemy. Maybe that’s why John the Baptist didn’t get as much airplay with us – his name was an immediate turn-off.
🙂

But over the years I’ve done a lot of thinking about a lot of things, and baptism has been one of those standing thought questions. This is not to say that I know much of anything about the subject; just that I’ve done a lot of thinking about it over time.

One of the things that I’ve thought about is that baptism seems to be the beginning point in the Gospels (as opposed to the end of a road to salvation). I’ve found that thought interesting. Baptism isn’t portrayed as a culminating event, followed by figuring out what to do in worship assemblies or how to set up a church, but more of a launching point to a new way of life living in the wake of Jesus.

But this past week it has hit me that, of all the thinking I may (or may not) have done about baptism, the role of good old John the Baptist hasn’t had much airtime.

Baptism makes it’s appearance in the Bible with John. It wasn’t portrayed as a custom beforehand: it just appears out of seemingly nowhere with John, and with little explanation – although I realized this past week that there is probably more explanation right there in Matthew chapter three than I had ever considered, mainly in terms of, as they say in the real estate game, “location, location, location.”

John baptized in the Jordan River, a quite significant place in the history of Israel. It was here that the children of Israel crossed over into the Promised Land. It was where Moses stopped and where Jesus (oh, the Hebrew word was Joshua) began. I find that interesting.

In Matthew chapter two, we had seen a man named Joseph have a dream and end up in Egypt (just like in Genesis), followed by the fact that a brutal king decided to murder baby boys in an attempt to preserve his power. In both stories, God protected a baby boy as a savior to the people and led that person out of Egypt toward a Promised Land. It was at the Jordan River where a new world order would begin for Israel in Genesis, and God’s people would have to “pass through” the Jordan to begin this new life with God. The same thing seems to be happening in Matthew chapter three.

I think it is also significant that Jesus passed through Jordan with the people. Although he did not need to “change his life” as the prophet, John, had been hammering the people with, he did so in concert with God’s plan to save people. And when Jesus did, God’s Spirit descended like a dove, reminisent of Noah and the Flood, and in effect, a new world had begun.

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12 Responses to “Matthew Chapter Three”

  1. Capt MidKnight Says:

    Well, this post has been up almost three days and nobody seems to want to make a comment about good old Johnny B. You probably knew, if you waited long enough, you’d smoke me out.

    John must have been quite a guy to be seen as a little strange even among people who were used to itinerant preachers wandering through the countryside. I don’t think I could have handled the locusts and wild honey diet or the camel’s hair wardrobe, but you have to admit he was a powerful preacher. If he was with us today, he would make a fablous TV evangelist. Put Jim Baker and Benny Hinn in the shade. It seems as though he might have had some second thoughts near the end, if his disciples represented him correctly in Matthew 11, but that’s understandable if you’re in prison and you know your enemies want your head on a plate.

    I think you’re right – he does deserve more “airplay” than he gets today. The tribute Jesus gives him later in Matthew 11 puts him in some pretty good company. John’s mission meant that he would see the Messiah, but not be around to see the coming of the “Kingdom.” That, after all, was his message – Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.(NIV) What he was charged by God to do, he did fearlessly and well. I think that’s an epitaph any man would be proud of.

    Jesus’ evaluation of John and his work means that he would be there in the front rank of those mentioned in Hebrews 11, starting at verse 32 that lists all the people and prophets and all the terrible thing they endured. It says that they were commended for their faith – but none of them got to “receive what had been promised.” There was John, a little like Moses – close enough maybe to see a little of what was to come, but still stuck on the other side.

    As for the question of Baptism, you started it, Al, so I’m going to let you wade in a little deeper.

    Baptism as the “main show.” Why do you think that was (is)? I have an idea or two, but I’ll let you go first.

    Baptism as a starting point – I agree. I think you are on the right track. I think a lot folks don’t understand what that means. Unfortunately, a lot of C of C folks don’t understand either.
    What do you think?

  2. Al Sturgeon Says:

    I’m interested in hearing your ideas, Cap’n…

    I don’t know. I think we have a pretty decent argument as to the relative importance of baptism from the New Testament, as opposed to the rest of Christendom. But our arrogance in acting like we’ve got everything figured out about both baptism and everything else doesn’t allow it much of an audience.

    I think we’ve come to worship Church (or our developed version of it) more than Jesus, and I think it would be a big step in the right direction to begin to see baptism as the first step in following Jesus instead of our means of becoming a part of the Church. I think that point is much more than just semantics.

  3. Capt MidKnight Says:

    I don’t know. I think we have a pretty decent argument as to the relative importance of baptism from the New Testament, as opposed to the rest of Christendom. But our arrogance in acting like we’ve got everything figured out about both baptism and everything else doesn’t allow it much of an audience.

    I think we’ve come to worship Church (or our developed version of it) more than Jesus, and I think it would be a big step in the right direction to begin to see baptism as the first step in following Jesus instead of our means of becoming a part of the Church. I think that point is much more than just semantics.

    Warning:
    Some of you will, no doubt, find the following either boring, silly, irrelevant, misguided, outdated, just plain dumb, or all the above. If so, please just indulge Al and I. Of course, feel free to join in if you like.

    In spite of my better judgement which tells me that I’ll probably look at this post tomorrow, slap myself in the forehead, and say “you idiot!” here’s some of my thoughts, distilled over many years.

    The Reformation – I’m thinking now mainly of Martin Luther – involved a reaction against the Catholic Church’s increasing emphasis on what we might call “Works Righteousness.” Luther rebelled against practices like selling Indulgences by going back to the scriptures and re-discovering “Salvation by Faith.” As often happens, many of the reformers swung far the other way by rejection works altogether. Fast forward 400 years to the Restoration Movement here in America. The Campbells and others, by going back and reading the same bible Luther had, re-discovered baptism, in a manner of speaking. Not that it had been forgotten. Almost every Christian religious group acknowledged the importance of baptism. They just disagreed about its form of administration and what exactly its function was in the scheme of things. Many even agreed that it was connected with the forgiveness of sins. The Catholics baptize infants partly because they believe they have a problem with “original sin.” Of course, baptizing infants also works quite well as a way to tie the child to the Catholic Church at an early age.

    As best I can see it, our argument with other religious groups over baptism comes down, in large part, to the faith vs works problem. We see baptism as a command given to all those who would be followers of Jesus, and is also directly tied to the forgiveness of sins. Because of this, we contend that baptism is an essential part of the process of becoming a follower of Jesus (a Christian), which includes having your past sins forgiven and beginning a new life. Others, however, see baptism as a “work” and therefore it can’t, in their view, have anything to do with salvation, which is by grace, through faith, not works,so that no one could boast. They have their “proof texts” and we have ours, and there the issue has stood for a long time.

    Is there some way to reconcile the two viewpoints? I’ll try and explain where I’ve come to after 50 years or so of listening to Christian College teachers, scholars, and preachers who have ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, and – perish the thought – trying to make up my own mind.

    As best I can tell, many who believe in salvation by faith think that the term “faith” requires the exclusion of anything that might be seen as a “work” from the salvation process. They see salvation by faith as an entirely mental, spiritual exercise. You’ll hear many preacher saying things like “You at home by your radio or TV set. Just say this prayer and ask Jesus to come into your heart and you’ll be saved.” Unfortunately, there’s no support that I know of in the New Testament for anybody asking how they might become a Christian being given similar instructions.

    I believe that the term “Faith” as used in the New Testament, not only doesn’t reject human “works” – it actually requires them to be fully realized, that is to become “Saving Faith” or “Living Faith” as James puts it. It amazes me how well we understand some concepts in our daily lives, but, when we come across the same concepts in “The Bible,” all of a sudden, they become somehow deep and incomprehensible. To me, faith is one of those concepts.

    In Matthew 9, there is the story of Jesus healing a woman with a bleeding disorder (Matt 9:20-22). We assume that she had heard of Jesus and stories of him healing people. We are told that she had convinced herself that, if she could just touch him or even his clothes, she would be healed too. Jesus was on his way to a ruler’s house when she got her chance. She worked her way through the crowd and managed to just grab the edge of his cloak as he went by. Jesus turned around and said to her Take heart daughter. Your faith has healed you(NIV). I thought Jesus healed her? Didn’t she have the faith before she touched Jesus? Why didn’t it heal her then? Why did she have to go to the trouble of tracking him down and pushing through the crowd to get near enough to touch him? How exactly did her faith heal her?

    Fast forward 2,000 years.
    I have just been diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease. I go home and get on the internet and google every website I can find that talks about it. Finally I run across an article in a medical journal about a doctor who has developed an new, controversial, surgical procedure that has had dramatic results on some test patients. I read everything I can find about the doctor, his background, his qualification, and his reputation, and decide that he’s my best chance. I become so convinced that my condition will respond to his treatment that I refinance my house and draw out my 401K, and move to the city where he practices. By persistence, I convince him to take me as his next subject. He operates and I am cured. At the press conference, he tells the reporters “I am honored that this patient believed in my skill enough to trust me with his care, and now his faith has saved him.”
    Obviously, in both cases, there was a lot more involved than just a mental or spiritual exercise. Isn’t faith’s part in both cases the same?

    In our modern world, we know, just like James knew, that faith that accomplishes anything involves work – and sometimes a lot of it. We would say “Talk is cheap.” James said Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.(James 2:18 NIV).
    Why is the faith required to become a follower of Jesus any different from the faith of the woman in Matt.9, or the faith of the present day patient who searched out the doctor who could cure him?

    When people heard John the B or Jesus or any of the apostles preach, it didn’t take long to come to the part about repenting of your evil deeds and saving yourself from the judgment to come. I know such things are out of fashion these days, but not back then. If a person actually became convinced that they were sinners, that there was a judgment coming, and that Jesus offered an escape, the next logical step was to ask, as the people on Pentecost did, “What can we do?” The answer they got involved doing something – two things, in fact. 3,000 took Peter at his word, did what he said, and, I would contend, their faith saved them.

    All this, I believe, comprises that first step you mentioned. Before you can begin to walk in that new life that Paul talks about in Romans 6, there are some thing you have to take care of. Baptism is the last step in that process – no more or less important than any other. Nothing in the New Testament leads us to believe that any of the process is optional.

    Finally, I think baptism certainly “adds you to the church” in the sense that they meant it in the New Testament. That is that baptism is the public completion of the above process that puts us into Christ along with all the others that make up “The Church.” It has nothing to do with membership in any local congregation or affiliation with any of the numerous religious groups which have splintered off in the last 20 centuries – including C of C. When you have enough faith in Jesus and his message to act upon it, that faith will save you, and you will be “added to the Church.” I’m sure, if we could actually see that role book, most of us would be in for a big surprise.

    Why is baptism a required part of the process? Short answer: I don’t know. Along with everybody else, I have some guesses, but I really don’t know. In theory, Jesus could have required anything – he is the owner of our salvation after all (1Col 6:20). Can you think of anything better?

    Thus endth the rant.

  4. Whitney Says:

    Al,
    Funny–I had the exact same conversation with a friend last night and expressed almost exactly what you said in your reply here.

    It seems like the churces of Christ have made baptism the ultimate objective (versus living as a Christian.) Obviously, baptism leads to being a Christian, but why do we so often spend tons of time studying and training people to “get baptized” and forget to keep on studying and training them to live for Jesus and to do everything to glorify God? Sometimes I feel like our attitude is: “Great!! We’re so happy you’re saved. You made it! Yippee!” but we quit there. We don’t make the same fuss when someone walks with Christ and has both the faith and works required to really be like Jesus. We just complain, and maybe even criticize, when they don’t.

  5. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Thanks, guys!

    I’ll just give a big churchy AMEN to Whitney’s comment… 🙂

    And the same to El Capitan, but you ranted so much you gave me several things to say in reply…

    #1: Faith/Works: My favorite viewpoint on this is C.S. Lewis’ quote that said something along the lines of “arguing over faith/works is like arguing over which blade in a pair of scissors is more important.” That works for me.

    #2: When you talk about things you need to take care of before beginning the walk following Jesus and baptism being the last step of that process, I’d just add that I don’t see a lot of items in that process (definitely not a distinct five-steps, or six according to Walter Scott who, if I remember correctly, first tried to distill salvation into a step-by-step process). I just kind of see the whole “process” (if you will) as coming to a mental point where one sees following Jesus as the way to go. This is followed by “following.” In reading the Gospels, heading down to the Jordan (metaphorically) is numero uno on that path.

    (Which, side note, would only lead to the longstanding debate about whether one is saved if they step out in front of a bus on the way to the Jordan River, which has to rank as one of the more ignorant debates around…)

    #3: You ended by asking, Why baptism of all things? That was sort of what I was trying to get at a bit in my column when I got to John the Baptist. I think it has a lot to do with metaphoric implication: (a) Noah’s flood – sin wiped clean by water with a new world on the other side (punctuated at the Jordan with the dove descent on Jesus); (b) Crossing the Jordan with Joshua (Hebrew for Jesus) – slavery behind us, Promised Land (aka Kingdom of God) before us; (c) New birth – in a sense re-entering the womb & beginning a completely new life; (d) Death/burial/resurrection – participating in Jesus’s defeat of the curse.

    All these, and maybe more…

    I just think we do a disservice to everyone involved when we disconnect the act from its history and weaken it to be a “step” to self-preservation. It appears to be much more than even vocal proponents of the act (like CofCs) have made it to be so far.

  6. Capt MidKnight Says:

    And the same to El Capitan, but you ranted so much you gave me several things to say in reply…

    I thought that was the point of the exercise.

    More comments when I can get enough neurons firing enough to make any sense.

  7. Capt MidKnight Says:

    Faith/Works: My favorite viewpoint on this is C.S. Lewis’ quote that said something along the lines of “arguing over faith/works is like arguing over which blade in a pair of scissors is more important.” That works for me.

    Sure wish I had found that quote before my last post. It would have saved me a lot of words.
    I’m a big C.S. Lewis fan. I actually have a little booklet of transcripts of some of his radio addresses during WWII. I bought it in Cambridge because it came with a hand written letter which Lewis had sent to the original owner! Pretty neat historical artifact.

    I just think we do a disservice to everyone involved when we disconnect the act from its history and weaken it to be a “step” to self-preservation. It appears to be much more than even vocal proponents of the act (like CofCs) have made it to be so far.

    I couldn’t agree more with the above comment, and we certainly do a disservice when, as Whitney observed, we treat it almost as an end in itself. Sort of like Great! We’ve gotten you in and out of the water. Live long and Prosper. See you later. I’m off to do more good deeds. This has been one of the criticisms leveled at us by others, and, I’m afraid, it is partly justified. I believe that our view of the mode and purpose of baptism is basically correct and scriptural, but it’s also quite possible to do all the right things for all the wrong reasons.

    As for the “process” I talked about – the “things we need to take care of.” I’m sure that Juvenal would be quick to remind me how “transactional” it all sounds. Sorry. Part of that is probably my lack of ability to translate into words my understanding the process, but I think part of it is also real. I have a feeling that God would prefer to deal with us humans on a much more elevated level of mutual trust and perfect love. Unfortunately, we’re just not ready for that. For the most part, even the best of us, left to our own devices, are still venial, selfish, shortsighted, sinful souls. Maybe that’s why God has almost always dealt with man in a “transactional” way. That’s what a “covenant” is, after all. That, at least, is something we do understand.

    The whole Old Testament seems to be the story of God dealing with his people through one covenant after another, with him fulfilling his part, but the people constantly failing to live up to theirs’. When it comes to the New Testament, I confess that I don’t understand why it took such drastic measures or so long and metaphorically complex a plan to secure the forgiveness of our sins and our reconciliation with God. I’m just a simple man trying to make some sense out of things that are way over my head. Get it down to my level, though, and I can begin to catch on. I can imagine a conversation between me and God might go something like this:

    I am God. I made you and I sustain you. My word is law. My justice is absolute, and I am your judge. You have sinned and my justice demands punishment. That’s your situation.

    That sounds pretty bad. What can I do?

    Nothing. There’s no fine you can pay – no bribe you can offer. Everything already belongs to me. If you’re to be saved from your fate, I’ll have to do it from my end. It’s like that old hymn says:

    Could my tears forever flow. Could my zeal no respite know. All for sin could not atone. Thou must save and thou alone.

    The Good News is, however, that I (God) have had a plan all along to take care of your problem. You see, above all, my nature is love. I made you and I love you. In spite of your rebellion, I don’t want to see any of my children perish. I have provided a way out of your life of sin and graciously made it available free, not just to you, but to everybody. I know that everybody won’t take advantage of my gift, but the offer’s there just the same.

    Great! I accept. How does it work?

    Well, if you really understand now that you were living opposed to my will, just admit that publically, and commit yourself to following the example of my Son through a ceremony called baptism. For my part, I’ll count as paid any debts you owe because of your past behavior and you can start over as if you had never done anything wrong in your whole life.

    What a deal!

    Not so fast. There’s a lot more to this new life your beginning, but don’t worry if you don’t understand it all right now or can’t quite figure where everything fits. We’ll work it all out together, and, if you stumble or get sidetracked along the way, I’ll always be there to pick you up and turn you around. I think you’ll find that the rewards of this deal are really great, even in this life on earth, but the retirement plan at the end is better than you can ever imagine.

    I hope you’ll pardon the liberties I’ve taken in the above dialog between me and God. It sounds very “transactional” because it IS very “transactional.” Maybe, if I live to be 150 or so, I can get close to the place where I am following Jesus just because love for him makes any other option unthinkable, but I’m not there yet. I know that perfect love is supposed to cast out fear, but there’s still a lot of that “fear of God” that is said to be the beginning of wisdom. I guess that means I’m still close to the beginning. Anyway, maybe fear and a little “what’s in it for me” transactional self interest isn’t the perfect motivation to look to Jesus, but is something I can understand – and it is legitimate. There really is something to fear, and there really is something to be gained by following Jesus – both here and in the life to come – or else Jesus has misled us (Mk 10:29-30).

    I hope we can all someday come to the point that we follow Jesus simply out of that perfect love that casts out fear, but I’m afraid I still have a ways to go down at the “transactional” entry level yet. That’s all right. It is a journey (process) after all.

    BTW On the getting hit by a bus on the way to the Jordan question: we used to call it the “limb falling” argument – what would happen if a limb fell on someone and killed him on the way down to the creek to get baptized?
    That’s one of those things I’m happy to let God work out. I’m confident he will get it right. I might not.
    I’m not as concerned about the fellow who sincerely wants to follow Jesus and gets brained by a tree limb (or hit by a bus) before he can get in the water as I am by all the folks we may have talked into the baptistry only to have them just come up wet sinners.

    See what happens when you get an old retired geezer going?
    Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?

  8. Al Sturgeon Says:

    To characterize the “hit by a bus” argument as ignorant is a compliment to the arguers. It’s either ignorance or idolatry – what size of God couldn’t stop a bus?

  9. Duane McCrory Says:

    I could say a lot about baptism, some of which might actually be interesting or helpful, but I’d prefer to take a step back from the CofC bashing and bash a few others as well.

    Evangelicals as a whole do not get the idea of salvation as a process. They fuss at us about our stance on baptism but their stance on the “Sinner’s Prayer” is the same as ours is on baptism. That’s why they say things like, “I was saved on such and such date….” It is the same problem. For them, the idea is to have a person pray the prayer and they’re in. There’s nothing left to do. For us, it is dunk them and they’re in. Then we leave them to their own devices and don’t bother trying grow them up. That would be somewhat equivalent to trying to help a baby say his/her first word and then once he/she has said, “Mommy,” or “Daddy,” not talking to him/her ever again.

  10. Capt MidKnight Says:

    Duane said …
    For them, the idea is to have a person pray the prayer and they’re in. There’s nothing left to do. For us, it is dunk them and they’re in. Then we leave them to their own devices and don’t bother trying grow them up.

    I hope something like that was what I said in my post. If not, I certainly meant to.

  11. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Just a brief comment. I agree with Duane, and I would add that another thing CsofC share with the wider Evangelical world that makes the “growing” process more difficult is their radical egalitarianism. CsofC are actually more egalitarian than most Evangelical churches, I’d say, so it might actually be slightly more difficult in CsofC to follow up a baptism (an adult baptism, at least) with the rest of the process.

  12. Whitney Says:

    JU, can you expound on that? I’m not sure I follow you completely. Are you referring to a lack of egalitarianism? And why would it affect the follow-up process? (I’ve always chalked it up to laziness on our part…) I’m missing something in your comment I think.

    Duane, funny you should mention that because I’ve always seen the “Sinner’s Prayer” as just a much a “work” as we’re accused of doing with Baptism. And welcome back. Did you guys get settled in?

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