27 September 2007

Gospel of St. Matthew Bible Study - Lesson 3

Father Echert had a great lecture today. I hope my notes do him and the subject, St. John the Baptist, some bit of justice. There is a lot here, sorry so long, but want to share what I learned. Things you hear during the gospel readings year after year and you don’t notice finally make sense. This lecture covers the third chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew.

Father started out talking about baptism. This ritual purification would’ve been very familiar to the Jews. Inside the temple was a large basin of what we would call Holy Water, or water for ritual purification, where they would purify themselves. Outside the temple were small houses for the pilgrims to use to wash themselves for ritual purity. Since it’s my understanding that Islam is an offshoot of Judaism and Catholicism, it seems this is where they must’ve gotten the notion to wash before entering the temple. An Islamic practice coming from an ancient Jewish custom. This is my opinion, not something Father said.

John the Baptist is the last prophet, the bridge between the Old and New Testaments. He is to point to the one who would fulfill the Law. There are many parallels between Jesus and John the Baptist, but I won’t go into them here (do a Google search and see what you get). Early tradition, which may be reliable, says that the parents of John the Baptist were instructed by God to place him in the wilderness early in his childhood, not at the age of 30, which is where the gospels pick up on John when he emerges from the wilderness.

This wilderness area is believed to be close to where the Essenes lived. The Essenes were a strict Jewish sect, one of three branches of Jewish philosophy (Pharisees and Sadducees are the other two). The Dead Sea Scrolls are attributed to the Essenes (connections to Kabbalah too). Father went on about how either the Essenes or followers of them later said that John the Baptist was greatly influenced by them because these Essenes were mystical, had great faith, etc., and imparted this knowledge (of Jesus, etc) to John the Baptist and that he was some sort of disciple of theirs. Father said this notion goes too far and that John may have had communication with the Essenes, but his knowledge did not come from them because John the Baptist was a true prophet (God given knowledge).

John the Baptist (JtB) dressed like a prophet and acted/spoke like a prophet. Here is the connection to Elijah and why the Jews of the time thought that JtB was Elijah. From 2 Kings 1:7-8, which is speaking about Elijah, “The king asked them, “What was the man like who came up to you and said these things to you?” “Wearing a hairy garment,” they replied, “with a leather girdle about his loins.” “It is Elijah the Tishbite!” he exclaimed.” JtB was wearing a garment of camel’s hair and a leather girdle around his waist, so no wonder the Jews thought he was Elijah, whom they had been waiting to return and had learned all about. Most Jews of the day had a very good knowledge of scripture, so this connection wasn’t lost on them.

The Jews ask JtB if he is Elijah or the Messiah and he says no to both ideas. However, Jesus affirms that JtB is Elijah (don’t have the chapter or verse on the top of my head). JtB is NOT Elijah in the strict sense (read Malachi 3), because Elijah still has to return, but John is preparing the way for Jesus when he establishes His kingdom, Elijah will still return before the end of the world, preparing the way. JtB and Elijah have similar roles, but are two distinct people. JtB is an imperfect fulfillment of this part of scripture.

The writings of Josephus give some insight into JtB and support the gospels. JtB was loved and popular with the Jews of the time. Josephus’ writings show the love the people had for JtB was very real and they were very upset with Herod for JtB’s martyrdom.

JtB has the charism of reading hearts (like St. John Vianney and Padre Pio). In Matthew 3:7, JtB encounters the Pharisees and Sadducees when he is baptizing in the Jordan River and calls them a “brood of vipers” which conjures up images from Genesis of the snake that brought about sin and wrath, since JtB is able to see them for who they really are. Great contrast between the pride of the Pharisees/Sadducees and humility of JtB. JtB was very popular but stepped aside and said to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Almost along the lines of Mary’s fiat.)

JtB probably had taken the Nazarite vow, which requires that one would abstain from wine and strong drink (no wine vinegar or grape juice or grapes at all), no razor would touch their hair and they would not enter where a dead person is. JtB is quoted in Luke 1:15 as never having wine or strong drink. Also of note, is that Samson, who never cut his hair, is believed to have taken the Nazarite vow.

Back to the topic of baptism. Much could be written on this topic and is only touch lightly here. JtB is baptizing in the Jordan River and people from all over are confessing their sins. The Jordan River is the principle source of water in the region, Israel passed from Egypt through the Red Sea with Moses, but also crossed the Jordan under the leadership of Joshua (whose name is essentially the same as Jesus, meaning “one who saves.”) JtB is performing a baptism of repentance; Jesus will be the one to institute the sacrament of baptism by the Holy Spirit, which is a baptism of salvation. JtB’s baptism of repentance gives way to Jesus’ baptism of salvation.

Several OT quotes foreshadow the sacrament of baptism: Joshua 3:14-17, 2 Kings 5:1-14 and see also the Catechism 1222.

In the Old Testament, we saw the prefiguration of baptism with Noah and the ark. JtB is now surpassing the use of water for ritual purification. Because JtB is preparing the way of the Lord, we see that he is starting these baptisms of repentance for people to prepare themselves and they are also confessing their sins (Note to my Protestant friends…this is from Matthew 3:6 where it says, “…and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”) This is only like a “ritual ablution” (as the notes from the study mention), because JtB does not have authority to forgive sin, but it certainly does prefigure the sacrament. In a symbolic sense, dying to sin and rising with Christ.

Jesus did not have to be baptized to be saved, but came to purify the waters. Notes from the study have this quote from St. Maximus of Turin, “The Lord Jesus came to baptism, and willed to have his body washed with water. Perhaps someone will say: “He who is holy, why did he wish to be baptized?” Pay attention therefore! Christ is baptized, not that he may be sanctified in the waters, but that he himself may sanctify the waters, and by his own purifications may purify those streams which he touches.” Very cool.

The Jews had an expectation that Jesus, the Messiah, would establish His kingdom here on earth. Much like a monastic king, or David, with property and wealth, the whole bit. But that isn’t what the kingdom was like, so here lies part of the problem they had in accepting Him. Father did say that just because it is a spiritual kingdom doesn’t mean it shouldn’t rule over the temporal world. It is not correct, or a right, to refuse to submit to God, who should rule over all of us. You have the free will to sin and face the consequences of that choice, but you do not have the “right” to do as you please without recourse.

Isaiah is the most quoted prophet in the New Testament.

Quotes many of the evangelists use from the Old Testament have transcendency in the New Testament (they have one meaning in the OT and a slightly different application in the NT). Some dissenters claim that in doing this, the evangelists “twisted” the OT quotes to suit their needs. Father explained that the evangelists were inspired by God to use the quotes the way they did. An example, in Isaiah 40:3 the punctuation is slightly different that that in the gospel (Matt 3:1). Matthew says, “The voice of on crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Isaiah says, “A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the Lord!” Father Echert said that the meaning in Isaiah is that someone is saying to prepare a path in the wilderness for the king, which makes sense because as a king would travel, people would go on ahead of him and clear the way. Matthew was not ignorant of the gospel and was inspired to do as he did.

Father mentioned that pride will reject all grace offered by God, including the grace of faith. He also mentions that you can’t overlook serious sin, you need to confront it. This goes back to when JtB calls the Pharisees and Sadducees vipers. They claim Abraham is their father, meaning that since they are Jews, Abraham would see to it that they were saved and snatched from hell because Abraham would never allow a Jew to be lost. JtB tell them they can’t presume their “righteousness.” And, if they were followers/sons of Abraham, they would do as Abraham had commanded them instead of acting like vipers.

Another neat thing Father mentioned is that when Jesus was baptized the entire Trinity was present, just as in the Creation story. The Holy Spirit is a dove that descends on Jesus (that only JtB and Jesus can see), Jesus is God present in the flesh, and then God the Father is heard to speak saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” In the Creation story, God spoke and it was, the Holy Spirit is hovering over the waters and you have The Word (Jesus) there too. The dove signifies where our salvation is to be found (Noah sends out the dove and it finally brings back an olive branch, the dove alights on Jesus at his baptism). Re-creation began with Noah and now with Jesus.

Also, Father mentioned that in the same verse (Matthew 3:16), where the heavens opened and the dove appeared, is much more dramatic in Mark where the heavens “schism” or are torn apart, which takes us back to when Jesus died and the same type of language is used when the curtain on the temple is torn in two.

From our discussion, the Israelites at the time understood the idea of holiness to be a separation from unclean things, from the Mosaic Law, which is like a quarantine approach to holiness. Now, they are supposed to go out and “infect” the Gentiles with the love of God.


gemoftheocean said...

"another neat thing Father mentioned is that when Jesus was baptized the entire Trinity was present, "

It wouldn't be possible for it NOT to be!


swissmiss said...

OK, I meant to say the entire Trinity was present in a demonstrative and tangible way. The gospel shows all three of them explicitly instead of just implicitly. Certainly don't mean to imply otherwise!

sexy said...
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