Friday, August 26, 2011

Wanting Judgement

John the Baptist, upon hearing about Jesus preaching and working miracles in Galilee, sent messengers to question whether or not Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus performed some more miracles and preached to the poor as proof of who Jesus was for those messengers. Jesus then explained to the crowds around him that John the Baptist was Elijah, who had been prophesied to return to prepare the way for God. Then Jesus described that generation as being like a bunch of fickle children who could never be satisfied (Matthew 11:16-19, Luke 7:31-35).

Wanting Judgement
One of the crafted, and heavily promoted, images of God in modern Christianity is of a loving father. God's love is so great for us all, that He sent His son to die for us (John 3:16), and He is not willing that any of us would perish (Matthew 18:14, 2 Peter 3:9). Such strong love and devotion! We will surely see that God is doing everything He can to save each and every one of us! Or will we? Let us take a closer look.

Matthew 11:20-24 (and the parallel in Luke 10:13-15) tells us about how Jesus condemned the cities of Korazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, just like He had instructed the Apostles to do. Why would Jesus condemn them? Because Jesus had worked miracles there, but they still did not repent.

I am not sure about you, but if I was God, in the form Jesus, or a burning bush, or whatever shape du jour, I can think of some rather incredible miracles with which I could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that, well, that I was God. When you are not subject to the laws of nature, when you can bend time at your will, when the most solid matter is nothing but primordial ooze to be formed and spirited according to your desires, you can be very influential.

Who knows? Maybe Jesus worked these kinds of truly incredible miracles which only God could do, and yet the people did not repent. Maybe He did do all that He could do, not willing that any should perish. Or maybe he just worked the type of miracles discussed with John the Baptist's messengers; healing people, the kind of miracles which could easily be faked with the right setup of some planted accessories and corroborators, the kind of miracles which happen on a daily basis in modern hospitals at the hands of doctors. That is not to say that such acts would be unimpressive, just that they are, shall we say, lesser miracles in the grand scope of what would be possible for God.

Regardless of what miracles they were, Jesus clearly thought that they should have been enough to turn their hearts. In Matthew 11:21/Luke 10:13, Jesus says that had those same miracles been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented. (God had Tyre and Sidon destroyed per the prophesy of Zechariah 9:1-7.)

What? Tyre and Sidon could have been saved with a little divine intervention? And God knew this? Why would God not have stepped in to save them then? Who knows? God is omniscient. Maybe God knew that Tyre and Sidon would have soon backslid, and would have perpetrated some greater evil on the world if left unstopped. Let us give God the benefit of the doubt here, until a couple verses later...

In Matthew 11:23, we find Jesus saying:
“...If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day.” NIV
Sodom had been so wicked that God did not wait to send an invading army in to capture them, like He later did with Tyre and Sidon. Instead, Sodom, and a similar city named Gomorrah, were so bad that God personally obliterated them with raining burning sulfur from “the heavens” (Genesis 19:24-25). Yet here in the New Testament, Jesus said that had there been a little divine intervention, a little showing of some miracles, Sodom would have repented so much that they would still have existed to the times of Jesus.

Apparently, God is indeed very willing that some should perish. Maybe Sodom perished with a purpose, and that through Sodom's destruction, many more were moved to repentance than would have otherwise, perhaps even outnumbering those who were in Sodom and those who would have been there in later generations. Maybe. But this shows God to use a motivation of fear, not love. It demonstrates that God has a Machiavellian ends-justify-the-means type of modis operandi. Plus, it proves that God is willing to let some perish under the right circumstances, displaying a moral relativism.

Quickly, we should ponder the condemnation of towns themselves. As discussed in the study about Jesus telling the Apostles to condemn towns, this implies an immediacy to the coming Judgement. Over long periods of time, the residents of the towns change completely. It would be unfair for Jesus to condemn the great grand-daughter of someone who was not impressed by Jesus' miracles, so Jesus' city-wide condemnation carries with the implication that Judgement Day will occur within one generation.

Extra Credit: Textual Study
Luke was an editor. Or, at least the author of Luke was an editor. While he was not an eye-witness to Jesus, it is suggested by believers and Luke 1:1-4 that his Gospel was derived from investigative reporting of eye-witness accounts. Who was that, or who were those eye-witnesses, nobody knows, but some people of faith make the case that there are enough differences to suggest that neither Matthew nor Mark were direct sources for Luke. From this perspective, there are several unique eye-witness accounts to give inherent credibility to the Gospel story. However some Christian scholars, and skeptics as well, theorize that both Matthew and Luke were assembled using the Gospel of Mark and perhaps some version of another non-extant document, often referred to as Q. Why would they think this? Take a look at these passages for an example:

Matthew 11:21-23 (NIV)
Luke 10:13-15 (NIV)
"Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths... "Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths.

Of the 75 words, 67 words are identical, with only eight different words (in bold). The differences are easily explained:

The word “sitting” added in Luke is a clarification. The “I tell you” in Matthew is a kind of a flavor phrase, if you will, not at all altering the meaning by its absence in Luke. Matthew's “on the day of judgment” is essentially the same as Luke's “at the judgment,” and really only demonstrates Matthew's preference for the phrase “day of judgment,” with Matthew's Gospel being the only one to use the words “judgment” and “day” in the same sentence, and he used “day of judgement” multiple times (Matthew 10:15, Matthew 11:22, Matthew 11:24, Matthew 12:36).

For the words, their order, and their sentence structure to match this closely, with the minor exceptions of the preferences of the authors, it strongly suggests that both parties got there information from a single source. That source could be actual eye-witness memory of what Jesus said, or it could be a single document.

Memory is notoriously faulty, but you have to remember (wink) that back in those days, when paper was still a luxury and there were far fewer everyday distractions, memory was relied on to a much greater extent than now. As with any regularly practiced skill, memory of the general population was probably more acute back then. It is possible that eye-witness memory could have been that precise, especially in the context of a highly unusual event, like God becoming a man for example. ;-)

However, memory is undermined by itself in this case. First, the context Matthew wraps around these verses is that Jesus has sent out the Twelve Apostles on their first mission, and so Jesus had been wandering around Galilee alone, preaching and working miracles. According to Luke, the Twelve Apostles had gone out on and returned from their mission, Jesus fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish, Peter identified Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus got Transfigured, Jesus exorcised a demon from a boy, Jesus was rejected in Samaria, and (finally) we find these verses where Jesus was giving instructions for 72 other disciples to go out on a mission. Matthew does not mention the mission of these 72 disciples at all. So we are expected to believe that the eyewitnesses could remember the words perfectly, but the memories of the events leading up to and the surrounding context of those words were a little hazy.

Second, if this was from such a precise memory, how is it possible that Luke version completely omits the content in the second half of Matthew 11:23 as well as all of the content of Matthew 11:24 in regards to how Sodom would have repented, which was part of this same speech from Jesus? It is unlikely that an eye-witness simply did not remember, having remembered the preceding so perfectly.

So the eye-witness memory theory seems unlikely. What about the Q source document theory? What if this Q document was just a collection of random events, sayings, and episodes associated with Jesus which the authors of Matthew and Luke had to puzzle together into some cohesive story? What if this snippet of Jesus condemning cities had no surrounding context in that Q document, leaving it at the author's discretion as to where it fit? Under the Q theory, the precision of the words are no mystery, nor is it surprising that this section would show up in completely different locations in these two Gospels.

Even with the Q theory, one mystery still remains: Why did Luke skip out on the last part of the message regarding Sodom? One answer is that it may not have been in the Q, but was added by Matthew. Another answer is that the author of Luke edited out those lines based on the theological difficulties which we discussed above, because it clearly demonstrates that God could have saved people but chose not to do so. I lean towards the second answer, based on the fact that Luke appears to have edited other parts as well, such as the verses regarding Jesus' condemnation of divorce. Matthew 19:3-9 and Mark 10:2-12 record that Jesus said that Moses was the source of permission of divorce, which was not accurate to the Scripture which clearly has God establishing that divorcement. Luke sidesteps this difficulty by trimming the passage down to a one-liner (Luke 16:18) which avoids mentioning Moses at all.

Friday, August 19, 2011


Jesus sent the Twelve Apostles on a mission while He continued to teach and perform miracles in Galilee. This prompted John the Baptist to ask if Jesus was really the Messiah. After proving His powers to John the Baptist's messengers, Jesus went on to explain that John the Baptist is the prophet spoken of in prophesy who was to prepare the way for God.

Picture this: You are in a restaurant for breakfast, and you order a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice because you had heard that this place had amazing orange juice, perfectly sweet and tangy, and extra high in vitamin C too! When the waiter returns, he sets down a single-serve bottle of apple juice. When you ask the waiter about it, his reply is “this is the juice which was to come.” Something is obviously not right. We will see a similar case of mistaken identity in this study of the Bible.

After Jesus spoke about just how wonderful John the Baptist was, He dropped some peculiar verbiage about how since John the Baptist had been active, people were forcing their way into the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 11:12, Luke 16:16). It is hard to know the exact meaning here, but I think it may be best rendered like this: “Since people have started learning about the Kingdom of Heaven, they are doing everything they can to ensure that they get into it.” The words speak of a much more dramatic change than simply believing something new, and may also imply a dire urgency to make such a conversion, as if the end of the world was nigh.

Then, much like the previous tying of John the Baptist to prophesy, in Matthew 11:13-14 Jesus goes one step further to try to remove all doubt:
“For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John[ the Baptist]. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.” NIV
You should know that in the original Greek text, “he is the Elijah” is actually rendered “he Elias.” Elias is another name for Elijah, so there are no problems there. The words “is” and “the” were added by interpreters. The “is” is no big change, as that state of being Elijah is implicit. However, the “the” is a major change found in the New International Version (NIV), and a dishonest one at that. It is dishonest both because the Greek language had a definite article which would have been put there if it was needed to be accurate, and because it changes the meaning to suggest that John the Baptist is not actually Elijah, but rather a prophet similar to Elijah, thereby implying that that was the original intent of the prophesy from Malachi 4:5.

Enough quibbling about words. Who was John the Baptist supposed to be, or be like? Who was Elijah? He was only one of the greatest prophets EVER! Check this out:

Elijah first appears in the Bible in 1 Kings 17, and he makes an impressive entrance! In 1 Kings 17:1, God uses Elijah to announce a three year drought, and gives Elijah the power to make it rain on command during that drought. Being a rather unpopular announcement, God directs Elijah where to hide, and has ravens bring him meat and bread (1 Kings 17:2-6)!

After the water source dried up in the hiding spot, God directed Elijah to stay with a widow and her son. The widow said that they did not have enough flour and oil for themselves, let alone Elijah. So Elijah reveals to her that God has promised to keep her flour and oil jars full throughout the drought. And presto! They had unlimited flour and oil (1 Kings 17:7-16).

When the widow's son later became deathly ill and died, she accused Elijah of reminding her of her sins and killing her son! Elijah, knowing that God caused all death, questioned God as to why He would kill this widow's son when she was hosting Elijah, and asked God to bring the child back to life. God God must have realized that the situation was not a fair, and He did want to support Elijah, so He brought the widow's son back to life. Then the widow knew that Elijah was a man of God for sure (1 Kings 17:17-24).

In the time of Elijah, Ahab was king of Israel. (This is not to be confused with the entire Promised Land. There had been a schism which split the land into two kingdoms; Israel/Samaria and Judah.) Ahab was pretty evil in God's eyes, which in no small part was due to him marrying Jezebel and converting to Baal worship (1 Kings 16:29-32).

Anyway, God commanded Elijah to confront King Ahab, and so Elijah went to Ahab and told him that the king himself has caused great trouble to fall on Israel for promoting Baal worship. He tells the king to summon all of the prophets of Baal and Asherah to a showdown on Mount Carmel. Amazingly, the king summons them without protest (1 Kings 18:1-21).

Once all of the prophets are at Mount Carmel, Elijah challenged them to prove that their god was real with a contest. They would prepare a bull for an offering, and Elijah would do the same. Then they would each call for their god to consume the offering with fire. The god who does this would be proven to be the real God. The other prophets agreed. They prepared their bull, and solicited Baal to torch the chopped carcass. After about half a day without an answer, Elijah taunts them, telling them that they should shout louder in case their god is busy or sleeping. After a full day without an answer from Baal, Elijah ups the stakes. He prepared a fire pit with wood, lined it with stones, put his bull pieces on the wood, and then had the prophets of Baal pour water on his offering until the fire pit was flooded. At the appropriate time, Elijah stepped forward and prayed to God to consume this sacrifice to convert the hearts of the people of Israel to worship God again. With that, fire pours down from the sky, consuming the bull, the wood, the water, and even the stones lining the pit! The people repented. Flush with victory, and with support of the people, Elijah had the prophets of Baal rounded up and slaughtered (1 Kings 18:22-40).

Then, Elijah made it rain, thereby ending the drought (1 Kings 18:41-46).

Jezebel wanted to kill Elijah for slaughtering Baal's prophets. So Elijah fled. God feeds Elijah bread and water (despite Elijah's request just to let him die) until he had enough strength to travel to Mt. Horeb (1 Kings 19:1-9). There, God showed Himself to Elijah, although it is unclear whether or not Elijah actually saw God. After a little discussion, God gives Elijah the task of anointing the next king of Aram, the next king of Israel, and the man who would become Elijah's successor, Elisha. He grabs Elisha first (1 Kings 19:10-21).

Later, Ahab and Jezebel have a man named Naboth killed under false charges in order to take his vineyard. Because of this, God told Elijah to tell Ahab that God says dogs would lick his blood in the same spot that Naboth was killed, Jezebel would be eaten by dogs, and God would kill all of Ahab's lineage. Ahab humbled himself, donned a sackcloth and fasted, and went around meekly. God then told Elijah that because Ahab had humbled himself, He decided that He would wait until Ahab's son was ruler to kill all of Ahab's lineage (1 Kings 21). Ahab later gets killed battle, and dogs lick up his blood as prophesied (1 Kings 22).

Ahab's son Ahaziah took over as king of Israel (a.k.a. Samaria). He had a bad accident, so he sent messengers to the prophets of Baal-Zebub to ask if he would recover. God had Elijah intercept the messengers, and told them to tell the king that he will not get up, but would instead die in his bed because he had consulted Baal-Zebub instead of God. The messengers relayed this, and the king asked who this man was. The messengers replied that he was a man with a garment of hair (or perhaps just a very hairy man) and he had a leather belt. The king recognized him as Elijah (2 Kings 1:1-8).

Ahaziah sends a captain and 50 men to go get Elijah. When they find him on a hill and request that he go with them, Elijah asks God to consume these men with fire, which God does. Ahaziah sends another captain and 50 men to go get Elijah. When they find him on a hill and request that he go with them, Elijah asks God to consume these men with fire, which God does again. Ahaziah sends yet another captain and 50 men to go get Elijah. When they find him on a hill, the captain pleads for Elijah to spare their lives and go with them. Elijah gets a message from God to go with them. When Elijah meets with Ahaziah, he tells him that Ahaziah will die because he wanted to consult with Baal-Zebub. Ahaziah dies without an heir (2 Kings 1:9-18).

At some point in time, Elijah also sent a letter to Jehoram, who was king of Judah at that time. In the letter, Elijah told him that God was very mad at him for how sinful he was, and that God would strike a “heavy blow” to everything of his (including his wives and sons) and that he himself would be afflicted with a festering disease which would cause his bowels to fall out (2 Chronicles 21:12-15).

Closing out the story of Elijah, on his way to being called up into Heaven, God led Elijah to Bethel, Jericho, and finally to the Jordan River. Elisha insisted on going with him despite being told to stay behind 3 times. At the Jordan, Elijah rolled up his cloak and struck the water with it, causing it to part so that Elijah and Elisha could walk across on dry ground. Elijah asked Elisha if there is anything he can do for him before going up to Heaven. Elisha asks for a double portion of Elijah's spirit. Elijah says that will be difficult, but if Elisha sees him after he has gone to Heaven, then it will be so. Then a chariot of fire, with horses of fire, appeared and took Elijah up to Heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:1-12).

Elijah never died. He just went right up to Heaven, even without the blood of Jesus to wash away the stain of his sins. If he never died, then, it stands to reason, that he could come back at any time (as himself) like what Malachi 4:5 seems to suggest.

OK, so now the time has come to see just how closely John the Baptist resembled Elijah:

John the Baptist
Birth Legend None Foretold of by Gabriel (Luke 1:5-25), related to Jesus (Luke 1:36), John leaped in womb upon hearing Mary pregnant with Jesus (Luke 1:39-45), father was mute until John was named (Luke 1:57-80)
Food Bread and meat brought by divine help, plus normal food Locusts and honey (Matthew 3:4)
Clothing Hair garment with leather belt Hair garment with leather belt (Matthew 3:4)
Miracles Performed Controlled rain, made never-empty oil and flour jars, resurrected a dead boy, called fire from the sky multiple times, parted the River Jordan, and rode to Heaven on a chariot of fire. None
Purpose Confront the wicked leaders of that time Ready the people for Jesus
Biggest Impact A showdown with the prophets of Baal, whereby great numbers of people converted back to worshiping God. Water baptism for the repentance of sins of those who already worship God.
Type of Prophesy Planned punishment for sins Call for repentance to avoid the “coming wrath”(Matthew 3:7-10, Luke 3:7-9), identification of Jesus (Matthew 3:11-12, Luke 3:15-17, John 1:29-34)
Men Killed 450 prophets of Baal and over 100 of Ahaziah's soldiers None
Divine Protection? Yes No
Imprisoned No Yes
Death Wanted to die, but God kept him alive. Never died. Beheaded because of a foolish vow (Matthew 14:1-12, Mark 6:17-29)

Other than their fashion sense and working for God, Elijah and John the Baptist were nothing alike. This certainly makes it difficult to accept Jesus' words that John the Baptist was Elijah, or “the” Elijah for that matter. Elijah was fresh-squeezed orange juice compared to John the Baptist's reconstituted, bottled apple juice.

Have you ever noticed that Elijah sounds a lot like “he lied yeah” all smushed together?

Friday, August 12, 2011

Preparing the Way Out of Context

After Jesus sent out the Twelve Apostles on there first mission, He worked alone in Galilee preaching and performing miracles. When John the Baptist heard about this, he sent messengers to ask if Jesus was the prophesied Messiah for which all of the Jews were anxiously waiting. Jesus told them to tell John the Baptist what they had seen Jesus do.

Preparing the Way Out of Context
Context. It is the most useful tool in determining the intended meaning of words in a sentence, or the meaning of a sentence within a .paragraph, or, Biblically speaking, the real meaning of a prophesy. Ripped out of context, a single verse of prophesy can be bent to the will of the quoting authority. Yet if the original context still exists, we can come to the true meaning, as we will in this study.

Matthew 11:7-11 and Luke 7:24-28, in nearly identical wording, record what Jesus began to say after John the Baptist's disciples left. According to Jesus, John the Baptist was a prophet, but not just any prophet. John had a specific purpose. In Matthew 11:10/Luke 7:27 Jesus reveals that purpose:
“[John the Baptist] is the one about whom it is written:
'I will send My messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.'” NIV
Wow! John the Baptist was spoken about in the prophesies! How exciting it must have been for people living in those times, seeing prophesy fulfilled! So if Jesus has identified a specific applicable prophesy, and the specific person attached to that prophesy, it seems that we should be able to look at that prophesy for a match of what happened around the time of Jesus, especially as it pertains to John the Baptist and Jesus. That sounds reasonable, right?

You may remember from a previous study, regarding John the Baptist leading the way for Jesus, that this quote originates from Malachi 3:1. At a length of four brief chapters, Malachi is a small book in the Bible attributed to a prophet by the same name. More importantly, based on both content and structure, the entire book appears to be a contiguous revelation from God through Malachi, with the possible exception of the first five verses. Let us take a closer look into this book.

Malachi 1:1-5 speaks of how God chose Jacob (the Israelites) over Esau (the Edomites). Consequently, God's wrath will forever be against the Edomites, which will prove to the Israelites that God is great.

In Malachi 1:6-14, we find that God is pretty angry with the priests because they are sacrificing crippled and diseased animals to Him. God also reminds us that every place will eventually burn incense and make pure offerings (implicitly animal offerings) to Him because His name will be great among all nations. All nations are to fear God.

Malachi 2:1-9 continues on that theme, with God promising to make the priests despised and humiliated for breaking the covenant that He had made with Levi (Exodus 32:27-29, Numbers 3:5-10), and for not obeying God's Law and showing partiality in the Law's execution. This admonition will come so that the covenant that God had made with Levi can be preserved.

(You caught that, right? God was doing this to preserve the covenant with Levi, or in other words, to preserve the Levitical priesthood! If so, there would be no use for the priest of the order of Melchizedek described in Hebrews 5:5-10, Hebrews 6:19-20, and Hebrews 7)

Now in Malachi 2:10-16, God rebukes the general populous of Judah. In the metaphorical language of marriage, God claims that they are having an adulterous affair with a foreign god while still trying to worship Him. They should stop weeping at the altar over the fact that God no longer accepts their offerings. Their polytheism is the reason God no longer accepts their offerings.

Malachi 2:17 is a “by the way” message from God that He is tired of them complaining that God appears to be pleased with evil-doers, and complaining that there is no justice from Him.

Now, up the line which Jesus (partially) quotes. In Malachi 3:1, God will send a messenger before Him, and then suddenly the God they are seeking will come to His Temple. From the previous context, we remember that the Israelites had been seeking God the altar of the Temple of Jerusalem, and mourning because God had not accept their offerings. God is reassuring them that He will be back there.

Malachi 3:2-4 states that the day when God comes, he will purify the Levites so that God will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, so that the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem would again be acceptable, just like they had been in the old days. (Line up the bulls and goats!)

Malachi 3:5 says that when God does show up, it will be in judgement of sinners.

All of this is not going to just automatically happen. According to Malachi 3:6-7, God does not change, so if the Israelites will obey His decrees and return to Him, then He will return to them.

How are the Israelites to return to God? In Malachi 3:8-12 God gets them started down the right path by telling them to stop stealing... from God. God has cursed the whole nation because they have not been giving all of the appropriate offerings and tithes which are owed to Him. If only they would give what the Law directs them to give, then God would “throw open the floodgates” of blessings from Heaven (including keeping their crops pest- and rot-free) and make it so that all nations consider their nation blessed.

Then, in Malachi 3:13-18, God provides reassurance for those who are weary of following God's Law without receiving any benefit for their good behavior, while the wicked prosper without punishment. God knows who they are and will spare His loyal followers and bless them. They will again see a distinction the wicked and the righteous. (“Again,” as in like it had been before.)

The message in Malachi 4:1-3 explains that distinction a little more. The day when God shows up, He will consume the wicked like a fire and will help the righteous people trample the wicked ones down.

Malachi 4:4 is a brief reminder to obey God's Law.

Wrapping it all up, in Malachi 4:5-6 God implicitly identifies the messenger from Malachi 3:1 as Elijah. Elijah will turn peoples hearts towards their own families, or else God will strike the land with a curse.

OK, now a quick and concise recap. As you read this, think of whether or not this is applies to Jesus' Salvation and the New Testament story:
God will forever demonstrate His wrath against the Edomites to show the Israelites His great power. God is angry with the priests for sacrificing defective animals, for not fully obeying God's Law, and for showing partiality. God will rebuke the priests with humiliation in order that the Levitical priesthood can be purged of impurity, and then the priesthood promised to the Levites could be continued by righteous Levites.

God is angry with the Israelites for trying to worship idols and God, for saying that God is withholding justice and rewarding the wicked, and for not giving all of the tithes and offerings which they should be giving. If they correct these sins and obey God's Law, then God will return to them. At that time, God will accept their offerings just like He did before and richly bless them. There will come a time when all nations burn incense and make offerings to God.

The day when God returns to the Temple in Jerusalem, He will come with punishment for those who persist as evil-doers, and He will help those who are righteous to take down these wicked people. God will send a messenger, Elijah, ahead of God's re-appearance. Elijah will turn people's hearts to their own families, or else when God returns He will strike the entire land with a curse.
That is the full prophetic context of John the Baptist, at least according to Jesus. At best, you could gleam some loose parallels with the Gospels. John the Baptist did warn about about the coming divine Judgement, which to him seemed imminent, but he is not recorded as saying anything which would turn the hearts of fathers to their own children, nor children's hearts to their fathers. Jesus said you must be ready to forsake your entire family in preference to Him, and Jesus did not appear with a Judgement Day, although He too preached it was imminent. Malachi's prophesy speaks of earthly and temporal reward and judgement, whereas Christianity holds that Jesus' message was about compensation in the afterlife. Far from preserving the covenant God had made with the Levites, Jesus terminates that promise. As opposed to perpetuating the system of burning incense and animal offerings, Jesus supersedes it all. These, and many more incongruous points of this prophesy, are an ill fit.

Is it really any wonder why the Jews expected something other than what Jesus was offering? No, not when you look at the context.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Are You the One?

Jesus sent out the Twelve Disciples on their first mission, to convert the Jews, with a lot of instructions. In summarizing those instructions, He reminded them to do good in order to not lose their reward. With those Twelve Apostles gone, Jesus continued on His mission to spread the good word.

Are You the One?
Will the true story of Jesus ever be known? It is unlikely, especially when there are points within each of the four Gospel accounts which disagree with and discredit each of the other Gospel accounts. We will see a shining example of this conflict, and grab one more piece of that puzzling character, John the Baptist. Buckle up, this very detailed study is a bumpy ride.

While the Twelve Apostles were on their first mission, Jesus was busy teaching and preaching in the towns of Galilee (Matthew 11:1). John the Baptist had been put in prison when he angered the ruler, Herod (Luke 3:19-20), but John the Baptist's own disciples were ministering to him and keeping him informed of the events in the world while he was in prison. Those disciples told him about what Jesus was doing (Matthew 11:2), which prompts John the Baptist to send messengers to Jesus to ask, in Matthew 11:3:
“Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” NIV
If you remember our study of the baptism of Jesus, you may remember that God had opened up Heaven and proclaimed in the hearing of John the Baptist, and others, that Jesus was the Son of God. So this question becomes a bit of an enigma to determine its motivation. The classic Bible commentaries yield a myriad of possible reasons:
  • The question was on behalf of John's doubting disciples.
  • This was just a tool to better acquaint John's disciples with Jesus.
  • Because John was having a lapse of faith in Jesus in prison.
  • Because John was getting impatient while in prison waiting for Jesus' promised judgment and deliverance.
  • Possibly John was wondering if someone else may be scheduled to bring in the events associated with the Second Coming.
  • Because John, like the majority of Jewish scholars at the time, thought that the Messiah would rule a temporal kingdom, and was wondering why He had not yet seized power.
John the Baptist was human, subject to all human faults, so all of these explanations are at least plausible, but they are not likely. You have got to keep in mind John's character according to the Gospels. From within the womb John the Baptist had recognized Jesus (Luke 1:39-45), they had grown up as cousins (Luke 1:36), John had devoted his life in service to God as a prophet while wearing camel hair and eating bugs (Matthew 3:4, Mark 1:6), he recognized his role to prepare the way for God (John 1:23), and he recognized that the one coming after him was worthy of absolute and unquestionable respect (Matthew 3:11, Matthew 3:13-14, Mark 1:7-8, Luke 3:16, John 1:26).

All of that circumstantial evidence could be swept aside in a moment of human weakness, if not for one more tidbit. John 1:29-34 testifies that John the Baptist knew exactly who Jesus was, and what His purpose was. John the Baptist proclaims that Jesus is the Son of God, and that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and take away the sins of the world. John the Baptist identifies the source of this information as none other than God Himself. To question Jesus, to doubt that Jesus was the one, was to doubt God's own word; an action which simply does not agree with his character.

Now, add to that the passage of John 3:22-36 where John the Baptist rejoices that his mission is now complete, explains that God put everything in Jesus' control, and ultimately explains that Jesus will bring Salvation including eternal life. You have the picture that John the Baptist fully understood that Jesus was here to establish the eternal Kingdom of the afterlife, and that Jesus would do things whatever way that He wanted to do things. This again makes John the Baptist's question unrealistic, and thus makes the accuracy of the Gospels doubtful.

From the skeptical perspective, there is an easier fit for John the Baptist's question than any reason suggested above. What if this episode comes to us from a time which was earlier in the construction of the overall legend of Jesus; a time before John the Baptist was identified as Jesus' cousin, a time before the anecdote of Jesus' baptism was a part of the story, a time before John had heard from God that Jesus was the one and the Son of God? If the recorded story of Jesus involves fabrication, and this episode is an artifact of its construction, we would expect to find a tie made to prophesy by the author to bolster the credibility of Jesus' story.

In Matthew 11:4-6, we find Jesus' reply:
"Go back and report to John[ the Baptist] what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of Me." NIV
So basically Jesus says to tell John the Baptist about all of the good things He is doing, and blessed is the man who does not lose faith because he thinks that Jesus is doing the wrong things. That reply supports the ideas that John the Baptist was asking out of impatience, or out of expectation for Jesus to set up an earthly Kingdom, which, again, appears to counter the perspective given within the Gospel of John. It also supports the theory of John's question being an artifact of fabrication.

John the Baptist's disciples were not just supposed to be relaying words, but rather their actual experiences. This implies that in their presence, Jesus was preaching to the poor, performing these healings, and raising the dead. It seems odd that no accounts outside of the Bible speak of a man, Jesus or otherwise, performing all of these healings or raising the dead at that time.

Note that Jesus' list of good deeds is not arbitrary. At least three of them are tied to prophesy regarding the Salvation of the Messiah; giving the blind sight, hearing to the deaf, and preaching the good news to the poor.

Hearing and sight are a reference from Isaiah 35:5. Indeed, the chapter of Isaiah 35 speaks of God coming back with vengeance to save a people. The wastelands will be transformed into inviting and prosperous lands. God will take His redeemed and ransomed people there. However, as Isaiah 35:10 explicitly says, these people will be returning to this land. Taken within the full context of the Old Testament, this can be none other than the Promised Land, Zion, the combination of the lands of Israel and Judah; and if people are returning to it then that people can be none other than the Jews.

Preaching the good news to the poor is a reference from Isaiah 61:1. Indeed, the chapter of Isaiah 61 speaks of God comforting those who now mourn and endowing them with righteousness. God will make an eternal covenant with them and bless them with everlasting joy. However, Isaiah 61:4 speaks of rebuilding the ancient ruins of cities, Isaiah 61:5 speaks of non-Jews being the source of their manual labor in the restored land, and Isaiah 61:9 speaks of these blessed people having descendants and offspring for generations to come. Obviously this conflicts with the Christian concept of the afterlife.

One final question regarding Matthew's account of this interaction: Who was there to record it? The Twelve Apostles, including Matthew, were off on their First Mission. How could we know that Jesus' words were accurately recorded, or John the Baptist's words for that matter?

Here is where it gets funny. The author of the Gospel of Luke, who was not an eyewitness to Jesus, also happens to record this incident of John the Baptist questioning Jesus. Amazingly, you will find that Luke 7:18-23 records what Jesus and John the Baptist said almost word-for-word with what Matthew recorded, and Luke adds details to the story such as the precise number of disciples which John the Baptist sent to Jesus.

Yet perhaps what is most funny about Luke's account are the circumstances around it. Specifically, according to Luke this happens while all Twelve Apostles are still with Jesus. Luke does not send the Apostles out on their mission until two chapters later in Luke 9.

Neither the Gospel of Mark nor of John record this episode. It is just between Matthew and Luke. If we give credence to Matthew over Luke, Luke is clearly a fabricator of details and someone who appears not to be concerned with the accuracy of what he writes. If we give Luke the priority, then he accuses the actual eyewitness, Matthew, of either being a liar or being someone with such a horrible memory that he could not even recall if he was present for an event in history which he recorded!

And to think, some people still consider the Gospels inerrant.