In Matthew’s gospel the story of Jesus’ childhood is the only one to include Joseph being warned not to return to Judea because Archelaus was in power there. This was a warning of angelic nature; Archelaus combined cruelty and incompetence to such an extent that Augustus removed him after nine years. God in Jesus came to us safely in Nazareth in the Galilee, then ruled by Herod Antipas.
1 John the Baptist
Matthew prepares us for Jesus’ mission by describing John the Baptist, who came to the wilderness. Michael Green relates some of the background to John’s arrival.
John bursts upon the scene as the voice of prophecy. Prophets are a rare breed. They had been very rare in Israel for some 400 years. People did not know how to handle prophets. Nobody wanted them in their front room. And that is usually the way of the church. A prophetic voice is an embarrassment. It is rarely welcomes with the walls and plans of the establishment. So John the Baptist operates in the desert of Juda, and became even tougher and more bizarre than he had been to start with.
Michael Green, The Message of Matthew (IVP)
As a prophet, John was not just there to announce Jesus, but to “prepare the way” as spoken of by Isaiah and Malachi
A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me.
The way of the Lord was the true way of living.
The way of the Lord is a refuge for the blameless, but it is the ruin of those who do evil.
Proverbs 10: 29 (NIV)
John’s call was a signal that God was on the way but that way wasn’t ready then and neither were the people. History had told them this day would come but they had not become ready. How were they to prepare? They should repent, that is to get clean before God! They had to live differently.
For Matthew, John was not just the announcer of Jesus but a declarer of God’s new rule. He used the same language as Jesus will later use – ‘Repent for the Kingdom of God is near’. John calls people to be baptised in a highly symbolic location.
2 When God moves, opposition shows up
God is always on the move towards people and there is always a response. Sometimes that’s positive and life-enhancing. Sometimes it’s in the form of opposition and questioning.
‘People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptised by him in the Jordan River’ – Matthew 3:5, 6 (NIV)
It was more than 1,000 years since Joshua led the people across the Jordan into the Promised Land. Now the baptism that John demanded became a symbolic second crossing – back into God’s holy way in his holy land. The significance wouldn’t have been lost on any who saw John in action.
But also, Pharisees and Sadducees came. It seemed that God was on trial. The conflict is set up immediately. Here is the start of something that runs through the Gospel. God comes to the people. Those who fear they have something to lose react against it.
There were some supportive, even faithful, Pharisees: Joseph of Arimathea and Gamaliel are prime examples. But for most this new message threatened their status and they were convinced it was not what God wanted to have them do.
The Pharisees and the Sadducees were both religious sects within Judaism during the time of Christ and they both had a measure of political power. The Sanhedrin, the 70-member supreme court of ancient Israel, had members from both the Sadducees and the Pharisees.
Pharisees had the following characteristics:
- Liberal view of Scripture
- Believed in the Torah
- Studied the Law
- Created an oral law
- Believed in a purgatory for the holy
- Controlled the synagogues
- Were highly respected by the people
Sadducees, on the other hand, were
- Strict literalists of the day
- Believed in the Torah
- Rejected the Oral Law
- Did not believe in angels, demons, eternal punishment, resurrection of the dead or God’s love
- Controlled the Sanhedrin
- Controlled the Temple
- Were aristocratic and politically connected to Rome.
The Sadducees as a group ceased to exist after the destruction of Jerusalem, but the Pharisees’ legacy lived on. In fact, the Pharisees were responsible for the compilation of the Mishnah, an important document with reference to the continuation of Judaism beyond the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. In this way the Pharisees laid the groundwork for modern-day Rabbinic Judaism.
Ultimately opposition to John lead to his arrest. The Jordan crossing was the edge of Perea, one of Antipas’ territories. John was very critical of Antipas’ marriage to Herodias as being against Jewish law. John was taken to Machaerus, the fortress place of Antipas, which had been rebuilt by Herod to protect himself and his family. John was executed there.
But the repentance that was demanded by John, and Jesus, is a challenge to all involved:
- To the people it required them to remember their story and respond.
- To the officials it was sharp: ‘you bunch of snakes … you need to change your ways and prove your repentance is genuine.’
- And the coup de grace: You think this is a challenge …? “After me comes one more powerful” …
3 Then Jesus came: Immanuel
And Jesus came from Nazareth, and early on showed his endorsement of what John was saying by being baptised by him.
This post is based on the third of a series of services following readings in Matthew, devised by Gareth Hill for Romsey Methodist Church.
Week 1 – the Magi and the mad King
Week 2 – flight into Egypt
Week 4 – baptism and temptation.
Week 5 – our encounter with Jesus