Showing posts with label John. Show all posts
Showing posts with label John. Show all posts

Saturday, 25 May 2013

The Beginnings of Jesus' Ministry (Matthew 3)

(Text: Gospel according to St Matthew (NRSV) )

In the third chapter of the gospel according to St Matthew, John the Baptist is introduced. Before I begin writing down my thoughts on this passage, I want to say a few words on how I am writing these blog posts: as I posted yesterday, I am going through a set reading plan, and I plan to write down my thoughts on the passages I read as I go along. Sometimes it is crucial to get some context to understand a passage, and this might be one of them, but I do not wish to expound a whole theology of baptism before I have gotten to a passage where baptism is in any sense clearly explained. If baptism has to do with repentance, why does Jesus get baptized? If baptism has to do with becoming part of the church...then what in the world is going on here? If, as St Paul says, through baptism we are buried with Christ in his death (see Colossians 2:12 - although I am undecided about Pauline authorship), then how can this possibly happen before Jesus dies, and still the question is asked, why does Jesus get baptized? When we get to later sections dealing with baptism, in particular the right part of the catechism, we may be fit to discuss these problems better. For now, the passage:

John the Baptist appears as a very impoverished man, in his living arrangements (v. 1), his clothes and his food (v. 4). He explains his purpose by quoting Isaiah - I take that verse (v. 3) to mean that John believes he is a sort of herald. This interpretation fits beautifully with how St Matthew has been building up his conception of Jesus: royal bloodline, royal homages, and now, a royal herald.

John's ministry is one of baptism, but it appears to be a baptism distinct to the baptism of nowadays - this is just a baptism of water for repentance, yet reference is made to one different from this, utilizing the Holy Spirit and fire (v. 11). Baptism also appears to involve confession, as seen in verse 6. Now, how does John react to the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism? Christians know full well that Jesus and Pharisees did not get along well - but for a first century Jew, these sections of Judaism were among the strictest and most respected. St Matthew has just done some serious juxtaposition in saying that John the Baptist is meant to "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight" (v.3), but then rejects the Pharisees and Sadducees.

What charges are made against this religious establishment? First, they are under wrath, although the question "who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" (v.7) implies that this is not a particular anger at them. They should bear fruit worthy of repentance - John is saying the equivalent of "repentance without works is dead". The term "worthy" should stick out a bit, because being worthy of repentance is an odd concept - how do you become worthy of turning away from wrongdoing? Although it is a bit of a cop out answer, I suspect St Matthew is just saying in a pointed way "you have repented? Then show it." Again, repentance without works is dead.

John goes on to say "Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." Let us not confuse this with the converse: John does not say "every tree that bears good fruit will be saved." There is no salvation merely by bearing good fruit - but John does assert that there is no salvation unless there is good fruit involved. We are dealing with good works as necessary conditions, not sufficient conditions.

Finally, we get to the odd bit I mentioned at the beginning, Jesus' baptism. It seems like John has a similar concern to me, but Jesus just responds in what I take to be "this will do - this must be done to fulfil all righteousness." What righteousness he speaks of, I am unsure. The Greek word is dikaiosune, and it often refers to the uprightness and faithfulness of God and his people to the covenant - as such, it is a word associated deeply with the covenant between God and Israel. This sheds, as far as I can tell, no light on the matter, since there is no requirement for baptism at the time. The best I can do is to suggest that Jesus trod the path that we should tread, so it is "proper" (in the NRSV translation that I read, it uses this word and not "right") to do so, for our sake.

One special note: baptism is clearly important. Over this year, I know for certain (largely because I've read large chunks of the Bible already) that baptism is going to be assumed as a thing of the past a lot of the time, and perhaps here we see why; I suspect most people got baptised straight away, just like Jesus gets baptised before he preaches a single word.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Why assume the Bible?

In the last entry, I just took the Christian tradition of thinking that the Bible is authoritative for granted. Most people raised Christian probably have a fairly easy time assuming Biblical authority, but I do not. So how do I understand the Bible?

Starting with the Old Testament, we see the ancient Israelites struggling to understand God. From Genesis, where ancient near Eastern myths were altered in light of the theological truths to be explored (monotheistic theology, a perfectly moral God, with omnipotence) it is clear that the Jews (not yet with this name) were having a very hard time coming to grips with how a perfect God could do any of the things that appear so readily, so abundant, but also quite decidedly bad. The beginning (well, Genesis 2-3, since Genesis 1 is about there being only one God, one Creator and all other things being simply created) shifts the blame from divine shoulders to human ones, and at the end, in Genesis 50, Joseph explains how the evils of being almost killed, then sold in to slavery, ultimately resulted in God's plan being fulfilled - "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives."

On and on we see Israel gaining understanding of the divine. Yes, God does seem to play a large role in this, and a lot of the Old Testament, though not a majority, contains alleged quotations. Mixed in with all the divine revelation, however, is a very human tone, and very human passages. God's word? In part, but not the whole.

"Well, you can say that, but it just means you are becoming judge over Holy Scripture, keeping what you want and disregarding what you do not!", I hear some people exclaiming. This is a mostly baseless claim. If I were a Jew, then it would surely be a very pointed comment, but the Bible is about revealing God, and Christians understand the God was ultimately and with finality revealed in person, in the flesh. We now have the complete revelation without the noise of human revisionism.

The other side of the spectrum might then exclaim "Ah, but who knows whether Jesus actually said these things?", and the answer is simple. We do. Not because of some pragmatic "God would not leave us alone in the dark" argument, but because of the study of history, and how that shows beyond reasonable doubt that the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are quite reliable as historical documents at the very least. We can have great assurance that, for the most part, Jesus of Nazareth did say the things that are collected there, and if you are a Christian, then most likely you can join me in also believing that many of the miracles (though perhaps not all) were, indeed, done by Jesus, God the Son, whilst he walked the Earth.

 I may, at some time, address some popular arguments for Biblical inerrancy, but this at least is clear: as critical historians, we can figure out a lot of what Jesus said. And from there, if one is (or decides to become) a Christian, we can live our lives in light of that.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The Truth, The Way, and The Life - a striking claim

As a student of both the natural sciences and philosophy (the latter of which I hope everyone is), I had to figure out what exactly I wanted to find out with my studies. Was it the right arguments to defend my position? Did I want to justify myself? Or did I want to be cool, learn the jargon of physics and philosophy, and impress my friends?

The difficult thing with both of these, is that if done properly, all of these desires are dispelled. One cannot honestly consider issues in science, ethics, epistemology, ontology or indeed theology, and expect to quickly learn how to defend a previously held position. Philosophy, when done right, renews one's mind. Examination of philosophy is the grandest cure for naïvety that the human race has come up with - nothing is left unchallenged. Physics goes even futher. At least it is conceivable that a philosopher remain dogmatic, but the natural world does not care what we think. It simply is. Our notions cannot be left unchallenged.

So what can a truth seeker think when reading the gospel according to St John, the fourteenth chapter? Well, one thing is certain. Such a claim is quite unparalleled in history. Yet it is also rather odd. Scientists vary in exactly how they interpret their work, but one way of thinking of physics is by saying that the equations and concepts developed are our way of understanding what exists.* Here is a man, however, declaring that he himself is the truth. Not something exterior - the fullness of truth in a person. Completely unlike anything I can grasp! The big question of epistemology, "what is true, and what can we, or do we, know?", embodied in a person.

Very well then, if we believe this man (which by now, it should be clear is Jesus of Nazareth), how are we to respond? I can barely grasp what it means for this bloke to be the Truth, but to take a line from the Scottish philosopher David Hume, one cannot deduce an ought from an is. The truth, what exists and is, does not necessarily tell you how things should be, the ought. However, Jesus does not stop there. He claims also to be "the way". The big question of ethics, "how should one live?", answered again by saying that he is the manner one should live. Ridiculous...isn't it?

For some reason, Christians have a tendency to latch on to the last bit - Jesus as a life-giver. This is, of course, crucial, because without this the first two are pointless - but without the first two, the last one is pointless too. Life finds its meaning in truth and the way it ought to be. Jesus says he offers all three.

The Christian response is belief. But everyone has to try and figure out why this man says the things he does. If he is wrong, then who cares? Yet such a striking claim merits consideration. And if he is right, if he speaks the truth, then who could possibly remain unchanged?

* I am an instrumentalist, which essentially means that I think that science discovers the best way of modelling and thinking of phenomena, without necessarily being an objective portrayal of reality as is. Hence, this is not quite my view, but it certainly seems to be the lay-person view and of many of my peers.