Matthew 6:16-18: Undefiled Religion

Read: Matthew 6:16-18

The only required fast required in the Old Testament law was taken on Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement in which the priest would offer sacrifices on behalf of the the nation of Israel by going into the Holy of Holies (Leviticus 16:29-34, Leviticus 23:23-44). Over time, the Jewish people began to observe even more days throughout the year (Isaiah 58) By the time of Jesus, the most religious Jews were fasting multiple times a week. Jesus, being a religious figure, was often question why he didn’t fast as often as others (Luke 3:7-14, Luke 5:33-39). Jesus on the matter though focused on the heart of the matter. While many used fasting to show off their piety Jesus shows that fasting is not to be used for this purpose. He says that fasting should be a private matter between the one fasting and the Lord and one should do it in a manner so that no one else sees the fast.

Moreover, the real issue that Jesus had with fasting was the the fact that people would observe it while neglecting other issues that were certainly more important such as helping the poor, being honest in ones dealings, among other issues related to justice for outcasts and marginalized in society. James says that true religion is caring for the widows and orphans rather than acts of worship (James 1:26-27) which is a theme that is echoed from the Old Testament (Isaiah 1:9-17, Micah 6:6-8).

Religious activity is no substitute for right living – in fact God rather one help the poor and live righteously than to perform religious rites. Religious rites though can be rich experience when done in the right context. Like in the Day of Atonement, taking a fast to be a time to look introspectively at ones own life and confess sins before God. Churches will often have communion to reflect on the grace and love that Jesus poured out on the cross. Baptism symbolizes the death, burial and resurrection and and new life that Christians have in Christ. Christians do well to constantly evaluate why he or she does particular religious activities to make sure that the activities are done with the right motives and in a way that is not disconnected from the greater points of the law such as righteousness and concern for the poor.

Lord, help my religion to be pure and undefiled.

Matthew 3:13-17: “To Fulfill All Righteousness”

Read: Matthew 3:13-17

Up to this point in his Gospel, Matthew has been building a case for Jesus based on who he was and where he came from with a particular emphasis on prophecies. Here, Matthew switches to Jesus’ adult ministry and life with his baptism being the first episode in the gospel with Jesus as an adult. It serves as a bookend to Jesus’ ministry, with the other bookend being the Great Commission. The connection between Jesus’ baptism and the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) is uncanny. In both texts we see a reference to obedience, all members of the Trinity, and a reference to baptism. When Jesus starts his ministry, he comes to John asking for baptism of repentance, rather so he could “fulfill all righteousness”. Jesus’ purpose in coming to earth was to save people from their sins, but in order to do so he had to do what they could not: live a perfect life in obedience to the law. The first act of obedience that is recorded in Matthew is baptism. Jesus had nothing to repent of, but it serves to show that he was in submission to the will of the father willing to do deeds in accordance with righteousness.

A key difference here though is that all the members of the Trinity are present at the event. Jesus is being baptized, the Spirit is descending like a dove, and the Father is speaking from heaven. The Father’s statement by themselves underscore Jesus ministry if nothing else won’t. These same words are spoken in Matthew 17 at the transfiguration of Christ which Peter also recalls in his 2 epistle (2 Peter 1:17). The transfiguration account however tags the remarks with “Listen to him”. In both instances though, the Father is acknowledging the Son before people so that they too will listen to Jesus and his message of salvation.

When Jesus ended his ministry on earth, he was not one under authority, rather one with all authority. He acknowledges this fact in verse 16 in the Great Commission, then offers a command for his disciples to make disciples of all nations. Jesus is commanding the disciples to teach others to obey the commands that he had them to follow. The same commission goes out to all those that followed too. Paul in 2 Timothy 2:2 tells Timothy to teach what he had learned to others who could teach it. By implication, there are 5 generations: Those that taught Paul, Paul himself, Timothy, those that Timothy would teach, then those who who be taught by Timothy’s learners. Christians today stand on the authority of Christ and are commanded to do no less than the disciples did: make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey the things God commanded, and baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!

Lord, all authority has been given to you so help me to obey you by making disciples of all nations!

Matthew 3:7-12: Baptism

Read: Matthew 3:7-12

John’s words are harsh. He calls those that are coming out to be baptized a “brood of vipers”, which in that time and place was not something nice to say. “Vipers” in the ancient near east were associated with wicked men. Jesus uses the word to describe the Pharisees and Sadducees on 3 occasion (Matthew 3:7, Matthew 12:34, Matthew 23:33). It was a serpent who deceived Adam and Eve in the Garden too (Genesis 3:1-15). Being called a viper was to associated a person as cunning and subtle with ulterior motives – they saw baptism as yet more religion. Those coming to be baptized by John were “fleeing wrath” which implies that they knew judgment was coming and were looking for a means to effectively purify themselves. The thinking was that the more piety one had, the less likely judgment was to fall in them. Likewise, those coming to be baptized were clinging to their heritage as well, thinking that because they were from the line of Abraham made them special and that they wouldn’t face judgment.

The people were right to recognize that there was impending judgment, but they were approaching it the wrong way, wanting to address sin with religion and traditions without changing their hearts and actions. John on the other hand saw through both of these. He was calling people to repent (that is, change one’s heart and mind about sin) and bear fruit in accordance with repentance. He agrees with the people that judgment is coming when he says the ax is near the root of the tree and every good tree that doesn’t bear fruit will be cut down and burned: There would be a “baptism” of the Holy Spirit while others would receive a baptism of fire.

John actually speaks of 3 baptisms in the text and there is a fourth in the Bible, namely Christian baptism.

  • Baptism of repentance – also known as John’s baptism, was a water baptism was performed by John, and is distinct from Christian baptism. In Acts 19:1-7 Paul makes this distinction where he rebaptizes 12 men in the name of Jesus, which would be Christian Baptism, on which they receive baptism of the Holy Spirit. Christians don’t receive this baptism anymore, but it pointed to Jesus.
  • Baptism of the Holy Spirit – This baptism is not a physically manifested baptism, rather it is one that comes when one believes in Jesus and the Holy Spirit comes to live in the life of a believer. This baptism is mentioned a number of times in the book of Acts: Acts 1:5 referring to Pentecost in Acts 2:16-21, Acts 2:38 in response to Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, Acts 11:16-17 where Peter calls it a “gift”, and lastly in Acts 19:1-7 with Paul.
  • Baptism by fire – this baptism refers to an impending judgment that would come to those who did not repent and turn to Jesus. John the Baptist explains in verse 12 that Jesus is coming with a winnowing fork that would separate the wheat from the chaff – the wheat would be stored while the chaff was burned. This is an allusion to the Lake of Fire Revelation 19:20 and Revelation 20:10-15 as a place of judgment for the devil and those who’s name are not written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.
  • Christian Baptism – this is the water baptism that believers receive upon professing Jesus as Lord. Paul in Romans 6:1-12 explains that this baptism is symbolic of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Christians in a manner of speaking “die” to sin and are raised to walk as in the “newness of life” that comes from God. Ultimately, those that do believe will have eternal life made possible by Christ’s triumph over death.

Water baptism is a simple and beautiful picture that symbolizes so many things: cleansing, burial, resurrection, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. While baptism is a beautiful picture and it is indeed a command of the Lord, it in and of itself doesn’t save anyone, rather salvation comes by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). Baptism is an act of obedience that shows publicly and outwardly that of an inward change that comes from salvation. Likewise, it also shows publicly that one is identifying with Christ, which is also another reason folks would get baptized. Whether a new Christian is seeking baptism or one has already received it, it is good to be mindful of one’s motives and use the symbol to reflect on the spiritual reality of all that baptism symbolizes in one’s life.

Lord, baptism shows I have been saved by grace! Let my baptism testify to this!

Luke 3:21-22: The Trinity

Read: Luke 3:21-22

Luke presents Jesus’ baptism in his gospel rather succinctly with only two verses. The other gospels record the same event too (Matthew 3:13-17, Mark:1:9-11, John 1:29-24) Unlike the other gospels. Luke though notes that Jesus was praying while he was baptized. Luke records Jesus praying on a number of other occasions including prior to his transfiguration and while he was at Gethsemane (Luke 5:16, Luke 6:12, Luke 9:18, Luke 9:28, Luke 11:1, Luke 22:41-46). Luke’s special attention to Jesus’ prayer life is important to note, because it shows how Jesus was in tune with the Father and that while he was co-eternal and equal with the Father, he submitted himself to the Father while he was on earth. In doing so, God proclaims that with Jesus he is well pleased.

Jesus’ baptism is one of the most clear depictions of the Trinity in all of the Bible with all members present. The Father is speaking from heaven, the Spirit is descending in bodily form like a dove, and Jesus himself is the one being baptized. Explaining how all three of the members of the Trinity are all God at the same time yet three distinct persons is something that theologians have grappled with for years. The Bible doesn’t have a detailed explanation of the Trinity. In fact, the word “Trinity” doesn’t even appear in the Bible. Analogies are often employed, but as with most all analogies they break down at some point. Reconciling how God can be three district persons where each person is co-equal and uncreated, yet one being at the same time is difficult. Many attempts that try to rationalize the Trinity resulted in heretical view of God . A few include:

  • Modalism: God is manifested in different “modes” rather than having three persons of the Trinity.
  • Tritheism: This suggests that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three different gods.
  • Arianism and Macedonianism: the Father is God and Jesus (in Arianism) and the Holy Spirit (in Macedonianism) are created beings.
  • Partialism: This teaches that the members of the trinity are only “parts” of God and they don’t become God until they all come together.

The Early church fathers, while not having a clear explanation of the Trinity affirmed it as a core doctrine of the Christian faith because the scriptures present all members of the Trinity as divine, co-equal, co-eternal, and uncreated. But while they did not have an explanation, they did express the Trinity as “three persons” and “one essence” to serve as a bright-line to weed out heresy. Any view that either separated God into parts such that there was more than one essence or diminish one or more members of the Trinity to a lower status or thing such that one or more of the persons were excluded from the Trinity would be labelled a heresy. This expression of the Trinity has withstood the test of time and is considered the orthodox view of God by Christians across multiple denominations.

While Jesus was on earth, he didn’t surrender his divinity or become a lesser being. He enjoyed the intimate fellowship with the other members of the Trinity on earth as he did while he was with them in heaven. Nevertheless, Jesus made prayer a priority in his life. He did this not because he needed to pray, rather because the this was an opportunity to have uninterrupted, unbroken, and unfettered fellowship with the ones who loved him and who he loved. The awesome part of this though is that the love of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit isn’t exclusive to the Trinity. The Holy Spirit indwells every believer, which draws believers into an intimate relationship with God. And spiritual disciplines like prayer, meditation, and time spent with God draw one into closer relationship with God too. For this reason, Christians ought to make personal time with God a priority so they can be in an intimate relationship with God.

Lord, draw me close to you!

Luke 3:15-20: Minimize Me

Read: Luke 3:15-20

John the Baptist knew his place when it came to Jesus. He was well respected and revered as a prophet by the people that were coming to be baptized, and many thought that he may be the Messiah. In spite of all this, John humbled himself and used whatever authority and influence he had to point people to Jesus. John says of Jesus that he is not worthy to undo the thong of his sandal, which was considered a lowly task generally performed for the lowliest servant when guests came to one’s house.

John’s message was called “good news” yet Luke depicts Jesus as one with a winnowing fork. The winnowing fork was an instrument used to separate the wheat from the chaff, and the chaff was carried away by the wind and burned in fire. John speaks of Jesus baptizing by the Holy Spirit and my fire. Baptism of the Holy Spirit – that is receiving the Holy Spirit – is something that happens to all who believe when they become Christians. The Holy Spirit indwells all believers (John 2:20; 1 Corinthians 12:13). The allusion to fire though is not clear. It could either be a prophetic statement about what happened at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4) or a reference judgment that will come. In the context, the latter makes more sense because John is talking about Jesus separating the wheat from the chaff, and burning the chaff.

To illustrate how the gospel is offensive to some, Luke uses John’s encounter with Herod. John was bold enough to call out Herod, a strong and power ruler, on the adultery that he had with his sister-in-law, Herodias. Matthew 14:1-12 gives more details on the matter, where Herodias prompted her daughter, who had danced for Herod pleased him, to ask for the head of John the Baptist. Herod had John arrested and beheaded to fulfill her wishes. John made no special provisions for anyone and did not really care about his safety either, rather he was concerned about proclaiming good news and pointing people to Jesus.

The word “gospel” means “good news”. The coming of Jesus is good news for those that will accept it. For those that will not, it is offensive because it confronts people with their sin. But John the Baptist was embolden to preach this good news of Jesus rather than live in fear of what might happen to him. John’s martyrdom, zeal, and humility for the sake of gospel of Jesus serves as a reminder of the the attitude and priorities Christians ought to have concerning Jesus. Christians ought to get the good news of Jesus out and put Jesus in the spotlight so that he can be exalted.

Lord, help me to minimize myself and maximize Jesus in all things!

Luke 3:7-14: Detestable Religion

Read: Luke 3:7-14

John’s words are harsh. He calls those that are coming out to be baptized a “brood of vipers”, which in that time and place was not something nice to say. “Vipers” in the ancient near east were associated with wicked men. Jesus uses the word to describe the Pharisees and Sadducees on 3 occasion (Matthew 3:7, Matthew 12:34, Matthew 23:33). It was a serpent who deceived Adam and Eve in the Garden too (Genesis 3:1-15). Being called a viper was to associated a person as cunning and subtle with ulterior motives – they saw baptism as yet more religion. Those coming to be baptized by John were “fleeing wrath” which implies that they knew judgment was coming and were looking for a means to effectively purify themselves. The thinking was that the more piety one had, the less likely judgment was to fall in them. Likewise, as implied by verse 8, those coming to be baptized were clinging to their heritage as well, thinking that because they were from the line of Abraham made them special and that they wouldn’t face judgment.

The people were right to recognize that there was impending judgment, but they were approaching it the wrong way, wanting to address sin with religion and traditions without changing their hearts and actions. John on the other hand saw through both of these. He was calling people to repent (that is, change one’s heart and mind about sin) and bear fruit in accordance with repentance. He agrees with the people that judgment is coming when he says the ax is near the root of the tree and every good tree that doesn’t bear fruit will be cut down and burned. He specifically addresses three groups of people: those with abundance, tax collectors, and soldiers calling them to do good and be generous rather than hoard and extort.

When faced with sin or hard times, the natural tendency of people is to want to get “right with God” and they do so by by getting more religious. They will attend church, undergo rites and rituals, pray, read their Bible, among other things. None of these things are inherently bad, but if they are being done for the wrong reasons, then they are of little or no use because religion doesn’t help one’s standing before God. God wants people to repent and come to him in faith, not continue to live the same way as they did before and attempt to atone for sin with religion. The natural overflow of repentance though isn’t religion, rather charity and righteousness which God desires more than religion. In fact, James 1:26-27 says that “true religion” isn’t rites and rituals, rather caring for orphans and widows. Micah 6:6-8 and Isaiah 1:1-17 aptly describe how God sees religion in light of righteousness – religion is detestable to God when one’s deeds and heart are evil. Rather than seeking out more religion, Christians should repent and do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God!

Lord, I repent of my sins! Help me to bear fruit in keeping with repentance!

Luke 2:21-24: Significance in Symbols

Read: Luke 2:21-24

Mary and Joseph were devout Jews that not only kept traditions of the their people, but also kept the instructions that were given to them by angels.

  • Jesus was circumcised and named on the 8th day. This was done in accordance with the Law given to Moses and Abraham (Genesis 17:12, Leviticus 12:3).
  • Mary and Joseph were told to name their child Jesus independent of one another by angels on two separate occasion (Matthew 1:21, Luke 1:31).
  • Mary and Joseph presented Jesus at the temple according to the law (Leviticus 12:6).
  • Mary and Joseph also made sacrifices according to the law (Exodus 13:2)
  • Mary and Joseph also sacrificed two doves or pigeons according to the law (Leviticus 12:8). It is apparent that they could not afford a lamb, but the law made provisions for that.

While naming a baby and following traditions may not seem that remarkable, there is great symbolism in what they were doing in naming Jesus and presenting him as first born. The name “Jesus” in English is comes from the Hebrew name that means “God saves”. Matthew 1:21 makes note of this, saying that Jesus would be the one to save people from their sins. Also in this, the consecration of the firstborn male in a family was to remind the people when the Lord brought them out of slavery in Egypt – another motif of salvation. God spared the firstborn of everyone who sacrificed a lamb and put the blood on the doorposts of their homes (Exodus 13:12-15).

Christians don’t follow the laws like the Jews did because Jesus became the sacrifice for sin. Nevertheless there are some symbols that Christians have to remember what Christ did. First, Christ ordained what is known as communion or the “Lord’s Supper” as a memorial to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. This sacrifice was the payment for the sins committed by man (1 Corinthians 11:23-26, Luke 22:17-20). Second, Jesus gave Christians baptism, which notes both the cleansing of sins and the resurrection of Jesus and ultimately all believers (Romans 6:3-5, Colossians 2:12).

Rather than get caught up in rote religion, Christians ought to reflect on the reasons that symbols and signs exists. Usually these serve as a reminder of some work that God has done or a promise that God will fulfill as wit communion does for Jesus’ blood being spilled and baptism does a reminder of the resurrection of Jesus and the future resurrection of all men. These symbols and tradition can help draw us into a deeper relationship with the one who gave them.

Lord help me to remember what you have done and will do!

John 3:22-36: “He Must Increase”

Read: John 3:22-36

John was baptizing at Aenon (called, “The place of springs”) near Salim outside of Sychar, the village that converted after Jesus spoke to the woman at the well. This all happened before John was thrown in jail and executed (Mark 6:14-29). Jesus was baptizing somewhere nearby because and some of John’s disciples took note of this. That, and they were having a discussion over Jewish purification in the context of baptism.  The disciples asked John why people were going to Jesus instead of coming to John. Apparently, there was some issue raised as to who’s baptism was better in making one clean. This is the same problem that arose in the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 1:11-17) as they were claiming some sort of authority or propriety because of who baptized them. Paul attempts to smooth over the discord and unify the church as fellow workers centered on the work of Christ (1 Corinthians 3:1-9). John makes a similar argument here in that he too points everything back to Christ. He claims that he is not the Christ, but was sent before to testify to the Christ. Paul claims to be mere preacher of the word (1 Corinthians 1:17), one who proclaims Christ and not a baptizer. In the same manner of concession, John says his mission was to prepare the way for the Christ, and was not the Christ himself. He says that Jesus must increase and he must decrease.

After saying these things, John gives another testimony about Jesus: Jesus is from above and Jesus is above all. God sent Jesus, and he tells people what God says because God gives the Spirit fully to Jesus, because God loves Jesus, and has given him power over everything. The one’s that do believe put there “seal” on the matter that this is the truth — that is, they testify to the truth of the matter. John says that “no one” has receives this testimony, but this does not mean that literally no single person has, rather only few have.  John sums up the matter by echoing Jesus’ words from John 3:16-18, saying the ones that believe have eternal life, but the ones that don’t believe are already condemned.

Often times, believers can get a “holier than thou” complex about themselves for any number of reasons. It could be who their family is, what church they go to, what version of the Bible they reads, what kind of cloths they wears, what kind of car they drives, where they works, among many other things. The fact of the matter though, is that next to Jesus, everyone is petty. Likewise, such complexes detract from the main thing. John acknowledges Jesus’ position: Jesus is from above and above all. For this reason, John says Jesus must increase and he must decrease. Christians too should be as John and acknowledge that Jesus is from above and is above all and get out of the way so Jesus can shine. Christians should set their seal on Jesus as the truth and testify to the matter so that some might believe and receive eternal life and not be condemned.

Lord, help me decrease so that you might increase so your testimony can be received by many!

John 1:30-34: A Testimony About Jesus

Read: John 1:29-34

The next day, Jesus comes and John announces to the world that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and reveals that his purpose was to reveal Jesus answering the investigators question. John gives the testimony to Jesus talking about the Spirit coming down and resting on Jesus. Jesus said to John that the one on whom the Spirit remains is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit, and that person was Jesus the Son of God. John witnessed this all when he baptized Jesus. (Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11)

Baptism in New Testament times was a common practice that was often used as a rite in conversion to Judaism or a cleansing ritual performed by the Essene community. Given this, what John was doing was not something out of the ordinary, but perhaps something the people were used to seeing or at least had heard about. A baptism of repentance and forgiveness was somewhat of an anomaly because forgiveness of sin was something was seen as only coming through sacrifice at the temple. While water baptism was something that was common, Jesus’ baptism of the Spirit was something unique. The Bible asserts John baptized with water, but Jesus baptized with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, Acts 1:5, Acts 11:15-16, Acts 19:2-9) differentiating these two, Acts 19:2-9 in particular. Some people in Ephesus had heard about John and were baptized for repentance, but were rebaptized in the name of Jesus at which they received the Holy Spirit.

While it is clear that Baptism of the Holy Spirit (that is, receiving the Holy Spirit) is distinct from water baptism, but this does not diminish the importance of water baptism for its symbolism. Romans 6:3-8 sees baptism as a picture of the death, burial and resurrection believers go through with Jesus for new life. Baptism is also a symbol of unity among believers that all baptized believers can identify with, no matter who they are or where they come from (1 Corinthians 12:13, Galatians 3:27-29, Ephesians 4:5). Given this, it is important that believers who identify with Christ undergo baptism in his name.

The testimony of John to surrounding Jesus’ baptism, John’s baptism of repentance, and water baptism in general were all given to point people towards belief in Jesus. The common rite is given new meaning under Jesus such that it unifies us around Jesus and testifies to what he did for us. When we think about our own lives, do we consider our lives a worthy testimony that would point people to Christ or turn them away? Is there blatant sin that needs confessing and repentance that needs to be administered? In any case, we need constant washing and renewal that only comes from Jesus whose grace is sufficient!

Lord, help me have a testimony that points people to you!

John 1:19-28: Humility and Belief

Read John 1:19-28

It is no secret that there was a great deal of confusion surrounding John the Baptist. He showed up on the scene, apparently unknown before this time, and started baptizing people. Mark 1:4 says that John was preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin. Obviously, this piqued the interest of the religious establishment in Jerusalem – who was the man out in the wilderness preaching repentance, forgiveness, and baptizing people? So they sent someone to investigate. When the investigators arrive, they ask John, “Who are you?” (John 1:22) John denies that he is the Christ, Elijah, or a prophet of any kind for that matter, as there were many false prophets and false messiahs in those days and Jesus warns against such in Matthew 7:15-20. What he does tell them is that he is the one the prophets spoke about in Isaiah 40:3. He was the voice calling out in the wilderness preparing the way for the Lord. The investigators did not understand this as they were expecting him to cite some sort of authority. Jesus was asked a similar question about his authority in Matthew 21:23-32 and Jesus asked a question about John’s baptism. It was apparent by this time that the people believed that John was prophet sent from God, but they knew the right answer was the John was sent from heaven and not baptizing in the name of some other man.

The problem with the investigators was that they were looking for something that wasn’t there. They came to John with presumptions and when John answered them it violated these presumptions they were confused. When we come asking questions, do we come asking with presumptions? More often than not, we probably do. This excess baggage can create confusion about how we understand Jesus and his message. Jesus encourages us to turn and become as children with humility and with hearts that will believe and be taught (Matthew 18:1-6) rather than presuming to know the answer. It is much easier to believe the gospel when you don’t presume you already know!

Lord, help me to humble so that I may understand and believe!