Okay. So there are a couple of key elements about this Gospel that we want to highlight and unpack. First, what was the message of John the Baptist? What was so important about him? You can see it from the passage that says that his primary message was “repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Now most of us, when we hear that expression “the kingdom of heaven,” we tend to assume that it means the afterlife. Where am I going to go when I die? I’m going to the kingdom of heaven. So it’s a kind of metaphor for the afterlife. But that is not primarily what it would have meant in a first century Jewish context. There is some truth to that, but it is not the whole picture because the ancient Jewish people, when they heard the expression, “the kingdom of heaven,” would go back to the prophecies of the Old Testament. In particular, Matthew tells us which prophecy was important here. He says “this was the one spoken of by the prophet Isaiah” who talked about a “voice crying out in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord” (Matt 3:3; cf. Isa 40:3).
Now if you know anything about the Old Testament, you’ll know that the image of preparing the way in the wilderness, or a path through the desert, is an image of the Exodus. If you recall, the twelve tribes of Israel were set free from Pharaoh in Egypt and then they made a way in the wilderness, journeying home to the promised land. That was the first Exodus at the time of Moses. Well, according to prophets, one day in the age of salvation God will perform a new exodus where he would save his people again. And so John the Baptist is heralding the coming of the new exodus and that’s why he goes out to the river Jordan, because, if you remember in the Old Testament, the book of Joshua 4–5, the old Exodus, the first Exodus, ends at the river Jordan when the Israelites miraculously crossed through the waters of the river Jordan and enter into the promised land. So what John the Baptist does is he goes back to the place where the first Exodus ended and he says the new exodus is now going to begin. The good news of the coming of the kingdom of God, which as we will see in a bit, is not just about going to heaven after you die, but about the fulfillment of all the prophecies of God to his people being fulfilled in the coming of this new and glorious kingdom, and a new exodus to a new promised land, which will be a heavenly promised land.
This is one of the reasons by the way, if you noticed the passage, John was so popular. It says all Jerusalem, all Judea, everyone around the Jordan, they all went out to him to be baptized. Sometimes we forget that although John was the forerunner of Jesus, he was actually in some ways more popular than Jesus in his day. In fact, if you read the writings of the first century Jewish historian Josephus, he gives much more space to his description of John the Baptist than he does to Jesus of Nazareth. And that is kind of indicative of the immense popularity that John the Baptist had with the Jewish people. He was an extremely popular prophet because they knew what he was doing. This guy is out at the river Jordan talking about the prophecies being fulfilled and the way in the wilderness being made. That means that the time for the new exodus is at hand, that the prophecies of God are going to be fulfilled.
There’s another element here that’s important. John wasn’t just heralding a new exodus, he also was a new Elijah. You can see that in the way he dresses. One of the strangest things about John is that it says he had a “garment of camel’s hair and a leather girdle around his waist” (Matt 3:4). Why does he dress this way? He’s dressing in the exact same way the prophet Elijah dressed. If you go back to the book of Kings, 2 Kings 1:8, it says that Elijah, the prophet, wore “a garment of haircloth, with a belt of leather.” So there is as a direct parallel there and the reason that’s important is because the Jews would’ve known that in the Old Testament, in the book of Malachi, it says that before the great and terrible day of the Lord, before the coming of the Lord in judgment, that Elijah must come first. So John is like a new Elijah heralding the new exodus, and the Jews would have known this because they knew the Scriptures. So he’s living this stark prophetic life which, by the way, some people wonder about his diet of locusts and wild honey. Well he is living out in the desert. He is an ascetic. He is also obviously a celibate prophet. He is a single person living on his own just like Jesus and Paul will be celibate, and they are going to set up a celibate priesthood (we will do that in another talk sometime). You can see that John is the great prophet heralding the coming of the New exodus.
With that said, another aspect of his teaching is this imagery of the axe laid at the root of the trees, where John is saying to the Pharisees and the Sadducees, who were the Jewish leaders, don’t presume that you’re going to be saved simply by being a biological descendent of Abraham, simply by being a part of Abraham’s family. You don’t just have to be a member of Abraham’s family to be saved, you have to bear fruit worthy of repentance. So this will be another element that we are going to see throughout the Gospel, the importance not just of faith, but of works as well. That goes all the way back, not just to Jesus, but to John the Baptist. If you don’t bear fruit worthy of repentance then the tree, the root of the tree (we’ll see what that image is in just a second when we go back to the prophet Isaiah), will be cut down by the Lord in this coming judgment.
The final aspect is the image of the coming one, or the coming judgment. It is very important to notice that John the Baptist is not a prophet who was sent to proclaim himself. He is obviously a very important figure, he is very popular, but he points beyond himself to someone who is going to come after him. Someone who he says is much more powerful than I am and whose “sandals I am not worthy to untie” (Matt 3:11). In other words, I’m not even worthy to be his slave, I’m not even worthy to be his servant. That would’ve been the task of a servant. If the master came home, the servant would take off their shoes and untie their sandals, and sometimes they would also wash their feet. So John is saying that I am not even worthy to be his slave. So he’s pointing beyond himself to this one who is going to come after him, and the one who comes after him isn’t going to baptize with water just for repentance, but with the Holy Spirit and with fire. So he uses this image of the purifying fire of God’s judgment. So he’s going to bring the judgment of the Lord. This goes back to the book of Malachi, that Elijah will come before the great and terrible day of the Lord.So that’s all swirling about here in the Gospel text, there is a lot going on. The overall point I want to make about John is that sometimes, as Christians, we tend to underestimate his significance. We don’t realize just how important John was in a first century Jewish context, because remember, there hadn’t been a prophet, a true prophet of God, on the scene since the time of Daniel, Ezekiel and Malachi. Centuries had gone by without any true prophet arising and now John arises and everyone recognizes that this guy is a prophet of God, and he’s come to herald this one who is “mightier than I” (Matt 3:11), this mysterious figure who is going to come after him
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So if you want to kind of contrast it, we often think of faith as the knowledge of things unseen. So I believe something even though I can’t see it. I can’t grasp it with my intellect.
Hope is the confidence that I will possess something that I don’t yet possess. It’s the hope that I will attain to something that I can’t yet touch or taste, or that I don’t yet have—whatever that might be. And so in this case, Paul is saying that not only do the Scriptures encourage us, but the encouragement of the Scripture is meant to give us elpis
. It’s meant to give us hope that we will indeed possess, that we will indeed attain things that we do not yet have.
And so in context there, you’ll notice what Paul is referring to is the prophecies of the Old Testament—the things that were written down in former days—and how if we read the Scriptures, they can give us hope that “the God of steadfastness and encouragement” is going to in fact bring His promises to fulfillment.
So Paul goes on here to speak about the promises made to the patriarchs. And you might think, “Oh yeah, promises made to the patriarchs, let’s move on.” But it’s really important that we recall exactly what those promises were. So if you go back to the Old Testament, who were the patriarchs? Well...Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are the three main patriarchs. They’re the three main fathers of the people of Israel. And in terms of the promises that were made to them, the premiere or the promises par excellence were three for Abraham. Namely, he was promised that he would dwell in the land (the Promised Land). Second, that a great nation, a great multitude of peoples would come from him. And then third and finally, and this one is almost the most important, that all the nations of the world would be blessed through Abram’s name. That was the promise made to the patriarch.
If you go back to Genesis chapter 12:1-3, you can actually see this threefold promise made to Abram when God calls him initially, when He says (chapter 12, verse 1):
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.
You can also translate it “in you” all the families of the earth shall be blessed. End quote. So notice there, when it uses the terms “all the families of the earth”, or later in Genesis, it’s actually going to...chapter 22, it’s actually going to say “all nations.” Chapter 22, verse 18…“all the nations of the earth” shall be blessed through you. The Hebrew word there is goyim
, and it’s going to later be translated into Greek as “the Gentiles.” So all the Gentiles will be blessed through Abram.
Now, put yourself in Abraham’s shoes for a minute. You don’t even have a child yet, right? So at the time of the promise, Abraham’s seventy-five years old. He doesn’t even have his own son, and yet God is promising him that he can count the stars of Heaven, and they are not going to be more numerous than his descendents will be. So it’s something he can’t possibly see through human reason alone. It doesn’t make sense to believe that all of the families of the earth would be somehow members of his inheritance—you know, part of the kingdom of peoples coming from him—and that they would all be blessed through him, that they would all in some way be his offspring.
And yet, what Genesis tells us is, Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. And that’s going to be one of the foundational texts for St. Paul throughout his writings, especially in the letter to the Romans and the letter to the Galatians. Paul is going to use Abraham’s faith and what he couldn’t see as the model for a Christian living a life of faith.
So if we go back to Romans 15 here, what he’s saying is that if we look back at the promises that were made to the patriarchs, and we can see that in Christ they are actually being fulfilled, the fact of their fulfillment should give us hope that the things that we don’t see right now—for example, like the resurrection of the body and the glory of the New Creation—is something that we too can believe we will in fact possess, if we have confidence in God and if we are steadfast, if we endure, if we have hypomonē
, that virtue of endurance even in the face of trial. Because the Christians in Rome are already starting to experience strife and division and difficulty. Paul himself has been persecuted throughout his apostolic ministry and his apostolic travels, and so one of the great temptations of the Christian life is that when suffering comes, it’s easy for us to lose hope and to forget that just as God fulfilled His seemingly impossible promises to Abraham, to make him the father of a multitude of nations, so too will God fulfill His promises to us to bring us into the glory of the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. That’s what Paul’s saying here, that Christians have to maintain the virtue of hope even in the face of the trials and tribulations that we have in this present life
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