Through the Bible: Luke 2:41 – 3:3; Matthew 3:1-3, John the Baptist

We are going through Tatians Diatessaron, a harmony of the Gospels compiled in the mid-second century. Today, we are in Section III, and we will be going over Luke 2:41-3:3 and Matthew 3:1-3.

[Jesus’] kinfolk used to go to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the feast according to their custom. When the days were finished, they returned. The child Jesus remained in Jerusalem, and Joseph and his mother did not know. They supposed that he was with the children of their company. When they had gone one day’s journey, they sought him among their people and those who knew them, and they did not find him. So they returned to Jerusalem and sought him again. After three days, they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, hearing them and asking them questions. All who heard him wondered at his wisdom and his words.

At twelve he could speak freely because he was not a threat to the teachers. When he got older the teachers in Jerusalem would not received him so favorably.

When they saw him, they wondered, and his mother said to him, “My son, why have you dealt with us in this way? Behold, I and your father have been looking for you with much anxiety.”

He said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Do you not know that I must be in the house of my Father?” And they did not understand the word which he spoke to them. He went down with them, came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother used to keep all these sayings in her heart.

Mary, like everyone else, did not fully understand who her Son was. She was getting a front-row seat as he slowly revealed himself, though, and Luke tells us she was paying attention.

And Jesus grew in his stature and wisdom, and in favor with God and men.

We talked about this in the last post. Luke uses statements like this as a transition to the next story. The fact that it is a transition—that is, not a sentence of central focus—means this is a typical picture of what growth should look like. Jesus grew not just in size and wisdom, but he gained favor in the eyes of both God and men.

In this case the transition is to the story of John the Baptist (that starts in Luke 3).

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor in Judaea; and one of the four rulers, Herod, in Galilee; and Philip his brother, one of the four rulers, in Ituraea and in the district of Trachonitis; and Lysanias, one of the four rulers, in Abilene; during the chief-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the command of God went forth to John the son of Zacharias in the desert.

Apparently Luke wanted us to get the time right in regard to the appearance of John the Baptist. Tiberius Caesar rose to power in AD 14, so that would put the beginning of John’s ministry in AD 28.

If you are not following the math there, think about Tiberius’ second year. The first year of his reign was AD 14, so the second year would be AD 15. His third year would be AD 16, and so on, until AD 28 was his fifteenth year. A professional sports career that was from 2001 to 2007 would be seven years, not six. Count them up and see. Subtraction doesn’t work for kings and professional sports careers.

He came into the region which is around the Jordan [River], proclaiming the baptism of repentance unto the forgiveness of sins.

I left “unto” in there, which I would usually change to “to,” because baptism is a hot doctrinal issue. Is it or is it not “for” the forgiveness of sins. Interestingly enough, Tatian’s Diatessaron, from which I am pulling this text, has a couple conflicting readings. One is “unto” as here, and the other is “with.” The second would read, “proclaiming the baptism of repentance with the forgiveness of sins.”

Thus, Tatian’s rendering of this passage will not be useful for either side of the argument. I’ll address baptism when we are out of the Diatessaron and into Acts.

He was preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent! The Kingdom of Heaven is come near.”

I almost missed that Tatian had jumped back to Matthew here. This is Matthew 3:1. I caught it because only Matthew uses “Kingdom of Heaven.” All the other New Testament books use “Kingdom of God.” The reason for this is that Matthew’s Gospel is directed towards Jews. Jews, always afraid of taking the name of the Lord in vain, found many ways not to say God’s name at all, including saying “heaven” whenever it could replace “God.”

There is a lot to be said here about what the Gospel really is. I have written on the Gospel of the Kingdom, and a friend wrote a concise history and explanation of the Gospel of the Kingdom. If the gospel of the Kingdom is a mystery to you, you should follow those links and clear up that misunderstanding.

For now, let’s just point out that John the Baptist was preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom.

Now Tatian combines Matthew 3:3 and Luke 3:4-6 to give us the prophecy about John’s ministry.

This is he that was spoken of in Isaiah the prophet, “The voice which cries in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord and make straight paths in the plain for our God. All the valleys shall be filled, and all the mountains and hills shall become low; the rough shall become plain and the difficult place, easy. And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”

One of my favorite figures in church history is George Fox, the founder of the Quakers. I loved him because of his journal and his unrestrained love for God and God’s righteousness, not any particular Quaker doctrine. He took the Bible very figuratively. He loved this passage about John, and he took it to mean that Jesus would level the mountains of pride and valleys of sins in our lives. While I cannot be comfortable with George Fox’s figurative interpretations as being the only way to read the Bible, I love them as an additional way.

The context of this passage is preparing a way for the Lord. John began the announcement to prepare a way with “Repent!” Then he talks about leveling mountains and hills and raising up valleys. God wants a straight path, which is always a reference to walking righteously. Proverbs 3:5-6 and 2 Timothy 2:15 both talk about getting things straight. In each case, the Scripture is talking doing things in a righteous manner. In Proverbs 3, if we trust God, he will make our paths to be righteous. In 2 Timothy 2:15 if we are diligent to present ourselves to God, then he will teach us to rightly handle his Word.

Repentance has a hugely central role in following God. It is at the start and heart of every message in the Bible. The apostle Paul described his entire ministry as declaring that people should “repent and turn to God and do works befitting repentance” (Acts 26:20). Repentance brings the mercy of God, and it always has (Ezek. 18:21-23). It is not just the way we begin, but the way we live (1 Jn. 1:7-2:2). We must always be willing to rush to the throne of grace, obtaining mercy and finding grace to help in our time of need (Heb. 4:16).

Tatian returns to John after this, and we will get to that in our next post.

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