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Reading between the Chapters: The Way of Grace

October 28, 2007

Matthew 3:13-4:17

Have you ever turned on a television program, watched a show halfway through, left the room during a commercial break, somehow became distracted, and never got back to the program? You only saw the first half, which was good, and wondered about what happened in the second half. Have you ever turned on the television halfway through a program and watched only the last portion of it? You realized you had missed the first part and wondered what had happened. Sometimes we do the same with the Scriptures.

Last week, I introduced to you the idea of reading between the chapters. Scholars inserted chapter divisions in our Bibles about 1,200 years after the New Testament was written. The purpose of those chapters, which divided the Scriptures into component parts, was, of course, to make it easier to find verses. On the down side, we tend to stop reading at the end of a chapter division. The next time we pick up the Bible, we may start with the following chapter. In reading the Scripture that way, we miss the flow, the connections, from one chapter to the next.

Today, we come again to such a passage. I would like you to turn with me to Matthew 3 as I begin reading at Verse 13 and continue through Matthew 4:11. Hear now the Word of God.

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.

As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.
After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,

and they will lift you up in their hands,

so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'”

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'”

Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

No one was more surprised when Jesus came to the Jordan River to be baptized than his cousin John the Baptist. John knew Jesus was the Messiah and understood his own role as that of the forerunner, the one who announced the coming of the Messiah. John’s reaction was, “This is backwards. It ought to be the other way around. You ought to be baptizing me.” We have trouble understanding Jesus’ response: “John, we need to do this so that all righteousness may be fulfilled.” I must tell you that I have never quite understood the Lord’s comment. What does it mean to say that “all unrighteousness may be fulfilled”? Does that mean that Jesus should be baptized? Why was Jesus baptized in the first place? John’s baptism was one of repentance, for the forgiveness of sins. Are we to assume that Jesus had to repent? Are we to assume that Jesus needed forgiveness? All of us would probably agree that is not so.

The observance of the ordinance of baptism is like a picture that is worth a thousand words. Our baptistry resembles a picture frame. After we baptize a person, immersing them in the water, we say those words, “You are buried with Christ in baptism and raised to walk in newness of life.” We understand that the water does not change a person. The grace of Christ is the source of change. Baptism becomes a picture, an illustration of what Christ has already done in the person’s life. The old life has been buried in Christ, and the person has been raised to walk in a new Christian life.

Did Jesus need to be baptized because he had sinned? No. Did he need to repent of anything? No. Why was Jesus baptized? One ancient source says that Jesus’ mother and brothers compelled him to be baptized. Jesus’ response to that, according to this ancient source, was, “What sin have I committed?” I am glad this conversation does not appear in the Scriptures. People have asked these puzzling questions for a long, long time.

William Barclay provides some insight on the need for Jesus’ baptism. He says that for thirty years, Jesus lived in Nazareth, growing up there as a boy, working in Joseph’s carpenter shop, and even after Joseph died, remaining there to care for his widowed mother. Perhaps he stayed in Nazareth until his brothers were old enough to assume that responsibility. Barclay helps us understand another perspective, by suggesting that John the Baptist’s teaching and preaching were signals that a new time had come. The Greek language includes two words for time: chronos, which means doing things according to the clock or calendar; and kairos, which means doing things because the time is right, as for example, picking a tomato that is ready. You say that the tomato is ripe. Sometimes, we say the time is ripe. It is a way of saying that there is a right time. Jesus knew, by John’s teaching and preaching, that the time had come for him, now, to begin his ministry.

John was probably a member of the Essene community, one of those eccentric and peculiar Jewish sects that lived in the wilderness. They lived near Qumran, the location where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. The Essenes were probably responsible for preserving those Scrolls. This group of people lived apart in an ascetic community, denying themselves of the pleasures that many of the first century people knew. They lived a very scant lifestyle in the wilderness.

John the Baptist certainly fit that description. Frederick Buechner says it is no wonder John had such a terrible disposition. If you read just the snippets we have of his preaching, you can see that he did not take the Dale Carnegie course. He did not know how to win friends and influence people. John called Jewish leaders “a brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7). He was hard on everyone, a real stem-winder, as he preached this gospel of repentance and offered this baptism of repentance. John wore a camelhair coat in the desert and ate insects, locusts. John’s voice was prophetic, speaking words that sounded so much like the prophets who had disappeared from the scene of the previous 400 years.

One of the unique characteristics of the Essene community is that they baptized every member of the community every single day. That baptism was for purification, as well as repentance. John probably learned of baptism from the Essenes. William Barclay points out that most Jews regarded baptism only for those who were converted to Judaism. Those who had been born into the Jewish nation and faith saw no need for baptism. This was a procedure for new converts. No Jew would have submitted to baptism until this moment in history.

The Essene community was also noted for its adoption of orphans. You remember that his mother and father, Elizabeth and Zechariah, were elderly when he was born. Perhaps John was orphaned, and the Essenes brought him into their community, nurturing and greatly influencing him.

John’s preaching attracts crowds. People come from Jerusalem to hear this man at the Jordan River. Some go out of curiosity, but his message draws many others. Now, Jewish people recognize that just keeping the law is not enough. They want to repent and receive assurance of forgiveness. Of course, John would have been careful to say that the water does not provide forgiveness. He would have told them that the grace of God provides forgiveness in the human heart. John’s ministry marked a new moment. John’s message and his baptism were radical, but people were accepting it. The time was right for Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. Jesus knew that the moment he had been awaiting for, the moment to declare the kingdom of God, was at hand.

William Barclay believes that Jesus was baptized as a way of identifying with the very people he came to save. We must exercise caution at this point. When Jesus came up out of that water, the heavens opened. The Spirit of God ascended in the form of a dove and landed on Jesus. The voice of God from heaven, declared, “This is my beloved Son,” a quote from Psalm 2:7, “in whom I am well pleased,” a quote from Isaiah 42:1. It is as if God is saying, “This is my Son, and he is a servant.” Isaiah 42 is one of those great servant poems. Jesus was the Son of God. Jesus was a new king. Jesus was a servant of God. Our caution is this: Jesus was all of those things before his baptism. When Jesus stepped into that cold water of the Jordan River, he was already the Son of God. He was already the promised Messiah. He was already the one who was to come, the Suffering Servant.

The Qumran community, the Essenes, preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls, most of the Old Testament as we know it. They also preserved a book called The Wisdom of Solomon, which would have been familiar to both Jesus and John the Baptist. While reading today’s text in a new edition of the Bible called The Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible, I saw a footnote that referred to The Wisdom of Solomon. That book outlines a four-point procedure required of a monarch before he could speak with authority. First, he must receive purification. Second, he must receive an anointing. Third, he must receive God’s Spirit. We see those three procedures in Jesus’ baptismal event. The water is purification. The Spirit from heaven – the dove – and the voice of God give Jesus an anointing. The Wisdom of Solomon speaks about these procedures as components of the “fulfillment of righteousness.” When Jesus comes to the Jordan River, John objects, “This is backwards. You need to baptize me.” Jesus answers, “We must fulfill all righteousness.” John understands that reference to The Wisdom of Solomon and baptizes Jesus with no further argument. Jesus was a new king, purified and anointed. This was a new king, now graced with God’s Spirit. You see in Jesus’ baptism the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the very way in which Christians should baptize others.

The fourth requirement states that a monarch must have a trial or test. Here we cross the chapter division between Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 of Mark’s gospel. You will notice that the Scripture says that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. This passage is so important because it provides proof that Jesus was following the ancient formula. Barclay spends a good bit of time on the word that is translated here as tempt. He says that the word can be translated as either test or tempt. Actually, both definitions apply. Sometimes people raise questions about this passage: Why would God put Jesus in a position so that he would be tempted? After all, the book of James does say that God would never tempt us. It is also true that the book of Hebrews says that we are tempted in every way, as Jesus was tempted. Jesus taught us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation” (Luke 11:4). Some people become entangled in that kind of discussion.

In terms of the fourth requirement, consider what happened in the history of Israel. The kings went through this process, those anointed, those blessed with the Spirit of God. They encountered strong temptation in their kingship. So many of them veered off track, yielded to temptation, went the wrong way. Repeatedly in the books of Kings and Chronicles, we read about these monarchs who did evil in the sight of the Lord. God puts Jesus in a similar position of testing. The Spirit led him into the wilderness where the devil tempts Jesus. Jesus certainly has an internal struggle, a struggle of the soul; but it was more than that. This struggle was also an outward clarification of why Jesus came here, what his ministry was to be.

Jesus encountered this test on other occasions. Simon Peter gave him that great affirmation, “You are Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16:16). In the next moment, Peter asserts that he will not hear of Jesus’ death. Jesus rebukes Peter, “Away from me, Satan. Get thee behind me, Satan” (Matthew 16:33). Think of the time when Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane and encountered again a severe temptation. Jesus refused to yield, submitting himself to the will of God rather than his own will. Satan tempted Jesus to misuse his gifts, his miraculous power. Satan will tempt us at the point of our weakness. He will find our Achilles’ heel, hit us where we are weak. He will also tempt us where we are strong. He will take people who have the ability to be leaders and knock them off track, causing them to mislead themselves as well as many others. The devil will take people who have great talent and persuade them to use that talent in some unsavory way. People who have, for example, the ability to make a lot of money, are always at the point of temptation, deciding what to do with the wealth, deciding how best to earn money.

Three of the four gospels record the temptations of Jesus. How did the gospel writers know about this encounter? Jesus was alone in the wilderness, so the only way they could have known was for Jesus to tell this story. It is amazing how closely aligned the three gospel accounts are. This is an autobiographical account, not told by someone else. Jesus told about his own experience in the wilderness.

If this kind of experience happened to our Lord, it will happen to us. It is true that we have moments in our lives of great accomplishment, times of great affirmation. We feel as if we are soaring on the wings of an eagle. Maybe those times do not last for very long, but we have all had some experiences like that. Immediately afterwards, we are plunged into a valley of decision, put into a difficult circumstance so that we come face-to-face with evil. Our journey of life is full of peaks and valleys, moments of affirmation like Jesus had at the Jordan River, as well as those dark struggles in the wilderness. Jesus guides the way, showing us what it means to live by grace. By grace, you must know who you are. By grace, you must know what you believe. By grace, you must humble yourself in obedience to God. It is similar to putting a piece of iron in a fire so that it becomes strong steel.

Jesus passed the test. Luke tells us that he went to the synagogue in Nazareth as one with authority, reading the passage from Isaiah and saying to the people, “This day the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). At the end of his temptation, Jesus begins his ministry. He goes up on a mountain in the next chapter and preaches what we know as the Sermon on the Mount. The people were amazed because he taught them as one with authority. This testing is important. It comes to all of us.

This Sunday is Reformation Sunday, a day we remember an event that occurred in the year 1517. Martin Luther, a young German monk, lived an early life that was tormented. Young Martin felt terrible about himself. He thought he was headed for the profession of law, but a thunderstorm frightened him so badly that he went into the monastery. He could never find peace there. Night after night, he admitted his sins to his confessor. Sometimes he returned later that same night, convinced he had committed other sins that he could not remember. His confessor finally gave him some busy work. He asked Luther to read the Bible in the Latin and Greek languages. This young monk started reading the Bible, an act that changed his life. He came to passages like the one I used for the Call to Worship today: We are saved by faith through grace. “We are justified by faith” (Romans 3:28). That single idea caught Martin Luther’s attention.

On October 31, 1517, Luther went to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, and nailed to the door ninety-five points of contention with the Roman Catholic Church. Chief among those was the idea that the Catholic Church was selling forgiveness, which they called indulgences. Martin Luther objected to this practice and wrote about it. Writing was one of the high points in his life. The church turned against him, and the pope issued a demand that he retract all that he had written. Luther refused and finally the case went to trial. A lawyer, Johann Eck, spread all of Luther’s books on a table and demanded, “Will you recant all that you have written?” Martin Luther stood firm, answering, “I have been taken captive by the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything unless I am convinced by the Scripture. Here I stand. I can do no other.” The church condemned him, excommunicated him. On his way back to his home, a man kidnapped him for his own good, revealing that a price was on Luther’s head.

Luther stayed at Wartburg Castle for eleven months, sometimes referring to that period as his time in the wilderness. Using our text for today, he preached a sermon in which he said that Wartburg was his wilderness temptation, a time of confrontation with Satan. You see reflections of that struggle in the great hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Listen to Luther’s words: “And tho’ this world, with devils filled, Should threaten to undo us…The Prince of Darkness grim, We tremble not for him.” If you go to Wartburg to the room where Luther stayed, you will see an ink stain on the wall. He picked up a bottle of ink and threw it at the devil. That is how vivid that experience was for him. During that eleven-month stay, God molded him and shaped him to do something dramatic: he started translating the Bible into the German language. Out of that time of testing, Luther put the Bible in the hands of the people. That is Martin Luther’s great legacy.

Are you having a time of testing in your life? Are you coming face-to-face with the forces of evil? Is Satan tempting you? Look to Jesus, the one who teaches us to stand firm, to stand fast, to resist yielding, to be strong in the face of temptation and testing. God is working in your life. It is as if He has put you in the fire, not to punish you or torment you, but so that you can be stronger and serve Him. You must surrender in faith because the grace of God saves us.

Have you made that decision? Have you accepted Christ as your Savior? If you not, we extend that invitation to you today. Accept Jesus Christ as your Savior. That will not be the end of the journey. You will experience peaks and valleys, but stand fast. God will be with you in every circumstance. Some of you have other decisions to make, perhaps about church membership. If God is leading you to make a decision, we invite you to respond as we stand together and sing a hymn of invitation, “O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go.”

© 2007 Kirk H. Neely

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