Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in king’s palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
Who will prepare your way before you” (Matthew 11:7-10)
Today I want to talk about the first two pastors of the Christian church, John the Baptist and Jesus. Now, I know that some people might not like Jesus being a pastor, but for three years that was his job. I don’t worry about demeaning Christ, because when he was on earth, this was his career right up until his death, and anyway Hebrews refers to him as the Great High Priest, so I think it is ok for me to do likewise. I also consider John to be a pastor, not because he prophesied the coming of Jesus, because the prophets of the Old Testament did that too, but John was the first one to continue prophesying during the time of Christ, and in fact spoke of Christ in his preaching, this makes John and Jesus the first Christian pastors. As their positions of being the first pastors, we should learn from their methods.
Jesus and John were innovators, they were preaching of the messiah walking with the people before the New Testament was even written, as such they had to use the Old Testament scriptures to help the people understand what was happening in their day and age, even though something like this had never happened before. Sure, great prophets had risen up, but Jesus was the Christ, what can one compare that to? As such, they had to apply the scriptures in a way that was both easy to understand and effective in relaying that all that was happening was an act of God. Sometimes this worked, sometimes it did not. Jesus had a very simple sermon that he’d spring on listeners in various synagogues which worked to varying degrees. Luke records one of these sessions and the response it evokes,
He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
The spirit of the Lord is on me,
Because he has anointed me
To preach god news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
And recovery of sight for the blind,
To release the oppressed,
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:16-21)
On that particular day, the crowd was not very receptive though, and Jesus used another Old Testament reference to rebuke the people. This did not go over very well.
All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up and drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff (Luke 4:28-29)
John likewise was having difficulties describing Jesus in using the Old Testament language. In John 1:29- written by John the Apostle – John the Baptist coins the term “Lamb of God” for Jesus, which we still use today; it reads, “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’” From a modern standpoint, this is a genius idea, because we know what happened to Jesus. Not only that, but it combines the Law of Moses and the prophecy of Isaiah 53:7 at the same time. For your reference, Isaiah 53:7 goes like this,
He was oppressed and afflicted,
Yet he did not open his mouth;
He was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
And as a sheep before her shearers is silent,
So he did not open his mouth.
But for a second turn your brains back to two thousand years ago, before Jesus died for our sins. Are you there? Ok…..Lamb of God…..what? What does that even mean? People must have been scratching their heads, because the Jews then (as the Jews now) believed that the Messiah was going to be some sort of King or ruler, not a barn animal. Indeed, God wasn’t kidding when he said in Isaiah 28:11, “Very well then, with foreign lips and strange tongues God will speak to this people.”
Now, we can giggle at the exploits of John and Jesus as they try to explain a New Testament concept to Old Testament people all day, but let’s keep moving and look at the personhoods of John and Jesus. As we read earlier, when Jesus was visiting Nazareth, his speech did not go over very well. Why? Well, the people were unwilling to accept that Jesus was the messiah, God in a bod, the Lord in the flesh because they already knew him. After Jesus spoke, claiming to be the fulfilled prophecy of Isaiah, the response is recorded in Luke 4:22, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. ‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son?’ they asked.” This seems like a good response, but the people weren’t amazed that the messiah was the son of Joseph, the response was more of amazement that some carpenter’s boy knew the Bible so well! The response wasn’t “Wow! Thank you God for having the Christ live in our town!” it was “Awww, isn’t that Mary’s boy? He’s such a sweetheart.” The people weren’t expecting somebody who had spent most of his life in his dad’s carpentry shack, they were expecting something more……spectacular. But Jesus wasn’t spectacular, he worked awesome miracles sure, but in terms of his background, he was the son of normal people and he came from a small Podunk town. Even one of his disciples, upon first hearing of Jesus said, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46).
Or let’s look at John. Actually, John had some priesthood in his blood already, as his dad was a priest, but John didn’t grow up in the temple, no, he came up quite far from there in fact. Luke records about the young Baptist, “And the child grew and became strong inspirit; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publically to Israel” (Luke 1:80). I always love the paintings of John the Baptist baptizing Jesus, because he looks like such a peaceful angelic person. Unfortunately for the Israelites, that is not the John that walked out of the desert one day. I think Mark paints the best picture of what the people of Jesus’ time had to deal with in the person that was John the Baptist,
John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.” (Mark 1:6-7)
John was a wildman whose message was absolutely incoherent. Don’t think that camel hair was in style that year; clothing had advanced to the point where they looked like….clothes. But that wasn’t John’s style; he was the bug eater of the desert. The man searching around bees nests looking for honey. He probably had a bushy beard and crazy eyes to top it all off. John was less of a preacher and more of a feral man. Actually, that’s a pretty cool name for him: “John the Feral Preacher.” That is what he was, the crazy man saying crazy things about that guy from a small town claiming to be God.
But God chose the foolish things of the word to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things –and the things that are not- to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).
God doesn’t think like we do, in fact he says of himself, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55:8). And this is certainly true in the case of Jesus and John, because even though our human eyes see a very difficult to follow pair of preachers, they gained popularity, in fact; they both gained quite a following. Jesus gained disciples everywhere he went and massive crowds surrounded him almost all the time once his ministry started taking off. John too had quite the following, almost as large as Jesus, even some of Jesus’ disciples had originally been John’s followers. Why were they so successful in their ministry despite their shortcomings? Well, the writer of Psalm 33 very accurately wrote in verse 11, “The plans of the Lord stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.” We know that whatever God plans will work, but specifically, what in their ministry made the difference? Sure, Jesus was performing signs and wonders, but what about John? Ah now we’re getting close; a study of the words of John and Jesus reveal the way they presented the gospel to people.
A lot of times when we read the Bible we lose sight of what each scene was like, who these people were, and what was going on around them. Instead, the Word of God becomes a collection of devotionals that are quickly read and scanned for promises. But the Word is so richly written that even though it is written as scripture, a discerning reader can pull out the whole scene. But I’m rambling, instead of explaining it let me show you. Take John’s sermon from Luke 3, the average churchgoer will read it like this:
John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers. Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath. Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” “What shall we do then.” The crowd asked. John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do.” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do.” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely- be content with your pay.” (Luke 3:7-14)
It is very unlikely the scene was so calm and well…boring. To understand the scene is to understand John and how revolutionary he was. John wasn’t deadpan delivering lines to the people; he was exciting them, taunting them, and encouraging them to become active in their salvation. John wasn’t condemning the crowd (as a monotone reading might suggest) he was giving them a show and a sermon at the same time. Let us take a look at how the scene probably played out, as we can assume by the way the text is written:
The crowds were once again filing out to see John as he stood in the wilderness, waiting to dunk more repenters into the Jordan River. As he saw the people coming, John spied some of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to see his ranting too (Matthew 3:7), smiling he looked right at them.
“You brood of vipers!” John bellowed, “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?”
The crowd began to laugh at the Pharisees and Sadducees, enjoying that John was making sport of the oppressive group. However, John slowly turned around to everyone, pointing at them too, with a comic, but warning look on his face, half smiling, half serious. “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” He spun back towards the religious ruling class, “And do not begin to say to yourselves….” He paused, standing up straight, fixing his leather belt, getting some water and slicking back his hair. Then with a nasal officious tone he continued, “’We have Abraham as our father.’” He then picked up some small stones and began to toss them towards the Pharisees, not to hurt them, just at their feet, “For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.”
The crowd went into a fever pitch, everyone started picking up rocks to stone the religious officials, who were beside themselves, but with a movement, John stopped the crowd in their tracks. “The axe is already at the root of the trees, and EVERY tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
The people calmed down, and some of the people began to shout out, “What should we do then?”
John smiled, knowing he had their attention, and started, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.” Simple, but effective.
There were some tax collectors there too, in their finer clothes, but they had come to be baptized, “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
John laughed, and cupped his ear to see if anyone would answer for him, but the crowd decided to let him tell them today, “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. This answer seemed easy enough so the tax collectors nodded to each other.
Some soldiers were there too, so they decided to see if John had an answer for everything, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely- be content with your pay.”
Do you see the difference? Going to see John isn’t like going to the synagogue to hear a dry reading of the Law of Moses, it is an interactive experience that everyone has a part in. Not only that, but it appeals to the people who need God most, the sinners, and the religious right are put on an even level with the people as John reminds the crowd that every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down. John may be a crazy bug-eating feral man, but he knows how to whip up a crowd and get people’s attention.
Jesus is the same way in our main passage, when he’s speaking about John, much of it is written like one-half of a phone call. This tells a reader that Jesus was not delivering some sort of monotone deep speech, but was riling up the crowd to get them excited about John and ready to learn about whatever else Jesus has to say. Let’s take a look at how the scene likely played out:
John’s disciples are beginning to leave, possibly with more questions than answers for their master, but before they’re out of earshot, Jesus begins to call out to those around him about John: “What did you go out into the desert to see?” He picks up a blade of grass and blows on it. “A reed swayed by the wind?”
There are scattered murmurs in the crowd, nothing definite as the crowd doesn’t know where this is going.
“If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes?”
The crowed starts laughing. A few “No!”s and “Of course not!”s ring out.
“No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces.” Jesus looks towards Jerusalem and the great Temple of Herod. The crowd, tired of the ruling class, chuckles. Jesus waves everyone to calm down before their bitterness with the Romans and Pharisees wells up into a riot.
“Then what did you go out to see?”
Somebody in the crowd finally yells out, half jokingly, “A PROPHET!”
“Yes. I tell you, and more than a prophet.”
Jesus was a man with emotions; he laughed and cried just like we do today. Likewise, his sermons were delivered with feeling, not in the often cold way they are read in church, and often how they were probably read in the synagogue as well. And this was the genius of our Lord. Had Jesus come with power and might, sure the religious ruling class would have likely fallen in line right away, but the people on the outskirts would have fled in fear. Instead, Jesus came weak, insignificant, and just as human as the rest of us (though also God at the same time), and through that he reached the people who needed to be reached.
Many Christians get excited about their own righteousness and beg for the Lord to come and bring his kingdom, and exterminate all evil, but as we have been waiting now for 2000 years, somebody should probably be asking, “What’s the hold up? I mean, Jesus said he’d be coming soon, right?” Indeed, the Lord did say that in Revelation 22:7 (“Behold, I am coming soon! Blessed is he who keeps the words of this prophecy in this book.”), but after two thousand years we have to wonder what is taking so long. This is why Peter addressed the issue,
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).
And that is the true love of the Lord. The angels of heaven are biting at the bit to come and wipe sin and death from this earth, but the Lord Jesus Christ is holding them back, waiting. The Lord will come again, we can be assured of that, for it has been promised, and God keeps his promises, he’s just waiting until the right time. Every lost soul grieves the Lord, and so he wants to make sure that all of those who can be saved, are. And so we wait with him.
But what do we do while we wait for the coming of God? We do the work he called us to do, which is to follow in his and John’s footsteps, and use an antiquated (though very much alive) book to try to convince people to believe in something absolutely unbelievable.
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
The intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”
Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.
1 Corinthians 1:18-21