The Gospel according to “These Stones”

John the Baptist’s preaching/ministry is somewhat difficult to characterize. This, I suppose, is due mostly to the brevity of the narrative account of his ministry. This brevity is surely due to the Gospel writers’ desire to focus on Jesus. In reading through Matthew over the past couple of days, I think I have noticed an interesting association with the Old Testament that I haven’t seen before. The story of John the Baptist recorded in Matthew 3 has several affinities with the story of Joshua and the crossing of the Jordan River into the Promised Land in Joshua 1-4. The Gospel of Matthew as a whole is permeated with Old Testament quotations and allusions, but there also seems to be a significant number of more subtle associations with some Old Testament narratives that underlie Matthew’s thinking at a number of points.

Matthew starts out his narrative about John the Baptist by saying that he “came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand'” (Matt. 3:1-2). Then, Matthew says that Isaiah spoke of him when Isaiah said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight'” (Matt. 3:3, quoting Isa. 40:3). So, should we equate “preaching in the wilderness of Judea” with “crying in the wilderness”? I ask because, if we should, then we should also equate the message. Thus, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” is essentially the same message as “Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.” I don’t think this is a necessary conclusion to draw, but it may be what Matthew intends.

Now, the narrative begins to focus on what John the Baptist was up to. He was baptizing people in the Jordan River. Why the Jordan River as opposed to any other body of water in Israel? Perhaps it was to reflect something of what God did at the Jordan River in the Old Testament, particularly as narrated in the book of Joshua. Matthew says that the people were “going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Matt. 3:5-6). I find the fact that they were confessing their sins as they were being baptized very interesting. Baptism was a practice of many cultures of the ancient world, most regularly, it seems, for the purpose of purification. Jews, however, almost exclusively baptized only proselytes, Gentiles who wanted to participate in the worship of Yahweh and take part in the Jewish way of life. (This is often cited as a primary reason for the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ aversion to John’s baptism; they understood themselves to be the people of God who had no need of ritual purification by baptism.) So, what of the confession of sins here? It is certainly related to the idea of ritual purification. But, could it also be reflecting Josh. 3:5, where Joshua is said to command the people to consecrate/sanctify/set apart themselves? There is no explicit mention of confessing sins here, and the Hebrew term is usually used to indicate ritual/ceremonial purification, which involved various washings with water and sometimes was closely related to offering sacrifices. There is one place in the New Testament, that I can recall, that explicitly links confession of sin and cleansing: 1 Jn. 1:9. Nonetheless, I think John’s baptism, a cleansing ritual, is linked to the confession of sins, and perhaps this would have been understood by Matthew’s original readers as related to consecrating oneself in the Old Testament, particularly in Josh. 3:5. (This might be too subtle, but with the context of the Jordan River and the affiliation of baptism with cleansing, perhaps not.)

But there’s more. John then apparently perceives some enemies in the midst of the crowds (though, Luke’s account has him castigating the whole crowd, but this may simply reflect the fact that John announced his condemnation generally to the people, but he was directing his words at a particular group in the crowd, without identifying them by name). He chastises the Pharisees and the Sadducees in the crowd by calling them children of vipers! Matthew tells his readers that these Pharisees and Sadducees came out to “his baptism,” not to be baptized by John, as the general populace was characterized earlier. He asks them an apparently pertinent question: “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” This question leads me to ask what association does the coming wrath have with the imminent kingdom of heaven? Matthew tells us that John was preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” but John here asks them how they know that they need to be fleeing the coming wrath. Thus, should we conclude that repentance=fleeing the wrath to come? Whatever this means exactly, apparently it leads them to mutter amongst themselves that they are Abraham’s descendants, which I suppose meant to them that they had no wrath to fear. John pounces on this wrong-headed thinking and reminds them of the true nature of salvation as a gift from God that does not come by bloodline or by nationality. “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (Matt. 3:9). Now, I want to ask, “To what stones is John referring?” I have always thought reading this passage and have heard it taught that John just looked around and saw some rocks on the ground and found a point worth making about God’s power. Thus, John’s point would be that God has the power to make rocks into the people of God. I’m not sure how well that would have answered their objection, and, at this point, I’m not sure they would have even thought in those kinds of categories, whereby God makes inanimate objects into believing human beings. So, is it possible that John was actually referring to some particular stones?

Recall Joshua 4. Joshua has just led the people of Israel across the Jordan River on dry ground, reminiscent of Moses leading the people of Israel across the Red Sea on dry ground. “When all the nation had finished passing over the Jordan, the LORD said to Joshua, ‘Take twelve men from the people, from each tribe a man, and command them, saying, “Take twelve stones from here out of the midst of the Jordan, from the very place where the priests’ feet stood firmly, and bring them over with you and lay them down in the place where you lodge tonight”‘” (Josh. 4:1-3). When Joshua commands the people to do this, he commands each man to pick up a stone “upon his shoulder.” I suspect these stones were not pebbles! Joshua explains to them that “these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever” (Josh. 3:7). This word for shoulder seems to require us to envision a man hoisting something up between his head and his shoulder, with the stone resting at his neck with his hand raised up to support it. These were large stones. These stones were then taken out of the Jordan River to Gilgal and set up as a monument. Now, there is a difficulty in the text of Joshua regarding these stones. Josh. 4:9 indicates that Joshua himself set up twelve stones as a monument, but it’s difficult to determine whether this is referring to Joshua’s setting up the monument at Gilgal or whether Joshua has taken up 12 more stones and set up an additional monument in the middle of the Jordan River. If you compare the ESV with the NIV at this point you can see the difference plainly, as the ESV translates verse 9 in such a way that makes it clear that Joshua has taken up 12 stones to set up a second monument, whereas the NIV translates verse 9 in such a way that makes it clear that the narrator is referring to when Joshua later sets up the monument at Gilgal. Both readings have difficulties and I’m not sure which one is best, though I think both are plausible for various reasons. But, at any rate, what needs to be highlighted here is the purpose of the monument (if there are two monuments, I think it is safe to say that both are built for the same purpose, though the purpose statement is only applied specifically to the monument at Gilgal). Joshua tells the people, “When your children ask their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.’ For the LORD your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the LORD your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty, that you may fear the LORD your God forever” (Josh. 4:21-24). It is important to note a couple of things about this. First, notice how they ought to relate this event back to the Exodus event, when God brought them out of Egypt in the first place. Second, notice how the monument is to function as a reminder to the people of how God has worked in their midst to bring them into the Promised Land, into their inheritance.

Now, what of John the Baptist and our text in Matthew 3? Could it be that John points these Pharisees and Sadducees to this monument, rather than just some rocks on the ground? (Of course, if there is substantial archaeological evidence that the pillar(s) from Joshua’s day had surely been destroyed by this time, this reference is then improbable.) If this is so, what is John actually affirming about God by saying that God can make from these stones children for Abraham? First, I’m sure that John is crushing the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ feelings of superiority or entitlement by which they had concluded that they have no need for cleansing or confession of sin because of their bloodline going back to Abraham. Secondly, I think it may be possible that John is doing this by showing something wonderful about how God creates a people for himself in the first place. This monument was meant to serve as a reminder of how God brought his chosen people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. So, how does God make children for Abraham from this monument? I think John might be pointing to the message of the stones rather than to the stones themselves. He’s saying to these Jewish people, “Remember the story! Remember what these stones are supposed to teach you, to remind you of! Have you forgotten to ask your fathers what these stones mean?? Remember how God brought you out of Egypt! Remember how he graciously chose you and rescued you from darkness and slavery! That’s how God makes children for Abraham!”

God works the same way he did thousands of years ago when he chose Abraham and brought him up out of Ur of the Chaldeans in order to create a people to be his special treasure, who were to expand God’s rule over the entire world, to all tribes, nations, and languages. Hear the gospel of these stones! Remember the passover lamb that was slain, so that the blood would protect them from God’s destroyer, and so that God would take them out of Egypt the very next day! John the Baptist came preaching repentance and came baptizing to prepare for Yahweh’s coming in the person of Jesus the Messiah, bringing in the kingdom of heaven, or the reign of God. Remember the Lamb that was slain before the foundation of the world. Remember that it is God who brings people out of the kingdom of darkness and slavery to sin and into the kingdom of his beloved Son. The one who rescues us from Egypt is faithful to bring us home to the Promised Land, to dwell eternally with him.

Published in: on October 14, 2009 at 10:05 am  Leave a Comment  
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