NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 1: “It was around this time that John the Baptizer began delivering his message from God to the people. This was out in the rural area of Judea.”
To better understand what “baptizer” means here, let’s look at it from a Jewish perspective. According to the Torah (Genesis – Deuteronomy), one had to be ritually pure before entering the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, or to participate in any festivals. That’s because ritual purity could be lost in many ways by what one ate, touched, or was exposed to. Because of this, washing became the preeminent means of restoring one’s external purity. This matter is frequently mentioned in the Book of Leviticus.1 Also, in the Jewish writings of the Rabbis, there are many chapters devoted to this subject.2
According to one Jewish scholar, the origin of this purification rite points back to Adam and Eve’s transgression in the Garden of Eden.3 A person who immerses himself in this bath participates in an obvious, living metaphor of purification, with the water, as it were, washing away the impurity brought on by Adam and Eve’s disobedience. Even though today there is no longer a Temple, observant Jews still immerse themselves in a ritual bath in obedience to the law.4 Keep this in mind each time you read about baptism in the New Testament so that the purpose of water baptism under the new covenant has more meaning.
Here, John the Baptizer proclaims that the old practice of immersion now has a new context: being cleansed internally from the impurities of one’s external sins. If there was anything that caused conflict between Jesus and the purity-minded Pharisees, it was on this point. Jesus had the audacity to say that no such outward cleansing could rinse away the inward filth of hypocrisy, lying, cheating and pretension that they practiced in their prayers and worship. When our Lord’s most quoted prophet said: “Come now,” says Adonai, “let’s talk this over together. Even if your sins are red like scarlet, they will be white as snow; even if they are red as crimson, they will be while like wool,”5 I’m sure He understood the deeper meaning of that cleansing power, and it wasn’t water.
We should also look at John the Baptizer’s choice of the rural area of Judea as the region for his ministry. We know that the Judean Desert lies southeast of Jerusalem and descends to the Dead Sea. It was in the southern part of this area where the Dead Sea Scrolls were first discovered in 1946, in what were identified as the Qumran Caves. The scrolls have been tied to an ancient Jewish sect that was well-known in John the Baptizer’s day called the “Essenes”, a branch of the Pharisees who conformed to the most rigid rules of Levitical purity while aspiring to the highest degree of holiness. They lived solely by the work of their hands and in a state of communal life, dedicating their time to study and devotion and to the practice of benevolence, and refrained as far as feasible from conjugal intercourse and sensual pleasures, in order to be initiated into the highest mysteries of heaven and help the expected Messianic time to come sooner. Some scholars believe that John the Baptizer was under their tutelage and thus his preaching and lifestyle resembled what is found in these scrolls.
Since John the Baptizer was the son of a priest, as were many of the Essenes, he would have fit in their commune nicely. However, that does not take away, nor add anything significant to, John’s ministry. The translators of the KJV chose to render the Greek word “baptistēs” as “baptist” instead of “baptizer” which is what the Greek noun means: “the one who baptizes.” As a matter of fact, Josephus wrote about him after the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, and refers to him as “John, that was called the baptizer.”6 So he was well-known by the Jews as the one who went around baptizing those who responded to his call for repentance. It was also recognized that this baptizer had emerged from the rural area of Judea. It should cause any reader to ask, “Why?” Why didn’t he go to the cities, especially Jerusalem.
Some of this will be answered later on as we study the life and ministry of John the Baptizer. But first, we are told quite explicitly: “It was the 15th year of the rule of Tiberius Caesar. These men were under Caesar: Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea; Herod, the ruler of Galilee; Philip, Herod’s brother, the ruler of Iturea and Trachonitis; Lysanias, the ruler of Abilene. Annas and Caiaphas were the high priests. During this time, John, the son of Zechariah, was living in the desert, and he received a message from God.”7 This helps us see what the political climate was. And second, his preaching such a gospel in the large city of Jerusalem or Capernaum could easily have caused not only the Jewish leaders to have him silenced, but the Romans as well. And thirdly, with the method of his ministry being anchored in water baptism, he needed a river so he could initiate all those who believed, into their new way of living for God.
A leading Jewish philosopher who lived during John the Baptizer’s era writes about this religious sect called the Essenes. As you read this, see how much you think it may have influenced what John the Baptizer preached and practiced.
“Palestine and Syria are not empty when it comes to exemplary wisdom and virtue. These countries include a large portion of the most populous portion that the Jews inhabit. There is a group the Jews called Essenes, who number over four thousand, as far as I know, and who derive their name from their pious living, because they are more than most men devoted to the service of God, not sacrificing living animals, but studying rather to preserve their own minds in a state of holiness and purity. In the first place, these men live in villages, avoiding all cities on account of the habitual lawlessness of those who inhabit them, well knowing that such a moral disease is contracted by associating with sinful men, just as a real disease might be contracted from an impure atmosphere, and that this would stamp an incurable evil on their souls. Of these men, some cultivating the earth, and others devoting themselves to those arts which are the result of peace, benefit both themselves and all those who come in contact with them, not storing up treasures of silver and of gold, nor acquiring vast sections of the earth out of a desire for ample revenues, but providing all things which are requisite for the natural purpose of being alive; for they more than any inhabitants of this land did not come from poor and destitute families, but rather they chose to live in poverty by their own design and ways of life than from any real deficiency of good fortune. Nevertheless, they are considered to be very rich when you judge them by their contentment and prudent living, which they have in great abundance. Among those men you will find no makers of arrows, or javelins, or swords, or helmets, or breastplates, or shields; no makers of arms or of military engines of combat; no one, in short, attending to any employment whatsoever connected with war, or even to any of those occupations even in peace which are easily perverted for wicked purposes; for they are utterly ignorant of all trade, and of all commercial dealings, and of all navigation. Instead, they renounce and stay away from everything which can possibly afford any inducement to greed; and there is not a single slave among them, but they are all free, aiding one another with a reciprocal interchange of doing each others jobs; and they condemn masters, not only as unjust, inasmuch as they corrupt the very principle of equality, but likewise as impious, because they destroy the ordinances of nature, which made them all equal, and brought them up like a mother, as if they were all legitimate brethren, not in name only, but in reality and truth. But in their view this natural relationship of all men to one another has been thrown into disorder by designing envy, continually wishing to surpass others in good fortune, and which has therefore engendered alienation instead of affection, and hatred instead of harmony; and avoiding the logical arguments of philosophy, deeming it as not necessary for the acquisition of virtue, leaving it to the word-catchers. And discard the intent of philosophy as being too sublime for human nature to master, leaving it to those who love to converse about complicated arguments (except, of course, any study that causes one to contemplate the existence of God and of the creation of the universe), devoting all their attention to the moral part of philosophy, using as instructors the laws of their country which it would have been impossible for the human mind to devise without divine inspiration. Now these laws they are taught at various times, but most often on the seventh day, for the seventh day is accounted sacred, on which they abstain from all other work, and frequent the sacred places which are called synagogues, and there they sit according to their age in classes, the younger ones sitting on the floor and listening to the older ones on the platform with eager attention in their order of worship. Then one of them takes up the holy scroll and reads from it. Then those who possess the greatest experience come forward and explain what was not easy to understand, since a great many precepts are delivered in puzzling modes of expression, and allegorically, as the old fashion has been; and thus the people are taught piety, and holiness, and justice, and efficiency, and the science of regulating the state, and the knowledge of such things as are naturally good, or bad, or indifferent, and to choose what is right and to avoid what is wrong, using a threefold variety of definitions, and rules, and criteria, namely, the love of God, and the love of virtue, and the love of mankind. Accordingly, the sacred scrolls present an infinite number of instances to express one’s devotion to the love of God, and of a continued and uninterrupted purity throughout one’s whole of lifetime, of a careful avoidance of swearing and of lies, and of a strict adherence to the principle of looking up to God as the cause of everything which is good and of nothing which is evil. They also furnish us with many proofs of a love of virtue, such as abstinence from all covetousness of money, from ambition, from indulgence in pleasures, temperance, endurance, and also moderation, simplicity, good temper, the absence of pride, obedience to the laws, steadiness, and everything of that kind; and, lastly, they bring forward as proof of the love of mankind, goodwill, equality beyond all power of description, and fellowship, about which it is not unreasonable to say a few words. In the first place, there is no one who owns a house as private property. Rather, they treat it as belonging to every one: for besides that they all dwell together in companies, the house is open to all those of the same mindset, who come to them from other parts of the country; then there is one storage place among them all; their expenses are all in common; their garments do not belong to each individual but are in common by everyone; all their food is shared equally, since they all eat in the same dining area. There is no other people among which you can find a common use of the same house, a common adoption of one mode of living, and a common use of the same table more thoroughly established in fact than among this tribe: and is not this very natural? For whatever they, after having worked all day, receive their wages, do not retain as their own but place it into a common account, and give any advantage that is to be derived from it to all who desire to avail themselves of it; and those who are sick are not neglected because they are unable to contribute to the common account, inasmuch as the tribe have in their public reserves a means of supplying their necessities and aiding their weakness, so that from their ample means they support them liberally and abundantly; and they cherish respect for their elders, and honor them and care for them, just as parents are honored and cared for by their lawful children: being supported by them in all abundance both by their personal exertions, and by innumerable contrivances.”8
We have no Gospel record that John the Baptizer was ever married or that he had any children. Even during the height of his ministry, we find no reference to the fact that his mother and father were there supporting him. Since John the Baptizer and Jesus both lived in the same area of Galilee as boys, and the fact that John’s mother and Jesus’ mother were cousins, they no doubt received a lot of information on how their son John the Baptizer was doing. His lifestyle and manners made him clearly a candidate for the Essene commune, whether he was one or not we do not know.
1 If you have a copy of Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, look at words #H2891 & #H2892 for better understanding.
2 See the Mishnah and Babylonian Talmud, Division Six: “Seder Tohoroth” (Cleansings), that has twelve sections
3 Tzror Hamor, Torah Commentary, by Rabbi Avraham Sabba, Translated and annotated by Eliyahu Munk, Lambda Publishers, New York, 5 Volumes, 2008, Metzora 15:2-19, pp. 1372-1373
4 See Leviticus 15; it’s call a “mikveh”
5 Isaiah 1:18
6 Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, op. cit., Bk. 18, Ch. 5:2
7 Luke 3:1-2
8 Philo of Alexandria (25 BC-50 AD), Every Good Man is Free, Ch. 12:75-87: Paraphrase of the original text is mine