John the Baptizer is a challenging figure, idiosyncratic to say the least! His message thundered across the Judean landscape, calling Israel to repentance, in light of the “about to come wrath” (Matthew 3:7). One cannot read the accounts of the Baptizer and not be struck by his message of both good news “the kingdom has drawn near”, but, the ominous aspect as well: “who warned you to flee from the wrath about to come?”
I am currently writing a book on the significance of John, as the fulfillment of the Old covenant promises of the coming of Elijah. Simply stated, if John was the fulfillment of Malachi, then without a doubt, the eschatological consummation– including the resurrection of the dead– was near when John appeared. This is extremely important material, and Lord willing, that book will be finished within a year or two at the most. You can get a glimpse of the importance of this material by reading it in my written debate with Olan Hicks here.
Our point in this brief article is not simply the importance of John as an eschatological figure. I want to focus on his words to the Pharisees and Sadducees, when he urged them to repent. John knew of their arrogance, and their pride in their ethnic link to Abraham.
To many in Israel– perhaps even most– there was the idea that because of their physical link to Abraham, they were assured of rewards in “the age to come.” As Davies and Allison state: ”To be born a Jew of a Jewish mother was to be born into the covenant community, and for many that was enough; Abrahamic descent was not only a necessary condition for salvation but a sufficient condition” (W. D. Davies and D. D. Allison, International Critical Commentary, Matthew 1-7, London, T & T Clark, 2004)307). Marshall likewise notes that in Jewish thought of the day, “The Jews held that since Abraham was God’s friend, his descendants should be treated in the same way….Abraham’s merits availed for his descendants” (I. H. Marshall, New International Greek Testament Commentary, Luke (Grand Rapids, Eerdman, 1978)140).
How shocking then, were John’s words when he castigated that ethnic arrogance by proclaiming, “God is able of these very stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Matthew 3:9). Many commentators see that John was openly disparaging and rejecting the exclusivistic, national, ethnic mentality that said only those of the Abrahamic seed line will enjoy the benefits of the kingdom and salvation. (Lamentably, we have a revival of such discriminatory, exclusivistic theology today. Both the ancient and modern iterations of such a doctrine are clearly wrong in light of John’s words). Let’s look a little deeper at the Baptizer’s words.
There is a prophetic background to Matthew 3:9 that is not always noticed by the commentators, although a few have seen it. That background is Isaiah 51:1f:
“Listen to Me, you who follow after righteousness, You who seek the LORD: Look to the rock from which you were hewn, And to the hole of the pit from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father, And to Sarah who bore you; For I called him alone, And blessed him and increased him. For the LORD will comfort Zion, He will comfort all her waste places; He will make her wilderness like Eden, And her desert like the garden of the LORD; Joy and gladness will be found in it, Thanksgiving and the voice of melody. Listen to Me, My people; And give ear to Me, O My nation: For law will proceed from Me, And I will make My justice rest As a light of the peoples.”
The NT writers allude to Isaiah 51 a number of times. It is therefore a significant passage. We could note several things about the text, but for brevity, observe that the prophet says:
1.) He calls on Israel to look to the rock from which they were taken. This is just a way of saying that God had created the children of Abraham– and by extension Abraham himself– from the rock! Israel was taken from a “dead” stone, to be children of God!
2.) He likewise called them to remember that they were dug from the pit. The word translated as “pit” (Strongs #0953) is the word commonly used for the grave, especially in the Psalms. So, Abraham, and thus Israel, was, in the mind of the prophet, taken from the grave, when Abraham was called.
3.) The Lord promised to redeem Jerusalem.
4.) The Lord promised to make a New Covenant with Israel.
5.) The Lord promised to “restore” Israel to be like “Eden.”
So, as can be easily seen, Isaiah 51 contains some major eschatological elements and tenets. For our purposes, however, we want to notice how the prophet emphasizes Abraham’s calling and how that original calling is the focus of the prophet as he seeks to encourage and challenge the nation.
It is important to refresh our memory about the calling of Abraham. In Joshua 24:4 Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the LORD God of Israel: ‘Your fathers, including Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, dwelt on the other side of the River in old times; and they served other gods.”
It is almost as if, even at this extremely early stage in Israel’s history that YHVH was reminding Israel that she could not boast of any ethnic “purity” or blood-line, or choosing based on any kind of merit. And of course, YHVH did remind Israel of just this sort of thing fairly often. (See Deuteronomy 7:6-8)
Abraham’s own father was a pagan idolater! Much later in Israel’s history, when the nation was apostatizing into idolatry, the prophet reminded her that in truth, she was but returning to her roots: ‘Thus says the Lord GOD to Jerusalem: “Your birth and your nativity are from the land of Canaan; your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite” (Ezekiel 16:3)!
These shocking, but historical statements cannot be ignored when coming to Matthew 3 and the promise to raise up children of Abraham from the stones. They lie behind John’s warnings and were a stern reminder that since God had once called a people to himself out of the pagan nations, He was perfectly capable of doing so again! (Remember how, at Sinai, when Israel worshiped the calf, that God threatened to wipe them out and start all over again?)
Why had God called Abraham out of the pagan nations? Was it because of some inherent ethnic issue? Was his “blood” purer than his father’s? Patently not. It was because of Abraham’s “heart” a heart that was willing to believe and obey.
If one wanted to emphasize “ethnicity” then one must, on that logic, say that the chosen seed line was Amorite and Hittite. Ethnically, or biologically, Abraham could never be anything but an Amorite, for that was the blood flowing in his veins. And of course, it must be noted that Abraham’s faith did not alter his physiological constitution. Abraham’s calling was because of his faith.
The point of course, is that if God could– and did– call a pagan (dead stone) Gentile to be the father of the nation, then, just as John said in Matthew 3, he could do so again. He could produce living children from dead stones once again if those “dead stones” (pagan Gentiles) exhibited the same kind of faith as Abraham. (And on this see Matthew 8 and the Roman centurion). This is incredibly significant for anyone emphasizing ethnicity. God’s choosing of Abraham had nothing to do with race!
W. D. Davies rightly comments on the significance of Abraham’s calling out of the pagan world and Paul’s Gentile mission: “The universal dimension of the promise (Romans 4, and the Abrahamic Promise, dkp) was often neglected or transformed. Abraham had forsaken the idolatry and astrology of Ur, and had, in fact, called himself a proselyte; he was, therefore, preeminently the father of the Gentiles.” (The Gospel and the Land, (Berkley, University of California Press, 1974)177, n. 23. He adds– “The fact that Abraham was a Gentile when he received the promise must never be overlooked in the interpretation of Paul.” For more on the calling of the Gentiles, see my article here.
And how did the Jews look upon Gentile (pagan) conversion? Well, there were some who clearly disparaged that, and simply looked upon the Gentiles as “dead all over” with no hope. However, formally and legally, it was quite different. A pagan could become a proselyte (Like Abraham! DKP).
When a man wanted to be a proselyte, he was circumcised first, and then, after he was healed, he baptized himself, it was then considered that, “when he immersed himself and ascended, he is an Israelite in every way” (Abraham Cohen, Everyman’s Talmud, (New York, Shocken, 1955)64-65). So, in the legal circles of Judaism, it was recognized that submission to Torah (i.e. YHVH) made a person an Israelite.
So, the point cannot be missed. In Matthew 3, when John reminded Israel that God could raise up seed of Abraham from the dead stones, he was, implicitly, but very powerfully, reminding them that God had called a pagan (dead stone) Gentile to be His child. That calling was not based in any way on blood line, but strictly on faith. God had indeed created children from the stones.
Of course, this is what the NT develops in Romans and Galatians, when it says that only those who are of faith (and it never says that only those of Abraham’s blood line who are of faith) are the children of Abraham (Galatians 3:6f). Abraham’s calling was not based on race, but grace, and likewise, the calling to be a child of Abraham was not and is not related to race, but grace through faith. Thus, Paul could say that in Christ, there is no Jew or Greek, Scythian, Roman, Barbarian, etc. for, just like Abraham had become a child through faith, with no focus on his race or blood, those obeying the gospel– from the pagan nations– were becoming like Abraham: dead stones were being made into children of God (Galatians 3:26f).
Consider that Paul reminded the Ephesians (and Romans and Colossians, etc.) that they had once been dead (Ephesians 2) but that they had been made alive by God’s grace and their faith. God truly was, therefore, raising up children from dead stones, to be the children of Abraham. (One might interject here the idea of the Messianic Temple, in contrast to the Old Covenant Temple. The old was made of dead stones, and created a physical edifice, that, no matter its glory, was not intended to be God’s ultimate dwelling place. The New Temple, however, was constructed of “living stones” (1 Peter 2:5f) to create a “living Temple” for YHVH to dwell)!
Just as in Abraham’s case, it mattered not what their ethnicity was, or had been. What mattered was that they, like Abraham, had heard the call of God and responded in faith.
So, to reiterate, just as Abraham was a pagan, dead stone, “Gentile,” but became a child of God by faith, John rather bluntly reminded his audience that if they failed to be like their father, God could once again create, from dead, pagan stones, children of Abraham.
In our next article, we examine a bit closer the prophet’s call for Israel to look to the pit from which they had been hewn. This is nothing less than resurrection imagery.