Reading the New Testament (Week 4)

This week’s readings are Matthew 3, Mark 1, and Luke 3. These chapters are mostly parallel accounts, and we’ll look at them mostly in parallel, noting some distinct material along the way. They also partially overlap John 1 (last week) and Matthew 4 and Luke 4 and 5 (next week).

What Year Was It?

Luke 3:1-2

Luke begins with a historical note: It’s the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar’s rule over the Roman Empire, which began in AD 14. Therefore, by this reckoning, it’s now AD 28 or 29. However, the various methods scholars have used to fix the dates of Jesus’ birth, ministry, and death vary by a few years in their conclusions. It’s widely thought that Jesus was born in 3 BC, or perhaps as early as 6 BC. (Note that the Roman practice of reckoning years by the birth of Christ began more than five centuries later, so some slippage would be plausible. Also, the year before AD 1 was 1 BC, not the year 0.)

This Wikipedia article, Chronology of Jesus, surveys of methods scholars have used to determine the year of Jesus’ birth, from political history to astronomy, as well as their different results.

Among Latter-day Saints, James E. Talmage discusses this question at the end of Chapter 8 of Jesus the Christ, considers the scholarship, and finally bases his conclusion that Jesus was born in AD 1 after all on modern revelation.

In any case, Luke puts Jesus at “about thirty years of age” when he begins his ministry (Luke 3:23), and John has Jesus attending at least three annual Passover feasts during his public ministry (John 2:13; 6:4; 11:55-57). The Book of Mormon has 33 years passing from the time of Jesus birth until his death (3 Nephi 8:2).

The Herod mentioned here is Antipas, a son of Herod who ruled at Jesus’ birth. He; Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea; and high priests Annas and Caiaphas will appear again in the Gospels, including on the night of Jesus’ trial and the following morning.

John’s Message

Matthew 3:1-12; Mark 1:2-8; Luke 3:3-18

In the Judean desert John preaches repentance and quotes Isaiah. (Matthew and Luke render the name Esaias.) Luke’s is the lengthiest quotation and includes references to events of the Second Coming, not just the First Coming.

The Joseph Smith Translation (JST) gives more substance and more context. Key additions are references to Jesus taking away the sins of the world and bringing to pass the resurrection of the dead, and a clear distinction between the First and Second Comings.

4 As it is written in the book of the prophet Esaias; and these are the words, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, and make his paths straight.
5 For behold, and lo, he shall come, as it is written in the book of the prophets, to take away the sins of the world, and to bring salvation unto the heathen nations, to gather together those who are lost, who are of the sheepfold of Israel;
6 Yea, even the dispersed and afflicted; and also to prepare the way, and make possible the preaching of the gospel unto the Gentiles;
7 And to be a light unto all who sit in darkness, unto the uttermost parts of the earth; to bring to pass the resurrection from the dead, and to ascend up on high, to dwell on the right hand of the Father,
8 Until the fullness of time, and the law and the testimony shall be sealed, and the keys of the kingdom shall be delivered up again unto the Father;
9 To administer justice unto all; to come down in judgment upon all, and to convince all the ungodly of their ungodly deeds, which they have committed; and all this in the day that he shall come;
10 For it is a day of power; yea, every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;
11 And all flesh shall see the salvation of God. (JST Luke 3:4-11, emphasis added.)

Matthew includes a description of John the Baptist and his diet: “raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.” Compare the prophet Elijah’s clothing. And see Talmage on John’s diet of locusts and wild honey, in note 2 at the end of Chapter 10.

Matthew also makes clear, as Luke does not, that John’s epithet “generation of vipers” applies to the Pharisees and Sadducees, not his listeners in general.

John’s audience seems to have been substantial. Mark says “all of Judea, and they of Jerusalem” went out to hear him and be baptized. Matthew adds “all the region round about Jordan.” Small wonder the Jewish leaders would send some people to observe and inquire.

Luke records a portion of John the Baptist’s teaching which Matthew and Mark omit. It is very much in the spirit of Jesus’ forthcoming Sermon on the Mount, giving practical counsel beyond a general exhortation to repent and be baptized. Note that meat is a general word for food, and that publicans were tax collectors, who were often despised for taking too much, when they could, for their own gain.

10 And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then?
11 He answereth and saith unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise.
12 Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do?
13 And he said unto them, Exact no more than that which is appointed you.
14 And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.

John said “many other things,” Luke notes.

The people wonder if John is the Messiah, but he says that one far greater than he is coming, with a greater baptism.

Note that John didn’t just decide to do this; he didn’t take the work upon himself. JST John 1:32 he speaks of someone commissioning him to do so — an angel, perhaps?

He who sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me: Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he who baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. (Emphasis added.)

Jesus’ Baptism

Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-23

When Jesus presents himself for baptism, John protests that he should be turning to Jesus for baptism. Jesus assures John that he (Jesus) needs baptism too — which means it’s for more than repentance. In fact he’s showing the way for the rest of us, but also entering into a covenant.

Nephi explains this at some length in the Book of Mormon, writing hundreds of years before the event:

4 … I have spoken unto you concerning that prophet which the Lord showed unto me, that should baptize the Lamb of God, which should take away the sins of the world.
5 And now, if the Lamb of God, he being holy, should have need to be baptized by water, to fulfil all righteousness, O then, how much more need have we, being unholy, to be baptized, yea, even by water!
6 And now, I would ask of you, my beloved brethren, wherein the Lamb of God did fulfil all righteousness in being baptized by water?
7 Know ye not that he was holy? But notwithstanding he being holy, he showeth unto the children of men that, according to the flesh he humbleth himself before the Father, and witnesseth unto the Father that he would be obedient unto him in keeping his commandments.
8 Wherefore, after he was baptized with water the Holy Ghost descended upon him in the form of a dove.
9 And again, it showeth unto the children of men the straitness of the path, and the narrowness of the gate, by which they should enter, he having set the example before them. (2 Nephi 31:4-9, emphasis added)

All three members of the Godhead are present at Jesus’ baptism: the Father, who speaks; the Son, who is baptized; and the Holy Ghost, who comes upon him with the sign of a dove. Joseph Smith taught, “The sign of the dove was instituted before the creation of the world, a witness for the Holy Ghost, and the devil cannot come in the sign of a dove…. The sign of a dove was given to John to signify the truth of the deed, as the dove is an emblem or token of truth and innocence (History of the Church 5:261). Note that Abraham saw the same sign (Abraham, Facsimile 2, Figure 9).

Luke gets ahead of himself in verses 18-19, noting that Herod Antipas (“the tetrarch”) had John the Baptist imprisoned for reproved Herod for his sins, including the matter of Herodias, who was the sister of Herod Agrippa, who married her uncle Herod Philip, then eloped to live as the wife of her step-uncle Herod Antipas.

Baptism Was Not New

Nowhere in these accounts of John baptizing does anyone ask, what is this strange thing you are doing? The reason is simple: baptism was known and practiced in ancient Judaism.

In fact, Latter-day Saints can cite baptisms well before Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Noah baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, for repentance and the remission of sins (Moses 8:23-24).

A Personal Note: My Own Baptism

I was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints shortly after my eighth birthday. I don’t remember joy or any other outpouring of the Spirit, such as others often report. I remember being aware that this was my fresh start, and I had better be careful not to sin ever again.

Yes, this means that, however much I had been taught at home and at church, I hadn’t yet absorbed the meaning of repentance.

In later years, when I was the bishop of a Latter-day Saint ward (the pastor of a congregation), I used this. Eight year olds would come to me (always with at least one parent) for their baptismal interviews, after which I would approve their baptism.

We would discuss the meaning of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost in our lives, and the promises we make and receive at baptism. Every child I interviewed had a basic understanding of this, even if most were too intimidated by an interview with the bishop to say much about it.

I would ask, “Do you think you’ll ever sin after your baptism?”

Most would look concerned and shake their heads, while their parents smiled. Then the children would look horrified when I said, “I’m pretty sure I sinned on the way home from my baptism.”

“What will you do?” I would ask. “We’re not going to baptize you again.”

Then we’d talk about partaking of the sacrament, the bread and water, every Sunday, to renew the promise we made to God at baptism, and how that is almost like being baptized again.

I hope it sank into their hearts and heads at least a little. My own life would have been more pleasant, if I had absorbed that lesson years before I did.

Prison for John, Temptations for Jesus, and More (Next Week)

Mark 1:12-45

Mark moves quickly ahead with his shorter account, telling of events which we’ll consider later, as they come up in the other Gospels.

  • Jesus goes to the wilderness for forty days and is tempted by the devil.
  • John is imprisoned.
  • Jesus begins to preach in Galilee.
  • Jesus calls Peter, Andrew, James, and John to follow him.
  • Jesus teaches at a synagogue in Capernaum and astonished those who listen.
  • He casts an unclean spirit out of a man.
  • He heals Simon Peter’s wife.
  • He begins to draw crowds and heals many others, to the point that he can “no more openly enter the city, but [is] without in desert places: and they [come]to him from every quarter.”

We’ll see much of this in greater detail next week, in Matthew 4 and Luke 4 and 5.

David Rodeback

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