[R]eligion is a pure stream of righteousness flowing from the image of God, and is the life and power of God planted in the heart and mind by the law of life, which bringeth the soul, mind, spirit, and body to be conformable to God, the Father of spirits, and to Christ; so that they come to have fellowship with the Father and the son, and with all his holy angels and saints. —George Fox1
Upon entering the cathedral of Pisa on a visit to that city 20 years ago, and walking a short distance along the nave toward the altar, I came across two small bronze sculptures, directly across from one another on either side of the center aisle. As I recall, each free-standing sculpted figure was about two feet high and placed on a small pedestal that brought the piece to eye level. On the right stood John the Baptist, and on the left, Jesus. As the two works had been made by the same artist in the same material and style, and placed directly across the nave one from the other, they stood in mirror-like relationship. Thus the art conveyed the theological idea that Jesus and John the Baptist are alike, and yet different.
In the third chapter of Matthew, the characters of John the Baptist and Jesus together work to convey an idea: the righteous stance of man is prelude to the divine nature of Christ. Where we are in our first-birth, earthly nature can – and must – be moved into the second-birth, the heavenly nature. In its layout, chapter 3 is structured to illustrate this idea: the beginning verses are given to John, the prophet born of woman (11:11), and the ending verses to Jesus, the “beloved Son,” born of God (17).
In the first few verses of this chapter, we learn about the Baptist: how he lives and what he does. John stations himself in the wilderness, and what he wears and eats is of little concern to him (4). In the silence of solitude, away from society’s pursuits and distractions, he attends to the inward claim upon him, rather than the outward clamor around him. John’s work is to prepare the way of the Lord (3), and so he preaches: “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand (2).” His call to repentance is not some meager scolding to elicit remorse or sadness for a misstep, but a challenge to recalibrate the inward vantage point of one’s being.
The focus of the narrative widens to include John’s placement in and effect upon society. Verse 3 has settled him securely within the history of Israel: he is the prophet foretold by the prophet Isaiah, who envisioned John’s ministry to the society of his day.2 Both city and country folk flock to him in his solitary abode: responding to his call, confessing their sins, and seeking the change his baptism signifies. John draws people to righteousness and holiness . . . but not all people.
In chapter 2, the wise men from the east came to worship the new king, while Herod attempted to slay him. In chapter 3, clear lines are again drawn between those who respond favorably to the appearance of the righteous, and those who do not. In verses 5 through 10, a distinction is made between the receptive folk of “all Judea”(5) and the venomous Pharisees and the Sadducees (7). By the time this group arrives at the Jordan, they have been sized up by John and given no opportunity to speak, no chance to strike (7). Their “religion” has come from their association with others: “We have Abraham to our father”(9), they say within themselves. Relying on the pedigree of one’s social or historical connection, however, is not the substance of true religion. Rather, as stated by Fox, “religion is a pure stream of righteousness flowing from the image of God.” Each of these two diametric dispositions produces its own commensurate fruit, and John informs the hypocrites, they will be like trees “hewn down, and cast into the fire”(10).
The first 12 verses of the chapter have prefaced the primary theme: divine nature comes to those who accept the responsibility of knowing themselves to be created in the image of the righteous God.
As we near the end of the narrative, we see the two main figures – John and Jesus – for a moment inhabiting a kind of stasis or a state of equilibrium where John (none greater born of women [11:11]), having ascended to his highest potential, hovers, as Jesus, the heavenly man, readies himself to receive Sonship. It is a touching moment of beauty, where the nobility of the human spirit is seen and quietly appreciated. A sweet exchange ensues between the two over who will baptize whom. Each defers to the other, not as polite nicety but that their course of action may be rightly ordered. For both men recognize righteousness to be their rule: the single and only pathway that leads from earth to heaven, from the earthly nature into the divine. “For thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness”(15), Jesus reasons with John, and John, in righteousness, obeys the one who is “mightier than [he]”(11).
The final verses of this third chapter of Matthew display the culminating moment to which all that has passed before has led: here is man transformed into his divine nature. John the Baptist had risen to the peak of human capacity, and from that point, Jesus, now baptized, continues upward in straight, righteous ascent: he “went up straightway out of the water” to find “the heavens were opened unto him”(16). That is to say, in Jesus Christ, God reveals Himself to man. In love to humanity, the Spirit of God descends and lights upon us (16), and in this revelation, we are given to know the divine nature present within. Through receiving the Spirit/Word of God, the rightness of being is known unequivocally and in fullness, and confirmed extant forever. “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
1 The Works of George Fox (Philadelphia: Marcus T. C. Gould, 1831), 1:411.
2 As in the previous chapter, the narrator asserts Jewish tradition confirms the new.