Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Notes on the Gospel according to Matthew, Chapter 3

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The third chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew introduces John the Baptist (a.s.) and addresses his baptism of Jesus (a.s.) at the Jordan River.  John the Baptist (a.s.) is known as Yohanan Hammathbil in Hebrew, Yuhanna al-Ma'amadan in Arabic and Iohanan in Aramaic.  He was a major religious figure mentioned in the canonical Gospels and the Qur'an.  He is described in the Gospel according to Luke as a relative of Jesus and Muslims believe so as well.  He led a movement of baptism at the Jordan River.  From a Jewish point of view, it was likely he belonged to the semi-ascetic Essenes sect.  The Essenes expected an imminent apocalypse and practiced rituals strongly associated with baptism  John (a.s.) is regarded as a prophet in Christianity, Islam, the Baha'ism  and Mandaeism.

John the Baptist (a.s.) was a contemporary of Jesus (a.s.) and first cousin since his mother and Mary (a.s.) were said to be sisters.  At the time, the mission of Jesus (a.s.) was just beginning.  John (a.s.) already had a following and an established reputation for righteousness, sanctity and fidelity.  The Qur’an attests to this:



And pity (for all creatures) as from Us, and purity: he was devout and kind to his parents, and he was not overbearing or rebellious.  So Peace on him the day he was born, the day that he dies, and the day that he will be raised up to life (again)! (Surah Maryam:13-15)

Matthew 3:1-12
1In those days John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea; 2”Repent,” he said, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  3It was of him that the prophet Isaiah spoke, when he said, “There is a voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, straighten out his paths.’”  4And he, John, wore a garment of camel’s hair, and a leather girdle about his loins, and locusts and wild honey were his food.  5Thereupon Jerusalem and all Judaea, and all those who dwelt round Jordan, went out to see him, 6and he baptised them in the Jordan, while they confessed their sins.  7Many of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees came to his baptising; and when he saw these, he asked them, “Who was it that taught you, brood of vipers, to flee from the vengeance that draws near?  8Come, then, yield the acceptable fruit of repentance; 9do not presume to say in your hearts, ‘We have Abraham for our father;’ I tell you, God has Power to Raise up children to Abraham out of these very stones.  10Already the axe has been put to the root of the trees, so that every tree which does not shew good fruit will be hewn down and cast into the fire.  11As for me, I am baptising you with water, for your repentance; but one is to come after me who is mightier than I, so that I am not worthy even to carry his shoes for him; he will baptise you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.  12He holds his winnowing-fan ready, to sweep his threshing-floor clean; he will gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will consume with fire that can never be quenched.”

The prophecy of Isaiah (a.s.), mentioned in Matthew 3:3 is as follows:

Isaiah 40:3
3A cry, there, out in the wilderness, “Make way for the Lord’s Coming; a straight road for our God through the desert!”

Every prophet had a herald to indicate his coming.  The Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) had Bahira (r.a.), also known as Sergius the Nestorian monk to foretell his future prophetic career.  In the case of Jesus the Messiah (a.s.), it was John the Baptist (a.s.).  He was the voice crying in the wilderness.  And as a herald, he made the way for the fulfillment of prophesy.  The straight road is the religion of Allah (s.w.t.).



Show us the straight way. (Surah al-Fatihah:6)

Te desert refers both to the spiritual wilderness that the people were in and the fact that John (a.s.) shunned the decadent civilisation of the time and spent time in the wilderness, on the edge of the desert.  Coming back to God, therefore, meant going through the desert.  As an ascetic, a zahid, he was a practitioner of taswawwuf.  His rejection f dunya, also meant he vehemently opposed the Sadducees who used their religious position to accumulate wealth and power.  They were viewed by the prophets as hypocrites of the law.  His talk of the axe to the root of the unfruitful tree is echoed in the Qur’an.



Seest thou not how Allah Sets forth a parable?― a goodly Word like a goodly tree, whose root is firmly fixed, and its branches (reach) to the heavens― It brings forth its fruit at all times, by the Leave of its Lord.  So Allah Sets Forth parables for men, in order that they may receive admonition.  And the parable of an evil word is that of an evil tree.  It is torn up by the root from the surface of the earth: it has no stability. (Surah Ibrahim:24-26)

The practise of baptism is the absolution from sin and represents sincere repentance.  To Muslims, it is ghusl, the cleansing bath, done after one has left kufr, disbelief, for faith.  From the Catholic point of view, the baptism of John (a.s.) did not confer sanctifying grace and that is why there is a reference to the one that comes after.  The Christians believe only when the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus (a.s.), was sanctifying grace conferred in baptism henceforth.  As Muslims, we believe that there is much dispute on the meaning of the words that are translated as Holy Spirit.  We see this as nothing more than a step in the preparation for his mission of prophethood in the same manner that Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) had his hear washed by Jibra’il (a.s.).

From an Islamic point of view, Matthew 3:11 confers a totally different meaning.  John the Baptist (a.s.) was the third from last prophet.  The one who came after could not refer to Jesus (a.s.) but Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.).  Jesus (a.s.) came to be baptised, not to baptise.  He was a contemporary of John (a.s.) lived in the same era.  John (a.s.) also says that the one who comes after is mightier than him.  At that point, John (a.s.) had more disciples than Jesus (a.s.) and greater renown.  It could not refer to Jesus (a.s.).  Because he said:

Matthew 11:11
11Believe me, God has Raised up no greater son of woman than John the Baptist; and yet to be least in the kingdom of heaven is to be greater than he.

The second part of the statement is of dubious translation and origin.  It was believed to have been added later to exalt Jesus (a.s.) at the expense of John (a.s.) in order to show that he is the Son of God.

The rendering of the Holy Ghost is not found in much earlier translations of the Bible.  That word was ‘paraclete’ from the Greek translation.  In Latin, it was rendered as . paracletus.  It means advocate, helper or intercessor.  In Christianity, the term has most commonly been translated as the Holy Spirit or the Holy Ghost.  Paraclete, which comes from the Koine Greek word, ‘parakletos,’ can signify, "one who consoles or comforts, one who encourages or uplifts; hence refreshes, and / or one who intercedes on our behalf as an advocate in court".  The word was later borrowed by rabbinical Hebrew writing from Hellenistic Jewish writing.

Many Muslim writers have argued that the “another Paraclete” from John 14:16 after Jesus (a.s.) refers to Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.).  John (a.s.) speaks of one that comes after him.

John 14:16
16and then I will ask the Father, and He will Give you another to befriend you, one who is to dwell continually with you forever.

With regards, ‘to befriend you,’ the Greek word here used is ‘the Paraclete.’  The earliest scholar to advocate that the Paraclete refers to the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) is probably Shaykh ibn Ishaq (r.a.), who Islamic tradition states was the grandson of a Christian.  Others who made the same interpretation include Shaykh ibn Taymiyyah (r.a.), Hafizh ibn Katsir (r.a.), Imam al-Qurthubi (r.a.) and contemporary Muslim scholars such as Shaykh Martin Lings (q.s.).  A few Muslim scholars, such as Ustadz David Benjamin Keldani (r.a.), have argued that the original Greek word used was ‘periklytos,’ meaning famed, illustrious, or praiseworthy, rendered in Arabic as ‘Ahmad,’ and that this was substituted by Christians with ‘parakletos.’

It is easily understood then that the one who comes, the Paraclete, is none other than Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.).  And the baptism of fire can be said to be jihad, the struggle against ignorance, oppression and polytheism.  The Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) is the Imam of all the prophets and messengers.  Such is his rank in the Divine Sight, not even another prophet is fit to carry his Blessed sandals.  Imam at-Tirmidzi (r.a.) records a hadits narrated by Jabir ibn ‘Abdullah (r.a.) where the Prophet (s.a.w.) said, "I am the Leader of the Messengers, and this is no boast; I am the Seal of the Prophets, and this is no boast; and I shall be the first to make intercession and the first whose intercession is accepted, and this is no boast."  The truth of what John (a.s.) says is evident in the sirah.  It cannot be Jesus (a.s.) because he does not fulfill this prophecy conclusively and the anecdotal evidence from the passages to come as well do not readily lend themselves to the credence that they refer to him.

Jesus (a.s.) did not minister any sort of baptism, whether by water or by fire.  Baptism is practiced by Christians in emulation of the baptism of Jesus (a.s.) at the hands of John (a.s.).  This baptism by fire is further elaborated in the next line where John (a.s.) says that the one who is to come, “holds his winnowing-fan ready, to sweep his threshing-floor clean; he will gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will consume with fire that can never be quenched.”  This signifies trials and tribulations in the course of his prophethood.  It can be said that much of Jesus’ (a.s.) legacy and message was only kept by the last ummah, the Ummah of Muhammad (s.a.w.).  Christianity is not based on the Gospel as taught by Jesus (a.s.) but by the teachings of Paul of Tarsus and his disciples.  They never met Jesus (a.s.).  However, in the time of the prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.), the Muslims endured much trial.  Those amongst the Quraysh and those around who accepted the Message of Islam, were gathered into safety.  And those who opposed the Messenger of Allah (s.w.t.) in his lifetime were all destroyed.  There is even a surah about the fate of one of the enemies of the Prophet (s.a.w.), Surah Lahab, also known as Surah al-Masad.



Surah al-Masad
In the Name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
Perish the hands of the Father of Flame!  Perish he!  (1) No profit to him from all his wealth, and all his gains!  (2) Burnt soon will he be in a Fire of Blazing Flame!  (3) His wife shall carry the (crackling) wood ― as fuel! ― (4) A twisted rope of palm-leaf fibre round her (own) neck! (5)

It is also interesting to note that when John (a.s.) spoke of the one to come, he did not recognise it as Jesus (a.s.).

Matthew 11:2-3
2Now John had heard in his prison of Christ’s doings, and he sent two of his disciples to him; 3”Is it thy coming that was foretold,” he asked, “or are we yet waiting for some other?

We must also understand that there is much in the Gospels and indeed the entire Bible that has to be seen with skepticism since much of it has been distorted and the Gospels themselves disagree on key points.  It does not contradict the assertion that John (a.s.) was the herald of Jesus (a.s.) since he knew who Jesus (a.s.) was as proven below.  It only shows that he did not recognise Jesus (a.s.) as the ne to come after him that he described.

Matthew 3:13-17
13Then Jesus came from Galilee and stood before John at the Jordan, to be baptised by him.  14John would have restrained him; “It is I,” he said, “that ought to be baptized by thee, and dost thou come to me instead?”  15But Jesus answered, “Let it be so for the present; it is well that we should thus fulfill all due observance.”  Then John gave way to him.  16So Jesus was baptised, and as he came straight up out of the water, suddenly heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God coming down like a dove and resting upon him.  17And with that, a voice came from heaven, which said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

Most biblical scholars are of the opinion that that John (a.s.) baptised Jesus (a.s.) at "Bethany beyond the Jordan", by wading into the water with Jesus (a.s.) from the eastern bank.  John the Baptist (a.s.) is also mentioned by Jewish historian Josephus and in the Pseudo-Clementine literature in addition to the Gospels and the Qur'an.  Accounts of John in the New Testament appear compatible with the account in Josephus.  This is important because there are no other historical accounts of John the Baptist (a.s.) from around the period of his lifetime.

The opening of the heavens and the descent of the dove is allegorical and not likely an actual occurrence.  The Gospel authors wanted to demonstrates the symbolic anointing of the Messiah and the formal beginning of Jesus’ (a.s.) ministry.  There is a lack of credibility with regards these verses.

From the passages above, we can see that John (a.s.) anticipated a messianic figure greater than himself and foretold of the Paraclete.  Jesus (a.s.) is the one whose coming John foretold, but only as the Messiah. Unlike the Christians, Muslims believe that the Paraclete is none other than Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.).  John (a.s.) is commonly referred to as the precursor of Jesus (a.s.), since John (a.s.) announces Jesus' coming (a.s.).  John (a.s.) is also identified with the prophet Elijah (a.s.).  Some of Jesus' early followers had previously been followers of John (a.s.).  But there are reports of followers of John (a.s.) in Iraq until the present day.

Acts 19:1-7
1It was while Apollo was away at Corinth that Paul finished his journey through the inland country, and came to Ephesus.  He met some disciples there 2and asked them, “Was the Holy Spirit given to you, when you learned to believe?”  “Why,” they said, “nobody even mentioned to us the existence of a Holy Spirit.”  3What baptism, then, did you receive?” Paul asked; and they said, “John’s baptism.”  4So Paul told them,” John baptized to bring men to repentance; but he bade the people have faith in one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.”  5On hearing this, they received baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus; 6and when Paul laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came down on them, and they spoke with tongues, and prophesied.  7In all, these men were about twelve in number.

There are several passages within the Old Testament interpreted by Christians as being prophetic of John the Baptist’s (a.s.) role in this role as the herald of Jesus (a.s.).  These include a passage in the Book of Malachi:

Malachi 3:1
1See where I am sending a messenger of mine, to make the way ready for my coming!  All at once the Lord will visit his temple; that Lord, so longed for, welcome herald of a divine covenant.  Ay, says the Lord of Hosts, he is coming;

And also at the end of the next chapter in Malachi, where it says:

Malachi 4:5-6
5And before ever that day comes, great day and terrible, I will send Elias to be your prophet; 6he it is shall reconcile heart of father to son, heart of son to father; else the whole of earth should be forfeit to my vengeance.

The Jews of Jesus' (a.s.) day expected Elijah (a.s.) to come before the Messiah.  Some modern Jews continue to await Elijah's (a.s.) coming as well, as in the Cup of Elijah the Prophet in the Passover Seder.  This is why the disciples ask Jesus (a.s.) of it.

Matthew 17:10-13
10And his disciples asked him, “Tell us, why is it that the scribes say Elias must come before Christ?”  11He answered, “Elias must needs come and restore all things as they were; 12but I tell you this, that Elias has come already, and they did not recognize him, but misused him at their pleasure, just as the Son of Man is to suffer at their hands.”  13Then the disciples understood that he had been speaking to them of John the Baptist.

The Eastern Orthodox believe that John (a.s.) was the last of the Old Testament prophets, serving as a bridge between that period of revelation and the New Covenant.  They also teach that, following his death, John (a.s.) descended into Hades and there once more preached that Jesus the Messiah (a.s.) was coming, so he was the Forerunner of Christ in death as he had been in life.  According to their Sacred Tradition, John the Baptist (a.s.) appears at the time of death to those who have not heard the Gospel of Christ (a.s.), and preaches the Good News to them, that all may have the opportunity to be saved.  He is thus, their ‘angel of death.’

Some Catholics have held to a belief that John the Baptist never sinned, though this has never been a point of doctrine and is not binding in belief upon any adherent as is the sinlessness of Mary (a.s.).

In  Islam, John (a.s.) is prophet Yahya ibn Zakariya (a.s.).  He is believed to have been a witness to Revelation, and the prophet who heralded the coming of Jesus (a.s.).  His father, Zechariah is also recognised as a prophet.  Like Jesus (a.s.), John (a.s.) was also a product of miraculous birth since his parents were beyond childbearing age.

In the Qur'an, Allah (s.w.t.) frequently mentions Zechariah's (a.s.) continuous praying for the birth of a son.  Zechariah's (a.s.) wife, mentioned in the New Testament as Elizabeth (r.a.), was barren and therefore the birth of a child seemed impossible.  As a gift from Allah (s.w.t.), Zechariah (a.s.) was given a son by the name of "John", a name specially chosen for this child alone.  In accordance with Zechariah's (a.s.) prayer, Allah (s.w.t.) made John (a.s.) and Jesus (a.s.), who was born six months later, renew the Religion of Allah (s.w.t.), which had been corrupted and lost by the Israelites.



(His prayer was answered): "O Zakariya!  We Give thee good news of a son: his name shall be Yahya: on none by that name have We Conferred distinction before."  He said: "O my Lord!  How shall I have a son, when my wife is barren and I have grown quite decrepit from old age?"  He said: "So (it will be): thy Lord Saith, `That is easy for Me: I did indeed Create thee before, when thou hadst been nothing!'"( Surah Maryam:7-9)

John (a.s.) was exhorted to hold fast to the scripture and was given wisdom by Allah (s.w.t.) while still a child.  He was pure and devout.  John's (a.s.) reading and understanding of the scriptures, when only a child, surpassed even that of the greatest scholars of the time.  Muslim exegesis narrates that Jesus (a.s.) sent John (a.s.) out with twelve disciples, who preached the message before Jesus (a.s.) called his own disciples.



(To his son came the Command): "O Yahya!  Take hold of the Book with might": and We Gave him wisdom even as a youth. (Surah Maryam:12)

John (a.s.) was Exalted by Allah (s.w.t.), for his bold denouncing of all things sinful.  Furthermore, the Qur'an mentions John's (a.s.) love for all creatures and his humble attitude towards life, for which he was granted the Purity of Life:

In summary, we have shown that when John (a.s.) was peaking at the Jordan and describing the one to come, it most definitely was not Jesus (a.s.).  We cannot ascertain the credibility of every verse of the chapter but we can distill what is left give any Christian with an open mind to ponder the prophecy in the passages.

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