Friday, November 22, 2013

Enfleshments

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JEWISH HISTORIAN FLAVIUS JOSEPHUS described the four-hundred-year interval between the days of the Prophet Malachi and John the Baptist as religiously corrupt. The priesthood was a virtual business corporation and a political oligarchy at the same time. It maintained the fa├žade of the Mosaic spiritual tradition restored but only as a measure of control to keep the Jews politically in line as by that time, the world powers have already acquired an idea how the Jews restrained a notorious inclination to rebel  that broke at the slightest instance their religious rights were curtailed. But the biggest aspect claimed for perdition was the Zoroastrian adulteration of the Word of God.

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The millennia of Babylonian control over Near Eastern paganism had ended and it was the turn for the new Persian masters to dictate the region’s cultural advance. The summit of this control was attained with the rise of Magian Zoroastrianism, during a time when the Orient needed a stronghold against the torrential march of the Roman Empire. By 150 B.C. the Magians had successfully unified the East through a religious and cultural shield against the rising tide of Rome's advance towards the sands of the former Persian Empire.

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The appearance of the Magi in the story of the first Christmas may somehow tell us about the kind of influence the oriental religion exerted over Palestine. As the vast eastern realm of the Magi survived politically to counterbalance the power of the Roman West, the spiritual appeal of the Magian culture carved out the religious configuration of the domain it once called its own. From the time Cyrus the Great was momentarily identified as the Deliverer of the Jews for re-opening the opportunity to them of populating Palestine, and though holding itself aloof with its own special revelation, Israel seemed to have manifested a profound respect for the Persian culture. For several hundred years, the Jewish and the Magian religions learned from each other, developing perspectives that apparently shed greater luminance to how they understood their traditional doctrines. The Persian religion, in fact, was a main foreign agent which helped establish the rabbinical Jewish sect of the Pharisees that proposed the existence of a Heaven and a Hell, angels and demons, a resurrection of the dead, a final judgment, and other matters that the priestly Sadducaic denomination of Judaism did not adhere to (Matthew 22:23, Mark 12:18, Luke 20:27).

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Yet of all the doctrines that swept through the region, it was Persian theology of dualism that proved to be the most embraced. The appeal of dualism did not lie in its uniqueness, but in the fact that people older than the Persians, like the Babylonians and the Egyptians, had already patented a basic framework of this in their fundamental doctrines. This meant that the region had by then been tilled with the idea of the battling forces of good and evil and was therefore easy for the native Near Eastern to swallow and digest than any other import that came in the hoof beats of later Western conquerors. The principle of spiritual twofoldness became the most popular perspective and inclination than many other beliefs in the former Persian Empire. Greater significance, however, must be noted on how Persian theology fundamentally impacted Israel as the first one served as a plug that checked the latter's loss of spiritual identity to the seduction of Hellenistic dilution that came in the end of two centuries of Achaemenid dominance.

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The element of Zoroastrianism, if imagined as a monster in a prophetic vision, may be seen two heads: one of fair complexion with gentle features to represent the goodness of the light, while the other hideous, vicious, and aggressive to embody the treachery of the dark. But there are more to the bellows of this monster echoing to our days than just the eternal battle of light and darkness . Contemporary studies assert that even the concepts we understand today of Heaven and Hell can be traced back to the Zoroastrian religion. The original Old Testament doctrine holds nothing much about Heaven and Hell except that Heaven is either God’s abode or the Promised Land while Hell can either refer to the state of death, represented by the ground or a pit, or the condition of exile from God’s Promised Land. No one before and during the time of Jesus ever suggested ascending to Heaven after death to be with God—except for Moses, David, Solomon, and Jesus Himself, none of whom were known to have been schooled in the feet of the Eastern sages. Orthodox Zoroastrianism held that the soul after death was supposed to meet his conscience either in the shape of a damsel or a hag, depending to the merits or demerits gain during its lifetime. Our traditional understanding today of determining the final destiny of the righteous and the wicked—by the counting of good and bad deeds, words, and thoughts—stem from Zoroastrianism. This even goes for the belief that certain prayers, offerings, rites, and ceremonies performed for the sake of the deceased can win them a place in Heaven [Collier's Encyclopedia, Vol. 23, 1997, 166)].

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The mutation of God’s Word and foreign conviction was what God Enfleshed ran into by the sixth century B.C. By that time it had entrenched itself into the Palestinian culture and Jesus had to reveal the real power of God’s Law, not by abolishing the Law or the prophets but by fulfilling them (Matthew 5:17), which the Pharisees spent all their dedication seeking to unravel. Jesus referred to them as “blind guides” (Matthew 15:14) attempting to lead other blind folks into another way of discovering the Truth, which Jesus had already prepared to those who believe in Him. The way of the Pharisees was a way to the ditch—death, in other words. Theirs was a matter complicated by their own doing and Jesus showed them how their mixed up hybrid doctrine was way off the mark. Jesus, on the other hand, came and offered the Gospel: a message of repentance—“Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is near” (Matthew 4:17)—a declaration that the “year of the Lord’s favor” has finally come, and now is revealed the One whom the Spirit of God had chosen to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, freedom to the oppressed, and the regaining of sight to the blind (Luke 4:18–19). Notice the recurrence of that last word: blind, the very word that Jesus used to describe the teachers and complicators of the Law. These very people whom He publicly exposed in searing condemnation in Matthew 23:12–36, during the latter part of His ministry, were nonetheless invited to receive the Gospel. Jesus cared for the blind so much that no blindness survived an encounter with Him. Until He came head-to-head with that of those whom He called “blind guides” (verse 16).

At the time of His death, “about the sixth hour…darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour, for the sun had stopped shining” (Luke 23:44–45), vanished the “great light” which the Prophet Isaiah spoke about in the ninth chapter and second verse of his ancient text. But in that darkness was declared the formal closure of the power of the Law: “the curtain of the temple was torn in two” (ibid.). In the same way as the prophet John the Baptist diminished in the ministry for the sake of the rise of the Messiah (John 3:30), the Law fell on its knees in abject surrender to the power of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and ascribed to Him the salvation it never had in its hands to give.

JOHN THE BAPTISTTHE ENFLESHMENT OF THE LAW.  

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John the Baptist is popularly known as Jesus’ forerunner, the voice in the desert calling to make straight the way for the Lord (Isaiah 40:3); yet virtually unnoticed to all was his role as the representation of the perfection of the Law—he was a prophet, and like any other prophet, he represented the pure and unchanged state of the Law. He was an enfleshment of the Law, the picture of its strength and limitations. “The law of the Lord is perfect,” hailed King David in Psalm 119:7, and who will argue with the man God personally considered “after [His] own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14)? Almost by default, we today do not view the Law with the fairness the Bible actually provides. We have understood it in the perspective of bondage and inadequacy to cleanse the human spirit opposite the salvation Jesus provided on the cross. We have skipped over the parts where the Apostle Paul upheld the Law (Romans 3:31) and where Jesus fulfilled them rather than abolish them (Matthew 5:17). In prophetic song, David rejoiced over the beauty of the Law, providing his kingdom a whole new perspective in living a life dedicated to the Lord. But according to the Apostle Paul, the Law pointed the way to salvation instead of being salvation itself. According to Romans 3:20 “through the law we become conscious of sin”; the writer of Hebrews stated that the Law provided the requirements for forgiveness—the shedding of blood (9:22)—but did not itself grant salvation. In fact, it was expressed in 10:1 that “the same sacrifices [must] be repeated endlessly year after year” though it did not make perfect those who drew near to worship. The ensuing passage explains:

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“If it (the annual sacrifices prescribed by Law) could [provide salvation], would they have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (verses 2–4).

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John the Baptist was a constant reminder for the people of Israel to “repent” (Matthew 3:1). He was the personification of why the Law was provided man: to make him conscious of his sinful state and point him to the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). So when John saw the crowds of people wanting to be water baptized coming to Jesus instead of him, he who perfectly spoke in the very words of the Law finally proclaimed the end and greatest weakness of his ministry:

“A man can receive only what is given him from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:27–30).

When John the Baptist witnessed the hungry repentant crowds seeking baptism gravitating towards Jesus, he saw the future and, in it, the irrelevance of the Law—his irrelevance. He saw the end of the Law’s effectivity, the end of its very days when sacrifices will truly cease and the altar forever cleaned of animal blood. He therefore saw no point of keeping the tradition alive now that the One who comes from above and is above all has come (verse 31).

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“Whoever believes in the Son,” declared John, “has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains of him” (verse 36).

John is known to us as the Messianic Forerunner as the Law he represented was “a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves” (Hebrews 10:1). For this principle, John never had it in his heart to compete with the ministry of the Son of God. John represented the harmony the Law found in Jesus. Unlike the impression young modern believers have towards the Law today, it was never in conflict with the salvation of Jesus. When that curtain tore from top to bottom, the open invitation of the Gospel to all mankind became viciously, unmistakably clear, and John the Baptist, the embodiment of the Law in all its strengths and limitations, could only point all souls to the Source of this invitation. And if some people truly listened to John in his preaching, their eyes would have been instantly opened to the One “whom God has sent [to speak] the word of God…[who has been given] the Spirit without limit” (verse 34). But though He came speaking freely of salvation and peace, they believed Him not and the message and warning that preserved the life of many became hidden to them—

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“If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes…because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you” (Luke 19:42, 44).


The Law never tried to update itself to compete with the rising trend of the Messiah. That effrontery was done by the Pharisees, and if the Pharisees were smart enough it could have been obvious to them that Jesus Himself was the Law’s update, the last and the only. John the Baptist lived his life as the personification of what God intended the Law to be. It was therefore no wonder Jesus considered him as the greatest ever risen—

“I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing and forceful men lay hold of it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come” (Matthew 11:11–14).

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And it was in this honor Jesus regarded the Law. John the Baptist was a righteous man, even the wicked King Herod believed this and even “protected him” (Mark 6:20). Herod “feared” the man, considered him “holy” (ibid.), and though John screamed at his face about taking Herodias as his queen, Herod “liked to listen to him” preach (ibid.). When he ordered the execution of the prophet, it was said that he was “greatly distressed” (verse 26). But if Herod or his wife, who goaded for the beheading of John, thought that Judea had heard the last of the prophet, they had another thing coming: for not only did John’s life testify of the power of the Law. If Herod had truly learned anything in all of John’s teachings he could have understood how the dissolution of his kingdom was prophetically foreshadowed in the violent murder of John. END