On Being a Seminarian: Reminder of Purpose…

This is part of a weekend series I’m writing for Near Emmaus. Be sure to check out other posts by other bloggers, especially if you’re interested in biblical studies.

In my first post for Near Emmaus, I had talked about the Dead Sea Scrolls class I had taken. In that post, I was focusing on nuance and how one little shift in interpretation meant the difference between Qumran and Christianity. I had discussed the impact of that little nuance and how I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for that class and my research papers. Well, as the semester went along, I had completely forgotten that post and why I do what I do.

Thursday, through a Qumran lecture, I was reminded about why I am in seminary. I’ve known the practical reason: to earn a Master’s degree to hopefully get into a PhD program at some point in the hopefully-near future. But the purpose as to why that even matters – the reason behind attending seminary in the first place – is not always easy to remember. My unwritten research papers are coming due, reading assignments are not even halfway from completion, and summer plans are mildly distracting. In all of this, I had lost sight of that moment as an undergrad.

So when my professor, Roger Nam, started talking about the site of Qumran with all the miqva’ot and giving a brief history of the Dead Sea Scrolls discovery, all of my current stresses were forgotten. Instead, I was realigned with the ancient world (well, as much as one’s imagination could be, anyway), exploring the significance of living in a relatively isolated community, and wondering how different Jesus’ movement was from the many of his time.

There’s no guarantee that this little reminder will help me finish my work efficiently and on time, but I am at least re-awakened to what initially drew me in. So in this short post, I want to ask what makes you do what you do? What was it that launched your interest in biblical studies, theology, language, or whatever it is that you’re interested in? Is that purpose driving you now?

Christian Baptism Part 1: John the Baptist…

“The Jews asked him, ‘Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?’ John answered them, ‘I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie,’” – John 1:25-27

Baptism carried a great deal of significance in Jesus’ time. Notice, though, that “the Jews” aren’t questioning John because he is baptizing, but because he’s not “the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet.” They don’t ask him, “Why are you dunking people in water?” This indicates to me that somewhere along the way the practice of baptizing people became the norm.

John the Baptist has stood as a seemingly-pivotal character in Christianity; he’s the forerunner for Christ – clearing the paths for Him, so to speak. The Gospel authors interpreted Isaiah 40:3 as speaking of John (while the small sect of Essenes located at Qumran interpreted this verse for themselves and their movement); “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” To the Gospel authors, John was a game-changer.

But what does his baptism mean? Can Christianity exist without it? Does John the Baptist even need to be a historical character in the Christian narrative? These are questions that drove most of my research for my Early Christianity class last winter. When it came time to write my paper, I didn’t get to talk much about John or his baptism since I was more focused on Christian baptism as a whole. But looking back over what I’ve studied, what I’ve written, and what I’ve read since last winter, I would have to say that John the Baptist is a fascinating character in Christianity.

Gerd Theissen offers interesting thoughts about John:

“His baptism is a symbolic action. And implicitly it has a political significance. If all Jews have to have themselves baptized again, the whole land is threatened with uncleanness. Here the question of cleanness is pointedly blown up – against a ruler who blatantly violated the commandments relating to cleanness in building his capital. John’s criticism of [Herod] Antipas’ marital politics also fits this picture. For Jewish marriage laws had been violated in this marriage. Here John the Baptist was merely articulating a widespread hostility to rulers who were increasingly alienating themselves from Jewish traditions,” – Pg. 35

To the Gospel authors, John’s baptism was something more than a political statement or a symbolic action; it was the ushering in of God’s kingdom. It was clearing the way for Jesus. But historically speaking, as plenty of scholars have discussed, John the Baptist and Jesus may have never had any contact with each other whatsoever. This idea is shocking to the average Bible-believing Christian, but hypothetically speaking, the Gospel authors could have adopted John and his baptism into the narrative of early (or as Theissen likes to say, “primitive”) Christianity. The encounters we see in the Gospels may have been creative insertions into the historical facts in order to get at the deeper picture: Many thought John was the Messiah or that his baptism was powerful; but Jesus supersedes him.

If it had been the center of my research paper, I would have argued that John didn’t need to be “preparing the way” for Jesus; He could have believed that he was waiting for someone else and Jesus surprised him as well. Case in point, re-read Matthew 11:2-3; “Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’” Many interpret this as John simply doubting his earlier convictions about Jesus (especially if we take Luke 1:41-44 as historically true), but what if he was discovering for the first time, here in Matthew 11 (or in Luke 7:18-35) that Jesus was the Messiah he had been waiting for all along? It changes things a little, doesn’t it? It describes John the Baptist with a little more humanity than what we might have been taught in Sunday school, doesn’t it?

Then what meaning can be found in his baptism if he had little or no communication with Jesus? If he was unaware that he was “preparing the way” for Jesus, then what good is his baptism? Mark’s Gospel (believed to be the earliest of all the Gospels – except for maybe Q, but that’s for another post) gives a pretty clear description of why John was baptizing: “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” (1:4). Much like his Jewish relatives at Qumran, John was enacting a symbolic action of repentance.

What does it mean, though, for Christianity? I think it means quite a bit: It was the model early Christians used to signify their death with Jesus (and to their sins) and rise to life with Jesus (and receiving the new life of the Holy Spirit). Of course this took a long time to get worked out in Christianity because we religious folk like to disagree on a lot of things, but without the model of John’s baptism of repentance, it may not have had much of an affect for the early readers to follow Christ. What I mean is, it’s quite possible that the early readers knew who John the Baptist was and if his work was interpreted as the beginning of Christianity, then the early followers might be much more convinced to follow.

I do not mean to imply that John the Baptist’s role in Christianity was entirely made up by the Gospel authors. John’s historicity is just as probable as Jesus’; Josephus talks (I think) more about John the Baptist than he does Jesus (he barely mentions Jesus). What I do mean to say is that John may not have had contact with Jesus and/or may not have believed Jesus was the Messiah he was prophesying about. Either way; John’s baptism was eventually done away with – even though it was the blueprint to Christian baptism.

Why was it done away with? Jesus had arrived. In John’s Gospel we see John the Baptist’s departure begin very early. Jesus had been teaching His disciples to baptize and happened to be doing so in eyesight of John. John’s disciples asked him why and he famously says, “He must increase, but I must decrease,” (3:30). To John the Gospel author, John the Baptist knew his time had come and his purpose was fulfilled.

And yet even to the author of Luke and Acts we see John’s baptism superseded by a baptism “into Christ.” In Acts 19:1-7, Paul encounters former disciples of John and says, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus,” and then proceeds to baptize them “in the name of the Lord Jesus,” (19:4-5). This is one passage I highlighted for discussion in my paper, so I’ll save most of the talk about it for the next post(s) (although, it’s worth pointing out that Paul never talks about this incident in his letters). But suffice it to say, when Jesus had died and then resurrected three days later, John’s baptism was no longer needed. It had served its purpose.

Theissen’s suggestion of political implications is still highly plausible. In fact, all of the elements discussed here (symbolism, political statements, allusions to Jesus, etc.) could be present in John’s baptism. I believe this is the beauty of the Scriptures we read; they’re so incredibly nuanced (layered in meaning) that they never run out of life. And I don’t think God intended them to, either.

Baptism Part 7: Introduction to Christian Baptism…

Baptism gets interesting when it’s brought to Christianity. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, ritual immersion plays a major role in the belief system and practice at Qumran. But in the New Testament, there is a rich diversity of what baptism means and how it’s practiced. It’s difficult – probably near impossible – to give one decisive meaning for baptism, which then makes it essential to look at each text in and of itself to see what possible meanings can be deduced.

In my paper I broke it down to five main spheres of influence: John’s baptism (which combines the various Gospel views), Paul’s baptism (drawing from Galatians 3:27-29 and Ephesians 4:5), Acts 19:1-7 (which is an interesting turning point in the Christian baptism), 1st Peter 3:21, and – since it was a discussion of early Christianity and not just New Testament Christianity – Didache 7, which probably has more of a philosophical interpretation than the others.

I really didn’t get to discuss these varying facets at any real length, just briefly highlighting one or two main points. But since I’m not trying to fit any 12-15 page limitation, I’m hoping to break open each of these more fully. Also, after writing two 13-page papers on people being dunked in water, I’ve noticed other verses and passages in the NT that offer an interesting view of baptism and I’m looking forward to discussing those as well.

Right now, my plan for this next set of posts is to implement Gerd Theissen’s thoughts mixed with a couple other scholars (Everett Ferguson, N.T. Wright, and others). Theissen’s book, The Religion of the Earliest Churches: Creating a Symbolic World, acted as the framework of thought for Dr. Falk’s Early Christianity class in the winter, so I thought it’d be interesting to present some of his main points and invite readers into some of the discussions we had as a class.

Since from here on out is a long discussion on Christian baptism, I think it’d be best to title this set of posts as such; “Christian Baptism.” Of course there will be references back to Qumran or Greco-Roman washing rituals to discuss certain similarities, but ultimately my focus will be on the New Testament books as well as some of the non-canonical books (books that, for one reason or another, didn’t make it into the New Testament).

Ultimately the goal is to see/discuss the formulation of Christian thought regarding baptism’s role in following Christ. Was it simply an initiatory rite or could an early Jewish-Christian still partake in purity rituals? Was it thought of as simply a metaphor or did one need to physically be baptized? In answering and/or discussing these questions, I’m hoping to read through the New Testament and relevant books to see the evidence with fresh eyes. As scholars indicate, we can’t look into the minds of the New Testament authors and know what they were thinking when they penned their letters/gospels. But what we can do is read the text for what it is and go from there.

As N.T. Wright says, though, it can’t simply be a discussion based on speculation and mystical fantasy; there must be some grounding in historical evidence. Currently I’m reading his book The New Testament and the People of God, which I hope will provide some historical insight that isn’t otherwise present in the New Testament. I’ll also borrow information from Bart Ehrman and his textbook, A Brief Introduction to the New Testament.

There isn’t much time left in the summer, so I’m hoping to milk it for all it’s worth. Once again, though, I open the floor to any who would like to share questions, thoughts, or possible conclusions on the various things I write. What drove both my religious studies classes last winter wasn’t a long series of lectures from Professor Falk (although I’d pay just as much for that as well). No, what drove those seminars were the class discussions. Students’ thoughts were shared, challenged, and refined and I’m hoping something similar happens through these posts.

***For all the previous posts on baptism/ritual immersion, please click here or the “Baptism” tab on the side.

Baptism Part 6: Immersions in the Greco-Roman World…

To read (or reread) the previous posts regarding baptism, here they are: Intro, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5. Please feel free to ask questions or leave comments on any of these posts.

Ritual purity was not an exclusively Jewish or Christian idea; paganism had a major emphasis on purity through immersion as well. As a friend commented on my last post, it was a way to keep the gods happy so that bad things wouldn’t happen. Newborn Christians in the ancient world, especially the Gentile Christians, had to come face to face with the surrounding pagan view of immersion. Much like separating from Judaism, Christianity now had to separate itself from paganism.

And yet, as discussed below, there was something unique about pagan rituals of immersion that one doesn’t necessarily find in Jewish immersions: washing for personal hygiene. Baptism within the Christian mythology and teachings needed to be interpreted as something more than a ritual and more than a simple bath. Everett Ferguson (the scholar who discusses quite a few similarities and differences between John the Baptist and Qumran) outlines 4 main points for Greco-Roman pagan washings: general usage for purification, washings in the mystery religions, bathing practices, and then a special case from mythology (25-37).

a.      General Usage for Purification

Ferguson notes that these washings were already so common in the Second Temple time period that little information exists that details how they were conducted. But basically, paganism within the Greco-Roman world believed immersions were necessary in order to be cleansed before entering a temple (i.e. the temple of Athena at Pergamum), after warfare, before handling sacred things (i.e. one’s hand-made idols), and/or in order to set oneself in a spiritual position to properly obtain an oracle. As I’ll discuss in later posts, Christian baptism appears essential in order to receive the Spirit of God.

b.      Washings in the Mystery Religions

While the Mysteries had similar themes to the Christian baptism (i.e. “ideas of forgiveness, rebirth after a mystic death, eternal life, and illumination,” – Ferguson 28-29) their immersion ritual usually was a preliminary preparation for the entire ceremony of initiation. I’ll get into this a little deeper later on, but it’s important to emphasize the preliminary aspect of the immersion ritual. The whole ceremony for initiations was usually concluded with a meal (which in and of itself was similar to the Christian Eucharist or communion, but that’s a topic for another post).

c.       Bathing Practices

In Roman society, as Ferguson notes, bathing was regarded as healthy and encouraged amongst the Roman men. The “ritual,” as he suggests was as follows; “The typical order of the baths was a warm bath, a hot bath, and a cold plunge, and the baths had separate rooms for each: the tepidarium [tepid’ water], the caldarium [hot water], and the frigidarium [‘frigid’ water],” (35).

d.      A Special Case from Mythology

Of the four points from Ferguson’s outline, I found this one most interesting, especially in regards to the baptismal idea of complete immersion. Thetis, the goddess of mother of Achilles, dipped him in the River Styx in the underworld in order to make him entirely invulnerable. Where she held him at – and the only point on Achilles’ body that was not immersed in the water – was his heel, which implicitly stresses the importance of complete immersion. In John’s Gospel, when Jesus bends down to wash Peter’s feet, Peter cries out, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” (13:9). It isn’t entirely clear whether or not this mythological example influenced the early Christian idea of full immersion, but it’s an interesting resemblance nonetheless.

This is the world surrounding Christianity when it emerged. As is the case on several levels of theology, immersion into water had to be redefined for the early Christian. If it wasn’t so very different from pagan or Jewish rituals, then the whole message of the gospel could have been disregarded. As I’ll discuss in the next couple of posts, the early Christian world had some difficulties in defining what baptism meant, but ultimately, it had to be more than a bath and more than a purity ritual. Christian baptism had to contain a key ingredient that superseded all other versions of immersion. As the NT makes clear, there is indeed such an ingredient: the Holy Spirit.

Baptism Part 5: John the Baptist and Qumran…

Once again, I’ve taken a long break from this series (this time, two months), but I hope to finish them off by the end of this summer. If you haven’t read (or would like to re-read) any of the previous posts, here they are: Intro, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, & Part 4. Feel free to ask questions and/or make comments.

Comparisons between the Qumran Community and John the Baptist aren’t that difficult to make. Both were related with Jewish priests in a unique way; both seemed to have a large age-gap between parents and children; both were located in the wilderness (possibly very close to each other); both ministry’s were based on Isaiah 40:3; and both practiced – in a unique way – immersions (Ferguson, 87). And as I discussed in my papers, both believed that their practice of ritual immersion was a part of their ministry to usher in God’s eschatological kingdom.

What was different? Quite simple: Qumran’s immersions were repeatable whereas John’s were not. With Qumran, as we’ve seen, there were three categories of immersion: Initiation, renewal, and purification. But with John’s baptism, it was once and only once. And yet even beneath that surface-level difference, it appears to have meant something different to each, as well.

Qumran’s immersion was a way of entering and then re-aligning oneself in the pathway of God. John’s baptism, which eventually became the model for Christian baptism, was a foreshadowing of the baptism to come; a one and done practice wherein one would enter the kingdom of God without needing to be ritually immersed once more. And yet the book of Acts contains an instance where John’s baptism is explicitly superseded by the baptism into Christ, but I’ll save that for a later post.

Both Qumran and John the Baptist utilize immersion in a central way to their overall movements, but with different purposes attached. Qumran’s was an important pathway-check to make sure each member wasn’t only studying the Torah, but strictly retaining purity as well. With John, though, purity was given in one act, “For the forgiveness of sins,” as Mark indicates (1:4). Perhaps a good way of looking at the comparison (though definitely not a perfect way) is to think of a sports team’s tickets throughout the season. Either you can buy an individual ticket for every game or you can buy a season pass. That’s sort of what the differences look like.

Yet it’s crucial to emphasize that both John and Qumran were intensely focused on genuine repentance. Neither would view the act of baptism as the redeeming factor; one’s heart and mind must be authentically in a repentant state. And it also wasn’t as if you could simply get baptized with a repentant heart and have that be the end of it. In both movements, following God’s commandments was an additional, crucial element to ushering in God’s kingdom.

Christian baptism followed John’s model of a one-time immersion, but added a major element with a major difference as to what was happening. It’s clear to me that both Qumran and John the Baptist believed something extreme was changing in their worlds and that they were playing a major role – especially within their immersion practices. And yet, Qumran thought that God’s kingdom would arrive through their movement – within their community. John believed that he was merely preparing the way for the One, Jesus.

In the next several posts, we’ll see how baptism is portrayed in the Gospels, NT letters, and even some non-canonical texts that discuss baptism’s role. In addition to all of that, the history of baptism in the pagan community stands out as something that the Christian baptism needed to distinguish itself from. And so we’ll look at the elements of Greco-Roman immersion.

Baptism Part 4: Common Judaism and Qumran…

After a month-long hiatus from baptism postings, I’ve decided to start them up again. Below is a condensed version of the second section of my Dead Sea Scrolls paper on ritual immersion. This is a long read, so I recommend you take it bit by bit. And as always, feel free to ask questions. Enjoy!

P.S. In case you haven’t yet read the other posts, here they are: Introduction, Part One, Part Two, and Part Three. Below is Part Four and I’d recommend reading it a while before and/or after lunch… Just sayin’…

In order to see just how different the immersion practices at Qumran were, we must first understand the context surrounding the Dead Sea sectarians. During this time period (referred to as the “Second Temple time period” or “Second Temple Judaism,” which dates roughly from the 6th c. BC to the 1st c. AD), there was a great diversity of Jewish groups in and around Jerusalem and yet, there was something held in common. E.P. Sanders, a prominent figure in this field, calls this “Common Judaism.” To him, it was an era in which ordinary Jews “worked at their jobs, they believed the Bible, they carried out the small routines and celebrations of the religion, they prayed every day, thanked God for his blessings, and on the Sabbath went to the synagogue, asked teachers questions, and listened respectfully,” (Practice and Belief, 494).

A better way to understand Sanders’ words is to depict a group sitting around a camp fire. These people, all Jews, are from all over the Roman Empire sitting at this one camp fire. What Common Judaism asks is: Could there be common ground found amongst these Jews – even though they grew up in very different parts of the Empire? Or, specifically dealing with the Dead Sea Scrolls, could a regular Jew come across the practices at Qumran and understand what was going on? We come to find out that the existence of the Qumran sectarian depended upon a common understanding of Judaism.

To help outline what seemed to be common in regards to purity laws, I follow an outline given by Hannah K. Harrington in her book, The Purity Texts. Calling them the “Levels of Impurity,” she gives three main points: sources, contagion, and purification. Following these three points, we’ll see how the Yahad (“community”) distinguished themselves from “Common Judaism” in their ritual purification practices.


Although not a very popular read, Leviticus 11-15 outlines the main purity laws, which Jews in the Second Temple period made an emphasis to follow. From this section alone, we also see three main sources of impurity; death, leprosy, and bodily discharges. Sources of impurity at Qumran, however, have two more; excrement and outsiders. Rabbinic Jews regarded excrement as indecent (Deut. 23:12-14), but it wasn’t technically a source of impurity. Likewise for the treatment of outsiders; the Torah does not explicitly state that outsiders are impure, but as we shall see in certain scrolls, they certainly were treated as impure at Qumran.


Three major passages within the Hebrew Bible that highlight the indecency of excrement are; Deut. 23:12-14, Ezek. 4:12-14, and Zech. 3:3-4. It is likely these passages inspired the Qumran sectarians to regard excrement as impure, but what’s necessary here is the tone each of these sets. Deuteronomy requires Israelites to relieve themselves outside the war camp because God was present amongst the camp; excrement would be “indecent” in the eyes of God (v. 14). Ezekiel was commanded by God to eat bread baked on human dung, which repulsed Ezekiel on the grounds that his mouth had never been defiled. In Zechariah’s example, Joshua is standing before the Lord in a “filthy” garment and is changed into a clean one. It isn’t surprising for a common Jew to regard excrement as indecent, but the Community at Qumran went a step further.

Following the example from Deuteronomy, the Yahad had an area outside their camp designated for relieving oneself – and the only place to do so. And with a miqveh located at the entryway to the camp grounds, one who needed to relieve himself would go through the ritual purification process to re-enter back into the community, which seems to follow Zechariah’s story. Harrington says this designated area was located no closer than 4500 feet from the camp. Not only is that a long walk, but on Sabbaths, one could not walk more than 3500 feet (4Q265: 7), which means no one relieved themselves on the Sabbath (that’s when I’d stop being part of the Yahad, I think).


According to the Torah, Gentiles were allowed to live amongst the Israelites, but the daughters descending from Canaan were forbidden as wives to the Israelites. This was not for the sake of purity, but rather the belief that Canaan’s daughters were thought to persuade the sons of Israel into idolatry. This is possibly the influence for the Qumran Community to regard all Gentiles as inherently impure. The Damascus Document says that no member of the Community could send a Gentile to do his business on the Sabbath (11:2); spend the Sabbath near pagans (11:14); or sell animals, slaves or produce to Gentiles (12:8-11). And yet, as Harrington carefully points out, “Jews [were still] admonished by the Scrolls not to treat Gentiles unfairly so as not to give them a reason to blaspheme the God of Israel (12:6-8),” (Purity Texts, 114).

With two additional sources to the original list, the Scrolls indicate that the Qumran sectarians had a sort of “better safe than sorry” theme in their day-to-day conduct. An example that might shed a little light onto what this might have looked like comes from Luke 11: 37-38; “While Jesus was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him, so he went in and reclined at table. The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner. And yet, the Qumran sectarians weren’t about sheer avoidance from impurity; there was a purpose, a direction they had within all of it.


In regards to ritual purity, contagions are not the same as sources. According to the Leviticus chapters on purity laws, sources rendered one impure while contagions were whatever that impure person touched or came into contact with in that state of impurity. If someone had come into contact with death, they would be considered impure as well as everything they touched (clothes, household objects, other people, etc.). In Common Judaism, a dead man’s house was considered impure along with everything in it – except for sealed containers (i.e. food or wine). But at Qumran, such a qualification did not matter; sealed or not sealed, if it was in the man or woman’s house, it was impure.

Along with a more extreme treatment of contagious objects and items, the Temple Scroll indicates certain camps designed to house the impure; “And in every city you will make places for those afflicted with skin disease, plague, or a scall who are not to enter you[r] cities and defile them,” (11Q19 48:14-15a). Ian Werrett says these quarantine camps would include “those with skin diseases, bodily discharges, women who were menstruating, and those who had recently given birth,” (Ritual Purity and the DSS, 153-154). The hemorrhaging woman in the Synoptic Gospels, if a part of the Essenes, would never have been healed; she would never have been allowed to leave her quarantined spot.


As was already indicated in Part Three, repentance would make or break the sectarian’s experience and pursuit of purity. In many ways, it was the added element that truly enabled one to enter the “highway” preparing the entrance for God into the world. To the Qumran Community, ritual purity was not a system to be worked; it was a lifestyle to be lived. It was a gradual alteration of identity hinged upon one’s repentant heart and mind. As some scholars have speculated, the group at Qumran was out in the wilderness partially due to what they believed as the erroneous treatment of the Temple by the chief priests and “seekers of smooth things,” which was a rhetorical way of referring to the Pharisees (4Q169). Practicing ritual purification intertwined with a repentant heart and mind was everything to the Community at Qumran. As Harrington says, “[W]ithout repentance, immersion was meaningless,” (Purity Texts, 23).

Here is where we begin to see the similarities within Qumran’s literature and the personality of John the Baptist – as depicted in all the Gospels. I’ll save this comparison for the next post on baptism, but what’s important here is the emphasis on the necessity of a repentant mindset and state of heart before ritual immersion could affect anything in a person’s purity. Unlike the Rabbinic Jews, who sought to “interpret the gaps in Scripture [in order to create] a workable system,” the Qumran community saw purity as more than a system; it was the pathway to God’s kingdom (Harrington, Impurity Systems, 115). And this pathway required an “upright and humble condition of the heart during immersion,” (Pfann, 2).

Which Leaven Are You Living?

An interesting contrast came to mind during my Bible study with Tony Overstake – my pastor from Calvary Fellowship. We’ve been plugging along through Luke these past couple months and today’s section was chapters 13-15. Both he and I have been frequently busy in the last couple months, so we haven’t been meeting up as much as we’d like to, which means the text hasn’t been as fresh on my mind as I’d like it to be. Knowing this two days ago, I re-read the previous 6 or 7 chapters of Luke to get a real sense of where I was at in Luke 13. I didn’t need to back up very far, though, to pick up on a piece of figurative language Jesus uses to describe two very different groups of people.

In chapter 12, shortly after Jesus gives the religious elite a verbal slap in the face, He turns to His disciples and says, “Be on you guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy,” (v.1). As I touched on in my last post, this means not condemning others for doing things that I practice as well. In its proper context, Jesus is emphasizing to His disciples to avoid pretentions; He wants genuine followers, even if it means their very lives would be forfeit (12:4-5). But what does a genuine follower look like?

It’s here where today’s study with Tony comes into play. Luke 13:20-21 says this, “Again he asked, ‘What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.’” Here is the exact opposite usage of yeast than in chapter 12; it’s a positive thing here, but a negative thing in 12. So what then does this mean? It means we have a choice to make – a very big one.

Which yeast are you?

Do you seek out peoples’ attention in your prayers, service, or general charismatic personality come Sunday morning? Do you modestly brag about the nice things you’ve done for people or usually talk about how God’s used you to do something recently? Do you keep your eyes peeled for the debates about inerrancy, salvation, Rob Bell, etc.? If this is you, then at the very least you’re dangerously close to practicing Pharisaic tendencies. And oftentimes, I’m right there with you.

But here’s the yeast we’re supposed to use: God’s kingdom dwelling within us.

His culture, His teachings, His love, His mercy, His grace, His heart for righteousness and justice, and His desire to sacrifice Himself for the gain of others is all part of a kingdom that lives within our hearts and souls. If we use this yeast, Jesus says, the whole lump of dough will be filled. What Tony took that to mean, and I think is a powerful message, is that through our genuine faithfulness to God and His ways, the whole world could be filled with His spirit. No; it doesn’t depend entirely on us. It’s God’s Spirit doing the work from within us; not us doing it ourselves.

And yet this isn’t a license for us to sit around and do nothing. As NT Wright says, “If it is true… that the whole world is now God’s holy land, we must not rest as long as that land is spoiled and defaced. This is not an extra to the church’s mission. It is central,” (Surprised By Hope, 266). But what I’ve been wondering ever since my coffee with Tony is what it all comes down to: Which yeast am I? Which yeast do I want to be?

My first question is an assessment of my current situation. Which one am I acting more like; the Pharisaic yeast or the kingdom of God yeast? Usually it’s the former, but I should not be alarmed by this because there is the power to change. Which yeast do I find as acting more in line with God’s teachings and His ways? It ought always to be the latter.

This may go against some peoples’ deeply-ingrained beliefs, but I belief it’s never too late to make a change. John the Baptist has been regarded as a former Essene, possibly even a member of the Qumran sect. But unlike any of them, he believed people could change – he believed they could repent. We all can repent of our hypocrisy and strive for Godliness at any moment. It just takes a deep, serious answering of the question, “Which leaven are you living?”

Choose wisely.

God bless.