Jesus—His Life and Message: John and Jesus (Part 1)
February 3, 2015
by Peter Amsterdam
Jesus—His Life and Message: John and Jesus (Part 1)
(You can read about the intent for and overview of this series in this introductory article.)
Early in Luke’s Gospel we have been told of the events surrounding John the Baptist’s birth, including the proclamation of the Angel Gabriel and the prophecy of John’s father Zechariah. The only thing we know of John’s youth is that the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.1 He resurfaces about thirty years later in the Gospels. Luke tells us that the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness.2
The word of God coming to John is significant because after the last three Jewish prophets—Zechariah, Haggai, and Malachi—there were no further prophets who spoke to the nation of Israel. When Luke writes that the word of God came to John, he is telling us that God is speaking to His people once again.
Luke’s wording harks back to centuries earlier, when God was still speaking to Israel. There are many similar mentions in Scripture, such as the word of the LORD came by the hand of Haggai the prophet3… the word of the LORD came to the prophet Zechariah4… The oracle of the word of the LORD to Israel by Malachi.5 After 400 years of silence, God was once again speaking to the nation. People were excited, as evidenced by the numbers that sought John out, as we’ll see.
We’re told that John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.6 And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.7
John, called “the Baptist” in the Gospels, conducted his ministry around the Jordan River. The exact location isn’t specified. He could have been ministering in the Judaean wilderness adjacent to the Jordan, or in the north near Perea, or possibly he worked his way up and down the Jordan valley between different locations along the river.8
Large numbers of people would come to hear John preach and be baptized by him. Matthew’s statement that Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him9 indicates that John had become very well known, so much so that even many Pharisees and Sadducees came to hear him.10 Priests and Levites were dispatched from Jerusalem to inquire about who he was.11
John not only drew crowds, he also had a considerable number of disciples who followed his practices and preaching.12 In the Gospel of John we read that some of Jesus’ first disciples were originally John’s disciples.13 The book of Acts14 indicates that he had a following even many years after his death. It’s possible that the movement not only survived but spread after John’s death.15
The Gospels tell us that Jesus was baptized by John,16 that He called John “Elijah who was to come,”17 said he was more than just a prophet,18 and that he was the greatest person ever born.19 After John’s death, some people thought Jesus was John resurrected.20 John certainly had an impact, so it’s worth looking at his life more closely. Who was he exactly, and what was his role in relation to Jesus?
We know from the stories about Jesus and John’s birth that John was the son of Zechariah, who was a priest, which meant John was eligible to become a priest as well. However, from before his birth, God had called John in a different direction, and instead of participating in the priestly duties in Jerusalem, he went out into the wilderness. Some Bible scholars conjecture that John may have been part of the Essene community at Qumran,21 which was near where John baptized. Among their spiritual rituals, they had specific purification rites that included immersing themselves in water. Similar to John, they believed that the judgment of God would soon fall on Israel. While it’s possible that John may have been connected with or at least influenced by their teachings, it’s clear that by the time he began his ministry he was no longer connected with them; some of his beliefs and practices, which we read about in the Gospels, were contrary to what the Essenes taught.
John powerfully preached the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He baptized all those who made the decision to repent. His baptism signified their new or renewed allegiance to God’s purpose, and their commitment to living in a way that reflected their being true children of Abraham. His message was that Jewish heredity, being children of Abraham, wasn’t sufficient—repentance of sin was needed. He said:
“Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.”22
Echoing Isaiah’s prophecy,23 John expressed the urgency of repentance when he said, Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.24 The fruits he’s speaking of are the fruits in keeping with repentance.25 The fire is reminiscent of Malachi’s prophecy: For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.26 John was making the point that those listening shouldn’t hesitate; the time to repent was immediately.27
The crowds asked John: “What then shall we do?” To which he answered: “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.”28 This general counsel would have reminded the listeners of the fuller message already given in Scripture through Isaiah:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?29 What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings …Bring no more vain offerings …Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates …Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause.30
John’s brief answer clearly showed the listeners that repentance required more than following rituals or offering burnt offerings. It meant manifesting godly action in their day-to-day lives.
After John’s general answer to the crowds, the scope narrows as Luke tells us that the toll (tax) collectors and soldiers ask John what they should do. The toll collectors were known to exploit the tax system by collecting taxes above and beyond what was owed for their own profit. They were generally despised by the populace as collaborators with Rome.31 John’s response is that their “fruits of repentance” should be carried out in their daily lives by not collecting more taxes than they are authorized to. His response to the soldiers, who may have been Jews in the military service of Herod, is similar: Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.32 These examples highlight the positive effect John’s preaching was having, not just on the general populace, but on those on the fringes of Jewish society as well.
John accompanied his preaching with baptism. The Greek word used for baptize (baptizo) means “to immerse, to submerge.” In similar Jewish water rites at the time, most individuals immersed themselves; however, in the case of John’s baptism, he immersed them. His wasn’t just a cleansing or purification ritual, it was a baptism of repentance—an outward manifestation partaken of only by those who repented, who had a change of heart and mind. It was symbolic of the death of a whole way of life and the rebirth of another.33 It was a new start, and the expectation was that the one who was baptized would change, and that their lives would show fruits of their repentance.
Besides preaching the urgency of repentance and the consequences of not repenting, John also announced that he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.34 Stating that he wasn’t worthy of untying the sandals of the coming one was John’s way of saying that he wouldn’t even be worthy to perform the duty of a slave for this mightier one to come. The baptism of the coming one would be a baptism of the Holy Spirit and with fire, greater and more powerful than John’s baptism.
Luke tells us that by this point, people were waiting expectantly and wondering if John was the Messiah.35 In the Gospel of John, the question is put to the Baptist by the priests and Levites sent from Jerusalem:
“Who are you?” He confessed …“I am not the Christ.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.”36
Since he explicitly states that he is not the Messiah, they want to know if he is Elijah, or the prophet. J. Ramsey Michaels explains:
The expectation that Elijah would return to prepare the people for the day of the Lord is as old as the prophecy of Malachi, where the pronouncement, “See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me” (Malachi 3:1 NIV), anticipates the concluding promise, “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes” (Malachi 4:5 NIV).37
Jesus later referred to John as being Elijah, in the sense of being the one who was to come before the Messiah.38
The question “Are you the Prophet?” is in reference to Deuteronomy 18:18: I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him.39
In answer to “Who are you?” John said,“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”40 All of the Gospels refer to Isaiah 40:3 when describing John, but it’s only in the fourth Gospel that these words are put in John’s own voice. Later he reiterates that I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.41 He calls himself the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, and who rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice.42 John understood his calling as the forerunner of the one to come.
Besides baptizing with the Holy Spirit, John says that the one to come will also baptize “with fire.”43 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.44 The winnowing of wheat is the process of sifting the wheat from the chaff. Fire is seen throughout the Old Testament as an image for judgment.45 John expresses that the baptism of the one to come purges as well as blesses. We later see this theme in Jesus’ parables of the sower and of the wheat and the tares.46
John contrasted his baptism with the baptism of the one to come. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.47 This greater baptism to come echoes prophecies given through Ezekiel: I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.48 John’s was a cleansing baptism of repentance; the greater one who was coming would bring a baptism of salvation.
John’s message was popular, and crowds came to see him. As we’ll see in the next article, Jesus came to see him as well.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Bailey, Kenneth E. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008.
Biven, David. New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus. Holland: En-Gedi Resource Center, 2007.
Bock, Darrell L. Jesus According to Scripture. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002.
Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Doubleday, 1993.
Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
Charlesworth, James H., ed. Jesus’ Jewishness, Exploring the Place of Jesus Within Early Judaism. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997.
Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Updated Edition. Hendrickson Publishers, 1993.
Elwell, Walter A., and Robert W. Yarbrough. Encountering the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.
Evans, Craig A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:27–16:20. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000.
Flusser, David. Jesus. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1998.
Flusser, David, and R. Steven Notely. The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.
Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.
Green, Joel B., and Scot McKnight, eds. The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992.
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 2000.
Guelich, Robert A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 1–8:26. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1989.
Jeremias, Joachim. The Eucharistic Words of Jesus. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990.
Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1996.
Jeremias, Joachim. Jesus and the Message of the New Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.
Jeremias, Joachim. New Testament Theology. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971.
Lewis, Gordon R., and Bruce A. Demarest. Integrative Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.
Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976.
Manson, T. W. The Sayings of Jesus. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1957.
Manson, T. W. The Teaching of Jesus. Cambridge: University Press, 1967.
Michaels, J. Ramsey. The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992.
Ott, Ludwig. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. Rockford: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1960.
Pentecost, J. Dwight. The Words & Works of Jesus Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981.
Sanders, E. P. Jesus and Judaism. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.
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1 Luke 1:80.
2 Luke 3:2.
3 Haggai 1:1.
4 Zechariah 1:1.
5 Malachi 1:1.
6 Mark 1:4–5 and Matthew 3:1.
7 Luke 3:3.
8 Witherington, John the Baptist, The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 386–87.
9 Matthew 3:5.
10 Matthew 3:7.
11 John 1:19.
12 John 1:35, 3:25, and Luke 11:1.
13 John 1:35–40.
14 Acts 18:24–25, 19:1–7.
15 Witherington, John the Baptist, The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 388–89.
16 Matthew 3:13,16; Mark 1:9; Luke 3:21.
17 Matthew 11:14.
18 Luke 7:26.
19 Luke 7:28.
20 Matthew 16:14.
21 Although not spoken of in Scripture, another group of religious Jews called the Essenes existed in Jesus’ time. They are spoken of in the historical writings of Josephus, Philo, and Pliny, as well as in the Dead Sea Scrolls. It appears that a number of them settled near the Dead Sea, possibly in Qumran, somewhere between 150 and 140 BC. Around 31 BC they abandoned that location, possibly due to an earthquake. Some of them returned to the location following the death of Herod the Great. They disappeared from the historical record after the Great Revolt of Judea in 66–70 AD. The Essenes were anti-temple, believed in the preexistence and immortality of the soul, and were very legalistic in matters of ritual purity. They saw themselves as the righteous remnant of Jews who were living in the last days. They looked for a political Messiah and the end of the age. Some of the Essenes lived together communally and held all their possessions in common. They dedicated themselves to studying Scripture, ritual washing, prayer, and copying their own writings. The Dead Sea Scrolls, found hidden in caves near where they lived, contained some of what are considered to be writings of the Essenes, along with scrolls of some of the writings of the Old Testament. (From Jesus—His Life and Message: Rulers and Religion, earlier in this series.)
22 Luke 3:8.
23 Behold, the Lord GOD of hosts will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the great in height will be hewn down, and the lofty will be brought low. He will cut down the thickets of the forest with an axe, and Lebanon will fall by the Majestic One (Isaiah 10:33–34).
24 Luke 3:9.
25 Luke 3:8.
26 Malachi 4:1.
27 Green, The Gospel of Luke, 177.
28 Luke 3:10–11.
29 Isaiah 58:6–7.
30 Paraphrased from Isaiah 1:10–20.
31 There were three types of taxes which were required by the Romans, who ruled Israel during the time of Jesus: the land tax, the head tax, and the customs tax system. The taxes were used to pay tribute to Rome, which had conquered Israel in 63 BC. Throughout the Roman Empire there was a system of tolls and duties that were collected at ports, tax offices, and at the city gates. The rates were between two and five percent of the value of the goods that were transported from town to town. On long journeys, a person bringing goods from one place to another could be taxed multiple times. The value of the goods was determined by the tax collector. The customs and tax collection system operated through what is called tax farming. The way it worked is that wealthy individuals would bid on how much they would pay Rome for the privilege of collecting taxes in an area. The highest bidder, the “tax farmer,” would pay the amount that was accepted by Rome for the bid, meaning that Rome got its tax money in advance. The tax farmer would then collect the taxes through local tax collectors. The tax farmer and those he hired to collect the taxes would make their living from the taxes collected from the people. They would charge as much as possible in taxes, within certain legal limits, as their income was determined by how much money they could bring in over the amount that they had already paid to Rome. In short, tax collection was a for-profit business. The tax farmers hired local tax collectors to do the work of collecting taxes. These tax collectors would assess the value of the goods and then assign the amount to be paid. While there was some measure of control, tax collectors would often value the goods much higher than their actual worth, in order to make a profit. They would stop people on the road and demand these taxes, which could either be paid in currency or by forfeiting a portion of the goods. Those being taxed considered this institutional robbery. When some tax collectors came to John the Baptist to be baptized, they asked him what they should do, and he responded, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” … Tax collectors were despised. They were seen as extortioners and unjust, and according to Jewish law, others were not obliged to speak the truth to them. They were considered religiously unclean, and their houses and any house they entered were thus considered unclean. The hated tax collectors were often put in the same category as sinners and prostitutes. They were seen as thieves and shunned by respectable people. (Peter Amsterdam, The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, in The Stories Jesus Told.)
32 Luke 3:14.
33 Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 56.
34 Luke 3:16.
35 Luke 3:15.
36 John 1:19–21.
37 Michaels, The Gospel of John, 98.
38 Matthew 11:14.
39 Deuteronomy 18:18–19.
40 John 1:22–23.
41 John 3:28.
42 John 3:29.
43 Luke 3:16.
44 Matthew 3:12.
45 Isaiah 66:15; Ezekiel 38:22; Zephaniah 1:12.
46 Matthew 13:8–30. See also Matthew 25:31–33.
47 Mark 1:8.
48 Ezekiel 36:25–27. See also Ezekiel 11:19–20.