Jesus—His Life and Message: John and Jesus (Part 3)
March 3, 2015
by Peter Amsterdam
Jesus—His Life and Message: John and Jesus (Part 3)
(You can read about the intent for and overview of this series in this introductory article.)
Before exploring Jesus’ early ministry, we will follow the line of John’s ministry in order to view some of the connections and interactions between Jesus and John and their disciples.
For a period of time, Jesus and John were ministering simultaneously. John’s ministry was well underway by the time Jesus was baptized. John was well known, and people came from far and wide to hear him preach and be baptized.
Some time after being baptized by John, Jesus began His ministry. The Gospel of John indirectly lets us know that Jesus’ ministry was growing and becoming successful by quoting John the Baptist’s disciples informing John that he [Jesus] who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.1
We read of some points of contact between John’s and Jesus’ ministries as John’s disciples came to Jesus and asked:
“Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”2
We are told that one of Jesus’ disciples brought up what John taught his disciples:
Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”3 Later in Jesus’ ministry, when some of the Jews wanted to arrest Him, Jesus fled to a place where John had in the past baptized.
Again they sought to arrest him, but he escaped from their hands. He went away again across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing at first, and there he remained.4
All of the Gospels speak of John being imprisoned and later beheaded by Herod Antipas. Both Matthew and Mark tell of the events surrounding his incarceration and execution. Mark tells the story this way:
It was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.
But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. For when Herodias’s daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests. And the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.” And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” And she went out and said to her mother, “For what should I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist.” And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”
And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.5
According to the first-century historian Josephus, Herod had John imprisoned at Machaerus, one of his fortresses east of the Dead Sea, and then had him killed because he was afraid that the great influence John had over the people might cause them to rise up in rebellion against him.6 Josephus also wrote about Herod marrying Herodias, his brother’s wife, but he didn’t cite the marriage as the key issue in John’s death; rather, as a historian viewing this event in a wider context of events of the time, he gave a purely political reason for it. Mark and Matthew tell us that John was killed because he preached against Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife, thus telling the story in light of personal intrigue within the royal court.7
Herodias wanted John killed, but according to Mark, Herod considered him to be a righteous and holy man, and kept him safe. Matthew, on the other hand, tells us that Herod also wanted to put John to death, but he feared the people, as they considered John to be a prophet.8 Leon Morris commented on the difference in the two accounts:
Surely the situation that both Evangelists envisaged was that there was hostility from both husband and wife in the palace. Herodias took strong exception to what John had said about her marriage and, careless of the consequences, wanted his execution. Herod also wanted to kill John, but he was not careless of the consequences. He hesitated, for he knew the sort of man John was and was afraid of the reaction from the people if such a holy man were executed.9
So who was Herodias, and what was the problem with her marriage to Herod Antipas?10 Morris explains the rather complex relationship this way:
This lady was a granddaughter of Herod the Great, being the daughter of his son Aristobulus. She married her uncle Herod Philip (who is to be distinguished from the tetrarch Philip, Luke 3:1) who was half-brother to Herod Antipas. Herod Philip and Herodias had a daughter, Salome. Herod Antipas married a Nabatean princess (whose name is not known), the daughter of King Aretas, but he and Herodias fell in love. They agreed to marry, and Herodias left his half-brother Herod Philip. The daughter of Aretas got wind of what was happening and fled to her father, who promptly went to war with Herod and defeated him (which provoked Roman intervention). As it turns out, Salome, Herodias’ daughter, the one who danced at the party, later married Philip the tetrarch, half-brother to Herod Philip. She thus became both aunt and sister-in-law to her own mother.11
This was a complex situation. The Mosaic Law strictly forbade marrying a brother’s wife:12
Clearly the Herod family had little regard for the Law, as Antipas married Herodias in direct violation of it.
While we’re not told how long John was imprisoned before being executed, some commentators suggest it was for about a year. We do know from the Gospels that by the time John was killed, Jesus’ ministry was well underway.
John’s brutal death occurred during a celebration of Herod’s birthday, which was attended by political magistrates, Roman military commanders, and other prominent men.15 First-century readers wouldn’t have found it surprising that there was dancing at such a party, but the expectation would have been that paid dancers would perform. It would have been considered quite distasteful that a princess, Salome, was dancing before a group of men at a party.16 The dance pleased Herod greatly, and he offered her anything she wanted, “up to half my kingdom”—similar to what King Ahasuerus promised to Esther in the Old Testament.17
Salome, who was possibly 12–14 years old,18 asked her mother’s advice, and following her mother’s instructions quickly returned and said to Herod, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” Asking for it “at once” and requesting that it be delivered to her on a platter didn’t allow Herod any room to maneuver or to stall the execution. This bit of palace intrigue perpetrated by Herodias forced Herod into a position of having to comply immediately. Herod kept his promise, and in doing so saved face in front of his guests, but murdered an innocent man. Guelich remarks:
Herodias, who at the beginning of the story was the cause for John’s imprisonment, now ends the story with her prize.19
Before his death, John had some questions about Jesus and His ministry. Matthew tells us that 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?”20 Why would John, who earlier acknowledged that Jesus was the mightier “Coming One” who didn’t need to be baptized, be questioning Jesus’ credentials? By asking if they should be looking for another, he was suggesting that Jesus was simply another forerunner of the Messiah and that the true Messiah was yet to come. What caused John to send his disciples to Jesus in order to inquire about this? It likely had to do with John’s perception of the role of the Messiah.
When speaking about the one who would come after him, John envisioned judgment:
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 …His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.21
Jesus’ ministry didn’t match John’s expectations, which were generally shared by the Jewish people of that time.22 Instead of judgment and deliverance, Jesus was moving among ordinary people, teaching them about God and healing the sick. To John, and to other like-minded people, the nature of Jesus’ activities seemed to disqualify Him from being the Messiah. John’s misperceptions of messiahship caused him to feel puzzled, and he sought clarification as to Jesus’ role. Jesus’ response to John gives the proper interpretation of the role of the Messiah, and at the same time Jesus identifies Himself as the Messiah.
Jesus tells John’s disciples:
Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.23
Jesus responded by making reference to various quotations from the book of Isaiah. It wasn’t necessary for Him to quote the full verses, as people in those days were well versed in Scripture and it only required saying a few words of a verse for the hearers to recall the full verses, such as:
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert24 … Hear, you deaf, and look, you blind, that you may see!25…The Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.26
John (and the early readers of the Gospel) would have understood that Jesus was telling him that He was doing what the Spirit of the Lord had anointed Him to do. In the chapters just prior to John’s question, both Luke and Matthew tell of the great things Jesus was doing. Luke explains it like this:
Now when the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to him, and he laid his hands on every one of them and healed them. And demons also came out of many, crying, “You are the Son of God!”27…A great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon …came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. And those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all the crowd sought to touch him, for power came out from him and healed them all.28
John was focused on the Messiah’s role as judge. Jesus gave a fuller picture of the Messiah’s purpose. While judgment will eventually come at the hand of the Messiah, Jesus’ role on earth wasn’t focused on judgment, but on showing God’s great love for humanity through His teaching and actions. Jesus’ response to John refocused the Messiah’s role. He told John’s disciples to convey the message that there was no need to seek another, as even though Jesus’ actions fell short of fulfilling John’s expectations, they fulfilled God’s.
After the departure of John’s disciples, Jesus spoke to the crowds about John, saying:
What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.29
Leon Morris explains:
Strong motivation was required to cause people to go out into the wilderness, and the thought that they would see a prophet provided that strong motivation. A prophet was the spokesman of God; among the Jews there could be no higher pedestal on which to place a man. And while there had been many prophets in olden days, the people of that day had never seen one, nor had their ancestors for hundreds of years. So they would flock to see a prophet.30
Jesus agrees that John was a prophet and states that he’s even more than a prophet. Here Jesus gives His evaluation of John and his ministry.
“This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one 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 suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”31
Jesus quotes Scripture to point out that John is God’s messenger, that he is “Elijah who would come.” Jesus then states that there has never been someone greater than John, that he is more than a prophet, as he is also the fulfillment of prophecy. He’s the forerunner sent to prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah. Yet as great as John is, “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater.” Jesus isn’t diminishing John, and He isn’t comparing John’s moral stature or his service to that of others. He is speaking of privilege—that those who are least in the kingdom of God are greater than John, not insofar as what they do for God, but insofar as what God does for them. Even to be the herald and forerunner of God on earth, like John, is not as great a privilege as to participate in the ministry of the Coming One—to be heirs of the kingdom which John, as the last of the prophets of old, foresaw and foretold.32
Matthew then states:
From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.33
This verse is generally understood to describe the kingdom of God as being attacked by violent men. However, the meaning can be better understood by seeing this verse in light of Micah 2:13, which says:
One who breaks open the way will go up before them; they will break through the gate and go out. Their king will pass through before them, the LORD at their head.34
In this verse, there are two people involved: the one who breaks open the way, the breaker; and the king who passes through the breach at the head of his people. These two people play a prominent role in the Jewish expectation of the coming of redemption. Elijah was to come first and open the breach, and he would be followed by those who broke through with their king, the Messiah.35 Jesus spoke of John as being Elijah:
For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.36
John is the breaker who opens the breach and causes the kingdom to break forth. The others then break forth through the breach with the king, the Messiah, leading them through.
Accordingly, this verse can be translated as:
From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven breaks forth and those breaking forth are pursuing it.37
From the beginning of John’s ministry, the kingdom of God is breaking forth, and those who are breaking forth with it pursue the principles of God’s reign with all their might. They possess an intensity for the work of the Lord. The rule of God is sought in every part of their lives. They become subjects of the king, accepting the yoke of the kingdom of heaven and seeking to see the redeeming power of healing love penetrate a world full of people in need of God.38
Jesus held John in great esteem, even after he questioned Jesus’ role. Jesus reiterated the significance of John’s calling and ministry by connecting it to the Old Testament prophecy:
“Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.”39
Jesus then pointed out that the responses to both His and John’s ministries were similar, even though their methods and styles were different.
“But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”40
The meaning of this parable is debated, but one view is that “this generation” complains that John and Jesus do not behave as those who are complaining think they should. They see John as having a demon because he is an ascetic; Jesus, on the other hand, doesn’t separate Himself from sinners, but rather eats and drinks with the worst of them, and is thus considered a glutton and a drunk. The people complain that neither Jesus nor John will “dance to their tune,” so Jesus likens them to spoiled children who complain when their playmates won’t do what they want.
Throughout Jesus’ ministry, He is criticized for not complying with expectations. But in the end, the wisdom of God’s way will be seen, even though it is different from what most people expected.
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.
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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.
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Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Updated Edition. Hendrickson Publishers, 1993.
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Flusser, David, and R. Steven Notely. The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.
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Guelich, Robert A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 1–8:26. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1989.
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Young, Brad H. Jesus the Jewish Theologian. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995.
1 John 3:26.
2 Matthew 9:14.
3 Luke 11:1.
4 John 10:39–40.
5 Mark 6:17–29.
6 Antiquities of the Jews, 18:117–118.
7 Guelich, World Biblical Commentary, Mark, 331.
8 Matthew 14:5.
9 Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 143.
10 This marriage and its history was briefly described earlier in this series, in Jesus—His Life and Message: Rulers and Religion.
11 Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 142.
12 Unless it was a Levirate marriage. Deuteronomy 25:5–6: If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband's brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband's brother to her. And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.
13 Leviticus 18:16 NIV.
14 Leviticus 20:21 NIV.
15 Guelich, World Biblical Commentary, Mark, 322.
16 Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 372.
17 The king said to her, “What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? It shall be given you, even to the half of my kingdom” (Esther 5:3).
18 Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 373.
19 Guelich, World Biblical Commentary, Mark, 333.
20 Matthew 11:2–3.
21 Luke 3:9,17.
22 See more on this topic of the expectations of the Messiah in Jesus—His Life and Message: The Setting.
23 Luke 7:22: Matthew 11:4–6.
24 Isaiah 35:5–6.
25 Isaiah 42:18.
26 Isaiah 61:1.
27 Luke 4:40–41.
28 Luke 6:17–19.
29 Matthew 11:7–9.
30 Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 279.
31 Matthew 11:10–15.
32 W.C. Kaiser, Jr., P. H. Davids, F. F. Bruce, and M. T. Brauch. Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996),460.
33 Matthew 11:12.
34 The points covered here are summarized from Young, Jesus the Jewish Theologian.
35 Young, Jesus the Jewish Theologian, 54.
36 Matthew 11:13–14.
37 Young, Jesus the Jewish Theologian, 55.
39 Matthew 11:10; Malachi 3:1.
40 Matthew 11:16–19.