John the Baptist

John Baptist comes highly recommended by Jesus (his cousin - see below):

  • Mt 11:9: A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet…
  • Mt 11:12: From the days of John the Baptist henceforth, the kingdom of heaven will be gained by austerity and the disciplined shall win it.
  • (Mt 11:12 translation taken from Aramaic. For Mt 11:10 see below.)

    Matthew summarises it in Mt 3:2 as "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand", and, according to Matthew 4:17 this is also the start of Jesus’ message. John’s message in this version is that of Daniel 2:44 and 4:27 (the RSV reference given under Mt 3:2 is incorrect).

    Luke’s version (and Mark’s short reference) omits the kingdom of heaven from John Baptist’s message, instead John preaches a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The famous quotation from Isaiah 40:3 that refers to John in all the gospels is applied in Jn 1:23 by John Baptist to himself. However, what remains of John Baptist’s teaching (Lk 3:7-17) is anything but comfortable (Is 40:1), although Luke refers to it as the good news (Lk 3:18).

    Of baptism itself, it would seem from his name that his baptism was something of an innovation. Commentaries I have read suggest that Jews were not baptised, but only converts to Judaism, so that John Baptist was requiring a regeneration of their faith. Some commentators refer to the choice of Jordan as being because Isreal had passed through the Jordan (in Gen 32:10 Jacob says he passed over the Jordan with only his staff). I find a parallel however with the salvation of the crossing of the "Red Sea" in Exodus 14:9-31, since (a) for the Jews the deliverance from Egypt is such an important defining moment (Ex 20:2) as a release from bondage; and (b) the Red Sea incident can be seen as a washing away of enemies. Paul and Peter later tell us how the Christian rite of baptism differs from that of John Baptist, who also promises as much (Mt 3:11, Mk 1:8, Lk 3:16, Acts 1:15: oddly, although Matthew and Luke are quoting Mark here, Mark omits the phrase "with fire"). The Christian rite of baptism however keeps the water.

    John Baptist has a lengthy history in Luke’s gospel: Luke 1:5-24, 36, 57-80; 3:1-22; 7:18-35; 9:7-9. He was born to Elizabeth and Zechariah the priest, who at his birth sings the Benedictus (Lk 1:67-79) prophesying that

    You, child, will be called the Prophet of the Most High,
    For you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways
    to give knowledge of salvation to the people
    in the forgiveness of their sins.

    So he is of the priestly line from his father Zechariah. We are told that from birth he was filled with the Spirit (i.e. like a crazy man) (Lk 1:80) living in the wilderness on locusts and wild honey (Mt 3:4). His conception is announced by Gabriel, no less (Lk 1:19), who tells Zechariah that (Lk 1:15-17)

    he will be great before the Lord,
    and he shall drink no wine or strong drink,
    and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit,
    even from his mother's womb.
    And he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God,
    and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah,
    to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,
    and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just,
    to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.

    The reference in this last verse is to the last two verses of the Old Testament, Mal 4:5-6:

    Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hears of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse [or ban of destruction].

    Elizabeth is a kinswoman (Luke 1:36, sister in the Aramaic) of Mary the mother of Jesus, so that John Baptist and Jesus are cousins. When they meet in Matt 3:14 John recognises Jesus and there is no suggestion that this recognition is miraculous. Although Matthew and Luke are both quoting almost directly from Mark at this point, all four gospels disagree on what happens next: in John 1:29 John Baptist announces Jesus as the Messiah to the crowd, and speaks of [John] seeing a dove descend on him. In Matthew 3:14 John Baptist is at first reluctant to baptise Jesus and for Matthew 3:16 and Mark 1:10 it is Jesus who sees the dove. In Luke 3:21 everyone apparently sees the dove. I think the original version of this private vision is as told by Mark.

    In Matthew’s version Jesus tells John that his baptism "is decreed for us" (Mt 3:15 Aramaic). The heavenly voice quoting Psalm 2:7 tells us that this is Jesus’s anointing as king (see another article). It is followed immediately in Luke 3:23-38 by Jesus’ royal lineage. We see now that John the priest and prophet was fulfilling his commission from his father the priest Zechariah to designate the Messiah.

    The significance of this event in Matthew’s and Luke’s versions can therefore not be overstated. In all the gospels this event is seen as the start of Jesus’ ministry. After the period "of temptation" in the wilderness Jesus immediately begins his ministry. His message "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand" (Mt 4:17) strikingly is the very same as John Baptist's (Mt 3:2). He calls his first disciples (Mt 4:18-22) and begins preaching in the synagogues Mt 4:23-25. This synopsis is then fleshed out with large quotations from the [?sources of the] other gospels (Mt 5-9).

    John’s next intervention in the gospel story is in Mt 11:2-6=Lk 7:18-23 where he sends two of his own disciples to Jesus to ask "Are you he that is to come?" In view of all that has happened to date (and John’s proclamation of Jesus as quoted in Jn 2:29) this is perplexing. The best explanation I can offer is that in the common source of this incident, the lost book called "Q", the significance of the baptism of Jesus was not so great. Jesus’ answer in any case is to assure John that the signs of the coming kingdom are all around: the lame walk, the dumb sing. Of these signs more in another article.

    Finally, there are the accounts of John’s death in Mk 6:14-29 = Matt 14:1-12 (and a shorter version in Lk 9:7-9). These are odd. Herod the tetrarch hears of these wonders and asks is John not beheaded? Mark follows with an account in flashback of John’s death. Matthew quotes this but follows it with Jesus’ private grief at John’s death, ignoring the temporal incongruity.

    The extent to which Jesus' message bears similarities with John's is striking despite the scant details of John Baptist's ministry (the first 3 bullets summarise the foregoing and the others add some new points):

    Lk 3:7b (John Baptist) "You brood of vipers!" = Mt 12:34 (Jesus) "You brood of vipers!" cf Mt 23:33 (Jesus) "You serpents, you brood of vipers"
    Lk 3:8b (John Baptist) "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 to Abraham" cf. Jn 8:33-39
    Lk 3:9b (John Baptist) "Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." = Mt 7:19 (Jesus) "Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.".
    Lk 3:13 (John Baptist, to tax collectors) "Collect no more than is appointed you." cf Mt 22:21 (Jesus)
    Lk 3:16 (John Baptist, cf Mk 1:7-8) "I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie: he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire." cf Acts 1:5 (Jesus) "For John baptized with water but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit."
    Lk 3:17 (John Baptist) "His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor, and to gather wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." cf Mt 13:29-30 (Jesus).


    Malcolm Crowe, Glasgow, 11 June - 12 October 1998.