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Chapter Six: Jesus and John the Baptist


“Christianity is essentially a belief in the coming of the Kingdom of God. It begins with the message preached by John the Baptist on the banks of the Jordan, ’Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.’ It was with the same preaching that Jesus came forward in Galilee after the imprisonment of the Baptist.” In the Gospel of Mark, we are introduced to Jesus with these words: “After John had been arrested, Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming the Gospel of God: ‘The time has come; the kingdom of God is upon you; repent, and believe the Gospel.’” (Schweitzer, p. 3)

So the story of Jesus begins with John the Baptist. The two persons are inseparably linked. Both preach the same message: “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” After centuries of expecting God’s kingdom, the glorious moment has arrived. The Kingdom will come soon. Human history is about to end. A second and related message is: “Repent”. One should prepare to face the Day of Judgment by repenting of sin. One should change one’s sinful attitude to become fit to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

John’s Baptism

John the Baptist began preaching near the Jordan river around 28 A.D. when Tiberius was emperor in Rome and Herod Antipas ruled Galilee. What an astonishing event! A new prophet had appeared in the land of the Jews. What an astonishing event! “For centuries the Kingdom of God had been mentioned only in writings claiming to have been written by holy men in the remote past. Now a prophet had once more appeared, speaking about the Kingdom of God to his contemporaries. Another novelty was the fact that he was not driven to speak about its coming by reason of some historical event that had just occurred. He was not even, like the writers of the apocalypses, calculating the conditions which would have to be fulfilled before it could arrive. He simply preaches that the time has come.” (Schweitzer, p. 74)

The time separating John the Baptist and the last canonical prophet, Malachi, was roughly five centuries. From our perspective, that would be like the difference in time between our generation from that of Martin Luther or Cortes. And Jewish prophecy was already old in Malachi’s day. For those many centuries religious Jews had been expecting God’s kingdom to arrive but the date had always been postponed. Now there was a strange-looking preacher who was telling people that the Kingdom would arrive soon. How soon was not clear; however one was led to believe that one needed to do something immediately to prepare for the event. One needed to repent before it was too late.

Unlike previous prophets, “John does not concern himself with a description of the final events. He is the traveler who has come to the foot of the mountains. He no longer glimpses the relative positions of the various peaks. All he cares about is being equipped to make the ascent. That is why he demands of his hearers that they repent.” (Schweitzer, p. 74) The Greek word for repentance, metanoeite, expresses not only regret for past sins but it calls for a new way of thinking as one expects the Kingdom to come.

“Still more novelty! John declares that the required repentance becomes valid and effective through an act which he performs, namely baptism. All earlier prophets came forward as preachers alone. He exercises authority at the same time. His baptism is not only an act symbolizing cleansing from guilt; it actually confers salvation.” (Schweitzer, p. 75) One becomes fit to enter the Kingdom of Heaven not by a shift in attitude but by virtue of having submitted to John’s baptism in water.

The scriptural basis for this ritual is found in Jeremiah, Ezekial, and Zechariah. Zechariah referred to “a fountain ... opened for the line of David ... to remove all sin and impurity.” (Zechariah 13 1) Ezekial said: “I will sprinkle clean water over you, and you shall be cleansed from all that defiles you ... I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you.” (Ezekial 36: 25-26) Jeremiah said: “O Jerusalem, wash the wrongdoing from your heart and you may yet be saved.” (Jeremiah 4: 14) The fact that John the Baptist is effectively removing sin by this act of drenching the sinner in water means that the last days have arrived.

Jesus’ Baptism by John

Jesus let himself be baptized by John the Baptist. One would assume that, in accepting John’s baptism, he was subordinating himself to John in the spiritual hierarchy. The Gospels make it clear that this was not the case. But the identities are unclear. John says to the Pharisees and Sadduccees whom he has baptized: “I baptize you with water, for repentance; but the one who comes after me is mightier than I. I am not fit to take off his shoes. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” (Matthew 3: 11) Later Jesus comes to the Jordan river to be baptized. “John tried to dissuade him. ‘Do you come to me?’ he said; ‘I need rather to be baptized by you.’ Jesus replied, ‘Let it be so for the present.’” (Matthew 3: 14-15) John went ahead with his ritual and baptized Jesus.

“As he (Jesus) rose from the water of Jordan he received a vision in which he saw the Spirit descend upon him and heard the voice of God declare that he was his beloved Son (i.e., the Messiah). It was therefore at his baptism that he experienced his call to be the Messiah. According to Mark’s account ... he received his baptism from John without any knowledge on the part of the latter of who he was or what had befallen him.” (Schweitzer, p. 77) In Matthew, on the other hand, John is aware of Jesus’ identity. In this Gospel, the heavens open and the Spirit of God descends and alights upon Jesus like a dove. Afterwards, Jesus goes off by himself into the desert where the devil tempts him. This ordeal lasts for forty days and nights.

“How does the baptism of John effect salvation? Because it is an initiation, in consequence of which the Spirit is imparted to those who have received it by a greater than John, who is to come after him. They are proved to belong to the Kingdom by their possession of the Spirit, and so are called to survive at the Judgment.” (Schweitzer, p. 77-78) One needs to possess Spirit to enter the Kingdom of God, not just undergo an initiation. After John, someone else - the one “greater than John” - will come along to confer spirit upon those whom John has baptized. This person would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His shovel is ready in his hand.” (Matthew 3: 11)

Who is the person whom John the Baptist was expecting? “It has been naively assumed from early times that he (John the Baptist) was thinking of the Messiah, because Jesus, who did follow him, was the Messiah. If, however, we take account of the Messianic expectation of late Judaism, the question is not so simple. It is not there supposed that the Messiah will appear in earthly history as a man ... The idea of the Messiah becoming man is quite outside the range of ideas in late Jewish Messianic expectation. The Messiah is a supernatural figure who will appear in his glory at the coming of the Messianic Kingdom. But before the manifestation of the Messiah, Elijah must come ... God will send him back to earth before the Day of Judgment comes, to prepare men for it.” (Schweitzer, p. 78) Therefore, “the greater than he, who is to come after him and baptize with the spirit, can only be Elijah. The Messiah is a judge and ruler, not a baptizer.” (Schweitzer, p. 79)

John does not think of himself as Elijah, but only a prophet. His role is to preach the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God and prepare men for “the next event to occur, the coming of the great figure of the final period (Elijah) and the outpouring of the Spirit.” (Schweitzer, p. 78) Jesus, too, is not yet the Messiah, who is a supernatural figure arriving with the Kingdom. Yet, the two men, Jesus and John the Baptist, have a connection with those greater beings.

John’s role here resembles that of the angel in Ezekial who marks the foreheads of persons destined for salvation during the Chaldaean destruction of Jerusalem. Most persons whom John marks through immersion in water will later be baptized by Elijah with fire and spirit before they enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus is a special case. John’s baptism sets Jesus up for his passion and death upon the cross after which he becomes the Messiah.

In the exchange between Jesus and his disciples James and John, the two disciples ask to be seated at Jesus’ right hand and left hand in the Kingdom. Jesus replies: “You do not understand what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” (Mark 10: 38) When the disciples say they can, Jesus allows them to drink of his cup and be baptized with his baptism while denying them preferred seating in the Kingdom. “It is to the baptism of John that he (Jesus) is referring when he describes the passion and death which are his appointed destiny as the baptism with which he will be baptized.” (Schweitzer, p. 75)

A Question from John to Jesus

Jesus does not begin preaching until John’s preaching ends when he is imprisoned by Herod Antipas. Jesus attracts a following and performs numerous miracles. His reputation spreads. While in prison, John begins to wonder if the miracles of Jesus mean that the final days have arrived. Through his own disciples he sends a message to Jesus. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to expect some other?” (Matthew 11: 2) Was John asking if Jesus was the Messiah? If we “assume that the Baptist had already recognized Jesus as the Messiah, the question from prison has to be taken as meaning that he has begun to doubt the Messiahship of Jesus. By no stretch of the imagination can the wording of the question be made to fit this interpretation.” (Schweitzer, p. 78).

John the Baptist knew neither the identify of Jesus nor of himself. That is why he asked Jesus the question. Jesus was aware of himself as the future Messiah but did not want to reveal that fact to John’s disciples. He therefore gave an evasive answer: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind recover their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, the poor are hearing the good news - and happy is the man who does not find me a stumbling-block.” (Matthew 11: 5-6) He says only that the miracles foretold in prophecy seem to be coming true.

Jesus’ own view is revealed only after John’s disciples have departed. Jesus asks the remaining people about John? Who do they think John was? A man dressed in silks and satins? No. A prophet? “Yes, indeed, and far more than a prophet. He is the man of whom Scripture says, ‘Here is my herald, whom I send on ahead of you, and he will prepare your way before you.” (Matthew 11: 9-10) Jesus is referring, then, to Elijah who Malachi had prophesied would precede the Messiah in events of the final days. John the Baptist is that Elijah. The final days are fast approaching.

The problem is that people do not expect that Elijah will appear as a man. He was taken directly into heaven centuries earlier, and would be expected to return to earth from the same place. Yet, Jesus is telling the crowd that John the Baptist is Elijah. “John is the destined Elijah, if you will but accept it,” he says. (Matthew 11: 15)

Now John’s question to Jesus becomes clear. John was asking Jesus: Are you the promised Elijah? Jesus could not answer “yes” because that response would be untrue. Neither did he then want to give away the secret of his own identity, that he would be revealed as the Messiah at the coming of God’s kingdom. So he gave an evasive answer to John’s disciples. “It is plain from the words ‘This is Elijah’, that Jesus has understood the Baptist’s question, ‘Art thou he that cometh?’ as meaning, ‘Are you the Elijah.’” (Schweitzer, p. 80) The scriptural significance of John’s identity as Elijah (even if John himself did not realize it) was that one of the main preconditions to the arrival of God’s kingdom has already been fulfilled. The end is near.

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