John the Baptist

Scripture: Matthew 3:1-12, Mark 1:2-11, Luke 3:7-17, John 1:6-8, 19-34

Why was John out in the desert of Judea preaching repentance and offering a water baptism for Jews who came to repent of their sins? Because he believed the promises of scripture were about to be realized. His message was fearsome: "Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near." (Mt. 3:2) John preached that the Day of the LORD was at hand.

What did this mean for him and for those who came to be baptized by him? "Even now," John proclaims in Mt. 1:10, "the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." A time of judgment is at hand, John declares, for the one who is coming after him: "will clear the threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." (Mt. 1:12)

In the gospels of Matthew and Luke, John castigates those coming to be baptized as a "brood of vipers," announces "the wrath to come," calls for repentance, says the ax is laid to the root of the trees, and declares the trees not bearing fruit will be "cut down and thrown into the fire." (Mt. 3:7-10, Lk. 3:7-9) In the gospel of Luke, when the crowds ask, "What then should we do?" John replies: "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." (Lk. 3:11) When tax collectors coming to be baptized ask what they should do, John tells them: "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." To soldiers who ask, "What shall we do?" John answers: "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages." (Lk. 3: 14)

The gospel of Luke not only adds to the teaching found in the gospel of Matthew, but also opens the message of John to Gentiles as well as Jews. Soldiers were not Jews, for under Roman law Jews were exempt from military service because they would not fight on the Sabbath. When crowds ask John what they should do, he does not tell them to keep the commandments of the law of Moses. In the third gospel John’s message is the same for Jews and Gentiles. To repent, they are to share their food and clothing with the poor, and to be honest and fair.

In the gospel of John, there is no message for Gentiles, as in the gospel of Luke. Nor does the fourth gospel say the ax is laid to the root of the trees or that chaff will burn in unquenchable fire, as in the gospel of Matthew. In the fourth gospel, John the Baptist says nothing about repentance, but instead identifies Jesus as "the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world." (Jn. 1:29) In all the New Testament gospels, John the Baptist says he was sent to testify to Jesus, who will baptize "with the Holy Spirit." Only in the fourth gospel, however, does John the Baptist say that Jesus is "the Son of God." (Jn. 1:34)

In the gospel of Mark, John the Baptist calls people from Jerusalem and Judea to repent of their sins and announces the coming of one with greater power who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. (Mk. 1:4-8) The gospel of Matthew adds to this story of John threats of unquenchable fire burning trees that have not borne fruit and also burning the chaff from the final harvest, and in this gospel we hear that the one coming after John will baptize "with the Holy Spirit and fire." (Mt. 3:1-11). The gospel of Luke adds teachings for Gentiles, as well as for Jews, that urge honesty, justice and compassion. The gospel of John tells the story of the Baptist without referring to repentance or a coming time of wrath. The fourth gospel identifies Jesus as the sacrificial Lamb of God.

The four gospels differ considerably, yet have much in common: John is baptizing, Jesus comes to him, a dove descends as a sign of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is identified as the Son of God, and John prophesies that the one coming after him will baptize with the Holy Spirit.

All four gospels also quote Isaiah 40:3, which says: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God." This may be simply a way of having John confirm that Jesus is the Messiah. Yet, in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, John and his followers are not easily convinced, for John sends messengers to ask Jesus: "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" (Mt. 11:3, Lk. 7:20)

In addition, in these two gospels, Jesus speaks at length about John’s ministry. Jesus says that John is a prophet and identifies John with Malachi 3:1 ― "See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me." In Malachi this passage continues with a frightening warning: “The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight ― indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire." (Mal. 3:1-2)

In the gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus says, "I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he." (Lk. 7:28, and similarly Mt. 11:11) In these two gospels Jesus says John the Baptist abstained from bread and wine, whereas "the Son of Man came eating and drinking" yet the people rejected both. Jesus, however, proclaims that "wisdom is vindicated by her deeds." (Mt. 11:19, and similarly Lk. 7:35)

In Acts, which was written as a sequel to the gospel of Luke by the same author, 19:1-5 relates that in Ephesus Paul met disciples of John, who knew only his baptism. This reveals the staying power of John’s ministry, which had spread from Judea to at least one major Roman city. After Paul explains to these men that "John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus," Acts reports that John's followers of "were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus" (v. 4) and then received the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The testimony in the gospel of  Luke and Acts of the Apostles presents the teaching of the church at the end of the first century that the ministry of John the Baptist precedes and points to the good news proclaimed by the church. The author of the gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles also has John born to Elizabeth and Zechariah, who are identified as relatives of Mary, the mother of Jesus. This birth story portrays John as chosen by God to pave the way for Jesus. (A similar account is in Sura 3 of the Qur’an.) The gospel of John makes the same point by having John the Baptist explain to two of his disciples, one of whom is Andrew, that Jesus is "the Son of God" who "baptizes with the Holy Spirit." Andrew and his companion leave John’s disciples to follow Jesus, and when Andrew brings his brother Simon to meet the Messiah, Jesus gives Simon the name Peter. (Jn. 1:29-42)

Whoever John the Baptist was, the New Testament gospel writers cannot leave him out of their stories. In the Christian Bible the ministry of Jesus begins with John, who had his own disciples and his own ministry. In the gospels of Mark and Matthew, Jesus is actually baptized by John, and in the gospel of Matthew Jesus begins his own ministry by using the same words as John: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." (Mt. 4:17, as in Mt. 3:2) © Robert Traer 2016