Lately I have thought that John the Baptizer is one of the most interesting characters in the New Testament. I think he’s got a bad rap much of the time, being portrayed as some kind of extremist nut job with bad personal hygiene. Additionally, if we take the testimony of the gospels seriously, he did a lot to obscure his own importance in the Christian story. But each Evangelist has his own take on the man.
For Mark, the Baptizer is clearly the prologue, with only a retrospective appearance once Herodias has his head, wherein we learn a little of his fame and piety. All three Synoptics record the popular notion that Jesus was the Baptizer raised from the dead, indicating the level of expectation that people had regarding John. Matthew and Luke give us a glimpse of John’s own faith struggle as he sits in a jail cell attempting to reconcile his situation with the expectations accompanying the Christ’s arrival (Mt 11.2-6; Lk 7.18-23). In Matthew and Luke, Jesus himself quotes the Isaiah passage Mark used (Mk 1.1-2; Mt 3.3; Lk 3.4) to describe the Baptizer’s role and identifies him as a prophet and “more than a prophet” (Mt. 11: 10; Lk 7.26). They both record that Jesus gives John the stunning compliment of being the greatest human being born before the advent of the Kingdom (Lk 7.28; Mt 11.11). Additionally, Matthew has Jesus using John as the marker for the decisive transition point in history (Mt 11.12). Finally, comparing himself with John, Jesus reveals the negative side of John’s reputation among his adversaries: “He has a demon” (Mt 11.18; Lk 7.33).
In Matthew, Jesus identifies him with the of Israel’s greatest heros and the fulfillment of one of the outstanding prophecies of the day (Mal 4.5-6).
Matt. 11:14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.
Matt. 17:10 And the disciples asked him, “Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?”
11 He replied, “Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things;
12 but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.”
13 Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.
Luke bothers to tell the story of John’s miraculous conception alongside Jesus’ and clues us in to Mary’s kinship to Elizabeth. Only Luke records Zecharaiah’s prophecy, which includes another usage of the Isaiah prophecy:
Luke 1:76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
And only Luke comments, “The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel” (Lk 1.80).
It was John the Apostle’s approach to the Baptist that really got me thinking, though. As I savor the gorgeous prologue, loaded with its lofty theological language, it gets on my nerves that I have to read around the parenthetical references to John. What’s the desert-dwelling minor character doing in the middle of the timeless theological prose? On one hand, it suggests that John’s presence and testimony is just as important a part of the message as the rest of the material. On the other hand, it is impressive that aside from pointing out the Baptizer’s testimony, the Evangelist’s material emphsizes that he was of secondary importance.
“He himself was not the light” (1.8)
“He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me” (1.15)
“He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah'” (1.20)
“I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal” (1.27)
John 3:26 They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.”
27 John answered, “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven.
28 You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.’
29 He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled.
30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”
All of this makes me ask, what was going on with John the Baptizer? His testimony was as important as anything the Evangelist had to write, and at the same time he is explicitly devalued. The two dynamics together, in combination with the other bits we have about the Baptizer, suggest a tremendous level of influence among his contemporaries. It was important that those who follow the Baptizer lend the weight of his credibility to Jesus, but it was equally important that they recognize he was not the one they ultimately needed to follow. The Acts narrative implies as much.
Acts 18:24 Now there came to Ephesus a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria. He was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures.
25 He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John.
26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately.
27 And when he wished to cross over to Achaia, the believers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. On his arrival he greatly helped those who through grace had become believers,
28 for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the scriptures that the Messiah is Jesus.
Acts 19:1 While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples.
2 He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”
3 Then he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.”
4 Paul said, “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.”
5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
John the Baptizer’s message had taken on international proportions, preceding even the mission of Paul. John was not just some fanatic eating locust down by the river. He was the original impetus for the Christian movement, producing an astonishing impact–as it was prophesied he would. Indeed, it doesn’t seem John gets much credit for fulfilling the Isaiah prophecy in the powerful way that he did. In a very practical sense, John “prepared the way” for Jesus. This is also clearest in the Gospel of John.
John 1:35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples,
36 and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”
37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.
38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?”
39 He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.
40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother.
In the Synoptic Gospels, the faith of the disciples at the call of Jesus seems much more romantic and radical. Yet, the pragmatics of the situation were that at least some, probably all, of the Apostles were disciples of John the Baptists, prepared by virtue of his teaching, repentant by virtue of his preaching, ready (in one sense) for Jesus to arrive. John’s role was vital in a way far more significant that simply signaling that the time had come. Those like Apollos continued for years to be the harvest of the Baptizer’s sowing. Already they are “instructed in the Way” (the church’s initial title), capable of teaching “accurately,” considered “disciples.” Their ignorance about the Spirit and baptism into the Name of Jesus did not preclude those realities, important doctrines though they be. The teaching of John the Baptist regarding Jesus, which continued for some time during Jesus’ ministry before Herod arrested John, would have prepared them to incorporate the unfolding story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection into their faith. Indeed, the way was prepared for Aquilla, Priscilla, and Paul to fill in the missing bits. I do not doubt that this happened in other places as well.
As a little bit of background that I suspect heightened the impression John made on his fellow Jews, consider 1 Maccabees. It gives us some of the little information we have about the intertestamental period. While it is easy for Protestant Christians, with our tidy canon, to claim that the prophetic voice is silenced after Malachi and does not reappear until the Baptizer, the historical data (or lack thereof) weigh upon us as apologists. While we cannot be too assertive about what God was or was not doing beyond the boundaries of our canonized records (that would be arguing from silence, which is a moral error), 1 Mac 9.27 indicates the Jewish people in general were keenly aware of the absence of prophecy as they had known it. Speaking of a very gloomy moment in the Maccabean Revolt, after the death of its leader Judas, the text states:
1Mac. 9:27 So there was great distress in Israel, such as had not been since the time that prophets ceased to appear among them.
In two other passages, it is noted that decisions made were provisional, “until and prophet should come to tell what to do” (4.46) and “until a trustworthy prophet should arise” (14.41).
The latter does imply that untrustworthy prophets may have arisen, and the plethora of false Christs around Jesus’ time is indicative of the phenomenon. In all likelihood then, from the time of Malachi, there was a constant hope for true prophets, a gnawing anxiety about their absence (perhaps even a faith crisis in some cases), and an ongoing process of discernment regarding those who would claim to be messengers sent from God. The Maccabean Revolt occurred in the 160s B.C., easily 250 years after the last canonical prophet and nearly 200 years before the ministry of the Baptizer, so there is a lot of time and thought unaccounted for, but I think it plausible that the same discernment process that had deemed would-be prophets untrustworthy was at work among those who believed John’s message, among a people who had not heard from a bonafide, vocational prophet in a long time. Then again, Anna is called a prophetess (Lk 2.36), but you get the point as it relates to John’s impact. Those who believed him were part of a religious milieu that did not underestimate the importance of a real prophet. And as Jesus said, the Baptizer was a prophet, and more than a prophet.