In those days: John the Baptist

Prepare ye the Way of the LordMatthew 3:1-12. 1 In those days John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea 2 (and) saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” 3 It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said:
“A voice of one crying out in the desert,
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’”
4 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him 6 and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. 7 When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. 9 And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. 10 Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Context. A new section of Matthew begins at Mt 3:1. From Jesus’ infancy we jump several decades in time.  Without warning or preparation, John the Baptist appears in the wilderness preaching not (as in Mark 1:4) a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” but rather repentance, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2). This is also different than Luke’s gospel in which we follow the story of Zechariah, Elizabeth and their son John (Lk 1); we are not told of the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth – hence there is no announced family relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus.

Yet the structure of Matthew’s gospel point to a more key relationship between John and Jesus. The section (3:1 to 11:19) brackets a chiastic pattern that describes the parameters of the relationship that are central to Matthew’s understanding of the gospel good news.

  • The content of John’s preaching is clear from the beginning: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”  Later when John is in prison, those words are repeated verbatim by Jesus (Mt 4:17).
  • John’s announcement of the “one who is coming” (3:11) corresponds to his question in 11:3 – “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?
  • In Chapter 3 John is the one “on stage” whereon the reader hears the Baptist’s view of Jesus. In Chapter 11, John is offstage, Jesus is the primary voice, and the reader receives Jesus’ view of the Baptist and himself.
  • This chiastic bracketing informs our reading of lays between: Jesus’ words and actions are signs that the kingdom, long promised, is indeed at hand and Jesus is that long promised Messiah.

John the Baptist. Who is this wilderness preacher? John was prophet and an ascetic who conducted a ministry in the Judean wilderness that involved preaching and baptism. He was a prophet – not in the mold of Moses or Joshua – but rather in the model of the prophets of the 7th and 8th century BCE (Isaiah, Micah, Hosea, Amos, etc.) whose words proclaimed redemption or judgment upon the people and their leaders. John’s popularity and the revolutionary possibilities of his message of social justice led to his arrest, imprisonment, and execution by Herod Antipas, probably in A.D. 28 or 29.  The Jewish historian, Josephus, mentions John in his work Antiquities.  The paragraph about John the Baptist is immediately preceded by an account of Herod’s divorce from the daughter of Aretas, king of Petra, and of the latter’s retaliation by making war on Herod. Josephus writes:

But to some of the Jews the destruction of Herod’s army seemed to be divine vengeance, and certainly a just vengeance, for his treatment of John, surnamed the Baptist. For Herod had put him to death, though he was a good man and had exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practice justice toward their fellows and piety towards God, and so doing join in baptism. In his view this was a necessary preliminary if baptism was to be acceptable to God. They must not employ it to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed, but as a consecration of the body implying that the soul was already thoroughly cleansed by right behavior. When others too joined the crowds about him, because they were aroused to the highest degree by his sermons, Herod became alarmed. Eloquence that had so great an effect on mankind might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they would be guided by John in everything that they did. Herod decided therefore that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising, than to wait for an upheaval, get involved in a difficult situation and see his mistake. Though John, because of Herod’s suspicions, was brought in chains to Machaerus [Herod’s castle fortress], the stronghold that we have previously mentioned, and there put to death, yet the verdict of the Jews was that the destruction visited upon Herod’s army was a vindication of John, since God saw fit to inflict such a blow on Herod. (Josephus Ant 18.5.2 §116–19 – from AYBD pp.887-88)

This passage is included to show that in an era when “historical accounts” were written at the pleasure of the sponsor and patron of the work, Jospehus takes time to mention an event in the life of the wilderness preacher.  In the telling of this small account, Josephus also gives an indication about the meaning of John’s baptism

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