In those days: John’s Baptism

Baptism of Christ. Jesus is baptized in the Jo...Matthew 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.”

John’s Baptism.“to lead righteous lives, to practice justice toward their fellows and piety towards God, and so doing join in baptism”  John’s baptism was a symbolic act that people who had already done these things – or were committed to living as such – were forming a “faithful remnant” of the covenant.  In the gospel accounts all of John’s words (except the word against Antipas) are spoken to persons seeking this baptism. His words show that John was unreceptive to those whom he judged to have bad faith, while he was friendly to those who were truly repentant. To the former he repeated threats and warnings and perhaps added new ones, while to the latter he gave hope for further dramatic renewal of their lives as well as ethical guidance relevant to their particular vocations. The former group seems to have been made up of people whose commonality was lording power over the common people: the religious leadership, the wealthy, the tax collectors and soldiers.

It is natural for Christians to begin to interpret John’s baptism within the framework of Christian symbols, but it is perhaps better to consider John’s actions as prophetic and within the context of the OT prophets mentioned above.  A significant possibility for the meaning of John’s water baptism is purification. Purification is linked with an anticipated messenger in Mal 3:1–3: “the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming…For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver …” This imagery is reflected in the words of the Judean desert Qumran community whose purification rites were connected with conversion of heart: “Like waters of purification He will sprinkle upon him the spirit of truth, to cleanse him of all the abominations of falsehood and of all pollution through the spirit of filth” (1QS 4:20, 21). Both these actions and John’s Baptism echo Ezek 36:25–26: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses … A new heart I will give you and a new spirit I will put within you …

That John was particularly interested in purification coheres with his own priestly background (son of Zechariah the priest) and also with his interest in religious-ascetic practices, such as fasting and prayer (Luke 5:33; 11:1; Acts 14:23). It seems reasonable to suggest that John told those he was baptizing that his baptism of repentance would be followed soon by a second, radical cleansing of them from all evil. In this regard John is in full accord with the OT prophetic emphasis on the need for radical renewal, a perspective seen, for example, in the call for a new covenant by Hosea (1–3) and Jeremiah (31).

But John also seems to see a maelstrom of coming judgment using fire as traditional symbol of judgmental destruction. The prophet Malachi (3:18–4:1) envisions the day when God acts as “burning like an oven” and destroying the arrogant and evildoers. This is preceded by a separation of the righteous from the wicked in a metaphor of winnowing; grain is separated from chaff, which is burned with “unquenchable fire.” The analogy with purification is strong: purification involves the removal of impurity from a valued substance; so winnowing removes the impurity, the chaff, from the valued grain. This is a later eschatological purification of his repentant baptized ones.

John the Baptist’s message can be summarized thus: Now is the time of repentance in view of the imminent execution of God’s wrath on unrepentant powerful sinners. Those that do not repent will be destroyed by God’s wrath, while those who do will receive an additional second baptism greater than John’s that will bestow on them a final and perfect purification. In the meantime, they are to do ritual and moral acts that befit their repentance and that anticipate the final purification.

John’s Understanding of Himself. Did John seem to understand that the end-time were at hand? Or were his actions done in anticipation of the arrival of the Messiah and the inauguration of new era?  Or was he fulfilling the role of the prophet to call people to the covenant now in anticipation of the unknown coming of the promised Messiah? These are questions about how John saw himself and his role in God’s plans.  If there is some scholarly consensus about the meaning of John’s baptism, there is far less concerning John’s own self-understanding, e.g., did John see himself as one like Elijah, the herald of the Messiah. And as a corollary question, did John understand his cousin Jesus to be that Messiah?

In the three Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) John’s motivation for his preaching and action are clearly prophetic, but there is nothing that seems to indicate John understood his role narrowly as herald of the Messiah (cf. Mt 3:11-12; Mk 1:7-8; Luke 3:15-18).  In Mark’s account Jesus then simply appears and is baptized – what transpires immediately seems to be a private intended for Jesus only. The Lukan account is similarly private.  In Matthew’s gospel (3:13-17) there is an exchange in which John asks Jesus if it is proper for Jesus to be baptized by John – at least indicating that John had some sense of Jesus’ role; but then the following events are again a seemingly private moment intended for Jesus alone.

It is in John’s Gospel that the Baptist calls out “Behold, the Lamb of God” (John 1:31) and where John testifies that he saw the Spirit descend upon Jesus and recounts that “the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the holy Spirit’” (John 1:33).

We must be mindful as we study Matthew’s gospel we should resist reaching into another gospel to exegete Matthew’s intention and understanding.  John’s gospel carries an account that is the same and yet differs from the Synoptic accounts.  All are the same Gospel, but each is according to a different inspired author.

So – what was John’s understanding of himself? After reading the corpus of scholarly works – again, concerning only Matthew’s gospel – it seems to me that the question is interesting, but in the end, obscures the more key question: Did Matthew, the inspired writer, see John in the role of Elijah and Jesus as the promised Messiah? From the whole of this gospel it is clear that Matthew indeed understood John and Jesus in those respective roles. (11:14; 17:12).  So, why didn’t Matthew include that information earlier in his account.  Possible answers range from its being part of the craft of the narrative, to the fullness of the revelation was only revealed by Jesus later in the ministry.


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