The Forerunner

This coming Sunday marks our journey into a new liturgical year and a new Season, the 2nd Sunday in Advent in Year A. You can read a complete commentary on the Sunday Gospel here. The Gospel readings for the Second and Third Sundays of Advent always focus on John the Baptist. Since we are again in Lectionary Year A, the two selections are from Matthew 3:1-12 and 11:2-11, respectively. One might ask: Why were these two passages from chapters 3 and 11 chosen? The short answer: They both deal with John’s role in preparing for Jesus, making them particularly suited for Advent. But how? On the 2nd Sunday of Advent each year, the Gospel reading presents the preaching of John the Baptist. Although we normally call him “the Baptist,” Matt 3:1-12 does not focus on his baptizing activity as much as on other aspects of his ministry: John as Preacher/Prophet, and John as the Forerunner to Jesus.

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.”

A new section of Matthew begins at Mt 3:1.  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

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 (3:18–19—Eng 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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