EDITOR’S NOTE: This groundbreaking series is being offered in celebration of a previously top-secret project and now unprecedented new 3-Volume book series (over 10-years in the making) from best-selling scholar Dr. Thomas Horn and acclaimed biblical history and theology majors Donna Howell and Allie Anderson: THE MYSTERY OF JESUS FROM GENESIS TO REVELATION—YESTERDAY, TODAY, AND TOMORROW
As if the stage couldn’t be set for more opposition against Jesus, John the Baptist’s ministry among the Jews created a hopeful stir that ended with yet another execution.
At the beginning of our reflection of the Gospels, we noted that Mark is the “action writer” of the four. This is shown in his book’s first five verses:
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; As it is written in the prophets, “Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins.
“All” of Judea and those in Jerusalem. Guess what? We did a deep study on this Greek word, pas. Wanna know what it means? It means “all.” It’s crazy, taking such liberty with the Greek here, we know…
See, sarcasm aside, we skim right past it today, and even films tend to show that every time John is out at the river baptizing folks, he has somewhere in the ballpark of twenty guys interested in what he has to say. But by Mark’s use of “all” here, we know there were tremendously large crowds. This word doesn’t have to be rendered “every single one” in order to represent the vast majority of Judaic attention in this area of the world at the time. Even the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges commentary states: “all the land: This strong expression is peculiar to St Mark. But it is illustrated by the other Gospels. The crowds that flocked to his baptism included representatives of every class, Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 3:7), tax-gatherers (Luke 3:12), soldiers (Luke 3:14), rich and poor (Luke 3:10).”[i] John’s gatherings were enormous!
His message was one of extreme repentance as a means of preparing for a coming Kingdom. This mattered more to him in his preaching than any other topic. And this can be expected, since the Messiah would not be recognized by unrepentant people. John had one job, and he did it well: Prepare the way for the Lord! He generally had one message: The Kingdom of God is at hand!
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Unanimously, scholars agree his message was well-received. He did not yet baptize people in the name of Jesus, because he knew well that it wasn’t his place. John’s baptism looked forward to the coming Kingdom, not backward to its inauguration, and it didn’t instill within the believers the Holy Spirit, as He had not yet been sent by Christ. Some scholars (including historian Josephus) believe John was copying the proselyte baptism, but the main reason to believe his was unique is because the former Jewish rite was related to ritual cleansing, not to repentance or preparation.
Because Elijah had gone up to heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11) and therefore had never truly died, many of the Jews believed the literal Elijah would return—not as a reincarnated being, but as he had been in history. This explains why John the Baptist denied being Elijah (John 1:21), even though he was the very “Elijah-spirited” “voice in the wilderness” that had been prophesied (Isaiah 40:3) and directly identified (Luke 1:17), even by Jesus (Matthew 11:14). The “prepare ye the way for” message was not uncommon in John’s time.
In the spirit of Elijah he had been equipped with, John’s willingness to boldly accuse the pretenders and expose the “vipers,” or poisonous snakes in their midst, was very well present in his work, as we see in Matthew 3:7–10:
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance: And think not to say within yourselves, ‘We have Abraham to our father’: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.”
In other words, God saw the hearts of men, and He would be quick to cut down fakers at the root. No “inheritance of Abraham,” bloodline or otherwise, could save them from internal wickedness. (Jesus would also recognize “vipers” in their company [Matthew 23:33], and would use the word picture of cutting down trees that produce bad fruit in His teachings as well [Luke 6:43–45; John 15:1–6].)
That the state of Israel had become so corrupt is clear in John’s response to his crowds’ panicked questions:
And the people asked him, saying, “What shall we do then?”
He answereth and saith unto them, “He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise.”
Then came also publicans [tax collectors] to be baptized, and said unto him, “Master, what shall we do?”
And he said unto them, “Exact no more [tax] than that which is appointed you.”
And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, “And what shall we do?”
And he said unto them, “Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.” (Luke 3:10–14)
Everyone wanted to know: What does one do to repent properly, receive forgiveness, and live in a way that pleases God? John’s answer appears in each case to be the easiest and most predictable “fly-straight” responses to us today, but we find in only the job description of the New Testament tax collector quite an underhanded skill. Rome would tax the life out of people (as seen in the rebellions we discussed in the last section). That was true at the highest level. The amount of taxes due constantly fluctuated as provinces were shifting leaders, so the people had no idea how much was really needed for them to remain accountable to the state. The tax collectors would sit at their booths and increase their collections, paying a portion of it to their superiors and pocketing the rest, while the superiors paid only a portion of that and pocketed the rest, and so on. The setting back then, of course, wasn’t like it is today, when there are well-established paper trails and proofs for those who question the system. So, if a tax collector wanted to inflate his own income on any given day, he could merely pick, at a whim, an amount to be due from the people. It’s actually surprising these men would ask John the Baptist for advice in this area, but the simplicity of his answers to questions like these show the true beauty of God’s expectations: “It’s not hard; just don’t be jerks and robbers—give to the needy, care for the poor, share your wealth and abundance, and don’t be fake.”
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“Repent for your past activities” was one part of John’s message. The other part was “Continue living like one whose repentance is sincere.” This exhortation to tax collectors, soldiers, and wealthier folk with goods to share is just a tiny example of all the other things John preached about (Luke 3:18).
In Matthew 3:11–12, Mark 1:7–8, and Luke 3:15–18, we see the shift from a message of repentance and righteous living to one of preparation: “I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire” (Luke 3:16). This “one mightier” was, of course, Jesus Christ…and John was about to be lucky enough to meet Him.
Scholars unanimously agree on two statements: 1) Jesus did not need baptism for “sins,” but 2) Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of His public ministry. The event is included in all three of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 3:13–17; Mark 1:9–11; Luke 3:21–23).
When Jesus appeared in John’s presence to be baptized by his cousin, John was shocked. He said certainly it should be the other way around: Jesus should be baptizing John. Yet, Jesus knew His public ministry and the fulfilling of “all righteousness” would depend on this moment, so John consented (Matthew 3:13–15). Scholars see Jesus’ submission to baptism as an example and a way of identifying the people He was about to save:
The most obvious way in which Jesus’ baptism prepares for his mission is by indicating his solidarity with John’s call to repentance in view of the arrival of God’s kingship. By first identifying with John’s proclamation Jesus lays the foundation for his own mission to take on where John has left off. Further, as Jesus is baptized along with others at the Jordan, he is identified with all those who by accepting John’s baptism have declared their desire for a new beginning with God.… If he is to be their representative, he must first be identified with them.[ii]
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Interestingly, some scholars also see Jesus here as submitting not just to baptism, but to a symbolic reenactment of the Israelites’ passage through the miraculously parted Red Sea. With Moses, they were freed: a newly liberated people whose shackles were traded in for a renewed focus on the Lord that no pharaoh or king could take away. Now they would see all this in Jesus, also, but in a permanent and superior way. Jesus led His people into the “sea” by example, and through this act He began His Church. Very soon after this, Jesus would make a way to freedom that nobody had ever experienced, and it began the moment that His public ministry began. Understanding this at a deeper level requires leaving behind one’s individual concepts and seeing how Israel’s history championed those who were more communal in their modelling through actions: Leading by example, Moses fasted and prayed for sins that were not his own. Leading by example, so would Jesus:
Now when all the people were baptized, it came to pass, that Jesus also being baptized, and praying, the heaven was opened, And the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him, and a voice came from heaven, which said, Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased. (Luke 3:21–22)
Throughout the Old Testament, we read many times of the heavens opening as God was visiting mankind, so it’s an image well-known among scholars to represent the appearance of the Divine (Isaiah 24:18; Ezekiel 1:1; Malachi 3:10; Acts 7:56; 10:11; Revelation 19:11). In this baptism scene, all members of the Trinity acknowledge the launch of Jesus’ ministry: The voice of the Father, the descent of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus standing in the water. Many theologians and academics have weighed in on whether the Gospels describe the Holy Spirit literally turning into a dove (as Luke seems to imply with the words “descended in a bodily shape like a dove”), or if this is merely the only way the writers could have described what the crowds saw, which was something that could be compared to a dove. After paging through probably thirty or more commentaries to try to find the answer, we found that Genesis 8:8–12 (Noah sending out a dove) pops up several times in the discussion. Not many of the scholars saw the symbols we did in this connection, though. Most say the dove is a symbol of peace, and then they move on to the next topic. However, we feel it goes further after considering the context of this moment for Noah. This passage from the very first book of the Bible details how Noah, while he was in the boat, sent out a dove. The second time he sent it out, it descended back down to him with an olive branch in its mouth, signaling that land had been found.
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Pause and think for a moment: The dove wasn’t just a sign the storm was over, although that was true, but it also meant that, after the storm, Noah and his family could to start afresh on a planet with no corruption and no sin! It was the signal of a new era for all of mankind! The Holy Spirit, when He descended upon Jesus in the same form as Noah’s little friend, may well have been announcing that, in the Son, there is a fresh, sinless start for all people who wish to follow Christ. (Seriously, why don’t other commentators see this?) In Jesus, the storm is over and the troubled waters are at peace, and when we accept the Holy Spirit into our lives, we are a new creation, just like the planet was when it had been rid of evil. That’s a picturesque portrayal of our new lives in Christ, which started not at the cross, but at the baptism—for the cross wouldn’t have meant anything if Jesus hadn’t been obedient to the ministry that began on that day.
Wow, that’s beautiful…
But it goes much, much further. Popular extrabiblical/apocryphal texts called (collectively) The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs (believed by some Jews to have been the last words of the sons of Jacob) prophetically identified this moment. Although we don’t have the earliest texts (and therefore don’t know the date of their origin), radiocarbon dating has identified several of those we do have to have been written at least a hundred years prior to the time of Christ. Specific to one, parts of the Testament of Levi, as well as some footnotes from a later studier of the book, were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran cave number 4. Unbelievably, the Testament of Levi describes this very moment with Jesus and John. Beginning in chapter 18, verses 1–3 of his work, the writer first identifies Christ and the Jewish system of His day:
When vengeance will have come upon them from the Lord, the priesthood will lapse. And then the Lord will raise up a new priest to whom all the words of the Lord will be revealed. He shall effect the judgment of truth over the earth for many days. And his star shall rise in heaven like a king; kindling the light of knowledge as day is illumined by the sun.[iii]
By the time of Christ, the priesthood could certainly be interpreted as having “lapsed” (or “collapsed”) as the fragmented Jewish world of this time shows. Other than Jesus, no priest in the history of Judaism, from Genesis to today, could ever make known “all the words of the Lord.” Nor has there ever been any judge “over the earth for many days” outside of the Messiah. Oh, and that “star” thing? Remember our study of the trip the magi made…
Continuing in verses 6–8, we read from this ancient text a scene that’s almost identical to what happened with Christ at this baptism:
The heavens will be opened, and from the temple of glory sanctification will come upon him, with a fatherly voice, as from Abraham to Isaac. And the glory of the Most High shall burst forth upon him. And the spirit of understanding and sanctification shall rest upon him in the water. For he shall give the majesty of the Lord to those who are his sons in truth forever. And there shall be no successor for him from generation to generation forever.[iv]
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In this passage, we read “the heavens…opened,” a “fatherly voice” spoke to Him, and the “spirit” rested upon Him “in the water.” There is no question as to whether there was ever a “successor for him from generation to generation.” Jesus was the one and only Man who could have performed and experienced the things listed in this apocryphal literature. We believe it’s clear that, whether this work is a canonical book or not, someone is obviously referring to the unrivaled Messiah character here, and they described all three members of the Trinity in the way it happened with Jesus.
Most Christians today don’t even know this text exists. But first-century Jews would have understood this “Testament” to be a prophecy of this moment. Thus, the most devout Jews in the massive crowds around Jesus and John that day would have seen this manifestation as an irrefutable sign that Jesus was the Priest the writer of the Testament of Levi had looked forward to.
As humble and straightforward as John the Baptist’s message was, it was exactly the brand of innocence Israel had lost. No doubt, some of John’s listeners who had personally witnessed the uprising of former rebels waited with bated breath to see him rise up against the system, but he never did…
That is, until he did.
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Whereas many folks in John’s day wouldn’t dare rebuke the private affairs of a king, John openly criticized Herod Antipas for marrying his brother’s ex-wife, Herodias. This bizarre love triangle was complicated enough that won’t address it at length, but suffice it to say John the Baptist was familiar with Leviticus 20:21, which states that it is unlawful and impure for a man to take his brother’s wife while the brother still lives. This outburst angered Herodias, who thereafter held a grudge against John (Mark 6:19) and awaited an opportunity to exact revenge against him. Herod Antipas was actually fond of John, having heard his preaching before and enjoyed it (6:20), but pressures from his offended wife led him to imprison John for his unwelcome comments. During Herod’s next birthday party among his nobles, Herodias hatched a plan. Her daughter, Salome, danced for the king and his men, after which Herod offered to give her anything she wanted. (By the way, Salome was likely about twelve years old when she danced for her stepfather, according to Mark 9:22, which refers to her as korasion, or “girl,” suggesting that age. Knowing this makes her “dance”—the Oriental tradition believes it to have been a standard, erotic “dance of veils” [an early striptease]—even more disturbing.) After meeting with her mother, Salome went back to the king and told him her only desire was John’s beheading. Herod was “exceedingly sad” to hear this request, but because he had given her his word in front of the guests who were still looking on, he ordered the deed to be done, and John was executed (Mark 6:21–28).
John’s undeniable legacy of righteousness will last forever. We can only wonder what he would have thought of Jesus in His coming days of ministry. As history tells, he would not be able to see the ultimate fruition of his baptism moment with Christ. However, now that John’s ministry was in the past, Jesus’ ministry would be propelled to the foreground.
UP NEXT: Temptations in the Wilderness
[i] “Mark 1:5,” Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges, Bible Hub Online, last accessed March 7, 2022, https://biblehub.com/commentaries/cambridge/mark/1.htm.
[ii] France, R. T., The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co; 2007), 120.
[iii] Charlesworth, J. H., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: Volume 1 (New York; London: Yale University Press; 1983), 794–795.