John the Baptist: Gospel Analysis
Matthew 3:1-6 ADVENT 2A
Mark 1:1-8 ADVENT 2B
Luke 3:1-6 ADVENT 2C
The following Bible study is from a larger course entitled, THE LIFE OF CHRIST: A Study in the Four Gospels. This 54 week course for the laity will be available for congregations in 2006.
Basic text for the course: SYNOPSIS OF THE FOUR GOSPELS, Kurt Aland, English Edition, P. 12-13.
#13. JOHN THE BAPTIST Matthew 3:1-6, Mark 1:1-6, Luke 3:1-6, John 1:19-23
Closely examine the four parallel columns in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and their similar accounts about John the Baptist.
The gospel writers agree on the opening sequence of Jesus’ adult life. The opening sequence flows from John the Baptist, to Jesus’ baptism, to Jesus’ temptation, and to the call of the first disciples.
The following Bible passage is a blending/harmonizing of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John:
- In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. (Only Luke) Circle the names of political figures from Luke’s time in history. Luke lists seven historical political figures. As has been stated several times, Luke was both a physician and a historian. Luke makes great effort to accurately place the life of Jesus in his contemporary historical situation. In Luke 3:1, there are seven specific historical references, all of which seem to be accurate. Tiberias Caesar, a son of Caesar Augustus, became Roman Emperor in 14 CE. During the fifteenth year of his reign, about 28 or 29 CE, John the Baptist was preaching near the Jordan River. The names of Pontius Pilate, Herod, Phillip, Lysanias, Annas and Caiaphas are all accurately placed. Much later in “the Jesus story,” Luke the historian will tell us more about Pilate, Annas, and Caiaphas. Their stories will fit what is known about their personalities e.g. Pilate experiencing so many riots during his time in political power.
Archeologists have an ossuary that is inscribed with the name of Caiaphas. Archeologists also have a stone inscription about Pilate.
As we have seen previously and will see again and again, Luke wants to place Jesus accurately in secular history. Luke was writing to a Roman official, Theophilus, who received “an orderly account” of Jesus’ life.
Living in the twenty-first century, we are still like Theophilus. That is, like Theophilus, we too enjoy Luke's efforts to establish the dating of Jesus' birth with historical reliability.
-He went into all the region around the Jordan, The stories about John the Baptist, Jesus’ baptism, and the temptation all occur in the barren wilderness area of Judea. The four Gospels agree on this geographic location of the wilderness area near the Jordan. John 1:28 (p. 15): “This took place in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.”
During Jesus’ life, there were two villages by the name of Bethany: the first Bethany by the Jordan where Jesus was baptizing and the second Bethany by Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives. The second Bethany was the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha.
Below is a picture of the wilderness near Bethany-in-the-wilderness.
“Running south from the Sea of Galilee into the Dead Sea, the River Jordan is one of the most significant features of the Palestinian landscape. The only major river in the area, it was extremely important as a source of water during biblical times. Although there are endless biblical references to the River Jordan, its primary importance in the New Testament is in conjunction with Bethany (Al-Maghtas) and the baptism of Jesus. It also serves as a natural regional boundary: Moab is "beyond the Jordan," and the Israelites crossed the Jordan in order to reach the Promised Land. Besides being a real boundary, the River Jordan also plays an important role as a symbolic crossing point: Jesus had to cross the Jordan to be baptized by John, and Elijah crossed the Jordan before ascending to heaven on a chariot of fire.”
Locate the Baptism Site on the map below. This was the location where John performed his baptismal rites.
The following map is a contemporary map of Jordan today, from the Jordanian Ministry of Tourism. Notice the location of Amman, the capital of Jordan.
-Proclaiming a baptism John, the Baptist, and the baptismal rites of Qumran. There is no clear Old Testament precedent and prophecy for baptism with water. For its baptismal practices, the New Testament does not draw on Old Testament traditions, laws and practices, so much as on the Qumran community and its daily baptismal rites. This Qumran community practiced daily baptismal rites of purification. These spiritual ascetics washed themselves several times a day as symbolic of an interior cleansing from sin. The Quman community was situated in the hills overlooking the Dead Sea, near and south of the town of Jericho. Many scholars think that John the Baptist was placed in the care of this community as a young child or infant. In other words, John the Baptist may have grown up in such a community. The rituals and rites of baptism must have their origins “somewhere,” and “the somewhere” seems to be the Dead Scroll community of Qumran. From this community, we have recovered the Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts and the stories about the Teacher of Light and other ancient Jewish manuscripts. From the community, we also received the idea and practice of baptism.
For the Quman community and for John the Baptist, baptism was being washed and purified in water. In Quman, the community practiced daily baptismal or washing rituals as symbolic of internal cleaning.
Martin Luther suggested that we are to be baptized daily. That is, we are to daily experience repentance and forgiveness, a daily cleansing of our lives. If we bathed once a week, we would start to smell. We need to be washed daily to be truly clean and likewise in our spiritual walk with Christ. We are to be washed daily.
-Of repentance The Bible is clear in all four Gospels: A Christian life involves daily repentance. Repentance is feeling sorry for both your sinfulness/sinful condition and also for your specific sins. Feeling sorry about your imperfections leads to an inner change where the Holy Spirit in us begins to change our sinful habits and unhealthy patterns. A famous prayer is: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.” It takes a great deal of courage to begin to recognize and change our sinful habits and personal imperfections that hurt ourselves and people around us. Sometimes, we simply accept our sinful habits and pray that we (and others) will gradually accept such inner flaws of our personality. But genuine change is possible through the power of the Holy Spirit.
We cannot change our sinful nature. Our sinful, deeply ingrained flaws and personality defects can be changed but not our sinful nature. Our human nature is always sinful and cannot be changed; but specific flaws of character can be changed and transformed. This takes the Spirit, courage, discipline and the help of others.
So many of us Christians want others to simply accept our personality defects rather than going through the hard spiritual work of inner change. Repentance is the work of the Holy Spirit and is part of sanctification (growing in wholeness and holiness). All of us want that courage and discipline to change and not remain with our disabling personality defects and deficiencies. We often give up too soon to what we think is the inevitable, that we can’t change, that we can’t be changed. John the Baptist will always be a symbol for us…to change…to be changed by the powers of God. As the Bible says, “With God, nothing is impossible.” Even changing our personality defects and deficiencies.
The words, “repent, repents, repentance” occur 49 times in the New Testament.
-For the forgiveness of sins, (Matthew, Mark, Luke) Forgiveness of sins is a dominant concept both the Old and New Testament. The word, “forgiveness,” comes from a Greek word, “let go.” God lets go of our sins; we are also to let go of our own sins and the sins of others around us.
There is a sermon illustration of a zoo that was trapping monkeys. The zoo trappers placed coconuts underneath a coconut tree, and these coconuts had holes drilled in them. The holes were about the size of a tightly-squeezed-fist of a monkey. The monkey would squeeze its hand through the hole and grab the white coconut inside. The monkeys would find more coconuts and would do the same thing with their other hand and then their two feet. By doing so, their hands and feet became larger and they could not withdraw their hands and feet through the coconut holes. The only way to become free was to “let go.” To let go of the white coconut inside the coconut shell.
Similarly with us. The only way to emotional freedom in life is to “let go.” To “let go” of what our mothers or fathers did to us in childhood. To “let go” of all the mistakes that we have made in our lives. To “let go” of the accidents or tragedies that have happened to us or that we have caused. We never become free until we “let go.
We, as human beings, do not “let go;” but the Presence of Christ in us shapes our daily lives and heals us. The Spirit of Christ inside of us heals us, and therefore we gradually “let go.”
Forgiveness is a dominant concept in the New Testament. The words, “forgive, forgives, forgiveness” occur 39 times in the New Testament.
We Christians often confess with the Apostle Paul in Romans 7: “that which I would not do I is what I actually do.” The Apostle Paul, as a most mature Christian, was deeply aware that he wanted to do what was right but did not do it. We get to Romans 8 and hear his incredible understanding that “nothing can separate us from the love of God,” even the sins that persists in each one of us.
Of sins. The Greek word for sin is “missing the mark.” We all miss the mark of perfection and holiness in our lives. We all come up short. There are essentially two sins in the Bible: 1) the sinfulness of human nature that we cannot escape or change. 2) the specific sins, flaws and imperfections of our personalities/deeds/actions that can be changed.
Our deeply ingrained sinful habits and flaws of personality can be healed, redeemed, or changed.
Again, the Serenity Prayer is helpful: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change.” There are things about us that cannot be changed e.g. our sinful human nature, a particular physical heart defect, the height of our body, the color of our eyes, etc.
But the prayer continues: “Grant us the courage to change the things we can.” There are numerous things that can be changed in us, but it takes courage, time, discipline, patience, self forgiveness. Personality flaws can be changed by the inner power of God, working with and through other people. Sometimes, we accept personality flaws for so long that we start to believe that these flaws are part of our inner human nature which can’t be changed.
The Serenity Prayer is right: we need wisdom to know the difference of things that cannot be changed and those things that can. Many of us are emotionally lazy; we develop deeply ingrained bad habits; and we imply that those unhealthy habits are part of our human nature that cannot be changed
-The kingdom of heaven is at hand. (Only Matthew, “kingdom of heaven.”) Notice Matthew 3:2. Matthew inserts the phrase, “the kingdom of heaven,” and this becomes his dominant theological motif. This is the first of 31 references to the kingdom of heaven in Matthew’s Gospel. You will find that Mathew does not like to use Mark’s phrase, “Kingdom of God.” The name, “God,” is so sacred to Matthew that he substitutes “heaven” for the word “God.”
The Gospel of John does not have one single reference to the “kingdom of heaven.” John’s dominant theological motif is that we find “life.” In John, “life” is referred to 42 times.
Matthew wants us to find the kingdom of heaven; John wants us to find life; and they both want us to find the same thing.
-As it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, (Matthew, Mark, Luke) All four gospel writers quote Isaiah 40:3.
-"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the Lord, John the Baptist commanded the people to prepare for the coming of Christ into the world and into their hearts. Similarly, John the Baptist asks us to prepare for the coming of Christ into our lives.
We all need the Voice of God speaking to our lives. We need a person or people who would call out to us to get ready for Christ to enter into us. We all need a voice to confront us with our sinfulness and crooked lives.
We always prepare for great events in our lives whether that event is Christmas, the birth of a baby, the homecoming of a child now an adult, taking a trip, getting ready for a basketball game or any other athletic contest, making preparations for the visit of a presidential candidate. We all have experienced and know the reality of preparation for an important, upcoming event.
Christ comes to us in so many different ways, and one’s heart is always to be prepared for the surprise coming of Christ into our lives, often when we least expect it.
Voices of pastors, spouses, children, friends, work associates, professors, neighbors are often the voice of God, calling to us and getting our attention to get ready for the coming of God’s glorious presence into our lives.
-Make his paths straight. (Matthew, Mark, Luke) All four authors quote Isaiah 40:3 about the messenger who will prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight. The image of straightening a path was clear to the people of the first century. When a king was about to come into a land, the road-like-paths would be cleaned up and straightened in preparation for his royal majesty’s entrance. So it was at the coming of the King of the universe. The prophet would prepare for the coming of the Christ onto the earth and into our lives. The road crews of the ancient paths/roads would straighten them out and tidy them up in preparation for the coming royal king, and we are to straighten the moral/spiritual/habitual paths of our lives in preparation for our coming King.
-Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.' " (Luke) Luke and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. All four Gospel authors quote Isaiah 40:3, but Luke uniquely extends the quotation from Isaiah until he gets to the verse he really wants: “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Luke’s Gospel is a universal Gospel, and evangelism is all important to him. Luke also writes the Book of Acts which is the evangelism textbook for the New Testament. In Acts 2:17 we hear God say that “I will pour my Spirit on all flesh” Sons and daughters will then prophecy or speak boldly about Jesus Christ. Both young and old will have visions and dreams. Both men servants and women servants will be filled with the power of God. And they all shall prophecy.” … In this passage in Luke 3:6, Luke is laying the foundation for an evangelical, mission minded church.
-And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. (Matthew, Mark, Luke)
-Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. (Matthew, Mark) John the Baptist was an ascetic in the wilderness. John the Baptist was compared to Elijah in the Gospel of Matthew. Elijah wore haircloth and a girdle of leather in 2 Kings 1:8.
God often speaks to us through poor people who are very different than we are. All four Gospel authors emphasize John was an ascetic living in the wilderness. He was not a city boy with city clothing, but an ascetic living out in a forlorn deserted wilderness, eating locusts and wild honey and wearing camel hair and a leather girdle. Often, the voice of God comes from a situation very different than our own.
Maybe the voice of God will come from a shantytown slum outside of Nairobi (Sister Mary) or from a barrio near an open sewer in Puerto Prince, Haiti (Pedro) or from underneath a street viaduct in downtown Seattle (Willy Sam) or from homeless men who stay overnight at the homeless shelter in the church (Mack). Often the voice of God is calling from a place of enormous poverty to us people who are living in comparatively rich houses in lovely suburbs in America.
We American Christians are way too materialistic and we often benefit from people who can be compared to ascetic voices in the wilderness. Members of our parish who visit our sister church in Haiti repeatedly tell how these people in Haiti were the voice of God to them.
A Spirit filled ascetic from the wilderness is not merely a historical remembrance but a daily encounter when “rich Christians” carefully listen to the Word of the Lord from materially “poorer Christians” living in the Third World or on the third floor of a tenement building.
-He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.
-This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?" John’s version of the story: “The Jews.” Circle the word, “Jews.” Once again, John’s version is different than the first three Gospels. We have said this repeatedly, but it simply needs to be said again. The word, “Jews,” is very important to John and he uses the word, “Jews,” 58 times in his gospel. The Jews are always in opposition to Jesus, and they are “the enemy” of Jesus Christ in this Gospel. In the Gospel of John, the Jews are the ones who plotted for his death and killed him.
In the history of western civilization, the prejudice against the Jews can be traced to the Gospel of John. Martin Luther appreciated the Gospel of John more than the other gospels, and it seems that Luther’s anti-Jewish prejudice and his rhetoric finds its roots in the Gospel of John. Without even knowing it, we can use the Bible to reinforce our cultural prejudices against a group, as Luther and Lutherans did for years against the Jews.
Notice that John uses the words, “priests, Levites, Elijah, the prophet” without even explaining these references. In other words, John is assuming a Jewish reading audience. We will find philosophical categories and long speeches and complex thoughts in John’s gospel, but he was also writing to an audience that included Jewish people who understood Jewish traditions and customs
Highlight the question: “Who are you?” This is the fundamental and basic question in John’s gospel. “Who is Jesus? What is Jesus’ true identity?”
-He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, "I am not the Messiah." John the Baptist was clear and adamant that he was not the promised Messiah of the Old Testament.
-And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" He answered, "No." John 1:21 says, “Are you Elijah?” Jesus answered, “I am not.” Whereas in Matthew 11:14 it says, “If you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.” (See page 99 in Aland's text.) The Gospel of John says that John the Baptist is not Elijah; Matthew says that he is. It seems that Matthew was writing to a Jewish audience who were definitely expecting Elijah to return before the arrival of the Messiah. Matthew interprets John the Baptist to be none other than the returning Elijah. The Gospel of John says “No, John the Baptist wasn’t Elijah.” For the Gospel of John, John the Baptist is the voice crying in the wilderness to prepare for the coming Messiah.
-Then they said to him, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" “Who are you?” This is the dominant question for all people from all generations. What is the true identity of John the Baptist and Jesus? We continue to ask, “John, the Baptist, who are you? Jesus of Nazareth, who are you? Are you the Messiah? Are you the persona of Elijah returned, or another prophet who is to come? Jesus, are you really a gigantic religious prophet like Moses or Mohammed or Buddha and thereby a founder of a world-wide religion? Jesus, are you truly a prophet and no more? Did your followers exaggerate your identity and convert you into the Son of God when you only wanted to be a religious prophet?” These are all fundamental questions that were being asked centuries ago and that people still ask today.
The Jews at that time were expecting the Messiah to come, Elijah to return, and another prophet (unnamed) to return. The belief that Elijah would come before the Messiah arrived is derived from Malachi 4:5. Also in Deuteronomy 18:15, the Bible states that God “will raise up a prophet like Moses… I will put my words in his mouth and he shall speak all that I have commanded him.”
- He said, "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, "Make straight the way of the Lord,' " as the prophet Isaiah said.
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