The ministry of John the baptist.

What Jesus’s first prophet was up to.

Mark 1.2-6 • Matthew 3.1-6 • Luke 3.1-6 • John 1.6-8

John 1.6-8 KWL
6 A person came who’d been sent by God, named John, 7 who came to testify.
When he testified about the light, everyone might believe because of him.
8 He wasn’t the light, but he’d testify about the light.
9 The actual light, who lights every person, was coming into the world.
Luke 3.1-3 KWL
1 In the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar’s governance, Pontius Pilatus governing Judea,
Antipas Herod as governor over the Galilee, Philip Herod his brother as governor over Ituría and Trachonítis provinces,
Lysanias as governor over Abiliní, 2 Annas and Joseph Kahiáfa as head priests,
God’s message came through John bar Zechariah, in the countryside.
3 He went into all the land round the Jordan,
preaching a baptism of repentance—to have one’s sins forgiven—
Mark 1.2-3 KWL
2 Like it’s written in the prophet Isaiah:
“Look, I send my agent to your face, who’ll prepare your road.” Ml 3.1
3 “A voice shouting out in the countryside:
‘Prepare the Lord’s road! Make him a straight path!’” Is 40.3
Matthew 3.1-3 KWL
1 In those days John the baptist appeared, preaching in the Judean countryside,
2 saying, “Repent! For heaven’s kingdom has come near.”
3 For this is the word through the prophet Isaiah. Quote:
“A voice shouting out in the countryside:
‘Prepare the Lord’s road! Make him a straight path!’” Is 40.3
Luke 3.4-6 KWL
4 like the prophet Isaiah’s sayings, written in the bible:
“A voice shouting out in the countryside:
‘Prepare the Lord’s road! Make him a straight path!’
5 All ravines will be filled; all roads and hills knocked down.
The crooked will be straightened; the rough into smooth roads.
6 All flesh will see God’s rescue.” Is 40.3-5

Jesus’s story begins with John bar Zachariah, “the baptist.” (As opposed to “the Baptist,” meaning someone from the Baptist movement, which takes its customs of believer-baptism and full immersion from John’s practice.)

John doesn’t come first just ’cause of the chronology—John was prophesied to his father before Jesus was to his mother; John was born before Jesus; John’s ministry began before Jesus’s. The chronology was kinda irrelevant, because as John himself pointed out, Jesus existed before he did. Jn 1.30 And as the gospel of John points out, the word of God, the light of the world: John came to testify about that light, and point people to him.

That was John’s job. He was Jesus’s opening act.

Yeah, Christians tend to call him Jesus’s forerunner. Which he kinda was. But a “forerunner” in antiquity was simply the guy who ran way in front of the caravan—whether a visiting lord or invading army—and announce they’re coming. Again, John kinda was that. But he didn’t just proclaim Messiah, or God’s kingdom, was coming. He got people ready for the coming, by getting ’em to repent, by washing them clean first.

Christians also tend to call him Jesus’s herald. He was kinda that too. But a herald came instead of the person whose message he brought. You know, like prophets tell us what God’s saying, instead of (or in addition to) God telling us what he’s saying. John wasn’t a substitute for the Messiah he preceded; he said his superior was coming right behind him, and he considered himself unworthy to take Messiah’s shoes off. Mk 1.7 But Jesus would soon speak for himself.

John’s ministry began, as Luke pins it down, in the year 28, when both he and Jesus (figuring they were born in 7BC or so) were about 34 years old. He’s described as being in the erímo/“countryside,” which the KJV and many translations render “wilderness”—but erímos means undeveloped, unfarmed land; places people didn’t live or work, and couldn’t drive John off as a nuisance. There, he announced the kingdom was coming—so people, get ready.

Malachi’s prophecy.

You might notice Mark mashed together two bible quotes: “Look, I send my agent to your face…” Ml 3.1 and “A voice shouting out in the countryside…” Is 40.3 The author incorrectly identified both as from Isaiah, but the first line comes from Malachi, and is also found in Matthew and Luke when Jesus had some praiseworthy things to say about John.

Matthew 11.9-10, Luke 7.26-27 KWL
9=26 “What did you see instead? A prophet? Yes, I tell you.
And greater than a prophet: 10=27 John was whom this was written about:
‘Look, I send my messenger before your face, who’ll prepare your road before you.’ ” Ml 3.1

Usually Christians translate perissóteron profítu as “more than a prophet” (KJV), and since perissóteron/“significantly greater [thing]” could either be a possession of, or attribute of, the prophet, I went with the second idea.

What’s the Old Testament context? Glad you asked.

Malachi 3.1-4 KWL
1 “Look at me. I send out my angel. He’ll redirect the way before my face.
Suddenly the Master whom you seek will come to his temple.
The covenant angel, whom you delight in: Look, he comes!” says the LORD of War.
2 “Who can hold back the day he comes? Who can stand before his appearance?
For he’s like a refinery. Like being washed in lye. 3 He stays to refine and clean silver:
He washes Levi’s descendants, purifying them like gold and silver.
They’ll be offerings to the LORD, approaching him righteously.
4 Judah and Jerusalem’s offering will be sweet to the LORD like the old days, like previous years.”

The gospels weren’t quoting the Septuagint, whose version of verse 1 (“Look, I send out my angel, and he’ll look over the road before my face”) is closer to the Hebrew than the gospels.

The Greek word ánghelos means “agent.” Most of the time it refers to a malákh, a heavenly messenger from the LORD, sent to say stuff or do stuff on his behalf; we’ve turned the Greek word into our word angel. But a malákh/ánghelos can equally refer to a human messenger from the LORD, namely one of his prophets. (Like malákhi/“my agent,” i.e. Malachi.)

In Malachi the angel/agent prepares the road for God. In the gospels, it prepares the road for God’s people. Obviously the authors of the New Testament believed they got its meaning correct: Preparing the road for God’s people is preparing the road for God. God’s agent would get the people ready to meet their Maker, who’s in the form of Jesus.

In Malachi the LORD spoke of purifying benéy-Leví/“the descendants of Levi,” meaning his priests. Every member of the tribe of Levi was a priest; in fact so was John, ’cause his parents were descendants of Aaron, a Levite. Lk 1.5, Ex 4.14 The priests were supposed to represent God to his people, but in Malachi’s day they’d been breaking his Law. Ml 2.7-9 And one of the things the Pharisees taught (as do we Christians) is all God’s kids are his priests. We all represent him to others. Yet we break his commands all the time, and do the same as the priests did in Malachi—we tell sinners God’s okay with them no matter what they do; that thanks to grace God doesn‘t care what we do. Ml 2.17 We preach cheap grace. Not repentance. Nor obedience.

True of Malachi’s day, true of ours, true of John’s. True of human nature. Part of John’s duty, to get the people ready for Jesus, was to get ’em to repent. They needed to quit thinking they were guaranteed salvation because they were elect, Lk 3.8 or because all they had to do was throw more dead animals on God’s altar. Is 1.11-17 God wants a relationship with us, and for us to live in his light. He’s tired of our useless shortcuts to righteousness.

John said as much when he talked about his own ministry later in Luke. Which I’ll get to. Now for Isaiah.

Isaiah’s prophecy.

Luke 3.4-6 KWL
4 […] “A voice shouting out in the countryside:
‘Prepare the Lord’s road! Make him a straight path!’
5 All ravines will be filled; all roads and hills knocked down.
The crooked will be straightened; the rough into smooth roads.
6 All flesh will see God’s rescue.” Is 40.3-5
Isaiah 40.3-5 LXX (KWL)
3 A voice shouting out in the countryside:
“Prepare the Lord’s road! Make our God a straight path!”
4 All ravines will be filled; all roads and hills knocked down.
All crooked will be straightened; the rough road into flat roads.
5 The Lord’s glory will be seen, and all flesh will see God’s rescue.
For the Lord has spoken.
Isaiah 40.3-5 KWL
3 A voice called from the wastes:
“Turn the LORD’s way! Straighten the desert highways for our God!”
4 All valleys are rising. All mountains and hills are lowering.
The crooked are being straightened. The rough are being planed.
5 The LORD’s glory is revealed. All flesh, together, see it.
For the LORD’s mouth has spoken.

As you might be able to see, Luke and the other gospels were quoting the Septuagint, which I compared with the original so you can see the minor differences.

Isaiah’s prophecy was to tell the people of Jerusalem that God had pardoned their sin Is 40.2 and had good news for them. Is 40.9 The Septuagint added the word sotírion/“rescue” to verse 5, but rescue and salvation is the point of Isaiah 40. Straighten out the desert highways, ’cause Israel’s exiles were taking them to come home; but the gospels’ authors figured this idea fit well with the fact John preached in the countryside of southern Israel, much of which is desert.

Now, remember: Fulfillment doesn’t mean Isaiah predicted John. It only means there’s a parallel between Old Testament verses and New Testament events: Isaiah wrote of a voice shouting in the countryside, and John was just such a voice in the countryside. So there’s a parallel. Some prophecies are predictions of New Testament events, but this isn’t that. It’s simply a reminder: “Y’know that bit in Isaiah about a voice in the wilderness? Here ya go.” It’s not always in context, and not meant to be. (Although other apostles, and Jesus, were way better about quoting scriptures in context.)

And just like the voice shouts, John did prepare the way for Jesus.

John’s appearance.

Mark 1.4-6 KWL
4 John the baptist came into the countryside,
preaching a baptism of repentance—to have one’s sins forgiven.
5 The whole Judean country, all Jerusalemites, went out to him
and were baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.
6 John was wearing camelhair, a leather belt round his waist,
eating locusts and bee honey.
Matthew 3.1, 4-5 KWL
1 In those days John the baptist appeared, preaching in the Judean countryside […]
4 John himself had his clothing made of camelhair, a leather belt round his waist.
His food was locusts and bee honey.
5 Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and everyone round the Jordan, went out to him
6 and were baptized in the Jordan River by him, confessing their sins.

Luke didn’t bother to describe what John looked like; just what he did and said. There is some hint about his appearance when Gabriel instructed his father Zachariah that he’d never drink wine. Lk 1.15 This may imply John was to be raised under the Nazirite oath, Nu 6.1-21 which meant he’d never cut his hair. It’s why some art and movies tend to depict him as a really hairy guy. But not all, ’cause the scriptures never flat-out say John never cut his hair.

But the camelhair and leather belt had a dual purpose. Firstly they were to remind everyone of Elijah, who also wore clothes made of hair (or had a lot of hair; it could be translated either way) and a leather belt. 2Ki 1.8 Even though John claimed he wasn’t the second coming of Elijah, Jn 1.21 Jesus said he was, Mt 11.14 and the imagery of that mighty prophet certainly got people’s attention. It’s likely what drew people to him: Here’s a sight Israel hadn’t seen for 800 years.

The other purpose was the camelhair meant John, though a priest, wasn’t going to temple. Camels were ritually unclean animals. Lv 11.4, Dt 14.7 I mean, you could own ’em or ride ’em, and many Hebrews did. But not eat ’em, and if you touched them, you couldn’t go to temple unless you washed yourself and your clothes (i.e. got baptized), and waited till sundown. Yet here John was wearing camel. Ritually washing himself and others, but he could never get the camelhair “clean” in the way that permitted him to go to temple. Which meant he could never be called up for temple service like his fellow priests. He could instead spend his time on his ministry.

In case you’re worried, locusts were ritually clean. Lv 11.22 As was méli ágrion/“field honey,” which means bee honey—as opposed to date syrup, which Israelis also call “honey.” I’m not sure what a diet of bugs and sugar would do to your teeth; can’t be good. But it did mean John didn’t have to go to town or glean the nearby fields for food.

The original purpose of baptism was to get you ritually clean so you could go to temple. Or, the Pharisees taught, synagogue. If you’re gonna worship God, be in his presence, you gotta be ritually clean. Now, since we Christians are the Holy Spirit’s temple, 1Co 3.16, 6.19 we no longer need to ritually wash before worship: We can worship him anytime, anywhere, ’cause he’s always here with us. The rules about ritually clean or unclean are moot. Eat as much camel as you want.

But John’s form of baptism was about repenting of our sins: People are to leave behind their former sinful way of life, and return to worshiping God. And what better way to represent this than simple ritual washing? Get baptized. Get forgiven. Be clean.

When we turn to Jesus, we do the very same thing, which is why Jesus adopted baptism for what his followers are to do once we start following him. We Christians added a bunch of qualifications, catechisms, baptism classes, doctrines about how we have to perform a baptism, and so forth. John kept it simple, but we made it far more complicated than it really is, and needs to be. All you need is a repentant heart, and water.

Briefly, about Christian water baptism.

Ritual washing, as the Pharisees and other Jews practiced it, was to walk fully clothed into a pool of water deep enough to cover one’s head; then walk out. Those of the Baptist persuasion have taken this description to nitpick the way we ought to baptize: Full immersion. Not sprinkling, the way some churches do it—a custom they picked up when Christians under persecution couldn’t find sufficient water for immersion, and did what they could with what they had. Those who sprinkle like to point to certain shallow parts of the Jordan and claim John did his baptizing there. I myself have been to the deeper parts of the river, where Baptists and other Evangelicals point out John would have no problem immersing people there. (And they’ll sell you lots of nick-nacks, and rebaptize you if you like.)

Me, I figure Jesus doesn’t give a rip what way we do it. He told us to baptize one another. Mt 28.19 If you can do it in a pool or river, go for it; if you absolutely can’t, I doubt he has any trouble with pouring a bottle of water over someone. If your church prefers the sprinkling method, I believe he counts that as baptism. And we need to stop looking for reasons to snipe at one another.

Now, as for baptizing infants, or people who can’t agree to it (like the Mormon practice of baptizing the dead): Sorta ignores the whole repentance idea. If people aren’t repentant, they don’t want any real relationship with God, and no ritual or sacrament or ordinance will make any change in that. Baptizing your kids doesn’t obligate God to save them. It’s only when they turn to God, when they experience his grace and respond to it, that baptism makes any difference. Might be after the fact, like when a not-quite-believer gets baptized, then later realizes what they got themselves into, and is cool with it; they don’t need to be baptized again, though it won’t hurt ’em if they insist on doing it again “for real.” (If God considers it “for real,” it is.) Without repentance, baptism is dead religion. Stick to living religion.