What Jesus had to say about John the baptist.

by K.W. Leslie, 18 June

But for the best of reasons.

Matthew 11.7-15 • Luke 7.24-30.

After John sent two of his students to ask Jesus who he was, Jesus turned to his crowd of listeners and began to say complimentary things about John. (Which is further evidence John wasn’t going through some crisis of faith about who Jesus was, contrary to popular belief.)

Various “historical Jesus” scholars like to pit John and Jesus against one another ’cause their ministry styles were so different, and like to exaggerate their different emphases into full-on contradictions of one another. John was supposedly about wrath and perfectionism; Jesus about grace and peace. Ignoring of course all Jesus’s instructions to behave ourselves, and warnings about wrath; ignoring John’s declaration that Jesus came to take away the world’s sin. Jn 1.29 For “historians,” they sure do skip a lot of history in order to push their theories, but I already ranted about that.

First thing Jesus brought up is what people expected to see when they first heard about John and wanted to check him out. Starting with two things they clearly didn’t expect to see, because John’s reputation was that of an Elijah-style hairy thunderer. Mk 1.6

Matthew 11.7-8 KWL
7 As these students were going, Jesus began to tell the crowd about John the baptist.
“What did you go to the wilds to see? A wind-shaken reed?
8 What did you see instead? A person dressed in finery?
Look, those who wear finery are in kings’ houses.”
Luke 7.24-25 KWL
24 As John’s messengers went away, Jesus began to talk with the crowd about John the baptist.
“What did you go to the wilds to see? A wind-shaken reed?
25 What did you see instead? A person dressed in fancy clothes?
Look at the glorious clothes and luxury which is in the king’s palace.”

Certain commentators wanna claim these statements were kind of a knock on the Galilee’s governor, King Antipas Herod, who had imprisoned John at this time. Lk 3.19-20, Mt 11.2 The idea is Herod, as a politician, was the sort of guy who would sway like a papyrus reed in the breeze, and say or do anything to convince the Caesars to leave him in power. And of course he wore fancy clothing, as nobles do.

I don’t know that these statements were necessarily made about Herod. I suspect they’re more about wannabe prophets.

Because it’s precisely the sort of behavior we see in wannabe prophets nowadays. And human nature hasn’t changed any in the past 20 centuries: If somebody was a self-described prophet, they wanted acknowledgement. Respect. Maybe a little bit of fear. After all, they heard from God. They lacked the humility we oughta see in a real prophet, who recognizes they’re just the servant of the Almighty and nothing more; whom God doesn’t always grant the sort of messages that’d make ’em popular. Fake prophets, on the other hand, don’t have enough experience with God to realize their proper place way under him. And they’ve no trouble adjusting their messages to suck up to their audiences, because God didn’t really give them anyway. That whole wind-shaken reed thing? Applies to phony prophets just as much as it does to phony leaders.

Essentially Jesus’s message was, “When you went to check out John, did you expect to find a fake? And that’s not what you found at all.”

More than a prophet; a significant prophet.

Yep, these verses match word-for-word. Matthew and Luke were quoting the same source. They do that sometimes.

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

Yep, John the baptist is a prophet. Of course. He was full of the Holy Spirit, heard from God, shared what God told him, and most importantly acted on what God told him. He proclaimed God’s kingdom before Jesus did. Jesus did it better, ’cause Jesus knows better. But John did it first.

Various teachers claim John was significant because he was the last prophet, or at least the last prophet under the old covenant. In John’s day, the Spirit was only granted to prophets. In ours, in the last days, the Spirit is granted to every follower—so that we can all be prophets. Ac 2.17-18 So to some degree this is what Jesus meant when he said the lowest in God’s kingdom is greater than John. But we’ll get to that verse.

Various cessationist teachers claim John was the last prophet periodapart from Jesus of course. So what makes him significant is his end-of-an-era status. Of course they violate this idea when they recognize the authors of the New Testament are inspired writers, and if scripture is prophecy then John was hardly the last prophet. John of Patmos might be the last prophet, under their scheme of things. But their scheme’s wrong anyway.

Why Jesus called John “greater than a prophet” is the fact Malachi wrote about him. He didn’t just fulfill prophecy, i.e. his actions reflected something one of the bible’s authors wrote about. According to Jesus, Malachi directly wrote this about John:

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.”

As I stated in my previous article on John, his job was to get the people ready to meet their Master. It’s for this reason Jesus followed up with this about John:

Matthew 11.11 KWL
“Amen, I promise you there’s arisen none greater than John the baptist from those born of women.
And the lowest in heaven’s kingdom is yet greater than he.”
Luke 7.28 KWL
“I tell you there’s none greater than John among those born of women.
And the lowest in God’s kingdom is yet greater than he.”

I have heard screwy interpreters get all confused by Jesus’s statement: If the lowest in God’s kingdom ranks higher than John, is John the lowest in the kingdom? Is he even in the kingdom? They try to figure out the mathematics of kingdom ranking, and in so doing miss the point. John’s one of God’s loyal followers, so of course he’s in the kingdom. But the context in which Jesus made this statement is after he described John as a prophet. And as a prophet, the greatest prophets in the scriptures are gonna easily be outclassed by any two-bit Spirit-filled Christian who acts in God’s power. We don’t have a lot of miraculous stories about John. Yet every Christian should have dozens of miraculous stories about the stuff God’s done around and through us. (Should. If you don’t yet, start following him!)

And the public said amen. Well, most of the public.

In Luke, that was all Jesus had to say about John. In Matthew he said a few more things, and I’ll get to those things in a moment.

Luke 7.29-30 KWL
29 All the people hearing this, including the taxmen, declared God in the right:
They were baptizands of John’s baptism.
30 The Pharisees and lawyers themselves had put aside God’s counsel,
and weren’t baptizands of John.

People inaccurately tend to describe Pharisees as if they were all legalists, which means they weren’t really paying attention to Jesus’s criticisms of Pharisee teaching. It wasn’t that Pharisees had too many rules about how to follow the Law. It’s that their many rules made exceptions, which got them out of following the Law. They thought their religion was getting ’em closer to God, but in fact they were breaking commands right and left.

And same as Jesus, John objected to all these loopholes, and the Pharisee attitude that God would overlook all these violations because they were after all Abraham’s descendants.

Luke 3.7-9 KWL
7 John said this to the crowds coming to be baptized by him:
“You viper-spawn! Who warned you to escape the wrath of God?
8 Fine then: Produce worthy fruits, from repentant people.
Don’t start to tell yourselves, ‘We have a father in Abraham’:
From these rocks, I tell you, God can raise up children for Abraham.
9 Plus, the axe lays at the root of the tree right now.
So every tree not producing good fruit is cut down and thrown into fire.”

The self-righteous didn’t figure they needed to repent of anything; they were fine. But everyone else realized they needed to do better, to be better, and only by God’s grace could they get better. They needed to turn to God, instead of presume they already had him. They correctly understood what John was doing.

The violent take it by force?

That was Luke; now for Matthew. It’s a passage which has historically confused a lot of Christians, mostly because of the way verse 12 gets translated.

Matthew 11.12 Vulgate
A diebus autem Joannis baptistae usque nunc, regnum caelorum vim patitur, et violenti rapiunt illud.

For those of you whose Latin is a little shaky:

Matthew 11.12 KJV
And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.

St. Jerome translated the original into Latin. And lest you think the Latin is irrelevant, bear in mind medievals, including Martin Luther and John Calvin, knew the Latin best. The earliest Protestant interpretations of this verse have largely informed Protestant interpretations since. Further, Luther’s translation and the Geneva Bible have largely influenced our translations, which is why the ESV is nearly the same as the KJV:

Matthew 11.12 ESV
From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.

So, Christians wonder: What violence is Jesus speaking of? Which violent people? Is the kingdom still dealing with such people and such violence? Wait, are we to pursue it violently?

If a particular Christian is kinda fond of violence, like someone who’s into Ultimate Fighting or American football, they’ll try to argue yes: Jesus wants to fill his kingdom with badasses who will fight for him. They’ll try to claim Jesus wants us to fight evil—’cause he does. But in practice these guys have the bad habit of fighting everyone, Christians and pagans alike, whether it’s over the fine points of doctrine, or whether it condemns all the sins they personally hate. This sort of divisiveness is fruitless, and is the sort of activity which indicates you’re not in the kingdom at all. Ga 5.21 So nope, Jesus didn’t mean that.

Others will say Jesus is only looking for vigorous followers. Not necessarily violent; they’re pretty sure that’s not what Jesus meant by viastaí/violenti. They think it’s more like the persistent, the zealous, the sort of people who are willing to do anything and everything Jesus instructs. You know, eager beavers.

My translation goes a different direction; one which I think is more consistent with the Luke version of this story, and of course the Malachi prophecy about John. Judge for yourself, of course.

Matthew 11.12-15 KWL
12 “From the days of John the baptist till now, heaven’s kingdom was violated.
Its violators are snatching it away from you.
13 For all the prophets and the Law prophesied till John’s day.
14 If you want to receive this, John is ‘the Elijah to come.’ 15 Those with ears: Hear.”

First of all, viastaí doesn’t mean “the violent,” even though that’s kinda how it was translated into Latin. It means “rapists.” Yep, it meant that in first-century Greek, and it still means “rapists” in present-day Greek. And while Jesus can absolutely save rapists from their sins, I’m quite sure any interpretation which claims Jesus wants his followers to be rapists in order to inherit his kingdom, is entirely wrong.

Bluntly, Jesus is saying God’s kingdom was getting raped. Shocking language, and I toned it down slightly by saying it’s getting violated. “Take it by force,” as the KJV and ESV have it, gives you a hint of what the Greek text really says, but maybe tones it down too much. Force is morally neutral. Violation and rape aren’t.

Rape is about control. Rapists wanna overpower their victims, take what they want, and discard their victims once they’re done. Plenty of people want the very same thing of God’s kingdom: They want all its benefits, all of the happy feelings which go along with it, but none of its obligations, none of its convictions, none of its attitudes. They don’t care to be compassionate and loving towards their neighbors, but judgmental and divisive. They want to keep others out more than invite ’em in.

The rapists wanna keep the kingdom all to themselves, as an exclusive club which only the elect are in. It’s not for sinners and the needy. It’s for them and them alone.

Which, y’know, reflected a lot of Pharisee and Sadducee thinking of the day. It’s why, as Luke has it, the general public was happy to receive John’s gospel, but the Pharisees and lawyers had rejected it, and John. They weren’t teaching what God and his prophets had proclaimed. They had their own ideas.

Into this environment, John came, as if another Elijah—the only prophet of the LORD in a nation full of Baalists. No he wasn’t really the only one. Neither was Elijah. 1Ki 19.18 Might’ve felt like it though. Elijah was the loudest voice; so was John. And while other people distorted God’s kingdom for their own gain, and turned it into an exclusive club instead of a banquet where everyone was invited, John was the corrective.

In the Pharisee version of the End Times timeline, Elijah was expected to come back and help set things up for Messiah. John was pretty sure he wasn’t this Elijah. Jn 1.21 Jesus was dead certain he was. Because he’s Messiah, and John had prepared his way. And though Jesus wasn’t yet gonna flat-out state he was Messiah, he was definitely gonna hint it—and remind people that if you were really listening, if you have ears to hear, you’d know what he meant.