JOHN THE BAPTIST: PROPHET OR SEEKER?
A sermon by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.
Today is our annual remembrance of the birth of John the Baptist whom William A Simmons has described as the ‘most theologically significant figure in the Gospels apart from Jesus Christ’ and is considered by the Eastern Orthodox Church as the last of the Old Testament prophets, having broken the four hundred year prophetic silence that came after the prophet Malachi. There is little doubt that John the Baptist has ever had a pivotal role in the history of Christianity. In his prophetic burst he would become not only the earthly agent of Jesus’ baptism but publicly proclaim the coming of the Holy Spirit-inspired ministry that Jesus would then start.
What do we know of John? We know that he was kin but not kith of Jesus and that there were both parallels and divergences in the story of their two lives. They were born to women who were cousins, Elizabeth and Mary; but these women were widely different in age at the time of the birth of their sons, the former an old woman the latter a teenager. And while the mothers knew each other, there is no evidence that John and Jesus ever met until the moment of the Baptism that day in the waters of the River Jordan.
Their fathers, Zechariah and Joseph were very different people – the one a priest in the temple, the other a craftsman; and while both would be visited by angels, the scriptural record tells us that they must have behaved quite differently in their reactions – for Zechariah had to be reduced to silence with no such constraint upon the apparently more reserved and thoughtful Joseph.
Both John and Jesus would lead lives of devotion to God; but John chose the wilderness for his ministry, while Jesus chose the crowd. Both would be executed, but while Jesus would die at the hands of both temporal and religious law, John would die at the hands of despotic caprice. Both would have disciples; only some of John’s would go on to follow Jesus but I will return to that point later.
First I want to consider why John the Baptist should be so significant. For us as Christians, the importance of John was in his forthtelling of the one who would be greater than he and the fact that he would baptise this divine messiah – an extraordinary act of contradiction for us believers – a mortal baptising, in other words cleansing, the Son of God. But it was an act that had to take place and would mirror another extraordinary act of contradiction later in Jesus’ mortal life when he would wash the feet of his disciples. That act of John’s baptising Jesus would see the Holy Spirit descend as a dove and would hear the voice of God speak the first of three times during Jesus’ life on earth. All this should be sufficient enough for our faith.
But, for those who don’t have our certainty in Jesus’ incarnation as the Son of God, or even indeed of the historical reality of his coming to live among us, the evidence we have about John should be cause for them to rethink their incredulity. I say this because John the Baptist was very much an historical figure beyond just the evidence of our own New Testament. For a start, the historian Josephus recorded the life and death of John:
Herod slew (John the Baptist) who was a good man and (who) commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another and piety towards God and so to come to baptism.
The conception, birth and life of John the Baptist and his forthtelling of the coming of Jesus is also recorded in the Qu’ran. Perhaps more interesting though are the Sabean-Mandeans, a group of believers listed as one of the ‘Peoples of the Book’ in Islam, who still exist today but date back to the time of Christ. They have always counted John the Baptist (Yahya bin Zakariyya) as their greatest prophet; indeed the Mandaic Book of John the Baptist is one of their most important sacred scriptures. In one section of that Book, entitled the Good Shepherd, we read words very evocative of our own Gospels:
In the name of the Great Life,
may the sublime light be exalted!
I am a shepherd who loves his sheep.
I tend the sheep and the lambs …
I weep for my sheep,
and my sheep weep for themselves …
I call out to my sheep;
to my sheep so that they be with me …
Everyone who has heeded my call and my voice,
and turned her face towards me,
I will hold in both my hands
Over the centuries of their existence, however, Sabean-Mandeans have not believed such words to have forthtold Jesus as the Messiah; indeed, they have labelled him a mšiha kdaba
who misused the teachings entrusted to him by John at the time of the baptism.
So apart from our own New Testament, here we have a separate scriptural source about the historicity of both John the Baptist and Jesus. But should it trouble us that Jesus doesn’t come out from this alternative source as we might want? And why didn’t John’s followers all immediately transfer their disciple membership to Jesus’ cause?
I, for one, am not at all troubled by these questions. Firstly, because there is no suggestion in Sabean-Mandean thinking that Jesus never existed; they most certainly believed that he walked on earth – they simply have refused to believe that he was the messiah of prophecy – an opinion they share of course with Judaism (other than Messianic Jews) and Islam. One can only reject as false or wrong, rather than deny as myth, a person whom one accepts actually existed. To do otherwise would be non-sensical; it would not be like rejecting the premise that Red Riding Hood’s grandmother could have had sufficient lupine looks for the wolf to deceive her granddaughter, for that story was myth. Jesus was not and is not a fairy tale to those faiths that reject him as the divine messiah; they very much believe he existed, they just don’t agree about his status.
A second reason that Sabean-Mandean rejection of Jesus as the messiah of prophecy does not disturb me is that our own New Testament itself has admitted to such an opinion. We know from Acts 19 that, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, there were followers of John the Baptist who had not transferred their loyalty to Jesus; in that reading, Paul asked:
‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ They answered, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’ So Paul asked, ‘Then what baptism did you receive?’ ‘John’s baptism,’ they replied. [Acts 19:2-3]
There is even the possibility that John himself, after that miraculous day in the waters of the River Jordan, might have had doubts later as to whether Jesus was the messiah of prophecy. Listen to the report in Luke’s gospel of the message John, from his prison cell, sent to Jesus:
Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else? [Luke 7:19; also in Matthew 11:3]]
Whether or not John went to his death believing that Jesus was the divine messiah of prophecy (such as we believe) or a false messiah (such as other followers of his continue to believe to this day), there is more to be found in the story of John the Baptist.
Firstly, returning to the report of Paul’s encounter with John’s followers in Ephesus, he was able to explain the gospel such that:
On hearing this, they were baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus [Acts 19:5]
More significantly, returning to John’s own proclamation that day on the banks of the Jordan, he had said:
‘I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness’ [John 1:23]
These words came from Isaiah 40:3 and were echoed in Luke 3:4, Mark 1:3 and Matthew 3:3. It is in these words that we may find great succour. The early church father, Origen, wrote of them:
Now the necessity of the voice of one crying in the wilderness is that the soul – which is devoid of God and truth (for what other wilderness is harder to deal with than a soul that is bereft of God and of all virtue?) – might be exhorted to make straight the way of the Lord, because it is still going in a crooked manner and is in need of teaching.
Origen’s view would seem to be that with these words, John was speaking as much as a yearning seeker than as a prophet. He had chosen the ascetic life to hear the Word respond to his crying voice. It had been others who sought him out who had sought to convert him into a prophet. Indeed let’s listen to John the Baptists own words in John’s gospel:
Are you a prophet? (asked priests and Levites sent to ask him)
He answered: ‘No’ [John 1:21]
I mentioned earlier that John was kin but not kith of Jesus, he was also not of kindred spirit in his life and ministry. John was an ascetic who lived apart from the world; he dressed in camel hair clothing and lived on a macrobiotic diet of locusts and honey; while it may have appeared to him that Jesus very much lived in the world, turning water into wine at wedding feasts, dining well and having a cloak worth bidding for. John may not have been aware that many would-be disciples of Jesus fell away because they had felt Jesus was asking too much not that his life was too soft (vide John 6:66). After Jesus’ baptism that day, neither John nor Jesus would meet again; and so all John would know of Jesus’ work would be by report including perhaps by some of those very would-have-been disciples. Most significantly of all, he would never live to see the culmination of the prophecy of Isaiah:
After he has suffered,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities. [53:11]
And it would be this culmination that would be
needed to convince even Jesus’ own closest disciples about his divinity for
them to truly understand the mission of his incarnation death and resurrection.
It would be at that point that their own voices in the wilderness would finally
hear and understand the Word that had been made flesh.
The ministries of both John the Baptist and Jesus were anchored in Old Testament law and prophecy, but to their listeners they would have seemed very different. Both railed against many in religious leadership, but the primary message which would have been heard from those who sought John out would have been repentance:
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance [Luke 3:7-8]
For those who sought Jesus, they would have heard a primary message of redemption, couched in terms of grace, mercy and love. That day on the banks of the Jordan, God had said:
You are my Son, whom I love. [Luke 3:22]
That Son, upon whom John had seen the dove of the Holy Spirit descend [John 1:32] would be a vessel for that love of God to flow through to humanity for as Jesus said:
God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. [John 3:16]
Thanks be to God.
 The entry for John the Baptist in Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology.
 From Antiquities of the Jews 18.5.2
 From The Mandaic Book of John – 11 The Good Shepherd – www.rogueleaf.com/book-of-john/2013/01/19/11-the-good-shepherd
 Cited in J C Elowsky (ed) Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament Iva- John 1-10, p62