In this post, I’m exploring the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Luke 3:1–6), as well as the continuation in the following Sunday’s reading (Luke 3:7–18), and looking at the person and the preaching of John the baptiser in this Gospel as a whole (with some helpful comparisons with the earlier Gospel of Mark as well as the Gospel of Matthew).
John the baptiser occupies a prominent place at the start of each canonical gospel. He is there in the very first scene of the beginning of the good news of Jesus, the chosen one (Mark 1:2–8), dunking into the river Jordan those who had heard his message of repentance.
Yes, that’s right: he dunked people into the river! Whilst there is interminable debate about the means by which baptism should take place in the church today (sprinkle, pour, or immerse; once or three times), there is not dispute that the basic meaning of the regular Greek word baptizō is to immerse, to submerge—to dunk!
Of course, those being dunked into the river included Jesus, who “came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan (1:9–11). And that’s why John occupies an important place in the story of Jesus, for he performed the action that symbolised the deepening faith of Jesus, and crystallised the mission that Jesus was called to exercise.
The activity of John is interpreted by the author of this account with reference to the words of the prophet Isaiah: “a voice crying in the wilderness, ‘prepare the way of the Lord’” (1:2–3; Isa 40:3). The figure of John perhaps evoked comparisons, amongst the people flocking to hear him, with the great prophetic figure of Elijah, as described by the prophet Malachi: “I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (Mal 4:5).
Certainly, John appeared to claim this Elijah-like role for himself, in his manner of dress and his customary diet. He was “was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist” (1:6). According to Zech 13:4, “a hairy mantle” was the sign of a prophet. John is clearly reminiscent of Elijah, described by the messengers of the king of Samaria as “a hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist”—a figure immediately recognised by the king: “It is Elijah the Tishbite”, he said (2 Kings 1:8). He was most certainly not “a man dressed in fine clothes” (or “soft robes”), as Jesus later declared (Matt 11:8).
Likewise, John had a distinctive diet: “he ate locusts and wild honey” (1:6). This diet was kosher; the eating of locusts is expressly permitted in Lev 11:22, and the honey most likely came from a date tree, which was also permissible as a food source. The regular characterisation of the land of Israel at its best was of “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exod 3:8, 17; 3:5; 33:3; Lev 20:24; Num 13:27; 14:8; 16:13–14; Deut 6:3; 11:9; 26:9, 15; 31:20; Josh 5:6; Jer 11:5; 32:22; Ezek 20:6, 15; Sir 46:8). John, quite clearly, “lived off the land”, with his rough clothing and basic diet.
John occupies the same place in the story in the book of origins (Matt 3:1–12) and is described as wearing the same clothing and eating the same diet (3:4). His message of “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4) is given stronger voice, in Matthew: “you brood of vipers … bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Matt 3:7–10). In Mark, John had referred to baptism “with water … and with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8); in Matthew, he speaks of the “water for repentance” that he offers and the coming baptism of Jesus “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt 3:11).
John refers to the one coming after him, “more powerful than me”, who comes after him (Mark 1:7); in Matthew’s account, this is expanded with reference to “his winnowing fork in hand … to gather the wheat … and burn the chaff” (Matt 3:12). John in this account declares that “the axe is lying at the root of the trees”, preparing to cull the unproductive trees (Matt 3:10). In classic apocalyptic—prophetic style, his message clearly has in view “the wrath to come” (Matt 3:7; see Isa 1:24; 13:6–22; Jer 4:3–5; 7:20; Ezek 7:5–27; 38:17–23; Dan 11:36; Hos 5:10; Mic 5:10–15; Nah 1:2–11; Zeph 1:14–18; 2:1–4; Sir 5:7).
See further on apocalyptic in https://johntsquires.com/2021/11/09/the-beginnings-of-the-birth-pangs-mark-13-pentecost-25b/ and https://johntsquires.com/2021/11/10/faithfulness-in-the-turmoil-of-the-time-the-historical-context-of-mark-13-pentecost-25b/
So Matthew strengthens the apocalyptic dimension of John’s message. He also places a prelude before this, explaining the origins of Jesus as an infant, which contains clear pointers to the dangerous dimension of the coming of Jesus—the murderous inclinations of Herod regarding the infant Jesus prefigure the apocalyptic cataclysm spoken of by the adult Jesus (Matt 24:1–25:46). See further in https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/04/discipleship-in-an-apocalyptic-framework-matt-23-25/
In telling of his baptising activity, only Matthew (3:14–15) reports the conversation between Jesus and John the Baptist, in which Jesus states that for John to baptise him “is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness”. In this way, Jesus begins his public ministry by demonstrating a central theme of this particular Gospel—that of obedience to the will of God. At this moment, he exemplifies the righteous-justice that is a central concern in this Gospel. See https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/
By contrast, there is quite a different figure of John the baptiser presented in the orderly account of the things being fulfilled amongst us (as the Gospel of Luke portrays itself). First, in the chapters prior to the encounter of the adult Jesus and the adult John, Luke tells a different story. In this lengthy prelude (Luke 1:5–2:52) before the adult Jesus comes to be baptised by the adult Jesus (3:21–22), devotes substantial space in the story to telling of the already-exisiting relationship between Jesus and John.
They would have known each other, we presume, because their mothers were related, as Luke informs us (1:36). They had met when both were pregnant (1:39–40)—and, we might presume, before that and after that as well. See https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/22/on-angels-and-virgins-at-christmastime-luke-2/
In this prelude, there is no murderous rampage, as in Matthew’s story, but rather a joyful encounter between the two pregnant women, sitting at the heart of a series series of joyful songs in which the coming visitation of God is praised and anticipated in hope. (Jesus, in Luke’s Gospel, characterises his whole ministry as a “time of visitation from God” at 19:44.)
That visitation will be a time when God will “look favourably on his people and redeem them” (1:68), when a prophet will emerge “to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins” (1:76–77). The coming time will exhibit “the tender mercy of God” (1:78), a time of “peace on earth among those whom he favours” (2:14), the coming of “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and glory to your people Israel” (2:32), the bringing of “the redemption of Israel” (2:38).
In the coming of the one who is promised, God will do “great things” (1:49); God will scatter the proud and lift up the lowly, feed the hungry and send the rich away empty (1:51–53), in actions which fulfil “the promise he made to our ancestors” (1:55). This is a time of blessing, as Elizabeth acknowledges (1:42), Zechariah foresees (1:68), and Simeon enacts (2:34). Jesus later will convey those blessings, to the poor and the hungry, to those weeping and those being reviled (6:20–23). See https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/14/advent-four-the-scriptural-resonances-in-the-annunciation-luke-1/
In the midst of these uplifting and inspiring hymns, the angel declares to Zechariah that he will be the father of the one who, “with the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (1:17). This son, of course, is John who is later introduced as baptising people “in the region around the Jordan”, where he was “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (3:3).
In Luke’s account, John also fulfils the prophetic pronouncement as the one preparing the way of the Lord in the wilderness (3:4–6, citing Isa 40:3). Through his activity, “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (3:6). In his preaching, the “brood of vipers” are still warned to “flee the wrath that is coming” (3:7) and “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (3:8).
The preaching attributed to him here (Luke 3:7–9) is almost verbatim the same as in Matt 3:7-10, although it is further extended by additional teachings about this repentance, in response to questions from the crowds, tax collectors, and soldiers (Luke 3:10–14). The teaching about “the one to come” (Luke 3:16–17) also mirrors the words in Matt 3:11-12, including the reference to the winnowing fork and the threshing floor. Inserted in the midst of this, however, is the reference to the people being “filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah” (Luke 3:15).
Luke strikingly characterises all of this preaching as “with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people” (3:18). The “wrath to come” (3:7) will bring opportunity for all to see “the salvation of God” (3:6) in these constructive exhortations. The Elijah-like dress of John, and his desert-like diet, is completely absent from the Lukan account—there is no hint of this idiosyncratic dimension at all. And in introducing all of this relatively more respectable activity of John, Luke provides a precise and details historical reference point for this activity (3:1–2). Luke has really “tidied up” the person of John in his account.
The work of John prepares the people; it also prepares Jesus, as the heavens open, a voice from heaven describes him to be “my Son, the Beloved”, and “the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form” (3:21–22). The Spirit then continues, leading Jesus into the wilderness (4:1), back into Galilee (4:14), and into Nazareth, where Jesus boldly claims that “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me” as being scripture which “has been fulfilled in your hearing” (4:21). Jesus confronts unclean spirits (4:31–37), deals with fevers and demons (4:38–41), and proclaims good news throughout Judea (4:44; a textual variant here reads Galilee, which would make more sense).
John is a much more constructive and positive figure in the Lukan narrative. He has lost almost all of his fiery apocalyptic appearance and nature. He still preaches the apocalyptic message, mentioning “the wrath to come”; but he provides more detail about the ethical way of living in response to the word of judgement, and prepares the way in positive ways for the message of good news to flourish.
Alone in Luke’s account, Jesus declares that “among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he” (7:28). Those who accepted the baptism of John “acknowledged the justice of God”, whilst those “refusing to be baptized by him … rejected God’s purpose for themselves” (7:30). Aligning the baptism of John with the purpose of God is a strong Lukan claim; “the plan of God” is a central theological interpretive principle for the author of this work.
Sadly, the Lukan narrative about John’s baptising (3:1–20) ends with the note that Herod “added to all the evil things that Herod had done … by shutting up John in prison” (3:19–20). Herod in this reference was Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great (who appeared in Matt 2:1–12). This Herod ruled the region of Galilee from 4BCE to 39CE as a puppet king in the service of the Romans, whom Jesus later contemptuously described as “that fox” (Luke 13:32).
His beheading and death, reported in great detail in other narratives (Mark 6:17–29 and Matt 14:3–12), is all but passed over in Luke’s narrative; there is the brief recognition by Herod that is reported in chapter 9: “Herod said, ‘John I beheaded’; but who is this about whom I hear such things?” (Luke 9:9).
There is a similarly brief mention of the death of John in the later work of Josephus, who refers simply to the fact that “John was sent as a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Machaerus, the castle I already mentioned, and was put to death” (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.119; see https://www.livius.org/sources/content/josephus/jewish-antiquities/josephus-on-john-the-baptist/)
Later in Luke’s account, John is portrayed as one who came “eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon’” (7:33)—in striking contrast to the Son of Man, who came “eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (7:34).
John lived life in the right way, and still was not recognised for his virtue. Jesus came with generous and open engagement with people across the spectrum of society, and was harshly judged. In this regard, both met a similar fate. And, indeed, both were put to death in an unjust manner under foreign authority.
To complete our survey of John, we note that the figure of John the baptiser is different, once again, in the fourth Gospel, the book of signs; see https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/16/john-the-baptizer-and-jesus-the-anointed-in-the-book-of-signs-the-gospel-of-john/.
He’s also mentioned in Acts, when that book refers to Apollos of Alexandria, who taught “the baptism of John” and was then subsequently informed further about “the Way of God” by Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:24–26). In this passage, also, knowledge of John provides the basis for moving to a fuller understanding of the messianic role of Jesus (Acts 18:27–28).