Our Men’s Bible Study breakfast group continues to plod through Luke.
Our most recent session was on John’s Baptism. I was particularly stimulated by Colin Brown’s article “What Was John the Baptist Doing?” This article and N.T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God changed my thinking about John.
John is introduced with Luke 3:1-2’s enumeration of all the political powers in charge in his day: Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Philip, Annas and Caiaphas. Why introduce all these figures if John’s baptism is a mere rearrangement of his baptizands’ private spirituality? And in fact, Brown points out that Theudas and the Egyptian false Messiah led their followers out to the Jordan to re-enter the Land, a la Joshua. For this, they were killed. The political meaning was unmistakeable.
John’s criticism of Herod Antipas for “having his brother’s wife” was likewise a politically dangeous thing to preach. It is not surprising that Herod had him arrested.
Brown suggests that our Western art tradition is mistaken to show John either pouring or submersing people in the river. Rather, the salient feature of his baptism was going into, and coming out of, the river: i.e. crossing it. Jesus’ disciples refer to John as the one he was with “on the other side of the Jordan.” Given 1 Cor. 10’s reference to “baptism into Moses” by crossing the sea, we may wonder whether Brown may not be right. He mentions that it is odd for John to be “proclaiming a baptism” rather than just doing one.
The Jordan is not a great river for washing. Naaman the Syrian had been nonplussed at the idea that he should bathe in it to cure his leprosy. It was probably fairly muddy, especially, Brown argues, the lower Jordan where John set up his operation. No, the Jordan was chosen for other reasons — though the particular spot was picked “because there was much water there” — as opposed to other spots where the river ran too shallow.
The intent of the baptism is to get a new Israel ready for the visitation of YHWH in the person of Jesus. In 3:8, John alludes to Isaiah 51:1-3: “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the hole of the pit from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you.” These verses were understood by John’s audience as a statement about the nation’s preparation for YHWH’s coming.
John operates with a covenantal dynamic. The Pharisees and Sadducees (Herodians) come in for harsh denunciation. The Saducees represent the continuation of the status quo: they were the conservatives of their day. The Pharisees had an opposite agenda: to enforce a regimen of ostentatious heightened holiness and separatism in hopes that YHWH would notice and come back to His people. John is implicitly criticizing both these agendas: what is needed is not “trying harder,” not ostentatious heightened boundary-markers, still less a continuation of the status quo. No, what YHWH demands at His coming is a new, reborn Israel. This involves personal holiness, to be sure, but more importantly, and acted out by John’s baptism, it requires an Israel made new by crossing the Jordan and reentering the land. John’s baptized Israel literally acted out the root meaning of the Hebrew verb “to repent”: shuv means “to turn.”
Given the fairly revolutionary meaning of John’s baptism, and it’s implicit criticism of the powers listed in the chapter’s opening verses, the identity of his interlocutors takes on a new significance: he is questioned by tax collectors (3:12) and soldiers (3:14) — by agents of the present regime. Strikingly, John does not tell them to abandon their positions within it. Jesus too, in preaching his gospel of the kingdom, has noticeably cordial relations with tax collectors and soldiers. The harshest denunciations are reserved, not for agents of the present regime, but for the Pharisees, whose program represented a counterfeit, alternative way of trying to bring about the restoration of Israel. They, not Pilate, are Jesus’ chief competitors for the hearts of His people.
There are thus many signs that John’s baptism had little to do with the ushuring in of a baptistic religion of inward heart-regeneration. Its meaning was political and corporate as much as individual.
We have no record of anyone making “confession” to John orally, like a Roman Catholic in a confessional. We should assume rather that the baptism was the confession.
These covenantal, corporate, and political meanings – and not Anabaptist denials of them — are all things that Nicodemus in John 3, ought to have known.