Posted by: mattcolvin | February 6, 2012

“Why baptize if you’re not Elijah?”

Tuesday in Septuagesima Week: John 1:19-34.

John the Baptist is questioned by “Jews from Jerusalem and Levites” (1:19) concerning his identity. He denies being the Messiah, Elijah, and the Prophet. All three of these are figures of Jewish eschatological expectation. Elijah was thought to be coming to turn the hearts of fathers to children, “lest I come and strike the land with a curse” — in other words, he is the herald of YHWH who is coming to be King. “The Prophet” is “the prophet like Moses” predicted in Dt. 18:15.

It is in light of these expectations that the Phrarisees ask (1:25), τί οὖν βαπτίζεις εἰ σὺ οὐκ εἶ ὁ χριστός οὐδὲ Ἠλίας οὐδὲ ὁ προφήτης — “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah (the herald of the Messiah), nor the Prophet (predicted by Moses)?”

Note well: baptism is an eschatological act. It is something Jews expected to be done in preparation for the imminent kingdom of God.

I submit that all this had better be in our mind when Nicodemus, on being told that “Ye must be born again” asks, “How can these things be?” Jesus’ reply is clear enough: “You are Israel’s teacher, and you do not understand these things?” In other words: “This is Jewish eschatology 101: the nation must be made new before the coming of the kingdom. You’re a good Jew, you ought to know this stuff!”


  1. […] needed to use, or who the fit objects for baptism were. Recall what we have already mentioned in an earlier post, that baptism was a ritual with huge eschatological meaning: “Why baptize if you’re not […]

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