The Ministry of John the Baptist

Jeffrey Glen Jackson

Introduction

This is to be the first in a series of studies on the Gospels.  My intent is to work my way through the material commonly attributed to Q in Gospel source analysis.  I have several goals in this series.  First, and foremost, I want to focus on Jesus and his teaching.  Close behind that, however, I also want to return to apologetic issues.  Therefore, in this series we are going to look closely at both the Luke and Matthew versions of these passages (and sometimes parallels in Mark) and examine in detail the relationship between them.

Text

Mark

Luke Matthew
The Ministry of John the Baptist
3:7 So John18 said to the crowds19 that came out to be baptized by him, “You offspring of vipers!20 Who warned you to flee21 from the coming wrath? 3:7 But when he saw many Pharisees11 and Sadducees12 coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?
3:8 Therefore produce22 fruit23 that proves your repentance, and don’t begin to say24 to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’25 For I tell you that God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones!26 3:8 Therefore produce fruit13 that proves your14 repentance,
3:9 and don’t think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones!
  3:9 Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees,27 and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be28 cut down and thrown into the fire.” 3:10 Even now the ax is laid at15 the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. 7:19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
3:15 While the people were filled with anticipation42 and they all wondered43 whether perhaps John44 could be the Christ,45
1:7 He proclaimed,13 “One more powerful than I am is coming after me; I am not worthy14 to bend down and untie the strap15 of his sandals. 3:16 John46 answered them all,47 “I baptize you with water,48 but one more powerful than I am is coming—I am not worthy49 to untie the strap50 of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.51 3:11 “I baptize you with water, for repentance, but the one coming after me is more powerful than I am—I am not worthy16 to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.17
1:8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
3:17 His winnowing fork52 is in his hand to clean out his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his storehouse,53 but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire.”54 3:12 His winnowing fork18 is in his hand, and he will clean out his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the storehouse,19 but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire.”20

Lk 3:7-9

In popular usage, a prophet is one who predicts the future.  In the Bible, prophets are not fortune tellers, although at times particular predictions might be part of their message.  This is incidental, however, to the point of the prophecy.   Prophecy in the Old Testament is the commissioning by God of the prophet to deliver a message, usually of judgement and/or redemption.  We saw this in my last Bible study on Isaiah 58, and we see that in John's ministry here.  If one were to ask a Jew in the audience who or what John the Baptist was, they would have replied that he is a prophet.  See Mt 11:7-14, 14:5, 17:10-13, 21:26, etc. 

Tantalizingly little is told to us about John's message.  We can outline the broad themes presented in these verses however.  It was a message of judgement.   Whether he was specific in predicting what the "coming wrath" was or not, we don't know.  Jesus was very specific in predicting the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, which happened in 70 AD.   Such had been threatened by Old Testament prophets.  The Essenes at Qumran of this time also looked forward to a judgement on the Temple cult.  So, similar warnings on John's lips would not be surprising.  It has been common to read an eschatological (end of the world) import to the "coming wrath", but the immediacy implicit in verse 9 points more to a first century fulfillment, not an end-time fulfillment.

Like Isaiah, in Isaiah 58, John held repentance to be more than external form.   John agrees with James that repentance must be proved by its bearing fruit:   i.e., true repentance leads to good works.  We also see John using parables in verse 9 to convey his message.  All these components, judgement, redemption, call to a change of behavior, and use of parables are part and parcel of the Old Testament prophetic ministry.

We see evidence here that John taught in Aramaic.  The words in parallel in verse 8, "children" and "stones" sound almost alike in Aramaic.  ((aY:n"B], be�nayya�) and (aY:n"b]a', <abnayya�) respectively).  This verse also foreshadows the entry of the gentiles into the Kingdom of God.  Salvation is not inherited, but rather is the result of the action of God.

A Jew of the late 20's AD would have perceived continuity between the ministry of John and Jesus.  Some of Jesus' disciples were originally John's.  Jesus opened his ministry with a similar message ("Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near."   Mt 4:17).  According to Matthew, Jesus even used the same parable John did in verse 9 (Mt 7:19).  That is Jesus was also perceived as being a prophet:  Mt 13:57 (where Jesus uses the designation to refer to himself),  Mt 16:13-14, 21:11, 21:46, 26:68, etc.

Skeptics often hold that the Gospels were written late in the church and reflect those later conditions and beliefs more than they do Jesus' actual teaching.  However, the early church did not use the category of "prophet" to think and speak about Jesus.  Living after the resurrection, after the full import of who and what Jesus actual is had been revealed, Messianic and Divine categories were used by the church.   Jesus as prophet was not important to them.  Thus the appearance of Jesus as a prophet like John in the Gospels points to an earlier origin for the Gospels and the authenticity of those accounts.  They are simply not something that the church would have bothered to make up.

Excursus:  One often finds this argument used in reverse, but this is erronious logic.  For example, one often finds the conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees dismissed because such conflicts are "obviously" actually the invention of the church to deal with her conflicts with the Jews after the destruction of Jerusalem, and especially, after the council of Jamnia.  However, this does not imply that Jesus could not also have had conflicts with the Pharisees.  They did, remember, have him killed!

Lk 3:7 || Mt 3:7

that came out to be baptized || coming to his baptism

crowds || many Pharisees and Sadducees

Lk 3:8 || Mt 3:8-9

begin || think you can

Lk 3:15-17

It is beyond the scope I intend for this study to go into great detail about pre-Christian Messianic exceptions of the Jews.  Suffice it to say that the leaders of many violent uprisings against the Romans were self-proclaimed messiahs.  These would-be messiahs would often be based out in the desert areas from which they staged guerilla attacks.  A prophet figure gathering large crowds in a remote area, criticizing the local ruler (Mt 14:3-4), and preaching an apocalyptic message (v. 9, 17), would raise suspicions to say the least.  In verse 15, we see these suspicions, and ultimately John would pay with his life because of them (Mt 14:1-12).

John denied such aspirations.  Instead he pointed forward to a future Messiah who would come who would be greater than he.  He then tells another parable.  The Messiah will divide the wheat from the chaff and gather the wheat into his storehouse and burn the chaff.  The wheat is obviously the saved, gathered into the Kingdom of God, and the chaff is the lost who will suffer judgement.  The eternity of the fire suggested an eschatological judgement  (Job 20:26; Isa 34:8-10; 66:24), although it is not impossible that he has in mind judgement on the nation that would happen in 70AD.

Lk 3:16

This verse raises a number of synoptic issues.

Mk 1:7-8 Lk 3:16 Mt 3:11
He proclaimed,13 John46 answered them all,47  
see below “I baptize you with water,48 “I baptize you with water,
    for repentance,
“One more powerful than I am is coming after me; but one more powerful than I am is coming— but the one coming after me is more powerful than I am—
I am not worthy14 to bend down and untie the strap15 of his sandals. I am not worthy49 to untie the strap50 of his sandals. I am not worthy16 to carry his sandals.
I baptize you with water, see above see above
but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit
  and fire.51 and fire.17

As we have discussed before, most scholars think Lk and Mt use Mk as one of their sources.  This passage is one of a handful of places where Lk and Mt have agreements against Mk.  Both agree in moving the phrase "I baptize you with water".  Both add "and fire".  Mt also adds "for repentance" and has "to carry" instead of "to untie the strap of".

What is going on here?  Is this a contradiction?  It would appear that both Mk and Q recount the same saying here.  Lk and Mt have conflated them differently.   We may reconstruct the original Q something like this:

John answered them all, "I baptize you with water, for repentance, but the one coming after me is more powerful than I am—I am not worthy to carry his sandals.   He will baptize you with fire."

Like we've discussed regarding Jesus before, John too would have spoken on the same topic more than one time.  There is no reason to believe that John would not have varied his sayings from time to time.  What we have here are two independent memories of John's comments on the Coming One.  This is not a one time incident where John on one occasion predicted one more powerful than himself was coming and then never spoke about it again.  He would have contrasted his baptism with water to the coming baptism with the Holy Spirit/fire (see below for a discussion of "fire" here) on many occasions.  He would have expressed his unworthiness in many ways, not just untying or carrying his sandals.

Rather than being contradictions that call into question the reliability of the Gospels, these variations confirm that they are genuine memories of what John actually spoke in history.

Lk 3:17

This verse confirms that Q must have overlapped Mk in the previous verse.  The reference to "his winnowing fork" implies that there must have been some antecedent to explain who "he" was.

Fire

The use of the word "fire" in verse 16 is much debated in the commentaries.   Some hold it to be synonomous with the Holy Spirit, others that it is the wrath of God.  Acts 2:3-4 is often sited as evidence for regarding the terms synonomous:

2:3 And tongues spreading out like a fire appeared to them and came to rest on each one of them. 2:4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them.

However, this passage only uses fire as a simile for how the tongues spread, and not as a description of the Holy Spirit itself.  Also sited are passage which use "fire" in a purifying context (Is 1:25; Zech 13:9; Mal 3:2-3).

On the other hand verse 17 refers to burning chaff in fire as a symbol for punishment.   This is probably a better way of understanding fire.

Keeping in mind that the speach by John here is not a one time sermon that he preached and never spoke about again, we can reconstruct that John sometimes contrasted his baptism as a forerunner of a future baptism that will be given to God's people (see Is 11:2, 44:3, Ez 36:27, etc), and sometimes contrasted it with a coming judgement (such as the destruction of the temple in 70 AD or an eschatological judgment in the afterlife). 

Some have seen in the Spirit a wind of Judgement instead of the usual Christian understanding ("wind" and "spirit" are the same word in Hebrew), but there is no firm exegetical ground for assuming this.  Perhaps if "Holy" wasn't attached to it in the text, but use of "Holy Spirit" in the Gospels, Acts, and the rest of the New Testament tells against this.  I suspect there is an unspoken agenda behind that interpretation: a desire to claim the Holy Spirit doctrine as a post-Easter invention of the church.

Bibliography

Gaebelein, Frank E., editor.  The Expositor's Bible Commentary.   Zondervan Publishing House, 1976-1992, 1998.

Guelich, Robert A.  Word Biblical Commentary (Volume 35A: Mark 1-8:26).   Word Books, 1989.

Hagner, Donald A. Word Biblical Commentary (Volume 33A: Matthew 1-13).   Word Books, 1989.

New English Translation (NET).  Biblical Studies Press, 1998.

Nolland, John.  Word Biblical Commentary (Volume 35A: Luke 1-9:20).   Word Books, 1989.