The Opening Verse
1. In those days
3. The Wilderness of Judea
John the Baptist
1. Who was John the Baptist?
2. Was John the Baptist an Essene?
3. His appearance and food
4. Prophetic Fulfilment
a. Isaiah 40:1-2
b. Isaiah 40:3-5
c. Isaiah 40:6-8
d. Isaiah 40:9-11
5. His enduring ministry
His Message in Matthew
b. Farming Words
i. Brood of Vipers
ii. Bearing Fruit
iii. Winnowing Fork
2. Announcer of the Messiah
The opening twelve verses of this chapter present us with the character of John the Baptist before Jesus appears on the scene to be baptized by him (Mtw 3:13). As such, it gives us an illustration of the type of person he was and of the type of ministry that he imparted to Israel.
There is more dealt with on this web page, however, than is contained within these verses for, recently, the belief that John was an Essene possibly resident in Qumran Community and, therefore, a reader of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) has been proposed with increasing certainty.
We need, therefore, to cover this ground and use a limited number of references to the Scrolls and Archaeological articles to show whether this is likely to have been the case. Whether the reader concludes that John was or was not an Essene is, in reality, unimportant - what is of the utmost concern to us, however, is to see John as being the forerunner to the Messiah and to try to understand what his purpose was in his own setting.
For this, I have needed to consult some ancient historians who deal with John’s ministry for they not only back up the Scriptural record but may give us a better understanding of the role of water baptism within his ministry as opposed to Christian baptism which took place after Pentecost.
The Opening Verse
Although the reader may think that I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time dealing with just one verse in quite an informative chapter, there are certain phrases here which need clarification and which lead on to other concepts that were running parallel in the society of John the Baptist’s day which had a direct bearing on the significance of John’s appearance in the wilderness of Judea.
We may read such a verse as Mtw 3:1 and think no more of it than that it serves as a short introduction to what is about to follow - but there appears to be a reason behind Matthew’s choice of words that, to a first century Israelite, would have been quite significant.
Far from being a verse to gloss over, therefore, we need to look carefully at this verse and consider the important aspects that it wishes to convey.
1. In those days
It may surprise a few to discover that, when the original texts were being put together of the Gospels and letters, none contained chapter and verse divisions as they appear in our present day Bibles. Though the apostle Paul may have told the writer ‘Start a new line here’, it’s not the case that he thought for a moment before saying ‘Let’s begin chapter 2’!
Concerning the OT, Zondervan comments that
‘The convenient arrangement of modern Bibles with chapters and verses numbered consecutively was not introduced until the 16th century. Originally, the books of the OT were written without subdivisions and usually without titles. In ancient times, it was often the custom simply to name a book by its first words’
The NT appears to have been different, however, and many Greek manuscripts of the Gospels contain Greek letters denoting numerical sections - but it wasn’t until the 4th century that Eusebius attempted a Gospel harmony based on an earlier, Ammonian, division.
When we approach chapter 3 of Matthew, therefore, we shouldn’t think of the first verse as being separated from the preceding verse but, as the first phrase shows, it’s clearly joined to it. For Matthew’s ‘In those days’ needs a subject to make sense out of it and, even though some commentators have proposed a purely hypothetical explanation for Matthew’s use of the term, it should be taken to be a direct follow on from what has just been committed to writing.
Therefore Mathag comments that the reason for its inclusion is not based on anything which precedes but is
‘...a pointer to a special time of Revelation’
which then follows immediately after in the shape of John the Baptist and, subsequently, Jesus. Matmor finds it baffling that Matthew should use such a phrase and comments that
‘It is puzzling since it follows immediately on the infancy narratives, but those cannot refer to that time’
However, the solution to the phrase does lie in the verses which immediately precede. Here, the reader has been informed that the family had removed themselves from Egypt and relocated in Nazareth following the Lord’s command to return and Joseph’s wariness in not wanting to settle in Judea knowing that Archelaus had taken authority over that part of the land.
It is in the days of the family residing in Nazareth, then - not in the days of the start of their residency there which occurred some 25 years previously - that John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, preaching the forerunner’s message of repentance to the nation of Israel. In Mark 1:9, the implication in the writer’s words is that Jesus was still resident in Nazareth when He decided to journey south to meet John.
However, Mark 2:1 records (my italics) that ‘home’ to Jesus changed in the early part of His ministry to the nation for
‘...when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home’
Additionally, when Jesus returned to Nazareth at the start of His ministry, Luke 4:16 records that Nazareth was the place ‘where He had been brought up’ but not that it was the place where He was now resident. It does appear, however, as if His residency in Capernaum had only commenced very recently.
It’s not too difficult to be sure at what general time in the ministry of Jesus that this incident took place for Mtw 4:13 implies that it happened almost immediately upon His return into Galilee after having left the wilderness of Judea once John the Baptist had been arrested. Even Mark’s record of events - which is probably a little looser chronologically than Matthew - places the event at the beginning of His ministry by telling us that Jesus had already moved from Nazareth to Capernaum.
The move to Capernaum, therefore, took place after Jesus journeyed to meet John the Baptist and had returned into Galilee but before He had been very long into His ministry to Israel.
The reason for the move, though, is unclear.
As Jesus was now embarking on His work to Israel, it would be unlikely that His considerations were driven by the need to find employment to provide for His family - and information is lacking from the Gospel texts which would indicate conclusively that He had received a direct word of the Lord on this matter.
Possibly, Jesus decided to move upon His arrival back in Galilee because of the threat that the Roman authorities presented to His ministry had He stayed, easily identifiable, in Nazareth. This also seems to be the implication for Jesus’ withdrawal into Galilee after the arrest of John (Mtw 4:12-13) where He notices the danger and so withdraws into remoter areas where He can choose the time that He confronts both the religious leaders and the Roman officials.
It seems best, however, to see in John the Baptist’s appearance on the scene, the catalyst which prompted Jesus to decide to move house to where He would be close to the people from whom He was to draw His first disciples - John 1:35-51 implying that the first selection He made was while he was still close to where John the Baptist was ministering to Israel and before He had returned to Galilee (see especially 1:43) and He would have known where their residency was even at this time. His move, then, would be to make sure that He was close at hand to those who He was to teach and train to be His close friends and who would take up the ministry to the nations once He had departed.
The phrase ‘In those days’ (Mtw 3:1) also means that the first two chapters of Matthew were never meant to stand alone and to be separate from what follows. By using the phrase, the reader can perceive that the Gospel has the intention of being one continuous narrative which should be considered to be one unit - not a series of units put together to try and make a whole.
As such, the Gospel stands or falls as one and to accept one part is to obligate oneself to accept all of its testimony. Alternatively, to refuse to believe one section throws doubt upon the other passages which are readily accepted. To pick and choose which verses and Scriptures are to be accepted as genuine is not possible within the framework of Matthew’s writing, therefore - we cannot hold fast to Christ’s teaching and put to one side the historical comments that we find impossible or disturbing; we cannot push to one side the miraculous because it doesn’t fit in well with our concepts of present day Christianity and yet fully accept the parables of the Lord as being accurate records of His speeches.
Because Matthew’s Gospel is written as one unit, it’s testimony has to be either wholly accepted or wholly rejected.
Having now seen that Matthew’s ‘In those days’ is not an interjection that the author included with no point of reference for us to be able to understand, we can go on to think about the date of John the Baptist’s commencement of his ministry in the wilderness of Judea.
There are very few clues in Matthew’s Gospel as to the date but we needn’t worry. Luke records for us a fairly precise date for the beginning of what is now transpiring and, in 3:1-2, writes
‘In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, in the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness’
I have already commented on this passage in my previous notes on chapter 2 and I there noted that, due to a disagreement on how the ancients reckoned the years of reigning Emperors and monarchs, the date we have lies somewhere between 27-29AD, but Mathen’s assertion that
‘...it was likely during the summer of that same year [26AD] that John had begun to address the multitudes’
is purely speculative as to the time of the year (and probably wrong as to the exact year which can only be taken as indicated from his preceding words).
Beyond this vague dating of the beginning John’s ministry, we cannot say much more. Even the date of the commencement of Jesus’ ministry is not easy to determine for there are no specific pointers in the text that even hint as to how long it was after John’s ministry began that Jesus was both baptized by him and then, consequently, spent a period of forty days in the wilderness before returning to begin His own ministry into the land of Galilee.
But John the Baptist’s arrest seems to have been the reason which sparked off Jesus’ withdrawal into Galilee from where He had journeyed to the wilderness of Judea (Mark 1:14, Mtw 4:12). If it were possible to date this event (which is mentioned by Josephus in Antiquities 18.5.1-2 - see below), then it would also be possible to date accurately the year in which Jesus began His ministry to Israel and, perhaps, even the time of the year at which it happened.
3. Wilderness of Judea
The Greek word here employed for ‘wilderness’ (Strongs Greek number 2048) according to Kittels refers to
‘...“abandonment” and it thus denotes a desolate or thinly populated area and then a “waste” in the stricter sense’
It’s also used in places such as Mtw 14:13 where the RSV prefers to translate it as ‘lonely (place)’ when describing the area into which Jesus withdrew Himself and in Mk 6:31 of the area into which Jesus brought the disciples so that they might gain a little rest from the multitudes who were following them.
However, here in Mtw 3:1, the word appears as a title of a specific place, ‘the wilderness of Judea’, which was situated to the east of Jerusalem where hills and mountains and insufficient rainfall made it almost impossible for successful agriculture to take place. The area stretched as far east as the river Jordan and, though much of this area would be considered by us today to be desert, the picture that the word conjures up in our minds of endless expanses of both sand and dunes is incorrect.
The rainfall in this area of wilderness was meagre and the area was probably more like a rain shadow area (a place that is lower than the preceding hills so that, once the clouds have emptied their waters on the hills, they descend into the wilderness and withhold their moisture due to the decrease in altitude. Jerusalem sat on the watershed of the waters, half of which flowed eastward towards the Jordan, the others westward to the Mediterranean Sea) except during the winter and spring months when some precipitation would have occurred causing plants to burst out into flower before the drought would once more descend on the region in the early part of the following year.
If John the Baptist was ‘in the wilderness of Judea’ and yet was baptising the Israelites as they came to him confessing their sins, the implication is that there were at least a few places where there was sufficient water for this to have taken place - the Jews taught that a man could only be satisfactorily immersed in a volume of water which was equal to or greater than 40 seahs (equivalent to around 70 gallons - see Mikwaoth chapter 1) and, though the Baptist is unlikely to have followed legalistically their instructions, the general need for such a volume of water must have compelled him to find larger bodies of water that could have been used.
Therefore, Matmor comments that
‘John will have been located toward the south of the area, where there were fords and people could come out to meet him’
Mathag includes in the scope of the region
‘...the area just west of the Dead Sea and the banks of the lower Jordan’
which would have been sufficient for John the Baptist not only to have found water large enough to perform the rite he had been entrusted with, but to be within a stone’s throw of the community at Qumran (of which I will say more later).
The area which encompassed the wilderness of Judea must also have included areas which extended beyond the Jordan and into the regions which lay to the east of the river for John is recorded as being here on one occasion (John 1:28). The Oxford Bible Atlas’s demarcation of the land as being only along the thin strip of land which hugged the west bank of the Dead Sea is incorrect here and should not be followed.
Concerning the implications and importance of the wilderness of Judea, Mathag notes that
‘The desert has an eschatological connotation and was associated with messianic deliverance’
citing the full version of Kittels of which I have only the summary in one volume! However, even here, the text notes (my italics) that
‘Judaism gives [the desert wandering of Israel] a special emphasis, leading to the belief that the last age will begin in the desert’
Unfortunately, there are no Jewish sources that are cited here which can be checked out but it is not difficult to see where such a belief system (if it was common amongst the populace) came from for, in Isaiah, we read prophecies which speak of God making the wilderness a place to which new life would come. Viewed as passages which speak figuratively of a time in which a spiritual refreshing shall come about in the dry and parched land, Is 35:6 proclaims that
‘...waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert’
and Is 43:19 that
‘...[God] will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert’
and these could make the reader believe that the final move of God to restore Israel would come as a movement that would begin in the wilderness areas which were situated to the east of the city. Of course, the original meaning of these passages would have to have been somewhat obscured but even Matthew uses Scriptures that have secondary meanings (see my notes on chapter 2 here) and the believers who understood these prophecies are doing no less than the Gospel writer though, in Matthew’s case, he was under Divine inspiration.
Even Is 40:3 which is used of John the Baptist and which proclaims
‘...In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord...’
can be seen to be specifically applicable to just about any sect or messianic movement which would like to use it to give justification for their beliefs and actions if they were located in the Judean Wilderness.
We certainly shouldn’t marvel at this for, even in the Church, sects have risen up using Scriptures which have been proclaimed as declaring the movement that they have now formed - it seems that even in the day and age of John the Baptist and of Jesus, these phenomena were not unusual and, as I have previously commented on in Chapter 2 (here), even Galilee was renowned for producing many messianic claimants and movements due to the liberality of the ruling authorities.
Even the community at Qumran (which we will have recourse to refer to when we consider John the Baptist - for now I am equating the DSS with this community though I shall show why this may not be the case later) saw themselves as the fulfilment of Is 40:3. In the Manual of Discipline (or ‘The Community Rule’ - the scholarly demarcation is 1QS), we can read of the way new followers of their way are brought into the community structure after a period of some two years.
Vermes translates 1QS.8
‘...when these become members of the Community in Israel according to all these rules, they shall separate from the habitation of ungodly men and shall go into the wilderness to prepare the way of Him; as it is written...[quote of Is 40:3]...This (path) is the study of the Law which He commanded by the hand of Moses, that they may do according to all that has been revealed from age to age, and as the Prophets have revealed by His Holy Spirit’
which shows us exactly this. Qumran appear to have seen themselves as the fulfilment of Is 40:3 and their location on the shores of the Dead Sea in the wilderness of Judea as being indicative of a fulfilment of their call to be set apart as a special people of God through whom God would be able to restore Israel (either by their actions or by using them as the redeemed people when their ‘messiah’ - the ‘Teacher of Righteousness’ - was to come).
Other references both in the NT Scriptures and in Josephus tend to make more sense when viewed this way - that the wilderness was the place where a special people were expected to be formed and so bring blessing to Israel.
Acts 21:38 records for us a comment by a Roman Tribune who had Paul under his arrest when he says
‘Are you not the Egyptian, then, who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Assassins out into the wilderness?’
an incident which is paralleled in the writings of Josephus (page 147 - my italics. All the following references appear to be duplicated in some shape or form in ‘Antiquities’) who speaks of
‘...the Egyptian false prophet. Arriving in the country this man, a fraud who posed as a seer, collected about 30,000 dupes, led them round from the desert to the Mount of Olives, and from there was ready to force an entry into Jerusalem, overwhelm the Roman garrison and seize supreme power with his fellow-raiders as bodyguard’
Previously to this paragraph, Josephus notes that there were many ‘cheats and deceivers’ and that they led multitudes (page 147 - my italics)
‘...out into the desert on the pretence that there God would show them signs of approaching freedom’
These took place under the Roman Governors but, even as late as after the Destruction of the Temple and the repossession of the land under the control of the Roman Empire, there still appears to have been figures who rose to prominence by persuading the multitudes that God was about to do something great - and this in the wilderness. Josephus (page 407 - my italics) tells us of the Sicarii (specifically one called Jonathan) who
‘...led [a number of men of the poorer classes] out into the desert promising to show them signs and portents’
That the Judean Wilderness was regarded as a special place from which would spring a messianic movement that would restore - if not, redeem - Israel seems quite certain even though mainstream Jewish sources (I mean by that the established religious sources such as the Mishnah, not Josephus) seem not to teach such a thing.
When Jesus therefore says (Mtw 24:24) that
‘...false Christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect’
He adds a warning (Mtw 24:26 - my italics) that
‘...if they say to you “Lo, he is in the wilderness” do not go out; if they say “Lo, he is in the inner rooms” do not believe it’
a word that would have been specifically relevant for all Israel - though especially believers - in the years immediately following on from His ascension back into Heaven even until just after the destruction of the Temple and ransacking of Jerusalem in the Jewish War culminating in 70AD.
Jesus is not, therefore, referring to some vague area away from the disciples and out of their sight - but the wilderness still represented a region to which many of the Jews looked for an emergence of some messiah or messianic movement that would restore the kingdom to Israel.
Of course, the fulfilment of Scriptures such as Is 40:3 were in the person and ministry of John the Baptist as we know and the Messiah and Messianic movement was to come from Galilee not the wilderness as Matthew notes in Mtw 4:12-17.
But, as long as people looked to the wrong signs and the wrong area, they would continue to go after the wrong movements and messiahs as they arose in subsequent years.
John the Baptist
I will largely ignore the infancy narratives of Luke chapters 1 and 2 here seeing as they do not contribute a great deal to our understanding of who John the Baptist was when he appeared to Israel as the Forerunner, though there are a few verses which are necessary to deal with at length for they have implications for both John’s upbringing and ministry.
I shall also try to ignore the subsequent references to John in Matthew’s Gospel and the parallel passages located elsewhere in Luke and Mark until I come to them in the context of future passages - this has not been strictly adhered to, however, so there is a little overbleed of Scriptures which I felt have been better to keep together.
1. Who was John the Baptist?
John was the naturally procreated son of a priest by the name of Zechariah (Luke 1:5) and his wife Elizabeth (Luke 1:24), both of whom were no longer spring chickens (Luke 1:7). Six months after Elizabeth had conceived, Mary herself became pregnant through a direct work of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:26) so that John will have been roughly six months senior to Jesus if the pregnancies ran the full course and varied very little.
Elizabeth and Mary seem to have been related (Luke 1:36) though through which relative is by no means certain. The assertion, therefore, that Mary must also have been of the line of Levi, the priestly tribe (Luke 1:5), is not a fair assumption seeing as they could have been half-sisters or even descended from a grandfather through a totally different marriage relationship.
Both parents knew that their child would be special before the Lord and that he was being brought into the world for a purpose that he had been earmarked for - this was no choice by God at a later date when He saw how the child was going to turn out, for he was to be filled with the Holy Spirit (and so under the guidance of God) even before he was to be born (Luke 1:15) and, resembling a Nazirite, was to partake of no alcohol throughout his earthly life (Num 6:3, Luke 1:15). His ministry to Israel is certainly hinted at here in the angel’s words to Zechariah (Luke 1:14-17) but just how much Zechariah perceived of his son’s role as a forerunner of the Messiah is uncertain but his prophetic revelation after his birth (Luke 1:68-79) certainly spell it out very plainly when one knows what eventually became of John - but how much gave Zechariah detailed certainties in his own understanding is difficult to be sure of.
Even with the limited knowledge that both Zechariah and Elizabeth had, John had to have been seen to be a forerunner of a great work of God in which he would bring the lives of the Israelites back into a right relationship with God (Luke 1:17, 1:77-79). However, that John would go before the Lord Himself (Luke 1:16-17, 1:76) was, perhaps, more than they could have even hoped for their child but certainly not obvious as to the fulfilment of the words - they could have envisaged him as some sort of royal prince, dressed in finery and gold, who stood amongst his people and legislated to make the Jews able to worship their God in peace, giving them opportunity to petition God for their Messiah.
But, whatever high hopes they had for their child, the pomp and circumstance of the royal throne was far from being fulfilled. Instead (Mtw 3:4)
‘...John wore a garment of camel’s hair, and a leather girdle around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey’
The family lived in the hill country of Judea, in a city that Luke either didn’t know the name of or chose not to disclose (Luke 1:39). The phrase means one of the communities which lay along the main ‘spine’ of the land which, very simply, was a mountain range, dropping away to the plains and sea on the west and the Jordan and wilderness on the east. It’s therefore rather a large area in which to place them but Zechariah would have had need to be not too far away from Jerusalem, being a priest.
Before Luke embarks on Jesus’ birth details and so puts to one side the story of John the Baptist, he concludes with an interesting verse (1:80 - my italics) which reads
‘the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness till the day of his manifestation to Israel’
where the Greek word for ‘wilderness’ is the same as that employed in Mtw 3:1 in the phrase ‘the wilderness of Judea’
The question which strikes us here, then, is whether the family moved into the wilderness at some early stage of John’s life and, if so, his appearance in the wilderness of Judea when he began his ministry to Israel parallels very much the existence of the community at Qumran and the Essenes (if these two were one and the same - more on that in a moment).
Firstly, though, what does Luke 1:80 actually mean?
Lukmor notes the extreme view, commenting
‘Some scholars point out that there were Essenes who brought up other men’s children and they suggest that perhaps John’s aged parents died or were not able to bring up their child themselves, so that he was brought up by some such sect’
This is exactly what Josephus says (page 133), speaking of the Essenes as ‘scorning wedlock’ and that they
‘...select other men’s children [presumably with their permission?!] while still pliable and teachable and fashion them after their own pattern...’
As Matmor notes, this would sit very well with what we know concerning John but it goes too far by adding much to the Biblical narrative.
Lukgeld, however, takes probably an opposite extreme to that recorded by Lukmor, noting (my italics) that
‘Probably from about his twentieth year until the time when he began his public career he remained in the desert parts of Judaea...undergoing preparation for his task’
He sees him, then, as developing into mature manhood before finding himself drawn to the wilderness areas some ten years before his revelation to Israel. But why the age of twenty should be chosen is difficult to determine and appears to be purely speculative.
Luknol, finally, simply notes concerning the phrase that
‘...John is a person apart, already from his youth’
though what ‘youth’ might mean here is, again, uncertain.
As can be seen from the various suggestions which have been proposed, the verse is difficult to accurately assess. We saw in Mtw 3:1 that the phrase ‘In those days’ related not to a specific short time period (which would have meant the time when Joseph had returned from the land of Egypt) but to a large band of time in which Jesus was resident at Nazareth.
Here, also, by speaking of the child growing and becoming strong, it is possible that Luke intends us to understand that this first took place and that afterwards he moved out into the wilderness for some considerable time before he began his ministry to the nation. But it is equally possible that his mother and father moved eastwards to join any one of a number of religious sects - as many of their fellow Israelites did - because they saw in them a better hope and future for both themselves, their child and for the future of the Jewish nation.
Anything we extract from this verse will be pure speculation but it does not, however, prove one way or the other that John the Baptist was a community member of Qumran - or that he was an Essene.
2. Was John the Baptist an Essene?
I have shown above that Luke 1:80 cannot be pressed to make John the Baptist be accepted as a product of the Essene community but there is much circumstantial evidence in the Gospels which hints at this possibility so that, the sum total of all the parts, have prompted many scholars to insist that it must have been so.
The starting point for all assertions which equate John with being a member of the Qumran community and, therefore, an Essene, is to first prove that the equation Qumran=Essene holds for this is by no means certain. Indeed, perhaps even before this, the equation Qumran caves=Qumran community would need to be proved for this also is far from certain.
The Qumran community (around which the vast quantities of scrolls both of the OT and of contemporary writings were found) and the Essene community (as related to us by ancient historians) could all stand as independent examples of the religious movements of the nation around the turn of BC to AD and it’s not surprising that many differing scholars have proposed all sorts of theories to account for the existence of the now famous community and caves on the shores of the Dead Sea which have yielded what we have come to call the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS).
The commonest view, though, is that the Qumran community were a group of Essenes who were responsible for the vast array of manuscripts discovered nearby in the caves, even though some were discovered at a distance of more than one mile from the site as the crow flies (if crows actually fly in those parts of the world - the Temple Scroll and the Copper Scroll being two of the most famous ones) - something that is not always pointed out.
Additionally, Carsten Peter Thiede in his small booklet ‘The Earliest Gospel Manuscript’ (Paternoster Press) pointed out that a small fragment named 7Q5 may actually be a fragment from the Gospel of Mark and may, therefore, prove to be the earliest known NT manuscript. If this was proven to be the case, it would also pull away from the belief that the caves were used exclusively by an Essene Community.
A few of the alternative positions need at least to be mentioned here, though, and I have confined myself to the testimony from articles which take up six years of bi-monthly Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) magazines beginning in January of 1989 and running through to December 1994.
Firstly, and just recorded here as an aside, there is not always an agreement on just what newly published DSS manuscripts actually mean - a fact which, although not that important to my contention, does show that, even if those scrolls discovered at some distance from the Community were able to be linked to it and the identification proved as Essene, it would not be possible always to determine with any definitive consensus just what they believed from the texts left behind.
In a July/August 1992 article (‘The “Pierced Messiah” Text - An Interpretation Evaporates’ - pages 80-82), we read Geza Vermes taking exception to Robert Eisenman and Michael Wise’s translation of a small, 1.6x2 inch, fragment known as 4Q285 in which they identify, as the title suggests, the mention of a pierced Messiah with the obvious implications it holds for early Christianity set in its context of first century Judaism.
However, the two translations are somewhat different and, because parts of the text are missing, interpretation of what should be there has to be added to give the lines sense. Eisenman and Wise’s translation of lines 4 and 5 run
‘And they put to death the leader of the community, the Bran[ch of David...] with wounds (also “stripes” or “piercings”) and the Priest (the High Priest) shall order [...]’
while Vermes (I have included verse 6 which gives the translation more sense) prefers
‘And the Prince of the Congregation, the Bran[ch of David] will kill him [by stroke]s and by wounds. And a Priest [of renown (?)] will command [the s]lai[n] of the Kitti[m]’
If the same, easily identifiable, Hebrew words give each scholar justification for the alternatives ‘leader of the community’ and ‘Prince of the Congregation’, how could scholars be expected to agree on the much weightier matters of possible identification of the contents of the caves, the buildings at Qumran and both people’s identities?!
This has, quite naturally, led to many different weird and wonderful interpretations not only from scholars but from those who seem to have a religious point to prove that undermines other, more reliable sources.
In September/October 1992’s edition of BAR, there is a review of a book entitled ‘Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Unlocking the Secrets of His Life Story’ by Barbara Thiering in which the reviewer notes that, theorising that there is a secret meaning to the Gospels and finding parallels in the texts at Qumran that most scholars agree have similarities with early Christianity, Thiering puts forward a belief that early Christianity actually sprang from the Essene Community at Qumran, radically altering the true meaning of the Gospel for the putting forward of another, hidden, Gospel that most believers should be able to recognise as being more fantasy than fact and which requires even greater faith to believe than the unambiguous accounts which are plainly readable in the NT Scriptures!
There are probably many such ‘beliefs’ still in existence with numerous adherents and it seems as if the DSS and the existence of the buildings at Qumran have simply given vent to anyone’s unbelief in the literal interpretation of the NT Gospels - perhaps, even, the whole point of exercises like this, though, are disciplines which spin money?!!
Whatever, if both translations (Vermes and Eisenman/Wise) and interpretations (Thiering) become varied and contradictory, the difficulties of positively associating the DSS with the Community and with the Essenes is, naturally, going to be equally difficult.
In the Introductory comments of September/October 1994’s article ‘Qumran - Was it an Essene Settlement?’, Alan Crown and Lena Cansdale summarise the work done and the theories put forward before progressing to discuss their own views. Their introduction is worth reproducing here, simply because it gives us a good idea of the range of interpretation amongst scholars.
They write (my italics)
‘Scholars disagree about the nature of the settlement known as Qumran, which is set in the midst of the area where the DSS were found. Roland de Vaux, who directed the excavations at Qumran between 1951 and 1956, concluded that it had been inhabited by an isolated religious community, whom he identified as the Essenes. Unfortunately, de Vaux died in 1971 without completing his final report on the excavations. In 1987 a team of Belgian archaeologists, Robert Donceel and his wife Pauline Conceel-Voute, were engaged by Father Jerome Murphy-O’Connor of the Ecole Biblique to write a final report based on de Vaux’s notes and the excavated artefacts and remains. Although they and other scholars who joined the team have not yet finished their work, the Donceels have concluded that Qumran was not a religious community at all, but a winter villa, much like the winter villas that wealthy Jerusalemites built in the early years of this century near Jericho. The American scholar Norman Golb, on the other hand, puts forth a still different hypothesis. He argues that the site was a military fortress...
‘Our own conclusion is that all three suggestions as to the nature of the settlement at Qumran - an isolated religious community, a winter villa or a military fortress - are wrong.
‘Qumran was, we believe we can show, a commercial entrepot and a resting stop for travellers. There is no evidence that it was an Essene settlement’
There then follows a lengthy - and very informative - discussion supporting the author’s view. As they point out, the one association from the ancient historians which could positively identify Qumran with the Essenes is in Pliny’s Natural History (5.15.73) but even this has been wrongly interpreted - though today’s associations rely more on the contents of the non-Biblical texts discovered than they do on that one piece of historical identification.
If Qumran is stripped of its associations with the Essenes, it’s associations with the contents of the caves located close nearby may also be rather loose. And, even if there is no connection, can the texts that are labelled as the DSS, be regarded as ‘Essene’ or just the writings of some religious community whose name has not come down to us through history?
In BAR’s September/October 1989’s article ‘Hideouts in the Judean Wilderness’ (the main thrust of which I do not intend dealing with), they note the existence of a series of caves around seven miles north of Qumran and it is commonly accepted that the Judean Wilderness was the site of many ascetic movements who dwelt away from the mainstream of society in order to attempt to draw closer to God. The Essenes, therefore, appear to have been just one of the largest bodies that could be easily identified, rather than the one movement that summarised all those who found themselves in the area, even though the quote from Josephus could be taken to mean that there were only three different religious groupings amongst the Jews and so force an interpretation on these caves as having to be Essene.
To have to identify the Scrolls found in the caves and the Community buildings at Qumran as being ‘Essene’ is not, in my understanding of the matter, necessary (but I’m open to reason!) and there does not appear to be any definitive proof that I’ve found to prove the point one way or the other.
Therefore, even if John the Baptist could be shown to have been associated with the Essenes, it does not follow that he would have been present at Qumran or that he would have used the scrolls (or similar) that have been found in the caves - or even that he had believed their original contents (excepting the manuscripts of the OT found here). The same is true for the reverse association, too - if John could be proven to have been at Qumran, it cannot be proved that he was an Essene for the buildings cannot be definitively identified as belonging to that community.
To answer our original question, then, the relevance of which I have already undermined by the previous discussion, we need to turn to the ancient historians who outlined both the Essenes’ lifestyle and their beliefs. There seems to be none better than Josephus here, though, a Jew by birth and who had first hand experience of the presence of all three main religious sects as they existed in the land towards the destruction of the Temple and, presumably, not very different from how they were in the times of John the Baptist.
In his ‘Life’, he notes that he pursued all three religions (verse 2 - I have quoted this below) - even though this is doubtful due to the time period in question - and spent some three years in the wilderness in the company of one Banus before returning into the city to gain entry into the sect of the Pharisees.
He notes that
‘...when I was about sixteen years old, I had a mind to make trim of the several sects that were among us. These sects are three - the first is that of the Pharisees, the second that of the Sadducees, and the third that of the Essenes, as we have frequently told you; for I thought that by this means I might choose the best, if I were once acquainted with them all; so I contented myself with hard fare, and underwent great difficulties, and went through them all. Nor did I content myself with these trials only; but when I was informed that one, whose name was Banus, lived in the desert, and used no other clothing than grew upon trees, and had no other food than what grew of its own accord, and bathed himself in cold water frequently, both by night and by day, in order to preserve his chastity, I imitated him in those things, and continued with him three years. So when I had accomplished my desires, I returned back to the city, being now nineteen years old, and began to conduct myself according to the rules of the sect of the Pharisees, which is of kin to the sect of the Stoics, as the Greeks call them’
His first hand knowledge, then, of this ascetic and of the rites and beliefs of the Essenes who would have been well known to him should guarantee the nearly perfect accuracy of his words. But, as with all things that Josephus writes, there appear to be agendas and reasons for statements which pull away from his reliability!
There is also a lengthy passage in Philo also cited in an Appendix to the Jewish War which I found on line and translated by C D Yonge in 1854. The two works from which the quotes come are ‘Quod omnis probus Fiber sit’ and ‘Apologia pro Judais’, the latter of which is only quoted in Eusebius’ ‘Praeparatio Evangilica’ and otherwise lost to the present day - references refer to the first of these works
Philo lived between 20/15BC-45/50AD, a Jew living in Alexandria who studied and wrote Philosophy. We can imagine that he must have dealt with his subjects in his own understanding and with his own beliefs (just as Josephus will have done) but he is one of the only other sources for information on the Essenes outside of Josephus.
Philo and Josephus seem to contradict one another at certain points but generally they give us a good insight into what it meant to be an Essene.
One example is in respect to military and defensive weapons where Philo (78) tells us that
‘Among those men you will find no makers of arrows, or javelins, or swords, or helmets, or breastplates, or shields...’
while Josephus states (page 133) that
‘...when they travel they carry no baggage at all, but only weapons to keep off bandits’
It would seem improbable that the same believer who abstained from the making of weapons would then take up arms to defend themselves - it is possible, however, and the statements should not, perhaps, be pressed to say too much but at face value they do seem to contradict.
Josephus covers the sect in pages 133-138, opening with the statement that
‘Among the Jews there are three schools of thought, whose adherents are called Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes respectively’
though Josephus does point out that there are actually two types of Essenes (page 137) - those who are permitted to marry and so bring up children to be Essene and those who forbid it.
The strange thing about his details are that the Pharisees receive just seven lines and the Sadducees eight. The rest of the four and a half pages belong exclusively to the author’s description of the Essenes. Why Josephus chose to do this seems peculiar but, seeing as the Pharisees and Sadducees had been reasons for the Jews’ rebellion against Rome that he is describing, and seeing as his book is being written for a Roman readership, perhaps he is just being wise to describe a religious group who bore no direct challenge to the Roman authorities.
Whatever, Josephus’ account of the Essenes is one of the fullest and most detailed we have and is worth careful reading.
What is immediately obvious is that there are very few references that could be taken from his descriptions and be applied to what we know about John the Baptist. I found just four which may have a direct bearing on how we should answer the originally proposed question and none of these are absolutely conclusive.
Page 133 tells us that
‘...[the Essenes] think it desirable to keep the skin dry [from oil] and always to wear white’
which may pull away from the statement in John 3:4 that he wore a garment of camel’s hair. On the same page, I read with interest the statement that
‘They possess no one city but everywhere have large colonies’
a fact which would pull away from identifying John’s lone sojourn in the wilderness as being representative of an Essene. Philo, however, assesses their number (75) as
‘...somewhat more than four thousand in my opinion...’
which is smaller than can be imagined from Josephus’ account.
It’s surprising that no other ‘communities’ have been discovered throughout the land of Israel if this really was the case, a fact which may point rather to the fact that communities did not always construct well built accommodation that would stand the test of time.
However, Philo gives us ample evidence to suggest that the Essene communities were normally situated very close to normal Jewish settlements. His one statement drawn from ‘Apologia pro Judais’ and quoted by Eusebius notes that
‘The Essenes live in a number of towns in Judea, and also in many villages and in large groups...’
and, in ‘Quod omnis probus Fiber sit’ (76)
‘These men, in the first place, live in villages, avoiding all cities on account of the habitual lawlessness of those who inhabit them...’
‘...the seventh day is accounted sacred, on which they abstain from all other employments, and frequent sacred places which are called synagogues...’
If these ‘synagogues’ are the regular structures associated with the Jews, then they would have needed to have been located near to villages and towns in which they existed. Philo’s ‘avoiding all cities’ should be taken to mean only that they refused themselves admission to places such as Jerusalem for his numbering of them as 4,000 in total does not appear to have been sufficient to have comprised ‘a number of towns...in many villages and in large groups’ if they had to live alone, separated from mankind as the community at Qumran is supposed to have done.
Indeed, the picture that one gets from Philo is of a sect within the society of the day and not of communities which had removed themselves from their fellow Jews. This is reinforced when Philo (86) tells us that
‘...whatever they, after having been working during the day, receive for their wages, that they do not retain as their own, but bring it into a common stock...’
implying that they took part in normal, everyday employment as all other men did but that they shared their money with those they considered to be fellow Essenes.
Though Josephus’ account could be taken to show that Qumran were a community of Essenes, Philo seems to pull away from any such notion and, if the buildings were representative of some kind of religious sect, it would not appear that Philo is describing them by his label ‘Essene’.
Philo’s description, therefore, would certainly discount an association of John the Baptist with the Essenes and the description of Luke 1:80 that
‘he was in the wilderness till the day of his manifestation to Israel’
does not harmonise well with the known characteristics of the communities.
Josephus’ comments (page 134) that
‘In general they take no action without orders from the supervisors...’
does pull away from John’s ministry for he claimed no authority but from God Himself - see especially John 1:33 where the Baptist speaks of
‘...he who sent me to baptize with water...’
which, if read in the context of the Essene community, might be interpreted as saying that a human higher than himself had commanded him to do such a thing!
Finally, Josephus’ statement (Page 135) that
‘...before touching the communal food he must swear terrible oaths...that he will...always hate the wicked...’
is directly against what John set about doing for he actually condemned the righteous (Mtw 3:7-10) and justified the wicked if they repented (Mtw 3:2,6). Such a person is not one who has set himself to impose upon both himself and others a rigorous set of religious taboos which make the person acceptable to God - it is rather the result of one who has come to see that no one is acceptable to God on the basis of what they can become in their own strength but who must rely upon the mercy of God and a change of heart.
But, if Josephus really had thought that John the Baptist was part of an Essene community, why did he neglect to mention it in his description of John that appears in his Antiquities (18.5.2)? Surely, there was every reason for him to note not just that John was ‘the Baptist’ as he had become known but that He was also ‘the Essene’?
I know this is an argument from silence but it seems strange if the greatest of prophets in the AD era should have been unmentioned by him as being a product of the Essene movement.
Therefore, it is my opinion (and mine only) that John never did make it into the ranks of the Essenes to be respected as one of their own and never succeeded (even if he did achieve some preliminary acceptance) to the attainment of the four stages which would have established him as one of the main movers in the community (Josephus - page 136).
It seems better to see in John the Baptist a man who felt called to journey into the wilderness of Judea to get closer to God as many Jews of his day did and that his call to minister to Israel came as a revelation to him sometime shortly before he came on the scene in the Gospel record.
Quite obviously, a direct association between John and an Essene Community is never likely to be able to be proven and the evidence from the ancient historians certainly would discount the possibility.
3. His appearance and food
Mtw 3:4 (Pp Mark 1:6) records for us that
‘...John wore a garment of camel’s hair, and a leather girdle around his waist and his food was locusts and wild honey’
which is the only description we have of him in the Gospels, even Josephus (Antiquities 18.5.1-2) declining to give us a description of him though this is probably because he wasn’t even born at the time that John the Baptist had been around, Mary E Smallwood who writes the Introduction to the Jewish War noting that
‘Josephus, son of Matthias, was born in AD 37 to a priestly family which proudly traced its pedigree back to the early Hasmonaeans’
It would appear, then, that he refrained from doing so either because he felt it unnecessary and unimportant or because, not having first hand experience, choose not to accept any testimony that may have been available from eyewitnesses.
John’s garment of camel’s hair echoes the attire of Elijah (II Kings 1:8) who was translated into heaven before he ever saw death (II Kings 2:1,11-12). The prophetic word that Elijah would return before the Messiah was to be made known to Israel (Mal 4:5-6) naturally pointed to John as being the fulfilment of the prophecy though whether John deliberately intended to draw the parallel by his attire is a little doubtful.
John the Baptist’s existence in the wilderness did not warrant long flowing robes and sweet-smelling garments - these were the attire of the city - but clothes that could be worn day in, day out, was what was needed here, that would prove to be both ‘durable and economical’ (Mathen).
Zech 13:4 seems to associate the ministry of the prophet with the ‘hairy mantle’ and John’s identity as a prophet of God is surely symbolised in the type of garment he wore. There is no doubt that he foretold the imminent coming of the Messiah and that he spoke out the will and purpose of God for the chosen nation - therefore the mantle which was a symbol of that office was fitting (see also I Kings 19:19 where the call of Elisha to be Elijah’s successor warranted the prophet casting his own mantle over him, presumably to symbolise the anointing that was to come upon him. II Kings 2:13-14 also speaks of Elisha, following Elijah’s translation, taking up the mantle and performing his first sign with it. Though there is nothing mystical in any piece of cloth, it represented the authority that had been given the prophet by God and which Elisha takes upon himself.
The second observation concerning John relates to ‘locusts and wild honey’ and present no great problem to the interpreter for all Jews were permitted to eat locusts (Lev 11:22) and, by implication of the phrase describing the Promised Land as being one of ‘milk and honey’, honey too would have been permitted even though it is not directly mentioned in the Levitical food laws.
The former food, however, needs a little consideration here.
Some commentators maintain that John the Baptist could not have been an Essene because the community was not permitted to eat such food, being forbidden by an additional commandment laid upon all their adherents. But their writings would indicate otherwise. In the Manual of Discipline (CD 12) there is recorded, amongst a very brief passage concerning both permitted and forbidden food, that
‘...as for locusts, according to their various kinds they shall plunge them alive into fire or water, for this is what their nature requires’
This clearly approves of their consumption and, as John is tied to the areas in the wilderness which contain water so that he may baptize those who come to him, their seems to be no real problem had he continued to observe the rites of the Essenes while ministering to Israel (though this statement really says nothing at all either one way or the other!).
Some have felt that, because the seed pod of the carob tree is today referred to as the ‘locust bean’, what both Matthew and Mark could have been referring to was a fruit of a wild tree and that their detail has been misunderstood by successive translators over the years. Some of this belief is dependent upon the Gospels having first been recorded in Aramaic and subsequently mistranslated into Greek just a handful of times by Greeks ignorant of the precise meaning and, therefore, forever misunderstood through successive copyings.
However, the Aramaic Gospel of Matthew translates its text as ‘locusts’ rather than ‘locust beans’ so that, if the original was in this language, it appears not to be all that easy to determine the word’s precise meaning. It seems best to stick with the present translation.
By outlining John’s diet, it shouldn’t be thought of as being exclusively comprised of just these two items - there is plenty of scope for John to have eaten other naturally occurring foods but it is just that locusts and honey are singled out for specific mention.
The point of both Matthew and Mark detailing the attire and diet of John is certainly meant to bring home to the reader the paucity of his existence - not that they both wish to say that he was to be pitied but because they are at pains to show that he had none of the rich trappings of some prince or royal messenger that one would have expected had he been announcing the arrival and ministry of God’s great King.
Jesus refers to John’s appearance in Mtw 11:8 where he asks the multitudes what it was they went out into the wilderness to see. His response, firstly in the form of another question, runs
‘To see a man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, those who wear soft raiment are in kings’ houses’
and hints to the multitudes, I believe, that the draw of His forerunner was not in the elegance and majesty of some great dignitary who had deigned to lower himself to the level of the multitudes now flocking to see him but in nothing other than the message which he carried.
If men and women had found attraction in anything that John was, then they could be excused for running out to see him - but his attraction lay solely in his harsh message of repentance and the proclamation that the nation needed to get themselves ready for the coming of their Messiah.
4. Prophetic Fulfilment
Matthew’s Gospel makes an association of John the Baptist’s ministry with Is 40:3, a declaration of the writer himself as both Mark 1:2-3 and Luke 3:4-6 do (in Mark, however, the writer precedes the quote with the text of Mal 3:1). In John’s Gospel, however, we read that John the Baptist himself saw the fulfilment of Isaiah’s passage in himself when asked who he was by the priests and Levites who had come, it would appear, not to repent of their sins but to satisfy the curiosity of those who had sent them from Jerusalem (John 1:23).
It is worth reflecting here upon the original prophecy given through Isaiah to the nation to try and understand it in its entirety and as an indication of what Messiah’s forerunner would be like. Even though Matthew only uses the one verse, Is 40:1-11, when read retrospectively, speaks volumes about both what John the Baptist was to be like and what his ministry was to be.
The original prophecy, however, seems to have been indicative of the return of the Israelites from captivity, God’s pardoning of their sin and of their restoration into the land with the reappearance of God’s presence amongst them.
But there are problems with this prophetic interpretation. For instance, Is 40:9-10 proclaims to the returning exiles that the inhabitants of Israel are to be told to behold their God and that He will come with might, something that never truly happened in the land at the time of the return from exile.
Therefore, although the parallel with the exiles’ return into the land does make certain sense, this passage seems to make more sense when viewed as if the original intention of the words was to proclaim the times about which Matthew is writing. That is to say that, although we have seen previously that passages cited in both Mtw 2:15 and 2:18 were fulfilled in the incidents there related, the original fulfilment and the reason for them initially being given could not have led to an understanding that there would come a day when they would be fully or totally completed.
Here in Isaiah 40:1-11, though, there is an incompleteness in what subsequently happened at the return from exile that pointed toward the belief that a full restoration of the people had not yet taken place and that there was still a work to be done before the passage could be totally realised.
However, what was partially fulfilled in the physical return of the exiles into the land of Israel, became perfectly completed in the spiritual return of the Jews from their captivity instigated by their sin which would find forgiveness and release into the freedom of the Lord’s spiritual land of a right relationship with Him.
Some readers may disagree with me here, but this is how I intend dealing with the passage.
a. Isaiah 40:1-2
One aspect of the Baptist’s ministry was that the old would end and that the new would begin. He came as a herald of the good things that were shortly to be made available and which were to become reality with the Messiah’s death and resurrection. Therefore Jesus speaks of John as being the greatest of all who had been born (Mtw 11:11) but that anyone who was now in the Kingdom of Heaven as being greater than him - simply because what he had seen to announce as imminently arriving, he had not been able to take part in.
Isaiah speaks of the announcement being made to Jerusalem as proclaiming
‘that her [hard service] is ended’
where Motyer notes that
‘”Hard service” here means “period of duress” but the word contains the idea of duress which serves a purpose’
a point which could be taken to refer to the service that the Jews were giving to the Law of Moses with its legal demands and the additional oral laws that the religious leaders had drawn from them that bound believers into a way of life that was more restrictive than liberating. One has only to take a look at the body of literature in the Mishnah to see a little of what they had devised for those serious in following God - or the modern day examples such as the Jew who had to ring his Rabbi up to ask if it were permissible to ring the Fire Brigade on the sabbath when his residence was burning to the ground but no life was in danger - to see that it must have been soul destroying and burdensome to obey every small interpretation that was laid upon them by those in religious authority over them.
Isaiah’s proclamation of forgiveness to Israel
‘...that her iniquity is pardoned’
speaks concerning the Cross of Christ which abolished the legal demands of the Old Covenant through His death (Col 2:14) and brought in the New (Jer 31:31-34, Heb 8:13, 9:9-10, 9:15, 10:18 etc). Here again, Motyer makes a note concerning the phrase in Isaiah that
‘The noun and verb...appear in Lev 26:41,43 meaning “to accept punishment for iniquity”. The passive as used in Isaiah...[is only used in six passages in Leviticus] which are all concerned with the offering of blood sacrifice’
Even though punishment was laid upon Israel for its sin, through the blood sacrifice of the Servant of God, her iniquity would come to an end and the nation would be comforted by its God.
b. Isaiah 40:3-5
There are parallels between the original prophecy in Isaiah and the way that Matthew quotes it that give us an indication of how the Gospel writer saw Jesus.
Firstly, Isaiah speaks of the need to
‘...make straight in the desert a highway for our God’
whereas Matthew interprets the verse to say
‘...make His paths straight’
The word ‘His’ most definitely refers to Jesus but the parallel in the OT equates the word with ‘our God’ giving us the inference that Matthew saw Jesus as being none other than God Himself.
This is not just an isolated quote for the previous line Matthew quotes as
‘Prepare the way of the Lord...’
whereas Isaiah actually reads
‘...prepare the way of YHWH...’
Matthew is using the word ‘Lord’ to refer to Jesus (a point that was admitted to a friend of mine by a couple of people from the Jehovah Witness’ sect - the relevance of which will be seen in a moment) but Isaiah is actually referring to the name of God, the word being YHWH Himself.
Again, the equation seems to be that Matthew sees Jesus as being not just a man who has been called by God to fulfil a specific role in the chosen nation but that the man was none other than God Himself.
The word translated ‘Lord’ in the NT also may carry this sort of connotation for Jews frequently swapped the Hebrew word for YHWH for adonai (meaning ‘Lord’) for fear of accidentally using the divine name in a context that would have been considered to have been ‘in vain’ (Ex 20:7). We are not, therefore, simply reading a declaration in the NT of Jesus being the master over all that God has placed Him but, to the Jew, the phrase ‘Jesus is Lord’ would have been equivalent to saying that He was none other than YHWH Himself.
Moving on from this identification of Jesus as God in human form, Matmor writes concerning Matthew’s quote that
‘In antiquity when it was known that the sovereign was coming, every effort would be made to ensure that the road was as smooth as it could be. The great one must be able to travel easily and quickly’
John is seen as being the possessor of this ministry through his proclamation to the people of his message of repentance (Mtw 3:2-3), making for the Lord a people who were ready to receive the Lord God into their hearts and to transform lives having repented of their displeasing ways and of choosing to follow after God Himself (Luke 1:17).
The road here referred to, then, is not a physical path which needed to be cleared of stones but the rough ground of the human heart which was unacceptable in its present state to receive the Messiah - there needed to be repentance here, an acknowledgement of what was wrong in one’s life in order that it could be denounced, turned away from and so a path could be made upon which the Lord’s message and ministry could be received (Jer 4:3, Hosea 10:12).
Motyer here doesn’t envisage that Isaiah is commanding a road to be made ready, referring to numerous other Scriptures in the prophet’s writings to substantiate his point. But the point of the passage seems to be that there is every need in this context for preparation to be made for we are here looking at not a return from a physical exile but a return from a spiritual one.
John, then , is the forerunner (Mal 3:1), the one responsible for bringing the nation into a place where they will be able to easily accept their Messiah.
Isaiah continues to consider the ministry of the Forerunner in preparing the people. He notes that
‘every valley shall be lifted up...’
speaking of the humble being exalted (Luke 3:18 - the people who were looked down upon by the religious leaders over them), and
‘...every mountain and hill be made low...’
speaking of the proud being humbled (Mtw 3:7-10) just as Jesus went on to demonstrate in His own ministry (Luke 18:9-14). A people who thought they had no need to get themselves right with God would be a people who would not be able to accept the need for a sacrifice for their sins, whereas a people who acknowledged their spiritual state before God would be eager to hear the Good News of release and forgiveness that Jesus would both preach and demonstrate.
Indeed, John the Baptist was to let no obstacle remain that would hinder acceptance of the Messiah (Mal 3:1, 4:5-6).
Finally, John the Baptist was to be given a revelation of who the Christ was to be as it says in Is 40:5
‘...the glory of the Lord shall be revealed...’
and also 40:9 in which the proclamation goes out to the nation to ‘Behold your God!’, an announcement which is paralleled in John 1:29 where John proclaims
‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’
and then goes on to explain that this was to be part of his purpose (John 1:31), God Himself bearing witness to the deity of Jesus after His baptism (Mtw 3:17).
Notice in the entire passage of Is 40:1-11 that John’s voice is the most important channel of his ministry - Is 40:2,3,6,9 all teach that his would be a ministry of verbal proclamation to the nation and no indication is given here that any miraculous signs would be performed by Him as they were by Jesus. As He pointed out, there were contrasts in the life of them both which would not need to be reconciled (Mtw 11:18-19) but which would be used to condemn both!
c. Isaiah 40:6-8
The Word of the New Covenant will stand forever (Mtw 24:35).
Man has a passing glory but the Word of God is eternal. I have briefly discussed elsewhere the necessity of seeing in the phrase ‘Word of God’ that which is spoken and not that which is written (see my notes on ‘Creation/Restoration of Creation’ here under Part 1 Section 3 ‘The Creative Word of God’).
The point here appears to be that, when God breathes upon mankind, they perish from off the face of the earth and they are remembered no more - but when God speaks, what He has uttered will stand the test of time and will be eternally remembered.
The covenant, therefore, that John came to immediately precede was one that would be eternally remembered and established between God and man. Interestingly enough, John the Baptist’s ministry also stood the test of time (see the next section below).
d. Isaiah 40:9-11
Here we read of the people to whom John was to make known the message of God - to Zion, Jerusalem and Judah (Mtw 3:5) where the RSV’s marginal reading is to be preferred to the first alternative - and of His proclamation as to what Messiah was to be like and (as in Is 40:5) of who He was to be - that is, God Himself (John 1:29-31).
There is a note of both positive reward and negative recompense (though this latter word may be used in a positive context) associated with the Messiah here that John was aware of. Although he came to preach repentance to the multitudes, he pointed out to those who remained unrepentant that the One who was to come bore the sword of judgment as well (Mtw 3:12) and that it was not inevitable that blessing would be seen to fall on all men.
Indeed, the rejection of the Messiah was tied up with a rejection previously of John the Baptist (Luke 7:29-30) so that John’s ministry was seen to be the definitive preparation required for all Israel to get them into the right relationship before God to accept the One that He was to send to them.
Very little has changed even in the Kingdom of God as a person comes to Christ - there is always the need for repentance before a person may acknowledge the work of the cross for, without a realisation of individual sin, the person can see no need in the cleansing work of Christ on the cross.
5. His enduring ministry
Very briefly, let us notice that John the Baptist’s ministry survived the test of time to the point of being both adhered to many years following his death in a land far away from his ministry area and through the Jewish historian Josephus who was born at a time after John had already died and who could not, therefore, have had personal experience of his ministry.
Though it would appear as if Apollos had been sent out by no organisation of the Jews but had independently felt the need to go to his own people, he had managed to spread the news of John the Baptist to many who readily accepted both his words and John’s baptism (Acts 18:24-19:7).
Both the teacher and the disciples of John readily believed the Gospel when they heard it, seeing in Jesus the fulfilment of all that John had been the forerunner of and yet, when we look at the date of 52AD for this incident, we can see that the Baptist’s word had lasted for 20 years or more.
It is very likely, therefore, that there would have been other groups who had faithfully preserved John’s teaching and who were also met with the Gospel as the spread of Christianity enveloped the entire Roman Empire and beyond.
Josephus also mentions John the Baptist in Antiquities 18.5.2 in response to the destruction of Herod’s army (Herod Antipas, that is, who was tetrarch over both Galilee and Peraea) through the incident of divorcing his wife to marry Herodias (occurring in 18.5.1 - this passage throws light on the subsequent passage in Matthew’s Gospel in 14:3-4).
He goes on to note that this destruction of the army was thought by many of the Jews to have come about as a direct judgment of God upon him, not because he had married Herodias, but because he had executed John.
Josephus’ reason for John’s execution here is much different than that recorded for us in the Gospels (Mtw 14:1-12) and we might as well read it before we encounter the Gospel writers’ reason later on. Josephus writes
‘Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure to him’
I do not intend dealing with this passage here but have quoted it only to show that the memory of John was still alive and well more than forty years after his death.
It would appear from Josephus’ mention of a personality he had never had firsthand knowledge of that the memory still burned in the tale telling of the Jewish nation both within the land of Israel and in the Diaspora in Rome where Josephus wrote.
So was the enduring nature of John the Baptist, decades after his execution.
His Message in Matthew
Since the last prophet arose in Israel to the coming of John the Baptist, the Lord seems to have sent no prophet to the nation of Israel as a whole who had been acknowledged as speaking directly from God Himself.
However, the nation was not without prophetic words from individuals and it would be wrong to think that the ‘silence’ often spoken of by commentators meant that there was never a word spoken through an individual. As Luke chapters 1 and 2 make known, people uttered prophetic dialogue which pointed toward the need for fulfilment and Anna, a woman who Mary and Joseph encountered in the Temple, is named as a prophetess (Luke 2:36), a ministry which had presumably been recognised not just by himself but by the Jewish authorities.
When we speak of the ‘silence’ between the Old and New Testaments, therefore, we are saying that there seems not to have been a person raised up in the nation who spoke God’s Word to the nation and who was recognised as being the mouthpiece of God Himself.
The Book of I Maccabees is about our only reference point for such an assertion, written around the end of the second century BC about events which had transpired earlier in that century. I Mac 9:27 (NRSV) informs us concerning the situation described that
‘...there was great distress in Israel, such as had not been since the time that prophets ceased to appear among them’
The passages in I Mac 4:46 and 14:41 both infer that there was no prophet in their midst though it is only the verse quoted which states plainly that there had been a gap in the prophetic ministry amongst them - unfortunately no date is given as to when this ended or the name of the last prophet that was recognised as being from God. But we would probably not be going too far wrong to see in Malachi the end of the prophetic function within the nation, whose utterances ended somewhere in the fourth century BC.
John the Baptist, therefore, is God breaking the silence and His lack of direct speech to the nation will have caused the nation to begin to become anxious to hear the Word when it came. No wonder, then, that ‘Jerusalem, all Judea and all the region about the Jordan’ (Mtw 3:5) went out to him when they realised or heard that God had begun, once again, to speak to the nation.
In OT times, the prophets had been sent to the nation to call it back to a right relationship with God through a return to the commandments given and the covenant secured under Moses, this being a corporate agreement. As I showed in my notes on ‘Covenant’ (here), the Old Covenant was one that was made with a nation so that, if one person sinned and contravened the precepts of that agreement, the entire nation stood guilty before God as in the case of the sin of Achan at Jericho (Joshua chapter 7).
When John began his ministry to Israel, there is no doubt that he was sent to the entire Israelite nation but his appeal was to individuals rather than to one body, calling each individual to confess those things that he was doing wrong (Mtw 3:6), to turn from them and receive forgiveness through baptism (Mark 1:4) and to bear fruit that demonstrated their change of attitude (Mtw 3:8).
Just as in the New Covenant, God was making an agreement with believers as individuals and then going on to form those believers into a nation. Under the Old, the nation had been the group who had made covenant with God Himself but John begins a new ministry here that had been started with Abraham - just one man - and the promise to him.
There are two specific areas here with regards his teaching that we will look at. The subject of repentance has already been dealt with by myself and I shall only briefly relate the importance of that call to the people who came to him. Anyone who wishes to consider the concept of repentance as it’s defined in the NT should read my notes here.
Secondly, what can easily be missed is that John spoke largely in farming terms - and these with regard to the harvest - to teach the people when they came to him for baptism in water. This is an indication that he saw these practices at first hand and was not, as could have been extracted from passages such as Luke 1:80, devoid of any real contact with the mainstream society of his day.
I have already shown above that John the Baptist’s ministry was to (Luke 1:17)
‘...make ready for the Lord a people prepared’
and that he was to (Luke 1:77)
‘...give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins’
Mark summarising his ministry (Mark 1:4) as
‘...preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’
The preparation laid upon Israel, therefore, to cause it to be ready for the coming of their long awaited Messiah was repentance, a getting themselves right before the Lord so that they might receive the ministry and the person of Jesus when He was to be made known to Israel initially through John the Baptist’s proclamation (see below).
John’s proclamation (Mtw 3:2) of
‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’
is identical to Jesus’ own initial message (Mtw 4:17) and shows us the importance of repentance as an entry point into the Kingdom of Heaven and, therefore, the Church.
Simply, this is exactly what John did by insisting that those who came to be baptized didn’t just mouth confession of their sin but that they went on to live lives that reflected their inward desire to be right with God.
Therefore, he urged the Pharisees and Sadducees to ‘bear fruit that befits repentance’ (Mtw 3:8) and he spelled out for individual classes within society what repentance for them actually meant when they asked him (Luke 3:10-14).
John’s main message, then, was to turn individuals round from living lives of selfishness and of offence before God into pleasing individuals who would readily accept the message of the coming One whose message would take them on further to realise all that God both had for them and expected from them, to prepare the nation for the coming of their promised King who would restore their relationship with God.
But what did John’s baptism actually achieve? What was it’s purpose? What did its participants think was happening to them?
In my notes on baptism (here), I noted that there is no definitive teaching concerning both its function and meaning even though it must have been significantly different from Christian baptism for Paul to rebaptize those he met in Acts 19:1-7.
We do know from Scripture, however, that it was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mk 1:4) and that John appears to have expected a change of lifestyle before baptism was performed on an individual (Mtw 3:7-9).
In my notes, I write that
‘Instead of telling them to “sin no more” after they had received the baptism, he challenged them to demonstrate an acceptable lifestyle before they participated in it. It was therefore a symbol of what had happened, an extension and proclamation of what was already a reality in a person’s life. It’s possible that it was very similar to Christian baptism in scope and meaning except that power over sin, crucifixion of the old life - in short, the reality of the work of the cross - had not yet been secured by Jesus and therefore could not have been understood as having anything to do with it.
‘...it was an open declaration that they had sinned and needed cleansing (Mtw 3:6). It was the conclusion to the act of repentance that John's hearers had experienced. Having realised their sinful way of living, they confessed it openly as they were being baptized’
Josephus saw it’s function slightly different however but, being a Pharisee (Life 2 - quoted above), this is hardly surprising. In Antiquities 18.5.2, he states that
‘...the washing [with water] would be acceptable to [God], if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness...’
Josephus here sees in John’s baptism the need for a change of lifestyle first before it is entered in to. This is entirely in keeping with the statements we have previously considered above but he goes one step further by insisting that water baptism was intended for purification of the body - that is, for the cleansing of ceremonial defilement that had been imparted to believers by contact with those things which were unclean.
This is possible but we should be wary of adopting this wholeheartedly simply because Jesus accused the Pharisees and scribes of doing this very thing (Mtw 23:25-26) and spoke to them saying
‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and rapacity. You blind Pharisee! first cleanse the inside of the cup and of the plate, that the outside also may be clean’
It is difficult to accept Josephus’ testimony at face value but it is not impossible that he is right here and that John’s baptism followed close on the heels of individual repentance and change, cleansing the believers from ceremonial defilement passed on as defined in the Old Covenant, thus making the people ‘clean’ and ready to acknowledge and accept the One who would achieve all that they could not do by their own efforts.
Christian baptism, however, was to be radically different (see my notes on ‘Baptism’ at here).
b. Farming Words
John spoke in language that the multitudes could understand in much the same way as, today, there will be illustrations of the Gospel amongst the trades of the people we’re trying to reach that can be used to illustrate the Gospel. More than this, though, John’s three farming illustrations become the entire burden of his teaching.
Everyone should have been familiar with the necessary daily tasks of farming so it’s not a surprise that John uses these three illustrations to teach them - not for that society to nip down to their local 7-11 to get a bag of ground wheat, they had to start from scratch and prepare the ground, plant the seed and reap the harvest!
Of course, there was some sort of administrative set up in the land, but the majority of people would have had agricultural experience and skills and been able to associate with the proclamations that are made here concerning it.
The time was fast approaching when a great harvest would be coming (John 4:35) and it is not without significance, therefore, that the illustrations John uses are all to do with the harvest.
Luke’s Gospel records most of these words as being directed at the multitudes who came for him to be baptized (Luke 3:7) but specifically his words are being directed at the Sadducees and Pharisees who ‘came to the baptism’ - as opposed to the RSV’s ‘coming for baptism’ which implies they had reached his whereabouts with the intention of participating in the water immersion.
The phrase doesn’t imply that they weren’t baptized - the passage in Luke7:30 which speaks of the Pharisees and lawyers not being baptized by him should not be pressed to say that all of those two groups were not baptized by him - but that they seem to have arrived on the scene solely to witness the proceedings and to try and associate themselves with John’s popularity.
When confronted by Jesus as to the source of John’s baptism (Mtw 21:25-27), they failed to be concerned with announcing the truth of the matter (that is, the truth according to whatever they had considered the answer to be) but only discussed amongst themselves which was the best answer to suit their own purposes. Such religious leadership make better politicians than they do ministers of God.
Their concern to be at the place where John was baptising, then, seems not to have been because they felt themselves in need of repentance and cleansing but because they saw a situation developing over which they had no control or input.
As Mathen comments
‘They did not wish to lose their hold on the multitudes who were flocking to John to be baptized. If this was the place where the action was, they wanted to be part of it in order, if possible, to assume leadership’
This is probably going too far, but it’s unnerving that such a mindset has often been the characteristic of many a Church leader who has begun to witness the Lord moving in the midst of ‘his’ congregation and has felt compelled to bring the Lord’s move under his own sovereign control!
i. Brood of Vipers
When John sees the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to the baptism, he says (before they have so much as got their feet wet, it would seem)
‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath [fire] to come?’
(I take the ‘wrath’ spoken of to be paralleled in 3:10’s mention of ‘the fire’)
The picture here is one of a group of snakes who flee out of a field that has been set on fire by the farmer after the harvest has been gathered in. There is the possibility that John is referring to a desert fire from which the serpents are fleeing but it also applies in an agricultural setting.
John calls the religious leaders ‘serpents’ (an association that would not have been lost on either them or the multitudes - and one that causes the Garden of Eden to spring to mind) and pictures them as coming to the baptism with the sole intention of securing for themselves some sort of guaranteed escape from the inevitable judgment of God that would be soon coming upon all the world (or, better, the nation) because of sin.
It’s difficult to fully understand the meaning behind John’s question here. Is he saying that they should have been warned? Or saying that they had been warned but he was wondering who had told them? Or that their presence at the baptism indicated that they’d been warned but they felt as if they were safe?
There are numerous possibilities here and I would be in good company with the commentators if I just ignored the question and moved on, but the question seems to be explained by the next few verses that John utters where he warns them that they were not acceptable to God because of the fruit that they were growing in their own lives. Such fruit was evidence in itself that they had never truly repented and, as such, that they would not find the day of the Wrath of God pleasing to themselves.
The question, then, appears to be rhetorical and calls them to account for their own lifestyle and, possibly, illuminates the reason that they’ve ‘come to the baptism’ (Mtw 3:3 - rather than the RSV’s ‘coming for baptism’ as noted above) - solely for the purpose of associating themselves with a move of God which they could not perceive of having any relevance for themselves.
After all, weren’t they pious, religious and doing the best they could to obey the Law in all its implications? Weren’t they descendants of Abraham who had received the promises of God and who were therefore heirs of all that the patriarch had been unable to realise (Mtw 3:9)?
As Mattask comments
‘They must not...suppose that his baptism was a magic prophylactic against the wrath to come or that judgment was meant only for the heathen and not also for themselves. They must understand also that mere verbal repentance which did not result in conduct that befitted it would be wholly unavailing’
Therefore, John’s question calls them to wake up to the situation they find themselves in - though they believed that their lives were pleasing to God, they actually stand as accountable before Him as the ‘sinners’ who were coming to John eager to be baptized, receive divine forgiveness and to begin a new life.
They were to pass from fire that was to judge to fire that was to burn within (Mtw 3:11) once the Messiah was to come.
But, for the Pharisees and Sadducees, all that remained was the former.
I noted above that John’s words are addressed to the multitudes in Luke 3:7 and their response is one of questioning as to what they should do (Luke 3:10-14). Here, though, the words seem to have been mainly intended for the religious leaders and it is striking that silence appears to have been their reaction for no similar enquiries are recorded as coming from their lips. Though the ‘common people’ realised the truth of John’s words and sought anxiously to get themselves right with God, the Pharisees and Sadducees seem to have remained unmoved, unconcerned and oblivious to their real danger.
ii. Bearing Fruit
We have touched on John’s teaching in these verses under the previous point as it flows on naturally from his first rhetorical question to the religious leaders but John changes metaphor here - though he still retains the harvest motif - and speaks of them needing to
‘Bear fruit that befits repentance...Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire’
Notice here that John’s ‘Even now’ is not projecting God’s judgment into the distant future but into the immediate present. The judgment that the Baptist outlines is one that they would do well to take heed of for it is already knocking at their door ready to be fulfilled.
Notice also that the axe is laid to the ‘root’ - not just the trunk - as Matmor notes
‘...the picture suggests that not only will the tree be overthrown but its source of nourishment will be taken away’
and will not be left to rot of its own accord but will be ‘thrown into the fire’ denoting absolute destruction and parallels with the ‘wrath to come’ of Mtw 3:7 though there we could be forgiven thinking that what John has in mind is some way distant in the future (see also Mtw 7:19 where Jesus uses the same illustration to speak of the false prophets who were to come and who would bear bad fruit).
When a farmer has an unprofitable and unfruitful tree, there comes a time when he must make the decision whether he will give it another year or two or remove it so that something else might grow in its place. This decision needs to be taken quickly around the time of harvest so that a new crop or sapling might be sown or established for the following growing year.
Mtw 21:18-22 - an event which took place in the life of Jesus - is also an allegory of the nation of Israel when the incident is compared with Jesus’ testimony in Luke 13:6-9. Mtw 21:43, on the other hand, was an allegory spoken exclusively about the chief priests (that is, the Sadducees) and the Pharisees - Cp 21:45.
Though the Jewish leaders prided themselves on being direct descendants from Abraham, they failed to see that, rather than give them unprecedented favour which they could rely on to the detriment of everything else, it gave them serious responsibilities which meant they needed to be useful and pleasing to the One who had covenanted with him (see also Rom 9:6-8 where Paul talks about true descendency from Abraham being a matter of faith rather than genealogical descent).
A right relationship with God provided useful fruit - but their lifestyle showed that they had failed to grasp this necessity.
Therefore, just like a brood of vipers (Mtw 3:7), they stood in serious danger of finding that the wrath of God was to fall upon them as well as the nations round about and the sinners who they looked down on who, even now, were coming for baptism, getting themselves right with God and so removing themselves from danger.
iii. Winnowing Fork
John moves on from a direct attack on the Pharisees and Sadducees to a more general announcement concerning the coming of the Messiah, though the words as they relate to the religious leaders cannot be overlooked.
He says about Jesus that
‘His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor and gather His wheat into the granary, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire’
again speaking in a metaphor which relies heavily on the harvest work of most agricultural labourers. The farmer must separate that which is useful to him (the wheat grain) from that which it is contained in (the chaff or ‘grain pods’). The chaff is of no use to the farmer for there is no way he can make use of it so it’s burnt to be got rid of, once separated.
Interestingly, John makes no mention of the need for threshing which precedes the winnowing action of the farmer and we should, therefore, content ourselves just with understanding the winnowing process in the context of what John is saying.
Once the crop has been threshed, the resultant pile of material contains bits of wheat stalk, the kernel (the ‘chaff’) which has protected the wheat grain while it has been growing and ripening and the seed itself. In a place where there is a gentle and steady breeze rather than a howling gale, the farmer takes his winnowing fork (or, perhaps, ‘shovel’ would be a better description) and tosses the mixture into the air, allowing the breeze to catch it.
The heavy wheat falls back down to the earth onto the threshing floor, while the lighter chaff and wheat straw is blown away by the wind. Eventually, all the chaff and straw is removed from the pile and the farmer is left with the sum total of his harvest at his feet.
Again, just as in the picture of the axe laid at the root of the unfruitful trees, the thought appears to be that this is imminently to take place for John speaks not of the winnowing fork soon to be taken up but of the tool being ‘in His hand’ as a present reality. Though there are allusions to the final judgment of all mankind, the fact that John sees the Messiah as about to winnow the harvest suggests that Israel is the object of his efforts and that Jesus is coming to receive the useful harvest from the nation while that which is useless will be discarded.
That may sound like a radical interpretation but, seeing as the John’s word implies immediacy and that he has already told the religious leaders that their dominion is about to be cut down (Mtw 3:10), the teaching remains in harmony with the overall message of John the Baptist.
The fire announced in this verse as being destructive is contrasted with the fire of the preceding verse which is the promise to believers that the coming Messiah will bring.
2. Announcer of the Messiah
The title to this section is a little misleading as I’ll be dealing with John’s announcement and identification of the Messiah to Israel on the next web page when I deal with Mtw 3:13-17 (here) and this utterance of John is recorded as occurring before he ever sets eyes on Jesus, Mtw 3:13 telling us that it was after 3:12 and once the Baptist’s ministry had been established, that He came to be baptized by John.
In the last section, we noted that John spoke of the harvest in three specific ways and how they related to both the need for the Pharisees and Sadducees to change and the ministry of the Messiah. In each of these three places, fire was a predominant theme and stood for coming or imminent judgment (Mtw 3:7,10,12). Here also fire is mentioned in connection with the Messiah’s ministry of baptism but, in this case, the fire spoken of does not appear to be representative of judgment - though some commentators see no difference in the interpretation of the fire being an illustrative word for judgment along with the Holy Spirit here mentioned (being the destroying ‘wind’ as the Greek for the word translated ‘Spirit’ can also mean. Matmor notes that never once in the NT does the word bear this meaning so that the likelihood of it so doing here is remote) and envisage John as having a comprehensively pessimistic vision of who the Coming One was to be and how He would judge just about anyone and anything!
Alternatively, while the Holy Spirit is taken as a positive aspect of a future ministry of the Messiah, ‘fire’ could be taken to infer judgment in the same manner as we interpreted it in the preceding section dealing with the verses all around this one.
Matmor notes that
‘Some interpreters understand [just the word] fire to refer to judgment...but the link with the Holy Spirit makes it more likely that the same people are referred to and that they are purified as well as indwelt’
Along with most of the evangelical commentators, though, I see John’s statement as providing a positive balance to his words of judgment contained both before and after this verse (Mathen, however, is possibly correct in sitting on the fence when he says that ‘...the case for the interpretation according to which the word ‘fire’...refers both to Pentecost and to the final judgment is strong’. That is, perhaps both concepts should not be exclusive of one another).
Even before Jesus appears on the scene, therefore, John is sure that there is One coming imminently afterwards (as Matfran - who notes that the Greek word ‘is a regular description of a follower or disciple’ rather than a reference to ‘one coming later’) who is greater than himself (Mtw 3:11) even though it is certain that he had no idea at the start of his ministry just who that person would be, having to rely upon a sign from Heaven to identify Him (John 1:33) but he was certain that His appearance would not be in the distant future but while he was still present on earth that he might bear witness to His identity.
Jesus, then, was to be the Person who would baptize (‘immerse’ or ‘drench’) the crowds with the Holy Spirit and with ‘fire’.
But, if ‘fire’ was not meant to be taken as referring to ‘judgment’ what did John the Baptist have in mind when he referred to it? Definitely, John shouldn’t be attributed with the vision that the first baptism in the Holy Spirit would be accompanied by ‘flames of fire’ upon the heads of all those who participated (Acts 2:3) - this seems to be going just a bit too far.
However, fire is associated in the OT with cleansing, not just judgment. For instance, Is 4:3-4 (the passage runs from verse 2-5 and speaks of the restoration of the nation of Israel before the Lord) reads (my italics)
‘And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, every one who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning’
Perhaps more significant is Mal 3:2-4 which immediately follows the declaration that the Lord will send His messenger first before Messiah is to appear and then goes on to speak of Him in these words:
‘But who can endure the day of His coming, and who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, till they present right offerings to the Lord. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years’
Though the reference here is specifically to the cleansing of the priesthood, the parallel with what is transpiring in the wilderness with John the Baptist is fairly apparent and, besides, all believers in the New Covenant are priests of God (I Peter 2:9, Rev 1:6).
Some commentators have seen in 1QS 4:20-21 a ‘remarkable parallel’ (as Mathag - Matfran also makes note of some supposed similarities) with John’s words here but the DSS passage never refers to ‘fire’ as being the cleansing agent of the Lord’s people. You can read there about the people being refined with ‘His truth’, ‘the spirit of holiness’, ‘the purifying waters [of]...the spirit of truth’ and ‘the spirit of purification’ but the context of ‘fire’ isn’t even in the same chapter cited so any allusion to this passage by John (and, therefore, an inference that he was an Essene) is quite fanciful.
Finally, that Jesus never once baptized anyone in water is extremely significant (John 4:2) for it showed those who had been attentive to the Baptist’s words that what he had envisaged was still to come and as yet unrealised until the Day of Pentecost some three years later (Acts chapter 2). It also shows us that water baptism is not what is meant by being ‘baptized in the Holy Spirit’ even though such an event can and sometimes does occur when people are immersed into the Person of Christ.
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