Thursday 7 June 2018

What set John the Baptist above all the other Hebrew prophets?

The prominence which Jesus gives to John the Baptist requires specific explanation. After all, he is put on a level with, or perhaps even above, Moses, Abraham, Jacob and all the other greats; yet by the usual understanding, that status seems hard to justify.

What exactly, did John the Baptist do that was so important and can stand comparison, indeed excel, the remarkable achievements of the ancient Hebrew prophets?

It would be expected that we would be told exactly what that achievement was, and indeed we are. We are told what John did, and its effect - he was The Baptist, and he baptised Jesus, and this was the act that put him above all other prophets.

As we are told John was supremely important, the baptism of Jesus by John must itself have been supremely important. Well, we are told in the Fourth Gospel that the (divine) Spirit came and rested and stayed upon Jesus. Since we were not told anything about Jesus's earlier life in the Fourth Gospel; implicitly, this marks the exact moment when Jesus became what he finally was, and without this he would not have been who he was.

In the Fourth Gospel, there is no 'origins' Nativity story, no genealogy of Jesus, no information concerning Jesus's childhood (nothing about Jesus being related to John the Baptist). John's Baptism is apparently the sole and sufficient explanation of Jesus becoming fully the Son of God.

Of course Jesus was already the Lamb of God, even before he was baptised, and was recognised as such... by John the Baptist.

Therefore, the Fourth Gospel is telling us that it was John the Baptist who first recognised that Jesus was the Messiah, and on baptising him was aware of the Spirit descending upon him and staying upon him.

We tend to assume that none of this was essential to the work of Jesus; but we are probably wrong to do this. At least in the Bible, God does things by Men. Perhaps if one man fails, then God may find another - but decisions and events have permanent significance.

It seems that the weight of the divine plan of salvation rested upon the shoulders of John the Baptist; and that he was needed as the specific person who was worthy and able, to recognise and baptise Jesus, in the decisive event which began the ministry of Jesus.

Since the author of the Fourth Gospel gives no other 'reason' for Jesus's status; the recognition and Baptism by John may count as the single most important event in the mortal life of Jesus.

If that is so; the prominence of John the Baptist in the Fourth and Synoptic Gospels is easily understandable.


Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Very good points. The Mormons, following the account in Matthew, tend to portray Jesus' baptism as something that was not really necessary for him (since he was sinless, and baptism is for the remission of sins), but which he underwent anyway because, as the perfect man, he had to model correct behavior in every particular. Somehow it never struck me before how completely at-odds this would be with Jesus' usual approach to "the law" -- as seen, for example, in his deliberately and repeatedly breaking the Sabbath even when there was no pressing need to do so.

Your argument seems very solid. We are told that John was the greatest prophet, that he baptized Jesus, and not much else remarkable about him. Therefore, baptizing Jesus must have been something extremely important, not just a matter of standing on ceremony.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William "deliberately and repeatedly breaking the Sabbath even when there was no pressing need to do so."

Likewise, that 'no pressing need to do so, never struck me before - after all, the crippled chap lying by the pool at Bethesda had been there for decades - he could reasonably have waited another day... So the Sabbath breaking seems deliberate.

Chiu ChunLing said...

It was not Sabbath breaking, but a reminder that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Israel had forgotten the essential purpose of the law (or rather, most of them had apparently never understood it in the first place).

When Jesus acted to restore the understanding of the Law that had been lost, it appeared to those who knew and venerated only the dead husk as though Jesus was breaking it. But what lives must not be constrained by its own castoff skin.

Jesus also restored and renewed the ordinance of baptism by correcting the misunderstanding that it was only for the sinner condemned by the Law. Though perhaps what more may be said is not for all to hear.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - Well, that was *why* he did it; but he did *do* it - and that was a vital part of the point.