The Real Jesus
QR Code
The Real Jesus

Chapter 7

Jesus and John the Baptist:


   John the Baptist's condition was desperate. He had just been thrown into prison, following his insistence that Herod would be breaking God's law to live in adultery. Then he heard, through several of his disciples, the rumors about Jesus' growing ministry.
   From the beginning, John had shunned material substance and consequently had become known as a frugal, austere person who "neither ate nor drank" (never banqueted or drank any alcoholic beverages). Furthermore, John "had his raiment of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat [food] was locusts and wild honey" (Matt. 3:4). This was seen as in complete contrast to Jesus, who attended any number of sumptuous dinners, and who did, notwithstanding opinions to the contrary, take a glass of wine with a meal now and then.
   Because of the camel's hair, leather, and seemingly strange diet (grasshoppers, ugh!), John is usually type-cast by Hollywood as a wild-haired, crazed-eyed, ferociously gesticulating freak with streaks of dirt down his face, a rat-eaten, torn, ancient old camel skin, complete with traces of hoof and udder, on his back, and a shepherd's crook in his hand. He is imagined to be constantly spewing out inane condemnations, punctuated by spittleflecked stentorian thunder. John is seen to be leaping wildly about in various Jesus films like an inmate from a mental asylum playing the part of an African witch doctor.
   Ever purchase a camel's hair coat? They happen to be among the most expensive. The Bible says nothing about a whole camel skin, loosely draped over a scrawny, filthy freak. But it does say John wore a coat of fine, durable, camel's hair.
   Even today the finest leathers are handfinished, handsewn, handmade. John had a "leathern" girdle; a wide, all-purpose belt which contained pockets for personal items — not strange at all, since it was a common item of apparel of the day. (And, after all, millions of men still avoid having their trousers cascading over their ankles by a band of cow's hide around their middle; today it's called a belt.)
   John's diet has been argued for decades. The Bible says that his main staple was food found in the wilds; locusts and "wild" honey. Today, "wild" honey is coveted by those who insist the healthful benefits of using natural sweeteners are infinitely more salubrious than either sugar or saccharine. Perhaps "locusts" seems strange to most; but, then, many a gourmet restaurant features shrimp, lobsters, oysters, escargot, squid, eel, and, you guessed it, grasshoppers. (Strangely enough, only the last was designed by God as fit for human consumption! See Leviticus 11:22 for a surprise.)
   Like many other parts of the Bible, Matthew's encapsulated view of John's life-style is only a quick, partial sketch, intended to convey the general concept of a person who had eschewed a sumptuous pattern of living.
   John was conducting a very great ministry: thousands had been baptized by him in the waters of the Jordan River and elsewhere. But now it seemed he was doomed to die because he had refused to sanction Herod's lustful marriage plans. Though most miss the subtleties in the account, could it have been that John was genuinely hurt that Jesus had not dropped everything, rushed to his side, and, if not at the very least comforted him, perhaps even have performed a miracle to free him?
   Consequently, perhaps it was John himself who had sent his disciples with a petulant message to Jesus.
   Jesus was at a town called Nain, where a great miracle occurred; that of raising the son of a widow from death right while he was being transported on a bier to his grave.
   The disciples of John heard the rumors of the great event, now rapidly spreading, and told John, in prison, all about it. When John in turn sent the disciples back to the town to talk with Jesus they said rather chidingly, "Are you he who is to come [meaning the Messiah] or shall we look for another?"
   Luke's account could imply that John had rehearsed his disciples on exactly how to phrase the question; and sure enough, when they met Jesus they did exactly as John had requested (Luke 7:18-20).
   During their visit with Jesus a crowd surrounded Christ. Many were virtually waiting in line to bring children, husbands and wives, friends and relatives to be cured of many diseases, including leprosy, and to have demons cast out of those possessed. Blind individuals in the area were being healed by Jesus; all this as a direct result of the rumors following the raising of the widow's son.
   In the midst of this setting, Jesus told John's disciple, "Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news [the gospel] preached to them" (v. 22, RSV).
   This statement seems to fulfill several portions of the book of Isaiah, and is in fact, a partial summary of the human ministry of Jesus Christ.
   All of the great miracles He performed were done either spontaneously, out of deep compassion for human grief (as in the case of the son of the widow at Nain) or as a direct result of distraught people pressing themselves upon Him.
   However, following this powerful statement, in which Jesus, true to His own continuous teachings, essentially urged John and his disciples to "judge by the fruits," Jesus told John's disciples to take to John the eyewitness account of exactly what they had seen accomplished, rather than a clever story from the lips of an individual who had a good argument. As His last statement, Jesus turned to the disciples of John and said, "... and blessed is he whosoever shall not be offended in me"!
   A fascinating though easily overlooked comment! What does it mean? Obviously Jesus was gently rebuking John's disciples and through them perhaps even John himself. Jesus was reminding John that each of them was fulfilling a specific calling and purpose in life. John had been ordained of God to conduct a great ministry to "prepare the way" for Christ's first coming as a human being; John was the " voice in the wilderness" typifying a voice of truth in spiritual darkness. Jesus, on the other hand, was fulfilling the calling of His Messiahship in a much larger dimension, being continually sought out by hundreds who had heard of His miraculous healing powers and who pressed upon Him so insistently that on some occasions He had to escape the crowds and get away into a private place to rest.
   After John's disciples left, Jesus felt it necessary to explain the seemingly harsh remarks He had made to them, and so turned to the multitude and said words to this effect, "Well, what in the world did you go out into the wilderness to see? Did you expect to find a man quavering like a reed shaken in wind or a man strong enough to stand up for his principles and demand an explanation? What did you go out to see? Someone clothed in fine and soft raiment? Behold they that wear soft raiment are in king's houses.
   "But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I'll tell you that and much more than a prophet because this is he of whom it is written: Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before you" (Malachi 3:1).
   And Jesus went on to say, "I am telling you the truth: among those who are born of woman there has never arisen a greater man than John the Baptist — still, he that is but little in the Kingdom of God is greater than John!"
   John the Baptist was Jesus' second cousin, since their mothers (Elizabeth and Mary) were first cousins. John's ministry was fulfilling the prophecy that an "Elias" would come to "prepare the way" in the wilderness (spiritual wilderness) for the Messiah that would come.
   John had a powerful effect on the people. He was very widely known and highly controversial. Yet John knew his own limitations. He continuously stressed that "There is coming after me a Person much more powerful than I, and I'm not fit to stoop down and untie His shoes! I am immersing you in water, but He will immerse you in the Holy Spirit" (Mark 1:7-8, paraphrased).
   John had warned the hypocritical Pharisees of their attitudes — He told them that they were represented by the analogy of a "tree that doesn't bear good fruit," and predicted that,"... even now is the axe laid unto the root of the trees: every tree that brings not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.... "Jesus was to repeat this same saying to His disciples later.
   Gathering to listen to John, in addition to the common masses of people, were a heterogeneous collection of Roman soldiers, Pharisees, Sadducees and publicans (publicans were tax collectors). Different groups clamored for answers following John's inspired preaching about repentance. He surely attracted attention and generated controversy since he had begun by a direct attack upon the religious leaders. He had said, "You generation of snakes; who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth fruit [evidence] fitting to prove you are really repentant; and don't kid yourselves by saying in your hearts, 'We are the descendants of Abraham'; because I'm telling you God is able to create out of these rocks children to fulfill God's promise concerning Abraham's seed. Even now is the axe laid unto the root of the tree... " (Matt. 3:7-10 and Luke 3:7-9, paraphrased).
   Some of the crowd asked what they should do, and John said, "He that has two coats, let him share with him that has no coat at all; and he that has plenty of food; let him learn to share with those who are hungry... " (see Luke 3:10-11).
   The tax collectors wanted a special answer, too. John said, "exact no more than that which is required by law." Inevitably, the young men serving in the Legion asked their own questions: "How about us; what should we do?" John said "Don't treat people brutally, with violence; don't extort from anyone, or accuse anyone wrongfully; and learn how to be content with your own wages!" (v. 14, paraphrased).
   Groups of people were discussing this remarkable phenomenon — for example, they were intrigued by a ceremony in which a person walked out into the water, professed he was sorry for his sins, and was "baptized" by being lowered into the water in solemn symbolism of repentance for his past life. It was a poignant experience.
   Some began to wonder whether John was the Messiah. After all, didn't almost everyone hear rumors that the Messiah had finally come; that He was forming a secret army; that He was already marching on Jerusalem; that He was collecting ships in secret harbors for an attack on Rome itself?
   The Jewish people were an occupied, oppressed nation. They were also impoverished, especially in Samaria and some parts of Galilee. They desperately hoped for a champion, a deliverer, a Messiah to come and free them and to begin building a kingdom with some of the lost grandeur of David and Solomon.
   John knew about the rumors. He tried to dispel them, and at the same time both prepare the common man to accept Christ as the Messiah and warn hypocrites that Jesus would step squarely on their painfully sensitive consciences.
   "I am, for a fact, baptizing some of you with water; but there is coming after me One that is much greater than I am, whose shoes I am not fit to unloose. He will baptize you both with the Holy Spirit [in the former case] and with fire [in the latter]: His fan is in His hand, and He is ready to use it to thoroughly clean up the threshing floor. He will gather the useful wheat into His garner: but the chaff He will burn up with unquenchable fire..." (see Luke 3:16-17).
   From this ominous warning of Gehenna fire for rebellious hypocrites came the incredible misunderstanding in the minds of some that a "baptism with fire" is some strange charismatic experience accompanied by glossolalia (speaking in strange "tongues"), though it is obscure how anyone could misunderstand the two-part message of John. (I long ago took the word "almost" out of my statement, "People will believe almost anything...")
   The biblical truth is that John was baptizing by immersion, meaning plunging completely into the water. For the Greek word baptizo means immersion. There is no linguistic justification whatever for the corruption of the term in an attempt to give biblical approval to various traditions of religious organizations whether dipping, pouring, sprinkling, dabbing, spraying, or hosing down a group of cavorting believers with a fire hose attached to a street hydrant.
   Then follows the account of Christ's own baptism.
   John was stunned. He had extolled Christ's calling, His character and sinless nature; he knew Jesus didn't need baptism, and said as much. Then Jesus from Galilee came to John, where he was baptizing in the Jordan, to be baptized.
   John would have stopped him. "I have need for you to baptize me," said John, "and you are coming to me?"
   "Don't worry about it, John," Jesus answered, "Let me go ahead with it; because I must fulfill an example of total righteousness."
   Jesus walked out into the water, and John baptized Him.
   Some saw a beautiful dove seemingly materialize out of the sky, and light on Jesus. Some thought they heard a distant roll of thunder, and those nearby heard a voice as if out of the sky say, "This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased." (Matt. 3:13-17, paraphrased).
   The gossip was carried immediately as far south as Jerusalem; for when the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the publicans and Romans who were in the vicinity saw and heard these events, especially John's strongest affirmation that Jesus was the true Messiah, it was a startling announcement.
   Remember, John the Baptist conducted a wide-ranging, well-known, public ministry. He attracted huge crowds and continually preached a powerful message of repentance. He knew that "the law and the prophets were until John," and that after that Jesus Christ would bring grace (unmerited forgiveness for past sins and crimes) and mercy.
   As if in a concerted effort to perpetuate the myth of the false Jesus, a major television film called "Jesus of Nazareth" presented the same traditional views, albeit with a remarkable amount of actual Scripture utilized in the story.
   This latest Hollywood venture into the "Jesus business" pretty much followed the pattern of those that have gone before, with one important exception: they showed both the agony of Christ's death on the stake, and His total surprise at the knowledge God had forsaken Him just prior to the moment of death.
   But for the most part, it was the usual stuff. The "Jesus" in the picture had the standard stare. Since Hollywood has followed Broadway's lead in the single-word titles (Hair and Jaws), perhaps they could have entitled this picture "Eyes." From start to finish that's what you were aware of.
   In the enactment of Jesus' baptism, there is enough level-eyed, baleful staring going on to mesmerize a whole den of cobras in a mongoose pit. Apparently, the movie directors think Christ always tried to get across tons of meaningful thoughts by a hypnotic-like, level-eyed, unblinking, glazed stare. By the time John and Jesus were through staring at each other, with little knots of people standing around like so many totems staring at both of them, you found yourself cherishing the uncontrollable wish that at least one of them would blink. But no, they never did.
   In the film, the baptism of Jesus is portrayed with the "John" who does the baptizing appearing as a bedraggled, unwashed, scraggly, bearded, wild-haired character who looks more like an escapee from a prison farm or a harried mental patient than he does a prophet of God.
   But then, how would Hollywood directors, typecasters, producers and their special advisers from the clergy be expected to know just what a "prophet of God" looks like, let alone John the Baptist, who walked the earth almost two thousand years ago?
   The Bible accounts indicate that John was baptizing in the River Jordan, where there was "much water"! The television show indicates John standing in what appears to be a still, stagnant mud hole, in water about up to the knees.
   Striding out of the crowd comes the traditional "Jesus" in a somewhat soiled white robe, with long, flowing and uncombed black hair, a black, wispy beard and mustache, and a level, staring, flat, baleful, noncommittal, yet somehow strangely intense stare. His eyes seem to probe ahead of him like two blinding headlights on full bright, never deviating from left to right, and with never a blink to clear the dust of the land from his eyeballs
   John the Baptist picks up from his present duties and takes a few steps forward as a hush falls over the entire crowd in the scene. The alleged "Jesus" continues striding forward toward John with this intense gaze fixed almost half crazed upon him, until he stops a suitable distance away. John then utters the words which are fairly close to Scripture, although in their attempt to stick too close to the King James version of the Bible, the directors asked their actors to use an almost verbatim wording which is neither necessary nor required. Instead of paraphrasing the intended meaning into the colloquial language of our time which would have been far more understandable, John mutters a subdued and stilted version of Matthew 3:14 saying, "I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?"
   The "Jesus" of the show then answers, true to form, "suffer it now: for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness." Then He walks on forward out into the muddy slough, and for some unknown reason, drops to his knees so that He is covered in water up to about His waist. Jesus bows his head forward, and the "John" in the picture advances toward him, cupping his hands together, and summarily pours (some might wish to believe they saw the water " trickle, or even drip a little!") a double handful of water over "Jesus'" head.
   There is no dove (Hollywood's special effects may be able to create a King Kong, but to reproduce the dove might have offended some people, though I cannot imagine who) and no booming or rolling sound of thunder or voice which says "this is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased!"
   Instead, the "Jesus" in the play lifts that level, staring gaze to John once again, wades out of the water, and slowly disappears all by himself up a dry creek bed in a lonely, rocky, brown, totally treeless and barren landscape.
   In the film Jesus appears to be followed by no one, though in the actual biblical account, He was with any number of other individuals, including Philip, who took another of John's disciples and spent that same evening with Jesus in a nearby home where he was staying. The following day they went all the way to Bethsaida, found Peter, and brought him back to the area where Jesus was staying near John's baptismal site.
   The errors in this film are many. In the first place, there is no indication whatever in the Bible that it is required of Jesus Christ that He always act weirdly, strangely, rudely, or even frighteningly.
   How would you feel if some total stranger walked straight up to you, and without ever saying a word, merely stared with fierce-eyed intensity into your eyes for uncounted moments as if waiting for you to receive some "spiritual" message?
   You would probably wonder whether, (1) the man was insane, (2) he was trying to mesmerize or hypnotize you, (3) he was demon possessed, (4) he was deaf and dumb and couldn't speak, (5) he was trying out for a part in a new Jesus movie. Movies of this kind are of necessity filled with dozens of errors merely through the apparent need to produce a "Jesus" who satisfies everybody.
   Therefore, those who believe in a form of baptism called "sprinkling," or another form called "pouring," could be at least partially pacified and go away exclaiming to each other that it at least appeared that there was some water sprinkling rather than pouring (or vice versa) from John's hands.
   Those who believe in immersion could at least be partially pacified, though not totally, since they saw Jesus with their own eyes wading down at least to about knee deep water and then kneeling in the water so that he was at least 50 percent immersed.
   Jesus' baptism was the formal announcement of the beginning of His ministry. It was only the next day that John proclaimed to those standing around, "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. This is he of whom I said, After me cometh a man which is preferred before me: for he was before me. And I knew him not: but that he should be made manifest to Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water" (John 1:29-31).

Previous      Chapter 7      Next
Publication Date: 1977
Back To Top