John the Baptist and the Prophets of Israel

That John announced the Kingdom of God was near seems clear, but what the crowd made of this announcement is less obvious. The hope of the Hebrew Bible prophets is for the restoration of the nation after the long period of punishment. A repeated theme in the prophets is of God’s desire to restore his people after a period of discipline.  This is not the “end of the world” in the sense of a destruction of this universe but rather a renewal of all things to the way God had intended it in the first place. The Jews of the first century would not be looking for the “end of the world” as much as a “this world” time of shalom, peace and prosperity. Wright suggests this restoration included a resurrection of the nation based on Ezekiel 37 (NTPG, 286).

As with the other elements of John’s sermon, the source of this hope of restoration of the kingdom is to be found first in the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, but also in the massive literature post-dating the Hebrew Bible. The idea of restoration and the themes of Messiah and persecution are expanded and developed in this period by a variety of writers, each contributing to the messianic worldview of the first century. For example, in the Psalms of Solomon, Messiah will come and purge Jerusalem from Gentiles (17:22-23), destroying them with the word of his mouth (cf. Rev 19). Messiah will distribute the land to the twelve tribes of Israel and he will judge the nations (17:30-31). Messiah will not bring about salvation for Gentiles, at best, they will be allowed to admire the glory of Jerusalem from a distance.

The fact that John the Baptist was gathering large crowds was enough to bring him to the attention of the Herodian government. It was his specific critique of Antipas which was the cause of his arrest and eventual execution. Josephus makes it clear that John was arrested because he was attracting large crowds. For Herod, John’s ethical teaching was not a problem (after all, likely the same sort of preaching came from Pharisee or Essenes).

Like the prophets of the Old Testament. it was John’s political comments which brought him into conflict with Herod Antipas.  John was similar to other messianic pretenders mentioned by Josephus: Judas the Galilean (Antiq. 17.10.5, 18.1.6), Simon (Antiq. 17.10.6) and Athronges (Antiq. 17.10.7). Each of these popular leaders rose from humble origins with royal ambitions to gather a following. Each causes trouble for the Romans, resulting in their death.  Athronges, for example, had four brothers which he considered as a core for his “kingdom.” He eventually gathered a large number of people, organized them into a militia and commanded them as a king. This band even attacked Romans at Emmaus and captured food and weapons, killing forty Roman foot soldiers. Josephus uses similar language to describe John the Baptist’s following. Athronges ruled his followers as a king and everything depended on his decision. This is remarkably similar to Josephus’ description of John the Baptist:  because of John’s eloquence, Herod feared they would do anything he commanded them.

There are, however, some significant differences between the preaching of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible and John the Baptist. John never uses the stereotypical phrase, “thus says the Lord.” His preaching seems to be by his own authority, perhaps giving rise to the thought that he might be the Messiah himself. While Luke’s version of the sermon has a universal tone (both Jews and Gentiles can be saved), both the Psalms of Solomon (PsSol 2:2, 19-25, 7:1-3, 8:23, 17:13-15) and the Qumran literature (1QM 1.4-9, 14.17-18) are looking forward to the punishment of the gentiles, not their eventual salvation.

John is therefore a “classic prophet” of Israel whose message brought him into conflict with the political powers of his day (Herod Antipas) as well as the religious establishment (Pharisees). If John is functioning as a “classic prophet,” how does his ministry “prepare the way” for Jesus as Messiah?  In what ways will Jesus  following in John’s footsteps?

21 thoughts on “John the Baptist and the Prophets of Israel

  1. I am able to find all the references in Josephus’ Antiquities that you give for the three messianic pretenders, except for Judas the Galilean in 19.1.6. Please advise.

    • Thanks for fact-checking, Mike. That ought to be 18.1.6, in the section describing the “fourth philosophy.” “But of the fourth sect of Jewish philosophy, Judas the Galilean was the author.”

  2. I think it is quite interesting that John that Baptist is such a man who preaches what God has to say, but “John never uses the stereotypical phrase, “thus says the Lord’” but He does say this: when the Jews in Jerusalem asked if he was the Messiah, John proclaimed that he was not but said this, “John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, ‘I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord’’’ (John 1:23). So, John goes about “preparing the way” because, even though Jesus is the one and only Messiah, God is using John to speak his word and truth into the lives of the Jews in Jerusalem. John may have gone through at time where he doubted if Jesus was really the Messiah, which I don’t understand why he could of doubted from all the miraculous things that Jesus had done, but baptizing Jesus and recognizing him as the Lamb of God (John 1:29) also helps with people viewing John that Baptist as a man who believed in God and was an obvious sign that God worked through the life of him. The way that Jesus will follow in John’s footsteps is by proclaiming the good news to others. To preach God’s word and to bring out believers, God can use that to guide his son to complete his destiny. Either way, God works through his people who are willing.

  3. I think that John the Baptist did not think of himself as the messiah as implied in the post, “He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” How could he believe he was the Messiah when he blatantly denies that he is the Christ? I believe as well that although John had many similarities to the old prophets he was something of a different nature. John denies that he is the Messiah, but says that he is there to prepare the way for the Messiah.
    “And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the Prophet?’ And he answered, ‘No.’ So they said to him, ‘Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,” as the prophet Isaiah said.’” (John 1:19-23)
    “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the lights.” (ESV John 1:6-8) I think John functioned in the way that a classic prophet would, he preached that the Messiah was coming, and in that sense he was predicting a future event, as the prophets of old. He was also persecuted to the point of death, like many other prophets. The way that John prepared the way for Jesus, was to reveal him to Israel. When John baptized Jesus, he also bears witness to the Spirits descent, which is a starting point of Jesus ministry. Jesus follows in John’s footsteps by Baptism as well, but with the Holy Spirit and not water (John 1:33). In the Gospel of Matthew John says that Jesus, “Will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:12) He also warns the Israelites that the wrath of God is not only for the Gentiles. He says to the Pharisees and Sadducees not to think that they are safe from Judgment just because of their ancestry, this implies the opportunity of salvation for all mankind as well as the Judgment of everyone.
    John and Jesus share the bond of family, there are many similarities one of them being that both of their births involved a miracle. Even when John was in the womb of Elizabeth, he leapt for joy when Mary visited. (Luke 1:41) When the angel is telling Zechariah about Johns birth, he states his purpose, “And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” (Luke 1:17) John lays the groundwork for Jesus, so that the hearts of the Israelites are ready for the coming Messiah.

    • Not the messiah, but he compares to other messianic-like prophets who (often beginning in Galilee) ran afoul of the Herodians and Romans. Obviously John did not thinks he was the Messiah, but the crowds did wonder!

      • Thanks for clearing that up, I probably misread the post! Why would the crowds wonder if he denied it in front of them?

      • I think that the story in John is a clear denial, in Matt / Luke they ask him and he predicts the coming of Messiah in judgment. I think that his response in Matt / Luke could be understood as “yes I am the forerunner,” then when Jesus did not start wielding the threshing fork quite the way John expected, he asked for some further clarification.

  4. As John the Baptist could be described as a ‘classic prophet’ whose message brought him in conflict with the political powers, Jesus’ ministry could be described as following John’s steps in getting in conflict with political powers. As Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God being ‘at hand’, He certainly received attention from the political powers of His time on earth. “What was radically unique about Jesus’ teaching was his claim that the end-times kingdom of God was even now arriving through his words and actions” (439). Teaching about a new ‘kingdom’ arriving would attract a lot of attention and even seem to be a challenge to governing officials. However, it seems that the ‘teachers of the law’ were much more offended and challenged than the governing officials were. There were several times that the Pharisees came to Jesus and asked him questions hoping to find fault in Him somehow. For example, in Matthew 22, the Pharisees ‘went out and laid plans to trap him in his words’ (vs. 15). Their view of Jesus should not be surprising as Jesus was almost always criticizing the Pharisees improper practice of the Law. In Matthew 23, seven times Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites. It is interesting that both John and Jesus call the Pharisees ‘brood of vipers’. Jesus in Matthew 23:33 and John in Matthew 3:7 both call out the Pharisees. This is one of the ways Jesus’ ministry would follow John’s footsteps. As Scott said, John warned the Pharisees that their ancestry would mean nothing, so too Jesus was not interested in their positions as teachers of the Law as much as their personal faith.

  5. I find it very interesting that in his preaching of the kingdom of God as well as the coming judgment, John never uses the phrase “thus says the Lord”- yet another detail that I had overlooked in my reading of the gospels. While he does acknowledge that someone greater than him will come next and will judge the people (Luke 3:16-17), he does not seem to acknowledge that he is speaking on behalf of the Lord and is paving the way for the ministry of Jesus. No wonder the people expected that he could be the Messiah that they had been waiting for! If John did not give his words the authority of the Lord, wouldn’t the people rightfully assume that John could have been not only a great prophet but quite possibly the Messiah? If John was merely a prophet who gave no credit for his claims, how was his ministry preparing the way for Jesus as Messiah? Did John know that he was chosen to pave the way for the ministry of Christ? He acknowledged that a Messiah would be coming, but did John know that he was a part of preparing the people for that very coming of Jesus and his ministry on earth? Or did God merely use Him, a classic prophet, in order to further his kingdom ministry on earth without him actually knowing it? When an angel appeared to his father Zechariah, prophesying about John’s birth, he says that John will be “filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth” (Luke 1:15) and also says that he will “go on before the Lord…. and make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (1:17). If Zechariah knew the destiny and purpose of his son’s life was to prepare the way for the Lord’s ministry, wouldn’t John have known that as well? Similarly, if John was to be filled with the Holy Spirit from birth, how could he merely be a classic prophet rather than a Christian preacher? And why did he not give the Lord credit for his claims and prophesies?

    Just as John attracted large crowds during his time, Jesus also had many followers during his ministry on earth. Similarly, just as John attracted the attention of the government due to his blunt confrontation of sin as well as his political comments, so also Jesus received negative attention from the government as well as other leader groups such as the Pharisees for very similar reasons. It seems that John prepared the people in many ways for what the ministry of Jesus would look like. He preached that the kingdom of God was near, warned of the coming judgment, preached repentance and baptism, attracted many large crowds and followers, and was in conflict with the government and other religious parties who did not agree with his teachings- most if not all of which Jesus also did during his ministry on earth. Whether or not John realized the significance and purpose of his ministry on earth, I’m not sure and am still interested to see other opinions on this issue.

    • I really like the question that Maggie poses about whether or not, John understood that he was paving the way for the coming Messiah, Christ Jesus, and was preparing the people for His teaching/coming to them. My thought would be that yes, John knew he was preparing the way for Jesus. Luke 3:4-6 may be what we are looking for, for our answer. To me this passage says that John may have had an idea about what he is called to do, prepare the way for Christ. It sounds like he is speaking with authority, like “Seriously.. did you not understand you brood of vipers? Who warned you…? and the passage goes on. Just one thought I had about this question.

  6. John and Jesus both lived very similar ministries. This is because of who they came up against, (Pharisees) and having disciples. Both refer to the pharisees as “brood of viper” (Luke 3:7-8, Matt. 23:33). Both spoke in front of large crowds and attracted the ear of many. John said a lot of things that Jesus would later say. A major difference though is that Jesus was obviously the messiah. John was not sure exactly what he was looking for. I believe that John knew Jesus was special but just how special initially is uncertain. Going back to the issue with pharisees is that even John would warm them to be prepared for the coming judgment but they would not listen. Jesus was part of the coming judgment but they would not pay attention to him either. John paved the way for Jesus’ ministry and was a precursor to what Jesus was going to do.

  7. John the Baptist is recognized as a “classic prophet”. Jesus himself “identifies John as the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets, indeed the greatest person ever born” (Strauss 428). And many other people living at the same time as John thought the same of him. He seemed to grow in popularity amongst the locals as soon as he returned from the desert; “People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan” (Matthew 3:5). His popularity among the common people resulted in quite the opposite with the political powers of his day. I’m sure his reputation and popularity made political powers feel threatened, but it is more about what he said that led to his execution. Proclaiming a coming Kingdom and Messiah and calling out the Herodian family on their low standard of morals didn’t help him out either. Like I state before, people from Jerusalem, all of Judea, and the whole region of the Jordan came to hear what John had to say. They were anxiously expecting a Messiah, and when John claims that there is one greater than him coming, I bet that most of them listened to his good news and accepted his water baptism, confessing and repenting of their sins. This is exactly how he prepared the way for Jesus. Now, everyone who has heard John preach is now eagerly expecting the Messiah to come. He tells them that this Messiah will baptize them with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

  8. When reading this post some things that stuck out to me were the first about the government and why the gathering of many people did not go well with the Herodian Government. The reasoning that John was arrested was not due to his ethical teaching but because he was attracting attention from having a crowd following him. Like other people that came from humble roots such as John the things they said about the Government is what got them into trouble and this is what the Government was looking out for. The second thing that I found interesting was the fact that John the Baptist did not say “Thus says the Lord” which makes it seem that he was preaching on his own authority. The only thing that I can think of is John is preaching the Gospel and is not asking for permission to preach because he feels that God called him to do so. I don’t believe that John was acting on his own accord or thought that he was a god but was setting a way for Jesus in the near future by opening some listeners of the coming Messiah.

  9. Unlike Judas the Galilean, Simon, and Athronges, John came as the forerunner to Christ. John was not trying to purposefully (from my reading in the gospels) form a group of people around himself (although he did have disciples) and declare himself to be revolutionary and he was not seeking titles. As John said, “I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness” in fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3 and in Malachi 3:1 about the messenger who prepares the way for the Lord. John’s ministry and his preparation for the Messiah is prophesied by John’s father Zechariah in Luke 1:76-79. God had appointed John to be a herald of a new messianic age by telling the people to repent and be baptized for the remission of their sins. This is how Jesus would follow in John’s footsteps through the declaration that the kingdom of God was among the people and that they were told to repent.

  10. One similarity I see in the ministry of John, that would soon be followed and surpassed by the ministry of Jesus, is his claim to be the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. When questioned about his identity and purpose for ministry, John quotes a passage from Isaiah and claims to be the ‘voice of one calling in the desert’ (John 1:23). Right away this answer triggered even more questioning from the Pharisees who knew this sort of claim had a great significance. If John was who he claimed to be, than this meant that the Israel would soon be receiving her Messiah. As some of the other postings alluded to, it seems that John knew what his role was in the plan of God and this claim raised questions within the Jewish community. In the ministry of Jesus we can find numerous examples where Jesus claims to have the knowledge of his role (which surpasses John’s) in the plan of God. In Luke 4, Jesus went to synagogue in Nazareth to read a section from the scroll of Isaiah and claimed to be the fulfillment of it. By making this claim we know that Jesus knew who he was and what he came to do. Here, again, the Jewish community questioned the identity and purpose of a man who claimed to be a part of the Messianic age.

  11. Since John was functioning as a “classic prophet”, his ministry paves the way for Jesus as Messiah in a few ways. One of them would be the expectancy. Since John spoke mostly of his own accord, it made people think that he was the Messiah that they had been waiting for. I think that this sets up the coming of Jesus as Messiah because, once again, Jesus came to break any expectations they had for the Messiah. The similarities between John and Jesus’ ministry is also rather interesting. The fact that they both attracted large crowds due to their preaching, but also that they were both in trouble with the Pharisees because of what they preached. Also, I noticed, like many others, that they both referred to Pharisees as a “brood of vipers”, which might not mean much due to the fact that it’s a translation from Hebrew, but I thought it was worth mentioning. Saying that Jesus will be following in John’s footsteps seems a little weird to say, especially since Jesus is the Son of God. But, He “followed” in John’s footsteps by doing the same thing he was doing, but Jesus was doing those things in the name of God. So, although John had many good things to say, Jesus said those things with more authority.

  12. I really like how John was sent to this earth to lay a path out for Jesus, he was sent here to prepare the way for him. John 1:8-9 says, “He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. This passage states what Johns purpose was. It also states that the messiah was coming after him. Jesus did what John did just after him. Some people thought John was the messiah, some thought Jesus was. Some people thought they were both just prophets, but really John was setting everything up for the coming of the Messiah.

  13. His “preparing the way” prepares the way for Jesus because John is preaching the repentance and remission of sins. He is say to people to turn away from sin and ask for forgiveness. This Segway’s for Jesus’ coming and taking the sins of the world, from then on for the world so that we have the chance at an eternal life. John was Baptizing in water. And Jesus came with the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. John was paving the road for the major things Jesus brought to the world. Acts 2:38, “Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” Jesus followed in the way of John the Baptist by teaching his disciples even after he was gone to baptize people with water. (Matthew 28:19) So I believe that even though John the Baptist was not the Messiah he did have some great teachings that, even Jesus used as reference to his disciples for them to use when he was gone.

  14. “The fact that John the Baptist was gathering large crowds was enough to bring him to the attention of the Herodian government,” (Long). John was threatening to the political powers and religious leaders because of his popularity and his teachings.Although John the Baptist was thought of as a “classic prophet” his teachings prepared the way for Jesus. John the Baptist was preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4). John was preparing people who would be followers of Christ and would be aware of the fact that Jesus was coming. John the Baptist was also an example to the people. “The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah,” (Luke 3:15). John was following God so much so that people wondered if he was the Messiah. This example prepared the way for Christ because he would would only point them to Jesus and take that as an opportunity to explain that there would be one who would come to baptize them with the Spirit. Jesus could have been seen as following in John the Baptist footsteps because they both were preaching repentance to the Jews and Gentiles a like. Jesus also displayed unity with John the Baptist by being Baptized by John.

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