Acts 19:2-7 – Disciples of John the Baptist

Luke intended this paragraph to be read along with the previous unit, the introduction of Apollos as a disciple of John.  Just as Luke contrasted Barnabas with Ananias in 4:36-28 and 5:1-2, Apollos and the other disciples of John stand in contrast  One disciple heard John and accept Jesus as the Messiah (although not fully understanding the implications of the resurrection, most likely with respect for Gentile salvation), the other disciples heard John but were ignorant of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

John the Baptist The dozen disciples of John indicate that even 20 years after John’s death there was a movement amount the Jews that held John to be a prophet and in some way kept his teachings alive. Perhaps the gospel of John gives us a similar hint, especially if it can be show that John wrote from Ephesus near the end of the first century.

These disciples cannot be considered Christians at this point since they had not yet received the Holy Spirit.  While Luke only uses “disciple” for believers in every other case in Acts, his use of μαθητής here is without a definite article, the such example in Acts.  At the very least these are unusual Christians, perhaps “fringe” Christians, similar to the “unusual, fringes of Judaism described in the first half of the book.  Paul’s question – did you receive the Holy Spirit – is equivalent to asked, “are you believers?”  Not only have these disciples not received the Holy Spirit, they do not even know that there is a Holy Spirit!

Paul asked them “into whom” or “into what” they were baptized.  The NIV obscures this a bit, interpreting the question as “who baptized you,” rather than “what was the medium in which you were baptized.” Witherington comments that the image of being immersed into the Holy Spirit was common in the early church, see Rom 6:3, 1 Cor 1:13, 15, 10:2, 12:13, Gal 3:27).  His point is that the “whom” of this verse cannot refer to water; he sees the baptism of the Holy Spirit as entry into saving faith, while baptism in water is entry into the Christian community (Acts, 571).

Since they had been baptized “in John’s baptism,” Paul explains that John’s baptism was not enough, it was a “baptism of repentance,” which looked forward to the ministry of Jesus.  One could not be saved at this point in history only by accepting the message of John, it is only through faith in Jesus that one can be saved (as Acts has made abundantly clear prior to this point in the book!)

As has happened at several points in the book of Acts already, there is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit (tongues and prophesy) after Paul lays hands on these disciples. There is no consistent “order of events” in Acts, sometimes the Spirit comes prior to baptism (10:44-48, Cornelius) and other times baptism is prior (19:1-7), and in the case of Apollos, there is no mention of a re-baptism or of the coming of the Spirit.   Perhaps this is because he properly understood the message of John as pointing forward to Jesus, but that is not clear.

In fact, this is the only case of re-baptism in the New Testament, even the twelve were not re-baptized into the name of Jesus, they only had experienced the baptism of John (although one wonders about Matthew, since he was called to be an Apostle after John’s ministry.)  The point of this brief narrative is to show that it is possible to have a limited knowledge of Jesus which is not enough to be saved – theologically there was nothing wrong with these disciples except that they did not quite believe enough.  They did not believe something that was wrong, but they did not take their belief to the full extent needed for salvation.

Here is another problem for Applying Acts – what do we make of these disciples?  Are these  disciples “partial believers” who have participated in a ritual (John’s Baptism) but did not believe enough to be actually Christians?  What is it that “saved” these disciples?   In any case, it is the reception of the Holy Spirit which demonstrates they are in fact now Christians.

The First Witnesses to the Birth of the Savior – Luke 2:8-20

Linus reading the Christmas Story in the original Charlie Brown Christmas Special is one of my favorite Christmas memories. There is something about hearing the appearance of the angels to the shepherds in the King James Version and hearing phrases like “and they were sore afraid.” But why do the angels appear to shepherds? Why announce the savior’s birth to them first, and not kings or priests?

Linus reads Luke 2Shepherds are sometimes considered “the common folk,” and perhaps representative of the most sinful of people. It is true that Luke especially highlights the poor and shows how Jesus had a special ministry to the downtrodden. But the evidence that shepherds were sinners is late (fifth century AD), and the New Testament always presents shepherds in a good light (church leaders are shepherds, as are Moses and David in the Hebrew Bible).

Perhaps this is the first (of many) examples of the ministry of the Messiah to the lowly, as predicted in another song in Luke. Mary’s son in Luke 1:46-55 predicted the messiah would “humble the proud and exalt the humble” (1:52). That the announcement of the messiah’s birth was made first to a group of shepherds is a remarkable indication that the lowly are “being raised up.”

Since these are shepherds in the vicinity of Bethlehem, it is quite likely that there is a subtle reference to David, a shepherd who became king of Israel. The original leader of the nation, Moses, also spent forty years as a shepherd before shepherding Israel in the wilderness.

The angel appears with the glory of the Lord and announces the “good news” of the birth of a savior. In the Roman world one would expect the “good news” to concern the birth of a son to the emperor or an announcement concerning a great victory over an enemy. But this announcement does not concern the birth of a son to the emperor in Rome, but rather the birth of the real king who will defeat the real enemy of all people, sin and death itself.

The song of the angelic host draws on themes from the Hebrew Bible. The “heavenly host” is an angelic army, or at the very least an uncountable number of angels around the throne of God (1 Kings 22:18). That God should be glorified is not a surprise, nor is the fact that he is glorified in heaven (in the “highest” is euphemistic for heaven.” That God brings peace is also common in the Hebrew Bible, see Psalm 29:11 and 86:8-10, for example.

Those that are receiving this good news are described as those on whom God’s favor rests. “reflects a semitechnical Semitic expression referring to God’s people and having overtones of election and of God’s active initiative in extending his favor” (Nolland, Matthew, 109).  This phrase too is drawn from key texts in the Hebrew Bible, see Psalm 106:4 for example.

But there is also a subtle reference to the Roman Empire here as well. The “Bringer of Peace” in the Roman word was Augustus, the first emperor. It was Augustus who established pax Romana, the peace of Rome. Although this was propaganda (Roman was always at war along the borders), for most people living at the time Jesus was born, the Empire was at peace and secure. This peace was guaranteed by the armies of Rome. Augustus was often called savior on official coinage and the Roman calendar was arranged to mark his birthday. People sang hymns of praise and worship to the spirit of Augustus and the power of his kingdom, Rome.

It is therefore ironic that the angel announced the birth of the real savior of the world who will bring real peace to the world to the young shepherds in near a tiny village in an unremarkable backwater of the Roman Empire. Anyone who puts their faith in Rome and Roman power will be humbled by the sudden appearance of the real King, Jesus.

This is an important message for Christians every year, but perhaps this year it is even more urgent. There is no peace and safety to be found in the government of any empire, whether that is Rome or America. Not human leader can really guarantee prosperity for all. If the angelic announcement of the birth of Jesus teaches us anything it should be the very biblical story that God’s kingdom will overcome the kingdom of man, so to rely on the empire of man is foolish indeed!

God Will Visit His People – Luke 1:68

christmas, zechariah, elizabethZechariah is the father of John the Baptist. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were childless and too old to have any children, yet Zechariah is told by an angel of the Lord that his wife will have a child, and that child will be a prophet in the power of Elijah, and that he will be the forerunner of the Messiah. Zechariah questions this prophecy, since it seems impossible to him. He is told by the angel Gabriel that because he doubted the word of God, he will not speak until the day that the child is born. On the day the child was to be named, Zechariah was again able to speak, and we are told that the Holy Spirit filled him, and he prophesied these words.

It is important to note that these are the words of the Holy Spirit spoken through Zechariah to the people that were gathered in the temple for John’s circumcision. They would have all been familiar with the prophecies of the Old Testament concerning the coming of the Messiah. In this ten verse section there are at least 16 allusions to the Old Testament, making it clear that John’s birth, and more importantly, the birth of Jesus three months away, would be the fulfillment of the hopes of Israel.

These words are spoken for John and about John, but John the Baptist was merely the precursor to Jesus, and all he did pointed forward to Jesus. Even in this solemn prayer of dedication at his circumcision, John is pointing the way to the Messiah. This section is centered upon the actions of God. With the birth of John, and later of Jesus, God “has come to his people.”

The word Zechariah uses for “has come” is literally “visited” (ἐπισκέπτομαι). The word has the connotation of an inspection or examination.  Zechariah is saying that God is about to come to inspect his people.  In the Old Testament, when God “visited” his people, it could be to bring them some sort of blessing, or it could be to bring the judgment.  In Exodus 3:16 God has “observed” the suffering of his people (ESV, same word appears in the LXX), and in this case he is about to rescue his people from their slavery.

Zechariah’s words are therefore a prophetic warning that in the near future God would visit his people, and that “visitation” might not be a time of great blessing and favor.  God may be visiting in judgment!  There is an element of foreshadowing in Zechariah’s words:  at the end of Jesus’ ministry he weeps over Jerusalem because they did not recognize that “this day” was the time of God’s “visitation” (ἐπισκοπή, a noun from the same root as 1:68).  Sadly, the people did not heed the warning and were unprepared for God’s inspection.

This is what happened with the birth of Jesus:  God has literally come to man.  By becoming flesh Jesus was able to offer to his people ultimate forgiveness of sin. We do not usually associate the Christmas story with a time of God’s judgment, but it is significant that this first prophecy of Jesus’ ministry in Luke describes Jesus as the coming judge.

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?

John the Baptist and the Coming Judgment

John the Baptist’s preaching is a window into what at least some Jews believed about the coming messianic age.  For the most part, there was a consistent belief that the Lord himself would intervene in some way in history and render judgment.  Israel’s enemies will be destroyed and the nation gathered in a restored kingdom in the land promised to Abraham.  Both Matthew and Luke describe John as declaring that this judgment would be made by a messiah, who is coming soon.

The day of judgment is near in the preaching of John: the axe is to the root, branches which do not produce fruit will be thrown into fire (10). His winnowing fork is already in the hand of the coming one and he is ready to clear his threshing floor (12), consigning the chaff to unquenchable fire (12). The general image John is using is of a final harvest and separation and judgment of those who have not repentant (branches, chaff). This is an good example of continuity between John and Jesus, compare the image of burning fruitless branches here to Matt 7:19, the same phrase is used, Matt 13:29, bundles of weeds are to be burned, Mt 13:42, the tares are to be burned.

While the imagery is agricultural, it is also violent. An ax is a tool, but this particular word can also be a  vicious weapon (Jer 26:22). Branches which do not bear fruit are to be pruned, but the sense here is “to sever completely, to mutilate” (Philo, Spec Leg. 3.179.), to gouge out eyes (PssSol 4:20, Antiq. 10.140), and to totally eradicate something (Job 19:10, 4 Mac 3:2-4). This harvest language is frequent in the Hebrew Bible and the literature of the Second Temple.

While Malachi 4:1 (MT 3:19) compares the day of the Lord to a furnace or an oven, it is Isaiah which seems to be the source for the rich imagery of John’s sermon. It is not surprising that these same texts appear frequently among the DSS applied to the time of the Messiah. Isaiah 30:30-33 is a close parallel to John’s imagery. There the Lord’s raging anger and consuming fire judge Assyria. Verse 33 develops theme of a burning fire in great detail as a fire pit made deep and long, which is ignited by the breath of the Lord like a stream of burning sulfur.

The image of a fiery judgment is very common in the intertestamental literature, I will only summarize a few from the Psalms of Solomon here since that book dates nearest to the time of John’s preaching. In PsSol 15:4-5 the “flame of fire and anger” going out from the Lord to destroy the sinner. PsSol 12:2 compares the wicked man’s tongue to a scorching fire and prays for the Lord to deliver the devout by destroying the slanderous in fire (12:4). Based on Jeremiah 4:11-12, PsSol 8:2 compares the onslaught of invaders to a “raging firestorm sweeping through the wilderness.”

That the one who is coming has a “winnowing fork” in his hand is also a metaphor for impending judgment. In Isa 30:30-33 the Lord will shatter Assyria with his “scepter” (31). This word refers to a weapon that is used as a symbol of tribal leadership, but also as a shepherd’s staff (Mic 7:14, Psa 23:4). The parallel term in verse 32 is a common usually translated“punishing rod” (NIV) or “staff or punishment” (NRSV). Neither of these terms is exactly equivalent to a “winnowing fork,” but there are a remarkable number of texts which indicate salvation in the eschatological period will come from the rod or staff of the Lord. PsSol 18:7 describes the reign of Messiah as “under the rod of his discipline.” This text is ironic in the sense that Isaiah 10:24-27 tells the remnant that they need not worry about the rod of the Assyrians; now in 30:31 a rod is being used against the Assyrians. Perhaps John the Baptist substitutes a similar agricultural tool which is more appropriate for the theme of separation.

A major difference between John’s sermon and the fiery judgment scenes surveyed above is the motif of separation. When messiah comes there will be a separation, not of Israel from the oppressing gentiles, the enemies, the Kittim, etc, but of true Israel from false. At the harvest Israel itself will be shifted. Recall that John is addressing a cross section of Israel and telling them that they are facing a coming fiery judgment if they do not repent. The fate of the unrepentant Israelite is the same as for the gentile – fiery, violent destruction.

If this is the judgment that John expected, what happened to it?  Was he wrong about a coming fiery judgment ? Did John misinterpret the words of Isaiah?  How do the words of John the Baptist foreshadow the work of the Messiah especially in Luke / Acts?

John the Baptist and the Kingdom of God

In the New Testament, the first character we encounter is John the Baptist. This well-known preacher announces the impending Kingdom of God and prepares the way for the ministry of Jesus. John’s audience listened expectantly, wondering if he was the Messiah (Luke 3:15), although he made it clear he was not (John 1:21). John is not a Christian preacher, but rather a distinctly Jewish voice which expresses an understanding of the coming kingdom in Jewish terms, relying on the vocabulary of the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish religious world of early first century Palestine. John is therefore an important witness to Jewish messianic expectations at the time of Jesus’ ministry.

The historicity of John the Baptist is rarely doubted. As John Meier describes him, John is a “wild-card” in the Gospel tradition and all four gospels struggle to “make John safe.” (A Marginal Jew 2:19-22). He is an independent prophet who preceded Jesus and had a following which might be described as a rival to Jesus’ ministry. He was so respected by the Jewish people that after his death he was still regarded as a prophet (Matt 21:26) and still had disciples well after the events of the gospels (Acts 19:1-6). That Jesus submits to the baptism of John is certain – the writers of the four gospels would not have created such a difficult problem for their own theological aims.

John himself does not become a disciple of Jesus and it seems he doubted Jesus was the coming Messiah. In Matt 11:2-3 (cf. Luke 7:18-20), John sent disciples to Jesus to ask him if he is the “coming one” or if they should expect someone else. Does this imply that John had second thoughts about Jesus? Jesus does not condemn this as a lack of faith, however, he praises John as the greatest of the prophets and associates him with the coming prophet of Malachi 3:1; 4:5-6.

John is so significant in the synoptic gospels that his death is recorded in all three synoptic gospels (Mark 6:14-29, Matt 14:1-12, Luke 9:7-9). Even after his death, John still commanded the respect of crowds at Passover who still regarded him as a prophet (again, all three gospels relate this tradition: Matt 21:23-37 / Mark 11:27-33 / Luke 20:1-8). A few disciples of John are mentioned in Acts 19, nearly 30 years after their master had died. When Paul meets these disciples, they claim to only know the “baptism of John” and do not even know that there is a Holy Spirit (Acts 19:1-7).

What was so compelling about John’s preaching that he gathered disciples who continued to following him long after his death, perhaps even rejecting the preaching of the disciples of Jesus? First, John’s preaching was drawn from the Hebrew Bible and declared that the Messianic age was about to begin with a fiery judgment. This is one of the most common messianic expectations in the Second Temple Period and it was popular because many who were looking forward to a Messiah expected him to deal with the nations oppressing God’s people.

Second, there may have been some dissatisfaction with Jesus’ version of the Kingdom of God. The idea that the Messiah would become the suffering servant and die on behalf of others was not a common view. In fact, claiming that the Messiah would die to take the curse of the Law on himself is virtually unique to Christian preaching. For the disciples of John, then, it is at least possible that the rejected Jesus and his disciples because these new “Christians” misunderstood the Messiah.

Is there a contrast between John’s preaching and Jesus with respect to the Kingdom?  Is it possible that John was looking for something different than what Jesus ultimately offered as a Kingdom?

John 3:22-36 – John the Baptist’s Testimony

This is an unusual and unexpected section of John’s Gospel. After one of the most important passages in the entire Gospel of John, the writer uses the words of John the Baptist as a summary of chapter 3.

John the BaptistBut there may be a theological motivation to the inclusion of yet another testimony from John the Baptist at this point in the Gospel. The writer has already made it clear the Baptist was not the messiah. But after Jesus has revealed himself with two signs, there are apparently some disciples of John who have not joined Jesus. They remain loyal to John and they continue to preach the coming of the messiah and offer a baptism of repentance to prepare for the coming Kingdom of God. Jesus is now attracting disciples and followers, and he his gathering more followers than John is. His disciples naturally wonder about this and are jealous of Jesus’s success. They more or less complain to John that the “other guy” is baptizing people too. Maybe they think Jesus is working on “our turf.” John the Baptist must therefore clarify his role once again now that Jesus has begun his ministry.

It may have appeared that Jesus was in competition with John, prompting someone to ask about purification (vs 25). The issue may have been “which baptism is superior, Jesus’s or John’s?” It is disciples of John who had not started to follow Jesus who ask this question. There were at least some disciples who remained with John until he was executed and there was a group of believers who accepted only the teaching of John and not Jesus’s teaching.

In Acts 18, Apollos only knew the Baptism of John and in Acts 19 Paul encounters a group of disciples of John the Baptist who had never heard there was a Holy Spirit. They could have heard John’s preaching after Jesus was baptized and for some reason never heard the teaching of Jesus or the preaching of the Apostles after Pentecost. They returned to Ephesus without hearing the preaching of the apostles.  As remarkable as it is, they were faithful to the teaching of John the Baptist some 25 years later!

It is possible this community still existed in Ephesus when John wrote his Gospel, even though another 25 years have passed. This seems possible to me. The writer of the Gospel of John could be in dialogue with both traditional Jews in the synagogue and the remnants of the Baptist’s movement.

By the end of John 3, the writer introduced Nicodemus as a well-meaning Jewish teacher who did not fully believe the message of Jesus. Hie may have thought becoming a disciple of Jesus entailed an admission he was a sinner in need of salvation. One must be “born again” to be a disciple of Jesus and Nicodemus may not have realized at this point that he was in need of repentance and regeneration.

In a very similar way, this final section of John 3 concerns the skepticism of the disciples of John the Baptist. They wonder if Jesus is superior to their own teacher. Why follow Jesus when it is possible John’s preaching and baptism are actually superior? The Baptist himself says Jesus is superior because he has come from God and is a direct witness to the will of the Father.

Both groups may have been represented in John’s community in the late first century in Ephesus. It is likely there were still Jews who appreciated some of Jesus’s teaching but could not accept his call to repent and surrender to Jesus as the ultimate representative of God.

Jesus is not asking for kind appreciation nor is he in competition with anyone’s “ministry,” still is still looking for disciples to surrender to him and follow him.

John 1:19-28 – Jesus and John the Baptist

When the crowds ask John the Baptist who he is, his answer is a series of confessions concerning who he is not (1:20-21). He “confesses freely” that he is not a messianic figure in such a way that leaves no question, although he claims to be another kind of harbinger of the messianic age. The Gospel of John presents the Baptist as an honest witness honest who gave an accurate testimony concerning Jesus. It is possible that the gospel writer intended John’s three-fold testimony to stand in contrast to Peter’s threefold denial (John 18:17, 25, 27). John the Baptist also denied things, but in his case he was telling the truth!

John the BaptistNot only does the writer state John’s honest testimony in three ways, he confesses three things that he is not (the Messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet). John’s threefold denial of being the messiah is very broad, covering a variety of messianic expectations in the Second Temple Period.

I am not the Christ. The title is messiah, and many Jewish people in the first century expected an ultimate son of David to appear and re-establish a kingdom in Jerusalem. There was no one expectation, in fact, Qumran expected two messiahs. 4 Ezra expected a messiah who would rule for 400 years (ten generations) and then die.

I am not Elijah. Based on Malachi 4:5-6, many Jews believed that Elijah would return before the messiah came. Peter asks about the coming of Elijah after the transfiguration (Mark 9:9-13) and Jesus identified John as the “spirit and power of Elijah” (Matt 11:14, 17:12). Many thought Elijah might come to the aid of those suffering innocently, as reflected in the mocking of Jesus on the Cross (Mark 15:33-36).

I am not the Prophet. The Prophet was a messianic expectation based on Deuteronomy 18:15-18. In that text God says that a prophet like Moses will someday come and God will put his word in that prophet’s mouth. While it is possible the Deuteronomy passage had Elijah in mind, the Samaritans believed that a messianic prophet would someday come and the Qumran community believed that two messiahs, one of David and one of Aaron would eventually arrive to purify the Temple and the Kingdom. Fourth Ezra 2:18 says the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah will return in the last days.

John identifies himself as the “voice crying in the Wilderness” (1:23) This is an allusion to Isaiah 40:3, but the context of this allusion is critically important. Isaiah 40 is a prophecy describing the return from exile after Jerusalem fell in 586. The prophet is inviting the people of Israel to come out of exile and return to the wilderness where the Lord will meet them and lead them back to the land as he did in the original Exodus.

Like the original Exodus, in Isaiah 40 -55 God will meet the people in the wilderness and care for them, although this time it will be like a return to Eden. The wilderness will blossom and water will flow, and the people will enter the Land once again. Cyrus the Great permitted Judah to return to Judea and Jerusalem beginning in 538 B.C., but relatively few exiles returned, most remained in the Diaspora. Those who returned faced hardships (as described in Nehemiah). The return from exile after 538 B.C. did not fulfil the expectations of Isaiah 40-55 for a peaceful and prosperous Israel living in Zion.

For this reason there were many in the first century who seemed to think the exile continued as long as there was no king in Israel and as long as the “times of the gentiles” continued. Daniel 9 seems to show the exile was far longer than the 70 years predicted by Jeremiah, there will be 70 times 7 years until the restoration of peace to the land and the true Davidic king begins to rules from Jerusalem.

John claims to be an apocalyptic messenger preparing Israel for the long-awaited end of the exile.

Did the people who came to hear John preach understand his message this way? Are there any hints in the first few chapters of John’s Gospel that Jesus sees himself as the messiah?