We finished the prolog in our last study of the Fourth Gospel, so today we begin the body of the letter. 1:19—12:50 is the first part of the body of John's Gospel and records Yeshua's public ministry to the multitudes in Palestine, who were primarily Judeans. Some writers have called this section of the Gospel the "Book of Signs" because it features seven miracles Yeshua performs as proof that He is the Son of God. This section deals with the public ministry of Yeshua, culminating in the triumphal entry of Yeshua into Jerusalem a week before Passover (12:12-19). The remainder of the Gospel focuses on the Passion, the last week of Yeshua's life.
Today we begin to look at the testimony of John the Baptizer. The Baptizer is the first witness brought forward by John Eleazar to give testimony as to Who Yeshua is. It is interesting that this testimony takes place over three days. Day 1—John's testimony about his own role is largely negative (1:19-28). Day 2—John gives positive testimony about Who Yeshua is (1:29-34). Day 3—John sends his own disciples to follow Yeshua (1:35-40).
Before we look at John's testimony, let's look at Yeshua's testimony about John:
As these men were going away, Yeshua began to speak to the crowds about John, "What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? "But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Those who wear soft clothing are in kings' palaces! "But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and one who is more than a prophet. Matthew 11:7-9 NASB
So Yeshua says that John is a prophet, but more than a prophet:
"Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist! Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. Matthew 11:11 NASB
That is a pretty glowing recommendation, especially since it comes from Yeshua.
It wasn't just Yeshua that had a high view of John, notice what Herod thought of him:
For Herod himself had sent and had John arrested and bound in prison on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, because he had married her. For John had been saying to Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death and could not do so; for Herod was afraid of John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. And when he heard him, he was very perplexed; but he used to enjoy listening to him. Mark 6:17-20 NASB
John is even highly spoken of in literature outside the Bible. Josephus, the first century historian 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, … Now, when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were 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 anything he should advise, though it best, by putting him to death…"' (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.5.2).
John wasn't liked because he was a Joel Osteen type; as we saw in Matthew, he spoke out against sin. Notice what Luke says of him:
So he began saying to the crowds who were going out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Luke 3:7 NASB
John was telling it like it was. He didn't dance around the issues or soft pedal the truth. He wasn't worried about their feelings or being politically correct.
The Fourth Gospel does not record the events of Yeshua's baptism in the Jordan River performed by John the Baptist. John assumes you have read the other Gospel accounts; therefore, he picks up the thread of the story where the other accounts ended.
Mark fills in some of the details of John's ministry:
John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Mark 1:4 NASB
Notice where John was preaching: "in the wilderness"—the idea that this was happening in the wilderness is very significant, because throughout the life of the Hebrew people, significant things happened for them in the wilderness.
The country from Jerusalem to the area of Jericho was rugged and desolate. It was just across from the city of Jericho, on the East bank of the Jordan River, that this young 30 year old priest, who has just begun his priestly ministry, will call the people to repentance in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. A priest began his ministry at 30 years old:
Then the LORD spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, "Take a census of the descendants of Kohath from among the sons of Levi, by their families, by their fathers' households, from thirty years and upward, even to fifty years old, all who enter the service to do the work in the tent of meeting. Numbers 4:1-3 NASB
Of all the places Yehohanan ben Zechariah could have chosen to begin his ministry, why this desolate part of the Jordan River Valley? The Jordan River flows from springs in the Golan Heights down through the Sea of Galilee southward through the barren wilderness into the lowest point on the entire face of the earth, the Dead Sea (approximately 1,200 feet below sea level). Why would anyone want to travel all that way from the lush Galilee or even the 20 odd miles from Jerusalem through a desert wilderness to ford the Jordan River near Jericho and submit to some young priest who had separated himself from the Temple priesthood?
For the Jews and Israelites of the Roman provinces of Judea and Galilee, the location of the ritual baptism and the attire of the priest would have spoken volumes symbolically. This location was exactly where these people expected God to do great things: This was the place where the 9th century BC prophet Elisha cured Naaman, the servant of the King of Syria (2 Kings 5:1-14), and this was where a young Elisha saw his master, the Prophet Elijah, assumed into heaven in a fiery chariot (2 Kings 2:1-10). But most important, for these first century Jews and Israelites oppressed by the Roman Empire, this site would recall a period in their history when their people were freed from oppression and were given sanctuary and freedom in a new land, the Promised Land.
They would remember that Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt and out into the wilderness, and his successor, Joshua, led the people across the Jordan River (from the East to the West) into the Promised Land near the city of Jericho. This is the location of the "place of the crossing" (Beth Abarra in Hebrew) where God's holy nation crossed over the Jordan River into the land God had promised them.
For the people this action of symbolically reenacting the Exodus experience signaled a new beginning with hopes for freedom from their current oppressors—the Romans! No wonder the people came in huge crowds to this desolate site!
John's Gospel picks up the thread of the story where the other accounts ended:
This is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?" John 1:19 NASB
The word "testimony" here is marturia, which means: "to be a witness." John the Baptist is one of seven persons named in the Fourth Gospel who gave witness that Yeshua is Yahweh. Now why is this so important that John Eleazar draws from John the Baptist this initial testimony? It is because John was a prophet. In fact, he was the only prophet in Israel. In fact, there hadn't been a prophet in 400 years:
Although Herod wanted to put him to death, he feared the crowd, because they regarded John as a prophet. Matthew 14:5 NASB
Everyone knew him to be a prophet of Yahweh and therefore spoke for Yahweh. In John 1:6-7 we were told that "John" was sent to witness to the light…now this is his testimony:
"When the Jews sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him"—the first question we have to ask here is who are the "Jews"? What does John Eleazar mean by that term?
When the Bible talks about Jews, who is it referring to? I think that many Christians would answer this question by saying that the Jews are the 12 tribes of Israel, God's covenant people. But this is not correct! The term "Jews" was first used in the Babylonian captivity. The Babylonians called them "Jews" because they were from the land of Judah. At the time of the writing of the New Testament, during the Roman Kingdom there were only two tribes in the Palestinian area; Judah and Benjamin. There were certain individuals from other tribes, but for the most part, it was only the two tribes. Normally, it was those two tribes who were called "Jews" or "Judeans."
Look at how it is used here, "the Jews sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem." This is not a reference to the two tribes that lived in Judah. John uses the term "Jews" as a religious term; he uses it 68 times, in contrast to the other Gospel writers who rarely used it. John uses this term for the most part to refer to Jewish people who were hostile to Yeshua. But occasionally it occurs in a neutral sense:
Now there were six stone waterpots set there for the Jewish custom of purification, containing twenty or thirty gallons each. John 2:6 NASB
And at times he uses it in a good sense:
"You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. John 4:22 NASB
Morris says, "Most often, however, it refers to the Jews of Judea, especially those in and around Jerusalem, who constituted the organized and established religious world apart from faith in Jesus. Consequently, it usually carries overtones of hostility to Jesus." [Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John: Revised Edition, pp.115]
So the term hoi Ioudaioi (the Jews) when used by John refers to the people of Judea who were hostile to Yeshua, or to the Jewish religious leaders only. In verse 19 it is used of the Jewish religious leaders.
"Sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem"—the priests and Levites were usually Sadducees, while the scribes were usually Pharisees (cf. John 1:24). Both of these groups were involved in questioning John the Baptist. The political and religious antagonists joined forces to oppose Yeshua and His followers. This is the only occurrence of the term "Levites" in the Gospel of John. They possibly were the Temple police. This was an official group of "fact finders" sent from the religious authorities in Jerusalem.
Let me give you a little history on the priests. King David had designated Aaron's descendants, "the sons of Zadok," as the legitimate line to succeed to the Aaronic priesthood. In Ezekiel 44 Yahweh criticizes the Levites for their role in Israel's idolatry, but He praises the Zadokite Priests for their faithfulness. The last legitimate High Priest of this line, Onias III, was assassinated in 170 B.C. Later when the Maccabees, a priestly family (not from Zadok), defeated the Greek Seleucid Empire that had controlled their country, as well as the appointment of the High Priest, they (the Maccabees) usurped the office. In protest, a community was established near the Dead Sea. In their sectarian writings they refer to themselves as "the sons of Zadok," and they refer to the Jerusalem priesthood as "the wicked priests." It is this community that archaeologists call "Qumran," and it is in caves near this settlement that the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. John the Baptizer was operating in an area not too far from the Essene center on the Dead Sea. No wonder the authorities were curious about who he was.
The Romans in most cases allowed conquered provinces to govern themselves. The Sanhedrin had the power to govern Judea in all matters pertaining to religion and civil law except in the case of executions. Only the Roman authority could order an execution because Rome controlled life and death for conquered people. The Sanhedrin had the power to arrest, bring to trial, and to convict offenders of The Law. Messianic expectations were running high in Israel as people longed for deliverance from Roman rule. So in the midst of the expectancy, in the midst of the excitement, a group of men from the city of Jerusalem, from the Sanhedrin it seems, went out in order to ask John the Baptist the question, "Who are you?"
This same question is asked of Yeshua in John 8:25. John and Yeshua taught and acted in ways which made the official leaders uncomfortable, because they recognized in both men certain Old Covenant eschatological themes and terms. This question, then, relates to the Jewish expectation of coming Messiah.
John's answer to them is:
And he confessed and did not deny, but confessed, "I am not the Christ." John 1:20 NASB
John answers their real question, "Are you the Messiah?" Many thought John the Baptist was this promised Messiah:
Now while the people were in a state of expectation and all were wondering in their hearts about John, as to whether he was the Christ, Luke 3:15 NASB
Because John was the first inspired spokesman for Yahweh in over four hundred years, his public ministry fueled the flames of Israel's messianic hopes.
John emphatically states, "I am not the Christ." Everywhere we see John the Baptist in this Gospel his own work and message is downplayed, and Yeshua is elevated. Many scholars suspect that Lazarus is writing against followers of John the Baptist who were still preaching John the Baptist seventy years after his death. We may never know whether that was the case or not, but it is very clear that John the Baptist's ministry is to elevate Christ.
They asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" And he said, "I am not." "Are you the Prophet?" And he answered, "No." John 1:21 NASB
"Are you Elijah?" And he said, "I am not"—this question arises due to the prophecy of Malachi:
"Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD. "He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse." Malachi 4:5-6 NASB
Everything about John fit the prophecies about the return of Elijah. John was ministering at the location where Elijah was assumed into heaven. He dressed in the same attire as the Prophet Elijah. And messianic expectation was high at that time, due to Daniel's prediction that dated the appearance of Messiah for that general time (Dan. 9:25).
"Popularly it was believed that Elijah would anoint the Messiah, and thereby reveal His identity to him and to Israel" (see Justin, Apology 35.1).
How can John the Baptist say he is not Elijah, when Yeshua says that he is?:
"And if you are willing to accept it, John himself is Elijah who was to come. Matthew 11:14 NASB
Remember that Elijah did not die, but was taken into heaven, so that his body could not be found (see 2 Kings 2:1-17). It seems some expected Elijah to return in person. John rightly denies being Elijah in person. Yet, we read in Luke's Gospel that John the Baptist will go before Messiah "in the spirit and power of Elijah" (Luke 1:17). Yeshua then tells His disciples that John is "Elijah who is to come" (Matthew 11:14) and prefaces His statement with, "If you are willing to receive it." Thus, John is a kind of Elijah, who comes in the spirit and power of Elijah, fulfilling the prophecy of Malachi.
"Are you the Prophet?" And he answered, "No"—this line of questioning reflects the varying categories of messianic expectation in the Second Temple Period. Since John denied being the Messiah or his forerunner, Elijah, he is asked whether he is the Prophet. Who is this Prophet that he denies being? They want to know if he is "The Prophet" of Deuteronomy 18:
'I will raise up a prophet from among their countrymen like you, and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. 'It shall come about that whoever will not listen to My words which he shall speak in My name, I Myself will require it of him. Deuteronomy 18:18-19 NASB
So who is this Prophet? Peter tells us in:
and that He may send Yeshua, the Christ appointed for you, whom heaven must receive until the period of restoration of all things about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from ancient time. Acts 3:20-21 NASB
Peter is saying, "If they will trust Yeshua, they [Israel] will be redeemed, their sins will be forgiven, and times of refreshing will come; and when Yeshua returns to reward those who trust Him and destroy those who reject Him, they will be safe":
"Moses said, 'THE LORD GOD WILL RAISE UP FOR YOU A PROPHET LIKE ME FROM YOUR BRETHREN; TO HIM YOU SHALL GIVE HEED to everything He says to you. 'And it will be that every soul that does not heed that prophet shall be utterly destroyed from among the people.' Acts 3:22-23 NASB
Peter's point is that Yeshua is that Prophet Whom God has raised up, Who is "like Moses." Peter identifies the true Israel. It is those who follow Messiah. If you reject the Messiah, you will no longer be "the people."
When John denies that he is the Prophet, he is once again denying that he is the Messiah. Notice John's answers, They ask, "Who are you?" He says, "I am not the Christ," (five words), then they say to him, "Are you Elijah?" and he said, "I am not," (three words), and then they say, "Are you that Prophet?" and he said, "No," (one word):
Then they said to him, "Who are you, so that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?" John 1:22 NASB
Since he is not the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet, they demand to know who he is.
He said, "I am A VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, 'MAKE STRAIGHT THE WAY OF THE LORD,' as Isaiah the prophet said." John 1:23 NASB
John says, "I am a voice." In all four of the Gospels, he identifies himself as "the voice" that Isaiah spoke about in the 40th chapter of his book. He is not the Prophet. He's not the Messiah. He's not Elijah. He's just a voice.
John identifies himself as the preparatory voice of Isaiah 40:3. This passage originally prophesied the forgiveness of the tribes of Israel and their return from exile. Isaiah had prophesied the destruction of both the Northern Kingdom of Israel (722 BC), which took place in his lifetime, and the future destruction of the Southern Kingdom of Judah, which would be fulfilled 135 years later (587 BC). This message of hope promises God's forgiveness, and in effect, that in their return through the desert, the hills would be leveled and the valleys filled in to prepare an eschatological superhighway for God's people.
Isaiah 40 is a very pivotal chapter in that Hebrew book. It marks the turning point from prophecies of judgment to prophecies of God's deliverance. It is the beginning of the good news in the book of Isaiah. The Gospel writers saw the connection. Yeshua is the good news of God's salvation promised in Isaiah 40-66, and so John the Baptist points to that as he issues his message of preparation:
"Comfort, O comfort My people," says your God. "Speak kindly to Jerusalem; And call out to her, that her warfare has ended, That her iniquity has been removed, That she has received of the LORD'S hand Double for all her sins." A voice is calling, "Clear the way for the LORD in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God. Isaiah 40:1-3 NASB
Here Yahweh is the speaker. He issues four commands. All four commands are grammatically plural in Hebrew. That means that Yahweh is commanding a group. The group cannot be Israelites or a collective Israel, since it is Israel that Yahweh is commanding the group to comfort, speak to, and call. So who is the group that Yahweh is commanding ? It is the divine council.
The coming of the Messiah will result in redemption for all the tribes of Israel. Yahweh will draw His children from every tribe and nation, whether Abraham's literal descendants or not.
In Isaiah 40:3, the council member who responds is not identified. Earlier, in Isaiah 6: 8, when Yahweh asks, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" Isaiah the Prophet answers, "I am here! Send me!"
With the arrival of the Messiah, Lazarus casts John the Baptist in Isaiah's role. Like the prophet of old, John the Baptist has "stood in the council" and answered the call. To a Jew familiar with the Tanakh, the pattern would not be lost. As had been the case at the time of Isaiah, Yahweh's council had met in regard to the fate of an apostate Israel. Isaiah had been sent to a spiritually blind and deaf nation. The calling of John the Baptist tells the reader that Yahweh's divine council is in session again, only this time the aim is to launch the Kingdom of God with the second Yahweh, now incarnate, as its point man. (Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm)
It is interesting that the Qumran community chose this text as their reason for establishing their community in the desert wilderness near the Dead Sea.
Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. John 1:24 NASB
The Pharisees were a lay movement of Jewish religious authorities, experts in the interpretation of The Law. They were an important group in Second Temple Judaism known from the New Testament, Josephus, and Rabbinic Literature.
This text is ambiguous. It can mean: (1) The Pharisees sent John's questioners (cf. John 1:19) or (2) The questioners were Pharisees, which is unusual in light of the fact that most priests were Sadducees (cf. John 1:9). It seems to refer to another group than John 1:19.
They asked him, and said to him, "Why then are you baptizing, if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?" John 1:25 NASB
The "if" here is a first class conditional sentence which is assumed to be true from the author's perspective or for his literary purposes. Considering John's previous answers, what are they really asking him this time? They want justification for his baptizing. If John the Baptist is not claiming any eschatological role, why is he performing an eschatological action like baptizing?
Their question implied that it was inappropriate for John to baptize. The Jews practiced baptism for ritual cleansing, but in all cases the baptismal candidates baptized themselves. There was no precedent for John to be "baptizing" other people, and the Jews did not regard themselves as needing to repent. This was something Gentiles needed to do when they converted to Judaism.
Proselyte baptism was normative in ancient Judaism for those Gentiles wishing to become converts, but it was highly unusual for Jews themselves to be baptized (the sectarian Jews of Qumran practiced self-baptisms and Temple worshipers bathed themselves before entering):
John answered them saying, "I baptize in water, but among you stands One whom you do not know. John 1:26 NASB
The word "stands" is in the perfect tense and implies a Hebrew idiom of "There is One who has taken His stand in your midst."
There is an interesting passage in the writings of the Qumran community, a congregation near the Dead Sea where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, in their "Rule of Life" concerning the coming of the Messiah: God will…cleanse man through a holy spirit, and will sprinkle upon him a spirit of truth as purifying water. (1QS iv 20-21). This community would have been ready for The Baptist's message! Perhaps they had already received it?
"It is He who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie." John 1:27 NASB
"He who comes after me"—referring to Messiah. John did not yet know exactly who this was (vv. 29-31). "The thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie"— explaining this, Morris writes, "To get the full impact of this we must bear in mind that disciples did do many services for their teachers. Teachers in ancient Palestine were not paid (it would be a terrible thing to ask for money for teaching Scripture!). But in partial compensation disciples were in the habit of performing small services for their rabbis instead. But they had to draw the line somewhere, and menial tasks like loosing the sandal thong came under this heading.[Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John: Revised Edition, p. 123].
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi (A.D. 250) taught, "All manner of service that a slave must render to his master, the pupil must render to his teacher—except that of taking off his shoe" (cited by Andreas Kostenberger, John (Baker), p. 650).
John selects the very task that the rabbis stress as too menial for any disciple, and declares himself unworthy to perform it.
These things took place in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing. John 1:28 NASB
This is not the same Bethany as the town of Lazarus and his sisters on the Mt. of Olives near Jerusalem. Bethany means: "place (or house) of grace." Some ancient texts list the name as Bethabara (place of the crossing). Since no town of this name has ever been discovered in any text or any archaeological site, most scholars believe this name indicates that this was the site that the children of Israel used to cross the Jordan River when they first entered the Promised Land.
The correct reading is: Bethany (Papyrus, P66), not the one southeast of Jerusalem (cf. John 11:18), but the town across from Jericho, across the Jordan River (eastern side).
This is the end of the first day, and John closes this passage with this geographic reference of the name of the site. As we will see, closing a section of his narrative with a geographic reference will become common in John's Gospel.
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