Hey everyone, Josh Hawkins here, this is Episode 35 of Opening Up the Gospels. In the last two episodes we looked at Matthew 3 and Luke 3 and I began to introduce who John the Baptist was. We saw that the Gospel writers not only introduce John like the Old Testament prophets, but they also tell us he dressed like them and spoke like them too. As we'll see, this is why the crowds and the Jewish authorities throughout the Gospels often refer to John in this way. Remember, there hadn't been a prophet in Israel for over 400 years, and all of a sudden John bursts on the scene and ignites the whole nation with expectation again. And as we'll also see as we move forward, John was much more than a prophet - he was preparing the way of Yahweh. Today I want to continue looking at John the Baptist but I want to go through a little history lesson that will give us some very important contextual information and help us better understand what's going on.
Let's go back to about 200 years before John the Baptist for a second. The Greeks were in control of the entire region because of a man we've probably heard of before named Alexander the Great. At a very young age, Alexander's conquests paved the way for Greek culture to spread throughout the region, which included the land of Israel. It was 332BC when Alexander conquered Israel. After Alexander died, his military commanders divided up his kingdom into two areas - one controlled by a commander named Seleucus, forming the Seleucid dynasty, and the other controlled by the Ptolemies, based in Egypt. Originally the land of Israel was included in the kingdom of the Ptolemies. There was relative peace but in 198BC, the Seleucids took over Israel under the command of Antiochus the 3rd. Life in Israel took a major downturn when a Seleucid king, Antiochus the 4th started ruling in 175BC.
Antiochus was full of pride and took the name "Epiphanes" for himself, which presumably meant "select of God", but many people in his kingdom called him "the madman". Antiochus wanted everyone in his empire to share the same culture, much like his predecessor Alexander the Great, and also wanted everyone in his empire to worship the same gods. So he stepped up his campaigns to squash Judaism beginning in 168BC. He had any Jew who wouldn't worship the Greek idols put to death. Praying to Yahweh or observing the Sabbath became illegal. Mothers found with circumcised infants were killed along with the child. Antiochus also had many scrolls of the Scriptures burned, although there were many that were saved by being hidden out in the wilderness. And just 6 years after taking power, he marched into Jerusalem, vandalized the temple, set up an altar to the Greek god Zeus, and desecrated the Temple with the blood of pigs. This event was prophesied in the book of Daniel, specifically in Daniel chapter 8.
This set off a firestorm in Israel and really set a precedent in all of human history. No one in the ancient world had ever died for their gods. Only the Jews thought that their religion was worth dying for. The Jews had the only monotheistic one at the time (meaning, the only faith that believed there was one god, not many gods). But this war was not just a war against the Greeks. It was a civil war too, because many of the Jews who were loyal to Judaism fought against other Jews whose lifestyle and beliefs had already been deeply influenced by the Greeks.
Shortly after, the Greek soldiers reached a town called Modi'in, which is about 12 miles northwest of Jerusalem. They demanded that the Jews there, specifically the local leader named Mattathias, sacrifice a pig on a portable altar to the Greek gods. He refuses, but another Jew steps up and says he would do it, but Mattathias is totally outraged and kills both the Jew and Antiochus' representative.
Many begin to join this "resistance movement" of sorts, and Mattathias and his five sons all head for the hills expecting the Greek army to return and wipe out their whole village. They organize a small but powerful force out in the wilderness led by his son, Judah or Judas. He would be nicknamed "Judas Maccabee", which means "the hammer". The Jews were only armed with spears, bows, arrows, and rocks but the Greek army was well-trained. They had equipment and even war elephants, which were like the tanks of the ancient world. Judas Maccabee and his army was vastly outnumbered, but their determination sustained them in their battles.
In 164BC, three years after the Maccabean revolt began in 166, the Jews are able to retake Jerusalem. But they come in and find the temple completely desecrated. It's been turned into a pagan sanctuary where pigs were sacrificed on the altar and much of the gold in the temple had been melted down. The first thing they do when they reenter the Temple is to try and light a make-shift menorah, but they only find one vial of pure oil with the special seal on it. They use this oil to light the menorah, and it miraculously stayed lit for eight days. The retaking of the Temple and the miracle of the oil is what is celebrated in the the eight days of Hanukkah, a word in Hebrew meaning "dedication".
The books of First and Second Maccabees detail the story of the Maccabean Revolt and of the retaking of Jerusalem. Now when we read the story of the Maccabees it seems like it's something that takes place over just a few weeks – the battles take place, the Jews win, and the Greeks go home. But, in fact, it takes 25 years of fighting and a great many casualties on both sides until the Selucid Greeks finally reach a peace agreement with the Jews.
Now Mattathias, the leader who refused to sacrifice the pig, was a priest in Israel. So naturally after his sons had helped the Jews regain Jerusalem, Simon, one of Mattathias' sons, became the new High Priest. Simon also took on himself a title that meant "prince" or "leader", being careful to not call himself "king" - because if you remember back in episode 13, we talked about how Israel's true king would be from David's line. And these guys, as priests, were from Aaron's line and couldn't rightfully be Israel's "king". Unfortunately though, Simon's descendants didn't respect this distinction, and a new dynasty is formed in Israel, called the Hasmonean Dynasty. These guys get pretty power hungry. After Simon dies, his son John Hyrcanus, does something that's terribly anti-Jewish. As a part of his efforts to expand Israel's borders and strengthen the country, he forces the people he conquers into converting to Judaism. This is something the Jews have never done before. Now one of the families in the region of Idumea that is converted becomes very significant later on. A descendant of that family is a man named Herod who as we've already talked about in several past episodes, would later be appointed the king of the Jews under the Romans. Now a civil war between factions in the dynasty would later break out, and the Romans were called in to help arbitrate the dispute. And of course as Rome was gaining power at that time, they were happy to come in and take charge of the land. So in 63BC, after the Maccabean Revolt and 103 years of the Hasmonean Dynasty's rule of Israel, the Roman General Pompeii and his army take over the city. Pompeii and his forces enter the Temple and the Holy of Holies, defiling it. And it's at this time that Israel comes under Roman administration and this is what sets us up for understanding where the nation of Israel is at politically during the time of Jesus.
So, what does all of this have to do with John the Baptist? Remember, Israel hadn't heard from any of the Lord's prophets for over 400 years. Since that time, there had been many bloody conflicts - the temple had been desecrated, there was no Davidic king on the throne and it seemed as if Yahweh had abandoned His people. Just think about how different things were in Israel during these years compared to the years of David and Solomon. It's been a thousand years since those days. Imagine if you were Jewish, living in Israel at the time we've been looking at. You'd heard about the glory days of old. And more recently you'd heard about the Maccabean Revolt and the Hasmoneans, and how what seemed so glorious in the beginning had just collapsed and become so horrible. And after defeating the Greeks but failing to keep control of their own nation, the Romans were now in charge and Israel was no better off than they were 100 years ago. I imagine people were genuinely asking: Where is our God in all of this? What about the covenants he made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? What about the exodus from Egypt and the Law and Mount Sinai? What about the promises to David of a king who would rule and endure forever? What about the promises of being the head and not the tail? What about the prophets and everything they said about the restoration of the Temple and of Jerusalem? It seemed like the Maccabean Revolt might have been a start to some of that, but now Rome seems even more powerful, and it seems like there's no hope for us.
And so here we are, 26AD, and a man named John goes out in the wilderness. He's gathering a lot of people to himself just like Judas Maccabee did when he started his revolt. And he's talking like the prophets did and he's dressed like them. So with the historical context we looked at, who were the people of Israel thinking that John was? And what was the message he was proclaiming? Was he the Christ? Or was he the prophet? Or was he Elijah? These are questions that we see in John chapter 1:
“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.”
(Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.”
(John 1:21–28 ESV)
John identifies himself as the voice of Isaiah 40 - he's crying out and saying "God is coming! God is coming! God is coming! Get ready!" and he's administering the rite of baptism for those who would repent. The day of the Lord is at hand and Israel, among all of the people that should be prepared, were not. This is so significant in light of everything we've looked at so far. In the next few episodes, we'll begin actually breaking down the message of John. Don't miss them. If you've missed any past episodes, you'll find them all on my website - www.joshuahawkins.com/gospels. If you want to receive a weekly email notification for these, enter your email address on the form on my website as well. God bless, and I'll see you next time.