All four Gospels tell us about John the Baptist, making him an extremely important figure in the story of Jesus. Who was John and how do the writers of the Gospels present him? These are critical questions to ask if we are to rightly understand the words and mission of Jesus. This episode develops the context and setting of John's ministry from Luke 3 and Matthew 3.
This video is part of the Opening Up the Gospels
Hi I'm Josh Hawkins and this is Episode 33 of Opening Up the Gospels. In the past few episodes we covered roughly 30 years of Jesus' life - specifically the time from His return from Egypt all the way to what we'll begin to look at now - the time when He appears on the banks of the Jordan to be baptized and begin His ministry. This period is what some have called Jesus' "silent years". Why are they "silent"? Because we know almost nothing about what He said and did during that time. As I said in the last episode, the silent years have so much to say to all of humanity in that God Himself took on flesh and lived in obscurity and toil for 30 years. Oh what an example for us! In today's episode, I want to begin to look at what most people typically think of when they think of the Gospels, and that is the ministry of Jesus. And this roughly 3 year portion that begins with a man named John the Baptist is what the vast majority of the Gospels themselves focus on. But recall what I said all the way back in Episode 4 where I said that it's so significant that all four Gospels begin their story of Jesus' ministry with John the Baptist. He's mentioned in Matthew 3, Mark 1, Luke 3, and John 1. John's ministry is either often misunderstood or just not understood, in other words, there is so much ignorance regarding him in our modern understanding. So I really think that these next several episodes are some of the most critical of the entire series. If we can rightly understand what John the Baptist is doing and saying, we will rightly understand the purpose and mission that Jesus came for. That's the premise I want you to get. John was sent to proclaim that something very significant was about to happen in Israel. So if we miss John the Baptist and his message, we'll miss the whole point of what Jesus is doing. So as we proceed, I hope this alerts you just a little more to the significance of John. I want to begin reading today in Luke 3: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” (Luke 3:1–2 ESV) So here we have a bunch of names of people and places that are probably pretty unfamiliar to most of us. But this isn't too complicated if you can see it. The Roman empire was under the reign of Tiberius Caesar, and zooming in to the nation of Israel, Pontius Pilate was governing Judea. Now if you remember what we talked about back in Episode 30, Herod the Great died in 4BC and his son Archelaus gained and then lost power quickly in Judea. Then leadership was given to a Roman governor, Pilate, who shared power with the Jewish high priest and the Sanhedrin. We also talked in that episode about how Herod's other sons stayed in power - Antipas in Galilee and Philip in Trachonitis. And so without doing all the math for the sake of time, based on the death of Herod in 4BC, we're now probably somewhere around 27AD when the word of God came to John. So why does Luke even take the time to write this, and why is this part of the Gospel record? Well, remember when we talked about Luke's Gospel back in Episode 9? He wrote his gospel to a man named Theophilus to be an orderly, historical account of the life and words of Jesus. So in these verses, he's hammering the point that everything that is going to follow is thoroughly historical in nature. He's not just giving themes or an interpretation of Jesus and His life, he's anchoring the whole thing in the real contours of history. He's essentially telling us "these things happened at a real time and a real place when these real people were in power." It's like hypothetically saying to someone 50 years from now: "in the days when Barack Obama was president of the United States". If, say in 50 years from now, you heard that, it would immediately evoke a context for you, like a stage on which everything else is set. And this is what Luke is doing for us - putting John the Baptist and everything else that follows in a real context. Before we look further at Luke 3 and Matthew 3, I want to spend a little time talking about John so we can better understand why he's so significant to understanding the Gospels and why the message he was preaching was so important. The Gospels themselves reflect his importance because, even though many individuals are referenced, John is the only other one in the Gospels besides Jesus that receives significant individual attention. And not only that, Jesus Himself references John and his ministry several times. This alone should alert us to his significance. We looked at John's birth back in episode 15. And just like the upbringing of Jesus, we don't have much in the Gospels on what John's upbringing was like. He was born just a few months before Jesus was, and if you remember back to the story of Mary and Elizabeth, we can make the connection that Jesus and John the Baptist were related somehow. I feel like we often forget that point... If Mary and Elizabeth were related, so were Jesus and John. I'll talk a little bit more about that in a future episode. But all we know about John's lifestyle is it was one of simplicity and solitude. We see his birth in Luke 1 and then don't see him again until he's on the banks of the Jordan river baptizing people. But we do have one short verse right at the end of Luke 1 that gives us a hint about him: “And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.” (Luke 1:80 ESV) So how are we to imagine this, the whole idea of him being in the wilderness? We don't really know. But we do know that the Wilderness of Judea was in an area west of the Dead Sea in Judah. It is mountainous and almost completely devoid of any vegetation, though there is some green that comes in the springtime and stays for just a brief period, because the annual rainfall is less than 2 inches. The wilderness of Judea though was not like the Sahara desert in the middle of Africa, but it definitely was desolate. Throughout history it has been a place of solitude and escape for many. Now I don't think we should picture a little kid just running around the desert looking for food and water and finding locusts and honey. Remember, John's father Zechariah was a priest, and would be required to go to Jerusalem with his division. We looked at that back in Episode 11 and 12. So John probably had grown up with them at least for a little while and became familiar with the story of His people, but we also have to remember that we don't know what happened to Zechariah and Elizabeth. Perhaps they died when John was young. We don't really know. Some have speculated that John could have been part of a community of people called the Essenes. They were very pious and were thought to live in parts of the Judean desert, which is why some have thought that John could have been an Essene. The Essenes aren't mentioned in scripture, but the Jewish historian Josephus says that the Essenes were just as prevalent as the Pharisees and Sadducees of the day. Some say that because of Matthew 3:4's description of John, that he could have been an Essene. Matthew 3:4 says: “Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.” (Matthew 3:4 ESV) We'll talk about the significance of John's clothing and diet in the next episode. Some say this shows that John's lifestyle was one of asceticism, like the Essenes would have been. But just one look at the beliefs and theology of the Essenes shows us that it's extremely unlikely that John the Baptist would have been part of the that sect. John's lifestyle could have been similar to them, but his theology was very different. Beyond this, we really don't know anything about John the Baptist's lifestyle. Far more important than his lifestyle though was the message He preached - what He actually said and why He said it. We're going to spend a few episodes developing that. It's so important to see and understand. Let's keep going in Luke 3: “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Luke 3:2–3 ESV) So here we are, and John the son of Zechariah is a little older than 30 now and Luke says that he's in the wilderness in the region all around the Jordan River, preaching. The place where the Gospels tell us he was most often though was north of the mouth of the Jordan near the Dead Sea. This is what the Gospels call "Bethany beyond the Jordan". Now this is very different than the town of Bethany near Jerusalem, where we'll see later that Mary and Martha lived. We have to be careful not confuse these... just like we would differentiate between "Washington DC" and "Washington state", though both are named "Washington". That's all that's happening here. You'll also see just east of the dead sea an area called Machaerus - Herod the Great had built a fortress there, and that's where his son Herod Antipas later would imprison and behead John the Baptist. We'll look at this event in a future episode, but I just wanted to bring it to your attention now since we're looking at a map. Now John, unlike Jesus, didn't go take his message into the cities and villages. He actually forced the multitudes to come out to him to hear his message. Jesus Himself would later ask all the crowds a question about John in Matthew 11: ““What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?” (Matthew 11:7 ESV) As we'll see in the next episode, it's very important that John remained in the wilderness so as to fulfill what the prophet Isaiah said about him. And just like so many things we've already looked at so far, John the Baptist himself, his ministry, and his message is set in the context of Old Testament prophecy. It's too simplistic to say that John was just a forerunner telling people about end time events or telling people about the coming of Jesus. There is so much detail in his message that only makes sense when we see it in light of the Old Testament. Well, I'd encourage you to do a little more study for yourself - go check out some pictures of the Judean Desert. It will really help you to see where John was and it'll bring this part of the Gospels to life even more. Well, as always, you can find the other episodes of this series on my website, www.joshuahawkins.com/gospels. And I'd encourage you to put in your email address in the signup form there too - I send out a weekly email notification for these episodes. I hope they've been good for you thus far. Blessings to you, and I hope you come back next time!