John the Baptist

2. Elijah has already come!

Jesus once asked the crowds "What did you go out into the wilderness to behold? A reed shaken by the wind? ...A man clothed in soft clothing?" (Luke 7:24,25 RSV) This makes it clear that ordinary people went further than the river Jordan to find John. Was a crowd really attracted by this recluse who so far had shunned the company of men and women? What did they want with him? Some modern critics have suggested that John was a "long haired way‑out type" who attracted the dissidents and frustrated members of society. The Gospel records that those who went to John were quite ordinary, law‑abiding citizens who needed some practical ways of expressing their faith. John however, lived in the tradition of many of the prophets, who had to be tough enough in body and mind to withstand the trends of society in their own day. His message was perhaps even more alarming to ordinary folk than that proclaimed by his great forebears. He was less like the sedate prophets such as Elisha and Isaiah and was hewn in the same form as Elijah.

The Old Testament closes with the prophet Malachi’s message from God "I (will) send my messenger to prepare the way before me" (3:1 RSV). This same man also declared on God’s behalf "I will send you Eli’jah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse." (4:5,6 RSV) Then followed the four hundred years silence until John came. Jesus was quite definite about the fulfilment of this prophecy on two occasions. The first was when John sent his disciples to Jesus with the question "Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?" (Luke 7:20 RSV) The second occasion was when Jesus descended the mountain from the Transfiguration with three disciples. They were evidently still pondering the vision of Jesus with Moses and Elijah and asked why "the scribes say that Elijah must first come"?

The question then arises as to how John the Baptist was like Elijah? How could they be expected to identify the one who was to turn the hearts of fathers and children to each other? What did the prophecy in Malachi mean? Perhaps the words of the angel recorded in Luke 1:17 gives us a clue. "He will go before him in the spirit and power of Eli’jah, 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."(RSV) It may be that the work of the "second Elijah" is one of reconciliation among families and tribes. However, "fathers" often refers to the patriarchs. The generation into which Messiah was coming was an evil and rebellious one. The messenger’s task was to create a condition of repentance, that reconciliation was to be achieved between First century Jews and the memory of the upright patriarchs. Whatever the meaning of this obscure passage, John was to preach the message "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand". He was a moral catalyst demanding a change in behaviour.

The emphasis was upon "the spirit and power of Elijah". It is fascinating that no two Biblical characters are more alike than John the Baptist and Elijah. They were both lonely men who depended on Nature for their needs. They entered the social world of their contemporaries only when they had a message to deliver from God. They both felt impelled to issue stern warnings to the royalty of their day. Both brought the people of Israel to a moment of crisis when they could choose the way of God or the way of the Devil. In spite of their great spiritual strength, both men knew feelings of despair and failure. For those in John’s day who really knew the spirit of the 8th century prophet, the Baptist was a sign of the imminent coming of Messiah. The religious leaders of the First century failed completely to recognise the situation. John’s message to Israel was uncompromising. He told the people of Israel that they must prepare for judgment and that they could only avoid the wrath of God by true heart repentance. Through the voice of the prophets God had long demanded a high standard of moral behaviour and spiritual awareness in their worship. John spoke of the separation of wheat and chaff; his point was further emphasised as he spoke of the axe being laid to the root of the tree. God’s people as a nation were at risk because of their way of life.

John’s spiritual message was supported by the kind of advice which he gave to the people who came to him. Quickly he saw through the hypocrisy of the religious leaders who came out to see him. He called them a brood of vipers, men who had only venom for those with whom they spoke. For centuries Israel had been given the commission to tell God’s message to pagan nations; they thought of themselves as being indispensable to God, but John made it clear that this was not so. His answers to ordinary people were not altogether the type that might have been expected. He did not tell the tax collectors to give up their job as well paid civil servants of the Roman Empire. Many of these men were regarded by fellow Jews as traitors. He told them to be honest in their collections. He did not tell the soldiers to leave the army or Temple police force. He warned them not to be violent nor blackmail the religious authorities into giving them more pay. He told all who would hear to be fruitful in their lives, by sharing what they had with the poor and needy; this had been the recurring theme from Moses to Malachi. Few of God’s rules had been broken more than this disregard for those in need.

These ethical principles were not new. John was not stirring up political conflict or making religious division; he was calling Israel back to the faith of their fathers. The one thing that was new was the great proclamation "The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand". When John had been born people were in expectation of God’s intervention in the life of his people; later they had flocked to the desert to hear him. The early disciples of Jesus had travelled from Galilee to hear John; others must have done the same. There was spiritual hunger in Israel. There was recognition of a need for guidance, which the national leaders had failed to give. Their interpretation of Scripture was literal, laying heavy emphasis upon ritual and legalism; in so doing they had missed the spirit of true piety.

Compassion and not sacrifice had been the cry of the prophets; circumcision of the heart, they had warned, was the important sign of their religious life. At the base of national life was the social unit of the family; in John’s day family life had reached an all‑time low ebb. The rules of divorce, permitted by Moses, had been abused beyond recognition; as a result, women were no longer interested in getting married and starting families. This was brought about not by the dregs of society but by religious men. So John turned on the highest family in the land, son of Herod the Great, and accused him of stealing his brother’s wife. It cost the prophet his freedom and eventually his life. But not before he did one last great act in the Jordan.

When John had gone from the scene and Jesus was making his last appeal to Israel in Jerusalem, the priests and lawyers challenged him about his authority for what he was doing. (Luke 20:1‑8) Jesus countered them with a remarkable question. He asked them about John the Baptist’s authority. If they had answered Jesus’ question, they could have answered their own. It is equally clear that the ordinary people believed that John was God’s prophet.

(To be concluded)