John the Baptist is centre stage before Jesus begins his mission. Did you ever notice that the gospels open with a scandal? People were leaving the established religion where the temple was central to all worship. They found John, who was preaching in the wilderness, more authentic than the temple preaching..
Sacrifices, in atonement for sin, were made twice a day in the Temple. John’s agenda was not concerned with ritual. He called for a change of heart, attitude, thinking and practical personal repentance. The people confessed their sins. John gave them the assurance of God’s forgiveness. In most religions it is the priest who exercises this function. John challenged this custom.
Jesus would do the same. Jesus never said, “I forgive your sins.” He gave the paralytic the assurance, “Your sins are forgiven.” (Mk 2: 5) His final words to the woman caught committing adultery were, “Has no one condemned you?” “No,” she replied. Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.” (Jn 8: 10 – 11) Both of these incidents took place outside the formal religious structures.
In many ways Jesus and John were similar. John only preached out of doors. Jesus was happy to preach anywhere the opportunity presented itself, in the countryside, the synagogue, the temple, at home or in other people’s homes. Both men were strongly independent. Both confronted the religious authorities, Scribes, Pharisees and Chief Priests. They aligned themselves with the unclean, sinners and all marginalized by society. Jesus, however, also had many friends among the wealthy and influential.
In other ways these two prophets were like chalk and cheese. John was an ascetic. His diet was the same as the poorest of the poor. His clothing was basic, to say the least. Jesus, however, enjoyed a good meal, along with a glass of good wine. He entertained.
John spoke much about judgement and often threatened people with fire. It is not surprising that he worked only where there was plenty of water. His baptism presents an image of the fires of retribution being put out, as the water flows over the person being baptized. Jesus concentrated on love and forgiveness. John thought the end time was coming soon. Jesus was convinced that the kingdom of heaven was already present.
Where did Jesus find his disciples? The gospels give different accounts. Perhaps the account in John’s gospel is the closest to what actually took place. Jesus was still working alongside John when he began to recruit his own disciples. Many of his disciples were drawn from the ranks of John’s followers.
This was clearly Peter’s thinking, when, in Acts, he sets the criteria for the selection of a replacement for Judas. “Therefore, it is necessary that one of the men, who accompanied us the whole time the Lord Jesus came and went among us, beginning from the baptism of John.” (Acts 1: 21) In his sermon to Cornelius’ household he says, “Jesus Christ proclaimed peace all over Galilee after the baptism John preached. God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit. We are witnesses of what he did.” (Acts 10: 37 – 39)
In John’s gospel Andrew and another unnamed disciple are the first to be called. Peter was the third. He was introduced to Jesus by his brother Andrew. Only after this does Jesus leave John and go to Galilee.
“A voice came from the heavens, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son.” (Mt 3: 17)
If all the people present saw what happened and heard the voice, one would expect that they would have said, “I know who Jesus is. He is the Son of God. At his Baptism, I heard God say that he was his Son.” This did not happen!
Clearly this story, so rich in symbolism, must be much more than just a historical account.
The description of Jesus’ baptism looks like a Christian Baptism. It tells us about what we cannot see but believe happens at Baptism; the heavens open, the Spirit descends and the voice of God recognizes the baptised as son or daughter.
For Centuries the Jewish people had been longing for the coming of the Messiah. This is we find echoed in throughout the Old Testament. “He said to me, you are my son, today I have begotten you.” (Ps 2: 7) “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him.” (Is 42: 1)
Everyday, pious Jews prayed for the coming of the Messiah, “Oh that you would tear the heavens open and come down.” (Is 63: 7 – 64: 12) “The heavens opened. The Spirit descended. God proclaimed, ‘This is my beloved Son.” Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, was now present among them.