March 4, 2005

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Jesus in the Gospels: The Baptist's witness

See John 3:22-4:2

 Did you ever think of Jesus as engaging in baptism ceremonies as John the Baptist did? John’s Gospel tells us that he did while he was still in Judea before his Galilean ministry began, but the other Gospels don’t mention it. It was while the Baptist was still carrying on his baptisms, with Jesus and his disciples at one point along the Jordan River and John at another.

The only disciples we’ve met so far are Peter, Andrew, an unnamed disciple assumed to be John, Philip and Nathanael. Some of them had been disciples of John the Baptist, so baptizing might have come natural to them. The evangelist says, though, that Jesus himself was not baptizing, just his disciples.

We have to wonder why John was still baptizing. Now that Jesus had made himself known, and John had declared ­himself to be Jesus’ forerunner, why didn’t John join Jesus as one of his disciples? And why was Jesus copying John by engaging in, or at least supervising, baptisms? Perhaps it had something to do with what Jesus said to Nicodemus—that no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. We’ll never know for sure.

What we do know is that John’s disciples came to him and reported that the one about whom John testified was baptizing “and everyone is coming to him.” There appears to have been a rivalry between John and Jesus’ disciples.

Not between John and Jesus, though. John wouldn’t think of it. He repeats what he had said earlier, that he had never claimed to be the Messiah but was sent before him. He compares himself to the best man at a wedding, standing by the groom, listening to him and rejoicing at the bridegroom’s voice.

From now on, John said, Jesus must increase while he, John, must decrease. He was indeed about to decrease because Herod Antipas had him arrested. The arrest presents a bit of a problem because Herod Antipas was ruler over Galilee and Perea, not Judea where John was baptizing. Antipas was one of the three sons of Herod the Great. After Herod’s death, his territory was divided among the sons, and Antipas received a quarter of it. He was, therefore, called the tetrarch which meant “ruler of a fourth.”

Nevertheless, Herod Antipas had John arrested and eventually beheaded. This was the signal for Jesus to return to Galilee and begin proclaiming the gospel of God. Apparently it was God’s plan that Jesus was not to begin his public ministry until after John’s was terminated.

Again, though, we have a bit of a mystery. Why did Jesus leave Judea, which was not under Herod Antipas’s jurisdiction, to return to Galilee, which was? He even moved to Capernaum, only nine miles from Herod’s capital in Tiberias.

To get to Galilee, he could have walked north along the Jordan River, but he elected to travel through Samaria. There he had a revealing conversation with a woman at Jacob’s well. †

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