John the Baptizer According to Luke
In the third part of this series I contrasted the picture of John the Baptizer presented in the First Gospel. Now we will examine the Third Gospel. As with Matthew our primary concern is how Luke differentiates from Mark though we will keep Matthew in mind as well.
I had a professor who suggested that when John died he was not “saved” because he had lost his faith in Christ. In Matthew 11.7-15 we have Jesus praising John but he says that the “least in the Kingdom of Heaven” is greater than John. Since this professor equated “Kingdom of Heaven” with “salvation” he concluded John lost out at the end of his life.
He should have read Luke’s take before saying such an absurd thing. In 16.14-17 Jesus is criticizing Pharisees for their love of money and corrupt hearts. He makes a statement regarding the breaking in of the kingdom of God and in doing so marks the old era by saying “The law and the prophets were until John.” Jesus did not think John was lost. Jesus saw in himself the arrival of the Kingdom of God and since John is the last prophet prior to Jesus’ act of introducing the Kingdom of God he is not technically “part” of the Kingdom. We should note that this is high praise of John but it is also clearly a reminder than after John’s ministry something much, much greater took place in the person of Jesus. This will be important to realize when we see how Luke presents John in Acts 19.
As with the other evangelist Luke is very pro-John with qualifiers like the one just noted. John is seen as one who is filled with the Spirit from birth (1.11-17). As we consider the importance of Pneumatology in Luke-Acts this is a bold statement. Is there a difference between John’s infilling and that of those at Pentecost? Maybe, maybe not. Either way this is high praise of John who is an old era character with a new era experience.
As with Matthew and Mark we have a depiction of John as the prophet who functions as YHWH’s forerunner as Luke shows by quoting Is. 40.3-5. In 3.1-19 we have extensive coverage of John and his ministry. John is again depicted by several characteristics that he shares in the other gospels: (1) he is a baptizer (3.7a); (2) he preaches a message of repentance (3.7b-8a); (3) he is critical of Israel’s assumption that being descendants of Abraham is sufficient (3.8b-9). A Lukan addition is the specific instructions regarding types of “social justice” that is the fruit of repentance including giving away extra, unnecessary possessions; being fair when collecting taxes (to tax collectors); and using your might for good and not for bullying (to soldiers).
In vv.15-20 Luke deals directly with the question of John as Messiah. He is clear that John is not the Messiah even though the people pondered this as a possibility. In an expanded quotation Luke reemphasizes what Matthew and Mark have already said: Jesus, the one who baptizes with the New Covenant Spirit, is the one who you are seeking. John’s ministry ends with his execution under Herod.
One interesting departure from Matthew (where Luke sides with Mark) is the lack of any statement from John at Jesus’ baptism that would suggest John felt inadequate for he job. The voice and the Spirit descending are like the other two. Jesus is obviously understood to be a Messianic figure in that he is annointed by the Spirit Himself in a way that John is not indicating superiority over John, but not in a way as elaborate as that of Matthew.
As we will see in Acts 19.1-7 it is a concern of Luke to clarify that Jesus’ disciples are not worse than John’s. In 5.33-35 we see the see the same criticism’s of Jesus’ disciples for their lack of ascetic behavior as we saw in Mt. 9.14-17. As with Matthew so Luke in pointing out that Jesus was present and there was no reason to fast while Jesus was present. Of course, this implies that current disciples of Jesus should fast. Likewise, it implies that because John had his disciples fast while he was present this somehow makes John less than Jesus.
In 11.1-4 the disciples seem a bit ashamed of their inability to pray. John had taught his disciples so Jesus’ disciples ask for the same lesson. There should be no doubts that John’s disciples were an impressive bunch.
In 7.17-29 we have a parallel of Mt. 11.2-15. Luke says many of the same things Matthew said. John had doubts, Jesus relieves those doubts by appealing to his actions as characteristic of a Messiah figure, and Jesus speaks highly of John to the people while noting that the least in the Kingdom is still greater than John. This is an eschatological statement of great significance.
In 9.1-11 we have a parallel of Mt. 6.13-21 and Mk. 8.27-31. The Jesus-John contrast in these three passages is important in one specific area, namely that Jesus is not merely John raised from the dead. Again, it is odd because “resurrection” before the eschaton is not a common Jewish category, but there must have been some myth that circulated suggesting that some (including Herod) believed this to be possible (see vv.7-9).
One final parallel of importance is 20.1-8 with Mt. 21.23-27 and Mk. 11.27-33. As with those other passages Jesus secures himself in the prophetic tradition of John. He acknowledges John’s authority and dares anyone to challenge it. As we depart from the Synoptics it is important to notice that (a) John is a revered figure and (b) he is subordinate to Jesus. For those most part the statement about John are close in content with each evangelist saying something here or there that is slightly distinct but contributes to this overall motif. We will now move to John’s identity in the Book of Acts.