Chapter 2 - John the Baptist
(A) John the Baptist and Samson
Luke’s story of the Gospel of Christ begins, we notice, with the
birth of John the Baptist. There are good reasons why this should be
We have been emphasizing that Luke’s story is one
that reaches back beyond Abraham to Adam himself and one in which
there are strong links between the past and on-going present of
God’s redemptive purpose for mankind. In this respect John the
Baptist serves as an important link in this great chain of events
between the Hebrew past and the Christian present. To change the
metaphor, we can say that John is the bridge between past and
present in this on-going activity. And so it is, in Luke’s story,
John steps on to the stage of history before the One whose advent he
has been sent to herald.
(It is worthwhile noting that the angel that appears
to Zechariah is the same angel who appears to Mary, emphasizing the
fact that the births of John and Jesus are vitally related parts of
the one Divine Drama; one Messenger sent to proclaim but one message
with two parts to it.)
The Link Between John and Samson
We pointed out in the
previous chapter the similarity in details between the births of Isaac,
Samson, Samuel and John and Jesus. We suggested that these details express
a particular faith language that expresses in supernatural language what
the eye of faith sees as the hand of God at work in human history. We will
have more to say about this faith language as we go along, but, in the
meantime, let us look at some of the other intriguing similarities in
detail we find between the earlier and later stories. These details will,
of themselves, serve to establish a close link between these “sons of
promise,” but also serve to contrast the significant role that each of
these undertook in life.
In order to establish John’s role in life, Luke first establishes a close
connection between John and Samson as men raised up as agents of God’s
purpose for his people. Luke emphasizes this by the manner in which each
boy is raised.
Following the instructions of the angel, the parents of Samson raise
their child as a Nazarite (Judg. 13:13,14); the parents of John, we also
notice, are instructed to raise their child in a Nazarite-like fashion (Lk.
1:15). For the special laws related to Nazarites see Numbers 6:1-21. (From
a national perspective, the Nazarites were seen as God’s special gift to
the nation and their special contribution prized and recognized: Amos
On the insistence of the angel, the boys, therefore, are to be set apart
for special service to God. Their role in life, in other words, is one
established by heaven. They have a special part to play in the divine
scheme of things; each has a distinctive calling. God will be at work in
and through their lives to accomplish his special purposes for his people
and to fulfill his promises to his people.
It is interesting to speculate on the significance of the
influence that the parents of these boys exerted on their off-spring,
particularly in terms of the ultimate sense of identity each assumed for
himself; Samson as a judge of Israel in his day, and John as the Messianic
forerunner. Feeling themselves to be specially guided in this matter,
there is no doubt that the parents did help influence their child in terms
of the destiny each child chose for himself. (It is rather interesting, is
it not, that Mary should have adopted such a “wait-and-see” attitude to
the display of preciosity she witnessed in her son. Her response is a
reserved one: she simply “Keeps all these things in her heart”: Lk.
2:19,51). As for the parents of Samson and John, as thoughtful and loving
parents, in order to safeguard the integrity of choice their child
deserved, they must have exerted particular restraint against the
temptation to be overbearing and coercive. The choice ultimately had to be
the child’s, if the service was to be offered wholeheartedly and
completely. In the end, the call itself would come from God (1 Sam.
1:2-9). See also Jer. 1:5 and Gal. 1:15.
Of all the Nazarites in Israel’s history, Samson was probably seen as its
most colorful, serving the nation as one of its judges in pre-monarchy
times (before the rule of kings was introduced). The era to which Samson
belonged is known as the era of the Theocracy, the era in which God was
seen to rule the nation directly though the instrumentality of judges.
As a judge in Israel, Samson played the role of a
national savior and liberator; he was Israel’s “Braveheart.” He was seen
as one whom God had raised up to ease the burden of oppression that the
nation was experiencing at the hands of the stronger Philistine nation
(Judges 15:11). The legendary tales surrounding his life (his superhuman
strength and accomplishments in battle) point to the very real and
extraordinary results he was able to achieve on behalf of his people. (His
was the kind of life on which legends are built.) The stories themselves
have a satiric and humorous edge to them. They are the kinds of stories a
dominated people would enjoy sharing around the fire at night at the
expense of the enemy.
Legend aside, there is no doubt, as we say, as to the
historic role Samson played as national emancipator. (The story has echoes
of an earlier time when God raised up Moses to free his people from the
hands of Egyptian oppression.)
In linking Samson and John together as individuals “sent
by God,” Luke strongly reinforces the idea that John’s ministry is by
divine vocation; that he was by birth, “set apart” to fulfill a divinely
appointed role. We will have much to say later about the public perception
and controversy surrounding John’s ministry.
As for John, after the dramatic details of his birth, he
all but disappears from sight, and we don’t meet him again until he
appears in the desert in his prophetic garb, preaching a “gospel message”
(Lk. 3:118) the baptism of repentance. The one single detail of John’s
early life is that provided by Luke. In the sparsest of details we are
told: “And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the
wilderness till the day of his manifestation to Israel” (Lk. 1:80). This
strength of spirit would later reveal itself in the austere lifestyle and
uncompromising character of John’s prophetic ministry.
When he first appeared in the desert, John was seen by the
people to be the harbinger of the God’s new Messianic kingdom. His
appearance and message stirred the public imagination. He appeared to be
just the kind of person the people had been taught to expect. He wore the
traditional garb (Zech. 13:4) and ate the traditional food of the prophet
(Matt. 3:4). He also spoke with zeal and fiery rhetoric that the people
associated with the prophets of old, particularly with the prophet Elijah
with whom John was prophetically linked. His message was uncompromising,
letting the axe of judgment fall on the heads of high and low alike (Lk.
3:7-9). The people saw fulfilled in him the promise of Malachi, the last
of the Biblical prophets. According to the vision of Malachi, a prophet
having the charisma and boldness of an Elijah would appear and be a signal
to the people of the soon-to-be appearance of the Messiah himself. The
prophet’s words were: “Behold, I will send my messenger to prepare the way
before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple;
the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming
says the Lord of hosts (Mal. 3:1).
The excitement John stirred is clearly indicated in Luke
7:25-30, and Lk. 3:7 (although we gather from Christ’s words that some of
that original enthusiasm had, over time, worn off). In these passages we
have Jesus confirming, for the benefit of his audience, the initial
enthusiasm with which they had greeted John’s ministry. It was no passing
whim, no matter of simple curiosity, Jesus declared to his listeners, that
had led them to make the journey into the wilderness to hear John. If the
truth be told, Jesus is saying, those who heard him at that time had been
genuinely impressed by his message and intrigued with what he had had to
say. The conviction of the time as far as his audience was concerned, but
perhaps not the religious authorities themselves, is that John’s ministry
was Heaven sent (LK. 20:2-8); that he was indeed the prophet of whom
Malachi had spoken.
It has to be noted that the high hopes and eager expectations John’s
ministry provoked was conditioned by what the people expected the
Messianic rule to be. We will have more to say about this later when we
discuss the life and ministry of Jesus. Yet we know that many had
grandiose ideas as to what the Messianic rule would be, associating that
rule with political liberation from oppression and the restoration of
Israel to a position of national grandeur, harking back to the heyday of
David’s legendary rule (but greater than that even yet). The idea of
national grandeur and political liberation was particularly important no
doubt to a people whose God was worshiped as the Creator of heaven and
earth and the Lord of all nations, yet who were at that time a weak and
subject people, suffering under the heel of Rome.
In this close association with Samson, Luke establishes John’s role as one
that was divinely ordained. He was a man raised up by God at a specific
time, for a specific purpose (Jn. 1:6); what one is, the other is also.
Luke’s implication is that we should recognize in John what the Israelites
in their day recognized in Samson. Samson just didn’t hap upon the stage
of life at an opportune moment; he just didn’t happen to come along at the
time when the nation needed him to lift the burden of oppression from
their shoulders. The faithful in Israel knew that Samson had arrived in
answer to their prayers and because God had wanted him there.
It was no coincidence, either, Luke is affirming that John
appeared when he did, no accident that he appeared on the world stage a
foot or two ahead of Jesus. Through the eye of faith (supported by the
evidence) one could clearly see that the appearance of John, coming
shortly before the appearance of Jesus, was an event that had been
choreographed by God.
As with Samson, then, so with John: in and through both
the purposes of God for his people are carried forward. In the sound of
their footsteps one can hear the sound of the footsteps of God; in and
through their lives one can see the hand of God at work.
To repeat what we have said before, these links serve to indicate that the
John and Jesus stories are part of the over-all plan of God for mankind.
More importantly, they serve to indicate that the final, end-time event,
the Messianic rule (the universal, all-encompassing, never ending rule of
God) had been inaugurated in the Advent of Jesus Christ. See Lk. 1:32,33.
Such, we believe, is the kind of interpretation Luke’s
story suggests and how Luke wishes us to see it. The manner in which it is
told is itself a Christian interpretation and understanding of the role
John played in life. The mission of John, in other words, is to be seen as
much an authentic work of God as the work of a Samson or (as we shall see)
a Samuel. As we noted earlier, the religious authorities of day (the
Pharisees in particular)—as much as they appeared initially to accept
John’s ministry—refused in the end to accept him as the Messianic
forerunner (Lk. 7:30). This was probably more as a result of the close
relationship that had been established in the public mind between John and
Jesus. To accept the validity of one (John’s ministry) was to accept the
other, and this they were not prepared to do.
(B) John the Baptist and Samuel
The details of Samuel’s birth, life as a Nazarite, and ministry also link
him to John—and, as we pointed out earlier, to the other “sons of
promise.” Samuel’s birth, though, is the exception to the rule as far as
the other births are concerned in that there is no visiting angel sent to
announce his birth. Like the others, though, his birth does takes place in
fulfillment of a special promise to an anxious mother (Hannah) who had
feared a future of childlessness. But now, as a “mother in Israel,” in an
act of gratitude for the gift of a son, Hannah, as Samson’s mother had
done before her, gifts her son back to God, dedicating him to the service
of the sanctuary, and raises him when still a child in the Nazarite
tradition (1 Sam. Cpt. 1). As a “son of God” (he comes from God’s side) he
is destined to fulfill the divinely appointed role as the last and most
notable judge in a four-hundred-year-long-rule of judges.
The links between Samuel and John show themselves to be
very strong in terms of the roles these men play in life. Most notably,
both these men, in their own way, serve as prime agents for change.
Samuel, we note, launched Israel in a radically new direction when he, in
response to the insistent pleas of the people, instituted the monarchy,
replacing the ages-old rule of judges with the rule of kings. (It was a
move the old “theocrats” despised, seeing in it not only a rejection of
God’s direct rule over his people, but, more to the point, a rejection of
God.) As it was, the move did have far reaching effects for the nation in
that her destiny as a people came to depend too much on the spiritual,
moral and ethical integrity of kings (who often did fail in their divinely
anointed task and, as a result, brought great distress and ruin upon the
It is interesting to note that this ages-old controversy
has not gone away but is still being debated (although in a different
form) in modern Israel. Many of the ultra-orthodox persuasion are
resisting the pressures of a modern liberal democracy and advocating a
return to the “theocratic” rule of God where religious law dictates the
way of life a people follow. All of this is coming, ironically, at a time
when the people of Iran, tired of being told what to wear and what to eat,
where and when to stand and where and when to sit, voted to leave their
twenty year old experiment with theocracy behind them and return to the
principles of the modern democratic state—to the conditions of Western
democracy introduced by the Shah (whom the religionists deposed).
If the change that Samuel helped to bring about was
revolutionary for the people of Israel, the change John helped to initiate
was, when we consider the scope of its width, more revolutionary even yet.
The significance of the change John initiated is clearly
reflected in the words of Jesus to his listeners (many of whom, perhaps
most, had followed John out to the desert to hear him speak, and perhaps
even been baptized by him). “The law and the prophets,” said Jesus, “were
until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached” (Lk.
16:16). In other words, John stands at the great divide between the past
and present; the old order of things and the new; the old way that
regulated man’s relationship to God and the new that rendered the old
obsolete. It was the replacing of a centuries old covenant (the Mosaic
covenant) with God’s new covenant in Christ. (The role of the forerunner,
we will remember, is to prepare the people for “the messenger of the
covenant” (Mal. 3:1)—interpreted by the Church to mean Christ himself, the
inaugurator of the New Covenant.)
The importance of the change that John helped to initiate
is given further emphasis by Matthew’s addition to the words of Christ:
“Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one
greater than John the Baptist” (Matt. 11:11). John, like a Moses, a
Samson, or a Samuel, Jesus is saying, has been divinely raised up, but, in
John’s case, for a purpose unparalleled in human history. The words of
Christ confirm the fact that John was sent to prepare the way for the
arrival of the end-time Kingdom, the perpetual and everlasting Messianic
rule. It was to be, according to prophetic prediction, a rule of
unprecedented proportions: “Of the increase of his government and peace
there will be no end, upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom to
establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time
forth and for evermore” (Isa. 9:7).
It is difficult to over emphasize the importance of what
Luke is saying here. He is pointing to the ministry of John as a historic
fact and telling us that God was in it all. He was what he said he was:
God’s appointed one, the Messianic forerunner. If we fail to see in him
what he, to the eye of faith, truly represented, then we will miss the
hand of God at work in history on our behalf. When John left the human
stage, the divine promise had been fulfilled; the forerunner had appeared
on the world stage. With the departure of John, the curtain fell on that
part of sacred history. No other Elijah would follow.
What was true for the people of John and Christ’s day is
true for our own. If we miss the signs of God’s work in our world and in
our own lives, then God will have passed before us and we will not have
recognized the reality of his presence. The “glory of the Lord” will have
passed before us (I Ki. 19:11-13) and we will have heard and seen nothing.
John, said Jesus, was a “burning and shining lamp” (Jn. 5:35)—with the
fire and light serving as symbols of the divine presence—an epiphany,
revelation of the mind and purposes of God. To turn and deaf ear and a
blind eye to Word of God proclaimed from his lips is to shut out the truth
of God from one’s life. As always, in matters where the truth of God is
concerned (God’s Word to us) it is a matter (as it always has been) of ,
“He who hath ears to hear, let him hear” (Ezek. 12:2; Lk. 8:8).