72. The first reappearance of Jesus in the gospel story, after the temple scene in his twelfth year, is on the banks of the Jordan seeking baptism from the new prophet. One of the silent evidences of the greatness of Jesus is the fact that so great a character as John the Baptist stands in our thought simply as accessory to his life. For that the prophet of the wilderness was great has been the opinion of all who have been willing to seek him in his retirement. One reason for the common neglect of John is doubtless the meagreness of information about him. But though details are few, the picture of him is drawn in clearest lines: a rugged son of the wilderness scorning the gentler things of life, threatening his people with coming wrath and calling to repentance while yet there was time; a preacher of practical righteousness heeded by publicans and harlots but scorned by the elders of his people; a bold and fearless spirit, yet subdued in the presence of another who did not strive, nor cry, nor cause his voice to be heard in the streets. When the people thought to find in John the promised Messiah, with unparalleled self-effacement he pointed them to his rival and rejoiced in that rival's growing success. Side by side they worked for a time; then the picture fails, but for a hint of a royal audience, with a fearless rebuke of royal disgrace and sin; a prison life, with its pathetic shaking of confidence in the early certainties; a long and forced inaction, and the question put by a wavering faith, with its patient and affectionate reply; then a lewd orgy, a king's oath, a girl's demands, a martyr's release, the disciples' lamentation and their report to that other who, though seeming a rival, was known to appreciate best the greatness of this prophet. Such is the picture in the gospels.
73. John, unlike his greater successor, has a highly appreciative notice from Josephus: "Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment for what he did against John, who was called the Baptist. For Herod had had him put to death though he was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to justice towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for baptism would be acceptable to God, if they made use of it not in order to expiate some sin, but for the purification of the body, provided that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now, as many flocked to him, for they were greatly moved by hearing his words, Herod, fearing that the great influence, John had over the people might lead to some rebellion (for the people seemed likely to do anything he should advise), thought it far best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties by sparing a man who might make him repent of his leniency when it should be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, in consequence of Herod's suspicious temper, to Machaerus, the fortress before mentioned, and was there put to death. So the Jews had the opinion that the destruction of this army [by Aretas] was sent as a punishment upon Herod and was the mark of God's displeasure at him" (Ant. xviii.5.2). This section is commonly accepted as trustworthy. Superficially different from the gospel record and assigning quite another cause for John's imprisonment and death, it correctly describes his character and his influence with the people, and leaves abundant room for a more intimately personal motive on the part of Antipas for the imprisonment of John. If the jealousy of Herodias was the actual reason for John's arrest, it is highly probable that another cause would be named to the world, and a likelier one than that given by Josephus could not be found.
74. The first problem that offers itself in the study of this man is the man himself. Whence did he come? Everything about him is surprising. He appears as a dweller in the desert, an ascetic, holding aloof from common life and content with the scanty fare the wilderness could offer; yet he was keenly appreciative of his people's needs, and he knew their sins, -- the particular ones that beset Pharisees, publicans, soldiers. If a recluse in habit, he was far from such in thought; he was therefore no seeker for his own soul's peace in his desert life. His dress was strikingly suggestive of the old prophet of judgment on national infidelity (I. Kings xvii.1; II. Kings i, 8), the Elijah whom John would not claim to be. His message was commanding, with its double word "Repent" and "The kingdom is near." His idea of the kingdom was definite, though not at all developed; it signified to him God's dominion, inaugurated by a divine judgment which should mean good for the penitent and utter destruction for the ungodly; hence the prophet's call to repentance. His ministry was one of grace, but the time was drawing near when the Greater One would appear to complete by a swift judgment the work which his forerunner was beginning. That Greater One would hew down the fruitless tree, winnow the wheat from the chaff on the threshing floor, baptize the penitent with divine power, and the wicked with the fire of judgment, since his was to be a ministry of judgment, not of grace.
75. Whence, then, came this strange prophet? Near the desert region where he spent his youth and where he first proclaimed his message of repentance and judgment was the chief settlement of that strange company of Jews known as Essenes. It has long been customary to think that during his early years John was associated with these fellow-dwellers in the desert, if he did not actually join the order. He certainly may have learned from them many things. Their sympathy with his ascetic life and with his thorough moral earnestness would make them attractive to him, but he was far too original a man to get from them more than some suggestions to be worked out in his own fashion. The simplicity of his teaching of repentance and the disregard of ceremonial in his preaching separate him from these monks. John may have known his desert companions, may have appreciated some things in their discipline, but he remained independent of their guidance.
76. The leaders of religious life and thought in his day were unquestionably the Pharisees. The controlling idea with them, and consequently with the people, was the sanctity of God's law. They were conscious of the sinfulness of the people, and their demand for repentance was constant. It is a rabbinic commonplace that the delay of the Messiah's coming is due to lack of repentance in Israel. But near as this conception is to John's, we need but to recall his words to the Pharisees (Matt. iii.7) to realize how clearly he saw through the hollowness of their religious pretence. With the quibbles of the scribes concerning small and great commandments, Sabbaths and hand-washings, John shows no affinity. He may have learned some things from these "sitters in Moses' seat," but he was not of them.
77. John's message announced the near approach of the kingdom of God. It is probable that many of those who sought his baptism were ardent nationalists, -- eager to take a hand in realizing that consummation. Josephus indicates that it was Herod's fear lest John should lead these Zealots to revolt that furnished the ostensible cause of his death. But similar as were the interests of John and these nationalists, the distance between them was great. The prophet's replies to the publicans and to the soldiers, which contain not a word of rebuke for the hated callings (Luke iii.13, 14), show how fundamentally he differed from the Zealots.
78. But there was another branch of the Pharisees than that which quibbled over Sabbath laws, traditions, and tithes, or that which itched to grasp the sword; they were men who saw visions and dreamed dreams like those of Daniel and the Revelation, and in their visions saw God bringing deliverance to his people by swift and sudden judgment. There are some marked likenesses between this type of thought and that of John, -- the impending judgment, the word of warning, the coming blessing, were all in John; but one need only compare John's words with such an apocalypse as the Assumption of Moses, probably written in Palestine during John's life in the desert, to discover that the two messages do not move in the same circle of thought at all; there is something practical, something severely heart-searching, something at home in every-day life, about John's announcement of the coming kingdom that is quite absent from the visions of his contemporaries. John had not, like some of these seers, a coddling sympathy for people steeped in sin. He traced their troubles to their own doors, and would not let ceremonies pass in place of "fruits meet for repentance." He came from the desert with rebuke and warning on his lips; with no word against the hated Romans, but many against hypocritical claimants to the privileges of Abraham; no apology for his message nor artificial device of dream or ancient name to secure a hearing, but the old-fashioned prophetic method of declaration of truth "whether men will hear or whether they will forbear." "All was sharp and cutting, imperious earnestness about final questions, unsparing overthrow of all fictitious shams in individual as in national life. There are no theories of the law, no new good works, no belief in the old, but simply and solely a prophetic clutch at men's consciences, a mighty accusation, a crushing summons to contrite repentance and speedy sanctification" (KeimJN. II.228). We look in vain for a parallel in any of John's contemporaries, except in that one before whom he bowed, saying, "I have need to be baptized of thee."
79. John had, however, predecessors whose work he revived. In Isaiah's words, "Wash you, make you clean" (Isa. i 16), one recognizes the type which reappeared in John. The great prophetic conception of the Day of the Lord -- the day of wrath and salvation (Joel ii.1-14) -- is revived in John, free from all the fantastic accompaniments which his contemporaries loved. The invitations to repentance and new fidelity which abound in Isaiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, and Joel; the summons to simple righteousness, which rang from the lips of Micah (vi.8), and of the great prophet of the exile (Isa. lviii.), these tell us where John went to school and how well he learned his lesson. It is hard for us to realize how great a novelty such simplicity was in John's day, or how much originality it required to attain to this discipleship of the prophets. From the time when the curtain rises on the later history of Israel in the days of the Maccabean struggle to the coming of that "voice crying in the wilderness," Israel had listened in vain for a prophet who could speak God's will with authority. The last thing that people expected when John came was such a simple message. He was not the creature of his time, but a revival of the older type; yet, as in the days of Elijah God had kept him seven thousand in Israel that had not bowed the knee to Baal, so, in the later time, not all were bereft of living faith. These devout souls furnished the soil which could produce a life like John's, gifted and chosen by God to restore and advance the older and more genuine religion.
80. If John was thus a revival of the older prophetic order, a second question arises: Whence came his baptism, and what did it signify? The gospels describe it as a "baptism of repentance for the remission of sins" (Mark i.4). John's declaration that his greater successor should baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire (Matt. iii.11) shows that he viewed his baptism as a symbol, rather than as a means, of remission of sin. But it was more than a sign of repentance, it was a confession of loyalty to the kingdom which John's successor was to establish. It had thus a twofold significance: (a) confession of and turning from the old life of sin, and (b) consecration to the coming kingdom. Whence, then, came this ordinance? Not from the Essenes, for, unlike John's baptism, the bath required by these Jewish ascetics was an oft-repeated act. Further, John's rite had a far deeper religious significance than the Essene washings. These performed their ablutions to secure ritual cleanness as exemplary disciples of the Mosaic ideal. The searching of heart which preceded John's baptism, and the radical change of life it demanded, seem foreign to Essenism. The baptism of John, considered as a ceremony of consecration for the coming kingdom, was parallel rather to the initiatory oaths of the Essene brotherhood than to their ablutions. Their custom may have served to suggest to John a different application of the familiar sacred use of the bath; indeed John could hardly have been uninfluenced by the usage of his contemporaries; yet in this, as in his thought, he was not a product of their school.
81. John's baptism was equally independent of the pharisaic influence. The scribes made much of "divers washings," but not with any such significance as would furnish to John his baptism of repentance and of radical change of life. That he was not following a pharisaic leading appears in the question put to him by the Pharisees, "Why, then, baptizest thou?" (John i.25). They saw something unique in the ceremony as he conducted it.
82. Many have held that he derived his baptism from the method of admitting proselytes into the Jewish fellowship. It is clear, at least, that the later ritual prescribed a ceremonial bath as well as circumcision and sacrifice for all who came into Judaism from the Gentiles, and it is difficult to conceive of a time when a ceremonial bath would not seem indispensable, since Jews regarded all Gentile life as defiling. While such an origin for John's baptism would give peculiar force to his rebuke of Jewish confidence in the merits of Abraham (Matt. iii.9), it is more likely, as Keim has shown (JN. II.243 and note), that in this as in his other thought John learned of his predecessors rather than his contemporaries. Before the giving of the older covenant from Sinai, it is said that Moses was required "to sanctify the people and bid them wash their garments" (Ex. xix.10). John was proclaiming the establishment of a new covenant, as the prophets had promised. That the people should prepare for this by a similar bath of sanctification seems most natural. John appeared with a revival of the older and simpler religious ideas of Israel's past, deriving his rite as well as his thought from the springs of his people's religious life.
83. This revival of the prophetic past had nothing scholastic or antiquarian about it. John was a disciple, not an imitator, of the great men of Israel; his message was not learned from Isaiah or any other, though he was educated by studying them. What he declared, he declared as truth immediately seen by his own soul, the essence of his power being a revival, not in letter but in spirit, of the old, direct cry, "Thus saith the Lord." Inasmuch as John's day was otherwise hopelessly in bondage to tradition and the study of the letter, by so much is his greatness enhanced in bringing again God's direct message to the human conscience. John's greatness was that of a pioneer. The Friend of publicans and sinners also spoke a simple speech to human hearts; he built on and advanced from the old prophets, but it was John who was appointed to prepare the people for the new life, "to make ready the way of the Lord" (Mark i.3). The clearness of his perception of truth is not the least of his claims to greatness. His knowledge of the simplicity of God's requirements in contrast with the hopeless maze of pharisaic traditions, and his insight into the characters with whom he had to deal, whether the sinless Jesus or the hypocritical Pharisees, show a man marvellously gifted by God who made good use of his gift. This greatness appears in superlative degree in the self-effacement of him who possessed these powers. Greatness always knows itself more or less fully. It was not self-ignorance that led John to claim to be but a voice, nor was it mock humility. The confession of his unworthiness in comparison with the mightier one who should follow is unmistakably sincere, as is the completed joy of this friend of the bridegroom rejoicing greatly because of the bridegroom's voice, even when the bridegroom's presence meant the recedence of the friend into ever deepening obscurity (John iii.30).
84. But John had marked limitations. He knew well the righteousness of God; he knew, and, in effect, proclaimed God's readiness to forgive them that would turn from their wicked ways; he knew the simplicity as well as the exceeding breadth of the divine commandment; but beyond one flash of insight (John i.29-36), which did not avail to remould his thought, he did not know the yearning love of God which seeks to save. It is not strange that he did not. Some of the prophets had more knowledge of it than he, his own favorite Isaiah knew more of it than he, but it was not the thought of John's day. The wonder is that the Baptist so far freed himself from current thought; yet he did not belong to the new order. He thundered as from Sinai. The simplest child that has learned from the heart its "Our Father" has reached a higher knowledge and entered a higher privilege (Matt. xi.11). John's self-effacement, wonderful as it was, fell short of discipleship to his greater successor; in fact, at a much later time there was still a circle of disciples of the Baptist who kept themselves separate from the church (Acts xix.1-7). He was doubtless too strenuous a man readily to become a follower. He could yield his place with unapproachable grace, but he remained the prophet of the wilderness still. He seemed to belong consciously to the old order, and, by the very circumstances ordained of God who sent him, he could not be of those who, sitting at Jesus' feet, learned to surrender to him their preconceptions and hopes, and in heart, if not in word, to say, "To whom shall we go, thou hast the words of eternal life?" (John vi.68).