Good Like Jesus
There are many times I question what I have always been taught. Growing up in the church, as a preacher’s kid, this is only natural. I do not apologize for doubting what I’ve always understood. Such inquiry is healthy and we should encourage all young people to do so, but only after we have given them the tools to do honest study and search the Scriptures effectively. Today’s topic, regarding John the Baptist, is one of those reevaluations.
We are first introduced to John the Baptizer before His conception. First, Isaiah prophesies John’s message (Isaiah 40.3). Then, Malachi prophesies John’s work (Malachi 3.1). Afterwards we see the story of his miraculous conception and birth in the Gospel of Luke.
In this story we have the first meeting of Jesus and John. Mary has come to Elizabeth’s home, seemingly to help her aging aunt with her pregnancy. It is also safe to assume Mary desires to escape the stares and allegations she would face at home with her own ill-timed pregnancy which others would assume was illegitimate. As she arrives at her uncle and aunt’s home, John leaps within the womb of Elizabeth. At this experience, the Holy Spirit fills Elizabeth and she exclaims great praises to Mary and Mary responds with a song of praise extolling the great providence and work of God.
Being cousins, with mothers who were clearly close enough for visits and caretaking, it is safe to assume Jesus and John knew each other. But how much did they know about each other? It is unlikely John knew everything about Jesus’ role and mission as Scripture says that Mary “treasured all of these things in her heart” (Luke 1.51). This means that she kept much of what she witnessed secret. It does not seem she went about bragging about Jesus’ miraculous conception, birth, escape from Herod, visits from angels, or prophetic messages at Jesus’ temple dedication. To be honest, it is not even clear how much Mary understood.
Where this all gets especially confusing is in the supposed discrepancy in the story of Jesus’ baptism. In Matthew 3.14-15, John is said to have told Jesus, “’I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’” It is commonly taught that John recognized the messianic deity of Jesus and therefore felt Jesus had the greater authority, making Him the more qualified baptizer. Others have taught that John wanted to be baptized by Jesus because Jesus’ baptism was more complete than his. Neither of these explanations works. The latter cannot be true because, while baptism in the name of Jesus does eventually replace John’s baptism of repentance, Jesus’ baptism did not take effect until after the death of Jesus, as explained in Hebrews 9.15-17. The first explanation is problematic because John did not know that Jesus was the Messiah, or deity, when he baptized Him.
In John 1, John tells the story of when he baptized Jesus.
“And John bore witness: ‘I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on Him. I myself did not know him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God’” (1.32-34).
John could not have attempted to prevent Jesus’ baptism for the cause of Him being the Messiah if he did not know that Jesus was the Messiah until after the baptism. God had told John that through his work of baptizing for repentance, God would reveal to him the identity of the Messiah. This identifying marker fell on Jesus and then John knew his cousin was truly God’s promised, Anointed Deliverer.
So why would John tell Jesus that He should be doing the baptizing instead of John? The key is found in the purpose of John’s baptism. It was a “baptism of repentance.” If John and Jesus knew each other, had grown up knowing each other, even though John did not know of Jesus’ mission, he would have known of His character. John was aware that Jesus was perfect. Sinlessness, next to sinfulness, looks incredibly different. How would you not recognize Jesus’ perfection since such impeccable character, morals, and ethics would stick out so clearly against the sins of all others around Him? It seems John’s desire to be baptized by Jesus was not so he would be baptized by the Messiah, but so that he would be baptized by a man who was clearly better than himself. Jesus was so good, so pure, and so qualified that John desired to be baptized by a man more righteous than himself.
For those of us seeking to be more like Jesus, shouldn’t our character be so exemplary, so pure, so contrasted to the world around us that we stick out as Jesus did to John? The world will take note of God’s righteous people. Those who are seeking righteousness will find a place for refuge and restoration in God’s people. Those who are seeking impunity and moral looseness will find us repulsive and will ultimately reject us. This is no shock to those who are familiar with the story of Jesus. John recognized Jesus’ superiority because of His righteousness. The Jewish authorities found Him repulsive.
May our character be so clearly mimicking Jesus that people have a clear reaction when they examine our character. May we by our sinlessness “silence the ignorance of foolish men” (1 Peter 2.15). May we be more like Jesus.