I like to imagine what it may have been like to live at the time when John the Baptist was preaching in the desert of Judea. It was during the Roman occupation of Israel when loyalties were being tested. The Jewish population was under foreign rule, with sects within Judaism responding to the Romans in various ways.
Some at the time believed it was in their best interest to get along with the occupiers; others believed it was necessary to shore up Judaism by strict obedience to the Law of Moses; others sought insurrection, and finally, some did their best to remove themselves from the situation in and around Jerusalem and live an austere life in the desert waiting for the Messiah.
It is possible that John the Baptist was among those living in the desert near the Dead Sea, the Essenes, though it cannot be proven. There is no doubt, however, that he shared their hope in the coming of the Messiah and their belief in the baptism of repentance. He also lived an austere life around the edges of society (Matthew 3:1-6; Mark 1:1-8).
John’s message of repentance, though, was not restricted to a closed society as with the Essenes but was open for all who were repentant. His popularity grew among the people, and many were drawn to his ministry of baptism in the Jordan River. Among the many was Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary, a relative of John. This is the man of whom John said, “The one who is coming after me is mightier than I” (Matthew 3:11).
The might of Jesus was not then, and is not now, measured by the strength of his armies, political aspirations or monetary wealth. He came to John with all the others, in humility, and submitted to the baptism that united him with those he came to serve. Identified as God’s beloved son, he nonetheless did not deem equality with God something to be grasped (as Paul would later say in Philippians 2:6).
John and Jesus must have stirred up quite a lot of insecurity, each in their own way, among the typical power brokers — the Roman officials who kept tabs on what was happening in the region and what might threaten their rule, the Jewish officials appointed by Rome (such as Herod the Great and his son, Herod Antipas) to keep their people in check, and even some of the Jewish leaders who would have questioned this new movement in their midst.
Each man had his own calling. John the Baptist pointed the way to Jesus but was not called to be one of Jesus’ apostles. In fact, in the fourth Gospel (John 3:22-26; 4:1-3), both men are associated with the ministry of baptism but in separate regions.
In all the Gospel accounts, however, John the Baptist clarifies that he is not the Messiah. He acknowledges that he is not worthy to carry Jesus’ sandals or even tie them (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:7; Luke 3:16; John 1:26-27). John likens his role to that of a best man while Jesus is the bridegroom (John 4:29). His ultimate witness to Jesus, “He must increase; I must decrease” (John 4:30) gives us a lesson in humility as well.
Catherine Upchurch is the general editor of the Little Rock Catholic Study Bible and contributes to several biblical publications. She writes from Fort Smith.
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