John the Baptist was born to prepare the way for Jesus, the Messiah.
It’s striking to think that their mothers had greeted each other before either John or Jesus were born and that when Mary greeted Elizabeth, John as a foetus had leaped in his mother’s womb.
John had been raised essentially as a Nazirite, like Samson, not cutting his hair and avoiding fermented drink and dead bodies. Scripture relates that his diet was locusts and wild honey. If we put this in today’s context and with a bit of literary license, John may have looked like a Rastafarian, smelled like day-old braai on your shirt (plus man-sweat), ate bugs, and honey (which was made by other bugs).
You would be hard pressed to find somebody of that description now. For all his curiousness, John was no loon out in the wilderness. He had a very specific message – repentance. Moreover, he was very specifically a forerunner for the Messiah.
Picture it, people of almost every type taking a moderate journey out into the wilderness to be baptised in a river. According to the account of Scripture, these are common people, including tax collectors and soldiers.
These were ordinary people on the periphery of political power. Luke placed the timing of this chapter by listing the political powers-that-be: the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate was governor, Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Trachonitis, Lysnias tetrarch of Abilene. The high priests were either Annas or Caiaphas (depending on who you asked). During this specific time…
None of the people in political power were about to go out to John to be baptised.
Crowds of people going to listen to John suggests two things for me: there was a significant desire for spiritual things, and there may have been a lack of preaching about repentance that the people had to make their way to John. Repentance comes after you’ve heard something that convicts you. You know you’ve been doing wrong and you want to do right. The Greek word in the text is metanoia (dealing with compunction of guilt and implying reversal of decision).
When the people asked what specifically they should do, John told them what repentance should look like for their occupation: for the soldier to stop extortion, for the tax collector not to take some cream off the top when charging a levy, and for people generally, to share with those in need. Repentance is an action (for those Type A personalities, you could grade it on a spreadsheet and call them ‘deliverables’) and is inherently practical.
The powerful do not take criticism well, and since John rebuked Herod as well, the tetrarch of Galilee had him imprisoned. Herod stole the wife of his brother and by implication had a long list of other abuses of power. John never got out of prison.
I’m delighted with the description of John baptising Jesus because it shows the Trinity on display…The voice of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as a dove.
For the Children of Israel, fishing had only recently taken off – in historical terms. This is inferred from linguistics as before Jesus’ time there was only one Hebrew word for fish (dag or dagah – pronounced dawg or daw-gaw – 1709 and 1710 in Strongs Concordance).
By Jesus’ time however it seems that fishing had become more commonplace. Magdala, a town known in Scripture for Mary Magdalene was recognised as a place where sardines were dried and pickled.
It’s little wonder with fishermen making up at least a third of the apostles, that the motif of a fish came to symbolise Christianity:
Fisherman typically fished at night, and in Luke’s account we find Jesus interacting with Simon Peter after a long night of fishing. Simon Peter and his brother followed Jesus’ direction and caught a large number of fish, which they hen immediately left behind along with their nets and boats to follow Jesus. From that point on they would be catching men, men’s souls.
I wonder who ultimately ended up with the commercial value of this large catch of fish? Who sold it? I don’t have an answer, but it is an interesting question.
The world of Jesus’ time had different social constructs which we would find curious and ‘back-to-front’. For example at a wedding the guests wait for the bride to show up and when she’s late the guys might remark that its typical for the fairer sex; back in the day, it was the bridegroom who showed up out of the blue to claim his betrothed and marry her. I imagine weddings back then had a more spontaneous feel. Also, ever since I’ve been attending church the pastor stands at a lectern to deliver the preaching of the message and the congregation sits; back in the day, when teaching a rabbi would sit and his disciples would stand.
People didn’t simply used to study Scripture as a subject, they learned from a rabbi and were discipled. The student would then become like his master. Its actually more comprehensive if you think about it: not only do you study Scripture, over time you see how the rabbi applies Biblical teachings and learn what that looks like in a practical sense.
For the better part of three years, the disciples were taught by Jesus, and saw how it looked in his life.
Jesus spent the night praying before selecting and naming his 12 apostles. In Scripture, Peter is always named first and Judas Iscariot last.
We can count Paul as an apostle because even though he was not one of the twelve, he did experience a meeting with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus.
Peter and Paul were both martyred in Rome circa 66 A.D. Paul was beheaded and Peter was crucified. Apparently, Peter was crucified, but upside down at his own request because he felt unworthy to be put to death in the same way as Christ. This was under a persecution by the Emperor Nero.
Peter’s brother Andrew took the gospel to Eastern Europe and Asia Minor and was also apparently crucified under Roman persecution. Reportedly he elected to be crucified on a cross that was actually in the shape of an ‘X’, also not feeling he was worthy to be crucified like Christ.
It didn’t get any easier being a Christian for Thomas (formerly the doubter). He took the gospel east of Syria and as far as India before being killed by soldiers with spears.
The Roman persecution continued with Philip, who preached in North Africa and Asia Minor. For the inconvenience of converting a local Proconsul’s wife, he was arrested and either beheaded or crucified.
Matthew preached in Persia and Ethiopia and the circumstances of his end are not clear but he may have been stabbed to death in Ethiopia.
Bartholomew travelled extensively to take the gospel to unreached peoples: to India, Armenia, Ethiopia and Southern Arabia. Also reportedly martyred.
James, son of Alpheus, ministered in Syria, stoned and clubbed to death.
Simon the Zealot apparently ministered in Persia where Zoroarstrianism was pretty big. After refusing to sacrifice to the sun god, he was killed, by some accounts sawn in half, like a magic trick gone wrong.
Judas Iscariot…we all know what happened to him.
Matthias, the apostle chosen by lot to replace Judas Iscariot. According to tradition he preached in Syria with Andrew and met his end by being burned. The gospel often elicited strong reactions from those who hated it.
John was apparently the only apostle who lived to be an old man.
Most of these guys go unremembered by the world. Historians don’t tend to think of them as being worthy of study in the same way as empires and political movements in Rome or Constantinople. And yet Christians are here today because of their witness.