Unification News for March 1999

The Divine Principle

Volume 3, Part 5

While there is dispute over the exact relationship that existed between John and Jesus, the gospel record also reveals a certain inconsistency in the Baptist's behavior toward Jesus. The Gospel of John indicates a definite recognition and affirmation by John of Jesus' role: "Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!" (Jn. 1:29).

Matthew indicates, however, that later John vacillates. After he has been imprisoned by Herod for criticizing Herod's second marriage, John sends his disciples to Jesus to ask: "Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?" (Mt. 11:3).

Jesus retorts sharply: "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me." (Mt. 11:4-6).

In light of the enormous difficulties faced by any messianic movement in first century Palestine, the chances for success were greatly diminished if the forces for reformation remained divided.

If John had affirmed his own Elijah-like role and consistently testified tot he messianic status of the Nazarene, Jesus' way could have been opened wide and the Kingdom established on earth. Given Jesus' messianic role, we may imagine the ideal situation would have been for John to unite with Jesus even becoming one of his chief disciples. Since John himself had disciples, this would have enormously aided Jesus' cause.

Tragically, even though Jesus was eagerly searching for followers ("Pray the Lord of the harvest to send laborers") (Lk. 10:2), John and his group remained apart. There are even indications that tension existed between the two groups. Matthew, for example, reports a dispute between the disciples of Christ and those of the Baptist over fasting. (Mt. 9:14). And according to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, the Fourth Gospel seems to contain a polemic against the disciples of the Baptist (John 1:6-8) which suggests that they existed as a separate group, distinct from the Christian Church, even up to the end of the first century.

Jesus' assessment

While John was in prison, Jesus is recorded as assessing John's role. On the surface, his paradoxical statement is quite puzzling. " . . . among those born of women, there is none greater than John the Baptist, yet he who is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he." (Mt. 11:11).

John was born at the ;most important time in human history and had the unique privilege to serve Jesus directly by testifying to him. John should have brought everything he had--his experience, his knowledge, his large following--and offered them to Jesus.

Because of his great influence and popularity--an influence that extended to the religious establishment--John could have thus led many influential people to Jesus. Jesus therefore described John as "the greatest born of women" because the opportunity before him was such a great one. but the sad fact is that John failed to grasp that opportunity and so was less than the "least in the Kingdom." Because John failed to fulfill his glorious place in the Kingdom to the most humble believer.

Reasons for the failure

One may ask why it was that John didn't follow Jesus. The reasons seem to be multifaceted--psychological, sociological and spiritual.

For one thing, John apparently saw a conflict between his own interests and those of Jesus. He felt that if Jesus prospered, then he would decline. In John's words, "He must increase, while I must decrease." (Jn. 3:30). Feeling that supporting Jesus would involve giving up his own following, he failed to see that if he were truly united with Jesus, as Jesus' star ascended so would his own.

John may also have had doubts about some of the things that Jesus espoused: the sayings of Jesus were quite out of the ordinary, such that he was accused of undermining conventional Hebrew morality and Mosaic teachings.

Observing Jesus' background and achievement, John may have gathered that the long-awaited Son of Man could not be as commonly human as was Jesus--of questionable birth, dubious education, a mere carpenter, and without a well-developed following.

In addition, John may have compared himself to Jesus and found the comparison quite unflattering to this alleged messiah. While John was the son of a Temple priest, Jesus was formally uneducated and frequently seemed to contradict the Hebrew scriptures. Also, Jesus' disciples were men of little education and competence. John lived a very ascetic life while Jesus ate, drank and stayed with tax collectors, prostitutes and others considered undesirable by society.

The prevailing conception

Finally, we must understand the prevailing conception of the Messiah-to-come at the time of Jesus. Generally speaking, the expectation was a apocalyptic one. It was a period of eager anticipation of imminent dramatic events, a time which combined both a sense of despair about history and yet a hope that God would act dramatically to change things utterly and forever.

Influenced by the Book of Daniel, many sincere believers expected the Messiah would come on the clouds of heaven. Daniel had written:

"I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him." (Dan. 7:13-14).

Short of such a cataclysmic event, other Israelites felt the ;Messiah would come as a mighty deliverer, raising the standard of national freedom and driving the Romans into the sea. After all, their immediate concern was liberating themselves from the Roman tyranny. Thus their concept was essentially temporal and militaristic.

Perhaps even John could not help being influenced by some of these assumptions about the coming Son of Man. How hard it must have been to accept a mere carpenter like Jesus as the Promised One!

Whatever the reasons, John's support of Jesus clearly did not go as far as it might. With no clear Elijah, with Malachi's prophecy unfulfilled, Jesus' task was rendered incalculably more difficult.

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