Unification News for February 1999


Volume Three - Part Four

From the time of the early Church, Christianity has always held an elevated view of John the Baptist. Even its best modern thinkers, for example the German, Gunther Bornkamm, persist in identifying John as a heroic figure eternally testifying to the Risen Christ:

"...he signifies for the Christian...the returned Elijah who was to prepare the people of God for the coming of the Messiah...The Church recognizes him to be the one who will be forever preparing the way for Christ...(in Jesus of Nazareth)

Despite each noble testimony, a close look at the New Testament record raises many questions about the Baptizer. Let us look more closely at John’s role and activities.

An Elijah-like figure

Certainly Bornkamm is correct in describing John as an Elijah-like figure. In the Hebrew mind, Elijah had always been expected as a forerunner to the Messiah. Malachi, the last prophet of the Old Testament, has prophesied: "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes." (Mal. 4:5).

To this day, at Jewish Passover seder, a cup of wine is provided for Elijah in the anticipation of his arrival prior to that of the Messiah.

Living in the ninth century before Christ, Elijah is famed for his dramatic victory over four hundred and fifty prophets on Israel’s Mount Carmel. (I Ki. 18:20-40). Through his obedience and faith, he is thus regarded as having purged Israel of satanic influences. However, perhaps due to the subsequent spiritual lapses of the people, his work had to be redone. Only after this task was accomplished could the Messiah come; therefore, as Malachi predicted, another Elijah had to arise.

John as Elijah

According to the New Testament, Jesus regarded John the Baptist as the anticipated Elijah. Matthew reports Jesus saying:

"For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come." (Mt. 11:13-14)

The New Testament records that John had been chosen even in the womb. Luke tells us that the angel Gabriel had announced to Zachariah that his wife Elizabeth, would bear a son who would prepare his people for the Anointed One.

"And he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared." (Lk. 1:16-17)

The entire course of John’s life was subsequently a preparation for his later task of witnessing to the Messiah: his lonely period in the desert, his time of meditation and study and his exercise in ascetic piety.

According to Mark and Matthew, John modeled his lifestyle--including his clothing--after Elijah. He adopted as his own the rough camel hair garb and leather belt which were the marks of the prophetic office ever since ancient times. Like Elijah, the Baptist poured fiery judgment on the society around him. Everyone felt the effect of his withering denunciations.

In addition to all this, John was apparently aware that he was a forerunner of a greater one yet to come. We are told by Luke how John replied to those who thought that because of his spiritual might John himself must be the long-awaited Deliverer.

"I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire." (Lk. 3:15-16).

Regardless of such demurrers, all four Gospels, and other ancient historical sources as well, agree that John attracted large crowds and developed a substantial following of his own.

The strategy upset

Divine Principle teaches that coming in the role of Elijah, it was John’s mission to unite with Jesus and give clear testimony to him. However, according to the Gospel of John, when the question of his identity was put to the Baptist, he denied that he was Elijah.

"And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?" He confessed, he did not deny, but confessed, "I am not the Christ." And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" And he answered, "No." (Jn. 1:19-21)

In light of the fact that in the Hebrew mind Elijah had to arrive before the Messiah would come, such assertions by John were extremely damaging to Jesus and the role he was trying to fulfill. Because of John’s prestige, any major statements of his concerning Jesus carried great weight, more so than did the words of Jesus, a man of apparently less significance in the opinion of the people.

Jesus was an obscure young man raised in a humble carpenter’s home and was not known to be experienced in spiritual disciplines. Yet, contravening established authority, Jesus proclaimed himself "lord of the Sabbath" (Mt. 12:8), was known as one who was abolishing the law (Mt. 5:17), and had put himself on an equal footing with God. (Jn. 14:9-11). Disturbed by all this, Jewish leaders claimed that Jesus was working by the power of Beelzebub, the prince of demons. (Mt. 12:24).

John, on the other hand, displayed much more impressive qualifications. He was the son of a prominent family, and the miracles surrounding his conception and birth wee known throughout the country. (Lk. 1:5-66). Living on "locusts and honey" in the wilderness, he was regarded by many as leading an exemplary life of faith. In fact, John was held in such high esteem that the high priests, as well as the common people, asked if he were the Messiah (Lk. 3:15, Jn. 1:20).

Under these circumstances, we may imagine the people of Israel tended to believe John more than Jesus. Jesus’ view of John as Elijah seemed untrustworthy, said only to make believable Jesus’ claims about himself.

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