by Young Oon Kim
John The Baptist
Malachi, the Old Testament prophet, predicted the return of Elijah prior to the advent of the Messiah: "Behold, I will send Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes" (4:5). Elijah had defeated all the false prophets in his great struggle on Yahweh's behalf at Mt. Carmel. 44 His mission had been to subjugate Satan (manifested in the licentious cult of Baal) and drive evil out of Israel forever. But after his death, the Israelites reunited with Satan by worshipping idols. Therefore Elijah's work had to be redone. To prepare for the Messiah, another spiritual champion like Elijah was needed, as Malachi prophesied. Hence, the eschatological hope often included a return of Elijah before the Messiah's arrival. 45
According to Synoptic traditions, Jesus thought of John the Baptist as the anticipated Elijah. Luke reports that an angel told John's father Zechariah that his son would be anointed with "the spirit and power of Elijah ... to make ready for the Lord a people prepared" (1:16, 17). 46
The Old Testament records how God carefully commissioned special people to pave the way for the coming Messiah. Patriarchs, judges, kings and prophets exhorted, guided and prophesied-all to this end. John the Baptist, the New Testament declares, was chosen to be the last and greatest of these messianic forerunners. His task was to read the signs of the times, herald the imminence of God's kingdom and point out the promised Messiah. Everything in John's life was designed to prepare him for this unique mission. For this purpose he retreated into the Judean wilderness, practiced an ascetic life, dressed like the ancient prophet Elijah and preached the need for national repentance. 47
Naturally people were so struck by John's dynamic message about the coming messianic age that some wondered if he himself were the Christ. When his disciples and other interested listeners asked if he were the Messiah, John answered, "I baptize with water but one mightier is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to unloose; he will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire" (Lk. 3:15, 16).
Once Jesus began preaching about the nearness of God's kingdom, and some were saying that he was the Messiah, certain Pharisees came to Jesus to learn where Elijah was. Jesus replied that John the Baptist was Elijah (Matt. 17:10-13). However, in the Fourth Gospel, when priests and Levites come to John inquiring if he were Elijah, the Baptist denies this role (Jn. 1:19-21).
Divine Principle describes John the Baptist as the central figure to restore the foundation of faith in the worldwide course of restoration. God expected him to make straight the way for the Messiah, to continue and complete Elijah's mission of separating Israel from Satan.
Because of his fiery preaching, John became exceedingly popular in Palestine. His voice carried far more authority than that of Jesus who was only a humble carpenter and largely unknown outside of the small towns bordering the Sea of Galilee. Most Jews might have accepted Jesus as the Messiah if John had testified on his behalf. After John had baptized Jesus, he should have joined him, become his ardent disciple and drawn others into supporting Jesus' messianic movement.
According to Luke, when John was imprisoned by Herod Antipas as a political agitator, he sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus if he were the Messiah. Jesus told the messengers to report back to their master what they had heard and seen of his activities. Jesus added quite pointedly, "And blessed is the man who does not find me a stumbling block!" Then after praising the Baptist to a crowd of his own supporters, Jesus declared, "I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he" (Lk. 7:28).
What caused him to degrade John publicly to a position beneath that of the lowest in God's kingdom? In terms of his mission, John was the final Hebrew prophet, for he had been specifically chosen to give direct witness to the Messiah. In this sense, John was the greatest among those born of women. However, by refusing to give unqualified support to the Messiah, John had been reduced to virtual insignificance. Here Jesus reveals how offended he felt by the Baptist's hesitation, doubts and indecisiveness.
Had John followed Jesus after baptizing him and supported him ardently enough, the whole of Israel might have turned to Jesus. What an impact their combined forces would have had! But John, the principal forerunner of Jesus, failed in his God-given mission to prepare Israel for its Messiah. Instead of giving direct witness to the messianic status of Jesus. the Baptist actually made it more difficult for people to accept him.
A distinctive contribution of Unification theology is its radical interpretation of the role of the Baptist. Traditionally, Christians have praised him as the faithful precursor and called him a saint. For the first time it becomes clear that John proved to be "an offense" to Jesus, a stumbling block in the way of realizing the kingdom. Yet this novel interpretation of the Baptist seems to be increasingly validated by Biblical scholarship.
For instance, the New Testament suggests several criticisms of Jesus which originated among John's followers:
1) that Jesus was inferior to John because the former submitted to baptism by the latter;
2) that Jesus' conduct was not as religiously strict as John's;
3) that Jesus began as a disciple of the Baptist, borrowing the practice of baptism and copying John's message.
To some extent all the Gospels try in various ways to subordinate John to Jesus, but the Fourth Gospel is quite specifically anti-Baptist. This shows conclusively that the enemies of Christianity found in John 48 the Baptist a powerful weapon to turn against Jesus.
In the Fourth Gospel the Baptist is reduced to a mere voice, whose sole function is to proclaim Jesus as the world's savior. Once the Baptist had announced the messianic authority of Jesus, his divinely-appointed work was finished. The Fourth Gospel omits the story of Jesus' baptism and describes John's rite as one of water only, rather than the spirit. The Baptist hails Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. And John's disciples join Jesus. The Fourth Gospel corrects the Synoptic report that Jesus began preaching after the arrest of John, as if Jesus were a disciple carrying on John's work. In the Johannine Gospel we are told that Jesus was preaching at the same time as the Baptist and Jesus attracted bigger crowds (3:22:26). As for the relationship between the two men, Jesus insists that he "comes from above" whereas John is only a "son of earth" speaking earthly things (3:31). 49 Hence, if the Johannine Gospel was written sometime between 80-120 A. D., the preaching of the Baptist and his disciples remained a serious stumbling block to Christian missionary activity almost a century after the deaths of both John and Jesus. In fact, a Baptist sect continues in Iraq to the present day. Thus, contemporary scholarship tends to document the Divine Principle view that the Baptist's work stood in the way of Jesus' realization of his messianic mission.
44 I Kings 18:16-40.
45 Rabbinic views of the returning Elijah are described in J. Klausner, The Messianic Idea in Israel (1955), pp. 451-457 and in the article "Elijah" in Encyclopedia Judaica (1971), vol. V1, pp. 635-639.
46 Among the Synoptic writers, Luke alone gives infancy stories about John. Scholars believe that these originated in a Baptist Jewish sect which may have considered John to be the Messiah (W.R. Farmer, "John the Baptist," Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 11, p. 956).
47 For a contemporary scholarly view of John, see G. Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth, pp.. 44-52. R. Grant, A Historical Introduction to the New Testament (1972), pp. 309-313, points out the resemblances between John and the Qumran community which produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. Also W. H. Brownlee, "John the Baptist in the New Light of Ancient Scrolls" in K. Stendahl, ed., The Scrolls and the New Testament (1957), pp. 33-53.
48 E. C. Colwell, John Defends the Gospel (1936), pp. 31-39. See also R. E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (1966), vol. I., introduction, pp - LXVII-LXX, a Catholic view.
49 Bultmann notes that John 3:22-30 has the negative purpose of excluding possible rivalry between the Baptist and Jesus, reflects the continuing hostility between the Christian and Baptist sects and illustrates the dispute over how John's baptism is related to the Christian rite. (The Gospel of John, 1971, pp. 167-175).
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