Each of the four Gospels starts in a unique way. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John begin their salvation-narratives from different points. The way the writer introduces his Gospel gives us a hint about the theology he’s going to develop.

Yet, no matter their theology, all four evangelists tie the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to John the Baptizer’s ministry. What Jesus said and did had its roots in what John said and did.

The strange, unkempt prophet who came out of the Judean wilderness and disturbed the Jewish establishment probably never conceived of his ministry as predicting the coming of Jesus, the Messiah. And Jesus, the Galilean carpenter, didn’t follow John because he pointed the crowds in His direction.

The theology that paints John as knowing he’s Jesus’ precursor was created by Jesus’ disciples after His death and resurrection. Before those two life-giving events took place, Jesus’ followers would have regarded John as the historical Jesus did: as a prophetic reformer of Judaism. It was the same role Jesus accepted after John was stopped from exercising it.

One of many

John and Jesus judged their callings to be in the line of the great Jewish prophets who preceded them. John, for instance, isn’t the first prophet to use Isaiah’s words about Israel’s return to Jerusalem from the Babylonian Exile. A century before, Baruch reminds his people that "God has commanded that every lofty mountain be made low, and that the age-old depths and gorges be filled to level ground, that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God" (Bar 5: 1-9).

Of course, John says nothing about the security of Israel’s advance in Sunday’s Gospel (Lk 3: 1-6). Like Jesus, he’s simply concerned with "all people (seeing) the salvation of God."

That seems to be why Luke mentions that John "went about the entire region of the Jordan proclaiming a baptism of repentance which led to the forgiveness of sins." All prophets demand repentance: a new way of looking at reality. For John (and Jesus), when someone takes that 180-degree turn in his or her value system, they become someone so different and new that any sins they committed based on their old value system are automatically washed away, an event symbolized by their acceptance of baptism.

What matters

Carrying on this prophetic tradition of repentance, Paul reminds Christians in Philippi about their own repentance and prays that it will continue to grow (Phil 1: 4,6, 8-11).

"My prayer," he writes, "is that your love may more and more abound, both in understanding and wealth of experience, so that with a clear conscience and blameless conduct you may learn to value the things that really matter, up to the very day of Christ."

Unlike John’s disciples, Christians are baptized just once, but Paul believes their repentance is an ongoing process; they’re always discovering new faith-angles from which to view what’s happening around them.

The historical Jesus became John’s disciple only because this wilderness prophet offered the most insightful process of repentance He’d experienced to that point in His life. Though it’s important to reflect on the traditional "precursor" model of John, it’s just as important to reflect on Jesus’ evaluation of him.

John’s insistence on experiencing God present and working among us deepened Jesus’ faith and became the most important part of the message He would later pass on to His own followers.

Of course, only those who dare to look at John from a different angle than the one from which we’ve traditionally observed him will be able to "repent" enough to appreciate both John’s historical ministry and the effect it had on Jesus.

(12/4/03)