John the Baptist’s Legacy

I don’t think I realized until last summer―when I was preparing a sermon on John the Baptist for a preaching class―how many things Jesus says that are actually direct quotes from John the Baptist, at least as recorded by the gospel writer Matthew.

First I noticed that right as Jesus begins his public ministry, in the chapter directly following the one about John the Baptist, Jesus says, “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). This is exactly what John was saying in Matthew 3:2. (See this earlier post for some thoughts on repentance/confession.)

I got kind of interested in this, and so it caught my eye when a commentary I was reading mentioned the parallel; the commentary then noted that this isn’t the only parallel between John’s words and Jesus’ words in the book of Matthew.

It turns out that Jesus calls the religious leaders a “brood of vipers,” twice (Matthew 12:34 and 23:33). Those are John’s exact words from Matthew 3:7. (See these two earlier posts for some thoughts on this viperly brood.)

Jesus also says, “every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 7:19). This is repeated verbatim from John’s words in Matthew 3:10. (See this earlier post for some thoughts on good fruit.)

Given all this, it’s no wonder that some people (including Herod) thought that maybe Jesus was John the Baptist back from the dead!

What’s going on here? On one end of a gradient of Scripture interpretation (from more emphasis on God’s inspiration to more emphasis on the human writers), is Matthew just being lazy, or mixed up about who said what? Or, on the other end of that gradient, did God’s Spirit independently move both Jesus and John to say the exact same things?

It seems most likely to me that Jesus heard what John had been preaching―maybe when Jesus went to be baptized by John, or maybe otherwise―and he intentionally picked up and kept on propagating John’s words after John’s death.

This is certainly what it sounds like in Matthew 4:12-17: “now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee…from that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”

John’s public ministry was over, and it was time for Jesus’ to begin. And Jesus began by quoting John―and he kept on quoting John, at different points throughout his three-year itinerant teaching career. Jesus took up John’s legacy and extended it.

I think it was like Jesus was saying, this John the Baptist guy―I’m not him, but I am with him. I’m behind everything he was saying. I’m here with the same kind of message, sent by the same God. The kingdom of heaven is near. Repent, believe, bear good fruit. Fear God, confess sins, receive forgiveness. Challenge the poisonous structures and systems and ideologies around you; don’t scheme and strategize as if God couldn’t raise up children from stones; don’t be a brood of vipers.

As we think about who Jesus is, and as we try (this Christmas and beyond) to wrap our minds around the crazy idea that the God who created the universe came to us as a vulnerable baby and lived among us as a human, may we remember that John the Baptist who came before him was not just some random weirdo out in the desert; rather, John was the person whose legacy Jesus took up and ran with.

When we seek to worship, serve, love, and honor Jesus, and to live by Jesus’ teachings, we are honoring the Jesus who honored John; we are following the teachings of the one who repeated John’s teachings. We are serving the one whose sandals John recognized himself as being unworthy to untie; we are worshipping the Messiah toward whom John lived to point us.

So, this Christmas day, happy birthday to Jesus: the relative of John the Baptist, who was baptized by John and listened to John. Happy birthday to Jesus, for whom John made paths straight. Happy birthday to Jesus, who, when he invites us to take up our crosses and follow him, invites us to follow John’s example and be faithful to God rather than human authorities right up until death―just as John was when he died at Herod’s hands.

Happy birthday to Jesus, and Merry Christmas!

Ps. Thanks for reading! It’s been very encouraging to see page view numbers greater than zero :D. Whether you’ve stuck with it all twenty-five days, or have checked in here and there, or are just checking it out for the first time today, thank you―your eyeballs on this page (just kidding, but really, your time and brain and heart processing these posts) really mean a lot to me. I hope something here has been interesting, thought-provoking, or otherwise helpful.

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