I assure you that John the Baptist is greater than any man who has ever lived. But he who is least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than John.
[A crowd has gathered to hear what Jesus has to say about John the Baptist, who has been arrested by King Herod.]
John the Baptist – one of the most beloved characters in Christianity. After all, who doesn’t love baptisms – all those cute babies dressed in fluffy white outfits while the pastor drips a little water on their heads. Who is cuter – the one who smiles or the one who cries? And then there is the great John the Baptist controversy – were those “locusts” he ate bugs or tree pods? Did John the Baptist really eat bugs? Another lively Christian debate.
What do we know about John the Baptist?
- John the Baptist preached repentance. He wanted people to change their ways to prepare for the Kingdom of Heaven. He wanted them to get serious about obeying Jewish law.
At that time John the Baptist came to the desert of Judea and started preaching. “Turn away from your sins,” he said, “because the Kingdom of heaven is near!” (Matthew 3:1-2).
- John dressed and ate like a wild man.
John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair; he wore a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. (Matthew 3:4).
- John was popular guy. He gained famed for baptizing people for remission of sin. This was the ritual cleansing component of his ministry. Baptism enabled them to give up their burden of sin and start over again.
People came to him from Jerusalem, from the whole province of Judea, and from all over the country near the Jordan River. They confessed their sins, and he baptized them in the Jordan. (Matthew 3:5-6).
- John didn’t like the Pharisees and the religious authorities of the day. Nope, not one little bit. And he wasn’t shy about letting them know how he felt. Indeed, he was a bit of a loose cannon. He called them snakes and threatened them with metaphorical axes (Matthew 3:7-10).
When John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to him to be baptized, he said to them, “You snakes—who told you that you could escape from the punishment God is about to send? Do those things that will show that you have turned from your sins. And don’t think you can escape punishment by saying that Abraham is your ancestor. I tell you that God can take these rocks and make descendants for Abraham! The ax is ready to cut down the trees at the roots; every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown in the fire.
- John confronted not only religious authorities, but political ones as well. His public condemnation of King Herod’s incestuous marriage was the reason he was arrested and later executed. (Matthew 14:3-5).
For Herod had earlier ordered John’s arrest, and he had him tied up and put in prison. He had done this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife. For some time John the Baptist had told Herod, “It isn’t right for you to be married to Herodias!”
- John believed that he was the ‘messenger’ who was tasked with preparing the way for “the one” who was prophesied by Isaiah (See Day 101). He believed he was preparing the way for Jesus or someone like him (Matthew 3:11-12).
I baptize you with water to show that you have repented, but the one who will come after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. He is much greater than I am; and I am not good enough even to carry his sandals. He has his winnowing shovel with him to thresh out all the grain. He will gather his wheat into his barn, but he will burn the chaff in a fire that never goes out.”
The History of Baptism
Some form of ritual purification or cleansing, is a common practice of all major world religions. It is usually required before the worship of their deity.
- Bahá’í wash their hands and faces before the recitation of prayers
- Buddhists cleanse in a special basin when they visit Buddhist temples. Ritual purification is also part of their tea ceremonies.
- Hindus do a lot of ritual purification, including full body bathing in holy rivers like the Ganges. This kind of purification is generally done before any festival and it is also practiced after someone dies. Hindus touch and sip water while reciting prayers. Water is sprinkled over people before they are married. A lesser-known practice is ritual bathing substances other than water like milk, honey, ghee, or rosewater before the installation of religious or political leaders.
- One of the ritual purification rituals of the Native Americans is the use of a sauna, known as a sweatlodge, as preparation for various ceremonies. They also believe that smudge sticks have a purifying effect. Some tribes use water daily for ritual cleansing, while other reserve this as a preparation for special events.
- Muslims use water purification as a preparation for prayer. Some groups require cleansing before holding the Qur’an. They are also allowed to do “dry ablution” with sand or earth if water isn’t available.
- In Shinto, ritual purification must be performed at a waterfall or other running water. Clothing is worn during the purification process.
The baptism performed by John had its roots in Jewish practice:
Baptism has similarities to Tvilah, a Jewish purification ritual of immersing in water, which is required for, among other things, conversion to Judaism, but which differs in being repeatable, while baptism is to be performed only once. John the Baptist, who is considered a forerunner to Christianity, used baptism as the central sacrament of his messianic movement. Christians consider Jesus to have instituted the sacrament of baptism, though whether Jesus intended to institute a continuing, organized church is a matter of dispute among scholars. (From Wikipedia).
The pastor of my church says that you should remember your baptism every time you shower. Let’s face it. Taking a good bath or shower can definitely be a spiritual experience. It feels really good and gets you in that relaxed prayerful mindset. I have had many good revelations while soaking in the tub.
The Greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?
Now that we have some background, let’s get back to the scripture. For both John and Jesus, the main thing wasn’t what they were doing. The main thing wasn’t baptism or healing or preaching or gathering disciples. The main thing wasn’t the water or the ritual cleansing. The main thing was to promote the Kingdom of Heaven/Kingdom of God. It was their passion, that God’s reign should be established on the earth. Jesus refers to “the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven” later in Matthew 18:4 when he says, “The greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven is the one who humbles himself and becomes like this child.”
I think Jesus is saying that the Kingdom of Heaven will be so wonderful that even the greatest person on earth can’t really imagine its glories. It will be a whole new ballgame. We know from Isaiah Chapter 65 that it will be a very peaceful place, where lions and lambs lie down together, and John wasn’t exactly a peaceful kind of guy. He was pretty confrontational. Maybe when people get to heaven all their rough edges get smoothed out when they experience immersion in the glorious presence of God. Maybe at death we are baptized into God himself and transformed by his glory. The ultimate baptism.
Jesus says that John is great, but he doesn’t want his followers to make the mistake of turning John into an idol or a god. He wants them to remember that John is just a man. I think Jesus is telling them, “Keep your eyes on the prize, folks. We’ve got a long way to go. It’s not about me or John. It’s about God’s kingdom unfolding here on earth. It’s about God.”
With Jesus, it was always about God. But he really liked and respected John. He says John is the greatest man who ever lived. Jesus may have said that John would be one of the least in the Kingdom of Heaven, but here on earth John surely had a premier place heart of Jesus because they both wanted the same thing. They were both 100% sold out for their God.
John the Baptist in the Bible – a raw, angry, crude, driven, scary prophet who was beheaded for his ideals.
John the Baptist in Church – comical bug-eating, baby-loving baptizer and Jesus promoter. Comical sidekick and announcer, like Guillermo on Jimmy Kimmel or Ed McMahon on Johnny Carson.
I’m ending this one with a picture of my husband with the John the Baptist puppet that he created and used every year during Advent. Larger than life, a little comical, a bit scary, definitely crude. I used to think it was weird, but now I think maybe he got it just about right.
What does this scripture say to you?