Was John the Baptist right about Jesus and judgement?

This Sunday in the lectionary celebrates Jesus’ baptism—and since we have just been celebrating Jesus’ birth, and his baptism happened as an adult, this is one of the odd moments where the lectionary year rather telescopes Jesus’ life and makes him a fast developer! We are in Year C, so the reading is from Luke’s gospel, but I think the selection of the reading (Luke 3.15-17, 21, 22) is very odd, not so much in cutting out Luke’s interpolation of Herod’s opposition to John (which the other Synoptics place elsewhere) but because of the way it truncates John’s teaching as the context for Jesus’ baptism. It is as if we can think of Jesus’ baptism in isolation from the ministry and teaching of the one who baptised him—which we can’t. (Here again, James Cary’s plea that we read longer passages of Scripture has purchase. This Sunday, consider doing something more sensible than the lectionary and read a long extract from Luke 3!)

The short account of Jesus’ baptism is very similar in the three Synoptics. (Interestingly, John 1.29–34 agrees with the Synoptic accounts at key points—but fails to mention that the Spirit descending on Jesus was actually at his baptism. It is almost as if John assumes we have already read one of the other gospels, perhaps Mark.) But there is one point where Mark’s account seems to be ambiguous, and Matthew and Luke clarify it in different ways. Mark 1.10 explains that the Spirit came down on him ‘when he came up out of the water’, and popular imagery pictures Jesus surfacing from full immersion, but still standing in the river, as this happens. Matthew 3.16 corrects this impression: after his baptism, ‘Jesus went up immediately from the water’ which can only mean that he has climbed out of the river. And Luke 3.21 makes the same thing clear in another way: ‘when Jesus had been baptised and was praying’, including his distinctive and customary emphasis on prayer. But Luke doesn’t include Matthew’s highlighting of the incongruence of Jesus’ baptism in his conversation between Jesus and John (Matt 3.14–15); instead, he emphasises the role of the Spirit. When Jesus goes into the desert after his baptism, he is ‘full of the Holy Spirit’ (Luke 4.1) though this on its own is not enough to equip him for ministry. On his return from the strenuous demands of the testing in the wilderness, he returns to Galilee ‘in the power of the Spirit’ (Luke 4.14), both Spirit references being unique to Luke.

But when I was reading this passage, the thing that leapt out of the page came several verses earlier, in John’s description of the one who was to come after him:

The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah.  John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”  And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them. (Luke 3.15–18)

There are several significant images of eschatological judgement here. First, the promise of the Holy Spirit being poured out (‘baptism’ means being immersed in or overwhelmed by) is connect with ‘the last days’ in Joel 2.28. Although we might naturally associate ‘fire’ with the tongues of flame at Pentecost in Acts 2, but in fact it is an image of judgement, as the phrase ‘unquenchable fire’ makes clear. (Two interesting things to note here. First, the Greek term is asbestos from which we get, well, asbestos! Second, fire is primarily an image of destruction, not torment.) John seems to expect Jesus to be one who will bring the judgement of God to his people and to the wider world.

Mark’s account of John’s preaching and ministry is very brief, but in Luke and Matthew the writers both make strong links between John and Jesus—Matthew even recording John as preaching ‘Repent, for the kingdom of the heavens is at hand’ (Matt 3.2), and an exact parallel with his account of the preaching of Jesus (Matt 4.17). But at the same time, Luke and Matthew (with John 1) also include clear differentiation: John’s ministry is preparatory; Jesus is greater than him; he is not worthy; and his baptism foreshadows a more powerful experience. Jesus confirms this differentiation in his own teaching:

I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than him. (Luke 7.28 = Matt 11.11)

Whilst John anticipates the coming of the kingdom of God and the eschatological gift of the Spirit, in Jesus and his ministry the kingdom has come and the Spirit is (after Jesus’ ascension) outpoured. This is the moment of the turning of the ages.

Luke’s account of John’s ministry is longer than Matthew’s, and has some distinctive emphases. (This is evident if you look at a Synopsis, such as Throckmorton; you can also see the texts in parallel in an online synopsis such as the one hosted by the University of Toronto, though the layout does not make the differences quite so evident.) He includes John’s specific commands clarifying what repentance looks like in response to three sets of questions, from the multitude, from tax collectors and from soldiers. Once more we see a Lukan focus—that the ‘good news’ includes those who might be considered beyond the pale, as well as those who are more respectable. (I am intrigued to note that Matthew’s mention of the ‘Pharisees and Sadducees’ in Matt 3.7 becomes for Luke 3.7 a much more general ‘multitude’. See the later explanation in Luke 7.30.) The inclusion of the hated toll collectors finds fullest expression in Luke’s unique account of Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus in Luke 19.1–9, forming a contrasting pair with the encounter with the ‘rich young ruler’ in the previous chapter. The soldiers need not necessarily have been Gentile Roman soldiers, but could easily be Jews serving with Herod’s forces. This good news is indeed inclusive: all face the coming judgement of God, and all without exception need to repent. This good news comes as a gift, but demands a response; the phrase ‘What shall we do?’ occurs regularly in Luke and Acts (Luke 10.25, 18.18, Acts 2.37, 16.30 and 22.10). And the ‘fruit’ of repentance does not consist of nice personal qualities but (as all through the New Testament) specific ethical actions of obedience to God’s commands. The connection between judgement and repentance is made clear by Luke as he sandwiches this teaching on repentance between the two warnings of judgement in verses 7 to 9 and verses 15 to 18.

But was John right to see Jesus as eschatological judge? He first talks of God’s judgement in terms of the axe at the tree (note the parallel in Luke 3.7 with John 15.6). But then he talks of Jesus as the one who executes this judgement. The winnowing fork is used to thrown harvesting grown in the air, so that the wind blows the chaff away and the heavier, valuable grain falls to the ground to be collected. It is not clear whether John sees Jesus as actually doing this sorting himself, since he has the winnowing fork ‘in his hand’ and on the metaphorical threshing floor wheat and chaff have already been separated—so perhaps Jesus will pronounce judgement over the separation that John’s ministry has already brought about. But, as the gospel unfolds, does Jesus fulfil what John anticipates?

There are two pointers to suggest that he doesn’t. The first is his ‘sermon’ at Nazareth, the so-called ‘Nazareth manifesto’. In Luke 4.16–19 Jesus reads from Is 61.1–2, but it is striking that Jesus (or Luke) omits the final phrase of the Isaiah passage ‘and the day of vengeance of our God’ suggesting that judgment has given way to mercy. The second pointer is John’s own puzzlement about Jesus’ ministry, expressed in a message sent from his captivity (which the lectionary cuts out of Sunday’s reading!) which contrasts strongly with the confidence we find in this passage: ‘Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?’ (Luke 7.20). Jesus’ answer focusses entirely on the things he has mentioned at Nazareth about healing and restoration and again makes no mention of judgement.

But in contrast to that, there is other very clear language of judgement on the lips of Jesus. Luke gives this a sharp edge in his (again unique) account of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem in Luke 19.41–44:

As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come on you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”

Rather awkwardly (for us as readers), Jesus is here connecting directly the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans with judgement by God for not recognising Jesus’ arrival as the presence of God himself visiting his people.

Secondly, Jesus himself talks about the division that he will bring, and makes mention of the fire of judgement that John has talked about:

“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother–in–law against daughter–in–law and daughter–in–law against mother–in–law.” (Luke 12.49–53).

John is right about judgement and Jesus, with two important qualifications. The first is that this judgement is postponed—in the case of Israel until the destruction of the temple in 70AD, and in case of all humanity until the return of Jesus as judge at the end of the age. And the second qualification is that the basis of judgement shifts; for John it is avoided by repentance, baptism and the fruit of that change in tangible change of life. In Jesus’ teaching this is taken up into the question of decision about following him: judgement is no longer on the basis of being part of the ethnic Jewish people of God; nor on the basis of whether we change and begin to obey God’s just commandments; but it is now on the basis of being incorporated into the renewed people of God by accepting Jesus as Lord, and living a new life of holiness empowered by the Spirit. And all this is possible only because of Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection for us.

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21 thoughts on “Was John the Baptist right about Jesus and judgement?”

  1. It is correct that John’s account has a notable lacuna which presupposes a former account.

    The judgment words come (unsurprisingly and typically) from Matt, whose account has developed since the time of Mark, partly in that it has been dipped in and affected by Rev and by John (brood of vipers, branches cut off [as noted by Ian], judgment-harvest). Luke takes them over from Matt – poor guy having to knit together and reconcile different sources: and therefore it is he who develops the continuity problem as soon as he gets Lukan and calls the warnings ‘good news’. It is not, however, that this message of judgment is not very much part of the gospel (though Luke’s placement of euaggelion might make one think ‘If that is the good news, what is the bad news?’) but that the match-up between euaggelion and warnings is imperfect and atypical in the NT.

    Matthew gets from (1) Holy Spirit to (2) fire [linkword] to (3) judgment in no time, because that is his bent. Mark’s account is typically more unified/coherent/succinct, as in divorce-saying and Last Supper, making the clear uncomplicated point that there are 2 baptisms and 2 baptism eras; with Matt it is a case of unpeeling the layers, and therefore even more so with Luke.

  2. “But was John right to see Jesus as eschatological judge?”

    Much better, to my mind, to ask the question “Are the evangelists right to see John as a forerunner to Jesus and as one who saw him as the extension of his own ministry and message?” We have no independent testimony that doesn’t believe Jesus is the messiah which says that John taught this or that it was remotely his view. Whilst it is clear to see that the evangelists believe it, some observers, I think and expect, would require a bit more to go on than this. It is, for me at least, somewhat wince-inducing to imagine the Jewish apocalyptic preacher John the Baptist, who cannot have imagined Christian dogma, being so thoroughly and, perhaps, inexcusably Christianised when all he may have preached was an apocalyptic kind of “teshuvah”, repentance, in the desert by the Jordan, symbolic to be sure, and had Jesus as one among the number of his adherents. Visions, of course, can be written, interpreted and reinterpreted by anybody in the creation and furtherance of a tradition or belief. In the vision Jesus is given at his baptism, which serves an obvious theological purpose, I want to know who saw what and who heard what. The sources do not agree, as reading the synopsis Ian recommends demonstrates. Perhaps we should ask the ever helpful Christopher about that since he seems to know the exact relationship of one New Testament writing to another to judge by his recent output!

    PS “It is almost as if John assumes we have already read one of the other gospels, perhaps Mark” seems to be a case of Ian Paul agreeing with Crossan who argues John knew Mark, something with which I am also in sympathy.

    • ‘We have no independent testimony that doesn’t believe Jesus is the messiah which says that John taught this or that it was remotely his view.’

      – true, as Josephus seems to be the only other writer to include some information about John the Baptist.

      ‘It is, for me at least, somewhat wince-inducing to imagine the Jewish apocalyptic preacher John the Baptist, who cannot have imagined Christian dogma, being so thoroughly and, perhaps, inexcusably Christianised when all he may have preached was an apocalyptic kind of “teshuvah”, repentance, in the desert by the Jordan, symbolic to be sure, and had Jesus as one among the number of his adherents. ‘

      – ok, but then if your alternative view is correct, where is the evidence? Is it not pure speculation on your part? At least Christians can point to writings, albeit by biased writers but who seem to be basically trustworthy, but then all historical writers are biased in some way. In other words, why should anyone believe your version?

      • If you are making the point that Christians are apt to believe things because someone wrote it down then I am minded to agree with you. Not everyone is so easily pleased, however. In the historical plausibility stakes it is my judgment that the Baptiser was more likely innocent of coincidentally Christian statements than that he was not.

        • ‘In the historical plausibility stakes it is my judgment that the Baptiser was more likely innocent of coincidentally Christian statements than that he was not.’

          – again, upon what evidence is your judgment based?

  3. What Jesus omits from Isaiah 61:1-2 in Luke 4 appears in Luke 21:22. Jesus says Isaiah’s day of God’s vengeance will come when Rome destroys Jerusalem. So while at the beginning of his ministry Jesus offers mercy to Israel, as he approaches his final hours he recognizes that Israel will reject him and his offer. Luke thus creates a parallel between the work of Jesus and Paul. Both went to the Jews first and were rejected.

  4. “The first is that this judgement is postponed—in the case of Israel until the destruction of the temple in 70AD.”

    Well, it depends on whether judgement is only understood in terms of its overt execution.


    For instance, Paul’s Jewish detractors were not suffering destruction, when he observed how God was judging them (as they also judged themselves by rejecting eternal life (Acts 13:46): “who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last. (1 Thess. 2:15-16)

    In contrast with redemptive chastening which begets obedience, the judgment here involves judicial hardening: eventually being relinquished to the inescapable custody of perpetual rebellion against God. (Rom. 1:32)

    The division (diamerismon) is the overt evidence of divine judgment separating the penitent from the impenitent in readiness for the latter being destroyed irreversibly.

    So, Jesus was pronouncing judgment, when he declared to the scribes and Pharisees: “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation. (Matt. 23;33-36)

    So, Christ’s presumed omission of “the day of vengeance” from his recitation of Isaiah 61 in Nazareth’s synagogue is not so much judgment giving way to mercy (Jesus went on to compares his audience’s moral state to Israel’s judgment for apostasy under Ahab, while God poured out blessing and healing on Gentiles through Elijah’s miraculous ministry) as it is aposiopesis (we use this when we recite just the first part of a popular adage, such as “once a liar” knowing that anyone hearing this knows how it concludes)

    Reprobation is as much a part of divine judgment as overt destructive calamity.

  5. An interesting piece. Have any of you read Tanya Marlow’s “Those Who Wait: Dealing with Disappointment, Doubt and Delay”? This reimagines the lives of Biblical figures who wait, sometimes rather painfully, and includes a lengthy reimagining of John the Baptist’s thoughts about his ministry. I recommend the book for any Christian struggling with their or the world’s circumstances, and who isn’t?

    • Penelope, you bring up an interesting aspect of Christianity that is itself implicit in the words of John to which this blog refers. For both John and Christianity as a whole there is set up the notion of a future not yet here and so an inevitable wait. I find it interesting that you link this with “struggling” as, it seems to me, this is inherent in both John’s and Christianity’s view of time which, in both cases, is a matter of some future fulfillment which necessitates such a struggle. An apocalyptic Jesus, such as John envisages in these texts, and which Christianity historically chose, is what mandates this but it is not, as you may be aware, the only possible way to see Jesus. Neither, I’m bound to say, is such a way to see the world through religious eyes necessary either. Judaism is in some places more messianic and, in others, barely messianic at all. Eastern religions, such as Taoism or Buddhism, have a much more synchronic view of time such that struggling becomes something one does with one’s own nature rather than with the circumstances of history.

      In this context I wonder about the place of Luke 17:20-21 and especially the notion that the kingdom of God, according to Jesus, is very much “among you” in the present or “in your midst” as the NIV translated it or “within you” as the NRSV notes in a textual note. Surely this radically recontextualises any “waiting”?

      • Why can’t Jesus have more than one dimension to him? Secondly, why cannot some of the ways to see Jesus be inaccurate?

        • This from the man who tells us, apparently with utmost certainty, that “The judgment words come (unsurprisingly and typically) from Matt, whose account has developed since the time of Mark, partly in that it has been dipped in and affected by Rev and by John”?

          In comparison, I said “I wonder about”. If you are looking for someone stubbornly certain about his views Christopher I can assure you its not me. I follow Allison in his methodological doubt but his making choices anyway.

          Therefore, I think some ways to see Jesus are “inaccurate” because history is a matter of making choices. Choices motivate your ideas about the interconnections of New Testament texts and others motivate how I view Jesus historically which is NOT as a self-referential apocalyptic figure.

          None of this, as usual, answers the question I asked. One gets the impression you reply to me simply to keep pulling threads of which I will, no doubt, soon tire.

          • So long as the choices are made on the basis of weighing evidence.

            By saying ‘certain about his views’ you again fall into the trap of saying that all our views on everything should be tentative. No. There is a sliding scale from very tentative to not at all tentative.

          • Did you imagine I just made random decisions? Who doesn’t “weigh evidence” aside from those who believe what their church tells them to? (Although, it must be said, there is always much more to it than this.) At the very least you should have gotten the impression I was trained as a biblical academic and that I interact with scholarship as the basis of my comments. None of this makes me right and, indeed, I have profound doubts that we can know very much about Jesus with historical veracity at all in order to claim to be right. Claiming to be right I regard as something of a red flag, in fact. I regard the many warnings in innumerable books about “construction” and “reconstructions” as things to take very seriously. Therefore, we should be every bit as tentative as this suggests and humility of claim hurts no one. Yet none of this stops us saying what we see with reasons attached which is what scholarship basically is. If you want more information about my views in order to understand them you can always click the link in my name for further information.

          • Thanks. I just thought your words had a lot of sweeping generalisations as opposed to precise nuance, but I may on the surface be guilty of the same, as on issues where I am fairly clear in my own mind I will assert without qualification. This is just a way of making clear the degree to which I’m convinced by the evidence.

      • Luke 17.20-1 has often been seen as a response to the delay of the parousia. There are other candidates for such in Luke (‘one of the days of the Son of Man’, ‘take up cross daily’), and of course Luke is a later gospel, so certainly not the *first* place one should look for Jesus’s precise perspective. The BBC Passion made this saying central (Mark Goodacre gave excellent advice to the scriptwriters otherwise they would have been even more flummoxed than they were) and it does not easily cohere with the rest of Jesus’s words and deeds. But it is bound to be much beloved of devotees of the inner light, Buddhism and so forth.

  6. “Luke 17.20-21 has often been seen as a response to the delay of the parousia.”

    Well, if you imagined to believe in such a thing as “the parousia” it would seem that your choices are restricted when it comes to such a text. The parousia, of course, is a distinctive Christian belief. Was Jesus a Christian too? Did he believe in his own parousia? Such a question would seem allied to one about judgement such as Ian Paul raises in this blog. Indeed, for some Jesus scholars this is exactly a point of decision: is Jesus the apocalyptic figure the canonical gospels and Paul make him out to be or is that a Christian belief imposed upon Jesus by Christians but for which he would himself not have answered?

    There is a difference of opinion on if this text is a Q text. Crossan, on formal grounds (there is no Matthean parallel), does not put it in Q and neither does Burton Mack. Yet Kloppenborg thinks it “probable” and the International Q Project put it in their official text of Q. as do the Jesus Seminar in “The Complete Gospels”. Most would put the saying in a later rather than an earlier form of the putative document. More interesting, however, is that there are three differing parallels to this text in the Gospel of Thomas, GTh 3, 51 and 113. Here we find “Jesus” saying the kingdom is “inside you and outside you”, that it “has come but you don’t know it” and that it is “spread out upon the earth, but people don’t see it”. Interestingly, April DeConick would here agree with you in her commentary on Thomas when she writes “This accretion accrued in the Gospel between 60 and 100 CE as a response to the delay of the Eschaton, a response which also was recorded in the Gospel of Luke during this same historical period.” Although she conceives of a “kernel gospel” of Thomas extant before 50CE that was formed on the basis of five eschatological speeches, she says of these sayings that “The Kingdom is not understood as an eschatological event, but a mystical one, the present experience of God.” Further, she thinks GTh 113 an example of secondary orality influenced by authorial memory of Luke 17:20-21.

    So where does this leave us? It seems to leave us with a change of mind some decades after Jesus and a cooling of expectant apocalyptic fervour. Not all chose this path, of course, but some did. You mention Lukan sayings, for example, and it is part of DeConick’s explanation of the development of the Thomasine community. This, then, reminds me of what Allison said in “Jesus of Nazareth” about millenarian movements, specifically on the matter of “disappointed expectations, since the mythic dream or end never comes” (p.94) and the production of “secondary exegesis”. He continues: “such after the fact rationalizations are almost inevitable: it is easier to deceive oneself than to admit self-deception.” So, whilst we may ascribe eschatological judgement rhetoric to John and, indeed, to Jesus, the question still remains to be answered if it amounts to anymore than that in a world that still waits.. and waits.. for such apocalyptic fulfilment. That it actually happens can be the only proof its truth.

    • The reason there is so often difference of opinion about the contents of Q is that ‘in Q’ and ‘out of Q’ are options with equal evidence to one another, Q not existing. Also see the articles S Petrie ‘Q is only what you make it’ NTS 1959 and M Goulder, ‘Self-Contradiction in the IQP’ JBL 1999. Self-contradiction is exactly what is expected when the hypothesis itself is not well-founded.

      The scholars you list do not go into the preliminary question of Q or not Q (nor did the father of the International Q Project, James M Robinson) so how are they in a position to assign anything to Q or otherwise?

      I can see why Thomas would like the saying. He does also have a lot of Luke parallels.

  7. ‘The first is that this judgement is postponed—… in case of all humanity until the return of Jesus as judge at the end of the age. ‘

    – perhaps as far as one’s eternal destiny is concerned, but not necessarily all judgement. What about Ananias and Sapphira in Acts, for example?

  8. It seems to me that most, if not all of this afterglow debate, presumes a biblical canon, and thus is mostly irrelevant. Has no one read the pre-eminent New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, as to whether much, or even most of the canon is valid?

    If the original text, to which the ensuing derivatives debate, suggests a conflict between “gospels”, then perhaps that IS the answer: there is a conflict. And if there is a conflict, then maybe we can consider Ehrman’s arguments, citing “Forged” among many others, for the validity of one text over another.

    And, since the brilliant DeConick was brought into the debate, she makes clear, academically speaking that the writer(s) of John, had an agenda in the 90s CE Johannine community.

    Blessings all.


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