Let’s return to that day in the late 20s CE, when a 30 year old Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, appeared on the banks of the river Jordan, where a charismatic preacher was baptising people in its waters. Since Jesus was obviously attracted by what he was seeing and hearing, even to the extent of casting in his lot with John, and being baptised by him, once we know what John believed and preached, we can get a glimpse of what was going on in the mind of Jesus.
John apparently saw himself as belonging in the tradition of Jewish prophets, not only in his words and actions, but also his dress. He “proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”. His fellow Jews had not been loyal to their God in obeying his Law. John cites failure to share food with the hungry, and clothing with the threadbare, as well as cheating and stealing, intimidation and greed. He makes it clear that this has to be put right immediately, because their God is on the point of taking punitive action – “Even now the axe is at the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
His audience would have known where he was coming from. Their scriptures warned them of the coming “Day of the Lord”, when God would destroy all powers of evil and disobedient people, set up his kingdom on the earth, and gather his faithful people into it. There was no escape – the dead would be raised and also called to account. The time for his hearers to sort themselves out was now, without any delay. Jesus clearly agreed, as he showed by submitting to this “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”, and here where we encounter the presence of different ‘layers’ of tradition as mentioned in a previous post in this series.
In my view, what I’ve said so far, represents the earliest tradition. Later on, however, as the interpretation of Jesus developed, this earliest one became rather embarrassing. Once Jesus was thought to be divine, it followed that he was ‘without sin’. Why then would he submit to John’s baptism for the remission of sins? This was a problem, and it’s why the story now has other ‘layers’, later traditions, claiming that the Jewish scriptures ‘prophesied’ John as the one who was to “prepare the way of the Lord”. These later traditions have John insisting on his subordinate status, and trying, unsuccessfully, to dissuade Jesus from being baptised. Maybe so but, for myself, I see here a later ‘explaining away’ of a seemingly undeniable, but embarrassing historical occurrence.
What were the thoughts of Jesus? I can’t believe that, standing there on the banks of the Jordan, he thought he was the Jewish God. As a devout Jew, any such claim would have stuck in his throat. Another later tradition, however, opens the heavens so that God’s voice can thunder out a declaration of Jesus’ divinity, and at the end of the first century, John puts such a claim into Jesus’ mouth. I think not, but you may think differently.
And what about the Kingdom of God? Jesus clearly shared John’s belief that its arrival was imminent. What implications did he think that might have? In the Jewish scriptures God had promised the great king David, that an ancestor of his would always sit on his throne in Jerusalem. That promise took a fatal hit when the Kingdom of Judah was defeated by the Babylonians, and Jerusalem and its Temple razed to the ground. There was no throne now for any descendant of David to sit on.
The prophet Isaiah, however, believed that in the future, someone descended from David would appear, and reign over a newly established Kingdom of God. This is the origin of the belief in a coming Messiah, and it had implications. The Messiah would seem to have to be a powerful military and political figure who would oversee the defeat of the Roman Empire, along with all other opponents of God. I don’t think that Jesus, at this point in time, saw himself as such a Messiah.
So, we have a very human Jesus, demonstrating agreement with the message of John the Baptist, declaring his loyalty to his God and His Law, and being baptised for the remission of his sins. Where does he go from here?