Chapter 2: John the Baptist: The Baptism and Temptation of Jesus

Jesus in the First Three Gospels
by Millar Burrows

Chapter 2: John the Baptist: The Baptism and Temptation of Jesus

Whatever other events or persons may have influenced Jesus’ career, one of the most important was the appearance and work of John the Baptist. Mark begins his Gospel with it (1:4). In Matthew. John’s appearance is related immediately after the return of Joseph and Mary from Egypt (3:1). Luke considers John’s mission so important that he gives the date of the prophetic experience that inspired it (3:1-2). In the fifteenth year of the emperor Tiberius (AD. 28/9), he says, ‘the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness" (cf. Jer 1:2, etc.). The rulers of Judea, Galilee, and the adjacent regions, as well as the Jewish high priests in office at that time, are named also. For Luke they serve merely to date an event that to them would have seemed insignificant.

All three Synoptic Gospels quote Isaiah 40:3 as referring to John the Baptist. In the Fourth Gospel John the Baptist himself says, "1 am the voice of one crying in the wilderness’’ (1:23). Mark quotes also Malachi 3:1, which Jesus cites later with reference to John (Mk 1:2; cf. Mt 11:10; Lk 7:27). According to Matthew, Jesus identified John with Elijah, who was expected to come just before the Messiah (Mt 11:14; cf. Mal 4:5).

All the Gospels associate John’s ministry with the Jordan River. The Fourth Gospel says (Jn 1:28) that John baptized at "Bethany beyond the Jordan." Where this was is unknown.

John’s work consisted of preaching and baptizing. His preaching is briefly described by Mark and Luke as "preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mk 1:4; Lk 3:3). Instead of this, Matthew gives the same summary that he later gives for the message of Jesus (Mt 3:2; cf. 4:17): "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." Matthew and Luke also report more of John’s preaching. Scornfully denouncing the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to be baptized, he demanded that they produce fruit to show that their repentance was genuine (Mt 3:7-10; Lk 3:7-9). Their proud reliance on being descendants of Abraham, he declared, was of no avail.

Luke adds (3:10-14) words spoken in response to questions from the people, who ask what producing good fruit means specifically for them. All, John tells them, must share what they have with those less fortunate; tax collectors must not extort more from the people than the law allows; soldiers must be satisfied with their wages and not rob the people.

Baptism, as John preached and practiced it, was thus a sign of repentance and forgiveness. It did not bring about either the repentance or the forgiveness; repentance had to come first and prove itself genuine by its fruit. John’s baptism has been compared with similar Jewish rites, which included proselyte baptism, a symbolic bath taken by converts to Judaism. There some uncertainty, however, as to the exact significance of the Jewish rite and just when it began to be practiced. In any case John’s baptism was one not of conversion to Judaism but repentance within Judaism. Since the discovery of the Dead Se Scrolls, the illustrations of the Qumran community have receive much attention (IQS ii. 25; iii. 4-9; vv 13-14). There is no indication that they performed sprinkling or washing once and for all upon entrance into the order. It seems rather to have been repeated more or less regularly. Both ritual and moral cleansing were involved, but the moral and spiritual aspect was more prominent.

A further element in John’s preaching, the most important of all for the Christian church, is given by Mark and repeated with additional matter by Matthew and Luke (Mk 1:7; Mt 3:11-12; LL 3:15-18). John’s baptism with water is to be followed by a baptism with the Holy Spirit — Matthew and Luke add "and with fire." This has been compared with a passage in the Qumran Manual of Discipline (IQS iv. 20-21): at the end of the present world order, "God will refine in his truth all the deeds of a man, cleansing him with a holy spirit from all wicked deeds. And he will sprinkle upon him a spirit of truth, like water for impurity." Here God himself, not the Messiah, will do this. Judgment by fire is not an unnatural or uncommon idea. The idea of a baptism by fire, however, may reflect the Zoroastrian conception of a river of fire that will consume the world on the day of judgment. This is echoed in one of the Thanksgiving Psalms of Qumran (1QH iii. 29-32).

Nothing more is said in the Gospels of baptism with the Holy Spirit; but in the first chapter of Acts, Jesus tells the apostles that they will soon be baptized with the Holy Spirit (1:5). Their experience on the day of Pentecost (2:4) is regarded as the fulfillment of that promise, though they are said to have been not baptized but filled with the Holy Spirit, which was poured out (2:18, 33) as predicted in Joel 2:28. The prediction of John the Baptist is later connected with the gift of the Spirit at the house of Cornelius and at Samaria (11:15-16; 19:3-6). In the Fourth Gospel the risen Jesus breathes on the disciples and says, "Receive the Holy Spirit" (Jn 20:22).

The one who would administer the baptism of the Holy Spirit would be so great that John felt unworthy even to untie his sandal-thongs (Mk 1:7-8; Mt 3:11; Lk 3:15-18). Some of John’s followers seem to have remained convinced that their master was greater than Jesus, but there is no reason to suppose that John shared their feeling (cf. Jn 3:27-30). The statements of his attitude in the Gospels are not necessarily mere Christian propaganda.

Jesus came to John with the others to be baptized (Mk 1:9-11; Mt 3:13-17; Lk 3:21-22). Christians have shied away from the thought that he needed to be forgiven. Perhaps the very strength of this feeling is the strongest evidence that his baptism actually occurred. The memory of it was preserved by those who handed down the tradition, and the evangelists recorded it, even though it was perplexing and even embarrassing for them. Matthew preserves evidence that the difficulty was felt very early. When Jesus presented himself for baptism, Matthew says (3:14), John protested The Fourth Gospel avoids the difficulty by omitting Jesus’ baptism altogether and having John testify that he has seen the Spirit descend on Jesus (Jn 1:29-34).

Matthew records also (3:15) Jesus’ reply to John’s protest: "Let it be so flow for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." This means more than doing what God requires. It means going beyond what is required. Matthew is particularly fond of this conception of righteousness, but he did not invent it.

Those least in need of forgiveness often have the keenest sense of sinfulness, because they aim at perfection and know they have not reached it. That Jesus should ask to be baptized "to fulfil all righteousness" indicates that he identified himself with his people and felt the weight of the nation’s sin.

"And when he came up out of the water," says Mark (1:10), "immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove." This may refer to an inward experience of Jesus alone. Matthew too says (3:16), "He saw the Spirit of God descending." Luke, however, says (3:2l-22) "The heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, as a dove." This apparently implies that not only Jesus but also John and the bystanders saw the descent of the Spirit.

The idea of the Holy Spirit is an important part of the conception of God that was inherited and assumed by Jesus. It is misunderstood, or not understood at all, by many Christians as well as others. The confusion is compounded by the use of the word "Ghost" for "Spirit" in the King James Version. When I was a child I thought that the Holy Ghost was the ghost of Jesus. Three and a half centuries ago, however, "ghost" meant simply "spirit." It is no longer used in such a broad sense and should be abandoned in this connection.

The greatest source of difficulty, however, is not in the Bible but in a misunderstanding of the doctrine of the Trinity. We may unravel some of the confusion by going back to the roots of the matter in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word for spirit is, from our point of view, ambiguous. At the very beginning of the Bible (Gen. 1:2), where the KJV has, "And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters," the RSV also reads "Spirit," but with a footnote, "Or wind." Other recent versions have "wind" in the text (NEB, NAB, NJV), with footnotes recognizing "spirit" as an alternative. The Anchor Bible reads "an awesome wind." In Hebrew the same word means both "wind" and "spirit." This is important for understanding the Hebrew conception of spirit. The same ambiguity is found also in Greek. It is well illustrated by a verse in the Gospel of John (3:8) "The wind [pneuma] blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit [pneuma]." No translation into English can reproduce this play on meaning. The basic conception of the Spirit of God in the Old Testament is a mighty but invisible force emanating directly from God.

The same Hebrew word also means breath, as in the expression ‘‘the breath of life" (Gen 6:17; 7:15) or "the breath of his nostrils’’ (2 Sam 22:16; Ps 18:15). Akin to this is the idea of spirit as that which leaves the body at death, as in the common expression rendered by the KJV (Job 3:11 etc.) "gave up the ghost" (RSV "expire" — i.e., ex-spire, breathe out). The word also comes to mean disposition, attitude, or self. Sometimes (Prov 16:18-19, 32) "his spirit" may’ mean simply "he." The inspiration (in-breathing!) of the prophets is ascribed to the Holy Spirit (Num 11:24-29; 1 Sam 10:10; 19:23; 2 Chron 20:14; Is 61:1; Ezek 2:2), as is also the ability to govern wisely (Hag 2:4-5). Joel promises that when God restores the prosperity of Zion he will pour out his Spirit on the whole people, and all will prophesy (Joel 2:28-29; cf. Acts 2:17).

The thought of the Holy Spirit as a permanent possession of chosen and approved individuals appears later and more rarely, if at all, in the Old Testament. When David was anointed (I Sam 16:13), "the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward"; but whether it remained with him or came upon him repeatedly is uncertain. Isaiah says of the coming righteous king (11:2), "And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him." This idea underlies the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus and his later appropriation of the prophet’s words, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me" (Is 61:1; Lk 4:18).

When the Spirit came upon Jesus a voice from heaven was heard (Mk 1:11; Mt 3:17; Lk 3:22). In Mark and Luke, Jesus is addressed directly: "Thou art my beloved Son." In Matthew the words are apparently addressed to John and the people: "This is my beloved Son." In all three accounts the voice adds, "with thee [or with whom] I am well pleased." This heavenly acclamation consists of two free quotations from the Old Testament: Psalm 2:7, "You are my son"; and Isaiah 42:1, "in whom my soul delights."

For the evangelists and the other writers of the New Testament, "Son of God" summed up all that faith in Jesus implied, including his divine origin and nature. How and when it acquired this full meaning is a difficult question. It could hardly have had that significance for the first Jewish disciples.. That the Messiah was ever called God’s Son in first-century Judaism is not attested by contemporary Jewish literature. The Gospels themselves show that it was not unknown, but what it would have meant to a Jew is another question. The Messiah was not thought of as being anything but a man, or as differing from other men by nature. Conceivably the title "Son of God" for the Messiah was discontinued in Judaism precisely because of the meaning it acquired in Christianity. For the first Jewish followers of Jesus, it would have had simpler implications.

Two main elements seem to have entered into the earliest Christian usage. One was Jesus’ own sense of an intimate filial relationship with God. This, however, did not set him apart from his disciples. God was both "my Father" and "your Father" to Jesus, and he taught the disciples to address God as Father (Mt 6:9; Lk 11:2). He told them to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors so that they might be sons of their heavenly Father (Mt 5:44-45). The idea of a sonship unique in kind may have grown out of the unique degree to which Jesus realized what for others was an ideal to be pursued.

The origin of the use of "Son of God" as a Messianic title is evident in Psalm 2:7. Originally this psalm was an ode for the coronation of a king, to whom God says, "You are my son, today I have begotten you." The word "today" shows that "begotten you" must mean here "made you my son" — that is, "adopted you" — indicating that at the time of his coronation the king became officially, so to speak, God’s son. By the mouth of Samuel. God had promised to David concerning Solomon, "I will be his father, and he shall be my son" (2 Sam 7:14). Accordingly the reigning king was called son of God. He was also called the Lord’s Anointed, or Messiah; and when this title was applied to the hoped for, righteous king, such royal psalms as Psalm 2 were interpreted as referring to him.

In the baptism narrative, Psalm 2:7 is not quoted exactly. Instead of "my Son," all three accounts have "my beloved Son." The Greek reads literally, "my Son the beloved," or (NEB, RSV margin) "the Beloved." So taken, it recalls the passage quoted in the rest of the verse (Is 42:1): "Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights." Matthew quotes this later (12:18) in a form even closer to the words spoken by the voice at Jesus’ baptism, reading "my beloved" instead of "my chosen."

In Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration (17:5) the voice from the cloud uses exactly the same words that Matthew has in the baptism narrative. Here Mark (9:7) does not have the last clause. Many manuscripts of Luke (9:35) agree with Mark, but the reading with the best attestation is even closer to Isaiah: "This is my chosen Son," or "my Son, the chosen one."

Unquestionably, for Jesus his baptism was a profound and crucial experience. Whether for the first time he was then convinced that he was the Messiah, whether he had already come to this conviction or had been coming to it and now felt that he had received the seal of God’s approval, or whether he did not believe that he was the Messiah at all but considered himself only a prophet and forerunner of the coming one, his baptism was the turning point between his previous life of preparation and waiting and the active ministry in which he would henceforth be engaged. No doubt he was praying, as Luke says, when the rite was finished.

Before his public work could begin, however, there was still a period of struggle and testing before him. "The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness," says Mark (1:12-13). Somewhat more gently, Matthew (4:1-Il) says that Jesus was "led up by the Spirit into the wilderness," while Luke (4:1-13) says literally that he was "led in the Spirit in the wilderness" The last two statements may have had a common Aramaic original, in which the same preposition could mean into, in, or by.

The wilderness undoubtedly means here the steep, barren slope of the central Palestinian plateau, west of the Dead Sea and the lower part of the Jordan River. In the Old Testament this arid and desolate region is called "the wilderness of Judea." It is the same wilderness in which the community of Essenes at Qumran strove to prepare the way of the Lord, and in which the word of God came to John the Baptist. Tradition identifies a rugged hill west of. Jericho as the place where Jesus met the Tempter. Nothing in the record, however, points to a particular spot or precludes wandering about in the area.

Mark’s account (1:13) is very brief: "And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him." The statement that Jesus was with the wild beasts may mean merely that he spent the days of his temptation in wild country without human companionship. In Mark the temptation continues for forty days; Matthew and Luke put it after forty days of fasting, when he was hungry (Mk 1:13; Mt 4:2; Lk 4:2). The ministration of angels referred to by Mark is not mentioned by Luke; Matthew puts it after "the devil left him." Fasting in the sense of living with a bare minimum of nourishment would be practically inevitable in the wilderness of Judea for one absorbed in solitary spiritual struggle. After forty days (a traditional round number) Jesus would certainly have been hungry. Luke even says that he ate nothing.

Then, with the heavenly voice at his baptism still ringing in his ears, Jesus heard an insidious whisper, "If you are the Son of God." This is the point of the experience as Matthew and Luke understood it. "You think you are God’s Son?" the Tempter seems to say; "Prove it!’’ Both Matthew and Luke tell of three successive temptations, the same three though not told in the same order: the temptation to turn stones into bread. the temptation to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, and the temptation to worship Satan in return for world dominion. It is a strange story, surely not meant to be taken as a literal record of an actual encounter with Satan in bodily form. Is it a myth of the divine Redeemer, who by his insight and fidelity thwarts the cosmic powers of evil? Is it a legend like those of other religions, in which demonic powers try to prevent the founder of the religion from undertaking his mission? Or is it a symbolic representation of real temptations met and overcome by Jesus. either as he faced his mission or in the course of his ministry? Probably in these narratives we have reminiscences of an experience that would be no less real if the form in which it was told was symbolic.

So understood, the story fits the situation in which Jesus began his ministry. Severe temptations may very well have assailed him as he faced his mission, and he may have told his disciples about them later. The elaborate narratives of Matthew and Luke may be the result of legendary or literary development; but that Jesus could speak of his own inner experiences in figurative or perhaps visionary language is shown later by his exclamation when the disciples reported their success in casting out demons (Lk 10:18): "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven." We cannot hope to get beyond a "perhaps" on such questions as these.

Once, Satan quotes Scripture to support his proposal, but Jesus rejects all three temptations with quotations from Scripture. In his inner struggles Jesus may have found strength and guidance in familiar verses that came to mind when he needed them.

Along with the effort to satisfy himself that he was indeed the beloved Son, the temptations seem to involve a misinterpretation of Jesus’ mission. Perhaps he was tempted to conform his ministry to current expectations of what the Messiah would do, or to devote himself to a kind of service that was clearly needed but not what God intended him to do. Turning stones into bread might then signify using his powers and his position for his own benefit. Such a temptation would have some relevance for the early church (Acts 8:18-19); but judging by all we know about Jesus, we may be sure that no such interest would have presented any temptation to him at all. Much more likely to be tempting to him would be an impulse to devote his life to alleviating physical misery. When he saw the crowds of sick, hungry, aimless, or misguided people, he had compassion for them (e.g.. Mt 9:36; 14:14; 15:32). He healed many of the sick and on one or two occasions is said to have fed the hungry. All his time and strength might have been spent in ministering to the bodily needs of the people about him. But he knew also that there was a deeper need, which he alone could meet. "Man shall not live by bread alone" (Mt 4:4; cf. Deut 8:3), he replied to the Tempter, "but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God."

The second temptation, following Matthew’s order, was to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, counting upon God to preserve him from harm. This pinnacle is commonly supposed to mean a tower at the southeast corner of the temple enclosure, overlooking the Kidron valley, which was then much deeper than it is now. This time the devil quoted a psalm (91:11-12) as authority for such presumptuous reliance upon God. But Jesus answered scripture with scripture, using again a verse from Deuteronomy (6:16): "You shall not put the Lord your God to the test." The KJV says, "Ye shall not tempt the Lord your God," but God cannot be tempted. What is meant is putting God’s power and goodness to a test, acting rashly and expecting him to extricate us from the results of our folly, as the Israelites did on the occasion referred to in the verse Jesus quoted (Deut 6:16; cf. Ex 17:1-7; Ps 95:8-9): "as you tested him at Massah."

If anything more were needed to prove that the account is symbolic, surely this temptation would be sufficient. Quite apart from the problem of transportation from the desert, a challenge to leap from the pinnacle of the temple, taken literally, would hardly deserve a serious reply. Putting God’s care to the proof, however, is a very real and very common temptation. During his ministry Jesus was repeatedly challenged to authenticate his mission by some miraculous act (Mk 8:11-13; Mt 12:38-39; 16:1, 4; Lk 11:16, 29). He was ready to help when moved by compassion, but he consistently refused to respond to demands for a sign as proof of his authority.

The third temptation was to seek worldwide political power by worshiping Satan. Again the symbolic nature of the account is obvious: there is no "very high mountain" (Mt 4:8) in the wilderness of Judea; there is no mountain anywhere from which all the kingdoms of the world are visible. The traditional Mount of Temptation, just west of Jericho, does not afford a view beyond the limits of the Jordan valley. The temptation assumes that Satan holds the kingdoms of the world in his power and can give them away as he pleases. The proposal was therefore that Jesus should use Satanic power to further God’s ends. If this reflects a real experience, it must have been rooted in the circumstances and requirements of Jesus’ ministry. The subjugation of the Jewish nation by the Romans was a ground of bitter resentment among the people. and what many expected from the Messiah above all was to throw off this alien yoke, "that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear" (Lk 1:74).

Some of Jesus’ followers expected him to do this. Possibly there were times when he felt that there was no other way to achieve freedom and security for his people. The temptation to adopt Satanic means to gain God’s ends, to seek peace by making war, to use force to accomplish what can never be accomplished by anything but persuasion and love, is always with us. But Jesus saw that while the way of political power and compulsion might seem shorter, it was Satan’s way, not God’s. "It is written," he said to the Tempter, "you shall worship the Lord your God, and him only’ shall you serve."

Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts of the temptation end with the statement that angels ministered to Jesus. Luke’s conclusion is quite different: "And when the devil had ended every temptation. he departed from him until an opportune time."

Interpreting the temptation narratives as symbolic does not dispose of a deeper question: what are we to think of the assumed source of the temptations? Is Satan a real personal being, the author of evil impulses and acts? In the temptation story, of course, we are not dealing with sayings of Jesus, but it is quite certain that for him Satan was terribly real and possessed frightful power in the world. And, let it be said at once, there is no reason to feel apologetic about the fact that Jesus accepted such beliefs. He was talking not to us but to first-century Palestinians, and he was one of them. Not only did he have to speak in terms of what his hearers knew or believed in order to be understood, he thought in the same terms himself. To imagine him, with divine Omniscience, deliberately translating his message into the language of a world-view he knew to be false would make him a figure so artificial and unreal as to be neither credible nor attractive. At any rate, it is profoundly significant that Jesus frankly recognized and boldly faced the reality and power of evil. This fact plays a very large part in the story of his life and in his teaching.