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The Life of Jesus Christ and the Art He Inspired: The Ministry of John the Baptist
The Jordan River
Chapter Eight: The Banks of Jordan River
The Jordan River. There it is, in the picture above. This photo shows it as muddy and dank, surrounded by overgrown foliage and weeds. Much of it lies in inhabited territory now, but in the time of Jesus, it was out in the wilderness.
Consider the wilderness of the Jordan River as an analogy to the wilderness of a soul that is lost in sin. Here they came, by the hundreds, to be cleansed of their sins. They asked that the muddy rivers of the Jordan wash their sinful natures away, and the man they turned to was John the Baptist.
More about artwork featuring John the Baptist
John the Baptist
John, the son of Elizabeth and Zacharias, was set aside from birth to be a great prophet. He jumped in Elizabeth's womb when his mother came to succor Mary in her pregnancy, already sure before birth of his mission to the world. He was given the daunting honor of proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ before Jesus Himself was prepared to start His ministry. Clad in outrageously austere garments and subsisting on whatever he could find in the wilderness, John preached repentance, exhorting sinners to change their ways before the Messiah arrived. Appropriately enough, he shared Jesus' disgust with the Pharisees; his exclamations condemning them for their self-righteousness and hypocrisy foretold the disdain with which Jesus would regard the Jewish authorities as He began his ministry.
Johannes der Täufer in der Wüste by Berner Nelkenmeister
St. John the Baptist by El Greco
Matthew 3:3 - 12
3 In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea
2 and saying, “Repent ye, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”
3 For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.’”
4 And the same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leather girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.
5 Then there went out to him Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region round about the Jordan.
6 And they were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said unto them, “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
8 Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance,
9 and think not to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say unto you that God is able from these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.
10 And now also the ax is laid unto the root of the trees; therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire.
11 I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear. He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire.
12 His fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly purge His threshing floor and gather His wheat into the garner; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
John the Baptist by Titian
Meditation: A Voice Crying Out in the Wilderness
Prophet. Baptiser. Rabble-rouser. Critic of kings and preacher of repentance, John the Baptist existed in the world to witness to Jesus Christ before Jesus Himself began preaching. Prophets could not bear witness to themselves; there had to be another person proclaiming their right to claims of divine wisdom, and John bore that witness for Jesus Christ.
According to the Gospel of Luke, who is very particular about the specific government officials in office, John began his ministry in about 38 CE. Savagely dressed in his camel-hair tunic, with the long flowing hair of a sanctified Nazarite, John reminded many of the great Old Testament prophet Elijah. The idea of baptism as practiced by John arose from the ancient Jewish purification rituals. People used to have to wash themselves in a mikveh, a bath with fresh running water in order to be ritually clean for the Temple. This attention to cleanliness was one of the things that separated the Jews from their pagan Gentile neighbors. John took the significance of the ritual one step farther. Jews had to cleanse themselves regularly, in what was primarily a hygienic ritual. John was the one who introduced the ritual of immersion, necessary to cleanse their souls, so that they might be prepared to meet the Christ when He came to earth. The ritual cleansing in the mikvah was repeated often as necessary; John's baptism was a one-time event. John demanded repentance of those who came to seek absolution from him, and he offered up some very exact ideas of how evildoers could show that they had indeed turned over a new leaf in deference to the Lord.
Jesus began His ministry as John's disciple. He knew that His coming had to be announced to the world, so he worked in his father's carpentry shop for many years after his coming of age. When John began to proclaim Jesus' coming, He knew it was time to leave behind the earthly trade given to Him by His earthly father in favor of the Divine trade of His Heavenly Father. He went out to see the eccentric preacher, making friends with his followers, and quietly building up His own group of followers. When John baptized Jesus in the Jordan, Jesus' ministry truly began.
St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness by Hieronymus Bosch
St. John the Baptist by Leonardo da Vinci
John 3: 22 - 30
22 After these things Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He tarried with them, and baptized.
23 And John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there. And they came and were baptized,
24 for John had not yet been cast into prison.
25 Then there arose a question between some of John’s disciples and the Jews about purifying.
26 And they came unto John and said unto him, “Rabbi, He that was with thee beyond the Jordan, to whom thou bearest witness — behold, the same baptizeth and all men come to Him.”
27 John answered and said, “A man can receive nothing, unless it be given him from Heaven.
28 Ye yourselves bear me witness that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but that ‘I am sent before Him.’
29 He that hath the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. This my joy, therefore, is fulfilled.
30 He must increase, but I must decrease.
John the Baptist Rebukes King Herod
Meditation: The Selflessness of John the Baptist
One thing that strikes me as I read through the story of John the Baptist again is how selfless he was in the face of the great events in his time. His entire ministry was dedicated to proclaiming the greatness of another. People flocked to him as a mighty prophet. Holy men came to him asking for instruction and forgiveness. He feared no earthly power; when king Herod Anitipas divorced his rightful wife in favor of an illegal marriage to Herodias, John proclaimed the union evil and would not be silenced. People compared him to Elijah, and many thought him to be the Christ. And yet, he was humble in his aspirations, and accepted the idea of his martyrdom almost as soon as Jesus gained prominence.
His own followers were jealous of Jesus' popularity, but John set them straight. There was a foreboding implication for John when he said of Jesus, "He must increase, but I must decrease." There could be no movement competing with that of Jesus in the country, so John the Baptist had to step aside. He did, but the method of achieving this was truly horrible; Herod had John thrown into prison for his criticism of the royal marriage, and John was eventually executed.
Jesus himself said of John, "For I say unto you, among those that are born of women, there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist; but he that is least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he.” By this he meant that John must be accorded the respect due the greatest of men, high praise indeed. However, all earthly respect pales in comparison to the one important thing - all those who enter the kingdom of heaven are greater than any earthly celebrity of any kind. John baptized and prepared the way, but only Jesus can open the kingdom of Heaven to sin-ridden mankind.
John the Baptist Preaching in Hell
The painting above underscores the importance of Jesus' mission to take away the sins of the world. John was by all accounts as good as a human could be. He was one of the great prophets, filled with the Holy Spirit. And yet, this painting shows that he is in Hell. Jesus is still in ministry, and has not yet been crucified. Until Jesus harrows the gates of Hell, even John the Baptist has died in his sin, and this icon shows him patiently preaching to the other faithful damned until the Light of Christ comes to redeem them all and send them to Heaven.
John the Baptist in the Wilderness by Geertgen tot Sint Jans
Help us remember and revere the ministry of the great John the Baptist, who made the way straight for the Lord by alerting everybody to His coming. Help us remember that we likewise live, not for our own glory, but to be your helpers and your hands in the world. Let us, like John, do all that we attempt to the Glory of God.
Previous chapter in this series
- The Life of Jesus Christ and the Art He Inspired: His Childhood and the Discussion with the Doctors
The Bible only records a single incident from Jesus' childhood. At the age of twelve, his parents find him missing from their caravan and discover him discussing theology with scholars at the Temple.
Next chapter in this series
- The Life of Jesus Christ and the Art He Inspired: His Baptism
John has been baptizing sinners in the River Jordan. Jesus comes to be baptized. In this way, God's will is fulfilled and Jesus is anointed as God's Chosen One.
Where it is located
Johannes der Täufer in der Wüste
Berner Nelkenmeister, 1495
Saint John the Baptist
El Greco, 1600 - 1605
Museu de Belles Arts de València
St. John the Baptist
Accademia of Venice
St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness
Hieronymus Bosch, 1489
(Inventory)Museum of Lázaro Galdiano
St. John the Baptist
Leonardo da Vinci, 1516
Saint Jean Baptiste Prêchant Devant Hérode
Pieter de Grebber, 17th century
Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille
John the Baptist preaching in hell
Unknown, about 1700
Moscow School of Royal Painters
John the Baptist in the Wilderness
Geertgen tot Sint Jans, 1490