Friday, March 31, 2006
And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?" And they said, "No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit." And he said, "Into what then were you baptized?" They said, "Into John's baptism." And Paul said, "John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus." On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. (Acts.19.1-5, ESV)

The ministry of John the Baptist is an important part of the Gospels. John, "sent from God" (Pericope 019, John.1.6), was the forerunner who prepared the way for Christ, both by baptizing and by "proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Pericope 020, Mark.1.4). He was clearly a religious celebrity, if we can use such a term: though he ministered in the remote wilderness of the Jordan valley, "all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him" (Mark.1.5), and Luke tells us that "crowds that came out to be baptized by him" (Pericope 021, Luke.3.7). The verses from Acts above (and the story of Apollos, Acts.18.24-26) indicates that John's ministry had an significant effect well beyond the immediate vicinity of Palestine.

While he had his own message of repentance and right behavior (Pericope 021, Pericope 022, Luke.3), he clearly pointed to Jesus: "he who is mightier than I is coming". The coming of the Holy Spirit to indwell believers is described by metaphorical comparison to John's baptism, both by John (Luke.3.16), and later by Peter as the Gospel first spreads to the Gentiles (Acts.11.16). In his early ministry, Jesus' disciples baptized, apparently in the manner of John (Pericope 034, Pericope 035, John.3.22-26)

Acceptance of John's ministry of preparation was an important factor in the readiness of Jesus' hearers to accept his message. When Jesus speaks to the crowds about John in Pericope 090(Luke.7), "all the people and the tax collectors" assent to God's justice, but the Pharisees "rejected God's purpose for themselves": in both cases, their response to Jesus follows from their response to John (Luke.7.29-30). Mark portrays an even stronger picture of the prerequisite nature of John's ministry in Pericope 255(Mark.11.27-33): when the Pharisees question Jesus' authority, he challenges them to first declare whether John's baptism was "from heaven or from man". This question is not just a debating manuver, but an opportunity for them to demonstrate whether their hearts have indeed been prepared for Christ's message or not. (This analysis follows from the view that the Parable of the Soils, and its illustration of the call to hear the Word and respond with faith, is a key conceptual hinge for Mark's Gospel.)

So here's a puzzle: if the ministry of John the Baptist is so central to the Gospels, why doesn't Paul ever talk about it?

Baptism itself is part of Paul's ministry in the narratives reported in Acts, and he addresses baptismal issues in several his epistles (for example, 1Cor.1.13-17). But nowhere do the epistles so much as mention the name of John the Baptist. As the passage at the top indicates, clearly Paul knew John's basic message in relation to Jesus and his practice of baptism. His epistles are generally believed to have all been composed before any of the Gospels (at least the forms in which we now have them).

Here are some possible answers, though i'm not fully satisfied with them

  • Paul was a native of Tarsus, more than 400 miles away to the north. John's message and ministry would presumably not have been so well-known or influential at that distance. However, Paul's speech in Acts.22.3-21indicates he was educated in Jerusalem.
  • If we assume Paul was born around 10 AD, he would have been a dozen years younger than John, hence not quite contemporary. John's ministry was largely ended by his arrest, perhaps around 27-28 AD, when Paul was only a young man.
  • For Paul, the message ministry of Christ so eclipsed the work of John that it was simply no longer relevant. Paul's ministry was one of preaching, not baptism (1Cor.1.17): yet he clearly still baptized new Christians, though now "in Christ Jesus" (there's an interesting study on the verb 'to baptize' and its use with various prepositions). And the notion of repentence so closely coupled with John's baptism is still relevant in Paul's teaching as well.

I'm sure real Biblical scholars write books about topics like these, but for me it was a new puzzle that i hadn't considered before.

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