When did John write this Gospel? To answer that question, we need to learn more about John’s life story. He was born into a fisherman’s family in the northern part of Israel, a region around the Sea of Galilee. He and his brother continued the family business.
One day John and his brother James heard the news about a man who was behaving like one of the prophets of old. In fact, people said this man was like the famous and revered prophet Elijah they heard about in synagogue readings from the Hebrew Bible. The prophet’s name was John also. John the Baptizer, rather, because he ministered along the Jordan River, calling people to turn back to God, a return that was symbolized by the washing of baptism. People journeyed to see this prophet. Droves of people. It was exciting, a time filled with promise because the reality was that life had been bleak for the Jews for centuries.
The powerful Roman Army controlled their land. Israel was occupied, and Rome had an iron grip. The Roman governor sat in the seat of authority in Jerusalem, and he reported to the Caesar, who was the emperor, the one truly in power, far away in Rome.
Under this oppression, Jewish expectation of deliverance was bubbling more and more to the surface. Groups of Jews would sometimes rebel against the Romans, striving for independence. But the Roman military was far too powerful. They would swiftly and brutally put down any uprising. The Jews remembered and longed for a deliverer like the man Judas Maccabees and his family who just a few hundred years prior had overthrown the Romans, and Israel was a free land for 100 years. But that memory was fading fast, so they Jews read the ancient prophecies which told of a deliverer, someone the Jewish people called the Messiah, the Prophet that Moses said would come. He was to be a king called “the Son of David” who would have an everlasting kingdom. They hungered and ached for such a one as this to come, just as God promised.
Then came John, baptizing at the river, calling people to repent and return to God. It sounded like John was behaving, at least somewhat, like the savior who God promised to come. So fisherman like John and his brother James went out to see what this baptizer was all about. They saw the crowds. The heard John preach with power and conviction. No doubt, he was unique. He certainly looked the part of what they read in their ancient scriptures about the prophet Elijah. John was a bit of a wild man. And he had a boldness to match, confronting not just the crowds to repent, but also the religious and political elite.
John the Baptist was the kind of guy you would be listening to, and he would be going off about the hypocrisy of the system, and you would be high-fiving your friends because someone was finally saying what you all pretty much wanted to say, but you were too scared to. You would be laughing at his jokes, and probably saying to your friends, “Can you believe he just said that???” Then you would be looking around at the Roman soldiers posted nearby to see if they were going to react to this. You’d think for sure John was going to be arrested, because in that day and age, you just don’t talk like that in public, without paying for it. You’d also be wondering at how long the religious leaders were going to allow this to go. They did not look kindly on self-taught prophets leading people apart from their system. In fact, it was likely the religious leaders who would report to the Roman leadership, pleading with the Romans to shut John down.
Then as the weeks went by, one day, something caused John to stop in his tracks. But it wasn’t the Roman soldiers and it wasn’t the religious leaders. That day, imagine a long line of people at the water’s edge, waiting for their turn to be baptized. One by one they enter the water, confessing their sins, and John dunks them in the river. Then after John baptizes a person, and sends them back to shore, he turns to the next person in line, and John’s eye open wide in surprise. John loudly makes this bold declaration, “Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
Huh? What is he talking about?
Then the man steps into the water to be baptized just like all the others before him, and John tries to stop him, saying, “No, I cannot baptize you. I cannot even tie your sandals. You should baptize me!”
At that moment, you can imagine everyone in the crowd going quiet and listening. This was new. John had been baptizing thousands of people for probably a couple months, and this had never happened. John saying that this man should baptize him? What is John talking about?
The man persists, and so John says, “I baptize with water, but this man will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” John baptizes the man, and the crowd watching is amazed at what they see happen next. Later as they tell the story, and they will tell it over and over, they will say that they swear they heard a voice thundering, as if from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased,” and something like a dove alighted on the man.
Who was that man? Clearly, he was someone immensely special.
Did the two fisherman, John and James, see that moment when John the Baptist baptized that man? We don’t know. Maybe, maybe not. It was a moment that lasted no more than a few minutes, and then the man left, and wasn’t heard from again for about a month and a half. John the Baptist kept baptizing. The crowds kept coming, and the fishermen, John and James, went back to work, wondering what it all meant. Were things coming to a head? Was this Israel’s moment? Was God sending a deliverer? Was John the Baptist the deliverer? And who was that man that John said he was unworthy to baptize? What happened to him?
We’ll continue the story in the next post!