- Baruch 5:1-9 (or Malachi 3:1-4) and Luke 1:68-79
- Philippians 1:3-11
- Luke 3:1-6
First Reading: The Forerunner
The book of Malachi (literally, “My messenger”) is the last of the prophetic texts that comprise the Scroll of the Twelve in the Hebrew Bible. The Jewish canon has three parts:
- Torah (5 scrolls of Moses)
- Prophets (4 x Former Prophets + 4 x Latter Prophets)
- Writings (books of different genres that were sacred to Jewish communities around the turn of the eras)
The Prophets included two very different series of books:
- What we are more likely to think of as Historical Books (Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings), following the classification of the ancient Greek versions of the Bible, are regarded as prophetic texts in the normative Jewish tradition. Seeing these texts as prophetic writings rather than as historical narratives can open up new ways of approaching these books. They are narratives with an agenda – a prophetic agenda – and do not claim to be critical histories in the modern sense of that term.
- Matching those four books of the Former Prophets were four great scrolls of the Latter Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and The Twelve. Each of these scrolls are really compilation albums, gathering up materials connected in some way or other with the legacy of the various named prophets. We note that the Jewish tradition does not distinguish between the “Major” and “Minor” prophets as if size matters. Rather, the majority of the shorter prophetic texts are gathered into a single large scroll to form a body of 12 prophetic witnesses. (The book of Daniel provides an interesting exception, since Jewish tradition does not treat as a prophetic text and assigns it to the Writings.)
The Scroll of the Twelve comprised the following texts:
These are all relatively short texts when compared with the collections associated with Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
The twelfth book – Malachi – may have been created by separating a portion of text that originally formed part of Zechariah in order to create, albeit artificially – the symbolic number of twelve prophets. It condemns various signs of decadence among the clergy and the wider society of the prophet’s time (perhaps during the first half of the 5C BCE). As seems always to be the case in apocalyptic literature, the remedy was not seen in political or religious reform but in a dramatic divine intervention:
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years. (Mal 3:1-4 NRSV)
In later Jewish tradition, the end-time prophetic sent as the harbinger of the divine Advent would develop as several biblical figures were combined in one form or another:
- a prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 18)
- Elijah returning from heaven (2 Kings 2 and Malachi 4)
- the voice crying in the wilderness from Isaiah 40
- the anonymous messenger of Malachi 3
Second Reading: The day of Jesus Christ
Philippians is one of the seven Pauline letters that are generally accepted as authentic, although even this brief letter may be a composite created from fragments of more than one letter. The passage set for this Sunday is presumably chosen because of its repeated reference to the day of Christ:
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. (Phil 1:3-11 NRSV)
Paul is working with similar categories to the unknown author of Malachi, but his perspective is quite different. He celebrates the faithfulness of his audience and anticipates their vindication on the day of visitation by the divine Lord.
Gospel: John the Baptiser in Luke-Acts
John the Baptiser
In A Marginal Jew (vol. 2: “Mentor, Message and Miracles”), John Meier describes John the Baptist as one of two historical figures that stand at either end of Jesus’ life like bookends. The other is Pontius Pilate. We know of each figure from independent historical sources, although the popular image of both is shaped by Christian tradition that speaks of them only from the perspective of their relationship to Jesus.
The NT Gospels provide three major blocks of material about John, the Jewish apocalyptic prophet who was a contemporary of Jesus and may also have been something of a mentor to him:
- Infancy narratives (Luke 1-2)
- John’s activity culminating in the baptism of Jesus (found in all 4 Gospels)
- Questions posed by John about Jesus (Luke 7:18-35 || Matt 11:2-19, “Q”)
John’s death is related in Mark 6:17-29 and more briefly in Matt 14:3-12. There are also a few other passages that mention John or his disciples, sometimes in dispute with Jesus and sometimes in favorable terms.
The following passage in the first-century Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, is especially valuable as all our other descriptions of John come from Christian sources and might be expected to promote Jesus while playing down the significance of John:
 Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure to him. Antiquities of the Jewish People, 18.116-19: Perseus Digital Library
We see from Acts 19 that there were followers of John within Jewish circles late into the 1C (or even into the beginning of the 2C), and that they were something of a rival religious community to emerging Christianity.
John the Baptist in Luke-Acts
Luke presents John as filling a God-given role in preparing for the ministry of Jesus. He develops the infancy traditions of John and Jesus in parallel to one another:
- Scene 1 – John’s miraculous conception (Luke 1:5-25)
- Scene 2 – Jesus’ miraculous conception (Luke 1:26-38)
- Scene 3 – Mary visits Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56)
- Scene 4 – John’s birth and naming (Luke 1:57-80)
- Scene 5 – Jesus’ birth and naming (Luke 2:1-21)
- Scene 6 – Presentation in Temple (Luke 2:22-40)
- Scene 7 – 12-year old Jesus in Temple (Luke 2:41-52)
As Luke continues his presentation of Christianity in the two volumes we know as Luke-Acts, he gives John the Baptist more attention than in any other NT writing:
Luke 3:1-22 provides an extensive description of John prior to the baptism of Jesus (of which we read just the opening words this week).
In 5:33-39 Luke uses the material from Mark about the divergence in religious practice between John’s disciples (“always fasting and offering prayers”) and Jesus’ disciples (“yours just eat and drink”). Instead of reading that simply as a question directed to Jesus by the crowds, perhaps it should be understood (as Luke’s readers most likely appreciated) as a reference to the sustained rivalry between John’s people and the Jesus people? Did John’s disciples observe more traditional Jewish practices, while the Jesus people gathered for Eucharists in which the fellowship of the kingdom was experienced (but which their critics derided as “just eat and drink”).
Luke 7:18-35 directly addresses the relationship of John and Jesus. Luke asserts the primacy of Jesus, while affirming the importance of John. Yet Luke is also making the point that the least significant person in the Kingdom is greater than John. Once again the contrast between the asceticism of John’s followers and the exuberant celebrations of the Jesus people is clear.
Luke 9:7-9,18-21 preserves a tradition that some thought Jesus to be John returned to life following his murder by Herod Antipas. When introducing the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:1), Luke has the disciples request Jesus to teach them how to pray just like John had taught his disciples how to pray. This detail is only found in Luke. Matthew’s account simply has Jesus deciding to give some instruction on prayer (and the contrast is not with the prayer tradition of John’s people, but with those of the Gentiles). Once again we glimpse a profound tension between John’s followers and the Jesus movement.
Luke 16:16 treats John as the final prophet, and the one whose ministry marks the transition from the time of Law and the Prophets. In contrast, Luke presents Jesus as the one ushering in the Kingdom era. Luke’s version of this tradition differs significantly from Matthew’s (Matt 11:1-15): Matthew dates the breaking in of God’s Kingdom “from the time of John the Baptist until now.” He also explicitly identifies John with the Elijah figure expected to appear at the end of time. Luke does not allow John to be the Elijah figure since he will keep that function for Jesus himself.
In the Book of Acts the first of several references to John is found in Acts 1:4-5. Here (as if anticipating 19:1-7) Jesus contrasts John, who baptized with water, to the coming “baptism with the Holy Spirit.”
Jesus’ baptism by John is mentioned as the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in key speeches Luke creates for Peter and Paul in his narrative: Peter calling for a new apostle to replace Judas (1:21-22), Peter preaching to Cornelius (10:34-38), and Paul’s sermon to the Pisidian Jews (13:23-25).
In Acts 11:15-17, Luke has Peter cite the difference between John’s water baptism and the Spirit baptism of early Christianity when defending his decision to baptize Cornelius and his household.
The second-last reference to John the Baptist occurs in Acts 18:24-28. In this passage two of Paul’s associates put a fellow Christian missionary through a crash course in theology. Apollos “had been taught the way of the Lord and was on fire with the Spirit.” Better still, “he used to speak and teach about Jesus correctly.” However, Apollos had one shortcoming: “he knew only the baptism of John.”
Finally we have Acts 19:1-7, where the disciples of John need to move beyond John’s “baptism of repentance” (presumably expressed in fasting and prayers?), to a more eucharistic faith that celebrates the gift of the Spirit at the shared table (“just eating and drinking” to their detractors?). In this unique passage, Luke portrays Paul coming across a small community that is centered around the teachings of John the Baptist. This is the only time that the NT admits such groups existed and were rivals to the Jesus communities within Judaism. This episode allows Luke to assert the primacy of the Jesus movement over John’s followers: John’s people (described as disciples) are quite unaware of the Holy Spirit until Paul lays hands on them. Like the conversion of the first Gentiles (Acts 10), there is miraculous confirmation of their inclusion in the kingdom as they speak in tongues and prophesy. Significantly, Luke tells us there were about 12 people involved: sufficient for a properly ordered apostolic community.
Needless to say, we do not have any direct evidence of how John or his own disciples understood his place in the scheme of things.
- More on John the Baptist: 213_John_the_Baptist#Commentary
John’s Message in Luke 3
Luke’s description of John’s message is outlined in Luke 3:1-20:
[A] First of all, Luke carefully locates John by reference to several public figures that might be known to his audience:
3:1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins …
In contrast, notice how Mark and Matthew introduce John the Baptist, without even the infancy traditions that precede his public activity in Luke-Acts:
Mark 1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.
=Matt 3:1: In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2″Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'” 4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
[B] Then Luke follows Mark and Matthew, by interpreting John through the lens of Isaiah 40 (and correcting Mark’s inaccurate inclusion of words from Malachi as well as Isaiah):
as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”
[C] At this point, Luke introduces material not found in his earlier sources, as he describes the message proclaimed by John and indicates how it was received by the people:
7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
[D] In words reminiscent of his description in the Gospel of John (1:26-27 & 3:28-30), Luke portrays John as looking for someone greater to succeed him and act as God’s agent of judgment:
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
[E] Finally, Luke notes that a corrupt Herodian prince had ordered John’s execution — an event he refrains from describing, unlike Mark (6:17-29) and Matthew (14:3-12a). He mentions this outcome twice (see also Luke 9:7-9) but seems to play it down. It was perhaps a fate that might have suggested to Luke’s readers that there was something of the rebel about both Jesus and his mentor, John. Luke seems to have been at some pains to represent both John and Jesus as model citizens with a pedigree that featured family connections in Jerusalem and its Temple.
18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. 19 But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, 20 added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
- 431 Conception of John
- 432 Birth of John
- 213 John the Baptist
- 051 Into the Desert
- 058 John Baptizes Jesus
- 115 Johns Message
- 137 Johns Warning
- 138 Tree Cut Down
- 434 Johns Ethic
- 143 Reply to John
- 085 Greater than John
- 197 Herod beheads John
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.