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Some Thoughts about John the Baptist

by Petersen ~ December 11th, 2008

1. Baptizer is stupid. Drop it. His title is “the Baptist.” We speak English. It is time to embrace our linguistic heritage.

2. Our Lord promises that faith like a mustard seed can tell a mountain to go jump into the sea and it will. For years I pondered if this were a hyperbole. It is a strange promise: a miracle never performed and seemingly without reason. Why would we ask mountains to jump into the sea. My friend David Fleming set me straight. It is a metaphor. The mountains that faith sends off to the beach are the mountains the Baptist cuts low, i.e., pride, etc.  The Baptist prepares the way of the Lord in the hearts of men. He stands in the wilderness to embody the metaphor. The hearts of men are wild, chaotic. He comes as Elijah to re-order them, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, etc. He does this through preaching. Men are prepared through the ear. This ties nicely to the Collect where we ask for the visitation of Our Lord to lighten the darkness of our hearts.

3. The fields are white with reeds shaken by the wind, vain preachers seeking soft clothing and places in king’s house by scratching the itchy ears of men. They are less than prophets. They are less than heretics. They are hirelings not of the people but of the devil. This is a warning to preachers. Beware popularity. The Word of God is antagonistic to sinners. The Church Militant is the fighting church and the love of each other by which She manifests itself in zeal.

4. Who was doubting, the Baptist or his apostles? More and more I think it was the Baptist. On this side of glory, faith and doubt coexist in the Christian. The Baptist is not a reed shaken by the wind. He abides in a king’s house but in the dungeon. He knows his martyrdom is immanent. He has in no way given up the Faith. And it is faith that seeks comfort and an answer from the Lord, not doubt. It is faith that desires to hear the promises and which knows where to find them. Certainly this is good for John’s disciples, as it is for us to listen in onm, but what comfort it must have brough to John in prison. “You are decreasing, cousin. I am increasing. You are to die. But do not be afraid. Look: the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, and the Gospel is preached to the poor. The work of preparation is done. The path is straight and level. I set my face for Jerusalem and I will see you in heaven. And there you can lay down your burdens, set aside your fierce diet and rough clothing, and simply be a member of the household without duties who basks in the joy of my grace.” Least in the kingdom of heaven is not a bad thing.

13 Responses to Some Thoughts about John the Baptist

  1. Paul Beisel

    Regarding the Baptist’s faith/doubts, it seems very logical to think as you do. The Prophets declared an end to captivity, and release to those who were in prison in the Messianic age. Why then was this not happening for John? If Jesus really was the Christ, if he really was the one promised by Isaiah and other prophets, then why was John still looking at the four walls of a prison cell? “Is he really the Christ, or should we look for another?” I don’t see this as being inconsistent at all with the Narrative. Ironically, the voice that was to speak “Comfort, Comfort” to the people was in need of comfort himself.

  2. fr john w fenton

    If I may, concerning point 4 — an existentialist reading of the saint, rather than a patristic or historic Lutheran reading; i.e., Luther disagrees.

  3. Alan

    Regarding your point number 1: With all due respect, I have no problem with “baptizer”. The only authority “Baptist” has as a word is usage.

  4. Petersen

    Certainly there is nothing Theologically at stake with the title ” Baptizer.” But I find it distracting and pedantic in sermons. Some faithful and pious friends will disagree.

    As to the argument that the only authority for the title “Baptist” is usage, well, that is the only authority that actually matters in linguistics.

  5. chaz_lehmann

    I think you’ve made the point in #4 better than I’ve seen it made before. In my preparation for my sermon I read a nice article comparing approaches to this text by Luther, Gerhard, Spener, Loehe, and Schweitzer (maybe others too).

    I don’t think I saw what you wrote in any of them. I am not going to make much of John doubting this year. The jury is still out for me, but I favor Luther’s reading.

    It’s a hard text. Thanks for your thoughts.

  6. Petersen

    In response to Fr. Fenton. I am not pulling an existential reading but rather a reading with Luther’s simul doctrine firmly in mind. I do not think that doctrine, so essential to Lutheran Theology, is at home in the East. But it is at home in St. Augustine, St. Ephraim, and St. Thomas A’Kempis. I suspect we could find more fathers as well. Those are off the top of my head.

    As to Luther’s understanding of John’s motives, I don’t doubt that was part of it. He wanted his disciples to hear the Word of the Lord from the Word of the Lord. But Luther operates with a piety that causes him at times to excuse the saints in the Scriptures when they simply show their struggle with the flesh. Luther doesn’t, however, do that with St. Peter’s denial or in Matthew 16. Luther goes to the greatest lengths, out of his pious respect for the saints, in the Genesis commentary. Luther sees the patriarchs, even in lying and giving their wives to pagan kings and such, as simply trying to preserve the Messianic line. It is quite a jump. And an uneccessary jump. The saints don’t need us to defend their actions. They are washed in the Blood of the Lamb.


    Pr. David Petersen

  7. Pr. H. R. Curtis

    Re: The Baptist’s Question.

    As in so many other questions, it’s hard to separate an honest and open exegesis of the text from what we have theologically at stake in the answer. What is at stake here is: “Is John the baptist freed from original sin on this side of glory?”

    You can see that the traditional answer to that question is Yes by looking at the Calendar. Only three people have liturgical celebrations of their physical birth: Jesus (Dec. 25), Mary (Sept. 8), John the Baptist (June 24). Normal saints are celebrated on their death days – their heavenly birthday (LSB’s recent innovations notwithstanding). As explained in Weiser’s Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, that John and Mary get additional days for their physical births reflects the church’s ancient belief that Mary and John were cleansed of original sin before birth: thus John can leap in the womb and be full of the Spirit even there, and in Mary’s case, many believed that she was preserved from original sin altogether. Luther, in the latter case, seems to have viewed it like unto the example of John: Mary was conceived with original sin but cleansed before her birth – see the Piepkorn essay on Mary in the ALPB collection The Church for the references.

    So, that’s what is lying behind this argument for many people. If you are invested in John being cleansed of original sin in the womb, you simply cannot understand him to be wavering in doubt. If you are invested in John being “just another sinner” then you will really want to jump on this verse as “proving” your point.

    But I do not think that this verse can profitably act as a fulcrum to pry an opponent into one’s own camp. One’s opponent reads this verse (as oneself does) in light of a prior commitment: is John cleansed from original sin in this life ahead of the Consummation? That will need to be argued on the basis of other texts.


  8. Dr. Patrick Fodor

    The quotation about the mountain being cast into the depths of the sea also has a more literal meaning. Note that Jesus says this- “Amen, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ it will be done. ” The “THIS Mountain” is Zion and the Temple Mount (which are in plain sight as Jesus says this), which would be cast into the sea. This means that this mountain would be destroyed by the Gentiles, who are described in apocalyptic and prophetic texts as the sea peoples. The comparison of this mountain with the fig tree, which is also a classic prophetic symbol of Israel- about to be cut down and burned, further supports this point. This is not, of course, to reject later fulfillments of Jesus’ Words, but simply to say that John’s message of immanent judgment is connected to the events of 70 A.D. This is connected with the message of Hebrews and the Apocalypse, as well as the Synoptic “Little Apocalypse” material.

  9. Petersen

    Fr. Fodor:

    Thanks for this. I hadn’t seen it and should have.

    But I am too small a man not to point out the chuckle I got at your turn of phrase: “more literal.”

    At the same time, I wonder if you aren’t on to something with that phrase. Because what is more real: the created mountain that still stands in Jerusalem or the heavenly reality that has been re-ordered?

    Fraternally, yours in Christ,


  10. Paul Beisel

    Based on the text itself, I really don’t see what the big deal is about John’s need for assurance. Was he above the need for the Gospel? Is anyone? Perhaps John wanted to know that his faith was not in vain and that his time in the prison cell was not without purpose. From John’s vantage point, it sure didn’t look like the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand. It sure didn’t look like the captives were being released, that Isaiah’s prophecies were being fulfilled.

  11. Kristofer Carlson

    A theologian of the cross will understand the doubt of John the Baptist. It is the same doubt any theologian of the cross has on this side of glory. Faith does not produce certainty, for faith is the evidence of things unseen. John sees the walls of his prison cell, the foretaste of his earthly reward as the forerunner. Like Job he has doubts, and he asks for confirmation of his faith. Jesus responds with the evidence John has not seen, but must take on faith based on the word of others: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, to the poor the gospel is preached. John’s disciples bore witness of this—none of which John witnessed with his own eyes, just as none of us witnessed any of this. Faith is required for this mortal realm, within which we doubt, and within which God reveals Himself only through the cross of Christ. Certitude belongs to the theology of glory, and is only possible for us once this mortal has put in immortality. Certainly, John the Baptist no longer struggles with doubt. I look forward to the day when my doubts will be done away with, when I too shall see Him face to face.



  13. Josh Sullivan

    If John needs this reassurance of Jesus' messiahship, wouldn't that make him a reed blowing in the wind, which Jesus says he is not?

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