If we ask a Christian on foot how the beginning of the Gospel was, it is very likely that he or she will refer to the missionary mandate pronounced by Jesus, as read in one of the ends of St. Mark’s writing: “Go all over the world to preach the gospel to all creation,” something that those disciples began to fulfill promptly (Mk 16:15-20). From that moment, the dissemination of the Good News of Jesus of Nazareth, his passion, death, resurrection, and ascension to heaven, accompanied by teachings and miracles, would have begun.
At the beginning, those stories about Jesus ran from mouth to ear, without more basting than that of the spontaneous anecdote. But as the years passed, and by force of repeating them, some of those who told them began to crimp them with each other, giving them a certain sequence, which can still be seen in some parts of the four evangelical narratives we have as canonical in the Church. In all of them, however, the figure of John the Baptist occupies a prominent place in the beginnings of the gospel of Jesus. In fact, when it comes to seeking a replacement in the circle of the Twelve to Judas, St. Luke puts as a condition the designee who has belonged to the group of Jesus “from the baptism of John until the day he was taken from among us to heaven … ”(Acts 1:21s). John has much to tell us about Jesus.
Perhaps the first thing that one can say about John is that what he did was named in his name: baptize. Baptism consists of immersing yourself ritually in water. It is a bathroom with a specific meaning. The practice of baptism is found in many religious groups in and around the Palestinian environment, and over several centuries. Its religious significance varies from group to group.
It sounds logical that the work of John is associated with the Jordan River, as the gospels repeatedly refer; perhaps in the area of Judea, but to baptize it is enough that there is water, and if there is a current, it is better. In fact, the Gospel of John mentions “Aenon, near Salim” (Jn 3: 23), which is probably a place in Samaritan land, but in the Jordan area. Thus, we know that John was an itinerant baptizer, who attributed a particular meaning to the rite.
The sense of John’s baptism, as read from his preaching in our canonical writings, is linked to a conversion or repentance on the part of those who want to submit to him. To the confession of sins corresponds divine forgiveness. It is not enough to belong to the race of the chosen people, because God requires a way of life according to the Law.
Those who, because of their way of life, seemed excluded from the cultic life of the temple also come to their baptism. John the Baptist’s work is driven by an urgency he anticipates: the impending judgment of God. The Baptist had to perceive the social corruption that prevailed in that society and seeks to reform it before the final punishment falls on the people.
John had his circle of followers, whom he taught with fasting and a particular way of praying (see Mk 2:18, Lk 11:1). While fasts have parallels with the practices of Pharisee piety, the distinctive prayer of the disciples of Jesus, the Our Father, seeks to distance themselves from both the ways of praying pagan (see Mt 6:9) and the Pharisees (see Lk 18:11). You can notice links between what is prayed in the Lord’s Prayer and what the Baptist preaches. One very clear link is the longing for the presence of the Kingdom of God, but equally relevant is the austerity of life (the daily bread) and the forgiveness of debts, both from God and among men. Several of Jesus’ first followers have their roots in the movement originated by John the Baptist.
John’s influence with the people must have been so remarkable that the authority felt threatened and decided to execute him (Mk 6:17-29), “Antipas… for fear of a rebellion, because the people were willing to do anything he [John the Baptist] told them… he decided to kill him” (F. Josefo, AJ, XVIII, 118).
He slaughtered it in Maqueronte, one of the heroic fortresses of Transjordan. The reason for the execution in the synoptic gospels is that the king transgressed the law by taking as his wife the wife of his half-brother Herod, whom he had met in Rome, and to do so he had to repudiate the daughter of the Nabatean king Aretas, with whom he was married.
John’s figure is fascinating for several chapters, but let’s write three. Because of its origins, John had a place in the service of the temple in Jerusalem, according to Saint Luke. His parents would be of priestly lineage and impeccable piety. John, however, gives himself a life incompatible with those of that holy precinct. Something must have happened to direct his steps in another direction.
Propagate a form of forgiveness of sins that is not that of sacrificial offerings, indispensable for the temple system and the priestly class. He proclaims that God administers forgiveness if the sinner converts from the heart and behaves with a co-responsible and supportive ethic with the most vulnerable. Baptism is the sign that seals that commitment. It is not a matter of purifying magic, but of a determination that cannot be postponed and that is served by fasting or by a diet of a Noachic type and prayer. John is a “priest against the counter” or “out of place”, to put it one way.
The gospel data agrees that John the Baptist is a prophet (see Lk 20:6). Jesus himself stands above those figures so revered in the biblical tradition (see Lk 7:24-27). Saint Luke puts the year at the beginning of John’s prophetic work, as well as the place and content of his proclamation (see Luke 3:1-18). In his figure resonate two echoes of prophets of the ancient People of God.
The first is the figure of Elijah that would have the people ready for the coming of the Lord through a family and national reconciliation (see Lk 1:76, Mal 3:1). The second echo is John’s response to Isaiah’s prophecies that call to reconstitute the people and God shows his glory to all nations. That universality of salvation is also supported by the demarcation of the temple system because God “can make from these stones, children of Abraham” (Lk 3:8). The desert is the framework that evokes the liberation of the people and the alliance with God.
John also congregates features of a consecrated person to God under the vow of the Nazirite, who was shown not to drink wine and let his hair grow (see Num 6 and Lk 7:33). This was a way of showing the exclusive dependence of God, which can also be traced in the diet so restricted that it is imposed. He eats only natural products of the earth; nothing cultivated (Mk 1:6). These traits correspond to someone moved by the Spirit of God (see Lk 1:80).
John’s movement grew beyond the borders of Palestine, and at one point originated Jesus’ and competed with him. The similarities of both movements and their founders can be seen, but at some point, one prevailed over the other and subsumed it. The gospel of Jesus Christ, however, cannot be understood without taking into account the figure of John, because with him the story of Jesus of Nazareth began to be modeled.