John the Baptist in LukeActs

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This pages is part of the Jesus Database project and relates especially to 213 John the Baptist


John the Baptist in Luke/Acts (see also John the Baptist in Matthew)

John the Baptist is given more attention throughout Luke/Acts than in any other NT writing:

  • In Luke 1:5-25 and 57-80 John has a miraculous conception and from his birth is marked as someone with a special role in God's purposes.
  • Luke 3:1-22 provides an extensive description of John prior to the baptism of Jesus.
  • 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 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 (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 his ministry in several speeches: Peter calling for a new apostle to replace Judas (Acts 1:21-22), Peter preaching to Cornelius (Acts 10:34-38), and Paul's sermon to the Pisidian Jews (Acts 13:23-25).
  • In Acts 11:15-17, Peter cites 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.

Greg Jenks