The Imprisonment of John

03 Mar
James Tissot's John and the Pharisees

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Before we leave Jesus baptizing along the Jordan River near Judea, I think I would like to address John’s imprisonment. Notice that The Gospel of John specifically says that just after the first Passover in Jesus’ public ministry, both John and Jesus were baptizing around Judea, because (the text says) “John had not yet been cast into prison” (John 3:24). The Synoptic Gospels tell us that Herod put John the Baptist in prison and later beheaded him (Matthew 14:3-12; Mark 6:17-29; Luke 3:20, 9:9), but can we know when Herod had done this and the circumstances surrounding his arrest? The Scriptures are not very clear on this subject, but they do reveal some very interesting information upon close consideration.

First of all, we need to recognize, that because the Scriptures say “John had not yet been cast into prison” (John 3:24), this statement implies that the time of his imprisonment was close at hand, that is, just after the Passover of 28 AD (cp. John 2:13). Secondly, we need to understand that, before the second Passover of Jesus’ public ministry (John 6:4), John would be dead. He was killed just before the Passover of 29 AD. Notice that after John was slain that John’s disciples went and told Jesus (Mark 14:12). When Jesus heard of it, he departed to go into a deserted place and many people followed him, presumably because John was dead, and they needed encouragement from a new leader, whom they assumed would be Jesus. This gathering culminated in the feeding of the 5000 (Mark 14:13-21). This event is one of the few scenes of Jesus’ public life that was recorded in all four Gospels. John places this around the time of the second Passover of Jesus’ public ministry (cp. John 6:4, 5-13). So, John spent ten to eleven months in prison before he was beheaded.

What can we know about the events leading up to his arrest? The Gospel of John informs us that there arose a dispute between John’s disciples and the Jews, meaning representatives of the Jewish rulers at Jerusalem (John 3:25). Earlier, the Jewish rulers had sent a committee to interrogate John about his baptism (John 1:19). Rumors of the coming of the Messiah were strong during these years of the first century AD, because Daniel’s prophecy of the 70 Weeks was coming to a close, and he predicted the coming of the Messiah during this time. Nevertheless, John denied all questions about his being the Messiah or the Prophet who should come. (John 1:20-21). Those who were sent were Pharisees (John 1:24). Were they also Pharisees also who disputed later with John’s disciples (John 3:25) concerning purification? The text doesn’t come out and declare they are, but I believe the implication is there.

Notice in John 4:1-3 that Jesus left for Galilee when he understood that the Pharisees knew that he (Jesus) baptized more than John. Why would this be important, unless the Pharisees were responsible for John’s arrest? They had a peculiar relationship with the Herodians (supporters of the Herod government) and sometimes consulted them when they wanted Jesus out of the way (Mark 3:6, 12:13). The fact that Jesus was returning to Galilee in John 4:1-3 indicates that John had already been cast into prison (Matthew 4:12). So, we have one Scripture saying Jesus departed for Galilee after hearing John was put into prison, and the other Scripture saying Jesus departed into Galilee when he understood the Pharisees knew he baptized more people than John. It would seem that both Scriptures are to be taken together to refer to the same thing, namely, that the Pharisees were responsible for John’s imprisonment and then turned their attention to Jesus. This is why Jesus had to go through Samaria (John 4:4)! The Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans (John 4:9). The fact is the purity-conscious Pharisees would never have gone through Samaria to seek Jesus. They were too conscious of appearances and would have made a wide birth of Samaria whenever traveling north to Galilee.

Why would the Pharisees be upset with John’s baptism? This Jewish sect followed the traditions of the elders. This means they believed that the Oral Law with all of its washings and cleansings of people, homes, eating utensils etc. (Mark 7:3-7) was necessary for one’s purification before God. However all this had to do with one’s appearance—the outside or visible things in one’s life. John preached the cleansing of one’s sins through repentance and his baptism was an outward act of an inward occurrence. He referred to the priests and Pharisees as evil men (Matthew 3:7-9), concerned only with one’s birthright and one’s outside appearance rather than one’s inward heart toward God. The Pharisees could not abide John’s testimony. If what he preached was true, then all the cleansing and purification rites of the Oral Law were of no real value. Something had to be done. Either they needed to repent and believe John, or something had to be done with John. He was the proverbial immovable object, and they were the immovable force (power). They had him imprisoned.

Power or great authority is a very seductive force to be reckoned with in this world. Few people can handle great authority and still be submissive to God. David was one of those rare political figures. He succeeded where Saul failed. John was one of those rare religious figures; he succeeded where many religious leaders today fail. Think about it.

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Posted by on March 3, 2011 in Gospel, New Testament History, Religion


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