One of our duties, which we take very seriously, is to investigate anyone who claims to be a prophet or to speak with divine authority. So it was that it came to our attention that in a relatively remote location up the Jordan River there was a firebrand preacher who had been causing something of a stir through his controversial message. Such would-be prophets come and go all the time, and more often than not they seem to arise in out-of-the-way towns and villages.
For one thing, the people there are less sophisticated than those in the city, and for another they are far less likely to be apprehended. Some of them make quite fantastic claims for themselves, deluding their simple devotees with messianic claims and firing them up to revolution. And that is the last thing we want. I am no lover of the Romans, but I am not looking for a bloodbath. And that is what it would be, I am afraid, if we ever attempted to rise up against them.
As it turned out, it fell to me to investigate this man John. I didn’t fancy taking the trip up to that part of the Jordan. The roads were not easy and, to tell you the truth, I prefer life in the city anyway. When we arrived, the scene was not altogether different from what I might have expected. A small crowd of poorly dressed, illiterate folk stood on the banks of the Jordan while this fellow John harangued at them unmercifully. He had sharp words of criticism for nearly everybody, all the way up to Herod. We tried to keep a low profile among the crowd, but it did not take long before he had spotted us, and I knew we were in for it.
“You brood of snakes,” he fulminated. “Who warned you to flee from God’s anger? Why don’t you start living as though you really believe what you profess? Just because you are Abraham’s descendants doesn’t give you any special right to presume on God. You are like a useless tree, plenty of leaves but no fruit. It won’t be long before you are chopped up and thrown into the fire.”
Frankly we were accustomed to this kind of criticism. We knew that our insistence on strict obedience to the Torah made us unpopular. So to take the heat off, one of our number stepped forward and asked him directly, “Who do you claim to be?” His reply was immediate. “I am not the Messiah, if that is what you are asking.” “Then who are you?” we pressed. “Do you think you are Elijah, the forerunner?” “No.” “Are you one of the prophets come back to life?” “Certainly not.” “Then who are you? We want to take an answer with us back to Jerusalem. Say something definite—anything—about yourself.”
By this time a silence had fell on the whole crowd. All eyes were on John. Slowly he looked up at us and said, “I am but a voice calling out in the desert, ‘Get ready, for the Lord is coming.’ ”
It all seemed harmless enough. Clearly this man had no plans to incite a revolution. We were about to go on our way when another of my colleagues asked, “If you don’t consider yourself a prophet, why the necessity to go about baptizing people?” Again all eyes turned on John. “I baptize with water. But at this very moment there is another whom none of you recognize, and I am not worthy even to take off his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
We stood by silently and watched, as a number of those simple folk, clearly touched by John’s message, stepped down the bank and into the river to be baptized by him. I will admit to you that I too was moved by that scene. By now it was getting into the afternoon and we needed to be on our way back to our inn.
As I lay in bed that night, I kept playing over the words of that strange preacher in my thoughts and seeing the people as they stepped down into the water. Try as I would, I could not get them out of my mind. I asked myself, what if people really learned to live by John’s message? Could it be that John’s baptism was the answer, that it could bring a higher righteousness than mere obedience to the Torah? Could it be that the Almighty was using this man to bring the day of his reign closer? And what about this one to whom John pointed, the one who, in his strange words, would come after him and yet was ahead of him?