Holy Chutzpah – John the Baptist

Holy Chutzpah – John the Baptist

Holy Chutzpah – John the Baptist. 

“The angel reassured Zechariah, ‘Don’t fear. Your prayer has been heard. Elizabeth, your wife, will bear a son by you. You are to name him John. You’re going to leap like a gazelle for joy, and not only you – many will delight in his birth. He’ll achieve great stature with God. He’ll drink neither wine nor beer. He’ll be filled with the Holy Spirit from the moment he leaves his mother’s womb. He will turn many sons and daughters of Israel back to their God. He will herald God’s arrival in the style and strength of Elijah, soften the hearts of parents to children, and kindle devout understanding among  hardened skeptics – he’ll get the people ready for God.” (Luke 1:13-17, Message).

Chutzpah (hoots-pah) is a Yiddish word that long ago entered English usage. It is from the Hebrew word, “hutspah,” which means insolent or audacious. Chutzpah is a neutral word that can be either positive or negative. Chutzpah can be righteous or unrighteous, holy or unholy. It is an idea difficult to define, so there are a lot of synonyms for it, especially in the biblical sense: spiritual audacity; brazen gall; tenacious stubbornness; headstrong persistence; outrageous guts; shameless nerve; feisty assertiveness; brazen impudence; unyielding boldness; courageous spine; expectant defiance. The Holy Scriptures, both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, are overflowing with examples of holy chutzpah. One wonders not only if it’s a job requirement for saints and prophets, but also a faith requirement for all believers. In fact, God seems to love chutzpah in us when it is based on our ultimate trust in Him and His character, our unselfish motives, our yearning for justice and mercy. Chutzpah in front of others becomes holy when it is done in obedience to the Lord and is an outworking of our faith in Him. As Rabbi Schulweiss once said, “Spiritual audacity toward God finds a place of honor in Jewish religious thought.” The rabbis of old have always insisted that chutzpah is a valid expression of faith. Just a quick glimpse at the Gospels reveals that Jesus and His followers fully embraced the ancient Jewish ethic of holy chutzpah. When Jesus saw chutzpah in action, He usually said things like, “Great is your faith!” Maybe Christian scholar Dr. Brad Young said it best. “True faith requires bold perseverance. Sometimes it is expressed by brazen impudence. Faith can be defined as chutzpah. Persevere with unyielding tenacity.” (Brad Young, Jesus the Jewish Theologian).

John the Baptist was the end of an era. He was the last and greatest prophet in the Old Testament tradition. John, whose name means “Lord is gracious,” was the miracle baby of the aged couple Zechariah and Elizabeth. He was born into a priestly family, since Zechariah was an active priest in the Temple and Elizabeth was in the family line of Aaron. It would be difficult to find another biblical personality, apart from the Messiah, who was the object of so many prophecies. John was…

  • the “voice crying in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord” (Isaiah 40:3);
  • he was the “messenger” sent by the Lord, “who will prepare the way before Me.” (Malachi 3:1);
  • he was Elijah the prophet, sent to “clear the way for the Day of God” (Malachi 4:3);
  • he was named by the angel Gabriel, who said that John “will herald God’s arrival” (Luke 1:13-17);
  • he was prophesied by his father to be a “prophet of the Most High, and will go ahead of the Messiah to prepare His ways.” (Luke 1:67-79).

John was chosen before birth to be the forerunner of the Messiah, the one who would prepare the way for the appearance of the Anointed One in this world. John would not go into this crucial mission empty-handed – he was filled with the Holy Spirit from birth. Despite his lineage, John was not raised in a priestly home. From childhood he lived out in the desert, probably with an ascetic community that were strict members of Judaism. In this wilderness, he grew physically strong, mentally disciplined, and spiritually focused, and well-versed in the Hebrew Scriptures. Much of his childhood was spent in solitude with God, away from the Temple and all its rules, and from society in general. As it turned out, John was well-prepared to have a holy stubbornness as to his calling. He was tough and single-minded and well able to live off locusts and wild honey in a simple existence. Some scholars estimated that John’s ministry was only for a space of six months, but evidently that was all the time that Jesus needed to enter His part in the story of salvation. John got the most out of his spiritual audacity.

Baptism. “Baptizo” is a Greek word that means “to be plunged or immersed.” Baptism was nothing new to the faithful Jews. Ritual immersion was an important means of purification according to Biblical law. Being cleansed in water was noted in Levitcius 14:8 and Exodus 19:20 in Mosaic tradition. And water cleansing came to symbolize moral purification and repentance all through Hebrew Scriptures: ”

  • Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin” (Ps. 51:2);
  • Wash and make yourselves clean, take your evil deeds out of my sight!” (Isaiah 1:16);
  • I will sprinkle clean water on you and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities.” (Ezekiel 36:25).
  • ‘O Jerusalem, wash the evil from your heart and be saved. How long will you harbor wicked thoughts?” (Jeremiah 4:14);
  • On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.” (Zechariah 13:1).

These scriptures about cleansing and being made clean were taken seriously and literally by faithful Jews, hence the myriads of ritual baths outside the Temple. The “proselyte baptism” was also very common, experienced by all those who converted to Judaism. So, it was not a novel idea for John to come baptizing and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Mark 1:4). John’s baptisms were distinctive, though, because he was full of the Holy Spirit, he was not associated with the Temple system and all its regulations, and he preached the idea that his baptism is merely a pledge, a promise that the baptized person has repented and will continue to perform a radical change to his life. Repent, repent, turn around, John repeated. Many scholars believe that John preached a message that one should repent before being baptized… repentance before baptism, and that therefore the water was a statement that one has already purified himself. John’s baptism was more like an initiation rite into a brotherhood, a fellowship of penitents awaiting the coming of God in a new, special way. So John insisted that those baptized would “bear fruit that befit repentance,” a changed moral and spiritual life. John continued to preach that the mere washing with water was not enough. The baptized had to prepare the way for the Messiah by making an about-face in their lives.

Elijah. It’s no wonder many thought John to be the return of the great prophet Elijah. After all, Elijah was the prophet expected to prepare Israel for the Messiah, and John definitely looked the part. But John never referred to himself as Elijah, and went out of his way to confirm that fact. Being raised in the desert, John’s appearance was similar to Elijah, who lived 800 years before John. They both wore a camel hair cloak with a leather belt, looking like what they were… people straight out of the wilderness. Many Jews were speculating that, since Elijah never died but instead went straight into heaven in a fiery chariot (1 Kings 2:11), Elijah could just as easily return from the heavens and fulfill Malachi’s prophecy of preparing for the Messianic Age. Elijah had a prophesied purpose, and John fulfilled that purpose. John didn’t do miracles like Elijah, but he didn’t need to. He prepared the way for the Messiah, Who was indeed the greatest miracle of all.

Thunder in the Desert. When John wasn’t baptizing, he was engaged in straightforward conversation with a wide variety of people coming to him… Pharisees, priests, scribes, Roman soldiers, tax collectors, the wealthy elite, the common poor. In his holy chutzpah, John was known to have harsh words of condemnation to those who deserved them, and wise words of moral guidance to those asking for them. He was intolerant of the wealthy and the religious leadership. He called them the offspring of vipers! (Luke 3:7-14). Listen, you snakes, John would yell at them. Do you think by washing your body here you can escape judgment? Do you think you can slither away from the fire of judgment? I know you, you don’t fool me, he would say. You don’t have any intention of changing your life, of repenting and turning to God. You’re just going to do what young vipers do, eat away your mother from the inside, destroying the heart and spirit of the holy Faith that birthed you. Don’t try to claim salvation because Abraham is your father. Children of Abraham are a dime a dozen. You must bear fruit that shows you have repented. If that doesn’t happen, whether Jew or not, the branches of your nice little fruit tree will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.

No one dared to interrupt John when he got going like that. Maybe that was because the people were probably cheering him on. Many didn’t respect the Temple leadership either, seeing them as deceivers and hypocrites. But the crowd overhearing John’s sharp diatribe against the Pharisees soon surrounded him and asked him a logical question. What should we do to show we have repented? John told the people to care for the poor, giving them food and clothing and lots of blessing. John told the tax collector to be honest, and don’t take more taxes than required. John told the soldiers to be humane, don’t extort money, or accuse the innocent, or terrify others with threats of violence. And be content with your wages, don’t be greedy. John’s fearless words were always well-aimed, forthright, frank, to the point, and inspired by God’s Spirit.

Humility. Apart from his prophetic zeal, his untamed appearance, and his fearless preaching, John had one character quality that stood apart: Humility. John the Baptist? Humble? This wild man from the desert who confronted everyone from kings to the spiritual elite? Yes, humble. How else could you describe him after reading statements like these:

  • “After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop  down and untie.” (Mark 1:7);
  • “The Man who comes after me has surpassed me.” (John 1:20);
  • “This is the One! The One I told you was coming after me but in fact was ahead of me. He has always been ahead of me, has always had the first word.” (John 1:15);
  • I am not the Messiah, but the one sent before Him.” (John 3:29);
  • He must increase and become greater, and I must decrease and become less.” (John 3:30).

We know that John was widely considered to be a holy man by the people, full of courage and zeal, one who embraced self-denial to heroic proportions, and was single-mindedly obedient to his calling. But perhaps this is the reason his humility seems a dominant quality. When the priests came all the way from Jerusalem to ask him who he was, John without hesitation told them he was not the Messiah, he was not Elijah, he was not the awaited Moses-like Prophet (Deut. 18). Instead, John quoted Isaiah 40 and said, “I am a voice crying in the wilderness.” John said that he was not a name, but a voice. He was not out to make a name for himself. He was not trying to be the Next Big Thing. He didn’t want his name in lights, he didn’t want to be a superstar. He says that he was merely a voice, deferring to the true Messiah. He was here not to point to himself, but to point to the One who comes from above, the Son of God. John would have been just as happy to remain unknown. a voice and not a name. John wanted the people to remember Jesus, not him. And that is pure humility. Maybe that’s why John called himself the “friend of the Bridegroom,” the Best Man, standing up for Messiah. “That’s why my cup is running over. This is the assigned moment for the Bridegroom to move into the center, while I slip off to the sidelines.” (John 3:27-30).

Jesus’ Baptism. Why would the Sinless One approach John the Baptist to participate in a purification rite for the repentance of sins? John’s initial reaction was, ”What?! I should be the one baptized by you!” (Matt. 3:14). There are a few reasons why Jesus submitted to this initiation into the fellowship of penitents:

  1. To receive the Father’s blessing as Jesus begins His ministry. In His words of affirmation, the Father gave the heavenly seal of approval to inaugurate Jesus’ mission as Messiah. God’s words were, “You are my dearly beloved Son, and you bring me great joy! With you I am well pleased.” (Matt. 3:17). God is quoting Scripture here: Psalm 2:7, which is messianic, and Isaiah 42:1, which coronates the role of the Suffering Servant. God’s affirmation confirmed that Jesus the Messiah would travel the road of the Suffering Servant.
  2. To confess the sins of the people. This was done in the tradition of Nehemiah, Ezra, Daniel and others in biblical history who bore the burden of the sins of the people. In submitting to baptism, Jesus shouldered the responsibility of Israel’s sinfulness. In this rite of moral cleansing, Jesus acknowledged that Israel needs to be purified and forgiven. His baptism was an act of repentance, for the people, not for Himself.
  3. To identify with all humanity and their fallen nature. Jesus is giving a nod to His human identity, to be in solidarity with all people. All of humanity needs to be purified, He is a fellow human being, therefore He will identify Himself with humanity out of love and humility. Jesus is saying that as a Person, He will highlight the need for all people to have a moral cleansing.
  4. To show an example to all who witness the baptism and those who will find out later. Jesus wanted to be the messianic pioneer in this baptismal way of turning to God. He wanted to show the way for those followers who are penitent, and those unbelievers who needed some encouragement to repent.
  5. To show support for John the Baptist in his ministry. Jesus called John “the greatest prophet,” and He wanted to show the people that John was following a divinely inspired calling. He submitted to John’s baptism to affirm John’s crucial prophetic work, to confirm that John was indeed preparing the way for Jesus the Messiah. Jesus wanted to show the people that He believed in John and His work.
  6. To declare publicly that He was beginning His mission to the world. “In His first public declaration of His ministry, instead of going to Jerusalem and identifying with the established religious leaders, Jesus went to a river and identified with those who are repenting of sin.” (NLT notes
  7. To become ordained in His role as Messianic Savior. Jesus was thirty years old at the time of His baptism, which was when rabbis were dedicated to teach and priests were ordained and declared fit to serve in the Temple. Some scholars believe that His baptism was the established time to receive a formal dedication to serve Yahweh. In a sense, John dedicated the temple of Jesus’ body, much like Solomon once dedicated the Temple.
  8. To symbolize death and resurrection. When Jesus was immersed in baptism, He was symbolically buried in death. When He rose out of the water, He gave us a picture of how He would minister in the way of new life in the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus foreshadowed His own death and resurrection, and He revealed the meaning behind the future sacrament of Christian baptism.
  9. To be recognized as the divine Messiah. In a  moment of inspiration at the baptismal site, John the Baptist called Jesus, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29). John is referencing the Passover lamb (Ex. 12:3) that was slain to save the enslaved people of Israel from certain death. The Baptist is saying that Jesus is to be sacrificed to save the people from certain spiritual death. One Bible translator suggests that John’s baptism of Jesus publicly washed the sacrificial lamb and fulfilled the requirement of the law, confirming that the Lamb was spotless and without blemish. At the baptism, John confirmed that the untainted Lamb was ready to be sacrificed for the life of the people. (TPT notes).
  10. To reveal the holy Trinity. This is the first time in the Gospels that the Trinity is simultaneously present at a recorded event. The dove of the Holy Spirit descends and remains, the Father’s voice resounds from the heavens, and Jesus is in the water humbly submitting to the process of baptism. Every attempt at illustrating the Trinity in nature comes up short, and every time human logic and reason is used to understand the Trinity, it is not up to the task.
  11. To be spiritually anointed. The Spirit descended from the Father to rest and remain on the Son for His coming ministry. The dove is a symbol of peace, gentleness and purity, which are all reminders of the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit was seen to come in the bodily form of a dove to alight on the Lord. This was a spiritual anointing by God for Jesus’ mission. Just as the Spirit hovered over the waters of creation, the Spirit once again hovered over the waters, the baptismal waters, this time for the new creation as brought about by the life and ministry of Jesus.

The Question. John seemed to have some doubts while he was languishing in prison. (Matt. 11:1-6). The main thing is that John knew whom to ask, He didn’t limit his questions by asking others about Jesus. He went straight to the Man who would have the answers to his doubts. Some have speculated that John sent his disciples to Jesus in order to hand them off to Him. Some speculate that John thought that the Messiah’s mission would have more judgment and less mercy. For whatever reason, in John’s mind, the Messiah’s program was not going according to plan. So John’s disciples asked Jesus, “Are you the One we’ve been expecting, or are we still waiting?” Jesus, not at all offended, replied that John needs to accept these works of mercy at the Messiah’s hands… the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the Good News is being preached to the poor. Jesus indirectly said that He is indeed the Messiah, and is proving it by all these miracles of healing. Don’t forget, John, Jesus is saying, that healings are prophesied many times in Isaiah, that these miracles would accompany the coming of the Anointed One. And here I am, John, doing it! Jesus didn’t say directly that He was the Messiah, because perhaps He didn’t want the word to get around to Herod’s guards and officials. He doesn’t want to be imprisoned before His time. Jesus answered John’s great question by describing the Messiah’s miraculous actions. And that, no doubt, convinced John that he did indeed introduce the true Messiah to the world.

Death. John remained fearless when it came to speaking his mind. Staying in his prophetic mode, he decided to tenaciously confront Herod Antipas, the governor of Galilee (Matt. 14:1-12). Herod had shamelessly seduced and married the wife of his brother Philip. And John, not wanting to mince his words and with his customary zeal, told Herod that his relationship with Herodias was adultery, and morally unacceptable. Herodias was furious with John over these rather public accusations, and she wanted Herod to execute him. Herod was afraid to kill him because John was very popular with the people of his region. They revered John and considered him a prophet straight from God. But, strangely enough, at his birthday party, Herod was drunk and promised the world to the celebration’s entertainer, Herodias’ daughter. The daughter was coached by Herodias to claim a a reward for her entertainment, the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Herod didn’t want to lose face with the party-goers, so he relented and ordered the execution of John. Garishly enough, they literally brought in John’s head on a platter, which ended up with Herodias for safe-keeping… a bizarre and tragic end to the greatest prophet of all time. Jesus was told of John’s death after John was buried by his disciples. There is no doubt that Jesus deeply mourned his cousin John’s death, for Matthew reported, “When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.” (Matt. 14:13). Jesus commended John often for his obedience to his calling of preparing the way. But what could be better than this commendation by the people, long after John had died, “All that John said about this Man Jesus was true. Everything John ever said about this Man has come true!” (John 10:41).

And Jesus said, “I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist.”  (Matthew 11:11).