Jesus of Galilee
BAPTIZED BY JOHN
By the time Jesus had reached his early thirties, the time was ripe and he was ready to be ordained for his mission.
This ordination was not to take place in a Temple, but in an open river. Nor would it be administered by an orthodox priest, but by the son of a Levite priest who was himself a desert prophet.
Luke carefully times the beginning of this ministry as occurring in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar (in Rome), usually designated as 29 A.D., sometimes 28 A.D.; Pontius Pilate being then governor of Judea sent out from Rome, and Herod Antipas (the son of Herod the Great who had reigned at Jesus' birth) was tetrarch of the province of Galilee. Caiaphas was then high priest in Jerusalem with his father-in-law Annas, the former high priest, still wielding a great deal of influence.
By now Jesus had matured into the full vigor of manhood. He was a strong commanding figure, in no way resembling the emaciated or effeminate image so often presented.
He was warm and vibrant with the radiant love of God flowing out from him and carried himself with such easy authority it occurred to no one to question him.
He had a classic face somewhat oval like that of Mary, but with a more pronounced nose, and the broad flat forehead slanting somewhat back to signify the swift movement of his thought. His eyes were deep and penetrating, and the mouth strong -- not like the mouth of other men, but more like unto a God. His beard was not pronounced. Some early artists painted him without one, others with.
Some called him blond like David, others believed he had dark hair parted at the middle after the manner of the Nazarenes, but both agree it was somewhat curly, and one sees it more brown with a reddish sheen. There was no representation made of him during his lifetime due to the religion of the Jews which forbade the making of any kind of image.
The "brothers" of Jesus who were mentioned by name in the Scriptures were Joseph, Simon and Jude, along with certain unnamed sisters. These, as explained before, may have been cousins instead, or even half-brothers.
A sister of Mary, also called Mary, the wife of Cleophas, was once mentioned also. Jesus had a great deal of love for people, as so often exhibited in his concern for the welfare and happiness of those about him later on. He liked women, too, and we wonder how Mary explained to the townspeople why one so eligible did not wed, as was the usual custom at a fairly early age.
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John, the son of Zacharias, had been born just six months before Jesus, and he started his ministry just a short time before our Lord. Though Jesus and John the Baptist were so near the same age and their missions so closely hinged one upon the other, it is not very likely they knew each other in the formative years, unless they met sometimes during youthful pilgrimages to the Temple at the Passover.
For Jesus lived in the north of Palestine and John in the south where he spent all his life in the Judean desert, until the call came from God to go forth preaching and baptizing. He was probably not always alone during that time, living in earlier years with his aging mother Elizabeth near Jerusalem, later making his way either to the desert dwelling of a hermit teacher, or to one of the more austere Essene communities. (Traditionally he is supposed to have spent some time at the one in Carmel.)
The Essene community in the heart of the Judean wilderness was preparing the way for the Lord's coming, through study of the Law and strict obedience to all that had been revealed by the prophets. United by a priestly discipline, the community itself constituted a "holy of holies" in which, through sacrifices of praise and perfect obedience, atonement was made for the guilt of transgressions and for the purification of the land. Set apart in this way, the community served as a house of holiness for the priests and a house of community for the Israelites who were obedient to the Law until the coming of the day of the Lord. This day would be marked by the appearance of two Messianic figures, an anointed priest and an anointed king for Israel.
In his later years John went out alone into the desert, living very frugally on locusts and wild honey, dressed in camel's hair and a leather girdle, praying and fasting.
There was beauty too, occasional strong notes of color in this desert where all is so light and all half-tones are lost in that clearness which in the East wraps the whole immensity of earth and sky and gives infinite sharpness and depth to the horizon.
He received his call from God only a matter of months before Jesus did and obeyed that call to come out in the land of Judea around the Jordan as a powerful preacher of immense force, his heroic sanctity lending strength to every word. He reminded people of their old Jewish prophets.
It was nearly 1,000 years since Elijah had come, and they waited his return as prophesied that he must precede the Messiah when he came. It had been said that three days before the Messiah, Elijah would again appear.
It was necessary that a "purifier" should precede the Messiah, for only the pure in heart would be able to abide in his presence
It had been such a long time since a true prophet had appeared in Israel that they were eager to hear this great one like unto those who had stirred man's conscience of old and who were the pride of their religious heritage. So they flocked to hear him preach, and his fame spread over all Palestine.
He was a rugged man, also around thirty-five years of age, dark-haired, and bearing that quality of fierce inner purity which can belong only to one who has nothing to conceal and no axe to grind -- but cutting all the more deeply as a result.
John had begun to gather a few disciples about him, and they assisted him with the baptisms, for there were many.
Baptism was not new. The Essenes also used baptism as part of their rites, and the Israelites have been mentioned as using some such rite in the times of both Isaiah and Ezekiel. So also did the followers of Mithras in Persia.
Josephus said that baptism was for purification of the body after the soul had already been purified through repentence. After baptism one became a sinless man, though if he sinned again he was not rebaptized but was given a supplementary rite.
Galilee, like all the other provinces, was filled with the name of John. The people of Galilee, under the impulse which carried all the Jews with it, came in their turn to ask for baptism. This was the hour of God for Jesus, who without further ado, joined the caravans of his country and descended into the valley of Jordan to seek the prophet.
John was baptizing in the River Jordan outside Jerusalem, in a place which was appropriate for immersion. (For the word "baptize" means "immerse.") Jesus traveled alone to see John, not yet having gathered any disciples about him. Whatever spiritual work he had done before this time was private, probably known only to his mother and himself. It was said that he came to John direct from Nazareth in Galilee, a trip of about three days.
The road past Nazareth led to the ford where caravans had to cross the river into southern Persia. Here John was preaching at Bethany, near Jericho. The place was full of religious memories, which carried the imagination back to such great ones as Joshua, who led the Israelites into the promised land here, and Elijah himself who had smitten the waters with his mantle and opened a passage through its rapid waters.
The name of the place is today called "place of passage." The name Bethany is not known. Some translators call the place "Bethabara," which means "house of the boat," indicating an established river crossing at that point. In the background are arid mountains which look like a mass of cinders. The atmosphere is hot even in winter. The silence of the solitude is scarcely broken by the cry of a few birds and the stifled murmur of the stream. It was quite near the Qumran Essene community.
This town of Bethany, or Bethabara, was on the far side of the Jordan, on the eastern shore where John was baptizing, and this was not the town called Bethany on the Mount of Olives where Lazarus lived with his sisters.
There is something about viewing past actions from a vantage point of time and knowledge that makes them appear as though re-enacted in miniature; for you have already absorbed the essence of what was done to carry you forward, and you can now view what they were doing (though not repeating the events in full scale) as though standing on a slope overlooking a tiny stream from above - one which you could cross in one step to the other side, and it represents the River Jordan, where Jesus was baptized. Jesus did the same when he came.
He did not repeat the old prophet's actions full-size, but put them in small scale and quickly went through to a baptism he did not need. It was a miniature repetition of several ancient events of significance. Today we go through all these in a still smaller proportion of action.
The word "Galilee" means "wheel" or "revolution of a wheel," and it seems as though the cycle of the "wheel" in Jesus' life turned each twelve years bringing him into a new area.
His mother traveled from Nazareth to give him birth; again when he was twelve years old they traveled to Jerusalem from their home in Nazareth, and he began to teach in the Temple.
We do not know what milestone was passed at this twenty- fourth year, but it was almost certainly a time of travel and spiritual experience.
The final rotation of the wheel brings him quite near to the thirty-sixty year when it carried him once more from Nazareth to the Jordan, again as before in the land of Judea.
We say Jesus was nearer thirty-five despite the usual saying that he began preaching at about thirty. Due to historically known events (Herod's death occurred in 4 B.C.), he had to be at least five years old by 1 A.D., and his ministry should have begun around 29 A.D., possibly 28 A.D. The letters "B.C.," of course, are an abbreviation for "before Christ," and "A.D." is abbreviated from Anno Domini, Latin for "Year of our Lord."
From the first chapter of the gospels of John and Mark, and from the third chapter of Matthew and Luke, we glean the story of Jesus' two baptisms, both of water and the Holy Spirit being accomplished in the same ritual, but the baptism by water had to precede the other in order to carry the new step upward from the old.
Baptism by John
This is why Jesus had need first to fulfill the former way. "Let it be so for now," he said to John, "to fulfill all righteousness." Because though he was already progressed far beyond any need for the baptism by water, he must make this token gesture to clear the way for that higher initiation which was to come from above.
Too, he may have personally wished to perform this cleansing to rid himself of any bits of earthly dust which might have clung from the thirty-odd years spent in preparing himself among men for this very moment.
Not only had John's preaching and baptism tilled the ground for Jesus to emerge publicly, but there was a need to acknowledge John's word and accept it, in order to receive in return the perfect witnessing of the spiritual anointment into his divine mission.
The River Jordan
We are told there appeared "a man sent from God whose name was John," and he came as a witness to testify concerning the Light so that through him all might come to believe.
He was not himself that Light, but he came to bear witness of it, for the real light which enlightens every man was even then coming into the world. And he was in the world already, but the world, though it owed its being to him, did not recognize him.
And John came preaching in the wilderness of Jordan, calling to all who would hear, "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is upon you." And he went all over the Judean Valley proclaiming the baptism and repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it was prophesied in the book of Isaiah:
All the people were on edge with expectation, musing in their hearts and wondering about John, whether perhaps he was the Messiah whom they awaited. But John answered them plainly, "Though I baptize you with water, there is one coming after me who is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to unfasten. He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
So with this and many other exhortations, John preached good news to the people.
Thither came Jesus unnoticed in the crowd, and John, as yet, knew him not. But when Jesus presented himself with the others, John sought to prevent him, saying, "I have need to be baptized by you, and yet you have come to me?" How John must have yearned for that greater baptism, which was withheld at that time.
In a profoundly graceful statement, Jesus answered him, "Let it be done so for now, for this is necessary for us so that all may be fulfilled." Then John consented and baptized him. After the immersion Jesus immediately rose out of the water and at that moment he saw the heavens opened wide and the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to alight upon him. A voice from heaven was heard saying, "Thou art My Son, My Beloved, on whom My favor rests."
The descent of the Holy Spirit after his immersion has been called the anointing of Jesus, with the wondrous sign which attended it enabling John to recognize him as the Messiah -- the long-awaited Saviour of man.