The Life of the Lord Jesus Christ

By Johann Peter Lange

Edited by Rev. Marcus Dods







the public testimony of the Baptist to Christ before the Jewish rulers

WHILE Jesus was fighting in the wilderness with the temptation which met Him under the form of the distorted Messianic hopes of His age, and in this victorious conflict developed the course of His Messianic work, the same hopes induced the Sanhedrim at Jerusalem to send a deputation to John the Baptist. John had made a powerful impression, not only on the people in general, but also on their leaders, the Pharisees, many of whom, as we have already noticed, were so carried away by the popular enthusiasm as to submit to his baptism. Gradually a more distinct judgment had been formed in the Sanhedrim respecting the unquestionable importance of so extraordinary a theocratic undertaking. They had arrived at the conviction, that a man who, on good grounds, could venture to subject the nation to such a purification, which implied a previous excommunication, must be either the Messiah Himself, or one of His forerunners who was announced as Elias by the prophets, or the prophet promised by Moses (Deu 18:15; Joh 1:25). But if the Baptist by his course of action, set forth such extraordinary claims, it was an official duty on the part of the Sanhedrim to take cognizance of it, and to come to a clear understanding with him. Accordingly this body resolved on sending a deputation to him, which consisted, as a matter of course,1 of priests and Levites. To the priests was entrusted the sanctioning of religious purification, which included the observance of the laws relative to ablutions,2 so that those who were sent on this occasion might be regarded as duly qualified commissioners. They were very properly accompanied by Levites, who served in part as an honourable escort, and in part to act, if need be, as a hierarchical police force, should John not be prepared to show his credentials.3 And now, if the deputation accomplish their object, the Baptist must be recognized as one of the great prophets of the Messianic advent, or exposed as a false prophet. But the Jewish national spirit in the high council would be completely misunderstood, and its members would be turned, against their own will, into Roman senators, if we supposed that they were averse to the announcement of the Messiah under every condition. Yet such a judgment has been rashly formed, from the circumstance that, at a later period, the Baptist was not acknowledged by them, and that Jesus was absolutely rejected; while it should be borne in mind that it was precisely by chiliastic-political motives that the Sanhedrim were determined to this course of conduct (see vol. i. p. 385). It could not therefore be the primary aim of this deputation to dispute the claims of the Baptist; it may rather be supposed that they were actuated by chiliastic excitement.4

From the account of the Evangelist John, we see that the deputation must have intimated to the Baptist that he would very likely announce himself as the Messiah. The Sanhedrim, as we have seen, must have regarded his baptism as a phenomenon of the commencing Messianic ĉon, and in a character who spiritually moved and carried with him the whole nation, they might find a claimant to the Messianic dignity.5 Now it is evident that a question which assumed the possibility that the Baptist might be the Messiah was a great temptation to him. And thus John was tempted at the same time as Jesus. The Evangelist has indicated the force of the temptation by the words, ‘He confessed, and denied not, but confessed, I am not the Christ’ (Joh 1:20).6

But the Baptist likewise gave a negative to the question whether he was Elias. How could he do that, since it was undeniable that Malachi had announced the forerunner of the Messiah under this designation? This declaration of the Baptist seems also to clash with the language of Christ, who at a later period told His disciples that in the person of the Baptist they might see that Elias who was to precede the Messiah (Mat 11:14; Mat 17:10-13). But Zacharias, the father of John, distinctly understood by the revelation of the angel that this identification of Christ’s forerunner with Elias was to be taken in a spiritual sense (Luk 1:17). And in the knowledge of this fact lay the reason of the Baptist’s negative to the question. He was actuated, doubtless, by the same motives as those which induced the Lord in the wilderness to reject the Messianic programme of His time as it was presented to Him. In the same proportion as the image of the Messiah or of the King was distorted into a carnal one, would be the image of His forerunner; or even in a still higher degree, inasmuch as this misrepresentation was carried to the length of expecting the return literally of the ancient prophet Elias. When, therefore, the Jews asked him, Art thou the Elias of the Messianic advent? the question probably meant, Art thou that Elias who was translated to heaven, returning at the founding of a new ĉon? And taking it in this sense, John answered, ‘No!’ and in saying that, he did not deny that he was the Lord’s forerunner in the spirit and power of Elias, for that was testified by his whole life, by his daily ministry. Under similar circumstances, Christ expressed Himself even with more caution and reserve. He avoided the misinterpretation of His Messianic calling, without the risk of fostering the opposite error, that He disowned all claim to be regarded as the Messiah.7

Lastly, the Baptist answered in the negative the inquiry of the deputation, whether he was ‘The Prophet’ (ὁ προφήτης), namely, that particular prophet whom the Jews, according to the promise of Moses, expected before the beginning of the new era. For this he had still greater reason, because such a representation of this Prophet had not become a general definite expectation among his nation. The genuine children of the theocratic spirit referred the passage to the Messiah Himself (Act 3:22). Now, if the Baptist also received this exposition, as must be admitted, the question in this sense would be a repetition of the first question, which he had already met with a negative. But others expected, according to the same passage, that one day Jeremiah would return and take part in the renovation of the theocracy. By others, again, Joshua was pointed out as the person to be expected.8 It is quite plain that John could not give assent to preconceptions of this kind. But though some persons in Israel had regarded the Prophet simply as the forerunner of Christ, John could not admit that this was the meaning of the official inquiry addressed to him; hence he gave a most decided negative also to this question. Thus, then, John repelled three tempting questions, which were animated by the same spirit as the three temptations which Christ conquered in the wilderness.

It has been thought surprising that the deputation asked the Baptist whether he was ‘the Prophet,’ after putting the question to him whether he was the Christ or Elias. If it were possible to consider the Prophet as identical with Christ, or with Elias, in both cases the question had already been settled. But probably the deputation already entertained one of those views which were developed more distinctly in the latter Jewish traditions; probably they understood Jeremiah by ‘the Prophet,’ and in that case the question was perfectly necessary. But even on the opposite supposition, if they held ‘the Prophet’ to be identical with Elias or with the Christ, still they knew not what the Baptist on his part thought on this point. Hence this third question was unavoidable, and its insertion marks the diplomatic exactness of the authorities, and indirectly the historical fidelity of the whole narrative. But if we view the series of questions in relation to their final object, we shall find that they are very carefully arranged. Was John, for instance, the Messiah, then his warrant for baptizing was placed beyond all doubt; was he the second Elias, it would stand equally firm; was he, lastly, ‘the Prophet,’ still its validity would be allowed.

When the deputies from the Sanhedrim pressed the Baptist to declare at last who he was, he answered them: ‘I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias’ (40:3). As Christ veiled His Messianic call in the most spiritual designation, which was diametrically opposed to the carnal enthusiasm of His nation, by calling Himself the Son of Man, so the Baptist chose the most delicate and spiritual characteristic of the forerunner, as he found it in the prophet Isaiah. That voice of one crying in the wilderness was primarily the theocratic presentiment, incorporating itself in prophecy, of the return of Israel from exile, as it would be accomplished under the spiritual guidance of Jehovah. But the Baptist rightly saw the highest fulfilment of that passage in the Israelitish presentiment of the advent of the Messiah, which had formed itself into a voice in his person.9 Yet the Jewish mind was not in a state to discover the deeper and more spiritual references of the Old Testament Scriptures, and on that account this interpretation was not received in the schools of the scribes. Hence the deputation took no notice of the positive declaration of the Baptist, and now asked him in the form of a reprimand, ‘Why baptizest thou then?’ This ministration appeared to them an unallowable undertaking if he could not substantiate his claim to either of the titles adduced.10 But John felt his ground; he answered firmly, ‘I baptize;’ but when he added, ‘with water,’ he passed a judgment on his baptism which he set in opposition to the judgment of the Sanhedrim. To them, this ritual observance appeared of extraordinary importance; to him, on the contrary, it appeared of extraordinary insignificance, because the vastly superior agency which the Messiah would shortly exert was always present to his thoughts. But while he depreciated his own baptism, he also justified its use, by announcing to the deputation that the Messiah was already nigh at hand. Even now He is in your midst, and ye know Him not—even Him who cometh after me, and yet was before me.11 So mysteriously and yet so distinctly did the Baptist speak of the Messiah, while he also had a feeling of the discrepancy between the expectations of His people and the character of Him who was about to appear. The Messiah had become a public character for His people, and therefore had come into their midst, when He accredited Himself to the person who was appointed by God to announce His appearance. But when the Baptist designates the personage who was to come after him as ‘He who was before him,’ he expresses the essential priority or princely dignity of Christ, His essential precedence to himself in the kingdom of God. Such a twofold relation exists even in the case of a common herald. The herald outwardly hastens on before the prince, but the prince possessed his dignity before him, and made him a herald, and, according to the privilege of his rank, the prince preceded him. The herald is the outward forerunner of the prince, but the prince is the spiritual forerunner of the herald. But if the Baptist had the full impression that in his calling he was entirely regulated by the higher calling of Christ, that his dignity was derived from Christ’s dignity, and if he declared that Christ had this priority in the theocracy, he expressed at the same time the essential priority of Christ in the eternity of God; for the one is not without the other. We have not here to examine how clearly and comprehensively he thus developed, theologically, the eternal existence of Christ. But without doubt he was already more certain of the eternal existence of his own inferior personality in God, than many theologians are certain of the eternal existence of Christ.

John knew that Christ in His spiritual essence had exerted His agency throughout the Old Testament dispensation, and was undoubtedly the King of Israel. Hence he declared that he was not worthy to loosen His shoe-latchet. He was willing to vanish, with all his works, before the glory of the Lord, and with this feeling he dismissed the deputation from Jerusalem, who were so destitute of the fitting presentiments as to regard his water-baptism as the greatest event of the times.

We have already seen how extremely improbable it is, that the deputation should not be anxious to have an exact description of the outward appearance of a personage whom the Baptist had thus magnified, and how much it accorded with the duty of the Baptist to give them such a description. Hence we may confidently assume that the deputation returned with highly raised expectations, after receiving such an account of the person and presence of the Messiah. It is an important circumstance, that this conference took place at Bethany, on the other side Jordan, where John was then baptizing; so that the deputation must needs return home through the wilderness, in which John was tarrying.

In the meantime, it was quite a matter of uncertainty what judgment the Sanhedrim would form in the sequel respecting John. That judgment would now depend on the question, what relation the Sanhedrim would assume towards Jesus. As soon, therefore, as a collision took place between the spirit of that body and the spirit of Christ, as, according to the view we have taken, must have happened at the close of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness, the Jewish authorities would come to a rupture with the Baptist. But since the people, and even many members of their own body, had already done him homage, it suited their policy to conduct themselves towards him, and to express their opinion respecting him, with the greatest reserve. Yet they were not able to conceal the contradiction which existed between their earlier personal homage and their later official reserve. The Lord could reproach with unbelief towards John, men who at one time resorted to the Jordan (Luk 7:33). If, therefore, the Evangelists appear to contradict one another when in one place they report (Mat 3:7) that many Pharisees came to John, and in another that the Pharisees and scribes were not baptized of him (Luk 7:30), a real and striking fact is exhibited in a very characteristic manner. The ambiguous position which the Jewish rulers occupied in relation to the question whether John was a prophet, was founded on the constant embarrassment they felt, owing, on the one hand, to John’s decisive testimony to Christ, and, on the other, to the decisive opinion of the people in favour of John. Hence Christ, towards the close of His career, when they questioned His authority, probably to execute the purification of the temple, with the most wonderful sagacity proposed to them a counter-question, and showed that He saw into the very depths of their evil conscience,—the question whether the baptism of John rested on divine authority, or was an arbitrary human institution (Mat 21:24). They confessed their inability to answer the question—a confession most disgraceful to the tribunal they formed—rather than they would express a decision either for or against the Baptist; a proof how completely they were non-plussed by the question of Jesus. The fact that the Jewish rulers never ventured to form an official judgment respecting the Baptist, confirms in a very significant manner the account of the Evangelist John, that the Baptist had, by a solemn testimony, directed the people through their rulers to Christ, and that Christ expressly appealed to this testimony (Joh 5:33, &c.) But since John testified so publicly of Christ, he linked His fate with his own; and Herod Antipas probably considered the outrage he committed on the stern preacher of repentance as greatly favoured by the circumstance that his authority had not been supported by the Sanhedrim.



1. Von Ammon, in his Geschichte des Lebens Jesu (i. 261), remarks, ‘Full freedom of opinion and of public speaking prevailed among the Israelites as long as the fundamental doctrines of the law were not endangered, as we find also among Christians in the time of Paul at Corinth (1Co 14:29). If, on the other hand, a Chakam or Rabbi indulged in attacks on the Mosaic theocratic constitution, the Lesser or Greater Sanhedrim, and the high-priestly board especially, was authorized to interfere constitutionally, and to call the innovating teacher to account respecting his authority for such proceedings (Vitringa, De Synagogâ vetere, p. 866). This was done by the Great Sanhedrim in the case of Jesus, and previously in reference to the Baptist.’

2. The fact of the testimony of the Baptist to Jesus is disputed by the latest critics. Weisse even thinks that true faith in the divine revelation in Christ requires most peremptorily a deviation from the letter of the Gospel narrative in reference to this testimony. Strauss adduces a series of reasons for setting aside this testimony. First of all, the later sending of the Baptist to Christ. This we shall consider in its proper place. A real difficulty brought forward also by others is the question, why the Baptist still continued to baptize, and why he did not rather join himself to Jesus? But this question has weight only as long as the significance of John’s baptism is not clearly understood. John could not venture to cease purifying the old Israelitish congregation for the Church of the Messiah, as long as any unbaptized persons resorted to him. His attachment to Christ, therefore, was evinced by remaining at his post, and by fulfilling the vocation given him by God as the labour of his life. As all the other Israelites who were believers in Christ were not called to join themselves to Him as disciples in the more special sense, so neither was this the case with John. Rather would he have been unfaithful to his christological calling, had he relinquished his baptismal office. It is further alleged that John, on his ‘contracted stand-point,’ was unable to form a conception of that higher one which Jesus occupied (i. 377). Here again the author constructs a psychology at his own hand. This time he sets out on an assumption of ethical pitifulness, owing to which men on lower stand-points cannot help making mistakes when they look up to a man who stands higher than themselves. We are here reminded of the self-denial with which Farel implored Calvin to remain at Geneva,12 and the earlier judgments of Erasmus on Luther, and other similar facts. Even Bodmer’s behaviour towards Klopstock and Wieland’s judgment on Göthe (Weisse, i. 271, and Ebrard) may be here adduced. In the history of modern philosophy, the author might indeed believe he could find vouchers for his canon. But the assumption was quite false, that the ethical ability of humanity is to be estimated according to that individual philosopher. Further on we meet with the well-known quick evolutions of sophistical dexterity (p. 379). ‘According to Mat 11:2 and Luk 7:18, John sends two disciples to Christ with the doubting inquiry whether He was the ἐρχόμενς, while according to the fourth Gospel he directed likewise two disciples to Him, but with the definite assertion that Jesus was the ἀμνὸς Θεοῦ, &c.’ The reader can supply the et cetera in the well-known style of this writer. As to the relation of the Baptist to Jesus generally, Strauss defines it in a manner which has drawn forth the following remark from Kuhn (das Leben Jesu, i. 223):-‘In order to convict the synoptical representation of a legendary character, it is assumed that the Baptist and Jesus were not acquainted with one another at an early period; in order to set aside St John’s representation as unhistorical, the very opposite is assumed, that the two men were well acquainted with one another in early life. This I call a splendid specimen of critical art, which (as Lichtenberg playfully tells Philadelphia), to speak without bragging, goes far beyond the miraculous; indeed, so to speak, is absolutely impossible!’ As to the supposition that the Baptist and Jesus were early acquainted with one another, Strauss thus expresses himself: ‘John allows the Baptist to make rather the opposite assertion, but only because another interest, the one just noticed, preponderated in his mind.’

3. Bethany on the other side Jordan is to be distinguished from the Bethany not far from Jerusalem. Origen, as Lücke remarks, has altered it to Bethabara, against all, or almost all, the manuscript authorities.13 ‘It may be admitted that the place, as was often the case, had two names of similar meaning—Beth-abara, בֵּית עֲבָרָה Passage-house or Ford-house, and Bethany, perhaps from בֵּית אֳנִיָּה Ship-house.’14 Lücke, Commentar, i. 391-395. We may be allowed to conjecture that the name Bethany, Ship-house, which belonged to the palmiest days of Israel, had fallen into disuse when a boat to ferry passengers over was no longer employed, and persons were obliged to wade through, which in favourable seasons was possible in several places, and so the name was changed to Bethabara or Passage-house. This latter designation might perhaps be founded on the recollection that the place in former days, when likewise there was no ferry, was called Bethbarah (Jdg 7:24), as it is supposed that this was only a contraction of Bethabara (see Robinson’s Palestine i. 536; Von Raumer’s Palestina, p. 250).



1) [Lampe quotes from Maimonides: ʻSyucdriorum pars maxima ex Sacerdotibua constitit et Levitis.ʼ—ED.]

2) Lev. xiii. and xv.

3) The ground of suspicion which Weisse has taken against the truth of the narrative from the phrase ‘priests and Levites,’ is changed by a clear view of Israelitish relations into a ground of credence, ‘This point has already been satisfactorily settled by Lücke and Ebrard, and barely deserves a passing notice.

4) [Nulla adsunt vestigia, quie ex mera invidia aut impediendi studio prognatam esse legationem suadeant. Honorifica per se erat.” Lampe in Joun., i 407.—ED.]

5) ‘This disposes of what Strauss has remarked (i. 388) against the probability of such an inquiry.

6) [On which Augustin says: In eo probata est humilitas ejus, quia dixit se non esse, cum posset credi esse.’ Tract in Joan., iv. 8.—ED.]

7) Among other passages, that in John xviii. 34 proves how carefully the Lord avoided all misinterpretation relative to the Messianic title.

8) See Lücke's Commcntar über das Evany, des Jvhannes i. 386.

9) This passage is the first proof that references to typical prophecy in the Old Testament occur in John as well as in Matthew.

10) [Τοιαύας εἶχον παρὰ τῶν διδασκάλων ἑαυτῶν παραδόσεις, ὡς μόνοις ἐκείνοις ἐξήν βαπτίζειν, i.e, to the Christ, Elias, and that prophet. Ammonius in Catena.—ED.]

11) The words ὃς ἔμπροσθέν μου γέγονεν are wanting in several manuscripts, Lücke conjectures that they were taken from the parallel passages, vers. 15,30. Lachmann considers the reading as doubtful; the connection of the passage favours their retention, To the mysterious assertion, ‘He is in your midst, and ye know Him not,’ the other corresponds: ‘He cometh after me, and yet was before me.’ The unknown and manifested One of the people is the follower and predecessor of the Baptist. [Tischendorf, Meyer, Tholuck, and Alford reject the words.]

12) [See Kirchhofer's Life of Farel (Religious Tract Society, 1837), p. 136 ; Henry's Leben Johann Calvins, Hamburg, 1835, i. 161. TR.]

13) [Alford gives Origen's defence of the alteration, and exposes its weakness. Stanley, however, follows Origen (Sinai and Palestine). ED.]

14) [As Meyer remarks, however, this etymology will scarcely do for Bethany on the Mount of Olives. ED.]