In the four Gospel books, we hear very little about Jesus’ early childhood and nothing about John’s. The miraculous circumstances surrounding John’s birth are what we hear about, then someone hits the chapter skip button and suddenly we’re meeting John as a grown man. Jesus and John are only about three months apart in age, so John’s about thirty years old when he pops up as a man. With such a big jump in time, we’ve got some new leadership to note. Tiberius is now the emperor of Rome, Pontius Pilate is the governor of Judea, Herod Antipas is the tetrarch of Galilee, and that Herod’s brother Philip is the tetrarch of several other regions. Whew! That’s a lot of new names. And since some of them are going to come up again, let’s learn a little about who they are.
TIBERIUS, Emperor of Rome (42 BC – AD 37)
The Romans loved having lots of names, and they liked using the same names over and over again. This makes for a lot of confusion when you’re trying to sort out who is who. Lifespan is the key to keeping things straight, and that’s why we’ve included the dates of Tiberius’ reign above. This Tiberius is going to be the emperor during the last three years of Jesus’ life on earth. Jesus is going to depart around AD 33, and Tiberius is going to die shortly thereafter. Understanding that Jesus is living in the later part of Tiberius’ life is an important clue, for at the end of his life, Tiberius turned into a bit of a fruitcake.
This Tiberius is the second emperor of Rome. He’s the adopted son of Augustus. Augustus was the fellow who demanded the headcount that caused Joseph and Mary to have to troop on down to Bethlehem.
Now Tiberius was a popular name for Roman emperors. The name Nero got around quite a bit as well, so even though this Tiberius’ birth name was Tiberius Claudius Nero, he isn’t to be confused with the infamous Nero who gets blamed for psychotically persecuting Christians. We’ll meet that Nero much later on in Period 8. All through Period 7, Tiberius is our man.
Now just as the American president today has a power struggle with the Senate and Congress, Roman emperors felt threatened by the Roman Senate—a governing body of about 300 men. What do you do to keep the Senate from messing with you? Keeping the royal military—the Praetorian Guard—close to home was an important step, so Tiberius did this. Now happily for him, daddy Augustus had really spanked the Senate during his reign, greatly limiting its power and paving the way for his son to have an easier time of it.
Tiberius starts off with some pretty reasonable policies. He’s wise with money—dying with 20x the wealth he started with. He showed some restraint of ego by refusing to have a month of a year named after him. He got rid of gross gladiator games. But he was far from friendly. He intensely disliked the Jews and had them all exiled from the empire’s capital city of Rome.
Now when you’re a busy emperor, it’s hard to be a good father. We saw this pattern with King David back in the Old Testament. David was so busy being a great warrior and ruler, that his kids grew up with emotional complexes because he was never around for them. Here in Period 7, Tiberius doesn’t have many memories of Augustus spending time with him, and when Tiberius’ own son Drusus dies in AD 23, he takes it very hard. After that he delegates more and more authority to a man named Sejanus, who was the head of the royal guard. In AD 27, about three years before the time period we’re going to cover in this lesson, a 67 year old Tiberius takes off on a tour of southern Italy and never returns. He ends up camping out on an island named Capri, and there he started exhibiting a truly monstrous side. Never a handsome fellow, Tiberius developed a very painful and mutilating skin disease. First he got all blotchy, then he broke out in foul smelling, pus filled sores. This is quite a humiliation for an emperor to have to endure, and Tiberius coped with it by building himself a network of torture chambers, prisons, and execution centers which he then used to entertain himself. Clearly the man was aligning with demons on a soul level—a very sad situation.
Now when word reaches Tiberius that the man he used to trust—Sejanus—was probably responsible for murdering the emperor’s beloved son, Tiberius has Sejanus executed. He then goes on a rampage of accusing various high ranking Romans of helping Sejanus and there is more carnage. Capri just isn’t where you want to be living in these times.
In the spring of AD 37—four years after the resurrection of Jesus, Tiberius threw a javelin at a sporting event, injured his shoulder, became ill, and fell into a coma. Upon examining his body, his doctors declared he’d be dead in a day. Tiberius had named Caligula—a young man with very shady morals—to succeed him. As the emperor lay in a coma, Caligula was put on the throne. But then, what a surprise when Tiberius suddenly woke up from his coma, wondering what was happening. Can Rome have two emperors? The Senate is thrown into a tizzy until the commander of the royal guard saves the day by smothering Tiberius with his blankets. Ah, the life of an emperor.
PONTIUS PILATE, Governor (aka Prefect) of Judea from AD 26-36
Pontius Pilate was not a popular fellow among the Jews. They saw him as a very blasphemous and insulting figure, especially when he hung up idolatrous images of Tiberius all throughout Jerusalem. Another winner was when he had coins minted with pagan religious symbols on them. Now Pilate rises to power under the wing of shady Sejanus—that head of the royal guard who Tiberius used to trust until he learned better. But after Tiberius has Sejanus executed in AD 31, Pilate felt more vulnerable to the Jews making him look bad in front of the Roman government. By the time we get to Jesus’ crucifixion, it’s clear that Pilate feels very intimidated by the local Jewish leaders who could start a riot and make him look like he wasn’t in control of his post. After launching an assault on Samaritans, Pilate was called back to Rome to stand trial. Very little is known about his later life. One tradition is that he committed suicide per Caligula’s command. Another tradition in the Church is that Pilate and his wife later became Christians. Pilate’s wife has been turned into a saint named Claudia or Procula in certain sections of the Christian Church. And as is usually the case when we go around sainting dead people, we make up a bunch of unsubstantiated guff about how wonderful they were while they were alive.
HEROD ANTIPAS, Ruler (aka Tetrarch) of Galilee
In Lesson 42, we learned about Herod the Great, who the Romans made king of Judea. He was the father of Herod Antipas. This second Herod is going to play a significant role in the life of John the Baptist—he’ll be John’s executioner. In Luke 13:32, Jesus refers to Herod Antipas as “that fox”—and He doesn’t mean it as a compliment.
Herod Antipas comes into power with some help from Augustus, who modified Herod the Great’s will. Now once Herod is in power, he dumps his wife Nabataean, who is the daughter of a king of a neighboring desert kingdom. Let’s remember that many royal marriages were little more than political moves—“I’ll marry your daughter, and then we’ll have peace between our kingdoms.” After the divorce, Herod marries Herodias—the wife of his brother Philip. Well, that’s not right. The Jews are offended. Nabataean’s father is offended. Herod Antipas is making enemies.
Soon we’ll learn that John the Baptist is going to accuse Herod of being inappropriate with this second marriage. Quite offended that John is bagging on her, Herodias will pressure Herod into throwing John into prison. She’ll then arrange for John to be beheaded. This is how people react when they are called out on their sins—they try to destroy the source of the conviction.
Now there are a few Jews who like Herod and they are called Herodians. The Herodian Jews were rich, and they figured that schmoozing Rome and Roman backed officials was the smart way to live. Herod naturally smiled on this group and showed them favor.
In AD 36, Herod is called on to be a mediator in some important political talks for the empire. He does well, but his rush to boast of his accomplishments in Rome makes one Roman fellow named Vitellius very angry. It’s after this point that Herod’s past sins start catching up to him.
In AD 37, the father of Nabataean—the first wife that Herod dumped—attacks Herod’s territory out of spite. Herod calls on Rome for military back-up. Rome sends Vitellius to help—the guy who is still holding a grudge over the way Herod shined at the conference. Fully aware that Herod is in trouble, Vitellius takes his sweet time in bringing reinforcements.
That same year, Tiberius is smothered and Caligula becomes the next emperor. Nasty Herodias—Herod’s second wife who killed John the Baptist—is jealous of her brother Agrippa’s success. She once again pressures Herod to do her dirty work for her by badmouthing Agrippa to the emperor. What no one realizes is that the emperor and Agrippa are close friends. Agrippa learns about Herod’s plans to trash him so he trashes Herod first by coming up with some accusations that stick. Emperor Caligula then banishes Herod and his wife to Gaul, then gives Herod’s territory to Antipas. It really doesn’t pay to hold grudges.
PHILIP, Ruler (aka Tetrarch) of northeast Judea
Herod the Great ruled over all of Judea. When he died, that same region was divided up among three of his sons: Herod Archelaus, Herod Antipas, and Philip. Archelaus got the biggest section, but he made Augustus mad, so he ended up banished to Gaul where he died. It was Archelaus’ fussing that caused Emperor Augustus to adjust Herod the Great’s will. Archelaus was half-Samaritan and half-Idumaean, which made him an evil, oppressive foreigner in the eyes of the Jews. Well, Archelaus didn’t like the Jews, either, and he treated them badly. The Jews then complained to Rome. Rome doesn’t want leaders provoking citizens to revolt over stupid issues, so Archelaus gets the boot. Now it’s down to Herod Antipas and Philip to rule over Judea. Philip ends up with the smallest area, but he rules his section well. He doesn’t have many Jews in his area, which frees him up to do more schmoozing of Rome. Philip was less extravagant than his brothers, he spent more time with his subjects, and overall seemed like a pretty reasonable guy. The only thing we have to wonder is why on earth he decided to marry nasty Herodias’ daughter Salome towards the end of his reign. Who wants Herodias for a mother in law?
JOHN THE BAPTIST
Now that we’ve met the local leadership, let’s continue on with our story. Luke suggests that it is in the fifteenth year of Tiberius’ reign that John the Baptist goes into full time prophet mode. Matthew says that John preached in the wilderness area of Judea. Luke says John is preaching up and down the Jordan River. John’s message is typical of God’s public prophets: he’s urging people to repent and return to God.
In the Old Testament we learned that it was traditional for Jewish prophets to go around wearing tunics made of animal hair, as opposed to plain cloth. John is following suit: he’s wearing a garment of camel hair that he keeps in place with a leather belt. He’s preaching and baptizing people in the Jordan River. To get baptized by John was to publicly declare that you wanted to be in a right relationship with Yahweh.
Now John is a serious prophet, and he’s not about to let the servants of Satan make a mockery out of his baptisms. When he sees a bunch of Sadducees and Pharisees standing in line for baptizing—those self-righteous windbags who think they are above repentance—he gets mad.
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes One who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor, gathering His wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Matt. 3:7-12)
When speaking to a mixed crowd of rebels and sincere seekers, we often find God getting crispy with His tone. John senses there are some hypocrites in the crowd who are just getting baptized because it seems like the latest trend. In the above speech, he warns them that sincere repentance is the only way they’re going to get saved. Simply counting on their bloodlines to save them won’t work. Merely being a biological descendant of Abraham has never been enough to get a man into Heaven, so John bashes on the pride of ancestry by reminding people that Yahweh could easily turn rocks into the children of Abraham if He wanted to.
John’s message is urgent—it has an end times feel to it. He predicts that at any minute, some new Fellow will come along with Divine powers. This Man will baptize people with Yahweh’s own Spirit, and He’ll judge the righteous from the unrighteous.
CHAFF vs. WHEAT
In these times, everyone was familiar with the task of having to separate wheat kernels from chaff. There’s going to be a lot of references to wheat and chaff in the Gospels, so we should have a clear understanding of what chaff is. Picture a bag of sunflower seeds. You don’t want to just eat the seeds whole—first you have to break each seed out of its hard shell casing. Now imagine if that hard shell casing was like dry paper instead. That dry paper shell would be the chaff and the seed inside would be the wheat kernel. Before you could grind wheat kernels down to make things like flour, you had to separate each kernel from its papery chaff. How do you do that? It takes several steps.
The first step is to loosen those paper shells from all those small wheat kernels. Before the days of machines, people either beat the kernels by hand, which was extremely time-consuming, or they had animals walk on them. The idea here is that when you press down on the kernels, they’ll slip out of their paper casings.
Okay, so you’ve threshed for hours and now your back hurts and what you have is a big pile of kernels and chaff all mixed together. How do you get just the kernels out? Here we need to go to Step 2:
Load your big pile of kernels and chaff into baskets. Dump it all into a pile on the ground. Now get a big three prong rake or shovel and start tossing piles of the stuff into the air. If there’s a nice breeze blowing, the wind will blow the light, papery chaff away while the heavier kernels will fall back onto the ground. Is this fun? No, it’s tedious and tiring. But wheat is an essential grain, so there was all kinds of threshing and winnowing happening in Bible times.
REFERENCES TO WHEAT IN THE BIBLE
Since chaff is the useless, unwanted part of wheat, you don’t want God comparing you to chaff. In Hosea 13, Yahweh is expressing His fury with Israel when He says:
Now they sin more and more; they make idols for themselves from their silver, cleverly fashioned images, all of them the work of craftsmen. It is said of these people, “They offer human sacrifices! They kiss calf-idols!” Therefore they will be like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears, like chaff swirling from a threshing floor, like smoke escaping through a window. (Hos. 13:2-3)
Just as papery chaff is blown away by the wind, Yahweh is going to blow away His people with large scale discipline.
In Jeremiah 13:24-25, Yahweh is again speaking to Israel when He says:
“I will scatter you like chaff driven by the desert wind. This is your lot, the portion I have decreed for you, because you have forgotten Me and trusted in false gods.”
In describing Yahweh’s supremacy over the rulers of the earth, Isaiah says:
“Yahweh brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing. No sooner are they planted, no sooner are they sown, no sooner do they take root in the ground, than He blows on them and they wither, and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.” (Isa. 40:23-24)
And here in our Gospel books, John the Baptist says:
“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes One who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor, gathering His wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Matt. 3:11-12)
Here chaff is a metaphor for people who Jesus will throw into Hell because they refused to submit to God. We really don’t want to be chaff.
JESUS IS BAPTIZED
After letting us know that John is a no nonsense, tough love kind of preacher, our Gospel writers then bring Jesus onto the scene. We’re told that He has come from His hometown of Nazareth to find John by the Jordan River. John will later explain that he had no idea that his cousin was the Messiah until God suddenly revealed it to him. Once John has that aha moment, he’s more than a little uncomfortable with baptizing the Messiah.
But John tried to stop Him, saying, “I need to be baptized by You, and yet You come to me?” (Matt. 3:14)
When Jesus won’t take no for an answer, John gives in and baptizes Him in front of the crowd. Jesus then comes out of the river and suddenly the sky opens and the Holy Spirit descends onto Jesus in the form of a dove. It’s important to note that the text says the Spirit came down “like a dove”, it doesn’t mean a literal bird flew down onto Jesus. More likely whatever people saw they associated with the familiar motions of a dove, which was a very common bird in these parts. But the really exciting bit is when Yahweh calls down from Heaven and says:
“This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” (Matt. 3:17)
Since when does Yahweh have a Son? The crowd standing around Jesus would have found this all very strange. Did they really just hear God talking from the sky? What was the thing that came down on Jesus? The whole scene would have been extremely strange and at this early date, no one is thinking, “Hey, wow, we have another God!” The Jews believe Yahweh is the only God in existence, so if it really is Yahweh calling down praise from Heaven for this total stranger—and that’s a big leap to take—then Jesus must be some kind of prophet. Either way, He’s definitely worth keeping tabs on.
We’re told that right after this baptism and public affirmation, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus off to a barren wilderness where He is tempted for 40 days and nights by the devil (see Impressing the Devil: Jesus’ Self-Exalting Temptation Story). While He’s gone, news that some rude, hairy dude is making a career out of dunking people in the Jordan spreads to Jerusalem. Since this man is acting like an expert on Yahweh’s Messiah, a group of priests is dispatched to go check him out. When his interrogators arrive, John says he’s not the Messiah or some resurrected Elijah. Instead, he claims to be the fulfillment of Yahweh’s prophecy in Isaiah 40:3:
John replied, “I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of Yahweh,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.” (Jn. 1:23)
John tells them that he’s not the Messiah—he’s just an introducer of the Messiah. Then the next day, along comes Jesus.
The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn. 1:29)
John then explains:
“I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on Him. And I myself did not know Him, but the One who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the One who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is Yahweh’s Chosen One.” (Jn. 1:32-34)
To appreciate why John’s message is creating such a stir, we have to remember that up until now, no one has ever heard of someone baptizing people with the Holy Spirit. It was only on rare occasions that Yahweh would put His Spirit on certain special individuals. The thought of a man being able to mass baptize people with the Holy Spirit the way John was mass baptizing with water was a very shocking theological concept. Would Yahweh really authorize such a thing?
THE FIRST DISCIPLES
Now a lot of people think John has cotton for brains, but some people are taking him seriously and when John pinpoints Jesus as the Messiah, two of his disciples leave John to go follow after Jesus. So now we have Jesus, walking along acting like He couldn’t care less that these two men are hurrying after Him. After a bit, He turns around and asks them what they want. Hilarious. They call Him Rabbi—a title of respect—and ask where He’s staying. He tells them to come and find out, so they do. Now one of these two men is Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter. After hanging out with Jesus for a day, Andrew is getting really excited. This Jesus fellow just might be the promised Messiah. He hurries off to find his brother Simon to tell him the news. Naturally Simon comes to check Jesus out and as soon as Jesus sees Simon, He says:
“You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter). (Jn. 1:42)
Now we really start to pick up that Jesus has to be emitting some kind of Divine aura because the next thing we’re told is that He walks up to a man named Philip and says “Follow Me.” Philip follows. Why? Clearly these men are receiving some strong internal conviction that Jesus is the Messiah. Philip then hurries off to find his buddy Nathanael.
Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the One Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.
“Come and see,” said Philip.
When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, He said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
“How do You know me?” Nathanael asked.
Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel!”
Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” He then added, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.” (Jn. 1:45-51)
This bit about heaven opening and angels moving up and down is a quotation from Genesis 28. In that passage, Jacob—a revered figure among Jews in Period 7—had a dream in which he saw a stairway reaching from Heaven to earth with angels descending up and down it. At the top of the stairs Jacob saw Yahweh, who then spoke to him. When Jacob woke up, he was filled with awe and came to the ridiculous conclusion that he was literally sleeping near some dimensional portal to Heaven. Why would Jesus quote such a passage? Well, He knows that Nathanael knows the story of Jacob’s dream and is quite impressed by it. What devout Jew wouldn’t want to be visited by Yahweh in some fantastic dream? Jesus tells Nathanael that He’s going to show him even more impressive things—then He identifies Himself as the new “stairway” between Heaven and earth. A very creative metaphor.
So if complete strangers can figure out Jesus is the Messiah, what about His own family members? Are they on to Him? In our next lesson, we’ll learn that Mary is quite aware that her Son has supernatural powers—and she’d like Him to use them to get her friends of an embarrassing situation.
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