Changing Your Mind about Yochanan Ha’ Matbil (Schlichim Yomi: Luke 1:1-25)

john-baptistLuke begins his besora with the announcement of the birth of Yochanan Ha’Matbil, i.e. John the Baptist.  The modern reader may be surprised that Luke announces Yochanan’s birth with somewhat equal import to the announcement of Yeshua’s birth.  At this stage of scripture, without knowing the rest of the story, we could get the impression that Yochanan would become just as important in the future pages of Luke’s gospel as Yeshua would.  And its not just here that Yochanan and his activities gain respect on par with Yeshua.  In Mark 11, Yeshua leaves his interlocutors tongue-tied by bringing up Yochanan because “they were afraid of the people, for everyone considered John to have been a real prophet,” a strange scenario where the priests, scribes and elders had more esteem for Yochanan than the Messiah he foretold.  About twenty years later, diaspora Jew Apollos was familiar only with Yochanan and had not yet heard of Yeshua.  Outside of the Bible, Judean prisoner-of-war and Roman historian Josephus would come to write as much about Yochanan than Yeshua in his historical works.

Far from being an inconsequential figure, Yochanon Ha’Matbil made a big splash (pardon the pun) in the Jewish religious scene during the time of Yeshua.  Now, readers of Scripture mostly gloss over Yochanan and the gospel he preached. And you read that correctly: Yochanan the Immerser did preach the gospel, as Luke 3:18 says: “So with many other exhortations he preached the gospel to the people.”  Again, the modern bible reader may be surprised.  Isn’t the gospel that if we believe that Jesus died for our sins we’ll be saved?  How could John the Baptist “preach the gospel” if Jesus had not died yet, he did not even know Jesus was the Messiah (or, for that matter, even that the Messiah would be a suffering servant who would die)?

Yochanan’s “gospel” had three main elements.  First was forgiveness of sin via water mikvah accompanied by with a declaration of sins (perhaps even simultaneously while in the water before being dunked?).  Second was the foretelling of a Coming One who–unlike Yochanan with mere water–would immerse people “in the Ruach HaKodesh and in fire.” among other wonders echoing prophecies similar to Joel‘s prophecies.  Yochanan would later identify this Coming One as Yeshua, and many of his followers became Yeshua’s followers.

Third, and most notable, Yochanan’s preaching calls for a metanoia.  The common translation of this term as “repentance” often comes under fire since the Greek word denotes more than just feeling regret, apologizing or even “doing penance”.  Metanoia at its core meaning denotes changing one’s mind, or better phrased, making a mind-change.  Metanoia is best understood as a state of mind accompanying abrupt change or deep regret of a firmly held opinion, stance or course of action.  It’s commonly associated with divine wrath in the sense of (1) people relenting or failing to relent to God after warning and punishment, or (2) God relenting or foregoing wrathful action he planned, such as toward Ninevah in the book of Jonah.  In this sense, Yochanan’s call for metanoia may be better understood not just as repentance over sin (though it certainly includes that element), but relentance to the totality of Hashem and his will.

Yochanan called for “fruits of repentance” from the crowds drawn to him, not sparing even the Pharisees and Sadducees from such a demand.  And curiously, the gospels record Yochanan calling particularly for honesty and generosity in social dealings: giving to the needy, quoting fair tax rates, not accusing people falsely, and not intimidating or extorting people.  (Not a few modern commentators have said that this kind of societal trust is an essential institution for developed countries but lacking in the impoverished third world.)

Ultimately, Yochanan’s teachings merged into the preaching and works of Yeshua and his the apostles, who combined exhortation for metanoia immersion with the good news of Yeshua salvation and gift of the Spirit to all those who believe.  And that is the gospel as we have it today . . . or at least that should be the case.  A common fault in the Church tradition of gentiles (which also finds its way into certain Messianic Jewish thinking) is to divorce the need for metanoia from salvation, separating Yochanan from Yeshua as it were. Protestants will criticize the High Church tradition for undermining the new birth with extra-biblical sacraments, but themselves will frequently emphasize over all else the goal “getting people saved” through a mere verbal profession of Christ.   Baptist evangelist Paul Washer even went so far as to call The Sinner’s Prayer comparable to infant baptism, a “golden calf” of Evangelicals, and said that it “has sent more people to hell than anything on the face of the earth.”  Confessions and professions are important for the Church, but more and more, so-called evangelists are marketing a get out of hell free card or a positive thinking exercise rather than a fundamental behavioral and lifestyle reform.  It’s basically cargo cult evangelism: hoping that a pretend, mock-up of repentance will land genuine salvation into the jungle of a unreformed soul.

Yochanan, Yeshua and the apostles called for a repentance that would be manifest in all walks of life, from on-the-job behavior to debits on a bank statement and beyond. Yochanan cannot be separated from Yeshua, nor Yochanan’s gospel from Yeshua’s gospel. When Yeshua speaks of the death of Yochanan, Luke interjects “When all the people and the tax collectors heard this, they acknowledged God’s justice, having been baptized with the baptism of John. But the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves, not having been baptized by John.” And back to Mark 11, when Yeshua responded to the chief priests, scribes and elders, he says  “Nor will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” He did not intend it as some childish retort; he meant that if the would not acknowledge Yochanan’s call to repentance they would never be in a position to recognize the messianic identity of Yeshua. Thus we see “mindchange” type of repentance is the necessary and sufficient condition of being able to receive Yeshua.

Except that for the Jews, there is more. We have the double obligation to “repent and be converted” as Peter said to the Shavuot pilgrims, to make not just metanoia but also teshuvah, to “return and obey the voice of the Lord, and do all his commandments.”  Once a Jew has metanoia and believes in Yeshua, he must also realize his role in the priestly people with an irrevocable calling to the eternal mitzvot.  There are many Jews in traditional synagogues who have made teshuvah back to the Torah but have not had a metanoia experience.  There are many Jews in churches and messianic synagogues who have made metanoia but not necessarily teshuvah to Torah mitzvot.  But Hashem calls all Israel to do both, prophesize they will do both, and it is my earnest prayer that–in these last days–brother will help brother to do both.

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