Except for Jesus, John the Baptist may be the only New Testament figure whose ministry was prophesied by two Old Testament prophets. Malachi, the last prophetic voice before 400 years of divine silence, foresaw John in his concluding words in 3:1 and 4:5-6. The angel Gabriel borrowed words from the latter passage to announce to Zechariah, the priest, his son’s coming birth (Lk. 1:15-17). Zechariah himself anticipated his son’s ministry using words from both Malachi and Isaiah (Lk. 1:76-77; Mal. 3:1; Isa. 40:3). Unique Birth Not only was John’s ministry foreseen in the old Testament, his birth was also somewhat miraculous. No, he was not born of a virgin mother – Elizabeth had been married to Zechariah for many years – but his birth did follow the pattern of other significant births (Isaac, Samson, Samuel) coming late in a childless marriage by God’s special arrangement for His special purposes. Gabriel visited Zechariah as he officiated in the temple and stunned him with the announcement that he would have a son. Zechariah’s faith wavered, he questioned the news and was stricken speechless until the day of John’s birth. When the prediction was fulfilled, Zechariah’s first words were a prophetic utterance about John’s life work and the arrival of the promised Messiah (Lk. 1:5-22, 67-79).
While all four gospels speak of John the Baptist, three of them begin with him: his ministry as herald of the coming Messiah (Mk. 1:1-8), his family and miraculous birth (Lk. 1:5-24), and his testimony as “one crying in the desert … ‘Look, the Lamb of God’” (Jn. 1:19-34 NIV).
It is an understatement to say that John was an eccentric; he wore a camel’s hair cloak and ate locusts and wild honey while living in the wilderness (Mt. 3:1-6). He was, after all, a prophet, and prophets tended to be eccentric counter-cultural figures with a lifestyle that was probably seen as “weird” by their contemporaries. This suited their role as voices of severe warning to a spiritually dull public conscience. John the Baptist was an Elijah type (Jn. 1:21), but he was no reincarnation of the old Testament prophet. Gabriel told Zechariah that John would come “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Lk. 1:16), that is, God’s spirit and power. Same spirit, same power, new messenger.
John’s denial that he was Elijah (Jn. 1:21) is puzzling since Jesus twice called John the “Elijah who is to come” (Mt. 11:14; 17:10-13). Yet it agreed with John’s humble character to downplay any personal significance; he realized the stir he would create if he claimed to be Elijah, one of the more memorable prophets. John’s humility shined in such passages as John 3:25-30, where his disciples and others saw a potential rivalry in that both John and Jesus were baptizing followers. John dismissed the idea of competition saying, “He (Jesus) must become greater; I must become less” (Jn. 3:22,30).
Yet John readily embraced the role Isaiah’s prophecy gave him. Using Isaiah’s words, he told those sent by the Jewish leaders: “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord’” (Jn. 1:23; Isa. 40:3). He was a voice whose only purpose was to announce the real celebrity, the promised Messiah. He also declared himself unworthy for even the humblest service to the one he was announcing: “the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie” (Jn. 1:27; Lk. 3:16).
Contrasting with his humility was John’s confrontational style which would not win him any popularity contests. But John was not about popularity; his calling and message were his life. He called the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to his baptism “a brood of vipers” (Mt. 3:7). To be called vipers was a scathing insult, an insult compounded by John’s further challenge: “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” vipers flee their holes before a prairie fire (Mt. 3:7; Lk. 3:7).
Yet sincere folks flocked to John, responding to God’s truth in John’s message. His humble ways commended him just as Jesus’ own simplicity, humility and accessibility drew sincere seekers. We cannot be better witnesses and messengers than when we emulate Jesus.
John the Evangelist reported that John the Baptist “came as a witness, to testify concerning the Light, so that through Him all men might believe” (Jn. 1:7). What a sad commentary on the condition of God’s people to whom John came: Their spiritual darkness was so deep that they needed a “witness” to point out the Light! In the natural world it is unimaginable that a light shining in the darkness would need someone to draw attention to it.
What a climactic day for John when he fulfilled his calling by announcing “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” The next day was even more climactic when he again pointed out the “Lamb of God” and two of his own disciples left him to follow Jesus (Jn. 1:29,35- 37). Here was another opportunity for a spirit of rivalry or jealousy: his own disciples abandoned him to follow Jesus. John did not object, but fulfilled his mission to bear witness to the Light so “that through Him all men might believe” (Jn. 1:7). He said: “The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom … is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete” (Jn. 3:29).
John’s attention and energies were unwaveringly focused on his mission, lifting him above distractions. His “joy” as “best man” was to witness the exaltation of his Lord, the “bridegroom” – and draw all attention to Him. He had no time for a self-serving personal agenda. How instructive for us!
John did not seem to realize that his relative, Jesus, was the Messiah until He came to him for baptism. Until then John stayed true to his calling and continued preaching and baptizing, patiently waiting and only becoming aware of Jesus’ true identity when he baptized Him and saw the Holy Spirit descend on Him – the sign he had been given.
He said to his questioners, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” The next day he announced, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because He was before me.’ I myself did not know Him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that He might be revealed to Israel … I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on Him. I would not have known Him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The Man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is He who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God” (Jn. 1:26-34).
John probably knew Jesus as a relative. Their mothers were cousins and evidently close, so the boys probably knew each other while growing up. Yet Jesus grew up in Nazareth, while John, the son of a priest who ministered in the temple, grew up in Judea, so the two were not close. Clearly, the verses above tell us that John did not know Jesus was the Messiah until that baptismal moment. Yet he seemed to have some sense, by the Spirit, of Jesus’ true identity, when he said, “I need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?” (Mt. 3:14). He knew Jesus well enough to know that He was a holy man who needed no repentance. He also recognized Jesus’ spiritual superiority: “I need to be baptized by You.”
When Jesus answered, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness,” John consented and baptized Him, after which the heavens opened and the Spirit descended like a dove and rested on Jesus, and God declared from heaven that this was His beloved Son (Mt. 3:13-17).
Whether or not John had a prior hint that Jesus was the Messiah, he waited for the fullness of the sign given him to recognize God’s Son. This is a good lesson for us. We may have a sense of God’s leading, but we must wait for God’s confirmation and the corroboration from His Word. We too easily react on impulse rather than clear revelation. John stayed true to his first calling – to baptize with water (Jn. 1:33) – though he may not have known that through that baptism the Messiah would be revealed. He remained alert for the sign he’d been given and readily grasped it when it came.
A Martyr’s Death
John’s career ended when he incurred the anger of Herod by challenging him with the immorality of his relationship with his brother’s wife. As king of the Jews, Herod should have been more observant of both moral and Mosaic law! But he put John in jail, thus ending his public ministry.
Herod himself is a curious study. He “wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered him a prophet” (Mt. 14:5). He also “feared John and protected him (from Herodias’ desire to kill him), knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him” (Mk. 6:20). Herod had the power to kill anyone he wanted, yet he was a conflicted and insecure man, continually torn by the fear of mob reaction, by the anger of the woman he loved illicitly and her demand for John’s head, and by the censure of his peers should he back down from his word to give the dancing girl whatever she wished (Mt. 14:6-12; Mk. 6:21-29). But his grudging respect for John testified to John’s moral power.
During his imprisonment John began to doubt. He had been faithful and bold in announcing Jesus as the Messiah. But to have had a pivotal role in history and then be forgotten in prison really eroded his confidence. John sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are You the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”
Jesus said to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of Me” (Mt. 11:2-6; Lk. 7:18-23) – all messianic signs. John was human, and has many lessons to teach the rest of us humans.
As soon as the messengers left, Jesus praised John, saying that he was “more than a prophet” and that “among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist” (Mt. 11:7- 15). What matters, after all, is Jesus’ evaluation of our role, and His approval. John had those things, and that was enough.
Not long after, John was martyred by the heartless, immoral Herod to appease the illicit “wife” who manipulated him (Mt. 14:1- 12; Mk. 6:14-29; Lk. 9:7-9). But they received eternal punishment because of their evil, and John received his eternal reward for faithfulness to his mission and to his Lord.
John 10:40-42 is a moving footnote to John’s effective ministry: “Jesus went back across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing in the early days. Here He stayed and many people came to Him. They said, ‘Though John never performed a miraculous sign, all that John said about this Man was true.’ And in that place many believed in Jesus.”
John’s witness as the “voice” was to paint so vivid a word picture of the coming Messiah that Jesus was readily recognizable when He appeared in person. Now, long after John’s discouragement and death, people are still coming to Jesus because they see Him to be the clear embodiment of all that John had preached! John was a faithful and effective witness. So may we all be.
By Bill Van Ryn
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org