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John The Baptist

In JOHN, we have a prophet whose work was foretold in the Old Testament by Isaiah (40.3) and by Malachi (3.1, 4.5). The synoptic Gospel writers quote, at varying lengths, Isaiah's prophecy (Matthew 3.3, Mark 1.3, Luke 3.4), and John the Baptist refers the prophecy to himself in the words, "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord", when he answers the questions of the priests and Levites concerning his own identity. On this occasion also he confessed that he was not the Christ nor the prophet Elijah (John 1.19-23).

Mark, at the beginning of his Gospel (1.2), refers the Malachi prophecies to the Baptist. Later the Lord, in reply to the question, "Art Thou He that cometh, or look we for another?" (questions brought by two of John's disciples from prison), indicated the Old Testament Scriptures (e.g. Isaiah 35.5,6) that proved His Messiahship, and went on to declare publicly to the multitudes, "Wherefore went ye out? to see a prophet? Yea, I say unto you, and much more than a prophet. This is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send My messenger before thy face.... Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not arisen a greater than John the Baptist" (Matthew 11.7-11; Luke 7.24-28).

In JOHN, we have a man whose birth was heralded by the angel Gabriel to his father in these comforting words, "Fear not, Zacharias: because thy supplication is heard, and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. And thou shalt have joy and gladness: and many shall rejoice at his birth" (Luke 1.13,14).

In JOHN, we have one unique amongst mortals. He was filled with the Holy Spirit even from his birth, and yet at the same time his parents were instructed by the angel how: the child was to be brought up, in these words, "For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and he shall drink no wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb. And many of the children of Israel shall he turn unto the Lord their God. And he shall go before His face in the spirit and power of Elijah ... to make ready for the Lord a people prepared for Him" (Luke 1.15-17).

How necessary, therefore, that the chosen parents of the fore-runner of the Lord (Luke 1.6) should be Spirit-filled; Elizabeth on the occasion of the visit to her home in the hill country by Mary, the mother of the Lord (Luke 1.39-44); and Zacharias when he triumphantly wrote on the tablet, "His name is John". "And his mouth was opened immediately ... and he spake, blessing God", as he rejoiced in the words of his Benediction, "Yea and thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Most High: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to make ready His ways" (Luke 1.63-79). Nearly thirty silent years, years of close and intensive communion with his God, are contained in one verse, "And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel" (Luke 1.80).

John's place in God's purposes

Luke 3.1-3 fixes the time of John's ministry chronologically and meticulously in the reign of a Caesar, under the rule of a governor and three contemporaneous tetrarchs, and under the jurisdiction of two Jewish high priests, "the word of God came unto John ... in the wilderness". But we would emphasize, rather, the more important epoch in relation to the divine calendar. Immediately following the words of assurance given to John's disciples (referred to above), the Lord Jesus publicly declared that "all the prophets and the law prophesied until John" (Matthew 11.13). Here, indeed, was one of God's great divides in the annals of His dealings with men. John came on the scene at the close of the dispensation of the law. But that is not all. In Acts 1.22 we find Peter marking the baptism of John as the beginning of a new era. (Compare also Acts 13.24-26). The coming of John the Baptist marked the end of one dispensation, an age governed by the first covenant, now becoming old and waxing aged, "nigh unto vanishing away"; and it was the herald of a new regime, under a new covenant, for from that time was the gospel of the kingdom of God preached (Luke 16.16). John was the last of the Old Testament prophets, the chosen forerunner of the long-promised Christ of God, whose chief mission was to point to the ONE mightier than himself, who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Matthew


The message and the sign

The testimony of the many concerning John was "John indeed did no sign: but all things whatsoever John spake of this Man were true" (John 10.41). The power of John's message was in its veracity, and the message was not supplemented by miraculous signs. Yet his ministry was accompanied by one rite, that of baptism. Whatever earthly historians may record as the origin of this rite, we are assured there is no prior record of baptism in Scripture, conducted in the name of, and with reference to a particular person, before the ministry of John. There is no reference to the rite in the Septuagint (Dr Trench). We are left in no doubt as to the origin of John's baptism. The Lord Jesus asked, "Was it from heaven or from men? answer Me" (Mark 11.30-33). The answer is evident. Again we have John's own record, "He that sent me to baptize with water ... (John 1.33), with which we join, "There came a man sent from God" (John 1.6). Even the people in John 1.25 recognized that the source of the rite of baptism was from above. Thus we find that God, in wisdom, in the significant act of baptism, has definitely marked the end of an age and the beginning of another.

John's message embodied repentance, baptism and fruitbearing (Matthew 3.2, 6, 8). Repentance involved an inward preparation of the heart to receive the coming One, baptism was an outward manifestation of association with Him, and the bringing forth of fruit was the work of a changed heart. John's preaching was powerful and direct. He warned Pharisees and Sadducees against their bigotry and pride of descent from Abraham. He fearlessly called them the offspring of vipers, and demanded from them fruit worthy of repentance before he would baptize them. And when the various sections of the multitude asked John, "What must we do?" he struck boldly and straight at the special vices, and the notorious and besetting sins of his interrogators. The general public were instructed to cultivate unselfish and generous liberality, the tax-gatherers to be honest in their assessments, and the soldiers to refrain from violence, and illegal extortion, and to be content with their rations and wages (Luke 3.7-14).

Undoubtedly John's greatest day was when "Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John into the Jordan" (Mark 1.9 R.V.M.). "And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens rent asunder, and the Spirit as a dove descending upon Him: and a voice came out of the heavens, Thou art My beloved Son, in Thee I am well pleased" (Mark 1.9-11). This was the evidence John was patiently awaiting; "Upon whomsoever thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and abiding upon Him, the same is He" had been divinely communicated to John (John 1.34), and so fortified with this infallible evidence John hastened to fulfil his mission in declaring, "Behold, the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world! ... This is He.... This is the Son of God" (John 1.29-34). And thus he was able to declare, "He that hath the bride is the Bridegroom: but the friend of the Bridegroom, which standeth and heareth Him, rejoiceth greatly because of the Bridegroom's voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled" (John 3.29).


Then the prophet, who had sternly faced the mob, attacked the monarch with equal determination. Herod Antipas had contracted an incestuous marriage with Herodias, wife of his brother Philip, whilst Philip and Herod's own wife were living. John laid bare the wickedness of this adulterous marriage, and for this Anti pas shut him up in prison. He refrained from killing John because he knew John to be a righteous and holy man, and he also feared the multitude who counted John as a prophet (Matthew 14.3-5; and Mark 6.20). During this imprisonment Herodias, setting herself against John, desired to kill him but "she could not". Thus for a while Herod kept John safe "... And when he heard him, he was much perplexed, and he heard him gladly" (Mark 6.19,20).

This condition of affairs did not last long against the unscrupulous bitter planning of Herodias. By degrees her obstinate importuning overcame even Herod's resistance. The R.V. translation of Mark 6.20, "he was perplexed" is instructive. In the struggle between right and lust, Herod "did many things", but the one thing he should have done he failed to do, repent and bring forth fruit worthy thereof. It is the invariable history of such battles, so fought! At last the end came. At a birthday banquet Herod's last scruples vanished and he made to the dancing damsel, daughter of Herodias, a rash promise, and despite his belated grief and exceeding sorrow, for the sake of his oaths, and of his guests, "he would not reject her" when she asked, "Give me here in a charger the head of John the Baptist" (Matthew 14.6-12, Mark 6.21-29). John was murdered; and his head was brought as a ghastly trophy into the midst of the guests. What a sad end to a burning and a shining light! "His disciples came, and took up the corpse, and buried him; AND THEY WENT AND TOLD JESUS".

What lessons?

With lines from Longfellow's Psalm of Life in mind...

"Lives of great men all remind us

We can make our lives sublime,

And, departing, leave behind us

Footprints on the sands of time",

we would ask what lessons can we learn from the life of this great man? Let us set ourselves to imitate, however inadequately (but remembering that "he that is but little in the kingdom of God is greater than he"), John's outstanding characteristics, namely, holiness of life, separation to God, devotion to service, courage in defence of truth and no compromise whatever the cost. We recall again that occasion when the Lord Jesus was speaking of witness-bearing, He said concerning John the Baptist that "he was the lamp that burneth and shineth" (John 5.35). Our witness-bearing in the gospel and the truth would be more fruitful if we were "burning" because of having seen, and seeing daily, the glory of Christ; and were "shining" in true reflection to our fellowmen His appealing grace and love.