A Study of John the Baptist
Preparing the Way (Isa. 40:3-5)
When an Eastern monarch entered upon a journey, it was customary to send harbingers ahead to make certain that the way for the king was prepared. This was especially true when he was to be traveling through barren, little-traveled country, where there would be no path in a condition conducive to traveling. Thus, all obstacles to travel which would hinder the king would be removed, and a path would be prepared for him. This would involve such things as leveling off high places, smoothing over rough places, and filling in low places. Similarly, when the King of kings and Lord of lords began to fulfill His mission among men, there was a need for preparation to be made for Him. As the path of travel needed to be put into proper condition for the earthly king, the hearts of men needed to be put into proper condition for the coming of the heavenly King. John the Baptist was the harbinger who went ahead of Christ to prepare the way for Him.
In serving as the harbinger of Christ, John fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: "The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for out God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain" (Isa. 40:3-4). The application of this prophecy to John is repeatedly affirmed in the New Testament (Matt. 3:3; Mk. 1:3; Lk. 3:4-6; John 1:23). John obviously did not literally exalt valleys and make mountains low; the point is, his work of preparing the way for Christ was comparable to the harbingers who prepared a way for the earthly king to travel. Isaiah's language found a figurative application in John the Baptist, as he prepared the hearts of men for the coming of Christ. It was his task to "make ready a people prepared for the Lord" (Lk. 1:17).
In fulfilling this vital function, John preached, "Repent yet for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matt. 3:2). Because of the prophecies contained in the Old Testament scriptures, the Jews to whom John preached had long anticipated a mighty kingdom, to be established by the Christ ("anointed one") of prophecy. The Christ for Whom they had waited would soon come and establish that kingdom, and in order to prepare the people for His coming and the establishment of His reign, John announced that the time was at hand (near). He called upon men to repent; otherwise men would not be prepared for the kingdom of Christ. Truly, if men's hearts are not set on serving God, they are ill prepared for the reception of spiritual truths.
The Elijah-Like Preacher
John's task of turning corrupt hearts to God could not be fulfilled by one who offered nothing but comforting words and people-pleasing platitudes, or by one who spoke without a dogmatic certainty (e.g., "I think this is right, but everyone has a right to his own opinion, and we cannot really be sure about anything . . ."). It could not be fulfilled by the kind of "preacher" who continually wears a sickly little smile on his face and fills his message with sweet, heartwarming little stories. It could not be fulfilled by one who was fearful of speaking plainly lest someone be offended. To bring about the necessary change in the sinful hearts of men, it was imperative that the message be spoken plainly, forcefully, sternly, and with firm conviction. Men had to be made aware in no uncertain terms of their sinfulness and the importance of turning from their wickedness. Hence, the preacher needed to be one similar to Elijah of old.
John the Baptist was indeed precisely what was needed-another Elijah! God had promised, through the prophet Malachi, "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse" (Mat. 4:5-6). While this prophecy caused men to expect the return of the literal Elijah, Jesus taught that the reference was to John the Baptist (Matt. 11:14; 17:1013). This does not mean that John was the literal Elijah reincarnated, for he denied being Elijah in person (John 1:21). John, however, was so similar to Elijah that he was figuratively a second Elijah. When the angel Gabriel appeared to Zacharias and promised that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son (John), he said that John would go before the Lord "in the spirit and power of Elijah" (Lk. 1:17). John was of the same nature and character as Elijah, and his preaching was similar to Elijah's in its bluntness, its incisiveness, its sternness, its forcefulness.
After the similitude of Elijah, John sternly denounced the sins of the people and warned of the judgment that would come upon the impenitent. In his plain, blunt way, he called the Pharisees and Sadducees a "generation of vipers" (very poisonous snakes), demanded that they bring forth fruits of repentance, and minced no words in informing them that they could not depend upon their physical relation to Abraham for salvation from God's wrath (Matt. 3:7-9). He forthrightly warned of the punishment to be suffered by those who did not produce the fruits of repentance (Matt. 3:10-12). It was with a sense of urgency that he preached, for if men's corrupt hearts were not changed, they would be unprepared for the King, and rather than participating in the glories of the kingdom, they would be the miserable recipients of God's wrath.
John's straightforward, fearless preaching is well illustrated by his statement to Herod regarding Herodias. He said very simply and directly, "It is not lawful for thee to have her" (Matt. 14:4). That, good reader, is getting right to the point! One simply did not speak to a king in that fashion-unless he was a preacher like Elijah, who had been equally direct and to the point in his dealings with King Ahab (1 Kings 18:1718; 21:17-24). In thus addressing the king, John knew that he could be imprisoned or executed, but he could not but speak truth. In fact, his rebuke finally did result in his execution (Matt. 14:3-12). If John could, in the face of such danger, inform the king that he had no right to live with the woman with whom he was living, surely preachers today should have the courage to tell men when they are living with someone without the scriptural right to do so; yet, many simply avoid the subject altogether, and others go to great lengths to devise theories designed to justify unscriptural marriages (Rom. 7:1-3; Matt. 19:1-12).
John's manner of life befitted his message. Similar to Elijah's, it was a plain, simple life of austerity and self-denial (Matt. 3:1-3). He began his preaching in the wilderness of Judea (Matt. 3:1), after spending his early years in the desert (Lk. 1:80). The word rendered "wilderness" and "desert" in the New Testament denotes an uninhabited area. The wilderness of Judea was rugged, rocky, sparsely populated territory west of the Dead Sea and the lower Jordan River. Laboring in such rough territory, he wore appropriate apparel-the coarse, rough garment of camel's hair, and a girdle that was made of plain leather rather than the soft linen or silk that was worn by many. He ate the food that was plentifully available to him in the outdoors-locusts and honey. While his eating of locusts may not be appetizing to our tastes, it is not at all incredible. Locusts were specified in the Law as proper for the Jew to eat (Lev. 11:22), and they are still eaten by some. It would be expected that one living in such circumstances would possess a stern, rugged character, and such a personality is reflected in John's stern preaching. As his manner of life was not soft, neither was his preaching. As his manner of life was plain, so was his preaching plain and straightforward, unembellished with meaningless flowery speech. It was most fitting that John live a life of austerity and self-denial as he denounced the self-indulgence, the greed, and the materialistic attitudes of men and women, calling upon them to deny themselves and devote their lives to God. As John preached repentance to those whose hearts were centered on material luxuries, his own austerity was a living protest against their sinful self-indulgence.
As John preached repentance, seeking to turn men's hearts to God so that they would be prepared for the coming of the Christ, he baptized them in the Jordan. It was due to his baptizing that he was called "the Baptist"-that is, the baptizer. The word "baptist" is basically a Greek word, which would be accurately translated by the English word "immerser." His baptism was for the remission of sins (Mk. 1:3). Of course, sin cannot be remitted apart from the blood of Christ (Heb. 9:22-10:4; Matt. 26:28), and Christ had not yet shed His blood when John baptized. Nevertheless, God knew that Christ would shed His blood, and knowing that the price would be paid for their sins, God could for all practical purposes consider their sins forgiven when they submitted to John's baptism. The blood of Christ would cover their sins, as it did the sins of their forefathers who had manifested faith (Heb. 9:15).
John's baptism must be viewed in the context of his overall mission-preparing men for the coming of Christ and His kingdom. People repented, turned to God, and were baptized for the remission of their sins because of their faith in John's teaching that the kingdom was coming soon and because of their desire to be a part of that kingdom. They were determined that when Christ came, they would be loyal to His rule and share in the joys of His kingdom. After Christ had come and set up His kingdom (Col. 1:13), the baptism of John, since it had been in anticipation of His coming, was no longer valid. Therefore, we read that the group in Ephesus who had been baptized "unto John's baptism," needed to be baptized "in the name of Christ" (Acts 19:1-5). They had been baptized because of their faith in John's teaching that the Christ was coming to establish His kingdom, but they needed to be baptized because of their faith that Christ had already come, died for their sins, and established His reign. These are essential facts of the gospel to be believed prior to New Testament baptism (Mk. 16:16; 1 Cor. 15:1-4; Rom. 10:9; Acts 2:33-38).
His Exaltation of Christ, Not Self
John had no illusions regarding his own position. He recognized that he was but a forerunner of the Christ. He was fully aware that the Christ, not His harbinger, was the One of supreme importance. His aim was not to attract people to himself, but to point them to the Christ. He always denied that he was the Christ, affirming that he was merely the harbinger to prepare the way for the Christ; and he ever proclaimed the vast superiority of Christ over himself, saying that he was not even worthy to perform the most menial act of service for the Christ, such as loosing and carrying His shoes (Matt. 3:11; Mk. 1:7; Lk. 3:15-16; John 1:19-23; 3:28). After the temptation of Jesus, John saw Him coming and pointed Him out to his own disciples as "the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world"; as a result, some of John's disciples began to put their faith in Jesus as the Christ (John 1:29-42). John's attitude is well summed up in his humble words to his disciples in reference to the Christ: "He must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30).
Christ's Approval of John
While John was in prison as a result of his rebuke of Herod, he sent his disciples to inquire of Jesus whether He was truly the Christ (Matt. 11:2). Why He sent them is a matter of speculation, since John had previously affirmed without doubt that Jesus was the Christ. Some say he sent them for their own strengthening, and not because of his personal need. Perhaps it was because his imprisonment had caused him to be discouraged so that he needed reassurance. Whatever the reason for John's query, Jesus replied by pointing to His works; they spoke for themselves (Matt. 11:4-5). After the disciples of John had departed, Jesus addressed the multitudes regarding John the Immerser (Matt. 11:7-14).
He first asked them what kind of man had attracted them out to the wilderness. Had the one in the wilderness whom they had gone to see been a "reed shaken with the wind?" The answer obviously was, no. Jesus thus drew attention to the fact that John was not weak, wavering, and vacillating. He was not one who was like the tall, slender reed by the Jordan which would passively bend with the wind. Rather, he was strong, stedfast, as a mighty oak. He stood for right and no force could sway him. Jesus then asked the multitudes if the one who had attracted them to the wilderness had been a man clothed in soft raiment, such as is found in king's palaces. Jesus thus drew attention to the fact that John was a man who lived a life of selfdenial, not indulging himself in material luxuries. He did not seek the soft, easy life, which would demand compromise of convictions. Had he done so, perhaps he could have been in the king's palace-rather than the king's prison. Through these questions Jesus paid tribute to the firm, strong character of John.
Jesus proceeded to affirm that John was not merely a prophet, but more than a prophet. He was in fact the subject of prophecy. He held the unique distinction of being the harbinger of the King of kings. Jesus asserted that of all who had been born of women, none had been greater than John the Immerser. What a remarkable statement! Jesus could not have paid John a higher tribute. There could have been no greater. mission for a mere human to perform than that of being the forerunner of the Christ, and there could have been no more eminently qualified human to perform that mission than John the Immerser. Yet, in spite of his greatness, Jesus averred that the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John (Matt. 3:11)! Surely, the least in the kingdom is not greater from the standpoint of character, strength, and dedication to God. The least in the kingdom is greater only in the sense that he enjoys an honor and a privilege that John never enjoyed. John, the harbinger of the Christ and His kingdom, died before that kingdom was established; hence, he was not permitted the privilege of being a part of the kingdom of which he preached..
Truth Magazine, XX:20, pp. 10-12