The Mission of John the Baptist

By Wayne S. Walker

There are those who affirm that everything which Jesus taught during his personal ministry on earth, and for that matter nearly everything in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, are merely explanations of the Old Testament law, thus pertaining only to the Jews and not applicable to us today. One of the main arguments made by these teachers is that nothing new could be introduced until after Jesus died on the cross and the New Testament was revealed on Pentecost. This would mean that Jesus could not make known any of the conditions of his will while alive, and also that John the Baptist, Jesus’ forerunner, could not have said anything relating to the new covenant that God was going to make.
In fact, it is claimed that both John and Jesus only prepared the Jews for the coming kingdom by simply calling them back to the original intent and purpose of the law of Moses. It is true that John and Jesus lived and died while the old covenant was still in force. But does this necessarily mean that all their teaching had to expound nothing but the Old Testament law? Or is it possible that some of their teaching might also point directly to the New Testament and its provisions for our salvation? “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light” (John 1:6-8). What was the mission of John the Baptist? Was it to bear witness of the old law or to bear witness of the Light of Christ? In other words, did John just come to remind people of the old or to prepare them for the new?

To begin, John’s coming signaled the beginning of “preaching the kingdom of God.” Old Testament prophets had prophesied about the kingdom of God, but Jesus said, “And the law and the prophets were until John. Since that time the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is pressing into it” (Luke 16:16). This does not mean that the law actually ended or that the kingdom came with John. The point is that with the coming of John there is something different, something new, in stark contrast to the law and the prophets. This was more than just another prophecy of the kingdom like those of the Old Testament prophets. Of course, the gospel had been preached to Abraham in promise (Gal. 3:8). And the Old Testament prophets had prophesied of the gospel in the coming of Christ and his kingdom (1 Pet. 1:10-11). However, Jesus’ statement means that, up until John the Baptist, the law of Moses was preached, but after John came, the emphasis was no longer on the law of Moses. Rather, it was on the coming kingdom of God. Thus, the preaching of John, and of Jesus after him, was primarily the kingdom of God or the church of our Lord, not the old law.

Next, it was prophesied that John would be a preparatory messenger of the covenant. “‘Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple, even the Messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight. Behold, He is coming,’ says the Lord of hosts” (Mal. 3:1). The “Messenger of the covenant” apparently refers to Christ, who came to establish the new covenant (Heb. 8:6-13). So again the question is raised, did Christ come just to teach the Old Testament law to the Jews, or to bring something different? And the point here is that John was to be the messenger to prepare the way before Christ. So here it is affirmed that John’s work had to do with the new covenant, not the old one. To accomplish this purpose, it was prophesied that John would come in the spirit and power of Elijah (Mal. 4:5-6). The Jews apparently were looking for Elijah to be literally raised from the dead as a sign of the Messiah’s coming. Some even today believe that Elijah or someone like him will arise to signal the second coming of Christ. However, the New Testament indicates that this prophecy found its fulfillment in John the Baptist (see Matt. 11:13-14; 17:10-13; Luke 1:17). John said that he was not Elijah (John 1:21). He was not literally Elijah raised from the dead. He was like Elijah in many ways, but he was not Elijah himself. Why is this important? Elijah was a prophet of the Old Testament, but John was a messenger of the Christ who would bring in the New Testament.

Then, John preached that the kingdom of heaven was at hand. “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matt. 3:1-2). This is the same kingdom that had so long been prophesied in the Old Testament (cf. Dan. 2:44). However, John’s message was not just another Old Testament prediction, but a new message. It was now “at hand.” And this is the same kingdom that Jesus began to preach (Matt. 4:17). Again, He did not just say, “The kingdom is coming someday” as did the Old Testament prophets, but that it was “at hand.” The whole atmosphere at that time was that change was in the air, something new was afoot. Thus, the focus of John’s preaching was to prepare the people for what was coming, not to point them back to what had been. He was the prophet of transition.

Again, John’s practice of baptizing was certainly not old covenant law. “John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (Mark 1:3). We do not read anything about baptism for the remission of sins in the Old Testament law to the Jews. Some try to make this equivalent to the various washings for uncleanness under the law, or to the priests’ bathing in the golden laver, but those were only ceremonial rites. John’s baptism was something else. It was “for the remission of sins.” And this baptism was a divine requirement. Jesus necessarily implied that it was from God (Matt. 21:25). The Pharisees and lawyers rejected the will of God for them by not being baptized by John (Luke 7:28-30). What was the purpose of John’s baptism? Was it just to call the people back to the Old Testament law? The Old Testament prophets did that without teaching baptism. “And they asked of him, saying, ‘Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?’ John answered them, saying, ‘I baptize with water, but there stands One among you whom you do not know. It is He who, coming after me, is preferred before me, whose sandal straps I am not worthy to loose’” (John 1:25-27). John’s baptism was to help prepare people for the coming Messiah. Requiring people to be baptized to have their sins remitted was something new. We have to remember that under the old covenant, God could add new revelations by inspired prophets, and evidently he did so here by bringing something different to signal that a radical change was about to occur.

Finally, the specifics of John’s demands for repentance did not echo the old law. In Luke 3:8-14 he told the people that they must bring forth fruits worthy of repentance, and then said, when asked questions by specific groups of people, that this included giving to the poor, tax collectors being honest, and soldiers behaving fairly. Certainly, the Old Testament law taught the Jews to repent of their sins and to live right before God and man (cf. Ezek. 18:30, Mic. 6:8). It is true that God has certain moral principles which are rooted in his very nature and have always been part of his revelation to mankind in every covenant. However, John did not just tell the people the demands of the Old Testament law. In fact, he even spoke to the Roman soldiers who were Gentiles and not   under the Old Testament law. No, he pointed to a whole new arrangement. While he was in prison, he was still talking about “the Coming One” (Matt. 11:3). We must understand that John was not just trying to get people to go back to the Old Testament law. He was urging them to look forward to things that were coming.

Yes, we recognize that the work of John the Baptist was carried out under the law of Moses. Hence, the law that he himself kept and urged others to keep during that time was the old covenant. However, the focus of his mission was not to testify concerning the Old Testament law. That had already been done. Rather, it was to testify of the Christ as part of the preparation for the kingdom that was to come under the new covenant. As a result, the law and the prophets were preached until John, but after he came, the kingdom of God was preached. He said that it was at hand, and then the One for whom he prepared the way came and began revealing various aspects of that coming kingdom along with some of the things to be required of those who would be citizens of his kingdom. The very mission of John the Baptist precludes the idea that Jesus’ teaching only expounded the Old Testament law of Moses to the Jews. Both John and Jesus taught New Testament concepts.  

Truth Magazine Vol. XLIV: 7 p10  April 6, 2000