By Mark Mayberry
His Fulfillment of Prophecy
The Old Testament repeatedly foreshadowed the work of John the Baptist (Isa. 40:3-5; Mal. 3:1; 4:2-6). He prepared the way for the Savior, preaching a message of repentance, announcing the coming of Jesus Christ our Lord (Mark 1:1-8; Luke 1:11-17, 67-80; 3:1-6).
His Family & Personal Life
John was born into the priestly family of Zacharias and Elizabeth. His father was of of the division of Abijah, and his mother from the daughters of Aaron; both were devout and godly (Luke 1:5-7). Foretold by an angel, the birth of John was a miracle by reason of his parent’s extreme age. He was born in the hill country of Judah six months before Mary gave birth to Jesus in Bethlehem.
The son of Zacharias and Elizabeth was circumcised on the eighth day after his birth. Family friends wanted to call him Zacharias, after his father. However his parents named him John, according to the word of the angel (Luke 1:57-66). Perhaps he was set apart as a Nazirite (Luke 1:15; cf. Num. 6:1-21). His early life is summarized in a single verse: “The child continued to grow and to become strong in spirit, and he lived in the deserts until the day of his public appearance to Israel” (Luke 1:80). His dress and manner were reminiscent of the prophet Elijah. He lived a hard and difficult life in the desert (Mark 1:6).
John began to preach in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar (A.D. 25), attracting a great multitude of followers (Matt. 3:5-6; Luke 3:1-2). Unlike Jesus Christ, John did no miracles (John 10:40-42).
John announced that the Messianic kingdom was near. His message centered around the need for repentance. John said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:1-12). Many Israelites had become self-righteous and self-satisfied. True religion had become a lost art. Calling the people of God to repentance, he affirmed the necessity of experiencing a change of heart followed by a change of life (Luke 3:1-18).
Repentance is necessary if we are to please God (Luke 13:3; Acts 3:19). What is repentance? It is a change of heart, preceded by godly sorrow and followed by a change of life (2 Cor. 7:10; Rom. 2:4). In other words, we must change our minds about sin. Determining to walk in it no longer, we happily yield our lives to the Lord.
John administered the baptism of repentance unto those who were receptive to his message. Men and women who yielded to this commandment renounced their past sinful lives and found forgiveness and cleansing. They also pledged their loyalty to the kingdom of the Messiah.
A great multitude were receptive to his message, nevertheless, some rejected his preaching. In particular, the Pharisees and the Sadducees were stubbornly disobedient. Trusting in their man-made traditions, they resisted the teachings of both John and Jesus.
Jesus was baptized by John before beginning His ministry (Matt. 3:13-17). It was not that Jesus needed forgiveness. Our Lord was pure and sinless. Rather, this was done in order to “fulfill all righteousness.” In being baptized, Jesus submitted to the Father’s will, evidencing a spirit of obedience, formally consecrating His life to God.
John pointed men unto Jesus (John 1:29), but his special ministry came to an end with our Lord’s baptism. After the Messiah had come, there was no further need for a herald. Still, John and his disciples continued for some time to baptize individuals even after the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (John 3:23; 4:1). In addition to preaching on the need for repentance, he also taught his followers about specific duties such as fasting (Matthew 9:14; Luke 5:33) and prayer (Luke 11:1).
His View of Himself
The Baptizer had a proper sense of his own position and work (John 3:22-30). He had no illusions about himself, and sought no personal glory. Neither did he try to extend his ministry beyond its divine allotment. When the time came, he yielded to the Messiah.
Some do not evidence proper recognition of their position. John understood his role and was faithful to his calling. We must do the same. Instead of viewing ourselves as servants, we begin seeking glory and honor. Let us never forget that we are mere bondservants of the Lord, whose primary duty is to obey the Master’s will (Luke 17:10; cf. Phil. 3:7-11).
John was fearless in his proclaimation of the truth. He sternly rebuked the sinful relationship of Herod and Herodias, and this eventually led to his imprisonment and subsequent death (Matt. 14:3-12; Mark 6:17-19; Luke 3:19-20). Avoiding the temptation of being men-pleasers, let us learn to not compromise our faith (Matt. 10:28; Gal. 1:10; 2 Tim. 4:1-5).
While in prison, John began to have doubts, so he sent and asked if Jesus was indeed the Messiah (Matt. 11:2-6). Recall that John had already testified to this fact (John 1:6-8, 29-34). He knew in his mind, but he doubted in his heart. Our Lord answered John’s question in a round-about manner. He reminded him of the nature of Christian faith, which is not subjective, but is based upon evidence. The miracles Jesus performed could not be denied. They confirmed the fact that he was the Christ, the Son of God (Heb. 2:3-4). Jesus said, “Consider the evidence, John, and draw the inescapable conclusion.”
The Bible holds John the Baptist in high esteem. Jesus said that John “bare witness unto the truth.” Furthermore, he was “a burning and a shining light” (John 5:33-35). In like manner, we must let our lights shine before men in such a way that they may see our good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven (Matt. 5:14-16). Consider also the praise of Jesus in Matthew 11:7-11.
His Relationship to the Church
Did John start the church as many Baptists affirm? Some insist on elevating certain Bible characters above their true roles. While Peter was an apostle, he was not the first pope of the Roman Catholic Church. Similarly, there is misunderstanding regarding the place and work of John the Baptist.
The Old Testament prophets foreshadowed his work, picturing him as a fore-runner, one who prepared the way for the Messiah. Jesus, not John, established the church (Matt. 16:16-18). John was not a citizen of the kingdom which he foresaw (Luke 7:24-28). He lived under the Old Covenant and died before the kingdom was established (Heb. 9:15-17).
John was not a Baptist, but the Baptist, i.e., the immerser. His baptism was only temporary, and was subsequently replaced by Christian baptism (Acts 19:1-7; cf. Eph. 4:4-6). In contrast, the baptism of Christ is now required of all mankind (Matt. 28:18-20). It is for remission of sins (Acts 2:38). It provides admission into the church, i.e., the kingdom (1 Cor. 12:13). It puts one in contact with the blood of Christ, and the salvation He affords (Rom. 6:3-6; Gal. 3:26-29).
John the Baptist deserves honor and praise for his faith and fidelity, courage and conviction, message and martyrdom. Like John, let us point the way to Jesus Christ, the Savior of all mankind. Like John, let us boldly preach the word. Like John, let us humbly yield to the Master’s will.
Sources: Tom Roberts, “The Role of John The Baptist,” Preach The Word, ed. Earl Robertson, (Fairmount, IN: GOT Foundation), p. 356. Extensively modified and revised.