John the Baptist

The last of the Old Testament prophets was not Malachi. Though we often think of Malachi as being the final book of the Old Testament, the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John also cover a time frame that is primarily during that same period of the Mosaical Dispensation. For the Law of Moses was still in effect while Jesus lived on earth; and it continued until He brought an end to it by His death on the cross (Col. 2:14; Heb. 10:8-10) and, thus, also established the New Covenant by that same sacrifice of Himself (Heb. 9:13-26).

It is in those accounts of the life of Christ that we read of John the Baptist, of whom it is said, "A voice is calling, 'Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.'" For this is actually a citation from the prophet Isaiah, and Matthew shows John the Baptist to have been the fulfiller of this (Matt. 3:1-3).

John the Baptist is a man we can all greatly admire for his strong stand in those things that were pleasing to God, and for his life of self-denial. He preached the truth, regardless of the trouble it led to -- for it was in boldly declaring God's message that eventually led to even his very death.

In thinking of John, let us now go back to his birth. Perhaps this is something that many people overlook: The conception of John was miraculous. For according to Luke 1:7, concerning his parents-to-be, "And they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years." But just as God said of Sarah, Abraham's wife, who had also been barren and way past the years of child-bearing, that she would have a child, even so, Elizabeth would also conceive. For when the Lord says it will be so, it will be so!

So through the help of God, John was conceived and born into a priestly lineage. His father Zacharias was a priest of the division of Abijah (Luke 1:5) -- a tribe which is spoken of in 1 Chronicles 24:10, where it shows how the Levites were divided into groups for their service unto the Lord. John's mother was also of a priestly descent. For she could trace her roots back to the daughters of Aaron, as also seen in Luke 1:5.

Prior to John's birth, it was the angel Gabriel who appeared to Zacharias and announced that he would have a son (Luke 1:8-13). Apparently, this was something that Zacharias had prayed for. For, in those days, it appears to have been a shame for a couple to be childless -- since the blessings of children is said in connection with being faithfully obedient toward the Lord, according to Deuteronomy 28:1,2,11. Some of the barren women in the Bible, for example, refer to their barren state as being a "reproach"; but when they finally conceived a child, then they would say to the effect that God had taken away their reproach from among men (e.g., Gen. 30:22,23).

Unfortunately, Zacharias did not initially believe what the angel had to say and, as a consequence, Zacharias remained mute until the birth of his son.

When that joyous event of John's birth took place, it had a great impact upon the people. It had even been prophesied that "...many will rejoice at his birth" (Luke 1:14). Many people who heard of the birth of John and the amazing events that accompanied it knew that the hand of the Lord was with John; and they wondered, "What then will this child turn out to be?" (v. 66).

Parents, of course, often have much to do with how their children turn out. Luke tells us of John's parents that "...they were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord" (v. 6). So they were certainly fine examples for others, and I'm sure they had a great influence on young John -- and throughout all his years.

Though he lived in a time when miracles were being performed by the Lord and by the Lord's apostles, John himself didn't perform any miracles. Therefore, it must have been his miraculous birth, his godly lifestyle, and the soon expectation of the Messiah that served as some of the motivating factors that drew such large crowds to him. Some of them had even initially thought that perhaps John was their long- awaited Messiah.

Just like Jesus, not much is said about John during his growing up years. We do know that John had the Holy Spirit from birth (Luke 1:15). He was recognized as being a "righteous and holy man" (Mark 6:20); and Jesus spoke quite highly of him in Matthew 1:9,11: "But why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I say to you, and one who is more than a prophet. ... Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he." The reason why even the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John is because John was never in the kingdom. For he was put to death before the kingdom was established on that day of Pentecost, as Acts 2 records. So, in that sense, we who are Christians have a greater advantage over John.

We saw earlier that many would rejoice over John's birth, and Jesus also says of John that "He was the lamp that was burning and was shining and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light" (Jn. 5:35).

The early days of John are summed up in Luke 1:80, by saying, "And 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." Notice the type of strength this verse emphasizes: spiritual strength. Unfortunately, we live in a time when much concern is placed on the physical, rather than the spiritual. Many people watch what they eat; they exercise; and they take care of their bodies in other ways, too -- but give little or no concern for their soul, which is the most important part of them. For the body will return to the dust, but the soul is eternal.

As we just saw, John "lived in the deserts until the day of his public appearance...." Many of the great people of faith in the Bible took time to prepare themselves for God's service -- and it wasn't always by going to some kind of official school where they would receive this. Moses, for example, spent forty years in Egypt, then another forty years working for his father-in-law Jethro in Midian before he finally was to go into Egypt again and help deliver God's people. So he was about 80 years old, when he led the children of Israel across the Red Sea and into the wilderness. Joshua was also in his 80's when he became Israel's next leader, after the death of Moses. But throughout his prior years, Joshua had been faithful to the Lord and also faithful in his service to Moses. Jesus, who had probably spent many years in the carpentry shop, was about 30 years old when He began His main public mission. But we know that He had always been perfectly obedient to His Father in Heaven, from His youth up.

In contrast to today's world, it's a rather bizarre description of John in Mark 1:6: "And John was clothed with camel's hair and wore a leather belt about his waist, and his diet was locusts and wild honey." Being a Nazarite, John was not allowed to cut his hair (Num. 6). I imagine it was very long. He must have also been a very rugged outdoorsman. When we think of John, we think of one who could get by without all the creature comforts of his day. He probably lived a very austere and ascetic life.

But even more important than what he wore, what he ate, and where he lived was the strong stand he took for the truth. For he boldly urged people to repent. He even stood opposed to the great religious leaders of his day and spoke to them rather harshly (Matt. 3:7-10). He demanded a changed life from the people -- for just being a Jew wasn't enough to be acceptable unto God (Luke 3:10-16). Though Herod the Tetrarch was a man of great power, John was bold to rebuke him for his unlawful marriage to Herodias, the former wife of Philip, Herod's brother (Matt. 14:1- 4).

John's life must have greatly influenced many people. For the multitudes viewed him as being a prophet (Matt. 14:5), and some thought he might even be the Christ (Luke 3:15). Matthew 3:5,6 speaks of not only "Jerusalem," but also "all Judea and all the district around the Jordan" that were going out to him. Later, when Herod had heard of the great works of Jesus, after John had already been beheaded, Herod thought that John the Baptist had arisen from the dead and was the one doing these miraculous works (Matt. 14:1,2).

As was the lot of many of God's prophets, John, too, lost his life unjustly for standing for the truth. He was executed by Herod in response to his wife's request that was actually made through her daughter, as recorded in Matthew 14:6-12.

Though John's life was taken from him when only in his early 30's, he had carried out God's purpose for him while he lived. Luke 1:16,17 speaks of this: "And he will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God. It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."

John was also very humble. In pointing the people to Christ, he exalted the Lord above himself. For John viewed himself as not even being worthy enough to remove the Lord's sandals; saw Him as being "mightier" (Matt. 3:11); and knew that it was time for the Lord to be in the limelight, while John would take a backseat. For he declares in John 3:30 that "He must increase, but I must decrease."

So John had fulfilled his mission. He pointed the people to Jesus (John 1:26-29), and that is also the job that every child of God today has as well. May we each, therefore, always be encouraged by the life of John the Baptist, this faithful servant of the Lord, to do likewise in our service to God.

By Tom Edwards 11/28/2010

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