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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The World into Which Jesus Came

Don Stewart :: Who Was John the Baptist?

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Who Was John the Baptist?

The World into Which Jesus Came – Question 15

One of the most important characters in the New Testament is John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus. His life and ministry were extremely important in preparing the way for the coming of Christ.

Consequently, we should know what we can about him and his ministry. The New Testament gives the following details about his life and ministry.

1. He Had a Miraculous Conception

To begin with, we find that John the Baptist was conceived in a miraculous way. His parents, Zechariah and Elisabeth, were beyond the childbearing years when John was conceived. His conception was miraculous as Luke records in his gospel account:

All at once an angel from the Lord appeared to Zechariah at the right side of the altar. Zechariah was confused and afraid when he saw the angel. But the angel told him: Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayers. Your wife Elizabeth will have a son, and you must name him John. His birth will make you very happy, and many people will be glad. Your son will be a great servant of the Lord. He must never drink wine or beer, and the power of the Holy Spirit will be with him from the time he is born. John will lead many people in Israel to turn back to the Lord their God. He will go ahead of the Lord with the same power and spirit that Elijah had. And because of John, parents will be more thoughtful of their children. And people who now disobey God will begin to think as they ought to. That is how John will get people ready for the Lord. (Luke 1:11-17 CEV)

This is an extremely significant event. The appearance of the angel Gabriel to Zechariah broke the four hundred years of God’s silence. The New Testament era begins with this announcement of the coming birth of the forerunner of the Messiah.

2. He Lived in the Deserts until the Time of His Public Ministry

John was born as the angel predicted. Scripture says that when John grew up he lived in the desert away from the city of Jerusalem. There he waited until it was his time to tell the nation about the coming Messiah. Luke writes,

The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel. (Luke 1:80 NRSV)

John prepared for his ministry by being away from the crowds. Exactly where he was during this time and who he associated with is not told to us.

3. John Was the Forerunner of Jesus the Christ

When the proper time had come, John the Baptist began his public ministry. He prepared the way for the King and His coming Kingdom. His ministry was predicted in the Old Testament. Isaiah wrote,

A voice of one crying out: Prepare the way of the LORD in the wilderness; make a straight highway for our God in the desert. Every valley will be lifted up, and every mountain and hill will be leveled; the uneven ground will become smooth, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD will appear, and all humanity will see [it] together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. (Isaiah 40:3-5 HCSB)

The prophet Malachi also wrote of his coming:

“See, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. Then the Lord you seek will suddenly come to His temple, the Messenger of the covenant you desire—see, He is coming,” says the LORD of Hosts. (Malachi 3:1 HCSB)

Thus, John the Baptist was the last of the Old Testament prophets. He baptized the people in anticipation of the coming Messiah. Matthew records John beginning his ministry:

In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near!” (Matthew 3:1, 2 HCSB)

John the Baptist prepared the way for the nation of Israel to receive their Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.

4. John Preached a Message of Repentance

We are told that John preached a message of repentance. Instead of trying to reform the religious system of his day, John told people to repent of their sin, to make way for the coming of the Messiah. We read,

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 3:7-10 ESV)

John did not mince his words. Indeed, he warned the people that they should not trust in their heritage as children of Abraham to save them. They had to personally repent of their sins. This included everyone from the soldiers, tax collectors, as well as the religious rulers and the king.

Interestingly, John did this as an outsider. While he was the son of the priest Zacharias, John did not preach the necessity of the system being revived. Instead of attempting to make changes in the corrupt religious system which was in place John called the people to come out from it. Something new was taking place. The age of the Messiah had arrived!

The message was immediately received by the people. Indeed, Scripture says that they came from Jerusalem and all Judea and as far away as Syria to hear John’s message and to be baptized by him.

Yet, the intensity of the response faded. Jesus would later make this comment,

John was a burning and shining lamp, and for a time you were willing to enjoy his light. (John 5:35 HCSB)

Note that Jesus said that “for a time” they were willing to enjoy the light of John.

5. John Admitted That He Was Not the Messiah

When questioned by the religious rulers, John the Baptist admitted that he was not the Messiah. We read the following exchange between John and these leaders:

Now this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you, that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?” He said: “I am ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness’: “Make straight the way of the LORD,”’ as the prophet Isaiah said. (John 1:19-23 NKJV)

John’s ministry was to prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah. He was not the One which they had been waiting for.

In fact, in contrast to the Messiah, John did not perform any miracles. His ministry was preparatory for the One who would have the proper credentials.

6. The Religious Leaders Rejected John’s Message

As they would eventually do with the Person John was speaking about, Jesus, the religious rulers rejected John as the forerunner to the Messiah. His message was something which they did not choose to hear. Indeed, John spoke of Jesus the Messiah being the “Lamb of God.” The Gospel of John states the following:

The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Again the next day, John was standing with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look! The Lamb of God!” (John 1:29, 35-36 HCSB)

This was not the type of Messiah they were looking for. Indeed, the people were expecting someone who would come to the land and overthrow the Roman rule.

Jesus explained their rejection of John in this manner:

And when all the people, including the tax collectors, heard this, they acknowledged God’s way of righteousness, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism. But since the Pharisees and experts in the law had not been baptized by him, they rejected the plan of God for themselves. (Luke 7:29-30 HCSB)

The religious leaders did not submit to John’s baptism thus rejecting his message of repentance.

7. John Was Imprisoned by Herod

John the Baptist was publicly saying that Herod Antipas should not have taken his brother’s wife. This caused John’s imprisonment. We read of this in Luke’s gospel:

But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison. (Luke 3:19, 20 ESV)

King Herod put John the Baptist in prison for his condemnation of his behavior. Herod, however, realized John was a prophet so he did not kill him.

8. John Eventually Questioned Jesus about His Role as Messiah

While in prison, John sent messengers to question Jesus about His Messiahship. Matthew records what John wanted to know:

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11:2, 3 NRSV)

John wanted to be certain that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. Therefore, the Baptist sent two of his disciples to Jesus to receive His answer.

Jesus made it clear to John that He was indeed the promised Messiah. Matthew tells us how Jesus responded to John’s questions:

Jesus answered John’s disciples, “Go back, and tell John what you hear and see: Blind people see again, lame people are walking, those with skin diseases are made clean, deaf people hear again, dead people are brought back to life, and poor people hear the Good News. Whoever doesn’t lose his faith in me is indeed blessed.” (Matthew 11:4-6 God’s Word)

John’s question was answered in a manner which he would clearly understand. At that moment, Jesus healed the people of a number of ailments. These were signs that the Messiah would demonstrate when He arrived. Thus, by performing these miracles, Jesus made it clear to John that He was the One whom the Lord had promised.

9. John Was Executed by Herod

The gospels record that John the Baptist was executed after Herod made a careless promise at his birthday party. Mark records that Herod sent a man to have John beheaded:

So he sent an executioner to the prison to cut off John’s head and bring it to him. The soldier beheaded John in the prison. (Mark 6:27 NLT)

While Herod did not want to kill John, he felt it necessary to keep his promise. Therefore, he gave the command to have John beheaded.

10. According to Jesus There Was No One Greater than John

Jesus made it clear what He thought of John the Baptist. Indeed, the Lord said that no one born was greater than John. Matthew records Him saying,

This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Matthew 11:10, 11 NRSV)

Jesus had the highest praise for John.

11. The Ministry of John and Jesus Prove That Unbelief Is Never Satisfied

We find that John the Baptist, as well as Jesus, were both rejected by the religious establishment of that day. Jesus listed the reasons as to why this was so. He said,

For John the Baptist did not come eating bread or drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon!’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners! Yet wisdom is vindicated by all her children.’ (Luke 7:33-35 HCSB)

We learn from this illustration of Jesus’ that unbelief is never really satisfied. John came living the life as an ascetic, one who gave up the human comforts, and he was rejected as one having a demon.

Jesus, on the other hand, feasted with the people. He enjoyed life. Yet He too was rejected. In His case, it was for being a drunkard and a glutton! In other words, no matter how they acted, they were not going to be accepted by the religious establishment of that day. Unbelief is never satisfied.

This sums up some of the things we know about John the Baptist from the Scripture. Truly, he was a remarkable man with a remarkable ministry.

Summary – Question 15
Who Was John the Baptist?

One of the key characters in the New Testament is John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus Christ. It is essential that we understand who he was as well as his God-given mission. The Bible has the following to say about his life and ministry.

To begin with, John was conceived in a miraculous way. His parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth were beyond the childbearing years when he was conceived. When the angel of the Lord spoke to his father about this miraculous birth this broke the four hundred years of silence between the Old and New Testament. Therefore, the announcement of the coming birth of the forerunner of the Messiah was indeed a momentous event.

Scripture says that John lived in the deserts until the time of his public ministry. This ministry was something that had been predicted by the Old Testament prophets Isaiah and Malachi. Indeed, a forerunner would arrive on the scene heralding the coming of the Messiah.

When he began his public ministry John preached a baptism of repentance which looked forward to the coming of the Messiah. John did not spare anyone with his harsh words of condemnation of sin. Everyone had to repent! This included the religious rulers as well as the King Herod himself.

When asked, John the Baptist told the religious leaders that he was not the Messiah but one who had arrived to proclaim the Messiah’s coming. However, they rejected his message as they later would with that of Jesus.’

King Herod eventually imprisoned John for speaking out against the king’s unlawful marriage to his brother’s wife. However, Herod did not want to harm John because he was afraid of him. He knew John was God’s prophet.

While in prison John the Baptist sent two of his disciples to question Jesus if He were indeed the Messiah. Jesus assured John that He was the promised Messiah. He did this by performing a number of miracles in front of the messengers which John had sent. Consequently John would realize that these were signs which would prove the credentials of the Messiah were found in Jesus of Nazareth.

After making a rash vow, Herod was forced to execute John while the Baptist was in prison. The ministry of this man of God, the forerunner of the Christ, ended in his unlawful death. After John’s death, Jesus testified that no one born of woman was greater than John.

As we all know, the same unlawful end came to the Messiah Himself. Indeed, Jesus, the Lamb of God, was also illegally put to death. Although it was acknowledged that Jesus had not committed any crime the forces of darkness were not satisfied until He too was dead.

Many lessons can be learned from the life and ministry of John the Baptist. One important lesson was taught to us by Jesus. Jesus said that John was rejected because he lived a life of self-denial. On the other hand, Jesus Himself was rejected for living a life of eating and drinking! In other words, unbelief is never satisfied.

Therefore, with respect to the message of Jesus’ forerunner John the Baptist, it is not that the people could not believe what he said rather it is that they would not believe what he preached. The same thing occurred in Jesus’ earthly ministry. They chose not to believe in Him.

In sum, John the Baptist was God’s appointed man to make way for the coming of the Christ. He did the job which God called him to do.

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