John1v19to34: THE ROLE OF JOHN THE BAPTIST
(A) Introduction (Read the reference.)
John the Baptist commenced his ministry at a time of high hopes. The Jews were longing for a great national deliverer who would free them from Roman tyranny. The arrival of Messiah was thought to be imminent. Jewish scholars studied the Messianic Scriptures. They were not ignorant of what had been foretold. They expected God's Anointed to be born in Bethlehem of David's line.
There were many different ideas of what the Messiah would do! Some considered that he would bring peace to the earth, others that he would deliver Israel from Rome and still others who expected him to reign in righteousness. All the many forecasts were based upon passages in the Old Testament. There are numerous pitfalls for students of prophecy!
No-one believed that Messiah's main task would be to make sacrifice of himself for sin. This should be a warning to those who are dogmatic about what Jesus will do at his second coming.
The integrity of John the Baptist.
John the Baptist was stirring up the nation. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Mt3v5. He was a sensation.
The Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, sent a deputation of priests and Levites to investigate John. Probably some of the priests belonged to the Pharisee faction. They wanted to know if John was the Messiah. He was a credible candidate. The angel of the Lord told Zechariah his father: "He will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah." Jesus, himself, said, "Elijah has already come, and they did not recognise him. Mt17v11. John must have been a striking figure in his camel hair coat and leather belt.
John was a highly effective preacher. He drew his audience to the desert of Judea. The Baptist did not have to go to Jerusalem to gather a crowd. The people flocked to him.
His main task was to announce the 'Kingdom of Heaven' where Messiah would reign in righteousness. John believed in moral rearmament and living a disciplined life. He was ascetic - surviving on locusts, wild honey and water. Later, when the Pharisees questioned Jesus' methods they said, "John's disciples often fast and pray." Lk5v33. The Baptist urged people to repent and change their way of life.
John was very forthright and fearless. When he saw Pharisees and Sadducees in his audience he cried out, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath. Produce fruit in keeping with repentance." Mt3v7and8. He did not worry about antagonising the establishment. A characteristic John shared with Jesus.
John's teaching was do-able. In this he was unlike Jesus. John told folk to share what they had with those poorer than themselves. He instructed the tax collectors to collect no more than required and the soldiers to be content with their pay. Jesus set a standard that no-one can keep - love your enemies, turn the other cheek and don't lust after a sexy woman because that is to commit adultery in the heart. I have never been able to live consistently to this standard.
The Baptist had a loyal following. I imagine that he went out to the desert close to his home village in the hill country of Judea and gradually collected a band of devoted disciples. Several never left him. Neither they nor John forsook all to follow Jesus. Indeed there was some rivalry between the disciples of John and the disciples of Jesus. Many years later Apollos only knew the baptism of John!
Although John appeared a good candidate for Messiah he emphatically denied being the Christ; he said, "I am not the Christ." v20. He was not even Elijah whose coming was forecast for the last days in Malachi4v5. Nor was he the prophet referred to by God when he spoke with Moses. "I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers; I will put my word in his mouth, and he will tell everything I command him. Dt18v17. This is a genuine Messianic prophecy.
John did not exploit his fame. He did not pretend to be what he wasn't . He was a man of integrity. We are tempted to pretend to be what we are not. Plenty of Christians make out that they are better than they are - particularly if they are successful. I attended a men's meeting recently at which a recently retired Chief Superintendent of police spoke. He was an affable man and a confident speaker. One of his small group of listeners asked him, "Has your Christian profession been in any way a handicap in the police force?" He replied as quick as a flash, "No, not at all. It has been a great help." At one time in his career Mr Cracknell was my brother's inspector. So I fished for information. Philip, who is not a Christian, e-mailed me: 'He was a good chap and an excellent advert for his faith.' I was very pleased to receive this independent testimony to the integrity of the man I may have slightly doubted.
(C) The mission of John the Baptist.
John prepared the way for Messiah by:
(1) Proclamation. I am the voice of one calling in the desert, 'Make straight the way for the Lord.'
When an earthly ruler rode into town an advance party made sure that the potholes in the road were filled in. A place is still spruced up for a royal visit. Local councils have been known to paint the grass greener before the arrival of the Queen.
John prepared for Christ's coming by calling on men to repent and change their sinful ways. They needed a moral makeover before the arrival of the mighty winnower who would gather his wheat into the barn and burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.
John announced a Holy Warrior - "The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire." Mt3v10.
He also introduced someone very special: "But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry." Mt3v11.
How far is this an accurate presentation of Jesus? It is true in part. When Jesus commenced his mission he began to preach, "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near." Mt4v7. His coming did discriminate between men. He said: "He who is not with me is against me and he who does not gather with me scattereth. Mt12v30. Jesus was certainly special. He had great power. He said at his arrest, "Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than 12 legions of angels." If Jesus had decided that man was not worth saving God the Father would have accepted his decision.
However, John's portrayal of Jesus is unbalanced. Jesus was the friend of publicans and sinners; he came eating and drinking; his enemies called him a wine bibber and a gluttonous man; his first miracle was to ensure plenty of booze for a wedding reception; he allowed a prostitute to bathe his feet with her tears and he washed his disciple's feet. It is clear that the Holy Spirit does not put into a man's mind truth's that are wholly incompatible with his thinking. A prophecy is coloured by the outlook of the prophet.
One one occasion Jesus encountered opposition from a Samaritan village. James and John, formerly disciples of the Baptist, asked: "Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?" But Jesus turned and rebuked them, "You do not know what kind of spirit you are of, for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them." Luke9v54to56.
I love the words Matthew quotes from Isaiah42v1to4 to describe Jesus:
and a smoking wick he will not snuff out.
John the Baptist did not anticipate this aspect of the character of Jesus.
(a) All Christians teachers and preachers are but 'a voice'. When a person is saved it is not the preacher who is thanked but the Saviour.
He's the fairest of ten thousand to my soul!
(b) Our presentation of Jesus should be balanced. There have been times when the Christian church has exercised political power and become the enforcer of righteousness. This happened during the protectorate of Oliver Cromwell and in John Calvin's Geneva. In the USA the evangelical right is exercising its political muscle. I fear that on assuming political control the church tends towards legalism at the expense of grace. There are those who would gladly uproot the unrighteous. We need to remember Jesus' Parable of the Weeds. When the farmer's servants saw the weeds growing amongst the wheat they were concerned and asked: "Do you want us to go and pull them up?" The farmer replied, "No, because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until harvest" Mt13v29and30. We must never lose sight of how much we depend upon grace: This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 1John4v9to11.
(2) Baptism. I baptise you with water for repentance. Mt3v11.
John's practice of baptising the repentant was unusual. Gentiles were baptised when they became proselytes of Judaism but it was not something done to Jews. So the Pharisees amongst the representatives of the Sanhedrin asked by what authority John baptised as he wasn't the Christ, Elijah or that prophet.
John said that he baptised on behalf of, and in preparation for, the Messiah: "But for the reason I came baptising with water was that he might be revealed to Israel." v31. So John was acting in Old Testament tradition. People were expected to wash before a special, holy experience. When God came down from Mt Sinai to the Israelites in a dense cloud the people had to wash their clothes. Before the ordination of Aaron and his sons Moses washed them with water. A priest could not enter the Tent of Meeting without washing his hands and feet. John called upon his countrymen to repent and be baptised to purify themselves in readiness for Christ's holy reign.
In all honesty how well did John the Baptist prepare the Jews for the coming of Jesus? How far did his mission fulfil the words of the angel: "To make ready a people prepared for the Lord." The Jews longed for a Messiah who would put the world to rights. They were not really ready for a Messiah like Jesus - who came to seek and to save the lost. It isn't true that John prepared thousands who gladly became disciples of Jesus. However, he did dramatically introduce the Messianic era and he did identify Jesus as Christ. The Baptist also directed a few of his own disciples, key individuals like Andrew and John, to Jesus.
(1) A strange admission. "I myself did not know him." v31.
John speaks these words some time after the baptism of Jesus. When Jesus approached John for baptism it is evident that he did know him. The Baptist said to Jesus: "I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?" Mt3v14. He spoke these words before the Spirit descended as a dove upon Jesus - the identifying sign that God gave John.
Of course John knew Jesus - they were related. His mother may have been the aunt of Mary. He must have been told how he leapt in his mother's womb for joy on the arrival of the pregnant virgin.
John had known Jesus for many years - they were both in their early thirties. He is aware that Jesus lived a virtuous life and had no need to repent and be baptised. John knew deep down that Jesus was a better man than him. If anything he should be baptised by Jesus. Yet he never identified Jesus as Messiah. Doesn't that seem incredible and make us pause for thought?
Luke tells us in his gospel: Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and men. Lk2v52. However, his brothers and sisters did not believe he was the Messiah and nor did the people of Nazareth, his home town. They knew him only for his family connections and his trade. But nothing is more ironic than John the Baptist's failure to recognise the potential of the very one he came to proclaim.
What does this tell us about Jesus? Well he wasn't pushy. Jesus was genuinely humble. He was content to be a good son and a hard-working carpenter. I think it is significant that his first miracle was performed on behalf of his mum.
Jesus was anything but regal in appearance or demeanour. He was such an ordinary man that there is not a single remark about his appearance in the gospels.
I imagine from the evidence of his ministry that Jesus seemed a bit quirky. People never quite knew what to make of him. He said some very odd things. Jesus made a lot of folk feel very uncomfortable. You never knew when to take him seriously or what was coming next.
Jesus must have spent a lot of time in study, thought and prayer. He was hardly a man of action. Meditative types are not universally admired. John the Baptist had a bit more about him than Jesus. Jesus never even spoke in the synagogue at Nazareth until he was over 30.
Perhaps there was in those early days a fresh ness, an innocence about Jesus. We see this in his guileless remark to his worried parents who after a three-day search found him in the temple listening to the teachers and asking them questions. When remonstrated with the twelve-year-old replied: "Didn't you know that I had to be in my Father's house?" Lk2v49.
I think it likely that in Nazareth he associated with misfits, odd balls, the marginalized, the poor and the weak.
We must never forget that Jesus was perfect. He was unique - the only one who pleased the Father in heaven. Yet his goodness made little impression! John never considered he had it in him to be the Messiah.
It is not the best of men who have the greatest reputations. Genuine virtue is not valued as it should be. Strangely, in death we are inclined to prize a man's character above his accomplishments. In death we are wiser judges.
(2) The distinguishing sign. Then John gave this testimony: "I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him." This was the sign by which John identified the Messiah.
Jesus was God incarnate and so why did he require the Holy Spirit? The descent of the Spirit showed that Jesus was truly a man with a man's spirit. Even he needed to be equipped for the work ahead by the Holy Ghost. We should always ask for God's Spirit to equip us for any task we attempt in the name of Jesus. If he was needy so too are we!
The Spirit came to Jesus as a dove - not as a flame of fire or mighty rushing wind. Jesus sort the Father's approval throughout his earthly ministry. It was this that gave him strength. The Holy Spirit came to Jesus as a dove to compliment the words of God. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." Mt16v17. The dove is the symbol of purity, love and peace. So the Spirit fluttered gently down in acknowledgment of Jesus' purity of heart, to assure him of his Father's love and high regard, and to give him peace.
One of the ongoing works of the Spirit is to give the believer assurance of salvation and the Christian soldier confidence before battle. It is then that He comes like the dove:
(3) His recognition of Christ's status.
(a) John accepted that he was not worthy to be the slave of Jesus. "He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie." v27. Yet John never followed Jesus. Peter and John laid down their nets but the Baptist never abandoned his mission to become a disciple of Jesus. I find that hard to understand.
It is possible to be in Christian service but to have our own agenda. Jesus said, "Many will say to me on that day, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles? Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you.'" Mt7v22and23. If we follow Christ we will help the hungry, thirsty, lonely, threadbare, sick and imprisoned brothers of Jesus. See Mt25v31to46.
(b) John anticipated Christ's gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus was he who will baptise with the Holy Spirit. v33. Jesus gives the Spirit to all who serve him to prepare and equip them for the work they are given to do. The Spirit is bestowed according to our need.
(c) John acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God. He had heard the voice from heaven say at the baptism of Jesus: "This is my son .... ." John had heard God speak but he would still doubt Jesus in the days to come. Before we are too quick to judge remember we have God's word, we believe it to be his inspired word, yet we doubt its promises. Jesus had to send this message back to John: "Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me." Mt11v5.
(d) John announced Jesus as the Lamb of God: LOOK, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. v29. I find it very strange that John called Jesus the Lamb of God. We almost take it for granted that he was the Passover lamb slain for us - the sacrificial lamb of Isaiah's prophecy - but the Jews of John's day did not expect the Messiah to die a sacrifice for sin. Zechariah looked forward to the horn of salvation - salvation through strength. The Messiah was going to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. Lk1v74and75. The disciples of Jesus could not begin to see that it was in God's will for Jesus to die as the sacrificial lamb. When Jesus talked about his death Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. Mk8v32. Jesus replied: "Get behind me Satan! You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men."
John must have found it difficult to conceive of Jesus, whom he knew well, as a holy warrior - cheerful, merry, decent, good humoured, kindly, spirited, quirky, controversial, devout, unassuming Jesus. But there was an image that fitted him better than most. According to Prof. W. Barclay between Old and New Testament times the horned lamb came to be the symbol of a great conqueror. The horned lamb - unspoiled, confident, fearless, sure-footed, vigorous and brimming with life - perhaps he could defeat and abolish sin in a single contest.
I believe John had misconceptions about the Messiah. He was perplexed that Jesus was the Christ and troubled because Jesus did not live up to his expectations. There are still misconceptions about Jesus even among Christians. We can make him in our own image. It is as good a reason as any to study John's Gospel.