43. The Forerunner of Jesus: John the Baptist
In a democracy like the United States of America, we do not live under the rule of a king. Instead, we have an elected servant to serve us, so we do not see much of the display of royalty. We talk about our President by his first name and often see him mingling with the crowd and shaking hands with the general public.
However, once in a while we do see some vestiges of royalty displayed in public. We just have to think of the inauguration of our presidents and all the festivities that go with it.
One of the programs on TV that I usually do not want to miss is when the President delivers his State of the Union address. Before the arrival of the President, we see all the dignitaries and state invited guests walking around, meeting with and talking to one another. Then suddenly a hush falls over the crowd, and you hear the announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States of America.” When I hear that announcement, I get goose bumps, because in those words I hear, “Here comes the head of the most powerful nation on the face of the earth,” or, “Here comes the most powerful man on the face of the earth.”
Also, when our President pays a state visit to a foreign nation, preparation on a large scale is made before his actual time of arrival in that place. For example, when the Clintons visited India a couple of years ago, scores of envoys and hundreds of FBI and CIA agents, as well as commando guards, were sent to comb all the cites the Clintons were to visit. You probably did not read much of the background details about their visit, but the weekly India newspaper that I receive devoted 30 out of 50 pages to pictures and details about their visit.
Sending envoys to prepare the way for the arrival of a king or a dignitary is not unknown to us. That practice is as old as the establishment of the monarchy. There is nothing unusual in that.
So, it was not unusual when the “King of kings” and the “Lord of lords” came into the world, He sent an envoy to prepare a way for Him: John the Baptist. However, the kind of envoy that was sent was as different and unusual as the kind of King he was supposed to announce.
God already had prepared the way for this envoy some 800 years ago when the prophet Isaiah made this announcement about his coming:
A voice is calling, “Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; make smooth in the desert a highway for our God. Let every valley be lifted up and every mountain and hill be made low; and let the rough ground become a plain, and the rugged terrain a broad valley; then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all the flesh will see it together; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Isaiah 40:3-5).345
The prophet Isaiah was speaking in the context of the Babylonian captivity, although that was yet in the future for his own time. For the nation that was in captivity, this was a comforting message, “’Comfort, O comfort My people’, says your God” (Isaiah 40:1).
A few hundred years later came the prophet Malachi, who made a similar announcement:
“Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold He is coming,” says the Lord of hosts (Malachi 3:1).
“Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. And he will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse” (Malachi 4:5-6).
After the prophet Malachi, 400 more years passed and nothing happened. God was silent. No prophet and no revelation. Godly people kept looking for the consolation of Israel (e.g., Luke 2:25). Religion had become a show and hypocrisy a way of life. Religious leaders were blind guides who strained out a gnat and swallowed a camel (Matthew 23:24). Politically, the situation was not much different than when the prophet Isaiah some 800 years ago announced the coming of the forerunner. Isaiah was speaking in the context of the Babylonian captivity. Now they were under the Roman yoke. The Jews were yearning for a deliverer. The sky was covered with thick dark clouds, and there was seemingly no ray of hope.
Then the sky burst open with a bright shining light. One morning recently I was coming back from an early prayer time that I spend with two other friends. It was around 7.00 or 7.15. The sun was not yet out, and it was still a little dark. My car radio was down, and I was thinking about this message. Then I went over an overpass which is three levels high, at least 50’ from the ground. As I faced to the east, I saw the sky bright red, like the whole thing was on fire. It was one of those spectacular sights that we see once in a while. That’s how it was in the coming of John the Baptist. It was like an emblazoned bright shining sky that gave an unambiguous indication of the sunrise, like his father Zechariah prophesied:
Because of the tender mercy of our God, with which the Sunrise from on high shall visit us, to shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace (Luke 1:78-79).
John the Baptist lived a somewhat strange life. Someone said, “He was like an under-socialized relative who shows up unannounced and unexpected at holidays and other social functions and embarrasses everyone.”
John lived in the desert as a Nazarene. He ate locusts and wild honey (Matthew 3:4). That indicates that he lived in seclusion and nobody brought him any food; he had to survive on whatever he got in the desert. He wrapped himself around in a garment made from camel’s hair (Matthew 3:4). Most probably he made it himself from a dead camel that he must have found in the desert. He probably looked like the two demon possessed men in the country of Gadarenes who lived in tombs (Matthew 8:28-34).
Do you think you would have invited John into your home for dinner?
He lived a very simple life. He did not have a home. He did not have any possessions. He did not have any other change of clothes except the one with which he covered himself.
Behind all this, he had a purpose; there was a method in his madness. All this was for one purpose — to prepare the way for the coming Christ. He was to be a gofer boy. His early childhood was probably not much different than the One for whom he came to be a forerunner.
Is my life different from the people of the world so than I can be a witness for Christ?
Is my life cluttered with things of this world so much that all my time, all my energy, all my resources are spent in taking care of these things, and no time, energy and resources are left in the service of the Lord? As Paul advises Timothy:
Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier (2 Timothy 2:3-4).
John seems to be addressing two different groups. One group is the genuine seekers, who came to hear his message, believed him and repented, and were baptized by him as we read:
Then Jerusalem was going out to him, and all Judea, and all the district around the Jordan; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins (Matthew 3:5-6).
In Luke’s account, we see various groups of people: the general populace, tax-gatherers, and soldiers, who come to him asking questions and genuinely seeking his advice as to how they can change their life, and he answers each of their questions accordingly (Luke 3:10-14, 18). These were the people who were sincerely looking for answers and wanted to repent and change their way of life. They were aware of the wrong they were doing.
Then there were the Pharisees and the Sadducees who came to him for baptism, and he addressed them sternly:
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? Therefore bring forth fruit in keeping with your repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham (Matthew 3:7-9, also Luke 3:7-9).
How politically incorrect can you be! These were the people who did not want to take anybody’s advice, but always wanted to give advice to others. They were righteous and holy in their own eyes and came to John not with sincere repentance and a desire to change, but to find fault with him.
No matter what group of people he addressed, his message was basically the same, and the center of his message was the coming Christ: “He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not even fit to remove His sandals” (Mathew 3:11). His attitude about himself in relation to Christ was, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
This, again, was for one single purpose: to prepare the way, to be a gofer boy, so that, “I decrease and He increases.”
Am I single-mindedly devoted to Christ, putting Him first in every aspect of my life, presenting Him before the lost world, so by life or death I can win some? Am I giving God all the glory for the successes He brings my way and continuing to be faithful to Him in spite of seeming failures?
His Doubt and Death
To where did this single-minded devotion to the cause lead John? To a dark dungeon! In a solitary confinement! On death row! He must have asked himself, “Why?” See how Paul felt in the Roman prison even though comparatively his was not as hard as John’s imprisonment (2 Timothy 4:9-21).
John sent messengers to Jesus asking this basic question: “Are you the coming One, or shall we look for someone else?” (Matthew 11:3). He had recognized Him earlier as the Son of God, when he said, “I have seen, and have borne witness that this is the Son of God” (John 1:34). Why would he doubt now? It was because his ministry brought him prison instead of success. Jesus was in Galilee instead of in the capital city of Jerusalem from where the kings ruled. Jesus became a friend of the sinners instead of zapping them and destroying them. Jesus seemed to condone the Romans instead of taking a sword against them.
What is Jesus’ answer?
Go and report to John the things which you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have the Gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who keeps from stumbling (Matthew 11:4-6).
What was His answer? Yes? Or no? Why did He not give him a straightforward answer? Instead, what did He do? He reminds John of the Old Testament predictions of the Messiah and His ministry:
Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped. Then the lame will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb will shout for joy (Isaiah 35:5-6).
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, and freedom to prisoners; to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord (Isaiah 61:1-2a).
That’s how God responds to us when we question His love in difficult circumstances. He reminds us of His faithfulness in the past. He reminds us of His promises in His Word. He reminds us of His unchangeable character.
How do I respond when God does not seem to live up to my expectations? Do I despair or cling to His promises and rely on His faithfulness? See how Zechariah praises God for His faithfulness, “As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old,” “to remember His holy covenant,” “the oath which He swore to Abraham our father” (Luke 1:70, 72, 73).
Was John the Baptist successful?
Well, he spent a major part of his life in a dungeon, in solitary confinement, on death row. You wouldn’t call that success!
The only person he counseled extensively chopped his head off! You wouldn’t call that success!
The purpose of his coming was to prepare the way for Christ so people would receive Him. Well, not many received Christ. He came to His own, but His own did not receive Him. You wouldn’t call that success!
Recently when I saw the sky amber red and brightly lit, I kept looking for the sun to come up from behind the range of small hills between Arlington and Duncanville as you are driving east on I-20. I was expecting a large, bright orange ball to move up any second. But you know, I did not see the sun come up. In a few minutes the sky was covered with clouds, and it remained cloudy the rest of the day. That day our high was only in the lower 30’s and that night was the coldest we have ever seen this winter season. And that’s exactly how it was with John the Baptist. He lived all his life with failures and died an ignominious death. You wouldn’t call that success!
The last thing we hear from him is his question, “Are you the coming One, or shall we look for someone else?” We do not even know if he got Jesus’ answer back before he was executed.
And yet, listen to Christ’s evaluation of John’s life: “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11). That you would surely call success!
John the Baptist was considered the greatest among all who are born of women, except, of course, Jesus Christ Himself. This was not because he achieved a great feat of success, but because he remained true to the task and faithful to the One who had sent him.
His life motto was: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
Or, like Paul,
… according to my earnest expectation and hope, that I shall not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ shall even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain (Philippians 1:20-21).
John the Baptist lived a different life, he preached a different message, he lived with seeming failures, and he was prepared to die an ignominious death. All for one reason: his commitment to the cause of Christ. That is one thing I would want to emulate from John the Baptist — single-minded devotion to the cause of Christ so that whatever I do is geared to that single purpose of serving the Lord.
John the Baptist was the forerunner of Jesus Christ’s first coming. We all, who have known Christ as our personal Savior, are forerunners of His second coming. The life and death of John the Baptist sets a very high ideal before us to live as the forerunners of Christ: “Diligently presenting ourselves approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed” (2 Timothy 2:15). Because, “we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were entreating through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20).
Closing the survey of the Old Testament, J. Sidlow Baxter comments:
Thus, as the Old Testament closes, we see the godly remnant speaking softly to one another of a great hope — “He is coming!” Then, for four hundred years they disappear from sight, until they reappear from obscurity in New Testament times in the aged Simeon and Anna, who are found in Jerusalem, “waiting for the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25). And so it is today. They who fear and love Jehovah-Jesus speak one to another amid the closing decades of the present age, comforting one another with the words, “He is coming!”
… Yes He is surely coming — for, “Unto you that fear My name,” saith Jehovah, “Shall the sun of Righteousness arise, with healing in His wings!” And our prayer is, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus.” 346
Am I prepared to meet the Lord? When I stand before Him, what kind of words will I hear?
Is my life different than the people of the world? Do I present a clear message to the lost world? Do I always rely on His Word and His sure promises? Do I always put Christ first in all that I am and all that I do so that He would increase even if I have to decrease?
344 This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 60 in the From Creation to the Cross series prepared by Imanuel G. Christian on January 6, 2002.
345 Unless otherwise indicated, all the Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible, ÓThe Lockman foundation, 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, La Habra, California.
346 J. Sidlow Baxter, Explore the Book (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1960), vol. 4, pp. 267-68.
Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word)