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John the Baptist and Jesus Matthew 3:1-17

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Introduction

A few days ago, my wife and I watched a special televised broadcast of Billy Graham’s evangelistic campaign in Dallas, Texas, last Fall. There was some great music by Michael W. Smith and the Gaither Vocal Band. Then, when it came time for Billy Graham to speak, he was introduced by former President George Bush. What a wonderful compliment to Mr. Graham and to his faithfulness in preaching the gospel to many presidents and their families over the years.

If Jesus were to preach at a football stadium in Dallas, Texas, who would you expect to introduce Him? I can assure you that John the Baptist would not be at the top of the list. Indeed, I doubt that John would have been on the list at all. In a sense, one could say that John’s mission in life was to introduce Jesus as God’s promised Messiah, the hope of all the ages. But who would have ever thought that God would have chosen a man like John the Baptist for this task? To say that John was “unique” would be an understatement. He was a “wilderness man,” a man who from childhood had lived “in the wilderness until the day he was revealed to Israel” (Luke 1:80).66 He wore clothing made of camel’s hair and ate locusts and wild honey (Matthew 3:4). His message was not polished, but blunt and to the point. Rather than receiving all who would come, he verbally attacked some of those in his audience. And yet this was the man whom God had chosen to introduce His Son, the Messiah.

Whatever some might think about John, no one would dare to deny his success. Almost in spite of himself, John attracted large crowds. His message had a great impact on many, just as the angel had told his father, Zacharias:

13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son; you will name him John. 14 Joy and gladness will come to you, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth. 16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go as forerunner before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared for him” (Luke 1:13-17).

John’s greatness cannot be denied. Every one of the four Gospels begins their account of the ministry of our Lord by recording some of John’s words of introduction. Jesus Himself spoke very highly of John:

“I tell you the truth, among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is” (Matthew 11:11).

Even a man like Herod was reluctant to harm John. On the one hand, Herod was afraid of the crowds, because they revered John (Matthew 14:5), but on the other hand, Herod himself feared John (Mark 6:20). John may not have been much of a fashion statement, and he may not even have been a great public speaker, but he certainly attracted a large hearing, a number of whom followed his teaching. Although John does not seem to have traveled a great deal we know that he had followers as far away from Judea as Ephesus:

24 Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, arrived in Ephesus. He was an eloquent speaker, well-versed in the scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and with great enthusiasm he spoke and taught accurately the facts about Jesus, although he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak out fearlessly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the way of God to him more accurately (Acts 18:24-26).

1 While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul went through the inland regions and came to Ephesus. He found some disciples there 2 and said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 So Paul said, “Into what then were you baptized?” “Into John’s baptism,” they replied. 4 Paul said, “John baptized with a baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5 When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, 6 and when Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began to speak in tongues and to prophesy. 7 (Now there were about twelve men in all.) (Acts 19:1-7)

As a prophet, John the Baptist was a novelty in Israel at this time. For nearly 400 years God had not spoken through the prophets (see Isaiah 29:10). Suddenly, from the Judean wilderness a voice began to cry out, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2). People began to make their way out to the wilderness to see and to hear John. Some came out of mere curiosity, perhaps, while others came to repent, confess their sins, and be baptized. Others (like the Sadducees and the Pharisees – Matthew 3:7) may have come because they may have wanted to size up the competition.

Our study will focus on John the Baptist, his mission, his message, and his methods. While every gospel writer has his own emphasis and perspective, my intention in this lesson is to consider John the Baptist from Matthew’s point of view.

Observations

We should begin by making some observations regarding John the Baptist.

(1) John the Baptist was a unique individual, a man who definitely stood apart from the crowd. It was God’s will that John not be contaminated by the corrupt religious system of his day. He was a Nazarite from birth and was filled with the Holy Spirit while still in the womb (Luke 1:15). As already mentioned, his dress and diet were “off the charts” as well. From childhood he lived in the desert or wilderness regions of Judea. While he was born into a priestly family, he did not take his father’s name, nor his work (Luke 1:59-63, 80). And although John was a prophet, he did not perform any miraculous signs:

41 Many came to him and began to say, “John performed no miraculous sign, but everything John said about this man was true!” (John 10:41)

It is hard for me to imagine, but John did not even know that Jesus was the promised Messiah until he baptized Him:

29 On the next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is the one about whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who is greater than I am, because he existed before me.’ 31 I did not recognize him, but I came baptizing with water so that he could be revealed to Israel.” 32 Then John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending like a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. 33 And I did not recognize him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining, this is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have both seen and testified that this man is the Chosen One of God” (John 1:29-34).67

(2) Matthew (along with the rest of the Gospel writers) carefully links John with the Old Testament. In each of the four Gospels, John the Baptist is identified with the “voice who cries out” in Isaiah 40:

A voice cries out,

“In the desert clear a way for the Lord;

construct in the wilderness a road for our God” (Isaiah 40:3, cited in Matthew 3:3; see also Mark 1:3;

Luke 3:4-6; John 1:23).

More subtly, Matthew also links John the Baptist with Elijah,68 especially in relation to his appearance. In 2 Kings 1, Ahaziah, the son of Ahab, had fallen through a lattice and had been injured. He wanted to know if he would recover, and so he sent messengers to inquire of Baal Zebub. Elijah intercepted these messengers and sent them back to Ahaziah with a word of rebuke. Note Ahaziah’s response to these returning messengers:

5 When the messengers returned to the king [Ahaziah], he asked them, “Why have you returned?” 6 They said to him, “A man came up to meet us. He told us, “Go back to the king who sent you and tell him, ‘This is what the Lord says, “You must think there is no God in Israel! That explains why you are sending for an oracle from Baal Zebub, the god of Ekron. Therefore you will not leave the bed on which you lie, for you will certainly die.”‘‘ 7 The king asked them, “Describe the appearance of this man who came up to meet you and told you these things.” 8 They said to him, “He was a hairy man and had a leather belt tied around his waist.” The king said, “He is Elijah the Tishbite” (2 Kings 1:5-8).

Why Elijah? The first and most obvious answer is because that is what Malachi prophesied (3:1; 4:5). Elijah, like John, was a kind of “wilderness man,” a man who lived on the run, out of the mainstream of society. But Elijah was a prophet of the Northern Kingdom and not Judah. This is true, but I believe it is also purposeful. Elijah also ministered during the days when a “pretender” – Ahab -- was on the throne, a man who was not a rightful heir to the throne of David. In John’s day, the “pretender” was Herod, a half-breed (compare Deuteronomy 17:15). As Ahab’s wicked wife Jezebel (the idol-worshipping daughter of a Sidonian king) sought to kill Elijah, so Herod’s wicked and ill-gotten wife Herodias sought to kill John (Matthew 14:1-12). Athaliah, the daughter of Ahab and Jezebel, was a very wicked woman, who married Jehoram, king of Judah (2 Kings 8:16-19, 26), and thus contributed to his corruption. The daughter of Herodias was likewise instrumental in the downfall of King Herod and the death of John the Baptist (Matthew 14:1-12). As Elijah stood against the king and queen of Israel, so John the Baptist confronted King Herod and his wife, Herodias.

Elijah called the adulterous Northern Kingdom to repentance because they had departed from worshipping God to worshipping the gods of the heathen. John the Baptist called the Jews of Judah to repentance because they had corrupted true religion as well. As Ezekiel 16 clearly states, Jerusalem and Judah sinned in a manner that was worse than apostate Israel. Judah was twice the harlot Israel was, and thus received greater punishment.

As Elijah mistakenly perceived that he had failed in his ministry (1 Kings 19), so John the Baptist wrongly questioned whether he had failed in naming Jesus as the Messiah (Matthew 11:2ff.). In Elijah’s case, the fulfillment of his ministry came as he appointed Hazael king over Syria and Jehu king over Israel (1 Kings 19:15-16). Furthermore, Elijah appointed Elisha in his place (1 Kings 19:16). Elisha was to Elijah what Jesus was to John the Baptist. It is not at all surprising that just as John was divinely called to introduce Israel’s true King, he would also denounce the pretender (Herod) who currently occupied the throne.

(3) Matthew’s account of John’s ministry depicts a distinctive thrust of his ministry. As one should expect, the Gospels convey many points in common concerning John the Baptist and his ministry. But each Gospel has its own unique argument and emphases. Mark’s Gospel contains no negative response of John to any who come to him for baptism. In Luke’s account, John the Baptist addresses the whole crowd who comes to him. He warns those who trust in their biological link to Abraham. He gives specific examples of what “fruits worthy of repentance” should look like. The one who has two tunics should share one with the person who has none (Luke 3:11).69 The tax collector should not collect more than that which is required (3:12-13). Soldiers should not use their power to extort money from people, but rather be content with their wages (3:14).

Matthew’s Gospel has a different focus when it comes to John’s response to those who came to him:

7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Therefore produce fruit that proves your repentance, 9 and don’t think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones! 10 Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 “I baptize you with water, for repentance, but the one coming after me is more powerful than I am—I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clean out his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire” (Matthew 3:7-12, emphasis mine).

Matthew’s Gospel focuses on one segment of the crowd that came to observe John. He calls the reader’s attention to the “Pharisees and Sadducees” who came, not to be baptized, but on account of his baptism. While some translations choose to make it appear that these religious leaders came to be baptized, Luke’s account makes it very clear that the scribes and Pharisees left without being baptized:

24 When John’s messengers had gone, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 25 What did you go out to see? A man dressed in fancy clothes? Look, those who wear fancy clothes and live in luxury are in kings’ courts! 26 What did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 27 This is the one about whom it is written, ‘Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 28 I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he is.” 29 (Now all the people who heard this, even the tax collectors, acknowledged God’s justice, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism. 30 However, the Pharisees and the experts in religious law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.) (Luke 7:14-30, underscoring mine)

Matthew was a Jew, writing to a Jewish audience. He makes a point of the fact that the Jewish leaders receive a strong word of rebuke from John the Baptist. He does not receive them as those who are truly repentant, but as hypocrites. We have already seen that the religious scholars in Jerusalem seemed oblivious to the birth of Messiah in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1-6). Now, we are told that John the Baptist strongly rebuked the Jewish leaders who came merely out of curiosity or self-interest. We are thus prepared to hear these strong words from our Lord:

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

We are likewise prepared for the strong opposition of the Jewish leaders to Jesus, whom they perceive to be a threat to their “empire.”

(4) John’s message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2). John’s message was an announcement that the kingdom of heaven was near at hand. This meant that the King was soon to appear. John was careful to contrast his ministry with that of the Messiah. John was merely a voice, crying in the wilderness; the Messiah was much greater. John did not even consider himself to be worthy to carry His sandals (3:11). John baptized with water, but the Messiah’s baptism was far greater.

The news that Messiah would soon appear was also a warning. In Matthew’s Gospel, John’s announcement was a warning to the Jewish leaders, including the Pharisees, those who were generally regarded to be the most zealous of the religious leaders.70 John’s message was a warning of coming judgment:

7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Therefore produce fruit that proves your repentance, 9 and don’t think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones! 10 Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:7-10).

The Messiah came to “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). It was necessary, therefore, for his people to reckon with their sin. If men persisted in their sin, the Messiah’s coming would be for judgment, not salvation.

It is my personal opinion that John the Baptist, like most of the prophets, did not clearly distinguish between the first and second coming of the Messiah. He did not seem to grasp the fact that the Messiah would come twice, the first time to die as a perfect sacrifice for sinners, and the second time to defeat His enemies and establish His kingdom. Indeed, John’s message would appear to focus more on our Lord’s second coming than on his first. This should come as no surprise to us, for such was the dilemma of all the Old Testament prophets:

10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets who predicted the grace that would come to you searched and investigated carefully. 11 They probed into what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he testified beforehand about the sufferings appointed for Christ and his subsequent glory. 12 They were shown that they were serving not themselves but you, in regard to the things now announced to you through those who evangelized you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things angels long to catch a glimpse of (1 Peter 1:10-12).

It is likewise my opinion that this blurring of the first and second comings of our Lord may very well explain some of John’s doubts, which will be described later in Matthew 11:

2 Now when John in prison heard about the deeds Christ had done, he sent a question by his disciples: 3 “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” (Matthew 11:2-3)

Jesus was performing many miracles of healing. The blind received their sight and the lame were made to walk; some were even raised from the dead (Matthew11:5). The problem is that these miraculous healings were not acts of judgment, but rather of deliverance. John’s emphasis had fallen on divine judgment. Jesus sent word to John that he should take note of the miracles He was performing, and then compare them with what the prophets indicated that Messiah would do at His coming. One such prophecy can be found in Luke 4:

16 Now Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the regaining of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lords favor” (Luke 4:16-19).

Was John’s preaching out of sync with that of Jesus? Hardly. When Jesus began to preach, His message was virtually a repetition of John’s words:

From that time Jesus began to preach this message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 4:17).

If men are to be saved, there must be something from which they are saved. Men are saved from the wrath of God, which He will justly pour out on sinners.

16 For this is the way God loved the world: he gave his one and only Son that everyone who believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through him. 18 The one who believes in him is not condemned. The one who does not believe has been condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God (John 3:16-18).

Much more then, because we have now been declared righteous by his blood, we will be saved through him from God’s wrath (Romans 5:9).

John’s preaching was not only the warning of impending judgment, it was a call to action. John called upon men to repent and to be baptized. What does John mean by the term “repent”? It means to have a change of mind, to turn around. By repentance John means much more than just a change of one’s thinking. It includes this, but it also involves more. I believe that there is an element of sorrow or remorse. Repentance is also a change of heart and mind that results in a change of course, a change in lifestyle. Matthew does not have our Lord go into detail as to how one’s life should change as a result of true repentance. In Matthew, Jesus merely lays down the general requirement: “Therefore produce fruit that proves your repentance” (3:8). Luke goes into much greater detail on this, giving specific examples for various walks of life, including tax collectors and soldiers (Luke 3:11-14).

As I read the various passages in the Gospels which describe the preaching of John the Baptist, I am inclined to conclude that John is not merely requiring that men repent of individual sins. I think John is calling upon his audience to repent by renouncing and forsaking any human systems other than faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life. In Matthew’s account of John’s ministry, we note that he focuses on the false religious system of the religious Jews (primarily Pharisees).

8 “Therefore produce fruit that proves your repentance, 9 and don’t think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones! 10 Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:8-10).

The Jews trusted in their ancestry for salvation. They thought that because they were descendants of Abraham, they were assured of having 50 yard-line tickets in the kingdom of heaven. As Paul powerfully demonstrates in Romans 9, being a Christian is not synonymous with being a physical descendant of Abraham. John the Baptist also forcefully rejects salvation based upon one’s ancestry. “God can raise up children to Abraham from the rocks” (3:9). The Gentiles had their own systems for getting by, and Luke’s Gospel addresses some of these. Repentance, then, is not merely forsaking specific sins; it is forsaking any system which relies on human effort, rather than faith in the shed blood of Jesus Christ.

We should be very clear here that John is not suggesting that the coming of the kingdom is dependent upon man’s actions. Men are not to repent so that the kingdom of heaven will come; rather, men are to repent because the kingdom of heaven is coming:

“What is important to appreciate is that the human responsibility – repentance, turning around, changing – is not urged in order that the government of God may come but, explicitly, ‘because’ God’s government is coming, whether we change or not. That is to say, we do not bring in the kingdom by our changes; we ‘suffer’ the kingdom’s coming, either blessedly by going to our knees or banefully by turning our backs. ‘Here comes God’s government: Move!’ Indeed, the divine coming and its message enables the human moving and its change.”71

The outward symbol of repentance was baptism. The only baptism the Jews of that day knew about was proselyte baptism. In such baptisms, the believer would baptize himself and then (if it was a male) he would be circumcised. The self-baptized and circumcised Gentile thus embraced Judaism and placed himself under the Old Testament Law. You can imagine the humility that baptism required of a Jew. The inference was clear: if the Jew had to repent in anticipation of the Messiah’s coming, he must thereby confess the inadequacy of Judaism to save him from his sins. And by embracing baptism he likewise placed himself on the same (lower) level as a Gentile. Both Jews and Gentiles alike were required to prepare for Messiah’s appearance in the same manner: (1) repent of the false system in which they had formerly trusted; (2) confess their sins; and, (3) be baptized, like the Gentiles who became Jewish proselytes. No wonder the Pharisees did not want to be baptized!

Our Lord’s message differed little from that of John in that it declared Judaism (even its “highest” form, Pharisaism) to be insufficient to save one from one’s sins and to gain him or her entrance into heaven:

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place. 19 So anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do this will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches others to do so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-20).

John’s preaching does raise a question in my mind: “Just why was John’s preaching so negative?” Having given this some thought, I would respond with the following answers.

First, remember who John the Baptist was. He was a prophet; in fact he was the last of the Old Testament prophets. His task, as a prophet, was to call men’s attention to the way that they had failed to keep God’s law, and to declare that they had thus come under divine condemnation. What else could the law do, other than to condemn, and to point forward to a future salvation that came through faith, not law-works?

Second, look who John was talking to. He was talking to sinners – Jewish sinners who trusted in their physical relationship to Abraham, and Gentile sinners like tax collectors who collected more than they should, and soldiers who used their power to extort money from the powerless. If sinners are to be saved, they must first realize that they are sinners, justly under the divine sentence of death.

Third, John’s preaching on coming judgment was entirely consistent with what would soon happen to our Lord. Many who heard John’s preaching would reject Jesus as the promised Messiah, and thus come under divine condemnation. The negative emphasis of John’s preaching reminds me of the emphasis of Moses’ words in Deuteronomy 28. Moses is reiterating God’s Old Testament (Mosaic) Covenant with Israel. He promises divine blessing for those who keep God’s commandments. He promises divine judgment for all who disobey. In chapter 28, his section on divine blessings is 15 verses in length; his section on judgment takes up the remainder of the chapter, 54 verses in length. Moses, by divine inspiration, emphasized judgment, because he knew what was going to happen after his death:

14 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Your day of death is near. Call Joshua and present yourselves in the tent of meeting so that I can commission him.” So Moses and Joshua presented themselves in the tent of meeting. 15 The Lord appeared in the tent in a pillar of cloud that stood above the door of the tent. 16 And the Lord said to Moses, “You are about to die, and then these people will begin to prostitute themselves with the foreign gods of the land into which they are going. They will leave me and break my covenant that I have made with them. 17 On that day my anger will flare up against them and I will leave them and hide myself from them until they are devoured. Many hurts and distresses will overcome them so that they will say at that time, ‘Have not these difficulties overcome us because God is not among us?’ 18 But I will certainly hide myself on that day because of all the wickedness they will have done by turning to other gods. 19 Now compose for yourselves the following song and teach it to the Israelites—put it into their very mouths!—so that this song may serve me as a witness against the Israelites. 20 For after I have brought them to the land I promised to their ancestors—one flowing with milk and honey—and they eat and become satisfied and fat, then they will turn to other gods to worship them and will reject me and break my covenant. 21 Then when many hurts and distresses overcome them this song will become a witness against them, for their descendants will not forget it. I know the intentions they have in mind today, even before I bring them to the land I have promised.” 22 Therefore on that day Moses wrote this song and taught it to the Israelites (Deuteronomy 31:14-22).

Fourth, John’s preaching, and men’s response to it, served to foreshadow the Lord’s preaching, and men’s response to it. Matthew chose to focus on John’s response to the Jewish religious leaders who came to hear him (or rather, to check him out). John spoke very strong words of rebuke and admonition to the religious leaders, who had not come to repent, but rather to resist and reject his message. Jesus, too, had some strong words to say to His opponents – the very same religious leaders. These were the smugly self-righteous religious leaders, who resisted anyone who threatened to take away any of their “turf.” These men seemed to feel confident that they had 50-yard-line tickets in the kingdom of heaven. Just as John had particularly strong words for the religious elite, so did Jesus.

(5) John’s message was transitional and preparatory. If we are to understand John’s message, we must first recognize the unique time period in which John lived, and thus the unique role which John played, straddling the gap, as it were, between the Old Covenant and the New.

On the one hand, John’s preaching was the “beginning of the gospel.” When the disciples decided to replace Judas with another apostle, they discussed the qualifications his replacement must meet:

21 Thus one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time the Lord Jesus associated with us, 22 beginning from the baptism by John until the day he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness of his resurrection together with us” (Acts 1:21-22; see also 10:37; 13:23-25).

In the Gospels, the proclamation of the gospel commences with the preaching of John the Baptist.

Having said this, we must call attention to the fact that the message which John the Baptist proclaimed was not the complete gospel. To begin with, John was still a part of the old dispensation:

11 “I tell you the truth, among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and forceful people lay hold of it. 13 For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John appeared. 14 And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, who is to come (Matthew 11:11-14, emphasis mine).

John was the last of the Old Testament prophets. His message was intended to prepare men for the coming of the Messiah, and for the message of salvation that would be proclaimed after our Lord’s death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. Jesus and the apostles made it clear that there was more to the gospel than what John proclaimed, as good as that was:

For John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:5).

24 Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, arrived in Ephesus. He was an eloquent speaker, well-versed in the scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and with great enthusiasm he spoke and taught accurately the facts about Jesus, although he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak out fearlessly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the way of God to him more accurately (Acts 18:24-26).

1 While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul went through the inland regions and came to Ephesus. He found some disciples there 2 and said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 So Paul said, “Into what then were you baptized?” “Into John’s baptism,” they replied. 4 Paul said, “John baptized with a baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5 When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, 6 and when Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began to speak in tongues and to prophesy. 7 (Now there were about twelve men in all.) (Acts 19:1-7)

Through John’s ministry, God introduced Jesus as the promised and long-awaited Messiah, much like God used Samuel to designate Saul (1 Samuel 10), and then David (1 Samuel 16) as Israel’s king. As John put it, his role was to be the “friend of the bridegroom,” whose privilege it was to hear the voice of the bridegroom and rejoice (John 3:29).

Conclusion

John played a vital role in the commencement of our Lord’s ministry. He called upon men to be prepared for the coming of the Messiah. His message is far from obsolete: the Lord Jesus Christ is coming again, for the second time, and this time it will be to judge men.

He commanded us to preach to the people and to warn them that he is the one appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead (Acts 10:42).

Because he has set a day on which he is going to judge the world in righteousness, by a man whom he designated, having provided proof to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31; see also 2 Timothy 4:1).

At His first coming, Jesus came to take our sins upon Himself, to bear the punishment for our sin. When He returns, Jesus will judge sinners and rid the world of sin. Our task as Christians is to proclaim the good news that Jesus has come to forgive sinners, and to warn men that the day of judgment draws near for those who have rejected Christ. Repentance, like faith, is not a work that we accomplish; it is ultimately the gift of God. Repentance is something that God produces in us. Nevertheless, we are called upon to repent and believe.

14 Now after John was imprisoned, Jesus went into Galilee and proclaimed the gospel of God. 15 He said, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the gospel!” (Mark 1:14-15)

18 When they arrived, he said to them, “You yourselves know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I set foot in Asia, 19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears, and with the trials that happened to me because of the plots of the Jews. 20 You know that I did not hold back from proclaiming to you anything that would be helpful, and from teaching you publicly and from house to house, 21 testifying to both Jews and Greeks about repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus (Acts 20:18-21, emphasis mine).

We, like John the Baptist, should seek to turn people from their sin to faith in Jesus Christ. This will prepare men for the return of our Lord, a return when the judgment John promised will come:

10 Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 “I baptize you with water, for repentance, but the one coming after me is more powerful than I am—I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clean out his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire” (Matthew 3:10-12).

30 Therefore, although God has overlooked such times of ignorance, he now commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has set a day on which he is going to judge the world in righteousness, by a man whom he designated, having provided proof to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).

19 “Therefore, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, 20 but I declared to those in Damascus first, and then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds consistent with repentance (Acts 26:19-20).

Repentance is sadly omitted in much preaching today. I was very pleased to hear Billy Graham call for men and women to repent and to believe in Jesus Christ in his recent mission in Dallas, Texas. Turning to Jesus Christ for salvation is simultaneously turning from our sin. Often, in an effort to make the gospel more palatable, the requirement for repentance is omitted or minimized. The gospel is sometimes presented as though you can simply add the work of Jesus to your “portfolio,” as though you were just adding another investment. You do not need to forsake anything, but simply to add something. The truth is that you must empty your portfolio (of anything other than Christ, in which you place your trust), and let Christ alone fill it. The rich young ruler was not allowed the option of keeping his riches (which were his “god” – see Matthew 6:19-34; 19:16-22). He had to forsake them to follow Christ. If we would preach the gospel, we must include the call to repentance, as well as to faith. These two elements are not contradictory, but rather are two sides of the same coin.

John’s preaching reminds us of the important role that the law plays in what we might call pre-evangelism. While grace is opposed to law (see Romans 4:16; 6:14; 7:6; Galatians 2:22; 5:1-4), law does point us toward grace:

23 Now before faith came we were held in custody under the law, being kept as prisoners until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 Thus the law had become our guardian until Christ, so that we could be declared righteous by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian (Galatians 3:23-25).

The law prepares us for grace by showing us our sin, and the impossibility of pleasing God through good works. Thus, the law requires us to look to God for salvation by grace, and not to ourselves:

19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. 21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed— 22 namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. 24 But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3:19-24).

Frederick Bruner puts it this way:

“Without law there is no gospel (without Old Testament, no New), and without John the Baptist preceding we do not rightly hear Jesus following. Thus it is no accident that in all four Gospels John the Baptist’s ministry does indeed precede Jesus’ own. John belongs to the substance of the story of Jesus and is not a mere introduction to it. In John, in fact, ‘holy history starts all over again’ (Bonn., 31) after a long quiescence. John comes on like that last great prophet of the Hebrew Scriptures and like a walking, breathing law of God, full of doom and holiness and ultimacy. John the Baptist is in the front of our New Testament four times (once in each of the four Gospels) in order to put the law of God in front of us four times just before Jesus comes to us four times with gospel. John is the law of God in person; Jesus is the gospel of God in person.”72

John the Baptist was the last of the Old Testament prophets. He did not urge men to “try harder” to please God, but rather to confess their sins and trust in the Messiah who was coming to save them. If men are to be saved, they must first see that they are condemned because they are sinners. The evangelistic function of the law is to condemn men as sinners, desperately in need of grace. Let us be careful not to cast the law aside, as though it no longer has a role to play. It has a number of roles to play,73 and one of these roles is to establish God’s standard of righteousness, a standard which no man can meet. Let us use the law to reveal sin. Surely the Ten Commandments condemn us all. John the Baptist spoke from the law to reveal man’s sin, and also to show that Jesus was the Messiah the law had promised would come.

Let me give you a very specific way that parents can use the law evangelistically. They can use the law to show their children that they are sinners, in need of the salvation that is found only in the saving work of Jesus Christ on Calvary. All too often the Old Testament is used to tell children exciting stories like “Jonah and the whale” or “Daniel in the lion’s den.” This is not bad, but all too often this use of the Old Testament does not expose children to the holiness of God or to the magnitude of their sin. Indeed, some seem to think the Bible should be used to develop “self-esteem” in children. Children do not need to feel better about themselves; they need to realize that they are sinners, who cannot stand in the presence of a holy God. They need to see their sins so that they understand that they need to be saved. The message of John the Baptist (not to mention Jesus and the apostles) is what children need to hear as well.

Parents who do not discipline their children do them a great disservice. We need to correct our children and not look the other way or make excuses for them. Children need to know by experience that sin must and will be punished. They need to see how sinful they are. And when they come to grasp their sin, then John’s message will be music to their ears, if God brings them to repentance. To fail (or refuse) to discipline our children is to deny the message of the gospel that all men are sinners, in need of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ.

The preaching and practice of John the Baptist underscores the importance of Christian baptism. I realize that John’s baptism was preparatory, and that when John’s followers became Christians they had to be re-baptized. But baptism was a very important part of John’s preaching and practice. Those who truly repented were baptized (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:5); those who did not repent were not (Luke 7:30). Those who followed Christ were baptized (Matthew 28:19; John 3:22, 26; 4:1; Acts 2:38, 41; 8:12, 38; 10:47; 19:35). Baptism symbolized repentance and faith, as it does today. Those who have not been baptized would do well to ask themselves why they have not.

John’s preaching was truly “prophetic preaching.” Now I would suggest that while John’s prophetic preaching may have been unique, John does have something to teach us all about preaching. John’s message was straight from the Scriptures. John’s preaching first called attention to man’s sin and then pointed to God’s salvation in Jesus Christ. It was hardly “seeker-friendly.” Its aim was not to entertain men nor to win man’s approval. Its purpose was to expose man’s sin and need for the Savior. When asked for specifics, John could give specific examples (this is particularly true in Luke’s account). In Matthew’s Gospel, John the Baptist focused particularly on the sins of the self-righteous religious leaders. While Jesus may not have been as “rough around the edges” as John the Baptist, Jesus was straightforward about sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:8-11), and thus the need for repentance as well. While John was a unique man, with a unique roll to play in his day, he is also a man who can teach us a great deal about the proclamation of the truth.

I am sure that most of us think of John as somewhat weird when we read about him. He was certainly unique, and this was probably a factor in the way he seized men’s attention, even though he performed no miracles (John 10:41). John surely exemplifies “separation” in a very dramatic way. Now we are not all called to wear a hairy garment, nor are we required to live in the desert and eat locusts and wild honey. But we are all called to be a unique people, to be distinct from the world. John is a man who knew how to stand alone, something most of us know too little about.

May we learn to live in the world, and yet avoid worldliness. Let us seek to prepare men and women for the return of our Lord by teaching about sin, and by calling on men to repent of their sin and turn to Christ for salvation. Let us be like John in finding our joy in pointing others to Christ, rather than seeking the spotlight ourselves.


65 This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 4 in the Studies in the Gospel of Matthew series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on March 9, 2003.

66 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

67 I realize that because Jesus and John were distant relatives (Luke 1:36), many assume that John knew Jesus was the Messiah at an early age. John the Baptist’s own words preclude this, and so we would do well to take John at his word.

68 It should be noted that in Matthew 11:9-14, Jesus very clearly links John the Baptist with the ministry of Elijah, citing Malachi 3:1 (see also Malachi 4:5). Also, the angel of the Lord told Zacharias that the son who would be born to him and his wife Elizabeth would “go as a forerunner before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just” (Luke 1:17).

69 This applies to food as well. The one who has food should share with the one who does not (Luke 3:11).

70 Compare Philippians 3:5.

71 Fredrick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: A Historical/Theological Commentary (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1987), vol. 1, p. 71.

72 Fredrick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: A Historical/Theological Commentary (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1987), vol. 1, p. 70.

73 See, for example, Romans 15:4; 1 Corinthians 9:9; 10:1-13; 2 Timothy 3:16-17.

Related Topics: Law