John the Baptist
The OT Scriptures abound in great prophets––men who were sent from God with the express purpose of speaking to men, largely God’s people, when they had turned their backs on God. They sought to show how God felt about the present state of the people and to bring them back to Him. To effect this, their ministry of recovery often included the prediction of future events. However, drawing aside the curtain on the future was never the prime task of the prophet but rather the recovery of the people to God. Such names as Moses, Elijah and Elisha are familiar to all––great men of God who, when the occasion demanded it did signs and wonders and performed great miracles. Who can forget those scenes when Moses was in the presence of Pharaoh demanding Israel’s release from Egypt, or that momentous occasion when he lifted up his staff to open the waters of the Red Sea to make a way through for the people of God? Again, who can pass by Elijah on Mount Carmel standing alone for God against the prophets of Baal and indecisive Israel, or ignore the great miracle that took place and the subsequent change in Israel?
Yet the testimony to John the Baptist was “John did no sign” (John 10: 41). No sign!? Not a single miracle? No, not even one! However, He who weighs things according to the shekel of the sanctuary said “that there is not arisen among [the] born of women a greater than John the baptist” (Matt. 11: 11). In what then lay his greatness? Clearly not in miracles as he never performed one.
Let me digress for a moment. The Church has been on earth for nearly two millennia. She was built as God’s temple on “the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Eph. 2: 20). Prophetic ministry along with corresponding signs and miracles (see Mark 16: 17–20) were used to establish the saints prior to the completion of the Scriptures. On completion of the canon of Scripture such are no longer needed. Yet, probably as never before, our day abounds with those who insist that they are prophets, and with those who claim “miraculous powers”, “gifts of healing” and to “speak with tongues” (see 1 Cor. 12: 29, 30). However, what men might claim to be a work of the Spirit may in fact be a work of the flesh, or even worse. The Lord Jesus said that prior to His manifestation as Son of Man from heaven “there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall give great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect” (Matt. 24: 24). We are not actually in those days, but the character of them is apparent now. Some need to heed the Lord’s words “Many shall say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied through thy name, and through thy name cast out demons, and through thy name done many works of power? and then will I avow unto them, I never knew you” (Matt. 7: 22, 23). Solemn words! The Lord did not question their claim to what they had done, and that in His name––but they were not His sheep for “I know those that are mine” (John 10: 14) and thus He says of these “I never knew you”! Similarly in John the Baptist’s day, the Pharisees evidently had those among them who cast out demons (see Matt. 12: 27) but “John did no sign” (John 10: 41) and yet from Adam to Christ there was none greater! (Matt. 11:11).
A sad feature of many who are prominent today in the church is that they use service to call attention to themselves––it may be their claim to heal or to prophesy, or even to advertise themselves in view of their gospel campaigns. What of the Baptist here? What of the man to whom went “Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the country round the Jordan” (Matt. 3: 5)? What of the man of whom “all were reasoning in their hearts concerning John whether he might be the Christ” (Luke 3: 15)? What was his response when priests and Levites asked him “Thou, who art thou?”. John says, “I am not the Christ. And they asked him, What then? Art thou Elias? And he says, I am not. Art thou the prophet? And he answered, No” (see John 1: 19–21). The more they press him to say something of himself, the less he says: “I am not the Christ”, “I am not” and finally “No”. Yet the power of his ministry was evident even to the blind and deaf in Israel without a single sign––so who was he? They ask him “What sayest thou of thyself?” His reply? “I [am] [the] voice of one crying in the wilderness” (John 1: 22–23). His quotation is from Is. 40: 3. He was but a voice, a thing of breath and sound, that which in itself can be given no physical substance. His whole object was to call attention to Christ, not to himself. He was the true herald––the one who always calls attention to another. Compared to Christ, he would have a place beneath that of the lowest slave: “the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to unloose” (John 1: 27). [Among Jews, Greeks and Romans alike, the office of untying and carrying the shoes of the master of the house or of a guest, was the function of the lowest slave of the household.] The one singular purpose of his service was to make Christ known––“that he might be manifested to Israel, therefore have I come baptising with water” (John 1: 31). I ask, should not this grand feature be at the heart of service today––to make Christ known?
To the unbelieving nation, his testimony was “Repent, for the kingdom of the heavens has drawn nigh” (Matt. 3: 2). To the hypocritical elements of the Pharisees and Saducees who would claim Abraham for their father, his withering word was “Offspring of vipers, who has forewarned you to flee from the coming wrath?” (v7). Are there not many in our day who, although clearly not Christ rejecters like these, identify themselves with great names of the past like Luther, Wesley, Darby and Spurgeon and look back towards brighter days––who in effect re–echo the claim “We have Abraham for [our] father …” (Matt. 3: 9)? Unbelief, characterised by Lot’s wife (see Gen 19: 26, Luke 17: 32) always looks back. By contrast, faith’s look is always forward. Consider the words of John’s testimony to the nation again: “Repent, for the kingdom of the heavens has drawn nigh”. When Christ continued this offer of the kingdom to the nation He used the selfsame words exactly (see Matt. 4: 17). If Christ were to preach immediately after you, would He use your words? He did with John. His preaching did not need the slightest adjustment! Such was John’s greatness. After John had been executed, the power of his preaching lived on. Through it many came to Christ saying “John did no sign; but all things which John said of this [man] were true” (John 10: 41) and the next verse goes on to say “And many believed on him there”. It does not say that some things that John said of Christ were true but all “things”. As mentioned already, a large section of Christendom is occupied with signs. SIGNS DON’T SAVE! No one did signs like Christ and although it says that “many believed on his name, beholding his signs which he wrought” it goes on pointedly to add “But Jesus himself did not trust himself to them, because he knew all [men] … for himself knew what was in man” (John 2: 23–25). “John did no sign; but all things which John said of this [man] were true”. What an epitaph!
Some preachers are like the modern fluorescent tube––they shed plenty of light, but they are cold––there is no warmth in their preaching. The Lord’s comment on John was “He was the burning and shining lamp” (John 5: 35). He not only glowed but he burnt––there was warmth in his testimony. John was no fluorescent lamp. Again, John understood true ministry: “He must increase”. True ministry enlarges and magnifies the Lord. It makes Him increasingly greater to those served. However, there is another side as well, a side that John equally rejoiced in––“but I must decrease” (see John 3: 30). John lost disciples to the Lord. There is no such thing as enlargement of Christ without reduction of self. When Herod heard of Christ, he immediately thought that it was John risen from the dead (see Mark 6: 14–16). Again when the Lord asked his disciples who men thought He was, the first name on the list was John the Baptist (see Mark 8: 28). If Christ was mistaken for John, then surely it follows that John could also have been mistaken for Christ. As another once asked: “Would anyone mistake me for Christ?” A brother used to pray “Lord, make me like thee––come what may!” Such was John the Baptist.
John could serve the vast crowds but he could also serve the ones and twos. It is generally acknowledged that the fourth gospel was written much later than the three synoptic gospels. In them we read much of the kingdom and its proclamation to the multitudes, both by the Lord and by John the Baptist. In the fourth gospel all this is omitted and the kingdom is only brought before us on two occasions, John 3: 3, 5 and John 18: 36, and then only in its spiritual aspect as the authority of God owned in the soul. In this fourth gospel we have more the private utterances of John the Baptist rather than the public ones. One such pronouncement is given in John 1: 29–36. Look at v29: “On the morrow he sees Jesus coming to him, and says, Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”. As ever, John calls attention to Christ, not here as Israel’s king, the Messiah, but in a far wider sphere in sacrificial character as God’s Lamb. Not as the One who will bring all in subjection to Himself in the millennial day as the King of kings but as the One who will finally and ultimately remove sin from this scene. Yet the basis for that removal is the work of the Lord Jesus as the Lamb of God on the cross. It is not sins here––individual acts of persons––but sin in its totality. The point is the identification of the One who will remove sin from this world and the basis on which it will be effected. He prefaces his statement with that word “Behold” a word designed to arrest the attention of those to whom it is addressed. He makes this statement as seeing Jesus “coming to him”. It thus carries with it a Gospel flavour as it is the sinner’s first view of the Saviour coming to meet him in all his need––yet as recognising that that same work is also the basis for the removal of sin itself from this scene for ever.
The next occasion takes place when John is with two of his disciples, one of whom is Peter’s brother Andrew. This time John, looking at Jesus as he walked, just says “Behold the Lamb of God” (John 1: 36). The way that this is put suggests that John was not exactly addressing those two disciples but, as we would say, ‘speaking to himself aloud’. I would argue that this is an advance on what he said on the previous occasion, even though he omits some of what he had said then. When we look at the walk of Jesus it is an advance on seeing Him coming to us to meet us in our need. Here John says nothing of what the Lord would do––he simply calls attention to what He is. Yet the very title of “Lamb of God” embraces in itself all that He will do, and so nothing is lost. “Behold the Lamb of God”. Just five words (in Greek as in English)! What does Paul say when writing to the Corinthians? “In [the] assembly I desire to speak five words with my understanding, that I may instruct others also, [rather] than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1 Cor. 14: 19). Perhaps those who make so much of the speaking with tongues today might really profit if they took account of that Scripture. John’s five words carried real power for the two disciples “heard him speaking, and followed Jesus” (John 1: 37).
Now there is something else that I would draw your attention to about John the Baptist. We are told what he wore and what he ate. “And John was clothed in camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins, and ate locusts and wild honey” (Mark 1: 6).This is reminiscent of Elijah (in whose character John came) for “He was a man in a hairy [garment], and girt with a girdle of leather about his loins” (2 Kings 1: 8). The hairy garment was the identifying feature of the prophet in Israel (see Zech. 13: 4) and even though the camel was an unclean beast, a coarse cloth was made of its hair and used by the poor. However, the point that I would make is that, leaving aside the details, what John was outwardly (shown by his dress) and what he was inwardly (shown by his food) was entirely in keeping with the character of the sphere of his calling (the wilderness). Like John, Christians have a calling and how we appear in the world outwardly (suggested by the clothing) and what we feed on and take in by way of what we see and hear (suggested by the food) should be in keeping with our “heavenly calling” (Heb. 3: 1) “for our commonwealth has its existence in [the] heavens” (Phil. 3: 20). We belong to heaven and thus the exhortation is that we should conduct (the word means to act as a citizen) ourselves “worthily of the glad tidings of the Christ” (Phil. 1:27) and not to be minding “earthly things” (see Phil. 3: 17–21).
Like Samson, Paul, and no doubt many another, John ended his testimony in prison. There, doubts arose in his mind about the Lord: “Art thou he that is coming, or are we to wait for another?” (Luke 7: 20). As has been said, only one man was ever perfect, and He was more than man, though most truly man. What is the Lord’s response to His depressed servant? He could not, without loss of dignity give a direct answer to that question which, after all that had happened was of an offending nature. Neither would he grieve that servant by leaving him unanswered, or sending a reply that the bearers would know to be a rebuke. Therefore he advises them to go and tell John the wonderful and miraculous things that they had themselves seen and to give him this message: “blessed is whosever shall not be offended in me” (v23). It is not ‘Cursed is he that shall be offended in me’. That would have been the same and yet so very different. He then turns round to the crowds after John’s disciples had departed and pronounces the most glowing eulogy. At the time of failure, when John’s faith is at its lowest ebb, when others would be throwing stones at the one who is down, the Lord gives the highest praise, concluding with the words already referred to: “Among them that are born of women a greater [prophet] is no one than John [the baptist]” (Luke 7: 24–28).
I close this précis on the life of John by considering the word spoken by the angel before his birth: “For he shall be great before [the] Lord” (Luke 1: 15). Men’s opinion of him would be varied but he would be held in esteem where it mattered, for true greatness is never measured before man but before God. He would be marked by the characteristics of the Nazarite for “he shall drink no wine nor strong drink” (Luke 1: 15)––features that go with separation. Strong drink for us represents things that hold sway over a man, and muddle his mind so that he cannot think clearly in divine matters––it is a picture of the intoxicating power of the pleasures of this earth. To us the apostle’s word is not just “Love not the world” but, he adds “nor the things in the world” (1 John 2: 15). Our affections are to be elsewhere. Then the angel said of John something which, if I am not mistaken, was never said about any other man: “he shall be filled with [the] Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1: 15). Being filled with the Holy Spirit is the true source of spiritual power. Samson had great physical power but was weak morally; John the Baptist had the moral power. Many assume that being indwelt by the Holy Spirit is the peculiar privilege of Christianity. It is not. John’s lot was cast in the previous dispensation and hence while the Lord would later say “that there is not arisen among [the] born of women a greater than John the baptist”, He would add “But he who is a little one in the kingdom of the heavens is greater than he” (Matt. 11: 11). What is peculiar about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in Christianity is that it is permanent. Consequently the injunction for Christians is to “be not drunk with wine, in which is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5: 18). Coming back to John, the angel says “And many of the sons of Israel shall he turn to [the] Lord their God … to make ready for [the] Lord a prepared people” (Luke 1: 16, 17). How well John fulfilled the angel’s promise! How the people of God today are in need of a John the Baptist too––for the Lord is soon coming again and believers are largely held in bondage to the world (just as in John’s day the Jews were in bondage to the Romans). Servants are needed who will have the single eye of the Baptist to make the saints ready for the Lord’s return. Ministry that neglects the coming again of the Lord Jesus is seriously defective. All ministry should prepare us for His return so that we should “not be put to shame from before him at his coming” (1 John 2: 28).