We commenced this series of articles by examining some of the unique events that surrounded the birth and early life of John the Baptist. He was described by John, the apostle, as ‘a man sent from God’, John 1. 6. We will now consider the nature of his ministry and message that led to him being described by the Lord as, ‘much more than a prophet … Among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist’, Luke 7. 26, 28.
We begin our journey by finding ourselves among a group of powerful and influential people in the Roman Empire: Tiberius Caesar, the emperor; Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea; and Herod, Philip and Lysanias, Roman tetrarchs (rulers of different parts of the kingdom). In addition to these Roman dignitaries, we also meet Annas and Caiaphas, two Jewish high priests. The religious system in Jerusalem had become so corrupt that there were two high priests, instead of one. As we continue to examine the biblical record, we realize that this group simply provides us with the context for the ministry of John the Baptist, Luke 3. 1, 2.
It is no surprise to discover that John’s unique lifestyle and message led to him becoming the subject of numerous myths and legends. One of the most popular of these was that he was orphaned and eventually cared for by one of the religious wilderness communities; however, there is no indication in the biblical record that this was the case. Nevertheless, his priestly family background would have undoubtedly given him a sound foundation for his calling to prepare the way for the arrival of the Messiah. Indeed, he would have become very familiar with the Old Testament scriptures that foretold this coming event. Also, his extended family would have given him a unique insight into the events that surrounded the birth and early years of both him and Jesus.
The first recorded words that a person speaks often give an insight into their character and mission. Such was the case with John the Baptist. The following words were spoken by, or about, him at the commencement of the four Gospels: l ‘In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, and saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’, Matt. 3. 1, 2.
The questions put to John by his listeners gave him every opportunity to boast and attract numerous disciples to himself. Some suggested that he was the Messiah or Elijah, the forerunner of the Messiah, while others linked him with ‘the prophet’ promised by God.
Many Bible teachers have fallen into the error of allowing themselves to become more important than their message and thereby displacing the person who is central to it. When John was asked the question as to who he was, he avoided the temptation to make false claims about himself. It is true that he had a small group of personal disciples, who followed him, Matt. 9. 14; however, when the appropriate moment arrived, he willingly pointed them to Christ. John records in his Gospel, ‘Again the next day after John stood, and two of his disciples; and looking upon Jesus as he walked, he saith, Behold the Lamb of God! And the two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus’, John 1. 35-37. On another occasion, he said of Christ, ‘He must increase, but I must decrease. He that cometh from above is above all’, John 3. 30, 31. Little did he know, when he spoke these words, what it would mean for him to decrease. He ended his days, beheaded in the darkness of a prison cell at the request of Herodias, a wicked and vindictive woman. Are you prepared for the cost of following Christ?
Our first encounter with John, following his birth, takes us into the wilderness, where we find him dressed in a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt. His diet consisted of locusts and wild honey, Matt. 3. 4. As well as linking him with the prophets and the poor, his hairy coat was suitable attire for the harsh living conditions of the wilderness. The Lord challenged the people to tell Him what kind of person they expected to see when they went out to listen to John preach. He said, ‘But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, they which are gorgeously apparelled, and live delicately, are in kings’ courts. But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? Yea, I say unto you, and much more than a prophet’, Luke 7. 25, 26.
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