Of the greatness of John the Baptist there is no question. The Lord Himself, who was always sparing in His eulogies, said of John, ‘Among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist’, Matt. 11. 11. Malachi, the last prophet of the Old Testament, foretold his coming, ‘Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord’, Mal. 4. 5, and our Lord confirmed that this Scripture referred to John, Matt. 11. 14. Then, after 400 years of silence, John appeared in the wilderness of Judea in old clothing, and living an austere lifestyle, reminiscent of the great prophet Elijah. His impact on the nation was immense. Without any of the modern methods of publicity we read, ‘then Jerusalem, and all Judea, a n d a l l the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins’, Matt. 3. 5- 6. His ministry brought sweeping, national revival; it touched all people, religious and otherwise, and penetrated every strata of society from mercenary soldier to Herod Antipas the king. John’s influence was such that the people ‘were in expectation and reasoned in their hearts about John, whether he was the Christ or not’, Luke 3. 15.
His impact was the more remarkable because, firstly, unlike Paul, Peter and others, ‘John did no miracle’, John 10. 41, and confessed to being only a voice, John 1. 23. Secondly, his ministry lasted only about twelve months by which time John had ‘finished his course’, Acts 13. 25. This illustrates that what matters before God is the quality of the life lived, not its length.
So, wherein lay his greatness and why was he so effective? No doubt, the answer lies in the apostle John’s introductory statement, ‘There was a man sent from God whose name was John’, John 1. 6.
A man sent from God is a man prepared by God; three characteristics of how John was prepared, are considered:
1 A man sent from God has a divinely appointed background
Consider his birth: John’s birth was miraculous (Elizabeth was barren); it was in answer to his parents’ prayer; it was accompanied by signs (his birth was foretold by an angel and also Zacharias was struck dumb), and he was named John (God’s gift), by God.
Consider his parents: both descendants of Aaron, ‘both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments of the Lord blameless’, Luke 1. 6. The angel predicted the most amazing truths concerning the unborn child, ‘many will rejoice at his birth for he shall be great in the sight of the Lord … he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God’, Luke 1. 14-17. Later, these facts were confirmed by John’s father, Zacharias, when the child was born, ‘You, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest; for you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the way of peace’, Luke 1. 76-79. Without doubt, John’s godly parents instilled into his mind the great hope of the coming of Israel’s Messiah.
Consider his Nazirite status: from earliest years he was taught the necessity of refusing things which in themselves were permissible but for him were impossible, indicative of a disciplined life, Luke 1. 15.
Consider that he was filled with the Holy Spirit from birth, Luke 1. 15.
Consider that he was in the wilderness until the commencement of his ministry, Luke 1. 80. It was here in solitude John learned the secret of communion with God and developed an overwhelming sorrow for the sin of his nation, but, most importantly, in the wilderness ‘the word of God came to John’, Luke 3. 2. John was a man in touch with God!
2 A man sent by God is a man conscious of his own inadequacy
John had a sense of personal sin; he felt his own need to be baptized with the baptism of repentance. When approached by Jesus to be baptized, we read, ‘then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him and John tried to prevent Him saying, I need to be baptized of you and are you coming to me?’ Matt. 3. 14.
John had a sense of his own unworthiness, ‘I am not worthy to unfasten his sandal’, Matt. 3. 11. ‘I am not Elijah … I am not the prophet … I am not the Christ … I am a voice …’, John 1. 20-23. Today, God calls men and women of like humility, self-effacement and a sense of unworthiness, to do His work.
3 A man sent from God is a man with a mission
John’s mission had been foretold by Isaiah; the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight, Isa. 40. 3, and was confirmed by John’s father, Zacharias, Luke 1. 76. Three phrases sum up the three phases of John’s ministry: (i) ‘There comes One’; (ii.) ‘There stands One’; (iii.) ‘This is He …’
(i.) To PREPARE the way for the King’s arrival – ‘There comes One’, Mark 1. 7.
John was the morning star before the sunrise and, in typical Oriental style, the friend of the Bridegroom in advance of His appearing. He announced, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’, i.e., the rule of Christ is about to begin. John’s first calling was to make ‘the crooked paths straight’.
We, too, in this evil world should witness faithfully to the imminent return of our Lord and warn people to get ready for His appearing!
(ii.) To IDENTIFY the Messiah – ‘There stands One among you’, John 1. 26.
John identified the Christ at His baptism. Prior to this John said, ‘I did not know Him’ (i.e. as Messiah) but, following John’s obedience to baptize the Lord, the dual evidence of identity was given: i. the descent of the Holy Spirit like a dove; and ii. the Father’s voice from heaven, Matt. 3. 16-17. ‘He that sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘the man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is He who will baptize with the Holy Spirit’.
(iii.) To PROCLAIM the Christ – ‘This is He’, John 1. 15-20.
After the Lord’s baptism John could say, ‘And I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God’, John 1. 34. John had reached the peak of his career when he proclaimed the Messiah to the nation. His work as a forerunner and herald was finished; from now on John bore witness to Christ and, in so doing, directed men and women away from himself to the Saviour, John 3. 26.
We, too, are men and women of mission – we have a ministry to fulfil – the risen Christ commissioned all His followers, ‘As my Father has sent me, I also send you!’, John 20. 21. God grant that we, like John and many others, may ‘finish our course with joy’, John 3. 29.