Read: Matthew 3:1-12
The last of the Old Testament prophets was also the first character in the story of Jesus’ ministry. His name was John the Baptist, and his mission was to be the forerunner of Christ.
Each of the New Testament gospel writers agrees that the story of Jesus’ ministry begins with the appearance in the desert of the strange character known as John the Baptist. For more than four hundred years—since the time of Malachi—no prophet had spoken in Israel, until this wild-looking man burst onto the scene to proclaim his uncompromising message.
In those days John the Baptist came and preached in the Desert of Judea. He said, “Turn away from your sins! The kingdom of heaven is near.” John is the one the prophet Isaiah had spoken about. . . . “A messenger is calling out in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord. Make straight paths for him.’” (Isaiah 40:30)
John’s clothes were made out of camel’s hair. He had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all of Judea. . . . When they admitted they had sinned, John baptized them in the Jordan. John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing. He said to them, “You are like a nest of poisonous snakes! Who warned you to escape the coming of God’s anger? Produce fruit that shows you have turned away from your sins. Don’t think you can say to yourselves, ‘Abraham is our father.’ I tell you, God can raise up children for Abraham even from these stones. The ax is already lying at the roots of the trees. All the trees that don’t produce good fruit will be cut down. “I baptize you with water, calling you to turn away from your sins. But after me, one will come who is more powerful than I am. And I’m not fit to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” (Matthew 3:1-11 NIrV)
In a real sense, though he comes in the opening pages of the New Testament, John the Baptist was really the last of the Old Testament prophets. Like all the prophets, John called people to repent from their sins and turn back to God. But John’s special mission was to be the forerunner for God’s anointed Son, Jesus, bridging the gap between Old Testament promise and New Testament fulfillment. John prepared the way for the ministry of Jesus in the world.
A Voice in the Wilderness
And as he did so, he certainly made an impression on people. Dressed in a rough garment of camel’s skin, eating locusts and wild honey, striding up and down the wilderness haranguing the crowds that flocked to see and hear him, baptizing people in the Jordan River—John was the original counter-cultural figure. But he wasn’t really an eccentric. On the basis of a promise in the book of Malachi (Malachi 4:5-6), the people of Israel expected the prophet Elijah to reappear before the coming of the Messiah and the end of the world. John fulfilled that role. The description of his costume in the gospels is not a fashion note; that was the way Elijah dressed. Nor did John’s ministry take place in the desert because he was a nature lover. Since the Exodus the wilderness was the place where God did mighty things for his people Israel, and the Jews believed that the Messiah would make his first appearance there. Everything about John the Baptist—what he ate and said and did, how he looked, where he lived—served as a signal that the Christ, God’s Deliverer, was at hand.
As word about John’s impressive preaching got around, the Jewish religious authorities started sending out agents to investigate him. It’s not hard to see why. John was the kind of man who made people nervous, who caused trouble, who stirred the pot and upset the status quo. Nothing was more likely to attract the attention of the establishment over in Jerusalem than hearing about a wild man dressed up in animal skins walking around the desert hollering at people to repent. Especially when they started doing exactly that! So the authorities tried to find out who this prophet was, and what he was up to (John 1:19-23).
“Who are you,” they demanded. “Are you the Christ, the Messiah?” “No,” said John, “I’m not the Messiah.” “Are you Elijah then? Are you the great Prophet?” “No, not in the sense you mean.” “Then tell us who you are. What do you say about yourself? We have to know.”
In answer, John quoted a famous passage from the prophecy of Isaiah. “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord’” (Is. 40:3). That same verse was applied to John by each of the gospel writers. More than anything else, John is a voice, “calling in the wilderness” to announce the coming of the anointed Lord, the Messiah. In other words, John’s primary task is to be a witness, testifying to the identity and purpose of Jesus Christ.
John had but one major purpose for his life. He wanted to call everyone’s attention to the One coming after him who was greater than he. John’s mission was to point people away from himself to Christ and his mission. In a small church in the German village of Isenheim, there is a painting of John the Baptist by the renaissance master Grünewald. The painting, on three panels above the altar, is a scene of the crucifixion. Christ hangs upon the cross in the center panel, surrounded by various onlookers kneeling in worship. But the most arresting figure in the painting is John the Baptist, who stands at the edge of a side panel with arm outstretched and one elongated, bony finger pointing to the cross. That picture defines John’s role and sums up his ministry exactly. For that matter, it perfectly illustrates the calling of any follower of Jesus Christ: we must point others to him and to the cross.
The great thing about John the Baptist is that he knows God has given him a particular job to do, he knows just what that job is, and his one ambition is to accomplish it. John may not do very many things but the one thing he does, he does very well. That is to bear witness; this is John’s whole life. He doesn’t let his pride or personal ambition get in the way, he’s not interested in building a career or making a name for himself. John wasn’t the bridegroom; he was the bridegroom’s best man. He wasn’t the star of the show; he was part of the stage crew. His was a supporting role behind the scenes, helping to promote the main attraction. John was interested in just one thing, directing people toward Christ. That’s why he understood so well the very first lesson a follower of Jesus needs to learn. As John himself put it, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
As the very first witness to Christ, John had a clear understanding about the enormous importance of Jesus compared to him. He didn’t try to compete with Christ for attention, or popularity, or followers. From the very beginning John spoke of how much greater the One who followed him would be. “I’m not fit to carry his sandals,” he said. The Messiah (Christ) would also be far mightier than he. John could call for repentance but Jesus would actually forgive sins. John could baptize with water as a sign of human repentance, but Jesus would send the Spirit to regenerate and renew, to bestow eternal life on people. John is not the good news of the gospel; he only prepares the way for it. The good news is Jesus himself.
John’s ministry focused on a single command, one directive that would most prepare people to accept Christ when he came. The command was for repentance. All of John’s preaching had a one-word theme: Repent!
There’s a lot of confusion today about what it means to repent. Many people mix up repentance with other ideas. For example, repentance is not the same thing as confessing your sins. Ours is a surprisingly confessional age. Today many churches no longer go in for confession of sin. So instead, people now go on television talk shows to say all kinds of things about themselves. It’s amazing the embarrassing acts people will admit to in public. What is usually missing, however, is a sense of shame, an expression of remorse.
But even if you do feel that remorse, it’s still not enough. Repentance is not the same as penitence, as feeling sorry for what you have done. It’s true that guilt feelings often accompany repentance. They may even drive us to repentance. But there is more to genuine repentance than just feeling bad about your words or actions.
Nor is repentance the same as fear of punishment. John the Baptist “put the fear of God” into people, as we say. He spoke of the ax being laid to the roots, and the fire that would burn up the empty grain stalks. Those images point to the very real and terrible consequences of rejecting or ignoring God and trying to live without him. God, in the end, will give people what they want. And if what they want is not him, then that is exactly what they will get. Those who decide they don’t need God will discover just how horrible it will be to be cut off from him forever.
But knowing about that potential fate, or even fearing it, is still not the same as repenting. To repent means to turn back to God, to return to him with a sincere heart and with all one’s being. It goes beyond feelings. It goes beyond words to actions. Repentance is to begin to take God absolutely seriously, and therefore to change one’s thinking about basic values like what’s right and wrong, good and bad, important and trivial. When people repent, they turn away from sin and reorient their whole life toward and around God. He becomes the center rather than self. This turning was what John was calling for. And that’s why he baptized. As John practiced it, baptism was an outward symbol of an inward turn-around. The water which washed the people’s bodies represented the spiritual and moral cleansing they desired. Baptism became John’s trademark, so much so that it gave him his nickname, John the Baptist. But his first concern was to see the repentance of which baptism was an outward sign. This is why he refused to baptize the Pharisees and Sadducees when they refused to repent. Instead he rebuked them in terms that sound pretty harsh to our ears (Mt. 3:7-10).
But that only goes to show how crucial repentance is. It’s the first thing you and I are given to do in God’s plan of salvation. In order to save us, God does all the real work. There’s nothing we can do to pay for our sins or remove their guilt or break their hold upon us. God does all that through Christ’s death on the cross and the powerful working of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. But there is one piece of work he commands us to share in by the Holy Spirit’s enabling: repent and believe the gospel. Turn from sin and self to Christ and salvation.
Repentance is what we most need to do. And calling people to repentance, as John the Baptist’s ministry shows, is what gospel preachers most need to do. As one long-ago preacher said,
Repentance is so important, that if I should die in the pulpit, I should desire to die preaching it, and if I should die out of the pulpit, I should desire to die practicing it.Philip Henry
I love that quotation, but even more than repeating it, I want to live it out in my own experience. Don’t you too?