John the Baptist (“Messenger of the New Covenant – 01”)

John the Baptist (“Messenger of the New Covenant – 01”)

[Message: Kobus van der Walt (Three Rivers Baptist Church – 03 December 2017)]

Matthew 3:1-9 (ESV) ~ “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2 ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ 3 For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’ 4 Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, 6 and they were baptised by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.”

We’ve just read about a mysterious and weird man. A man that preached in the wilderness where there is normally no audience. A man who wore clothes made of camel’s hair and who ate locusts and raw honey. A man that wasn’t afraid of the Pharisees and Sadducees – who called them a brood of vipers. He called people to repent and was talking of someone that will come after him and then using unfamiliar and strange words that the people didn’t really understand – words like, “baptising you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt.3:12).

Who and what was this man? His name was John and later the people of Israel called him John the Baptist.

We read in Luk.1 about John the Baptist’s father. His name was Zechariah and he was a member of the Temple priesthood and according to Luke 1:5 ~ “came from a priestly family.” Zechariah’s wife’s name was Elizabeth, and they were both righteous and God-honouring people who had no children and were well past childbearing years (Luke 1:6-7). Interestingly, John’s mother, Elizabeth, was related to Mary, the mother of Jesus, who was only six months younger than John (Luke 1:36) and she was also a descendent of Aaron the high priest. This devoted couple lived in the “hill country” of Judea (Luke 1:39), perhaps Hebron, a priestly city of the region.

As mentioned in Luke 1, we know that Elizabeth was barren (without children, in fact she couldn’t have children – Afrikaans = “onvrugbaar”).

The barrenness of Elizabeth (as in the case with Sarai, Rachel and Hannah, etc.) would eventually become her glory. Isaiah in Is.54:1 prophesied about this when he said ~ “Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in labour! For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married,” says the Lord.” In these women’s lives, their barrenness served as a staging ground for God’s glory.

Zachariah, as part of his priestly duties in the temple, was chosen to enter the Holy Place to burn incense before the Lord (vs.8). This was a once in a lifetime event for Zachariah, because only once in a lifetime did a priest of Zachariah’s rank have the honour of offering the incense in the Holy Place in front of the Holy of Holies. While in the Holy Place the Angel Gabriel appeared to the elderly man, informing him that his prayers have been heard, and that his wife would bear a son (Luke1:13). Zachariah and Elizabeth were to consecrate their son as a servant of God and were to name him John.

We see in Luke 1:6 that both Zachariah and Elizabeth… ~ “…were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.” This was an important fact, because they had to be a good example to John, so that he could follow in their footsteps as a righteous and blameless prophet. He will be “more priestly” than most of the priesthood. Whilst most of the priesthood would be concerned with the affairs of men, John would minister for God. With great exclamation and to top all this, an angel announced John’s birth to Zachariah as he was offering incense as a priest in the Holy Place.

Zachariah received a powerful prophecy from the angel about John’s future, but was struck mute because of his unbelief and would be unable to speak until the naming of his child after the days of his service in the temple were finished.

Four specific predictions were given to Zachariah about how John would function. These four predictions give us the essence of the man that Jesus called “the greatest”:
” He would be great in the sight of God.
” He would be filled with the Holy Spirit.
” He would turn many in Israel to God.
” He would go before God in the spirit and the power of Elijah.

The announcement of John’s birth by Gabriel is however enough to indicate the significance of his ministry, as Gabriel only makes four recorded appearances in Scripture. He appears twice in the book of Daniel (Dan.8:15-17; Dan.9:21-24) and twice in the New Testament (Luke 1:13, 19; Luke 1:26-38).

Gabriel’s place before the Lord is obviously very unique. He introduces himself as one who… ~ “…stands in the presence of God” (Luke 1:19). It is significant that Gabriel is chosen to steward the unique revelations Daniel received and this gave witness to his unique ministry to the Lord. Each appearance of Gabriel in Scripture is in context to God finishing His glorious plan. He appears to Daniel to give revelation about the final window of human history and then he reappears only when God begins to incorporate the plan through the birth of Jesus whose ministry John will herald – John, the messenger of the New Covenant.

The announcement of Gabriel to Zachariah was in accordance with various prophesies in the Old Testament. In the concluding book of the Old Testament, Malachi, on behalf of God, declared… ~ “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts” (Mal.3:1). We find a very similar prophesy in Is.40:3 ~ “A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

Elizabeth conceived shortly after Zachariah received the message from the Angel Gabriel. She hid away for five months. Having a child was unthinkable at her advanced age. She now had a mute husband and was carrying a child, long after she had given up all hope of giving birth. She was too scared to appear in public, because she was in doubt whether the pregnancy will go full term and if she would be able to deliver safely. Gabriel used the example of Elizabeth to encourage Mary mother of Jesus, in her shock at the announcement that she would conceive as a virgin ~ “And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:36-37).

It was foretold that John would be filled with the Spirit of God, even from his mother’s womb, and that he would be reared under the strict code of the Nazarite (Num.6:1-21), an indication of the solemnity (Afrikaans = “plegtigheid” of “belangrikheid”) of his role in preparing the way for the world’s Redeemer.

John was born after nine months and he was circumcised on the eighth day according to Jewish law. With the Holy Spirit, Zachariah prophesied over his new born son. He connects John’s birth with God’s promised deliverance as stated in Luke 1:67-69. He specifically prophesied that John would go before the Lord and prepare His way. Zachariah’s prophesy is very similar to the prophesy Gabriel spoke over John.

A new prophet was born and the time between the last writings of the Old Testament (Malachi) and the appearance of Christ which is known as the “400 silent years” or the “intertestamental period,” was now over – after 400 years of prophetic silence, God was speaking again and during this time God prepared the stage for the coming of the New Covenant – of the coming of the Messiah; the Saviour, Jesus Christ. The Jews became more and more dissatisfied with religion and the pagans were beginning to question the validity of polytheism (the belief in or worship of more than one god). Romans and Greeks were drawn from their mythologies toward the Hebrew Scriptures, now easily accessible in Greek or Latin.

After two visits by Gabriel and some of the most dramatic pronouncements in Scripture, things seemed to fall quiet again for nearly 30 years. People close to these events had been filled with great hope and anticipate only to wonder when the fulfilment of the things prophesied would come. The people would have to wait three long decades to see the fruit of this miraculous births.

The Scriptures are silent as to the deaths of John’s parents! Though legend has it that Zachariah was slain by Herod the great, forcing Elizabeth to flee with her baby into the wilderness area of Judea (Luke.1:80). This is most probably the reason for John the Baptist’s strange demeanour – camel hair clothes and a diet of locusts and honey.

The first thing that one can say about John’s ministry, was that he did not seek out the multitudes. Rather, somehow, he attracted them. We read in Matt.3:5 ~ “Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptised by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” His influence was phenomenal. Hundreds, if not thousands, listened to him and were baptised by him. And his success was solely in the message he proclaimed. The multitudes said that he… ~ “…did no sign, but everything that (he) said about this man (i.e. Jesus) was true” (Joh.10:41).

John’s mission can be summed up by one word, “preparer.” It was he’s calling to prepare a people for the coming Messiah. As we’ve already seen, both Isiah and Malachi announced that John the Baptist would “prepare” the way for the coming of the Messiah – the Redeemer of God’s people.

We see two main focus points in John’s ministry – i.e. the message he preached and the administering of baptism.

  • Message: When looking at John’s preaching, there are at least three areas that should be given attention:
    o His message concerning Jesus Christ.
    o His emphasis upon the coming Kingdom, and the demands of citizenship therein.
    o His warning of ultimate judgment.

Let us briefly look at these matters:
o His message concerning Jesus Christ: In John’s preaching, he witnessed to the nature of Christ. This particular message generated a lot of attention and certain Jews in Jerusalem send to him a delegation of priests and Levites in order to ascertain his identity (John 1:19-23). John’s reaction was that he was not the promised Messiah, nor was he a literally reincarnated Elijah. Rather, he was the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy ~ “He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord'” (Joh.1:23), in other words, he was only the one who proclaimed the arrival of God in the flesh.

John also shared a wonderful testimony with tremendous implications, namely that the Lord Jesus Christ who is about to appear, is “the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world” (Joh.1:29).

John made a very interesting remark in Joh.1:15 and 30 ~ “He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.” Although Jesus was six months younger than John, John was referring here to Jesus’ divinity. Or divine essence – he therefore acknowledged the perfection of Jesus and that is also the reason why John was hesitant to baptise Jesus (Matt.3:14).

When Jesus came to John to be baptised, John was the first person to officially announce the arrival of the Messiah in public, when he said in Joh.1:29-30 ~ “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, after me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.” We also see in vs.29 that John said that the Lamb, Jesus, is the One who will take away the sin of the world (sin – singular). In Matt.1:21, the angel Gabriel told Joseph that his fiancé Maria will bear a son and that Joseph must call Him Jesus ~ “…for He will save his people from their sins” (sins – plural). We must realise that there is a crucial distinction between the words sin and sins. In the case of Gabriel’s announcement (sins – plural) he was referring to the many evil deeds of ‘people’ that will be forgiven by Jesus, whilst John in vs.29, was saying that the world is in totality, in sin – one cannot even live in this world as a Christian without being stained by it. Through this, John was saying exactly the same as Paul said later in Rom.5:12-15 ~ “Therefore, just as sin (singular) came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned – for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that One Man Jesus Christ abounded for many.”

o His emphasis upon the coming Kingdom, and the demands of citizenship therein: John also preached these words ~ “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt.3:2). This the exact same words that Jesus preached in Matt.4:17. John’s message of “repentance” entailed a deep consciousness of offence to God within the sinner’s heart, with a required reformation of life. When he saw superficial Hebrews submitting to his emersion, void of any radical change of conduct, he rebuked them by saying ~ “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt.3:7-8). “Fruit” is the outward expression of deep inner conviction. Without “fruit” there is no real repentance. Surely, we can learn from this that repentance is much more than merely saying, “I’m sorry.” Associated with John’s demand for repentance, was an immersion in water.

o His warning of ultimate judgment: John also proclaimed of coming judgment, when he said ~ “His winnowing fork (the KJV speaks of, “His fan”) is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matt.3:12). John spoke of divine retribution, “the wrath to come.” In Matt.3:10, John also referred to God’s wrath when he said ~ “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” There likely was a two-fold thrust to the prophet’s message.

First, the more immediate application probably was to the impending destruction of the Jewish nation with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70.

Secondly, the fan was the winnowing shovel with which the harvested grain was tossed into the wind so as to separate the kernel from the chaff. It thus signified the great separation between the righteous and the wicked in the ultimate ordering of God.

What can we learn from the story of this eccentric man?

First from the father of John, Zechariah, we learn that when we faithfully follow the Lord and continue to lift up our prayers to Him, He hears us and answers according to His will for our lives (Luke 1:13; 18:1; 1 Joh.5:14-15). There is nothing too hard for the Lord. God’s plan may look very different from what we think we want, but His way is always the best. Zechariah may have thought he only wanted a son; but God gave him a prophet whose name is forever linked with the story of Jesus Christ.

Although John’s name implies that he baptised people (which he did), John’s life on earth was more than just baptising. John’s adult life was characterised by blind devotion and utter surrender to Jesus Christ and His kingdom. John’s voice was a… ~ “…lone voice in the wilderness” (Joh.1:23) as he proclaimed the coming of the Messiah to a people who desperately needed a Saviour. He was the precursor for the modern day evangelist as he unashamedly shared the good news of Jesus Christ. He was a man filled with faith and a role model to those of us who wish to share our faith with others.

John spoke very boldly to the religious leaders of the day, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, calling them a “brood of vipers.” People of that day simply did not address leaders, religious or otherwise, in this manner for fear of punishment. But John’s faith made him fearless in the face of opposition.

John was merely a messenger sent by God to proclaim the truth. His message was simple and direct ~ “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matt.3:2). He knew that once Jesus appeared on the scene, John’s work would be all but finished. He willingly gave up the spotlight to Jesus saying ~ “He must become greater; I must become less” (Joh.3:30).

Another aspect to consider is that God worked with barren women to give birth to a child whom He will use for His work. This shows us that it is not by our might, but by God’s power that we receive His promises. Remember Hannah and her son Samuel and the wife of Manoah and her son Samson? All of them were barren, and yet God opened their wombs.

God demonstrated here that He is the One who does great wonders and miracles. Therefore, any accomplishment that even a child achieves in his life should give glory to God and all credit should come back to Him.

As Christians, we must make God’s work our top priority. Though there are a lot of things that may distract us from our mission, we must have the vision and heart to stay on course and never let anything come between God and us.

Kobus van der Walt

Just like John whose faith was fiercely tested, we will also come to the point when everything will seem to be so very challenging and impossible to overcome. We can however have the confidence that God will surely be there with us to go through trials and persecution. God does not allow persecution and trials in our lives to prevent us from entering His Kingdom. He is doing it so that we can have the necessary godly character to rule with Christ and His saints.

Next Sunday, we will, Lord willing, look at the rest of John’s ministry and then make some concluding remarks.

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