THE MINISTRY OF MESSIAH (4)
John The Baptist
We cannot consider the life of Christ without giving thought to the life of John the Baptist. The words spoken by the angel to his father Zacharias, reveal John’s mission was from the mission of Christ. The angel said:
“For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the lord the God And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” ( Luke 1:15-17).
Zacharia’s words after the birth of John, again emphasise the greatness of his son’s mission:
“And thou child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins, Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high Hath visited us. To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:76-79).
The circumstances of John’s birth are again very revealing an instructive. Zacharias was a priest of the course of Abia and his mother Elisabeth was of the daughters of Aaron. She was a cousin of Mary and John’s birth parents were “righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless” but Elisabeth was barren, “and they were now well stricken in years”. John’s birth came in response to Zacharias’s prayer. We don’t know how frequently he had to go to the temple to execute the priest’s office. It has been suggested that it was once in a lifetime. Nevertheless the timing of the fulfilling of his course to burn incense was perfect, being in accordance with the providence of God. It was at the time of prayer and the burning of incense that an angel appeared to him “standing on the right side of the altar of incense”. Zacharias means ‘Yah has remembered’, moreover incense represents prayer (Ps 141:2), so the fact that the angel appeared on the right side of the altar was an indication Yah had remembered him and his prayer had been answered. So we read in Luke 1:13:
“But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and they wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John”.
John means ‘Yahweh favoured’ or the ‘grace of Yahweh’. For 4000 years since the tine if the Patriarchs, Israel had been under the Law, which was but a shadow of things to come. Now with the impending birth of the Lord Jesus Christ, “grace and truth” was to be manifested, as we read in John 1:17.John therefore whose name meant ‘the grace of Yahweh’ of the true graciousness of Yahweh.
JOHN IN THE WILDERNESS
Through his parentage John could have become a priest, but he forsook that role for an austere life in the wilderness, as we see from verse 80:
“And the child grew and waxes strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel”.
There, clothed with a simple garment of camel’s hair and girded with a leathern girdle and feeding upon “locusts and wild honey”, John prepared himself for that great work which he had to fulfil. It has been written of him:
“John came from the desert (Lke. 1:80) where he had apparently been dwelling for some time, his aged parents having probably died. The harsh austerity of his early environment helped to mould his character, which was stern and unyielding. His isolated life of prayer in the quietness of the desert, helped to discipline him for his task of reformer. Thus he proclaimed a message of kindness blended with uncompromising severity” (“Guide Book to the Gospels” by H.P. Mansfield).
Although he was far away from the comforts of the city and from his role as priest, yet it was to John alone that the word of Yahweh came, as we read in Luke 3:1-2:
“Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraeah and of the region of Trachonitus, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene, Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness”.
Let us note that the word of God did not come to the high and mighty of the world, but to John “in the wilderness”. So it was with Israel. When they came out of Egypt, the word of God came to them in the wilderness. In fact the very title of the Numbers is midbar which means in the wilderness. Therefore Numbers 1:1 is a play on these words. The very word midbar means speech and it is so rendered in Song of Solomon 4:3. When we embrace the truth and leave the world, we are symbolically in the wilderness and it is then that we know the word of truth (Jn. 8: 31-32).
We have just read, “the word of God came to John” and he was quite simply the medium of the word. He was “the voice”. There was nothing else to attract people to John but his voice as we read in Luke 3:3-6:
“As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; And all flesh shall see the salvation of God”.
So powerful was John’s witness that the Jews sent priests and Levites to investigate him (possibly because he was of a priestly family). We read of this in John 1: 19-24:
“And this is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who art thou? And he confessed and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ. And they asked him, What then? Art thou Elias? And he saith, I am not. Art thou that prophet? And he answered, No. Then they said unto him. Who art thou? That we may give an answer to them that sent us. What sayest thou of thyself? He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias. And they which were sent were of the Pharisees”.
John was heralding the one who is “the way, the truth, and the life”, first spoken of in Genesis 3:24 as “the way of the tree of life”. As we have said, that way is prepared in the wilderness and John by his very life was a living embodiment of that way and of his message, “All flesh is grass. . . The grass withereth, the flower fadeth; but the word of our God shall stand for ever” (Isa. 40: 6-8). What an example John is! So with us. We have left the world as Israel left Egypt. Although walking in the world, we have to see it, despite all its attraction and glitter, as a wilderness. It is in this situation that we must prepare ourselves for our future life in the kingdom. There are only two ways, the way of the tree of life, which is based on the word of God, or “a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death” (Prov. 14:12), whereas, The path of the just is as a shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day” of the kingdom (Prov. 4:18).
THE PROPHECY OF DANIEL
It is very possible that John’s ministry lasted 3 1/2 years followed by Christ’s ministry of 3 1/2 years, making a total of 7 years. We base this on Daniel 9:27 which speaks of the ministries of Christ and John:
“And he shall confirm the covenant with many for one week: and in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease”.
Using the day for a year principle, a week represents 7 years. The phrase “midst of the week is better rendered “the latter half of the week”. Christ’s ministry was in the latter half of the week, the last 31/2 years. On the basis that there was 6 Months difference between John and Christ, and Christ began his ministry at 30, John would have begun his when he was about 27.
John was to prepare “the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Lk. 3:4). Then we read in verse 5:
“Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be, made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth”.
The words in Isaiah 40:4 read, “Every valley shall be exalted”, which perhaps make better sense. Then we read in verse 7-8, which initial words, as we see from Matthew 3:7 were addressed to the Pharisees and Sadducees:
“O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father; for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham”.
Then we read in verses 10-14:
“And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then? He answereth and saith unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise. Then came also the Publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do? And he said unto them, Exact no more than that which is appointed you. And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages”.
There are four classes of people dealt with in Luke 4:5, namely, the common people, the chief priests Sadducees and Pharisees, the publicans and the soldiers. The valleys being filled or exalted would apply to the common people who were lifted up by the teachings of John and the Master, hearing him gladly, the mountains and hills which can apply to nations or rulers (see Jer. 51:24-25) referred to the rulers of Israel. Jesus completely levelled the chief priests and Pharisees with his teachings so that they could not answer him. The crooked who were made straight applied to the Publicans and the rough who were made smooth applied to the soldiers. These words will have a secondary fulfilment when the Master returns as we read in Isaiah 2:11-17:
“The lofty looks of man shall be humbled, and the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down, and Yahweh alone shall be exalted in that day. For the day of Yahweh of hosts shall be upon every one that is proud and lofty, and upon every one that is lifted up; and he shall be brought low:. . . And upon all high mountains, and upon all hills that are lifted up. . . And the loftiness of man shall be bowed down, and the haughtiness of men shall be made low: and Yahweh alone shall be exalted in that day”.
Let us go back to the words concerning John in Luke 3:4:
“in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”.
This is a quotation from Isaiah 40:3:
“make straight in the desert a highway for our God”.
We have already shown that God’s way is prepared in the wilderness, and it is only when we leave the world, as Israel left Egypt and are in the wilderness that we truly know God’s way. The word prepare means to turn, to face. John was to cause people to turn to face Yahweh, to turn to the right way. In the words of Luke 1:17:
“to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord”.
It was the Elijah mission to turn their hearts back to the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Straight means to make right and its meaning is shown in Psalm 107:7:
”And he led them forth by the right way, that they might go to a city of habitation” (i.e. Jerusalem).
Similar words are used in Isaiah 40:3, “make straight in the desert” and there is a link between straight and the word right in the above Psalm. The primary word yashar is used in the Psalm and straight is also yashar from this root.
A highway was a thoroughfare, lifted up and cleared of stones. John was making right a highway for our Elohim, i.e. for Christ. In order to do this he had to show the people the falseness of their rulers describing them as a “generation of vipers”. They were the seed of the serpent. Thereby he cleared the way for Christ to come. The significance of highway is shown in Isaiah 11:15-16 and this takes us forward to the future:
“And Yahweh shall utterly destroy the tongue of the Egyptian sea; and with his mighty wind shall he shake his hand over the river, and shall smite it in the seven streams, and make men go over dryshod. And there shall be a highway for the remnant of his people, which shall be left from Assyria; like as it was to Israel in the day that he came out of the land of Egypt”.
Under the hand of Moses the highway passed through the waters of the Red Sea, through the wilderness to the promised land. As Michael (‘Who is like Ail’) was in the pillar of cloud then, so John was preparing the way for the greater than Michael, the Son of God to lead his people through the wilderness. Hence the word of Luke 3:3:
“And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins”.
For this to be done Luke 3: 5 had to be fulfilled, which we have already referred to. At last highway or right way was being prepared by John, ready for the appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ. Then we read in Isaiah 40:10:
“Behold, Adonai Yahweh will come with strong hand, and his arm (the Lord Jesus Christ (Isa. 53:1)) shall rule for him: behold, his reward is with him, and his work before him. He shall feed his flock like a shepherd”
How fitting it was therefore that John should be the one who should baptize Christ. In Jesus’s submission to baptism, “to fulfil all righteousness”, he leads the way along that “highway for our Elohim” (or Mighty ones) (Isa. 40:3). These Mighty Ones comprise the Lord Jesus Christ and all his faithful brethren. So now the greater than Michael, has gone before us. Through our baptism into Christ, we set our feet on that highway, the true way, prepared by John, and if we follow Christ, the word made flesh, this will eventually lead us to his kingdom.
But once Christ had began his ministry, John’s work finished. Christ had to increase and John had to decrease. John was imprisoned because he had reproved Herod for taking, Herodias his brother Philip’s wife as we read in Matthew 14:3-12:
“For Herod had laid hold on John, and bound him in prison for Herodias’ sake, his brother Philip’s wife. For John said unto him, It is not lawful for thee to have her. And when he would have put him to death, he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet. But when Herod’s birthday was kept, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod. Whereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she would ask. And she, being instructed of her mother, said, Give me here John Baptist’s head in a charger. And the king was sorry: nevertheless for the oath’s sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given her. And he sent and beheaded John in the prison. And his head was brought in a charger, and given to the damsel: and she brought it to her mother. And his disciples came, and took up the body, and buried it, and went and told Jesus”.
John lost his life because he had the faith and courage to rebuke the king for taking his brother’s wife. What an example of faith! But his next conscious moment will be to see the Lord Jesus Christ in all his glory in the kingdom.
Jesus said of John:
Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matt.11:11).
We are very conscious that we fall very far short of the stature of John. Yet the Master is showing that he that is least in the kingdom will be greater than John was in his probationship. This is hard to appreciate. It is showing clearly that we have a very high calling. May we strive to follow the great example of John that we may be among the glorious multitude of the redeemed in the kingdom of God.