THE MINISTRY OF JOHN THE BAPTIST – Part 1
Matt. 3:1 “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.”
John Gill says in his introduction to this chapter: “The Evangelist having given an account of the genealogy and birth of Christ; of the coming of the wise men from the east to him; of his preservation from Herod’s bloody design against him, when all the infants at Bethlehem were slain; of the flight of Joseph with Mary and Jesus into Egypt, and of their return from thence, and settlement in Nazareth, where Christ continued till near the time of his baptism, and entrance on his public ministry; proceeds to give a brief relation of John, the harbinger and forerunner of Christ, and the administrator of baptism to him: and he describes him by his name John, in Hebrew ‘Jochanan’, which signifies ‘gracious’, or ‘the grace of the Lord’, or ‘the Lord has given grace’; which agrees with him, both as a good man, on whom the Lord had bestowed much grace, and as a preacher, whose business it was to publish the grace of God in Christ, Luke 16:16. This name was given him by an angel before his conception, and by his parents at his birth, contrary to the mind of their relations and neighbors, Luke 1:13-60,63. He is called by some of the Jewish writers, John the ‘high priest’; his father Zacharias was a priest of the course of Abia, and he might succeed him therein, and be the head of that course, and for that reason be called a ‘high’ or ‘chief priest’; as we find such were called, who were the principal among the priests, as were those who were chosen into the sanhedrim, or were the heads of these courses; and therefore we read of many chief priests, Matt. 2:4. From his being the first administrator of the ordinance of baptism, he is called John the Baptist; and this was a well known title and character of him. Josephus calls him ‘John’, who is surnamed, ‘the Baptist’; and Ben Gorion having spoken of him, says, this is that John who, ‘made’, instituted, or practiced ‘baptism’; and which, by the way, shows that this was not in use among the Jews before, but that John was the first practiser this way. He is described by his work and office as a preacher, he ‘came’ or ‘was preaching’ the doctrines of repentance and baptism; he published and declared that the kingdom of the Messiah was at hand, that he would quickly be revealed; and exhorted the people to believe on him, which should come after him. The place where he preached is mentioned, in the wilderness of Judea; not that he preached to trees and to the wild beasts of the desert; for the wilderness of Judea was an habitable place, and had in it many cities, towns, and villages, in which we must suppose John came preaching, at least to persons which came out from thence. There were in Joshua’s time six cities in this wilderness, namely Betharabah, Middin, and Secacah, and Nibshan, and the city of Salt, and Engedi, Joshua 15:61,62. Mention is made in the Talmud of this wilderness of Judea, as distinct from the land of Israel, when the doctors say, that ‘they do not bring up small cattle in the land of Israel, but they bring them up, ‘in the wilderness which is in Judea.’”
John is not only mentioned in the Bible but secular writers and Jewish commentators as well. They knew of John and made reference to him. He was the son of a high priest. He evidently had no intentions of succeeding his father in the priesthood. He took up residence in the wilderness and was thus identified.
He was a man sent from God (John 1:6), was named by the Lord before his birth (Luke 1:5-13), and was filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15). We are told what he wore and that he ate locust and wild honey (Mark 1:6). All of this means that he was anything but normal. He was a prophet and this is the first time Israel had had a prophet sent by God in over four hundred years. This would definitely make him an attention getter. He defied the powers that be, exposed the sin of adultery in Herod and Herodias (Mark 6:14-29), and was martyred because of it.
Our text says, “In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea.” John was his name. He is called a “Baptist” because he immersed his converts. This was new to Israel in those days. John Gill, along with secular writers, tells us that John instituted baptism. It had not been practiced before. I have read many writers who suggested that baptism was already being practiced when John came on the scene. Well it wasn’t. If one makes the “sprinkling” and “pouring” that is associated with the Old Testament sacrifices as a forerunner of John’s baptism, it is done without one shred of Scriptural evidence. (Incidentally, I am not studying from the standpoint of a Baptist. All I’m interested in is what the Bible says).
The theme of John’s ministry is brought out in the words in verse 2: “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” There are two things in this statement that are important. First the doctrine of repentance. The word “repent” is the translation of “metanoeo” which means “to change one’s mind.” The Jews had gone away from the right path and John is a prophet sent by God to call them back. John tells them they must change their mind. They are wrong and without a change of mind they will not be open to listening to the WORD that will bring them back. John was sent to get them to admit they were wrong, so that Jesus could tell them where, and get them to accept the right. Jesus is the Door and The Way, The Truth and The Life and therefore, the RIGHT.
Second, this verse emphasizes the urgency of repentance, i.e., “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The Jews were looking for a King and a kingdom on this earth. They were expecting the Messiah, who would bring the Jews back to being a world power, in which the Messiah would reign on this earth from David’s throne in Jerusalem. John was the forerunner of the Messiah and he is introducing the kingdom of heaven as “at hand.” The words “at hand” translate “eggizo” and means “to bring near.” John is saying we are at the threshold of the promised kingdom. If John preached a kingdom that was at the very threshold, why has it been two thousand years and it has not taken place yet? That is a good question and volumes have been written trying to answer this question. All I can say is that God had the Church age in mind which was a hidden mystery to the Old Testament. It is certainly not hidden to us because we are here after the fact. But, had you been a student of the Scriptures in that day, you would not have understood why the kingdom did not start immediately with the coming of the Messiah.
Paul writes on this. I will let him explain it: “For I speak to you Gentiles, inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify mine office: If by any means I may provoke to emulation them which are my flesh, and might save some of them. For if the casting away of them be the reconciling of the world, what shall the receiving of them be, but life from the dead? For if the firstfruit be holy, the lump is also holy: and if the root be holy, so are the branches. And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert grafted in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree; Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee. Thou wilt say then, The branches were broken off, that I might be grafted in. Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear: For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee” (Rom. 11:13-21).
We Gentiles are just a graft! And John knew nothing of the graft. This is one of the reasons that after he was imprisoned, he sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus, “ . . . Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?” (Matt. 11:3). John was a little confused because, as an Old Testament prophet, he had the Old Testament idea of the Messiah. But it didn’t take much to satisfy John and he was willing to live by faith without understanding.
I will continue this thought in the next meditation.
God bless each of you and may He bless our hearts with these truths.