In the opening sections of all four Gospels, reference is made to the activities of John the Baptist. These activities are recorded as a sort of preface, or introduction, to the work of Jesus Christ. Indeed, John the Baptist is presented in the Gospels as "a man sent from God" to be the forerunner of Jesus Christ. The early part of the New Testament shows how John's preaching and his baptizing "in water" did much to prepare the way for the One who was to baptize "in the Holy Spirit."
The student of the New Testament should therefore seek to become well acquainted with the story of John the Baptist—not only because of John's important place in history, but also for what he represents in our own spiritual development.
One of the best ways of studying the life and activities of John the Baptist is to arrange the story in acrostic form—using each separate letter of the word Baptist as a heading for one of the sections to be studied. In this way, each letter of the word will represent an important phase of the life story of John the Baptist. The student will find that this method will not only prove most interesting, but it will also help him to keep all the important factors well in mind.
The acrostic for John the Baptist will therefore read as follows:
B—Birth of John the Baptist.
Luke 1:5-24; 57-80
In ancient times there was a familiar saying to the effect that an extraordinary man must be born in an extraordinary way. The early Christians—first readers of the Gospels—would have known of this saying and would therefore have delighted in the story of the birth of John the Baptist; for he was indeed born in an extraordinary way. Note some of the extraordinary circumstances and happenings connected with his birth:
- John the Baptist was born of aged parents. The gospel record indicates that Zacharias and Elizabeth had long ago given up any idea of having a son. Actually, the situation is somewhat similar to that of Abraham and Sarah and the birth of their son Isaac. (See Gen. 18-21.)
- Then there was the visit of the angel Gabriel to Zacharias, just as the aged priest was about to offer incense at the Temple altar. At that time Zacharias was stricken dumb because of his inability to accept this promise of a son.
- The forthcoming son was to have a special name—John—even though the regular family names were altogether different.
- Some extraordinary predictions were made concerning this coming son. The angel said: "He shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and ... be filled with the Holy Spirit" (Luke 1:15).
- When the son was born, and named, Zacharias bad his speech restored. With his newly-freed tongue, Zacharias uttered some prophetic words:
"Yea and thou, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High:
For thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to make ready his ways;
To give knowledge of salvation unto his people
In the remission of their sins,
Because of the tender mercy of our God,
Whereby the dayspring from on high shall visit us,
To shine upon them that sit in darkness and the shadow of death;
To guide our feet into the way of peace" (Luke 1:76-79).
We are told further: "And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel" (Luke 1:80).
A—Activities of John the Baptist.
Matt. 3:1-12; Mark 1:1-8; Luke 3:1-20; John 1:6-7; 19-28
After reading the above passages, give careful consideration to the following important points:
(1) John the Baptist's appearance. His dress was distinctive, and dated back to much earlier times. This would tend to remind the people of the tradition regarding the return of Elijah.
(2) John the Baptist's message. John proclaimed, "Repent ye; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matt. 3:2). It is important to recognize what was 12 intended by this announcement. Undoubtedly this had reference to the coming of the Messiah; but this "day of the Lord" would be a time of terror, rather than of rejoicing. Wrongdoers would be severely punished, and only those who were truly righteous would escape. Hence, John's message would be understood to mean, "Repent—or else!" According to John's teaching, repentance and a radical change in all life's activities (particularly when those activities were not in accord with the scriptural law) would be the only way to escape this retribution from "on high."
(3) John the Baptist and Elijah. Some students find themselves somewhat puzzled because of the seeming contradiction between John 1:20 and Matthew 11:14.
As mentioned above, the Jewish people at that time believed that the coming of the long-expected Messiah would be preceded by the re-appearance of Elijah. Jesus referred to and explained this popular expectation, as recorded in Matt. 11:11-15. This indicates that Jesus saw in John the Baptist those Elijah-like qualities which met current expectations, even though the Jewish leaders could not see them. By way of illustration, we may see something similar in our own experience. Perhaps at a time of political crisis somebody may say, "What we need now is another Washington, or another Lincoln!" And we understand such a statement to mean that we are looking for, and hoping for the appearance of some person having those helpful qualities that we associate with Washington or Lincoln. In a somewhat similar way, Jesus saw in John the Baptist a coming forth of the forceful speech and positive actions of Elijah.
However, looking at the words of John the Baptist, as recorded in John 1:19-21, we must recognize that here is a statement of literal fact. John the Baptist was not Elijah; neither was Elijah John the Baptist. Moreover, John the Baptist would not publicly claim that he possessed the power and other qualities of Elijah. Such a claim would hinder rather than help his work. We should also recognize that John the Baptist, despite his austere manner, was at heart a very humble man. This is made clear in his attitude toward Jesus, especially at the baptism. Nevertheless, others recognized in John the Baptist what he would not claim for himself. Jesus was among those who recognized John the Baptist as a truly great man, for Jesus said, "Among them that are born of women there hath not arisen a greater than John the Baptist" (Matt. 11:11).
(4) John the Baptist's acknowledgment of Jesus as the Messiah. Not only did John proclaim: "He that cometh after me is mightier than I ... He shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire" (Matt. 3:11), but he also pointed to Jesus as the fulfillment of this prediction. (See John 1:29-36.)
(5) John the Baptist's connection with the Essenes. It is quite possible that John the Baptist, prior to his public ministry, was influenced in some degree by the Essenes. His austere teaching, and his emphasis upon the coming "day of the Lord," closely follow the Essene teaching. However, it would also seem that John the Baptist disagreed with the Essenes on at least one important point. The Essenes taught and practiced exclusiveness and withdrawal from the ordinary activities of life. But John, instead of withdrawing, went direct to the people and taught them to apply the teaching in all matters of everyday life. John the Baptist preached reform, rather than apartness.
P—Prisoner (John the Baptist in prison).
Mark's account makes interesting reading, and indicates the personal factor behind the arrest and execution of John the Baptist. However, Josephus, the Jewish historian, suggests that John was arrested for political reasons. According to Josephus, Herod feared that John's preaching concerning the "coming One" would lead to insurrection. This, in turn, might lead to the dethronement of Herod himself and the destruction of his kingdom.
T—Troubled and Tempted (John the Baptist in difficulties).
Reading between the lines in this passage, we can sense that when John the Baptist was thrust into prison, he expected that Jesus would exercise His power and bring about a miraculous release. But this hoped-for release did not materialize; and therefore John began to have doubts. Could he have been mistaken in Jesus? Was Jesus really the Messiah, or must there be a further period of waiting? Actually, at this time John seems to have been tempted to the point of abandoning his recognition of Jesus as Messiah.
The student should carefully note Jesus' reply to John's question. Jesus did not give the messengers a plain yes or no. Instead, He suggested that they look around and observe the type of work He was doing, and then draw their own conclusions. Actually, Jesus was here quoting indirectly from Isa. 35:5-6 and 61:1. Since these Scripture passages were then regarded as referring to the type of work the Messiah would do upon His arrival, and since Jesus Himself was accomplishing all that was indicated in these passages, it must follow that Jesus was definitely the Messiah.
It should be further noted that, notwithstanding this wavering on the part of John the Baptist, Jesus still held him in highest esteem. Matt. 11:7-11 reports Jesus as saying, in effect, that while Jewish history contained the names of many outstanding men, none of these was greater than John the Baptist. Truly, an outstanding testimony!
I—Interpretation (John the Baptist and his baptism).
"John the Baptist. . . signifies a high intellectual perception of Truth, but one not yet quickened of Spirit. John represents that attitude of mind in which we are zealous for the rule of Spirit. This attitude is not spiritual, but a perception of spiritual possibilities and an activity in making conditions in which Spirit may rule. This John-the-Baptist perception of Truth leads us to strive with evil as a reality, not having discerned the truth about its transitory character. "John the Baptist may also be said to be that innate principle in us all which ever seeks to do right. Its origin cannot be located—it comes out of the wilderness. It is crude—it is like a voice in the wilderness crying for the right way. The whole human family is naturally true and honest, and this rugged reformer is a child of nature. Culture does not make people honest nor bring out their natural virtues. The inner soul consciousness that draws its nourishment from nature's storehouse opens the way for the advent of Spirit" (Metaphysical Bible Dictionary 357).
"Intellectual understanding comes first in the soul's development, then a deeper understanding of principle follows, until the whole man ripens into wisdom" (Keep a True Lent 155).
"In the regeneration two states of mind are constantly at work. First comes the cleansing or denial state, in which all the error thoughts are eliminated. This includes forgiveness for sins committed and a general clearing up of the whole consciousness. The idea is to get back into the pure, natural consciousness of Spirit. This state of mind is typified by John the Baptist, who came out of the wilderness a child of nature whose mission it was to make straight the way for the One who was to follow.
"This putting away of sin from the consciousness (baptism through denial, plus forgiveness) is very closely allied to the deeper work that is to follow; so much so that to the observer it seems the same. Hence the followers of John, when they saw the works he did, asked if he was the Messiah. His answer was that the One who followed him was to baptize with Holy Spirit" (Mysteries of John 16-17).
S—Spread of the work.
John 3:22-24 and 4:1; Acts 18:24-26 and 19:1-6
From a casual reading of the opening chapters in the New Testament, we may get the impression that the work of John the Baptist covered only two or three years, and was limited to the area immediately adjoining Jerusalem. Actually, however, the John-the-Baptist movement spread to many parts of the then-known world, and continued for many years after John's death. Indeed, the leaders in the early Christian church often encountered men and women who had expectations of a coming Messiah, but who (thus far) knew "only the baptism of John."
In the New Testament passages given above, we have:
(1) An indication of the continuing activity of John the Baptist, after the ministry of Jesus had begun. Indeed, the two ministries appear here as competitive activities. (John 3:22-24 and 4:1.)
(2) Acts 18:24-26 deals with something taking place about twenty-five years after the activities mentioned above—and this indicates how the John-the-Baptist movement had spread during those intervening years. The Apollos here mentioned came from Alexandria, in Egypt—a city famous for its ancient university; and since Apollos is described as being "an eloquent man ... mighty in the scriptures," we may assume that he was a well-educated man. However, the interesting feature is that he is also described as "knowing only the baptism of John." This may indicate that the teaching of John the Baptist had penetrated into the University of Alexandria; at least, the teaching must have gone far beyond the environs of Jerusalem.
(3) Acts 19:1-6 definitely states that the John-the-Baptist movement had reached as far as Ephesus, in Asia Minor; for in this passage we read of a "study group" which had been organized in that city. Whether this was the result of the labors of Apollos, or whether other teachers had been active, is not quite clear; this is, at least, another indication of the far-reaching effects of the John-the-Baptist teaching. The New Testament gives us to understand that the members of this "study group" were rebaptized by the Apostle Paul, and they later became part of the Christian group in Ephesus.
T—Tragedy or Triumph?
In closing this study of the life and activities of John the Baptist, it may be well to attempt some sort of evaluation of the work accomplished.
At first glance, the story of John the Baptist's life may seem to resolve itself into something of a tragedy. To start so well ... to undertake such an important, God-given work ... to be the forerunner of Jesus Christ—but then to end it all in such an inglorious way! Mark 6:27-29 tells of John's execution: "And when his disciples heard thereof, they came and took up his corpse, and laid it in a tomb." Certainly, all this seems like a tragedy.
But if we take a few moments to list some of the actual accomplishments of John the Baptist, what at first seems like a tragedy may turn out to be a real triumph. Note the following:
(1) John the Baptist completed his mission as the forerunner of Jesus Christ. In this he stirred up religious interest, which had become dormant. He revived the messianic expectancy among the people, by proclaiming: "Repent ye; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matt. 3:2). He publicly pointed to Jesus as the "coming One." (See John 1:29-34.)
(2) John the Baptist fulfilled two very important popular expectations:
- "Behold, I send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me" (Mai. 3:1).
- The reappearance of Elijah. (See Matt. 11:14.)
(3) John the Baptist started what may be termed a "chain reaction," which provided (either directly or indirectly) six important disciples for Jesus Christ: Andrew and John; Peter and James; Philip and Nathanael. (See John 1:35-51.)
(4) John the Baptist brought to a close the old order, and opened the way for the new order. The old way of "Moses and the law" gave place to the new way of "grace and truth" through Jesus Christ. (See John 1:17.)
Questions for Lesson 2
- Using your own words, tell briefly the story of John the Baptist's birth. Bring out some of the outstanding features, just as though you were writing a newspaper report of this important happening.
- "What was the great message of John the Baptist? Mention some of the methods he adopted to give special emphasis to this message.
- What did John the Baptist say about Jesus? Quote some actual statements, with Scripture references, and a brief explanation of each.
- How would you explain John the Baptist as a fulfillment of the popular expectation regarding the reappearance of Elijah?
- Why was John the Baptist put in prison? Briefly explain the circumstances, and state what finally happened to him. Did John's tragic death mark the end of the Baptist movement?
- What does John the Baptist represent in our consciousness? Explain fully.
- How is intellectual consciousness related to spiritual consciousness? Explain briefly how a study of John the Baptist helps us to understand this relationship.
- What is meant by the statement: "He must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30)? How does this apply in our experience?
- Explain briefly the connection between water baptism and denial.
- What is meant by the term forerunner as applied to John the Baptist? How is this related to our own spiritual development?