Light for the Last Days

John, the Jewish forerunner of Jesus


But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

Matthew 3.7

John the Baptist is coming as a forerunner. So, let’s go back to John and see what it tells us about him. It says that he is

The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord;
Make straight in the desert
A highway for our God.

Isaiah 40.3

This is a quotation from the book of Isaiah chapter 40, one of the many prophecies in the Old Testament which speak about the events of the New Testament, of Jesus the Messiah.

Prepare the way of the Lord, make a straight highway … This is a picture of a road being built, a road made in preparation for the arrival of the Messiah, a road made for the arrival of a great king.

The concept of preparing the way of the Lord was actually one which was known to the people at the time. In the days when the Temple was standing, the pilgrims would go up three times a year to the Temple in Jerusalem: for Passover, for Shabat (Pentecost), and for the Feast of Shavuot (the Feast of Tabernacles).

When they went up to Jerusalem, there would be people who would go out to prepare the way. So, to prepare the way to take meant to take out the stones, to take out the obstacles from before the people in pilgrimage to Jerusalem so that they would have a clear way to go to meet with the Lord in the Temple.

“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,
Even the Messenger of the covenant,
In whom you delight.
Behold, He is coming,”
Says the Lord of hosts.

Malachi 3.1

There was the ‘ministry of preparing the way for the pilgrims to come up to Jerusalem’, fixing the road so there were no obstacles, each of which would be removed. It was a picture of the people coming to the Lord, not the Lord coming to the people.

John the Baptist was preparing the way for the people to come to the Lord, and the idea was preparing the way of the Lord is a metaphor of what must take place in the hearts of the people.

He was crying out in the wilderness with a message of repentance so that they would prepare the way of the Lord, prepare people’s hearts so they would be ready to meet with the Lord.

Sin is what separates us from the Lord. That is why John’s message was one of repentance and accepting God’s way.

He also came in the spirit of Elijah. Malachi chapter 4.5 says,

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet
Before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.
And he will turn
The hearts of the fathers to the children,
And the hearts of the children to their fathers,
Lest I come and strike the earth with a curse.”

Malachi 4.5-6

There is a Jewish tradition of the coming of Elijah before the Messiah comes. You read in the Prophets that Elijah was the one who confronted the wicked King Ahab and Jezebel with the word of God and called Israel of the day to repent of idolatry, of worshiping Bal and other gods, and to repent and come to God.

17 Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, 18 “Arise, go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, who lives in Samaria. There he is, in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone down to take possession of it. 19 You shall speak to him, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord: “Have you murdered and also taken possession?” ’ And you shall speak to him, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord: “In the place where dogs licked the blood of Naboth, dogs shall lick your blood, even yours.” ’ ”

20 So Ahab said to Elijah, “Have you found me, O my enemy?”

And he answered, “I have found you, because you have sold yourself to do evil in the sight of the Lord: 21 ‘Behold, I will bring calamity on you. I will take away your posterity, and will cut off from Ahab every male in Israel, both bond and free.

1 Kings 21.17-21

His message was confirmed with signs and wonders as happened at the mount Carmel in the confrontation between the prophets of Baal and Elijah.

20 So Ahab sent for all the children of Israel, and gathered the prophets together on Mount Carmel. 21 And Elijah came to all the people, and said, “How long will you falter between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him.” But the people answered him not a word. 22 Then Elijah said to the people, “I alone am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets are four hundred and fifty men. 23 Therefore let them give us two bulls; and let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire under it; and I will prepare the other bull, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire under it. 24 Then you call on the name of your gods, and I will call on the name of the Lord; and the God who answers by fire, He is God.”

1 Kings 18.20-24

Elijah was perhaps the greatest of the prophets, the greatest of the prophets spoken about in the Bible, and here is the idea is that the Elijah is going to precede the coming of the Messiah, someone who will come not as a ‘reincarnation of Elijah’ but who will come in the spirit of Elijah to precede the coming of the Messiah.

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying:

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
Make His paths straight.’ ”

Now John himself was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.

Matthew 3.1-6

We see that this was the ministry which God had given to John. His father Zechariah, we recall, in Luke chapter 1 that he went into the Temple as a priest and he was told that he was going to have a son by his wife Elizabeth who was baren and he doubted at first but then he was given the message that the child’s name would be John.

13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. 15 For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘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 1.13-17

Then he began to speak out the message about John’s future ministry, what he was going to do and, in Luke 1.67-79 Zacharias says of John:

67 Now his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying:

68 “Blessed is the Lord God of Israel,
For He has visited and redeemed His people,
69 And has raised up a horn of salvation for us
In the house of His servant David,
70 As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets,
Who have been since the world began,
71 That we should be saved from our enemies
And from the hand of all who hate us,
72 To perform the mercy promised to our fathers
And to remember His holy covenant,
73 The oath which He swore to our father Abraham:
74 To grant us that we,
Being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
Might serve Him without fear,
75 In holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our life.

76 “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest;
For you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways,
77 To give knowledge of salvation to His people
By the remission of their sins,
78 Through the tender mercy of our God,
With which the Dayspring from on high has visited us;
79 To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,
To guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Luke 1.67-78

Notice that that’s the prophecy given to John at his birth by his father Zechariah. We are also told in Luke chapter 1 that he going to be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb.

Jesus spoke about John in this way in Matthew 11.13 He said

13 For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. 14 And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 He who has ears to hear, let him hear!

Mathew 11.13-15

John is a prophet, he’s going to come in the spirit of Elijah, and Jesus, in this verse, does identify John as that one.

We are also told that, before the Second Coming of Jesus, there’s going to be the prophet who comes in the spirit of Elijah. Maybe it will be the two witnesses in Jerusalem of Revelation 11:

Then I was given a reed like a measuring rod. And the angel stood, saying, “Rise and measure the temple of God, the altar, and those who worship there. But leave out the court which is outside the temple, and do not measure it, for it has been given to the Gentiles. And they will tread the holy city underfoot for forty-two months. And I will give power to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy one thousand two hundred and sixty days, clothed in sackcloth.”

These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands standing before the God of the earth. And if anyone wants to harm them, fire proceeds from their mouth and devours their enemies. And if anyone wants to harm them, he must be killed in this manner. These have power to shut heaven, so that no rain falls in the days of their prophecy; and they have power over waters to turn them to blood, and to strike the earth with all plagues, as often as they desire.

Revelation 11.1-6

Some prophet will come with great power from God, also with signs and wonders following, to call people to repent and to believe before the Second Coming of Jesus.

Coming back to John himself, we find that he was clothed with camel’s hair and a leather belt. That little detail does connect him again to Elijah. patented after Elijah who called Israel to repentance and in 2 Kings chapter 1.8 was described as a hairy man wearing a leather belt around his waist.

Then he said to them, “What kind of man was it who came up to meet you and told you these words?”

So they answered him, “A hairy man wearing a leather belt around his waist.”

And he said, “It is Elijah the Tishbite.”

2 Kings 1.7-8

So, there is another identification with Elijah.

As John preached, we also read that all Jerusalem, Judea, and the region around Jordan went out to meet him which means John had a tremendously powerful ministry.

For some reason people were going down to the Jordan Valley, because you go down to the Jordan you go down to the lowest place in the world they were going down from Jerusalem and Judea and all around to hear this prophet speaking in the wilderness.

A very unusual event. Again this must have been God drawing these people together to hear this prophet speaking in the wilderness. And, as he was preaching, he had a tremendous response. People were responding, people recognize their sinfulness, they needed to get ready for the Messiah. They were willing to do something about it.

I also think this tells us that there was an expectation at the time that the Messiah was going to come, and you see this from reading the New Testament that people were looking for the coming of the Messiah.

John was coming this time not as the Messiah Himself, but as a forerunner.

I believe we are now living in the time before the Second Coming of Jesus. Many people are aware of the coming of the Lord, and we also need to get right with God by repenting and believing, and being ready for His coming.

John told them to be baptized on confession of their faith, and so they were baptized confessing their sins. This is another important aspect: people were recognizing they were sinners and confessing their sins. And, as a result of this confession of their sins, they were being baptized by immersion.

The word ‘baptism’ comes from a Greek word βάπτισμα [bap’-tis-mah] which means to immerse. The baptism actually meant being immersed in the water, going down under the waters of the River Jordan, and coming up again.

We also notice of course that these were people who were conscious of the fact that they were sinners and therefore needed to take this step.

They were not babies, which is why we don’t believe in baptizing babies, but we do believe in baptizing people on confession of their faith when they’ve come to understand that they need this to follow the Lord.

Tony Pearce

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