This blog was originally posted in March, 2016. —ed.
After recounting John’s incredible birth, the biblical record quickly moves forward to the beginnings of his ministry. He lived much of his life in the obscurity of the Judean desert before the word of God came to him initiating his prophetic ministry when he was about thirty years old (Luke 3:2). At that time, he suddenly “appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4).
John was a study of contrasts in every respect—from his prolonged isolation to his abrupt public appearance, from his rugged wilderness life to his dramatic preaching and baptizing ministry. He was born to a woman who could not have children. He came from a line of priests, but ministered as a prophet. And he reached Jewish society by removing himself from it.
Both his training and his ministry took place in the unpopulated desert. That might seem like an odd place for the forerunner of the Messiah to set up his headquarters. But it fit perfectly with God’s plan. John was not sent to the royal courts of the ancient world to announce the coming of the King of the universe. From an obscure family, with a strange lifestyle, he established his ministry squarely in the middle of nowhere.
But all of that was purposeful, a radical approach intended to awaken the people from their spiritual slumber and call them out of the dead legalism of their religious practices. Constantly flowing crowds from Jerusalem and Jericho, driven by both curiosity and conviction, came out to hear the eccentric prophet preach. There in the desolate sands, removed from the distractions of the city and the oppression of the religious leaders, people were able to carefully ponder the powerful truths John was proclaiming.
John’s message was as startling as his physical appearance. He claimed to be the true messenger from God, but was not like the well-mannered, soft-spoken, and richly adorned Pharisees and Sadducees. John’s scratchy camel’s hair cloak, plain leather belt, and diet of locusts and wild honey served as a metaphoric and stinging rebuke to the leaders of Israel’s religious establishment. Like the Old Testament prophets before him, everything about John’s strange behavior was intended as an object lesson for God’s chosen nation. He was not calling others to live or dress as he did, but he was calling people away from liturgically dressed hypocrites who were leading people to hell.
The Kingdom Is at Hand
As the preacher privileged to announce the arrival of the Messiah, John’s calling was more lofty and sacred than that of anyone who had come before him. His was the first prophetic voice to echo throughout the Judean hillsides since the prophet Malachi went silent four hundred years earlier.
Though his story is told in the gospels, John was the last of the Old Testament prophets. As such, he was given the privileged responsibility of both announcing the Messiah’s coming and declaring His arrival. Like his predecessors, John faithfully pointed people forward to Christ, but unlike the other Jewish prophets, he lived to see the fulfillment of his words.
In Matthew 11:9, Jesus separated John from the noble prophets before him by saying he was “more than a prophet” because—as the Lord went on to explain—he was the divinely appointed messenger foretold in Malachi 3:1. John’s mission had been prophesied some seven hundred years earlier by Isaiah: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make ready the way of the Lord, Make His paths straight’” (Matthew 3:3; cf. Isaiah 40:3–4). He was preparing the hearts of the Jews for the coming of their long-awaited King. After millennia of anticipation and prophetic promises, John was selected for the unparalleled privilege of being the Messiah’s personal herald.
In the ancient near east, the coming of a monarch was usually preceded by the appearance of a herald who announced the king’s imminent arrival and made final preparations for his stay. Along with the herald, a delegation of servants would be sent ahead of the royal caravan in order to remove any obstacles in the road and make sure the way was ready for travel. Thus the herald’s responsibility was two-fold: to proclaim the king’s coming and to prepare the way for his arrival. Those two components defined the privileged ministry of John the Baptist.
But John did not serve merely a human king. He was the forerunner of the King of kings. As such, he did not clear debris from literal roads; rather, through his Spirit-empowered preaching on repentance and faith, he sought to remove the obstacles of unbelief from the hearts of sinful men and women. He challenged the hypocritical self-righteousness of first-century Judaism and called people to repent and live a life of holy faith and obedience. In this way, they would be prepared for the coming of the Messiah and His kingdom.
John’s ministry is described as “the voice of one crying in the wilderness.” To all who would listen, his thundering words reiterated one simple message: “Repent!” (Matthew 3:2). The Greek word for repent entails more than mere sorrow or regret. It means “to change the mind and will” and encompasses the idea of turning around and heading in the opposite direction. Repentance does not refer to just any change, but to a change from sin to righteousness. It involves sorrow over sin, but goes beyond that to produce both changed thinking and the desire for a changed life (cf. 2 Corinthians 7:10). John declared that if the people would turn from their rebellious pride and embrace a life of wholehearted obedience, they would be ready for the Messiah.
John’s message shocked the Jewish people, who assumed they were already included because they belonged to God’s chosen nation. By ethnicity, they felt assured of a place in the kingdom of heaven, such that repentance was not necessary for them. On the other hand, the neighboring Gentile nations had no such privilege. John confronted that false notion head on, boldly declaring, “Do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham” (Matthew 3:9). To the self-righteous Israelites who heard, John’s point was unmistakably clear: they were in the exact same condition as the unbelieving Gentiles—spiritually dead, like stones. Unless they repented and were converted from sin to righteousness, they would not inherit eternal salvation. Instead, they would be judged. Being Jewish—and religious, at that—counted for nothing before God but greater judgment.
John’s mandate was urgent. The coming of the King was imminent. In spite of their religion, the people’s hearts were hard and cold. So John confronted them with fiery passion and unabashed directness. Now was not the time to mince words. He challenged the people to turn away from the ritualism, superficiality, and hypocrisy of their external ceremonies, traditions, and laws. He called them away from the establishment, into the wilderness, to a place where they would not have gone unless they were serious about repenting. He exposed the false pretenses of the religious leaders with vivid warnings, and he challenged the people to demonstrate their repentance in practical ways, like caring for the needy, working with integrity, and showing love to others (Luke 3:11–14).
He preached with such conviction and authority that some who heard him thought he might actually be the Messiah himself. But John quickly dismissed such misguided rumors. When questioned by the priests and Levites who had been sent from Jerusalem to ask his identity, John replied, “I am not the Christ” (John 1:19–20). He likewise told the crowds, “I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16).
John knew his position and his task. Thus he never sought honor for himself, but only for the One whose coming he proclaimed. From childhood, John had undoubtedly been told many times of the angel’s announcement of his birth and his calling—a purpose he never compromised or manipulated for his own gain.
The Sign of Repentance
Though he ministered out in the wilderness, John’s preaching had a dramatic impact in the cities of Israel. According to Matthew’s account, “Then Jerusalem was going out to him, and all Judea and all the district around the Jordan; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins” (Luke 3:5–6). Multitudes traveled to hear him preach, and many were convicted of their sin and baptized as a symbol of their desire for repentance and readiness to receive the Messiah.
Unlike Levitical ceremonial washings, which involved repeatedly washing the hands, feet, and head to symbolize the need for continual purification from recurring sin, the baptism of John was a one-time event. The closest parallel, in the Jewish practices of that day, was a ritual not intended for native Israelites at all—the baptism of Gentile proselytes upon their entrance into Judaism.
That parallel would not have been lost on the Jews to whom John preached. Those who were truly repentant needed to recognize that rather than being superior, they were no better than pagan non-Jews, spiritually speaking. Even though they were Abraham’s physical descendants, until they repented, they were complete outsiders to God’s kingdom. In order to symbolize their recognition of that reality, John called the Jews to be baptized in the same way as a Gentile proselyte.