John the Baptist
Suitable Man (verses 1 – 2)
Verse 1 underlines the darkness and difficulties of the time. It was the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar, and the Jewish nation was under the dominion and yoke of Rome. The political and religious conditions were adverse, and corrupt leaders were both morally and spiritually bankrupt.
Thus, God sets them aside and bypasses the great in the eyes of men to take up the insignificant son of a priestly couple. “The word of God came to John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness” (verse 2). Here we have emphasised to us 3 matters:
- His selection– He was the sovereign choice of God. John 1.6 gives John his authority: “There was a man sent from God whose name was John.”
- Suitability – Being the son of Zacharias gives him a suitable pedigree and links him with the remnant group among the nation. Parental influence is a challenging matter, and we all need to determine what priorities we are setting for our families in the things of God.
- Separation– In the wilderness, he was a man set apart for God. His spiritual development is emphasised in chapter 1.80: “The child grew and waxed strong in spirit and was in the deserts until the day of his showing unto Israel.” He was a Nazarite from his mother’s womb and was separate in Appetite, Appearance and Association (see Numbers 6). His years in the wilderness were equipping him for Divine service. This is the order of things with God: private experience and personal growth must precede public service and responsibility!
Scriptural Ministry (verses 3 – 6)
- It was Prophetic – “And thou child shall be called the prophet of the Highest” (chapter 1.76). Chapter 3.3 indicates that Isaiah prophesied that John would come as “the voice of One crying in the wilderness,” and so did Malachi, where he is called “My messenger.” John’s preaching, too, was based upon Holy Scripture, as we can see from his reference here to Isaiah 40.
- It was Preparatory – Chapter 1.76 says again: “Thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways.” John was the herald of the coming King. The Lord is coming again, and we have a responsibility to preach and prepare others for that coming.
- It was Pointed – John’s task was to tell the people of the need to be in a fit condition for the coming of the King. The high were to be brought low, the crooked to be made straight, and the rough smooth. The grace of God ought to humble us, straighten us out and make us righteous and refine us for the presence of Christ. How will the Lord find us when He comes again?
Searching Message (verses 7 – 14)
John speaks to 3 groups of people who could be looked at in a representative way. They are the multitude, the tax collectors, and the soldiers. Notice the same question is repeated by each group, “What shall we do?” However, John does not answer them all in the same way, but in a way which is specific to the particular background of each group.
He stirs the social conscience of the multitude to meet the need of those around them, particularly with regard to food and clothing, the basic necessities of life.
To the tax collectors, he says: “Exact no more than that that is appointed you.” (No leeway to feather their own nest by defrauding others.)
To the soldiers he says: “No violence, no false accusation, and no discontent.”
This is what John means by “fruits worthy of repentance.” Likewise, we who have been saved have a responsibility to be model citizens and employees, and not to cheat, lie or steal for personal gain. It’s not for Christians to be involved in social unrest or political demonstrations, but we must also ask questions of ourselves in terms of doing good to all men, especially to those of the household of faith. It is a common enough question to ask: “What shall we do?” Some are asking: “What shall we do to be more acceptable?” Inevitably this leads to compromise. Others say: “What shall we do to be different?” This leads to all sorts of innovations being introduced. If only we were asking: “What shall we do to be more like Christ and more consistent with His word?” Conformity to Him is God’s ultimate purpose for us, and conviction about the truth of scripture would save us from liberal and modern trends.
Selfless Motivation (verses 15 – 18)
What a temptation for John in these verses. “The people were in expectation, and all men mused in their hearts of John, whether he were the Christ, or not.” There was the danger here of anointing the wrong man. Samuel almost did this when Eliab was brought before him, but God said: “Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him” (1st Samuel 16.7). Sometimes we judge after the outward appearance and settle on what is appealing to the flesh, but this will cause us to miss Christ. John knew there was room for only one Man to be anointed, and that was the Son of God.
Here the thrust of popularity was within John’s grasp, but it would have been a denial of his own ministry. No, John was clear of personal ambition and, like Paul later, sought only to magnify Christ. Christ was greater in might, moral worth and ministry, and John is happy to confess this here. It is at this point that God introduces the Man in whom is expressed every moral grace and dignity. He is the “chiefest among ten thousand,” the “altogether lovely” One (Song of Solomon ch. 5, vv. 10 and 16).
The Lord could speak of John’s greatness, but it was not for John to do that. May we learn that He alone assesses the worth of His servants, and we should learn not to think of men above that which is written. Perhaps that is a lesson we have still not taken on board, despite the disasters of the past.
Are we seeking only to promote Christ? What sayest thou of thyself? John replies: “I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose the latchet of His shoes.” Could it be that we have lost in our souls a sense of wonder at the worth of the Lord Jesus?
John knew why Christ was coming and what He was capable of doing. His baptism in the Holy Spirit was accomplished at Pentecost, and the baptism with fire has yet to come. One speaks of the provisions of the Lord through the Spirit, and the other of the punishment of those who are identified here as the chaff, fit only to be burned up. The Lord here is the Divine winnower. He will separate the chaff from the wheat as he separates the saved from the lost. However, there is another aspect to this, as the Lord deals with His own people, to remove the chaff from our lives. Thus, in Haggai’s day “Ye looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when ye brought it home, I did blow upon it. Why? saith the Lord of Hosts. Because of mine house that is waste, and ye run every man to his own house” (Haggai 1.9). This is a characteristic of our own day: the Lord’s things are no longer first. They may have a place, but they are not the top priority over every other issue. Maybe He has been blowing upon us in order to bring us back to himself.
Stand Morally (verses 19 – 20)
John stood against the immoral relationship Herod had with Herodias, the wife of Herod’s brother Philip. He told Herod: “It is not lawful for thee to have her.” John spoke out on more than one occasion, and, as a result of this, Herod put him in prison. Ultimately John paid for his righteous stand by being beheaded at the request of the daughter of Herodias.