There came a man, sent from God, whose name was John. He was not the light, but came that he might bear witness of the light. John 1:6-8
John the Baptist was an integral part of God’s mission of redemption through Jesus Christ. God sent him on a mission. His miraculous birth and his name were announced by an angel. He was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb. But even centuries before his birth, prophets Isaiah and Malachi had prophesied about the Baptist’s ministry in relation to the Messiah’s mission.
The ministry of John the Baptist was two-fold: he was to be Jesus’ forerunner—to prepare His way not just for His first coming but also for the second. That is, John was to (i) to testify of Jesus, “the Lamb of God,” at the beginning of His earthly ministry (1:29), and (ii) he was to warn unrepentant Jews of God’s imminent judgement upon their nation at the second coming of the Messiah.
There are a couple of prophecies in Malachi that indicate the Baptist’s role as a harbinger of divine judgement on the Jewish nation. They had survived the Babylonian exile and had returned to Palestine. They were heading to a worse punishment — if they failed to repent and believe in God’s Messiah. Considering those events in the light of Jesus’ teachings, we know that the messenger or Elijah God promised to send was none other than John the Baptist (Matt 11:14). The way that this messenger would clear before the Lord was indeed that of judgement!
“I am about to send my messenger, who will clear the way before me. Indeed, the Lord you are seeking will suddenly come to his temple, and the messenger of the covenant, whom you long for, is certainly coming,” says the LORD who rules over all. Who can endure the day of his coming? Who can keep standing when he appears? (Malachi 3:1-2a NET)
Look, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord arrives. He will encourage fathers and their children to return to me, so that I will not come and strike the earth with judgment. (Malachi 4:5-6 NET)
The judgment described here tells us that one of John the Baptist’s tasks was to give Israel a final opportunity to repent before the ‘coming’ of the Messiah. Malachi’s prediction of the ‘coming’ of the Lord ‘to his temple’ was certainly not about the first coming of the Messiah; the purpose of Jesus’ incarnation as a human was not to condemn or punish anyone (3:17). Indeed, He was furious about the moral decay that corrupted even the nerve center of the Jewish nation. Therefore, He cleansed their temple and overturned the tables of money changers. Through that enacted parable, Jesus warned Jewish leaders about his intention to destroy their temple at his second coming. The prediction in Malachi about the Lord’s coming to his temple is, therefore, about the Messiah’s second coming. Judgement would fall upon the temple (Malachi 3:2) and on their land (the Hebrew word ‘erets is better rendered as land in Malachi 4:6).
John was faithful in his task of proclaiming judgement and in calling people to repentance. He did not mince his words.
… when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? (Matthew 3:7 NET)
Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 3:10 NET)
John introduced Jesus as the One who baptizes God’s people with the Holy Spirit (1:33). There was another baptism – that of fire – awaiting those who would reject Jesus. After the grain is gathered into the barn the chaff is set on fire. Without realizing this, some Christians pray for a baptism in fire.
I baptize you with water, for repentance, but the one coming after me is more powerful than I am – I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clean out his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire (Matt 3:11-12).
If John’s mission, according to Malachi, was to warn ethnic Israel about God’s imminent judgement on the Jewish temple and on their land, we cannot insert, on our timeline, a period of indefinite length between John the Baptist’s ministry and the Messiah’s judgement upon Israel. In other words, if there was supposed to be a gap of several centuries between the preaching of John the Baptist and the destruction of the temple, how could the Baptizer be considered as someone who prepared the Lord’s way towards that judgement? In fact, Jerusalem’s woes started in AD 67 when Roman legions besieged her. That period of tribulation culminated in her fall in AD 70. The time was relatively short – less than four decades, which was commonly accepted as the time span of a generation (see Matt 24:34) – between the Baptist’s warnings and the Lord’s second coming to inflict judgement on Jerusalem.
Before that second coming, there had to be a first coming that offered salvation and consolation to Israel, as predicted in Isaiah 40:1-3. The voice of the one shouting in the wilderness – John the Baptist – reminded Israel of God’s favor upon them.
“Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God. “Speak kindly to Jerusalem …”
A voice cries out, “In the wilderness clear a way for the LORD; construct in the desert a road for our God.Isaiah 40:1-3
Every valley must be elevated, and every mountain and hill leveled. The rough terrain will become a level plain, the rugged landscape a wide valley. The splendor of the LORD will be revealed, and all people will see it at the same time. For the LORD has decreed it.”
Jewish leaders were aware of this prophecy. Therefore, when he was questioned, John confessed to them that he was indeed that voice.
John said, “I am the voice of one shouting in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.” (John 1:23 NET)
John the Baptist bore witness of the splendor of Yahweh that was made manifest through the Person of Jesus, the Christ. He was faithful to God and to his mandate as a witness. Two of John’s disciples followed Jesus after hearing his testimony. One of them was Andrew (1:37-40). This shows us another vital link between John’s ministry and that of Jesus’ ministry. Attempts to portray the Baptist’s ministry as a part of the ‘Old Covenant’ are misplaced.
Never once did John try to seek attention or glory for himself. He did not make false claims about himself. His sole aim was to glorify Jesus. When he came to know that Jesus was making more disciples, he said, “He must become more important while I become less important.” (3:30)
Is it any wonder that Jesus said about John the Baptist, “I tell you the truth, among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist?”