Christ and John the Baptist
Malcolm C. Davis, Leeds, England
The following article is an expository study of the relationship between Christ and His forerunner, John the Baptist, with the devotional aim of helping believers today to appreciate John's godly character and the instructive differences between the four Gospel writers' presentation of John as he relates to his Lord and ours.
His Role in Relation to Christ
This was transitional and preparatory. John the Baptist's ministry came at the end of a period of about four hundred years' silence in God's dealings with His people Israel. No prophet had spoken since Malachi. This explains why the events of his ministry were regarded by the Jews as of such great importance. John was in fact the last Old Testament prophet, but he also introduced the new age of grace. He came at the beginning of the long transitional period between law and grace which lasted for most of the first century AD, until the canon of New Testament scripture was completed.
John the Baptist was in fact more than a prophet, being Christ's immediate forerunner and herald. He was the complete fulfilment of Malachi's prediction of 'my messenger' who would 'prepare the way' before the Lord Himself came as 'the messenger of the covenant', Mai.
1. He was the partial fulfilment of Malachi's prophecy of Elijah, Mai. 5-6, who was to turn Israel back in repentance to the Lord before His second coming in glory and judgement, in a manner similar to that of the Old Testament Elijah. In John 1. 21 John the Baptist himself denied that he was Elijah, but Christ, in Matthew 11. 14, indicated that there was a sense in which John fulfilled this prophecy. Probably, John would have fulfilled the prophecy if he had been accepted by Israel, but, since he had been rejected, the final fulfilment is still future, to be realized in the lives and ministry of the two witnesses of Revelation 11 during the great tribulation period.
His Links with Christ
These are to be found first of al! in birth and young manhood, as recorded in Luke chapters 1-3. The accounts of their births are interwoven in Luke 1. They were related on their mothers' sides. Their conceptions were both miraculous, although in quite different ways, since Mary was a virgin overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, whilst Elizabeth conceived in her old age by her husband Zachariah. Both are called 'great'. Hymns of praise were sung at the births of both. The development of both is spoken of in similar terms: compare Luke 1. 80 regarding John, with Luke 2. 40 regarding Christ.
Another link between John the Baptist and Christ is found in their prophetic ministry and message. Christ took up John's ministry where he left it, preaching repentance in view of the imminence of the kingdom of God.
A further link is in their divine authority. For when Christ was asked for His authority for cleansing the temple. He asked what was John the Baptist's authority, whether from heaven or from men. He clearly implied that the authority of both was from heaven, and therefore that both should have been accepted.
The final link between John and Christ is in their suffering, rejection, and death. In Matthew 17. 12 Christ says that the suffering of John foreshadows His own, 'Likewise shall also the Son of Man suffer of them'.
His Contrasts with Christ
This is to be found partly in his place in God's purposes. John belonged to the Old Testament economy of law, not to the age of grace. He was not in the kingdom of heaven and was only the friend of the Bridegroom, Christ, not the Bride of Christ, the New Testament church.
In his own person John himself acknowledged that he was inferior to Christ, John 1. 15, 'He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for He was before me'. This verse teaches the pre-existence of Christ in eternity as the Son of God and His pre-eminence over all other men, including John the Baptist, whom Christ Himself called the greatest born of women in the old economy. John felt it out of place that he should baptize Christ, since he knew that, whilst he himself was sinful, Christ was sinless. He also said that he was unworthy even to perform the slave's task of undoing Christ's shoes.
Further, in the manner of his life John contrasted sharply with Christ. John was ascetic from birth and a Nazarite, that is, one who vowed to abstain from legitimate pleasures and to avoid defilement as a sign of devotion to the Lord, Num. 6. His disciples fasted as a ritual sign of mourning for sin and because Christ had not yet come. By contrast, Christ ate and drank freely with tax-collectors and acknowledged sinners, and was very sociable, nor did His disciples fast. John's approach was suited to the severity of his message of repentance from sin, but when Christ, the Bridegroom, came it was time to rejoice and to enjoy God's gracious blessings to men.
Lastly, in the nature and significance of his baptism there is a clear contrast with the baptisms which Christ introduced. John's baptism in water signified only repentance from sin. Christ's baptisms, by contrast, were to be with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to form New Testament believers into one body, the church, and with fire in judgement in a day still future to us. Today, believers' baptism in water into the name of the Lord Jesus is also different from the baptism of John, signifying identification with Christ in His death, burial, resurrection, and newness of life.
His Parallels with Christ in the Four Gospels
Just as each of the Gospel records emphasizes a different aspect of Christ's Person and work, so each emphasizes a correspondingly different aspect of Christ's forerunner's person and work. The study of the different facets of John's character should prove helpful to ourselves as we, like him, relate to Christ.
In Matthew we see John as the King's herald exemplifying and vindicating God's righteousness. In two verses which are unique to Matthew's account of John's relationship to Christ, righteousness is stressed. First, at Christ's baptism by John in Matthew 3. 15, where Christ says to John, 'Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness'. Christ's baptism was a sign of His commitment to fulfil all Cod's righteousness, a fact which was essential in the life of the One who was destined to be God's King over the whole earth. Secondly, in interpreting His parable of the two sons in Matthew 21. 32, Christ says, 'For John came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed him not', referring to the rejection of John by the leaders of the Jewish nation, as opposed to his acceptance by acknowledged sinners. John had upheld before the whole nation the foundation of God's kingdom, namely, personal righteousness before God. He hated and rebuked the hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders, and this led to his imprisonment by Herod. The sovereignty of God is seen in the way in which John was allowed to suffer for righteousness' sake as soon as his work of introducing Christ was done. This is so with some of God's servants today. It is enough that we be as our Master.
In Mark we see John as the Perfect Servant's messenger fulfilling his task well. In Mark 1. 2 John is introduced at once as Christ's personal messenger to His people, and his effectiveness in service is stressed particularly in Mark's record of John's imprisonment and death in chapter 6. For although Mark's account is usually briefer than Matthew's, Mark's record of John's death is longer than Matthew's and stresses his effect upon Herod, his wicked and powerful captor, rather than the people. Mark 6. 20 says that 'Herod feared John , [Matthew says only that he feared the multitude], knowing that he was a just man and an holy, and observed him [kept him safe]; and when he heard him, he did many things [was much perplexed], and heard him gladly'. John's godly character was the reason for his effectiveness in service. It will be so with us.
In Luke we see John as a man of great character formed by God for a special purpose relating to Christ, the Perfect Man. The whole emphasis in Luke's account in his first chapter is on the preparation of John as a man of God destined for special service in relation to Christ. As in Old
Testament days, Cod chose, not a school of prophets for the task, but just one man to reveal His own power and greatness. He gave him godly parents in Zachariah and Elizabeth. The purpose for his short life was declared before his birth. Like Moses, David and Paul, John trained in the wilderness, where he could see and experience the effects of sin. There he had no natural resources to depend on, but God alone. He felt the hardship of the wilderness, and its obscurity cultivated his humility. Its loneliness would cause him to seek God's fellowship more than man's. Its silence would prepare him to listen to God's voice alone, rather than man's. His, like that of Christ, was a long preparation for a ministry of a comparatively short duration. Luke 3 relates his eventual call to public service to all the rulers of his time; so important was his ministry relative to Christ to prove. He had quite impartial exhortations to give to all the people who came to hear him, whether they were tax-collectors, soldiers, or Herod, who imprisoned him for nothing more than giving him a faithful message. How important for us to note the ways of God in preparing each one of us for our own particular ministries in this world.
In John we sec John as a witness to Christ as the Son of God marked by humility and commended for his faithfulness. The references to John the Baptist in John's Gospel chapters 1-10 trace the history of his graceful retirement from public prominence before Christ, his greater Successor. The apostle John's account of his namesake differs markedly from that of the other three Gospel writers in that it concentrates mainly on the period between the baptism of Christ by John and John's imprisonment For this period best shows John's voluntary submission to Christ and his humility. In John 1 he is seen pointing men away from himself to Christ, comparing himself unfavourably with Christ, and witnessing to both Christ's deity and sacrifice as the Lamb of God. In John 3 we find John and Christ working side by side, though in different places. John witnesses to Christ's greater Person. He delights to exalt Christ and says, 'He must increase, but I must decrease'. In John 4. 1 it is said that Christ baptized more than John; Christ is beginning to take over from John. In John 5. 32-36 Christ declares John's faithful testimony to Himself, but says that it is not indispensable. In John 10. 39-42 Christ finally completely supersedes John by going to the place where John had begun to baptize. There the people testified clearly to John's faithfulness as a witness to Christ by saying, 'John did no miracle but all things that John spake of this man were true'. In our witness to Christ we should manifest the same humility and faithfulness as John.
In conclusion, let us reflect upon the fact that we as New Testament believers in the age of grace and as part of the Bride of Christ, the church, are far more privileged than John the Baptist, but should nevertheless seek to emulate by the power of the Holy Spirit within us the same features of godliness that marked John's character as he exalted his Lord and ours.