R. S. Bowen, Staines, Middlesex
The importance of John the Baptist in the Bible record may be judged from the leading ideas we associate with him. His coming to Israel in the spirit and power of Elijah was foretold in the Old Testament (see Matt. 17. 10-13 and Mal. 4. 5-6); his birth was surrounded by heavenly activity and was of exceptional interest to those who knew and observed his parents; he was given the authority of a prophet; he heralded the coming of the Son of God; he was given the highest commendation of the Lord Jesus, Matt. 11. 7-15; his life and words were influential in pointing his own disciples to the Saviour, in striking at the consciences of wicked men and in inspiring love and loyalty, fear and respect; his influence reached over into the pioneering days of the early church missionaries. His impact was that of a great man who carried out his task devotedly even when he was bewildered by circumstances he did not understand and when his faithfulness was leading him to a cruel death because he would not cover up the sins of a ruler.
John is therefore a key man to the student of prophecy. He has links with the past in the prophets of old. He also has links with the future in the messenger who will yet come heralding the coming of the reigning Messiah, Mal. 3. 1. He is an equally important character to all in our day who would heed the voice of God. He was 'great'. The angel Gabriel said so before his birth, Luke 1.15, and the Saviour confirmed this late in his life, Luke 7. 28. He was humble. He said of the Lord 'He must increase, but I must decrease'. His courage, devotion, steadfastness and effectiveness with many other high qualities mark him out as a great man of God whom we should endeavour to understand and strive to follow.
Marks of his greatness are his self-control and discipline, Luke 1. 15, his influence on the lives of other people, Luke 1. 16-17, and the fact that he was God's instrument, 'He shall be filled with the Holy Ghost', Luke 1. 15. Just as had been the case before with Elijah and Elisha, David and Samuel, just as would be the experience a short time later of Peter and John and Paul, so God put His hand on John the Baptist that he might serve Him. From his early childhood to the end of his days, his whole life was devoted to the service of God. He consistently sought first to know and then to declare God's will. Thus in the broad pattern of his life we see him first in the desert and afterwards by the river amongst the people preaching and baptizing. The details of his life have a similar pattern. There was an occasion when his way was not clear. He sent from prison to enquire of the Lord 'Art thou he that should come? or look we for another?', Luke 7. 19. When his duty was clear to him, he spoke with conviction. To the barren Jews he said 'the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire'. To Herod he said 'It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's wife'. What features could commend themselves more to the servants of God today than these? - first, his search after the knowledge of God's will and then a fearless and selfless dedication to its accomplishment.
The ways in which God put his hand on this man's life appear to be threefold: He prepared him; He sent him; He made him effective.
God Prepared him
It is clear that God selects His servants carefully and prepares them in detail long before He requires them to take up their task. Like Paul, John the Baptist was a chosen vessel before his birth. The experience of his early life trained and prepared him for his future work.
The earliest influence was that of his parents. Many of the servants of God in the Scriptures are referred to in their relationship to their parents and forebears. God often reminded His servants of the good and evil which was in their fathers. John the Baptist was born into the home of Zecharias and Elizabeth by the over-ruling of God, and the influence of this home was to make its mark upon him. This childless but praying husband and wife were faithful and consistent before the Lord. Luke describes them as 'righteous . . . walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless', Luke 1. 6. Their disciplined activity, their modesty, piety and personal knowledge of the power of God all combined to contribute to the development of this servant of the Lord. If we seek to draw practical lessons from John the Baptist, here is food for thought, not only for sons that they might follow the good and reject the evil that is around them, but also for parents that in the homes of Christians God might be acknowledged in all things.
The wilderness with its solitude had also a part in John's preparation for service. Not only did its silence assist his thoughtfulness but its barrenness cried out to him. He saw it as he saw his own nation, now barren in its departure from the Lord. A zeal for his life-work was roused in him as he realized that it was in the wilderness that he had to make straight a path for our God.
The climax of his preparation is Luke 3. 1-2, 'The word of God came unto John'. This set him apart from rulers and religious leaders, as it was to John and not to Tiberius, Caesar or Pontius Pilate, Annas or Caiaphas that God made His Word known. The Word of God to John was a revelation of God's will. It was also a directive, sending him to the people. He could speak with authority, having knowledge of God's Word and the time was ripe for him to speak. The content and timing of his utterances were alike from God.
God Sent him
John 1. 6 The careful preparation of the servant of God was put to good use. God sent him to be His voice, His witness, His messenger and His prophet. The sequel to this is in the words 'John came'. These words are used in all four Gospels. They indicate his prompt obedience to the commands of God. His message was not a popular one. He had to speak of another kingdom at a time when an evil king was jealous for his throne. Despite this, the urgency of fulfilling the task given to him by God pressed upon him to such an extent that he spoke and acted with a total disregard for the unpopularity and danger.
God Made him Effective
This servant was proved by what he accomplished; the work of John the Baptist was not in vain. His influence was widespread. The people followed him to the wilderness, accepted his teachings and submitted to his baptism, Matt. 3. 5-6. He turned the hearts of many to the Lord their God, Luke 1. 16. Publicans and harlots believed him and went into the kingdom of God, Matt. 21. 31-32. He was subjected to numerous evil attacks but his effectiveness was undiminished. Through others, his influence spread widely. Andrew and John listened to him one day as he spoke of the Lamb of God. Through his words they followed Jesus. Later that day Andrew brought Peter to Jesus and from these early beginnings grew the band of faithful men and women who gave up all and followed Him. John's name appears throughout the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles where godly men looked back and remembered his words long after Herod had silenced his voice.
John lived and served God at a time of intrigue and abundant wickedness. His faithfulness and fearlessness were inspired by the hope of the coming Christ who would purge his nation of wickedness. In our day there is still intrigue and abundant wickedness. Men of stature and courage arc still required to serve in the Kingdom of God. If we are prepared to receive it, John, whose experience of Christ was not full, brings us the challenge of service for the 'One mightier than I'. His completed work, personal presence and coming glory are the inspiration of His servants today.