The Gospel Preached by John the Baptist
Ian Jackson, Eastbourne, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
Preaching in the barren wilderness of Judea, away from the usual places where people were found, dressed in uncommon clothing of camel’s hair, with a leather girdle about his loins, and feasting only on locusts and wild honey; so came the greatest of all the prophets, Matt. 11. 11, to pave the way for the Messiah.
The focus of the preaching of John the Baptist, especially in the Synoptic Gospels, was on repentance. ‘In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, and saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’, Matt. 3. 1-2.1 All of this was in accordance with Isaiah’s prophecy: His paths being made straight, the mountains and hills being made low, the crooked being made straight, the rough places being made plain and the glory of the Lord being revealed, Isa. 40. 3-5.
In John’s Gospel one could almost be forgiven for thinking that it is another John of whom he writes, for the ministry is of such a different nature. John ‘came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe’, John 1. 7, and ‘John bare witness of him’, v. 15. Unbelief might point to this difference and claim that here is proof that the differences in the Gospels show that this is not God’s word at all; but it should always be remembered that the writers, by the Spirit, select material to suit their objectives.
It had in view the kingdom of heaven
The preaching of the Baptist, especially in Matthew, Mark, and Luke has in view the ‘kingdom of heaven’ and its establishment. In fact, the preaching of the Baptist, of the Lord and of His apostles while He was here on earth was, in this respect, identical.2 It is in John’s mouth that we first hear this phrase in the New Testament (it is only found in Matthew), although the fact of that kingdom is well established in the Old Testament. Daniel informs us in chapter 2 that the God of heaven shall set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed and, in chapter 7, that there is given to the Son of man universal and everlasting dominion. It is this very kingdom that John the Baptist came preaching; he knew of no other, and no separate definition of that kingdom is given for us to distinguish it from that of which Daniel speaks.
As the designated forerunner of the coming King and herald of the coming kingdom, John expected the imminent establishment in righteousness of the manifested kingdom of Christ here below. He did not seem to realize that though the King was about to be manifested, He would be rejected and that the kingdom of heaven would, therefore, take a twofold form. The kingdom as seen by Daniel, which was the expectation of every godly Jew, was to be postponed; the king, rejected here, would be received in heaven, leading to the introduction of the kingdom of heaven in mystery form as developed by the Lord in His teaching in Matthew chapter 13. This was not revealed in the Old Testament. The kingdom of heaven began, in fact, with Christ being exalted at the right hand of God and this New Testament view of that kingdom continues until He returns.
It is vital to see these different views of the kingdom in Matthew in order to reach a proper understanding of the whole concept of the rule of heaven on earth conveyed in the expression ‘the kingdom of heaven’. A study will reveal that in that Gospel the kingdom is seen in anticipation, ‘thy kingdom come’, 6. 10; in mystery form, ‘unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven’, 13. 11; and, ultimately, in manifestation, ‘then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven’, 24. 30.
Some, who perhaps deny any real distinction between Israel and the church and the differing ways God treats each of these entities, and in order to maintain that view, strongly deny the concept of the postponement of the kingdom. Of course, as far as God is concerned there is no postponement, for He knows the end from the beginning and has a purpose which will never change. But, from the standpoint of human responsibility, it is clear that if the King had been received by the nation the manifested kingdom would have been established there and then. It is equally clear that the mediatorial kingdom of Christ, as predicted many times in the Old Testament, was not set up on earth then. This can be seen in that we are still in the midst of a groaning creation, and we also groan; David’s throne is not yet set up in Zion; the epistles never once suggest that the eschatological kingdom is established; and the idea that the saints are now reigning with Christ in a present kingdom of God on earth is specifically refuted by the apostle Paul.3
The preaching of John anticipated, therefore, the setting up on earth of the kingdom of the Son of man and he would have been very well aware that this would be a reign of righteousness. ‘Behold, a king shall reign in righteousness’, Isa. 32. 1; ‘Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth’, Jer. 23. 5. It was vital for one who desired to enter that kingdom, to repent and to demonstrate it in changed behaviour, which is the fruit of repentance. To remain unrepentant would attract the wrath of God and bar entrance to the kingdom.
It involved repentance
Repentance is a thoroughgoing change of heart, mind, and purpose. It involves a change of disposition and direction. In repentance a person sees that he is wrong and that God is right. His previous self-centred lawlessness, in rebellion against God, is wrong, not because the actions arising from that disposition have caused heartache and pain, or brokenness of life, but because God is now seen to be right and holy. This, then, is more than regret or remorse which need not involve radical change. Repentance is observable in the fruit that it bears.
John was not shy about pointing this out to those who asked. Repentance produces practical righteousness. There will be interest in the well-being of others, for among the people clothing and food were to be shared with those who lack, Luke 3. 11. It will yield fairness in dealings with others, for the repentant publicans were told not to exact more than was due to them, v. 13. It will also mean that one will not harm another’s health or reputation by violence or false accusation, and it will make a person to be content, v. 14. Entrance into the kingdom is ethically, or morally, conditioned, and it is observable in the epistles that when Paul is speaking about the kingdom of God there is a moral dimension in the forefront of his mind.
There was a baptism connected with it
Connected with the change of internal disposition which repentance produces was the external symbol of it in baptism. John’s baptism is not, of course, Christian baptism. Christian baptism is not unto repentance but the symbolic witness of the believer’s death and resurrection with Christ. There is, however, this common theme: the old is passed and the new is embraced. It was the same with the children of Israel at the Red Sea, ‘all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea’, 1 Cor. 10. 1-2. Egypt was now behind them; the Lord Himself was before them.
While the people stood in Jordan to be baptized by John, they confessed their sins, which were to be abandoned and a new character of life embraced. John’s baptism very publicly identified the people with all that he had preached; those who were baptized not only repented of their sins but embraced the fact of the coming King and kingdom.
Today, as perhaps never before, we need to remember that there will always be evidence of true repentance in the life of the one who is truly repentant. Evidence of the fact that we have entered the strait gate is seen in that we walk the narrow way. If we are not walking in that way, we cannot expect others to think that there is reality in the profession of repentance we have made.
At the heart of it was a glorious person
The testimony to John the Baptist in the Fourth Gospel, by those who resorted unto him, was, ‘John did no miracle: but all things that John spoke of this man were true’, John 10. 41. This is surely something to be coveted for ourselves.
John, the greatest of the prophets, testified of Him as the coming King, the Lord, the Salvation of God, the Baptizer with the Holy Spirit and with fire, ‘one mightier than I’ who was ‘preferred before me’, the Light, the Lamb, the one on whom the Spirit descended, the Son of God. His ministry was full of Christ and in such a variety of ways. We do well to remember at all times that whether we are thinking of the kingdom in mystery or in manifestation, or the eternal day when it will be seen that sin has been borne away by the Lamb of God, or, if we are contemplating any aspect of Bible doctrine, Christ is all. The apostle Paul says of Him, ‘Whom we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus’, Col. 1. 28.
The messenger is only that. The message he bears is greater than he is, but greatest of all is the subject of the message. In a day of self-praise, self-assertion, self-worth and multiple other ‘self sins’ may we be helped to be as John was. In relation to Christ he was self-effacing, retiring, not vainglorious, being glad simply to point others to Him that He might be glorified, ‘The two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus’, John 1. 37.
- See also Mark 1. 4 and Luke 3. 3.
- See Matt. 3. 2; 4. 17; 10. 7.
- For further helpful reading see: A. J. McLain, The Greatness of the Kingdom, BMH Books, 1980.