THE FIRST BAPTIST
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The author, Dr. S. E. Anderson, was baptized, ordained and college-trained by Tennessee Baptists. He served as pastor in Tennessee, Minnesota, Washington, Oregon and Illinois. During World War II, he served as an Army Chaplain in Europe.
Union University of Jackson, Tennessee granted the author the A. B. degree while the B. D. and Th. D. degrees were earned at the Northern Baptist Theological Seminary of Chicago.
From 1951 to 1963 Dr. Anderson served on the faculty of the Northern Baptist Seminary. From 1963 to 1970 he was on the faculty of Judson College of Elgin, Illinois. Since then he is devoting his time to writing.
Among other books written by Dr. Anderson—Every Pastor A Counselor, two editions, plus one in Portuguese; Nehemiah The Executive; Shepherds to 24,000,000 Service Men; Is Rome The True Church?; Our Dependable Bible; Your Baptism Is Important three editions, plus one in Spanish and one in Korean; The First Church two editions and the third in process; Baptists Unshackled—from Liberalism, Dispensationalism and Ecumenism. Now in process, “Armstrongism Analyzed” and “The First Communion.”
For three years in my under-graduate work at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, I reviewed the whole field of New Testament study, remembering that some day as I worked toward a Ph.D. degree, I would be asked to present a subject on which I would write a doctor’s thesis. After surveying the entire gamut of the almost limitless facets of the life and literature of the days of Christ and of the apostles, I chose for my subject the ministry of John the Baptist. Both in those days of intensive research and through these many years since, I have ever been grateful for the selection of the study. No greater contribution has ever been made to my own life and to my understanding of the Christian message than this intimate conversance with the work of the great Baptist.
To my amazement, I learned during those days of research that there are comparatively few books written on this man who was the second greatest born of woman. Why he has been overlooked is still a mystery to me. This is one reason for my great appreciation for Dr. Anderson’s choice material, upon learning of his intention to publish this volume on John. Having seen the manuscript and having followed the clear line of this discussion, I am doubly grateful. To all who would know more about Christ and to all who would follow in the sweet, humble spirit of John, the first baptizer, these pages will be an untold blessing.
The calling and the work of John the Baptist were from heaven. Explicitly and repeatedly, the Holy Scriptures present John as being personally a child born in the elective purpose of God and the words that he preached and the baptism that he instituted were no less the directives of Heaven.
There is no such thing as understanding the Christian ministry and the Christian message without first understanding the message and ministry of John. Through the eyes of Dr. Anderson and through his patient and careful research, we shall see this great preacher in all of his glory, in all of his meaning, and in all of his sweet humility as he prepared the way for our Lord.
Blessed are the eyes that look upon these pages; blessed are the teacher and the preacher who possess this volume. Above all, may God bless to the good of His children in the earth the incomparable example of the First Baptist who lives for no other purpose than to point men to Christ. May the Lord make like soul-winners of us all.
- A. Criswell, Pastor
First Baptist Church Dallas, Texas
Author: Do you think John the Baptist was the first Baptist?
Reader: What kind of Baptist do you mean? Southern? American? Conservative? General? What do you mean by Baptist?
A: I mean New Testament Baptist. Forget about twentieth century Baptists for now. Was John the first New Testament Baptist, or the first baptizer? If he was not the first Baptist, who was?
R: I have read that John copied previous proselyte baptism. If so, he was not the first to baptize.
A: But Jesus said, by implication, that John’s baptism was from heaven, even as His own authority came from heaven (Matthew:23-27). His critics could not say that John’s baptism was from men, or from a previous generation. Everything in this passage, as in Mark 11:27-33 and Luke 20:1-8, seems to say that John was the first baptizer, and therefore the first Baptist.
R: If so, what of it? Why bother about John the Baptist? Why not pay more attention to the Lord Jesus?
A: That is the point. Most people ignore what Christ said about John the Baptist. But Jesus praised John more than He praised any other person on earth. If we follow Christ, we will try to understand better what He said about John, why He commended him so highly, and what others say about John. If we become more like John we might have more of Christ’s approval.
R: Now I get your message!
The purpose of this book is not to boast about any Baptists. No effort is herein made to demonstrate a historical or chronological connection between contemporary Baptists and John. Rather, it is hoped to present a connection that is doctrinal, logical and Scriptural. Such a study should have lasting values.
Briefly the mission of this book is similar in purpose to the mission of John the Baptist. This book, we pray, will help—
- To prepare the “way of the Lord” (Luke 3:4).
- To make straight “a highway for our God” (Is. 40:3).
- To cause people to “behold the Lamb of God” (John 1:29).
- To make Christ manifest by explaining His baptism (John 1:31).
- To reveal the “glory of the Lord” (Is. 40:5).
- To restore the original meaning of “Baptist” (Luke 7:28-30).
- To win Christ’s approval (Matthew:11).
Too long has John the Baptist been hidden by the Pedobaptist, dispensational and interdenominational accumulations of doctrine, once cherished by this writer.
This book attempts to reclaim the entire New Testament as the birthright for every believer and the charter for every church.
The rich soil of the four Gospels, including John the Baptist, provides rich nourishment for all Christians. As the tap-root gives strength to a mighty oak, so the inspiration of the life of John the Baptist can invigorate every person who takes him seriously. Christ honored him; dare we do less?
Grateful thanks are due to several competent scholars who read the original manuscript. Most of their suggestions have been gladly used. Any remaining errors are the author’s. Thanks also are due to publishers for valuable quotations. May this volume make Christ better known and obeyed.
Stanley E. Anderson
CHAPTER 1—DIVINELY PRAISED
Jesus said, “There hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist.”
Superlatives are common and most of them are difficult to support with proof. But the Lord Jesus spoke here as always with the voice of divine authority. We have, then, a surprisingly challenging statement about a great man, made by One infinitely greater. For Jesus spoke in Matthew 11:11 with emphasis:
“Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
In seeking answers to certain live questions, the meaning of Christ’s lavish praise of John the Baptist may be discovered.
DID CHRIST CALL JOHN THE BAPTIST THE GREATEST MAN IN HISTORY ?
An angel of the Lord had announced to Zacharias, John’s aged father, that John was to be “great in the sight of the Lord” (Luke 1:15). Some men are great in their own eyes, some in the eyes of their contemporaries, but John was to be great in the sight of the Lord.
The Baptist was to be “filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15). Of whom else, in all sacred or secular literature, is such a statement made? This natal endowment, retained through life, would enrich his words and works with divine authority.
John was destined to turn many of his countrymen to accept the Lord as their God; he was to be “an horn of salvation”; and he would “give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins” (Luke 1:16, 69, 77).
This first New Testament man of distinction (a teetotaler!) was to have “the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17), who was an Old Testament prophet of great renown. For John was “to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just” (Luke 1:17).
John the Baptist was “sent from God” (John 1:6) to “make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17). This was a big order indeed. Among the multitudes whom John prepared for the Lord were the twelve disciples (Acts 1:22) and at least some of the “five hundred brethren” who saw the resurrected Lord Jesus (1 Cor. 15:6). That the total number was immense is indicated by the vast crowds who came to him, believed his message about Christ, and then were baptized by him (Matthew 3:5, 6). If Christian workers now had the spirit and power of John the Baptist, and if they used his techniques, they could also prepare multitudes for the Lord.
Among the many services John rendered to his Lord were these: “to make his paths straight” and the “rough ways” smooth (Luke 3:4, 5). Here was a man who made real the proverb, “But the path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day” (Prov. 4:18). For all those who followed John sincerely were led straight to the Lord Jesus Christ. (Here is ample reason for a book on John: to lead people to Christ). The forerunner thrust aside the rough ways of the legalistic Pharisees with their onerous demands. And to humble souls he heralded the good news that their long-awaited Messiah was at hand, bringing with Him divine salvation.
John had the unique honor of being the first to point out Christ as the Lamb of God and the Son of God, clothed with full deity (John 1:29, 34). He described Christ in words inspired by the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:16, 17).
Lasting honor belongs to John for his exalted privilege of having baptized his Lord (Matthew 3:13-17). This distinction is the more deserved because John felt unworthy to officiate at this divine service where, for the first time in recorded history, the Triune God appeared at the same time and place.
The humility of John, despite his high honors, is repeatedly stated in beautiful language. He said of Christ, “whose shoes I am not worthy to bear” (Matthew 3:11); “there cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose” (Mark 1:7); “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
John was not “a reed shaken with the wind” (Matthew 11:7f). He was more like a mighty oak. He was not “a man clothed in soft raiment”; instead, he wore camel’s hair clothing. Jesus said of him, “A prophet? yea, I say unto you, and much more than a prophet.”
The Baptist was faithful unto death. He could have been one of King Herod’s courtiers, “for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just man and an holy, and observed him; and when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly” (Mark 6:20). But John chose righteousness rather than fame. And because he preached Christian ethics fearlessly, without compromise or hedging, he became the victim of wicked Herodias’ murderous hatred (Mark 6:24-28).
John the Baptist resembled Christ, apparently more than any other man in history. He was taken for Christ, and Christ was taken for John. When Christ became widely known, and after John’s death, Herod thought that Christ was John risen from the dead (Matthew 14:1, 2). Still later, some said that Christ was John the Baptist (Matthew 16:14). This was superlative praise of John: some who knew both John and Jesus mistook one for the other. And those who thought that John had risen from the dead (no one had, before) thereby indicated how great they thought he was. The moral grandeur of the Baptist stands out all the more when it is recalled that “John did no miracle” (John 10:41), and that Jesus did many astounding miracles; yet John was, in the minds of many, equal to Christ.
The total number of verses in the Bible concerning John exceeds the total number of verses in each of the thirty-three shorter books. While this is not a criterion by itself, it is an indication that the Spirit of inspiration honored John.
Emphasizing His words Jesus said, “Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matthew 11:11). This leads to an important question –
WHO IS “LEAST” IN THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN?
We can safely rule out three classes of people whom Jesus did NOT mean by the word “least.”
The pathetic backsliders in various churches, though once regenerated, are assuredly not greater than John the Baptist! To say they are “positionally greater, not morally” (Scofield) is simply not true; instead, such a statement with its attempted explanation is distorted dispensationalism. (This is not rejecting the Bible’s dispensational divisions). The many verses cited above place John where Jesus placed him—greater positionally and morally than any of his predecessors.
This “least” person is not some future subject in the millennium about which we know very little. We do know more about the kingdom mentioned by Christ. John was IN it (Luke 16:16); he preached it and its King; his life and ministry overlapped the ministry of Christ; and he was always obedient to his King, hence he was a loyal subject of this kingdom. “Thy kingdom (Hebrew, malekuth) is an everlasting kingdom, and thy dominion endureth throughout all generations” (Psalm 145:13). More is told about this kingdom in Psalms 45:6; 103:19; 145:11, 12.
Nor could this “least” person be one of John’s contemporaries. Christ gave no comparable eulogy to anyone else, not even to His own mother. Nor could the great apostle Peter, important as he was, compare with John. And unlike Paul, the Baptist never was a persecutor, or a blasphemer (1 Tim. 1:13), as Saul of Tarsus was before his glorious conversion. This is not to say that he was perfect or sinless always, for “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
Lest someone cite John 14:12, “greater works than these shall he do” or John 16:12, 13, “he will guide you into all truth” as indicating greater stature than John’s, a quick comparison of John with anyone else in Christian history must give him priority. This must be clear in the light of the Greek usage of “least.”
“Least” (Greek, from mikros) can refer to time, or age, or date of appearance. Thus in Mark 15:40, “James the less” (mikrou) simply means James the younger.Sixteen times in the New Testament this word mikros and its cognate forms are used in reference to time. It is so used in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, in Genesis 25:23; Joshua 6:26 and Jeremiah 42:1. Then it could also well refer to Christ Himself in Matthew 11:11 and in Luke 7:28.
A similar apparent inconsistency is found in Luke 14:26, “If any man come to me, and hate not his father . . . he cannot be my disciple.” Does Jesus expect us to hate our parents? Of course not; He simply meant that we should love Him more than our parents.
If we allow “least” to mean “later” in Matthew 11:11, everything fits beautifully. For Christ DID come on the scene later than John. He was born six months later than His forerunner (Luke 1:36). John referred to Christ as “he that cometh after me” (Matthew 3:11); “one mightier than I cometh” (Luke 3:16); “He that comethafter me” (John 1:15); “He it is, who coming after me is preferred before me” (John 1:27); “After me cometh a man which is preferred before me” (John 1:30).
All the facts fit nicely in Matthew 11:11 when we allow “least” to mean “later” and thus declare Christ only to be greater than John. Chrysostom (ca. 347-407), Christian orator, Scriptural exegete, patriarch of Constantinople and church father, one of the four great doctors of the East, interpreted Matthew 11:11 “as an assertion of the Lord’s own superiority to John: `I that am less in age and in the opinion of the people, am greater than he in the kingdom of heaven.’ Jerome (ca. 347-420) of the western church, says this was a common interpretation in his day. Erasmus (ca. 1466-1536) approved it.”
- T. Robertson, in his lifetime perhaps the world’s greatest New Testament Greek scholar, wrote, “It is a supreme position that John occupied. He stood next to the Son of God Himself. That was honor beyond that received by Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, Socrates, Plato, Demosthenes, Alexander, Judas Maccabeus, Hillel or Shammai” (John the Loyal, p. 234). (In citing scholars on particular points, no one needs to assume that all other points are thereby endorsed in this book).
“The counsel of God,” Christ said in Luke 7:29, 30, was equivalent to, or similar in divine authority to, the baptism of John. This elevates the message and baptism of John to a high position indeed. Christ made that assertion only because John was filled with, and obeyed, the Holy Spirit Who inspired his words and work.
Incidentally, Christ Himself defined the person who is really least in the kingdom. “Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19). John the Baptist is among the great. But what of those who deny his baptism, and teach men so?
After all is said about the greatness of John, the best of all is that he pointed men to the Lord Jesus Christ. He prepared people for the Lord (So may we! We can do many things John did). He won them to belief in Christ and then he helped them to clinch their faith by means of public baptism. This leads to another interesting and provocative question.
DID JESUS CALL JOHN THE FIRST BAPTIST?
(Twentieth-century Baptists do not claim identity with John, as a rule. If they could, it would be a high honor indeed).
Jesus strongly implied that John was the first baptizer in Matthew 21:24-27; Mark 11:27-33 and Luke 20:1-8. “The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven, or of men?” If John had copied previous baptisms, as some scholars say he did, then the foes of Christ could easily have escaped their dilemma by saying, “of men.” But “they feared the people: for all men counted John, that he was a prophet indeed.” They all knew that John’s baptism was a new thing, never before seen. But if they admitted that it came from heaven, Christ would say, “Why then did ye not believe him?”
By implication, Jesus told those cavilers that His own authority was from the same source as John’s baptism—from heaven.
Therefore, John was the first baptizer; he was the first Baptist. (John 1:33, “He [God] that sent me to baptize.”) Since John was the first baptizer, and since his name was “Baptist,” he must have been the first Baptist.
If John was not the first Baptist, who was?
The Old Testament is silent about “proselyte baptism”; so also are the Apocrypha, Philo and Josephus. The Essenes’ dippings had no relation to John’s baptism. Albert Schweitzer wrote that no lustrations of comparative religion can explain the baptism of John (The Mysticism of Paul, p. 232). Rudolph Bultman: “No certain testimony to the practice of proselyte baptism is found before the end of the first century” (Theology of the New Testament, 40). A. H. Strong: “John’s baptism was essentially Christian baptism, although the full significance of it was not understood until after Jesus’ death and resurrection” (Systematic Theology, p. 932). Among other scholars who say John’s baptism was new and unique are C. A. Bernandi in Johannes der Taufer and die Urgemende; Markus Barth in Die Taufe—ein Sakrament?; Edward Irving in Works, II, p. 40; and pedobaptist scholars such as Whitby, Lightfoot, Scott, Henry, Adam, Clark, Wesley and Bloomfield.
No one was called “Baptist” before John, the son of Zacharias. The name “Baptist” is found fifteen times in the New Testament, not at all in the Old. First, it is in Matthew 3:1 where the Holy Spirit used it in speaking through Matthew. Then Christ used the name “Baptist” five times: Matthew 11:11, 12; 17:13; Luke 7:28, 33. Friends of the Baptist used it four times: Matthew 16:14; Mark 8:28; Luke 7:20; 9:19. Foes used the name five times: Matthew 14:2, 8; Mark 6:14, 24, 25. The American Standard Version uses “John the Baptizer” in Mark 6:14, 24. The meaning is the same.
“What was the origin of John’s baptism?” asks A. T. Robertson in John the Loyal (p. 79). “The very title `The Baptist’ argues the originality of John’s baptism in some sense.” Regarding the question asked of the Baptist in John 1:25, “Why baptizest thou then, if thou be not that Christ . . . ?” Robertson comments, “The point of the question is that the Messiah would cause no astonishment if he were to introduce a new rite like this. But if John is nobody in particular, why had he done it? The question argues the novelty of John’s baptism . . . Jesus clearly implies that John’s baptism had more than a mere human origin . . . It was, indeed, a new ordinance, equivalent to a vow, and especially different from the ceremonial washings with which the Jews were familiar.”
The Essenes, as is well known, had immersions of a sort. The Jews and others had also practiced ceremonial ablutions, bathings, washings and dippings in their religious rites. But these differed radically from the baptism of John. They did not point to Christ; they were not symbolic of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection as is clearly seen in Luke 12:50; Romans 6:3-5; Col. 2:12; 1 Peter 3:21; they did not signify the recipient’s death to the world of sin and new life in Christ (Rom. 6:6-13); they did not signify conversion, and they were not once-for-all vows of loyalty to Christ Who was to baptize His followers in the Holy Spirit.
Admittedly, John’s baptism may not have conveyed as much meaning to his converts as later New Testament baptisms did, when the work of Christ was better known and explained. Similarly, a convert at twelve years of age will probably understand less of baptism than a convert of twenty or thirty years of age. Yet the one baptism is as valid as the other. In each case the convert needs to continue learning more of the Gospel all his life.
That John the Baptist was the first Christian preacher is seen in that: he prepared the way for Christ; he made straight His paths; he pointed to Christ; he baptized Christ; he continued to magnify Christ; he used the same text as Christ and other New Testament preachers did; he taught and baptized the first Christians, and his ministry overlapped that of Christ. If John was not in the New Testament dispensation, as some say, then how could Christ have been in it “in the days of His flesh?”
The name “John” was divinely given before the birth of the Baptist (Luke 1:13, 60-66). The name “Baptist” was apparently given as well by divine direction. Since “all Scripture is inspired of God” (2 Tim. 3:16), we must accept Matthew 3:1 as also inspired. Then the name “Baptist” is a name of more than human origin.
Parenthetically, it is necessary here to state that no boast is made for a historical connection, or unbroken line of succession, between the first Baptist and those of the twentieth century. It seems needless to make any claim to apostolic succession in this regard, although some do so sincerely. More to be desired is a doctrinal, or spiritual, or logical, succession with this forerunner whom Christ endorsed. It is hoped that this study will be helpful in establishing spiritual kinship with the first preacher in the Christian era. No one should boast of his denominational name, except as that name may point to Christ in a significant way. “Our main cause for rejoicing is not so much in our name as it is in that we are following the example of such a great person” (W. E. Powell). And those who unite with Christ in commending John the Baptist should do so with His motive in mind: to commend and magnify the Gospel he preached so effectively. No one can share God’s glory; “my glory will I not give to another” (Isa. 42:8; 48:11). In this study of John it is hoped to add to the Lord’s glory by showing how faithful he was to the Gospel.
The next compelling question is—
DID JOHN BEGIN THE NEW TESTAMENT DISPENSATION?
The shortest Gospel, and some say the first one, begins with this meaningful statement, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). Then the next ten verses tell of the ministry of John the Baptist, including his baptism of the Lord Jesus. This seems to place John at the very beginning, and inside, the New Testament era.
But some will object. The beginning, they say, could not have been until Christ’s death on the cross, or His resurrection, or His ascension, or Pentecost.
When did the independence of the United States begin? Was it at the Boston Tea Party, December 16, 1773? or at the Battle of Lexington, April 19, 1775? or at the signing of the Declaration, July 4, 1776? or at the surrender of Cornwallis, October 19, 1781? or at the signing of the peace treaty, September 3, 1783? or when the last British regulars left America, November 25, 1783?
But, does it matter when the New Testament era begins? some will ask. It does. All Christians have a right to all of the four Gospels; they are all Christian from the beginning. A well known minister gave a series of “expository messages” on Matthew and said frequently, “Now this is not for you; it is for the Jews.” He suffered, and caused his hearers to suffer, from faulty dispensationalism. He relegated John the Baptist to the Jews, and deprived his great audiences of much of the Gospel. (When I asked him if he was not preaching “Bullingerism,” he denied it but he also ceased his former emphasis.) It is time that John is restored to his proper place as the first New Testament preacher.
“Once for all let us discard that theory which has contributed in so many ways to a misunderstanding of the origin of Christianity, namely, that John belonged to the old dispensation rather than the new” (Wm. Arnold Stevens, Addresses on the Gospel of St. John, p. 30). “If any one affirms that the baptism of John had the same force as the baptism of Christ, let him be anathema” (Council of Trent, Ibid., p. 38). This latter dictum of Rome is typical!
John the Baptist takes an early place in Matthew, right after the story of Christ’s nativity. After Luke’s brief prologue of four verses, the story of John begins. And the fourth Gospel introduces the Baptist in its sixth verse. This prominence and primacy is not accidental.
The Baptist preached the same good gospel as did later New Testament preachers. His converts were as surely saved as later believers. (Those few in Acts 19:1-7 were NOT John’s “converts”.) A careful reading of Luke 1:16, 17, 69, 77; Acts 10:37; 13:24 will indicate the genuineness of John’s gospel. The word for “preached” in Luke 3:18, used of John, in the Greek is euangelizeto, meaning evangelized, the word used ten times for preaching the gospel in Acts and eleven times in the Epistles.
When Peter first preached to the Gentiles, he indicated that the gospel began “after (Gk., meta, usually “with”) the baptism which John preached” (Acts 10:37). The word “after” here refers not to time, but to manner or content. Robertson: “The baptism of John is given as the terminus a quo.”
Paul’s first recorded sermon included a mention of the Baptist. “When John had first preached before his (Christ’s) coming the baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel” (Acts 13:24). In fact, the last mention of Paul in Acts (28:31) is remarkably similar to the preaching of John the Baptist. No Old Testament prophet can thus compare with the Baptist, certain critics notwithstanding.
A pivotal passage is Luke 16:16, “The law and the prophets were until (mechri) John: since that time the kingdom of God is preached (euangelizetai) and every man presseth into it.” John did NOT preach the Old Testament law and its ordinances. He DID preach the kingdom of God and Christ its King. Therefore, the new dispensation had to begin with the preaching of John, the first New Testament preacher of the gospel of Christ. This is important; it clarifies John’s position and Christ’s endorsement of him. It prevents the confusion of placing much of the New Testament back into the Old Testament.
- T. Robertson: “Mark is justified by the word of Jesus (Matthew 11:12f; Luke 16:16) in making John the beginning of the New Dispensation. The actual outward beginning was when John lifted up his voice in the wilderness. ‘Until John,’ Jesus said . . . Luke is fully conscious that the new era opens with John” (John the Loyal), 36). “The Christian movement began with John” (Ibid., p. 52). “John’s (ministry) was first and introduced a new age . . . It was not from the close of John’s ministry that Peter dates the new dispensation, but the beginning . . . It is a great thing to mark a new time. That John did” (Ibid., p. 286). “But with Paul, as with Peter, John is the man who introduced the new age. He first preached the baptism of repentance and it was just before the coming of Jesus” (Ibid., p. 288).
Dr. W. A. Criswell, long pastor of the great First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas, wrote in his Ph.D. thesis, “John the Baptist Movement in Its Relation to the Christian Movement” (Southern Baptist Seminary, Louisville, Ky., 1937), “The Christian movement began with John” (p. 24). “The Gospel of Jesus Christ began with the ministry of the Baptist” (p. 25, from Bruce, Expositor’s Greek Testament Vol. I, p. 341).
Dr. R. C. H. Lenski, a Lutheran: “John was in the kingdom, for faith admitted him to it as it did all other believers. The supposition that John belonged to the old covenant is contradicted by Jesus Himself Who described him as an object of Old Testament prophecy which ended with Malachi; Jesus thus combines John with Himself as opening the promised new covenant” (p. 414, The Interpretation of St. Luke’s Gospel. Used by permission of Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis, Minnesota, copyright owners by assignment from the Wartburg Press.)
George E. Hicks: “The text, John 1:29, alone transforms John from the last of the prophets into the first and premier evangelist of Christendom” (John the Baptist, The Neglected Prophet, p. 56).
Since John is in the New Testament, then all of us who believe in Christ since John’s time may claim for ourselves the Gospel truths he proclaimed so well. And since John’s ministry overlapped that of Christ and His apostles, then we can be very sure they were similar. But if John is forced back into the older dispensation, or to the so-called “bridge period,” then the door is open to all sorts of speculatings and compartmentalizing by ingenious dispensationalists. When Jesus equated the baptism of John with the “counsel of God” (Luke 7:30), He endorsed both for the entire New Testament dispensation. (Our chapter six has more on John’s New Testament gospel.)
John’s message, however, was not final or complete. This important fact must not be forgotten, lest the more complete message of Christ be slighted even a little. Strange as it may seem, there is even now in Bagdad a congregation of people who hold fierce loyalty to John the Baptist. In this connection, the earnest student may wish to study deeper into “The Baptist Movement” by investigating the Mandaeans, Clementina, Hemero-Baptists, Sabeans, Nazareans, Ginza and Disotheus.
The dozen or so disciples in Acts 19:1-7 who thought they had John’s baptism were far removed from John himself who DID preach the Holy Spirit, so they could not have heard John personally. They were hundreds of miles and about 25 years from the place and time of John’s preaching. All they had was a garbled gospel from some incompetent and ignorant follower of John. (Since many stumble on this passage, it must be treated again.)
Apollos was “mighty in the Scriptures” but it seemed that he knew “only the baptism of John” (Acts 18:25ff). Aquila and Priscilla “expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly.” They likely filled him in as to the later teachings of Christ, His resurrection and ascension, and other historical facts which had not then apparently traveled as far as to Alexandria. The case of Apollos shows the importance of an over-all view of the Bible, lest ignorance of one important doctrine should distort one’s theology. It is therefore important for Christians to know what the Bible says about John the Baptist. It is also important not to over-emphasize him. Let no one rob Christ of His primacy and glory. With this caution in mind, another big question challenges our thinking.
DID JOHN THE BAPTIST INITIATE ANY NEW TESTAMENT TEACHING?
Since John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit, his teaching must have been divinely authorized and inspired. This is substantiated by Christ Who validated John’s ministry. The same Holy Spirit Who filled Christ “without measure” also filled John. And because John was the first New Testament preacher, he should therefore be given some credit as the one who initiated many New Testament items of doctrine. These will be noted in detail later, in chapter six. The eighteen teachings first given by John may not be all he gave; many are unrecorded. “And many other things in his exhortation preached he unto the people” (Luke 3:18).
The texts used by John (Matthew 3:2) and Christ (Matthew 4:17) are identical in the Greek. And the kingdom John preached was the same as that declared by Paul to the end of his ministry (Acts 28:31). Of course Paul preached more than John did, according to the records, but he did not change any of John’s teachings. And John gave them first.
Among the values in studying John afresh is to catch his beautiful humility. He always magnified Christ, never himself. If all believers now would witness for Christ, point people to Christ, deny themselves in behalf of Christ, and stand boldly with Christ as John did, then more people would be added to the churches daily. May John the Baptist stimulate, encourage, incite and goad us on to effective witnessing for the Lord Jesus!
Dr. G. Campbell Morgan: “Nineteen centuries have gone since this rugged prophet (John the Baptist) heralded the coming of the King. The work of Jesus has proceeded in human history for nineteen centuries on exactly the lines he laid down” (The Gospel of Matthew, p. 24).
Dr. Carl H. Kraeling: “It should be evident from what we have seen of his life and preaching that John was not in any sense an imitator. Rather he was a spontaneous, forceful, original personality.” (John the Baptist, p. 109, Charles Scribner’s Sons, publishers.)
Yet John has been ignored and thereby downgraded by many theologians. Some would even deny that he was a Christian! Most of them say he was not a real part of the New Testament stream of Christian thought. Is this bias due to European prejudices against the Anabaptists of Reformation days? We shall explore that possibility.
In the meantime, what does the Bible say about John! The Old Testament prophecies about him may yield divine blue prints of the Baptist’s character and mission. And those prophetic outlines may serve to check the accuracy of the various interpretations of John’s life in the New Testament.
CHAPTER 2—CLEARLY PROPHESIED
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet . . .”
John the Baptist, among New Testament characters, is second only to Christ as to prominence in Old Testament prophecy. John was prefigured by Elijah, prophesied by Isaiah and promised by Malachi.
Jesus said about John, “And if ye will receive it, this is Elias [Elijah], which was for to come” (Matthew 11:14). The Holy Spirit said about John, “And he shall go before him [Christ] in the spirit and power of Elias” (Luke 1:17).
John was not actually Elijah, as he admitted to the committee of priests and Levites from Jerusalem (John 1:21). But the spirit and power of Elijah was so evident in John’s life that Christ said of him, “Elias is come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed. Likewise shall also the Son of Man suffer of them. Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist” (Matthew 17:12,13).
Elijah prefigured John the Baptist in several ways.
Elijah was “an hairy man, and girt with a girdle of leather about his loins” (2 Kings 1:8). John the Baptist was a Nazirite and his clothing was of camel’s hair, “and a leathern girdle about his loins” (Matthew 3:4; Mark 1:6).
Elijah had disciples, “sons of the prophets” (2 Kings 2:3-15), even as John had disciples (Luke 11:1; John 1:35).
Elijah preached to wicked King Ahab (1 Kings 17:1) even as the Baptist witnessed to wicked Herod (Mark 6:20).
Both Elijah and John were fed in the wilderness in the area of the Jordan River (1 Kings 17:3-6; Matthew 3:4, 5).
Elijah was recognized as an unusual man of God (1 Kings 17:24) even as John the Baptist of whom his foes testified, “all hold John as a prophet” (Matthew 21:26).
Elijah was an outstanding evangelist of the Old Testament. His clear challenge, “How long halt ye between two opinions?” (1 Kings 18:21), has been used effectively by hundreds of evangelists since his time. Likewise John the Baptist called for a life-changing conversion in his evangelistic preaching: “Repent ye; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2).
Elijah defeated 450 prophets of Baal. “And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, The Lord, he is the God; the Lord, he is the God” (1 Kings 18:39). The Baptist’s success was quite as spectacular, for vast crowds came to see and hear him, “And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins” (Matthew 3:6).
Elijah had enough courage to rebuke wicked King Ahab and his evil wife Jezebel (1 Kings 21:19, 23), even as John fearlessly told Herod that it was not lawful for him to have “his brother Philip’s wife” (Matthew 14:3, 4).
Elijah had his moment of depression and discouragement, under a juniper tree (1 Kings 19:1-4). John the Baptist, in a cruel prison, seemed to wonder about the Messianic program of Christ (Matthew 11:3). F. B. Meyer, in his John the Baptist (p. 112) wrote, “The Bible does not scruple to tell us of the failures of its noblest children: Abram, Elijah, Thomas.” (Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids.)
John the Baptist was clearly prophesied by Isaiah, 40:3-5. This prophecy is quoted by each of the four Gospels, and all but Mark name Isaiah as the source. These three witnesses, including John 12:37-44, should establish the unity of authorship of the book of Isaiah. (Some scholars argue that a second “Isaiah” wrote chapters 40 to 66, and still others suggest three “Isaiahs.”)
“The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness” (Is. 40:3). This begins the new note of comfort, as in verse one: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.” When John the Baptist began to preach, Israel had “received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Is. 40:2), and for that reason many of John’s hearers were ready for the consolation he brought.
Looking closely at this prophecy, and its fulfillment, it should be noticed that John was a voice; he was not a mere echo. He was not a book-review preacher with only a hearsay acquaintance with God; he spoke with authority because he knew God and His Word intimately. His preaching was not mere oratory; it was a vital message from the Lord. He did not depend on earthly wisdom which may or may not have been good; he had a direct revelation from heaven (Luke 7:29, 30). He voiced the precious Word of God.
Arthur W. Pink, in his Exposition of the Gospel of John (p. 54, used by permission of the Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan), says, “In the first place, the word exists (in the mind) before the voice articulates it.” So Christ had existed long before “the voice” spoke of Him. “Second, the voice is simply the vehicle or medium by which the word is made known.” So John came to bear witness to “the Word.” “Again, the voice is simply heard but not seen. John was not seeking to display himself. His work was to get men to listen to his God-given message in order that they might behold the Lamb . . . Finally, we may add, that the word endures after the voice is silent.”
In the wilderness—what a place to begin preaching!
He did not preach in the Jews’ Temple at Jerusalem, or in their synagogues, or in crowded market places. He preached in sparsely populated areas; then only those really concerned would go to hear him. Real effort, time and expense, would be needed to see and hear this strange speaker. As usual, curiosity drew crowds and in this case the people were not disappointed. They heard a real prophet, the first since Malachi, after four hundred silent years.
“Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” was his mission and message. John did prepare the way for the ministry of the Messiah. If he had not done his work well as an advance agent, then Christ would not likely have had as long an unhindered ministry as He did have. But John won a multitude of people to be on Christ’s side, and this caused the murderous foes of Christ to hesitate. On one occasion they said, “Not on the feast day, lest there be an uproar among the people” (Matthew 26:5).
John prepared the way of the Lord by preaching Christian doctrines, Christian ethics and Christ-like righteousness. He declared the deity of Christ so well that those who believed him followed Christ unquestioningly (John 1:35-49). The Baptist’s announcements of Christ were so credible that “many resorted unto him [Christ] , and said, John did no miracle: but all things that John spake of this man were true” (John 10:41). Twentieth century pastors may do likewise, but their lives and words must ring true. Parents of growing children must live so well; they must walk such a straight path, and their conversation must point to Christ so consistently that when their children follow their example, they will go directly to Christ. When this occurs—and it does in countless churches and happy homes— then pastors and parents may say with the Apostle John, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth” (3 John 4).
“Make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Is. 40:3, l.c.). John the Baptist blazed a trail in the world’s wilderness of religions that still remains as the straightest ever made by mortal man. This superb highway-builder prepared the way which leads straight to God and heaven. Then when Christ came to do His earthly work, He walked that very same road, leading His followers to salvation and to the Father’s house with its many mansions. Fortunate are all those now who have living examples to follow, whose paths are so plain and straight that no one needs to err by following them.
The aged mother of President Harry S. Truman, understandably proud of her son, commended him by saying, “No one could plow a straighter furrow than Harry.” She referred to his ability with a team of horses and a plow; how much greater is it to walk the straight and narrow path of righteousness.
Not only did the Baptist make a straight highway for his Lord; he also set an example for every preacher to follow. This text in Isaiah is also a ‘command to every Christian. Obedience to it is obligatory; it is not optional. Dr. C. W. Koller tells of a certain father who failed in this, and then had the agonizing experience of losing his grown son. At the graveside he kept repeating with hot tears, “He never heard his daddy pray. He never heard his daddy pray.”
This fertile text in Isaiah says more. It declares, with the references in the Gospels, the deity of Christ. “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” The text refers to Christ. He is our God and Savior, all the blatant false “witnesses” in the world notwithstanding.
“Every valley shall be exalted” (Is. 40:4). Oriental custom demanded elaborate preparations for the coming of a king to visit a city. Smooth and level roads had to be built for the comfort of the royal equipage. The host province or city spared neither money nor manpower to make a good impression upon the visiting monarch. That is the picture which Isaiah gives concerning the work of the forerunner of the Lord Jesus Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords.
Modern road building is a multi-billion dollar enterprise. The famous autobahns of Germany, devised by Hitler for military efficiency, are being copied by many nations at fabulous expense. These superhighways are always nearly level, with valleys filled and hills bisected, just as Isaiah described them hundreds of years ago. Surely these great freeways carry moral lessons! Those that John built are freighted with eternal truth.
The “valleys” which are exalted may refer to the poor and the meek, those who are ignored or slighted by the world’s high and mighty. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven . . . Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:3, 5). Concern for the poor is a hallmark of Christianity. When John the Baptist was in prison and needed encouragement, Jesus referred to His miracles of healing and then added, “the poor have the gospel preached to them” (Matthew 11:5).
The Magnificat of Mary spoke the same word beautifully. “He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away” (Luke 1:52, 53). Gentle Mary’s lovely voice harmonized perfectly with the stentorian tones of the rugged Baptist. The same Spirit can bring music to all men of good will.
When Christ selected twelve men for special training He did not call the prominent Sadducees or Pharisees or Scribes; instead He chose fishermen and a tax collector. Not one of the Twelve is known to have been a schoolman. Peter and John were “uneducated, common men” (RSV of Acts 4:13), yet they were effective after their training by Christ and infilling by the Holy Spirit. And Paul, known to have been well educated, wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:26-29, “Not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called . . . But God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty . . . That no flesh should glory in his presence.” Notice that Paul said “not many”; he did not say “not any.”
“Every mountain and hill shall be made low” (Is. 40:3). This may refer to the proud, haughty and hypocritical people whom Christ exposed so thoroughly in Matthew 23 and elsewhere. It could refer to religious Pharisees in every age. But let every man examine himself to see if pride has infected him. “Search me, O God . . . and see if there be any wicked way in me” (Ps. 139:23, 24).
With caution one may consider the eagerness of ambitious students and their equally ambitious professors who seem to be enamored and captivated by critics who have a reputation for much learning. How fascinated they are by that magic word “scholarship!” To be considered scholarly is their most cherished dream; to be called unscholarly the greatest insult. Some would give their right arms, and some have risked their eternal souls, for this will-o’-the-wisp. Stranger still, it seems that these status-seekers orbit around critics of the Bible more readily than around those who believe it to be true. “A little learning is a dangerous thing,” especially to those who equate scholarship with skepticism. To those tempted to underrate divine revelation in favor of modern rationalism, let them recall that Eve fell for Satan’s bait when she saw that it was “to be desired to make one wise” (Gen. 3:6).
Dr. T. A. Patterson wrote in the Baptist Standard (May 16, 1962), “It happens today that there are men who are infatuated with the writings of some German theologians whose views in some instances cannot be reconciled with the Scriptures. Would that they might get excited about the theology of the New Testament! This might happen too if the theologians were to read in the luminescence of the New Testament’s simple language rather than the New Testament’s being read in the phosphorescent glow of high-sounding theological opinion. It may be permissible, even wise, for students to become acquainted with the thinking of such men as Bultman, Tillich, Niebuhr, Barth and Brunner; but the message for the world must be, `Thus saith the Lord.’ ”
“And the crooked shall be made straight” is the next part of the prophecy concerning John the Baptist. Crooks, like the poor, are ever with us. Zacchaeus was likely a dishonest tax collector until his sudden conversion (Luke 19:1-10). He was quick to straighten out all his extortionate deals. Matthew may also have been a grafter before his conversion. He had been won to the Lord by John the Baptist who also baptized him. (Acts 1:21, 22 indicates that the twelve apostles, plus others, had been with the Lord Jesus, “beginning from the baptism of John.” This will be noted more fully later, but it is important to remember that the Baptist DID prepare the Twelve for his Lord.) When Jesus called Matthew he had become an honest publican, sitting at the receipt of custom, being fair with both Romans and Jews (Matthew 9:9). His previous conversion enabled him to follow Christ immediately. “And he left all, rose up, and followed him” (Luke 5:28). He must have “left all” in the hands of an assistant whom he had trained, and whom he had warned that such a call might occur at any time. This supposition accounts for all the facts involved. Then Matthew made “a great feast in his own house” and invited many publicans to hear Jesus. Inviting the unsaved to a meal, with a planned conversation about Christ, is still one of the most effective methods ever used to win people to the Lord.
“And the rough places plain” (Is. 40:3, i.e.). Luke translates this, “the rough ways shall be made smooth” (Luke 3:5). Our street and highway maintenance crews have plenty of work to do in order to provide smooth motoring. In the religious realm, we have carpeted floors in our churches, airfoam cushions in the pews, air-conditioned sanctuaries with soft and indirect lighting, meticulously trained ushers, choirs and preachers—all for comfort. More to the point, the Gospel of John and of Christ takes the roughness out of sorrows, sickness, death, trials and temptations.
What follows all this elaborate preparation described by Isaiah? He tells us in the following verse. “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.” Luke says, “And all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6). Whenever the Holy Spirit directs the sermons, as He did in the Baptist’s preaching, then the glory of the Lord will be revealed. But no man can exalt himself and the Lord at the same time. If a preacher is out to make a reputation for wisdom, eloquence or popularity, the Lord will suffer correspondingly. A self-seeking minister is not a soul winner. On the other hand, one who honors God will himself be honored. “Them that honor me I will honor,” said the Lord in 1 Samuel 2:30. And David spoke wisely in Psalm 34:2, “My soul shall make her boast in the Lord: the humble shall hear thereof, and be glad.”
“All flesh shall see it together,” wrote Isaiah, long before television showed hundreds of converts responding to Graham’s invitations, seen around the world. And the Word of God, at least in part, may now be read by people of over fourteen hundred different languages and dialects.
Surely, “prophecy is the mould of history.” Thanks to Isaiah for this prophetic preview of the first New Testament Christian.
The majestic message of Malachi, the last Old Testament prophet, foretells John the Baptist and makes mention of his mission. “Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts” (Mal. 3:1). The first two clauses of this verse are quoted of John the Baptist (Matthew 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 7:27). Thus Malachi reinforces the prophecy of Isaiah. And John was content to be a messenger for his Lord.
The Old Testament closes with a. prophecy foretelling John the Baptist, corroborated by Luke 1:17. “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse” (Mal. 4:5, 6).
This suggests a great improvement in home life. America’s divorce rate, its unhappy homes, its juvenile delinquents, and its terrible crime rate, all these cry out for the prescription written by Malachi and filled by John the Baptist. For true Christianity means happy homes, filled with mutual love.
In Genesis 37, Joseph’s older brothers were very cruel to him; they would have killed him except for Reuben’s intercession. Later, after they had little children of their own, they had become “true men”: their own children had softened their hearts. So when God wanted to turn the hearts of fathers, He sent His Son as a little infant to Israel. But even before the Christ child came to Bethlehem, the Lord sent the baby John, born of Zacharias and Elizabeth. “And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth” (Luke 1:14).
“The Luck of Roaring Camp,” a western frontier story told by Bret Harte, supports the fact that hard hearts are melted by a helpless infant. A baby was born of a woman (Cherokee Sal) who died in childbirth, while in a rough mining camp. The men appointed one of their number to care for him, and all were solicitous of his welfare. These rough men, to whom fights and duels to the death were commonplace, were now united in loving a little baby boy. This trait of human nature explains the magic of Mary’s firstborn. Who but a Herod, a Hitler or an Eichmann can resist a baby’s sweet smile? “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given” (Is. 9:6).
Before this Child was born, before the Son of God was given to the world at Bethlehem, another child was born. An angel of the Lord told his father, “thou shalt call his name John” (Luke 1:13). This child of prophecy, with even his name foretold, was pre-natal rich with promise. At his birth people said of him, “What manner of child shall this be!” (Luke 1:66).
CHAPTER 3—RICHLY ENDOWED
“And he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost”
Who except Christ in all history had as great a spiritual endowment, before his birth and during his childhood, as John the Baptist?
JOHN THE BAPTIST WAS FILLED WITH THE HOLY SPIRIT.
Other men and women have been filled with the Spirit of God—their most precious experience—but John was so filled “even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15). Perhaps the nearest parallel to this in the Bible is the case of Jeremiah to whom the Lord said, “Before I, formed thee in the belly I knew thee, and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations” (Jer. 1:5). The Baptist’s endowment is more specific.
When Mary, the blessed mother of Jesus, was told about her priceless and unique privilege of giving human birth to the divine Son of God, she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth, then six months expectant (Luke 1:35-40). But let Luke tell the beautiful story. “And it came to pass, that, when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost: And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy” (Luke 1:41-44).
Here is a mystery. The unborn baby, who was to be John the Baptist, responded to the voice of the mother of the unborn baby Jesus! Who can understand this? We can only wonder and worship with awe, reverence, adoration and with a doxology!
Admitting that the births of John and Jesus were not typical of ordinary births, certain questions will yet arise. Is the Traducian theory true—that the soul, as well as the body, comes from the parents? Or is the Creationist theory better—that God creates a new soul for each body? Lutherans hold to the former view; Roman Catholics and most Reformed theologians hold to the latter. Dr. A. H. Strong, a Baptist, supported Traducianism.
Much more definitely, this account in Luke throws a merciless light on the bad ethics of abortion. For life begins, not simply at birth, but before. Just when it begins is not quite clear.
“Now Elizabeth’s full time came that she should be delivered; and she brought forth a son . . . and on the eighth day . . . his mother answered and said, Not so; but he shall be called John” (Luke 1:57-60ff). Then Zacharias “wrote, saying, His name is John. And they marveled all . . . And fear came on all that dwelt round about them: and all these sayings were noised abroad throughout all the hill country of Judea. And all they that heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, What manner of child shall this be? And the hand of the Lord was with him.”
Since the hand of the Lord was with John, his future was assured. And it is safe to assume that a great many people who lived thirty years later were watching John’s life with great expectation. This should partially account for his wide hearing within a short span of a few months.
“And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel” (Luke 1:80). All this time the Holy Spirit filled him with His ninefold fruit: “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance” (Gal. 5:22, 23).
Luke, the beloved physician and accurate historian, had done careful research into the story of John’s birth. It seems likely that he had interviewed Mary for much of these data. Robertson says (John the Loyal; p. 2), “It is worth noting also that the story of the Baptist’s miraculous birth comes immediately after the classic introduction (Luke 1:1-4), in which he has stated his painstaking thoroughness in the examination and use of his sources of information.”
ZACHARIAS, JOHN’S FATHER, WAS “FILLED WITH THE HOLY GHOST” (LUKE 1:67).
He was “righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless” (Luke 1:6). The Lord looks upon the heart, not merely on one’s outward appearance. Here was a really good man, living in a troubled time when goodness was not common. Another good man at this time was Simeon who was “just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25). Thank God for good men and women. The cynics are wrong when they say, “Everybody has his price.” The “Untouchables” may be few but they do give us good reason to be hopeful and courageous.
Zacharias was a conscientious priest. When he “executed the priest’s office” —perhaps the only time his turn came in his long life—a “whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense” (Luke 1:5-10). This mention of a multitude may have indicated their trust in his character.
“And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord” (vs. 11f). This angel identified himself as Gabriel, one of the two named angels in the Bible, the other one being Michael (Dan. 8:16; 10:13; Jude 9; Rev. 12:7). Here was the first word from an angel since Zechariah 12:8, about 487 B.C. And it was the first word from an inspired source since Malachi, about 397 B.C. Little wonder that Zacharias “was troubled, and fear fell on him.”
Zacharias had been a praying man. “Thy prayer is (was) heard,” the angel said. Devout Jews for centuries had prayed—many still do—that they might have Messiah born into their homes. Jewish couples considered it a calamity to be childless. As with Abraham and Sarah who waited long years for a child, so Zacharias and Elizabeth waited and prayed until they were rewarded.
This promise of a son to an aged couple seemed too good to be true. After all, miracles do not happen frequently, and still more seldom do angels come with such an announcement.
Who are we to blame this dear old man for expressing doubt? If he had been quick witted he could have thought more about the angel and less about his own weakness. If this was his fault, it is a common one. Peter could walk on, the water with his eyes fixed on the Lord, but when he looked at the water and thought of himself he began to sink.
Gabriel answered Zacharias’ doubt by saying, “thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season” (Luke 1:20). This dumbness was less a punishment than it was a continuing evidence of the truth of divine revelation. It was a nine-month reminder to Zacharias and Elizabeth and to their friends that God had spoken. As a consequence, the birth of the promised child would be a suspenseful event.
When the mute Zacharias emerged from the temple the people “perceived that he had seen a vision” (Luke 1:22). Do our pastors and evangelists tarry long enough in the Holy Place of Prayer to give evidence that they have seen a vision from the Lord? The Sanhedrin, hounding Peter and John, “marveled, and they took knowledge of them, that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). “Oh, for a closer walk with God, a calm and heavenly frame, A light to shine upon the road that leads us to the Lamb” (Cowper).
The first use of speech by Zacharias, after John was born, was to praise God. How typical of him! For he had been obedient to the angel who had commanded him to name his baby “John” (Luke 1:13, 63, 64).
“The name John (Jehovah graciously gave) had become common, since the time of the popular ruler John Hyrcanus (died B.C. 106); thirteen persons of that name are mentioned in Josephus; and in the New Testament, besides the Baptist and the Evangelist we meet with John Mark (Acts 12:12) and John of the high priestly family (Acts 4:6)” (Broadus, p. 32, Commentary on Matthew).
Since Bible names have meanings, it is well to quote F. B. Meyer (John the Baptist; p. 21) here. “Zacharias meant ‘God’s remembrance’ as though he were to be a perpetual reminder to his fellows of what God has promised, and to God of what they were expecting from his hand. Elizabeth means ‘God’s oath,’ as though her people were perpetually appealing to those covenant promises in which, since He could swear by no greater, God had sworn by Himself, that He would never leave nor forsake, and that when the sceptre departed from Judah and the law-giver from between his feet, Shiloh should come.” Shiloh, in Genesis 49:10, is one of the glorious names of the Messiah, Christ Jesus, who alone can bring peace on earth.
The “Benedictus” is one of the precious Christian hymns preserved for us by Luke, 1:68-79. In this prophecy inspired by the Holy Spirit (v. 67), Zacharias speaks of redemption for his people, salvation in the house of David, the fulfillment of ancient prophecies, political freedom to come, the holy covenant remembered, the oath to Abraham verified, holiness and righteousness anticipated, the ministry of his son to “go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; to give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins”; and to give light and peace.
With such a saintly father, John was indeed richly endowed.
ELIZABETH, JOHN’S MOTHER, “WAS FILLED WITH THE HOLY GHOST” (LUKE 1:41).
She, too, was “righteous before God” and therefore she must have seemed exceptionally righteous before men. As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he. And if God who looks into the heart sees righteousness there, then that person is blessed indeed.
Elizabeth had likely been a woman of prayer all her long life. Like Hannah, the mother of Samuel (1 Sam. 1:10-28), she had likely prayed for a son ever since her marriage. Then when her prayers were about to be answered she gave praise to God, saying, “Thus hath the Lord dealt with me in the days wherein he looked on me, to take away my reproach among men” (Luke 1:25). This birth of a child to aged parents was clearly recognized as a miracle, but “with God nothing shall be impossible” (Luke 1:37).
Elizabeth was completely submissive to God. She has the honor of being the first person to recognize the coming Lord Jesus, and that three months before His birth (Luke 1:42-45)! How different were the chief priests, supposedly trained in Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah, who would not recognize the Christ even after knowing of His mighty miracles. And what about religious functionaries now in high places, the professionals who make a good living at the expense of churches, who yet question the deity of Christ? Some actually doubt His physical resurrection, His second coming, and His promises of heaven. The increasing evidences of Biblical archaeology seem not to affect their unbelief. The still greater evidence of genuine conversions, whether in mass meetings or in humble churches, leave these doubters cold in their prideful intellectualism. In the meantime, humble believers rejoice in the Lord’s continued working.
Elizabeth and Mary had a good visit, those wonderful three months (Luke 1:56). We do not know much of what they discussed, but we can speculate that Elizabeth would later tell her son John much of their conversation, and that Mary would likely tell her son Jesus about this memorable meeting.
A slight digression about Mary should be permitted here. She deserves more honor and love than most Protestants give to her, even though she is not mentioned in the Bible after Acts 1:14 where she is praying on an equal basis with other believers. Peter, in his sermons and letters, did not mention her. Paul did not name her, nor did James, Jude and John in their epistles. Elizabeth said she was blessed “among women,” but not above women. Yet she was highly honored to be the mother of our Lord. Thank God for Mary, the pure, lovely, obedient, wise, tender, trustworthy Galilean virgin who bore the child Jesus, her firstborn. How her heart must have been troubled by the unbelief of her younger sons (John 7:3-5; Matthew 12:46-50). And still later, when she saw her beloved Son on the cruel cross, her heart was pierced with the keenest sorrow ever experienced by mankind. Perhaps, if she knew how wrongly she is now regarded by millions in Christendom who place her between themselves and Christ, she would suffer still more.
Elizabeth was a humble woman. Though much older than Mary, she said, “And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:34). This remark was more in honor to Mary’s Son than to Mary herself. Certainly Mary would shudder to think that she might displace her Lord in anyone’s affections, or prayers, or hopes of salvation.
Finally, Elizabeth was not disobedient to the heavenly vision. She knew that her son was to be called “John” and she held to it. In spite of the arguments of her relatives and neighbors who came to rejoice with her, and who tried to name the boy after his father Zacharias, Elizabeth answered and said, “Not so; but he shall be called John” (Luke 1:58-60). The Lord could trust a woman like that.
A good mother is a priceless endowment for any child. Abraham Lincoln said, “All that I am, or ever hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.” He did not have her long. How long John had his aged parents we do not know, perhaps twenty years or less. But they poured their spiritually rich lives into their son, every minute they lived.
JOHN WAS TO DRINK NEITHER WINE NOR STRONG DRINK (LUKE 1:15)
This prohibition, in a land and time where wine was common, indicated that John was to be a Nazirite. Except for Paul briefly (Acts 18:18; 21:24), John was the only Nazirite mentioned in the New Testament. Samson and Samuel were lifelong Nazirites in the Old. The Nazirite’s hair was not to be cut, indicating separation (Hebrew, Nazir, means separate).
With a Nazirite’s standard of holiness and devotion to God, and with both parents filled with the Holy Spirit, John’s home would be ideal. The age of his parents would indicate some measure of wisdom beyond that of young and immature parents. This home would be aseptically clean, morally. The Holy Spirit had full control of each member of the household. Conversation would be often on the Sacred Scriptures. The Old Testament plan for home life would be followed as the recipe for domestic happiness. Among other places, it is found in Deuteronomy 11:19-21.
“And ye shall teach them [God’s Word] your children, speaking of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt write them upon the door posts of thine house, and upon thy gates: That your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children, in the land which the Lord swore unto your fathers to give them, as the days of heaven upon the earth.”
Then “heaven on earth” IS possible. John’s home had it. Jesus’ home had it. Other homes where heaven’s plan is followed may also have it. In such a home the young child John grew, and became strong in spirit. The training he received for his great life’s ministry would be the best.
CHAPTER 4—THOROUGHLY PREPARED
“And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his shewing unto Israel”
This last verse of the New Testament’s longest chapter is strikingly similar to a verse about Jesus’ childhood: “And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him” (Luke 2:40). As is proper, more is said about Jesus than about John. The story of Jesus at the age of twelve, in the Temple, has no parallel with John.
But how did the child John grow, and how did he become strong in spirit, and who were his teachers, and what did he study all these years? He must have grown physically as a normal child would. The food in his home would likely be the best obtainable. Emil Schurer, in his great History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, II, 1, page 230, wrote—
“The emoluments which the priests received from the people for their subsistence were, down to the time of the exile, of a very modest and rather precarious kind. But subsequent to this latter period they were augmented almost beyond measure. This fact enables us to see, in a peculiarly striking manner, what a vast increase of power and influence the priesthood had acquired.”
The child John became strong in spirit because he was continuously filled with the Holy Spirit. Moreover, his parents were both filled with the Spirit, and they poured their very best into their own child. And over this holy household the Heavenly Father was keeping watch, preparing John for his unique mission.
WHO WERE THE FIRST TEACHERS OF JOHN THE BAPTIST?
“The first education was necessarily the mother’s,” wrote Alfred Edersheim in The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Volume 1, page 288ff. Thus the young child (Greek, brephous, baby) Timothy had “known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15). This “unfeigned faith,” Paul told Timothy, “dwelt first in thy grandmother Lois, and thy mother Eunice” (2 Tim. 1:5).
“It was, indeed, no idle boast that the Jews ‘were from their swaddling-clothes . . . trained to recognize God as their Father, and as Maker of the world:’ that, having been taught the knowledge (of the laws) from earliest youth, they bore in their souls the image of the commandments,” wrote Edersheim, quoting Philo and Josephus.
When John was able to speak, instruction in the Old Testament began, with memorizing of verses. His special “birthday text” would be one, according to Jewish custom at that time, which had at the beginning or ending the same letters as those in his name. The earliest hymns taught would be the Psalms. At the age of four, Zacharias would take the chief responsibility of teaching his son the Torah (Pentateuch). Formal schooling began at five or six, where the Bible only was taught until the age of ten. The first book taught at this time was Leviticus. Then at ten, the Mishna or traditional law was taught; at thirteen, the commandments; at fifteen, the Talmud with its theological discussions.
John’s home likely had the entire Old Testament of thirty-nine books, but numbered twenty-two in the Hebrew system due to certain combinations of books. These books were in scrolls, written with the square Hebrew characters, and without vowel pointings. Much emphasis was placed on memory training of the child, since he could not depend on quick access to a convenient small volume such as modern printing skills give us in the twentieth century.
Zacharias, almost certainly, devoted most of his time to his young son. He would major on the teaching of the Old Testament, especially those portions which dealt with the promised Messiah. For Zacharias would be sure to tell John all that Gabriel had revealed, that his chief work was to prepare people for the Lord. Much time would be spent in prayer, when the Holy Spirit would teach directly the precise meanings of the sacred Scriptures. Many preachers can testify that their best sermon material comes in times of concentrated prayer.
John’s aged parents knew they would not likely live to see their son begin his public ministry. This was their sorrow, if they had any; for parents love above all else to see their sons and daughters useful in good work. But since they would probably not live to see John at work, they naturally tried all the more to prepare him for his monumental task. We should like to know how old John was when his parents presumably were called to their heavenly home. If under fifteen, he would be quite sure to make his home with his relatives (Luke 1:58-61). If twenty or more, it may be assumed that he went to the “deserts till the day of his shewing unto Israel” (Luke 1:80). Dr. G. Campbell Morgan, in his Gospel According to Luke (p. 33), wrote as follows:
“I think, without any question, John went to the deserts when he was twenty years old. I think that he then broke with the priesthood and the Temple, under Divine command, and went to the deserts.”
Broadus (Matthew; 33) says that “John had probably lived in the southwestern part, towards Hebron.” Leon Uris, in Exodus Revisited (p. 18) suggests Ein Karem, north of Hebron and just west of Jerusalem, as John’s birthplace. Deferring to Broadus, John would have had ample time to explore the desert areas immediately to the east in the priest-city in the south of Palestine (now Israel). He would know how to take care of himself, anywhere. His needs were few and simple: locusts, wild honey, and camel’s hair clothing.
- T. Robertson (John the Loyal; p. 27) comments on this transitional period of John’s life. “John was now probably grown (twenty or twenty-one, not yet thirty, the Jewish legal manhood). Josephus was sixteen when he went to the desert to study three years under Banus, the famous Essene.”
Why did John go to the deserts? Robertson said (29), “It has, indeed, been urged that John went into the desert, like Josephus, to study the doctrine of the Essenes and that he became one. But there is no foundation for this idea.” It seems that the more is learned about the Essenes, the less John seems to be dependent upon them. While it is true that they quoted Isaiah 40:3-5 as their mandate, they failed in living up to it. From what is now known of the Qumran Scrolls, found in 1947 near the Dead Sea, it is likely that the Essenes were earnest students of the Old Testament. Who knows? perhaps John the Baptist had read and/or copied those same sacred scrolls. Perhaps John’s interest in them led the Essenes to place them in protective covering and into the jars where they were kept intact for about two thousand years. Admittedly, this is speculation.
However many years John had to himself in the desert, it is certain that he used them well. He had much to do in order to prepare himself for introducing his Lord to the world, and to present his Lord with prepared converts. He could not follow any pattern known at that time; he had to pioneer. The Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots and Essenes were little help, if any. He needed something new, something dramatic, something symbolic of the new dispensation. In his persevering study, the Holy Spirit would lead him.
HOW DID JOHN THINK OF IMMERSION?
Of course he knew about the Jewish ceremonial washings and dippings. He would know about the Essene immersions in running water. But all these had no content, no meaning, no significance for the coming Messiah and His saving message. John had to go much deeper for a symbol, or sign. Nothing superficial would do. No second-hand or made-over ceremony would be worthy of the Son of God. And the Messiah would not depend on a colony of ascetics for any vital part of His message. Robertson (John the Loyal; p. 46) reminds us that the “Essenes were never mentioned in the New Testament, nor in the Talmud, being known to us only through the writings of Philo, Josephus and Pliny. All attempts to show that some ideas or practices were derived from them by John the Baptist or by Jesus, have proved a failure.” No mention is made of “proselyte baptism” in the Old Testament, the Apocrypha, Philo, Josephus, the ancient Targums, the Mishna, the New Testament or in ancient Christian writers.
“The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven, or of men?” Jesus asked His critics (Matthew 21:25). Did it come full-blown, in toto, by direct revelation from God? Perhaps it did, but not likely. God has His economy whereby He expects man to do what is possible for him to do; He will do the impossible. Only Jesus could raise Lazarus from the dead; the bystanders could roll away the stone. The five unsaved brothers of Dives had “Moses and the prophets;” they did not need one risen from the dead, in addition, to tell them how to live and die (Luke 16:28-31).
How did John think of immersion as the symbol of the Christian Gospel? That it IS such a symbol is indicated by the fact that the word “baptized” and “baptizeth” (John 3:22, 26; 4:1, 2) represent the entire ministry of Christ in certain places. Likewise, those same words represent the entire work of John the Baptist in other places (John 1:28, 31, 33; 3:23; 10:40). This is not to say that baptism procures salvation, but it does picture or portray salvation. It represents the death, burial and resurrection of Christ which does secure salvation for all repentant sinners (Luke 12:50, Rom. 6:3-5; Col. 2:12; 1 Pet. 3:21).
We can imagine what John did and how he reasoned. How accurate is our reconstruction of John’s thinking may be estimated partly by what he actually said and did later, but part of our speculation must await fuller revelation. Perhaps in heaven John will let us know more about his studies. He may have reasoned as follows.
John would likely read Genesis, chapters one to three. God told Adam and Eve what to do and what not to do. They disobeyed; they sinned; they rebelled against God. The age-old divine law says, “The soul that sinneth; it shall die” (Gen. 2:17; Ezek. 18:4). But God loved man. Instead of punishing our first parents with immediate execution of their deserved penalty, God in His infinite mercy allowed them to offer a substitute life as atonement for their sin. This offering must mean that the sinner would identify himself with the sacrificed life. When it was offered upon the altar he would say, “Here is a living creature. It does not deserve to die. It has not rebelled against its Creator. But I have; I have sinned; I deserve to die for my sin. But I trust that God will accept this substitute life in my place. It was once my property; I now sacrifice it to God; it will teach me the deadly nature of sin, so that I will hate sin and love righteousness. This offering is a symbol of my repentance. I am sorry for my sin, and intend not to sin any more.”
Then John the Baptist would assuredly read Genesis four. Cain “brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord.” Abel “brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering: But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect (Gen. 4:3-5; Heb. 11:4). Why the difference between the two offerings? Cain refused to recognize the deadly and evil nature of his sin, so he refused to bring a life as sacrifice. He doubted God’s revelation and instead he believed Satan’s lie, “Ye shall not surely die” (Gen. 3:4). Actually, Cain did what so many have done since: he made light of sin. This we know because he killed his brother and then said, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:8, 9). “Fools make a mock at sin; but among the righteous there is favour” (Prov. 14:9).
When a person makes light of sin, the next downward step is to make light of salvation and of the Saviour Himself.
Abel, on the other hand, was a righteous person (Heb. 11:4). He knew sin to be deadly, hence he brought one of his flock as a sacrifice. His was an offering where blood was shed, and blood means life (Lev. 17:11). “And without shedding of blood is no remission” (Heb. 9:22). The Bible makes a great doctrine of the blood, and with good reason. The whole plan of redemption is reasonable, once the love of God is accepted.
John the Baptist now had a good start in New Testament theology. He would ask certain questions, and the answers must add up reasonably. He needed a symbol that would convey several truths—vital, eternal, fundamental, elementary, redemptive, practical, instructional, Christological truths.
What will signify death to sin, without harm to repentant sinners?
What will show God’s necessary and inevitable judgment on sin?
What will symbolize rejection of sin, worldliness and Satan?
What will show the start of a new life of righteousness?
What will indicate inward cleansing and a love of holiness?
What will dramatize a public declaration of loyalty to the Messiah-Christ?
What will illustrate a change from an old life to a new one?
BAPTISM DOES ALL THIS!
Far more importantly, baptism symbolizes Christ’s greatest work on earth—His death, burial and resurrection on behalf of all sinners.
Parenthetically, sprinkling and pouring would signify none of this rich Gospel teaching. In fact, anything but immersion baptism would be misleading; it would obscure the Gospel instead of revealing it. Only immersion can do what a genuine Christian symbol should do. For more data on baptism, the reader is referred to the author’s Your Baptism is Important. (Published by The Bogard Press, Texarkana, Ark.—Texas, 1972).
If John felt that in baptism he had a theory, or a tentative solution to his problem of finding a Gospel symbol, one that would indicate all the meanings listed above, the next thing would be to test it. The scientific method—not a recent invention, by the way—would be to examine it in the light of all the Scriptures he had, the Old Testament.
Did John the Baptist see anything like baptism in Noah’s Flood? Peter did! First Peter 3:21, without the parenthetical portion, compares Noah’s ark (which saved Noah’s family) to baptism. “The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Christ’s resurrection DOES save us (1 Pet. 1:3), not baptism. Baptism never saved anyone and it never will. It is essential to obedience but not to salvation; that is, it must come after conversion, not before (Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:41; 18:8).
In Noah’s time, the whole earth deserved to die (except eight). The whole earth was immersed, and then resurrected (Ps. 104:6-9; 2 Pet. 3:5, 6, 13). What a big object lesson that should be for all later generations! And baptism is still an ideal object lesson, a superb “visual aid,” for all who see it now. It declares that all sinners deserve death, but that Christ died and rose again for all, and therefore all repentant sinners may have eternal life.
Did John the Baptist see a baptism of any kind in Israel’s crossing the Red Sea? Paul did, in First Corinthians 10:1, 2, “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.” This was not a real baptism; it was figurative in several ways. It marked the end of Egyptian bondage, even as Christian baptism marks the end of bondage to sin. It marked the beginning of Israel’s pilgrimage to the Promised Land, even as real baptism marks the beginning of the Christians’ earthly pilgrimage to heaven. It marked a new start, a new life, for Israel; even so, baptism is the outward sign of a new inner life. God’s mighty power was effectively displayed in dividing the waters of the sea to allow Israel to walk over dry shod. Baptism glorifies the mighty power of God in that it is a symbol of Christ’s resurrection. Romans 6:4 declares “that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.”
In the Red Sea crossing the people were said to have been “baptized unto Moses.” This meant that they now recognized him as their leader, and their former subservience to Egypt’s pharaohs was ended. So in Christian baptism, believers are baptized unto Christ and former sinful associations are broken. Israel, after the Red Sea, had new loyalties, new privileges, new food, new work, and a new outlook on life. The Christian, whose baptism should follow as soon after his conversion as possible, signifies in his baptism that he now has new loyalties, new privileges, new food for his heart and soul, new work to do, and a wholesome outlook on life.
Similar to the Red Sea crossing was the passage through Jordan, related in the third chapter of the book of Joshua. Since the Jordan River flows into the Dead Sea, and stops there—for the Dead Sea has no outlet—the Jordan has been considered a type of death. An old song expresses this thought. “On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand and cast a wishful eye, to Canaan’s fair and happy land where my possessions lie.” The Jordan was the last barrier for Israel on their journey to Canaan. It was the boundary between the wilderness and Egypt on the one side, and the Promised land on the other. Could that have been the reason that John chose this river to begin his baptizing? Did John preach about Israel fleeing Egypt and crossing Jordan as a type of repentent sinners fleeing “the wrath to come” (Matthew 3:7)? A. W. Pink (Exposition of the Gospel of John; p. 59) indicated his belief that such was the case . . . being baptized in Jordan, they acknowledged that death was their due.” (Italics his)
It is possible that John, in his frequent reading of the Old Testament, paused at the story of Naaman and his immersions in the Jordan. The Septuagint, Greek translation of the Old Testament, uses the word “baptize” to describe his dippings. The name Jordan means “descender,” and Naaman had to go down in humility for his cure. He preferred his native Abana and Pharpar (2 Kings 5:12) as “better than all the waters of Israel.” But at the insistent urging of his servants he humbled himself; he did as Elisha the prophet directed, “and he was clean” from his leprosy. He reacted manfully. With all his company he returned to Elisha and said, “Behold, now I know there is no God in all the earth, but in Israel” (v. 15). Likewise, baptism declares that there is no God but Jehovah who can raise the dead.
When John the Baptist read as far as Isaiah fifty-three, he must have found there—as many preachers have—a rich store house of sermon material. In this remarkable passage the Suffering Servant of Jehovah is described. He is compared to a sacrificial lamb (Greek, amnos), the word John used of Jesus in John 1:29. Here was (is) food for thought. Could it mean a resurrection, such as was indicated in Psalm 16:10? Peter quoted this prophecy at Pentecost in reference to Christ’s resurrection (Acts 2:25-31).
From our present vantage point in history, some of these interpretations seem quite obvious. But John, as the first New Testament preacher, had only the Old Testament as his authority. How far the Holy Spirit led him in formulating his preaching messages and his baptism we do not know. God could speak as directly to John as he did to Moses. We do know what he did in his public ministry, as recorded in the four Gospels. Before discussing his actual work, one more question arises.
DID JOHN GET HIS TIME SCHEDULE FROM DANIEL 9:25-27?
How did John know when to begin his preaching and baptizing? Luke is meticulous in recording the exact date (Luke 3:1,2); he documents the time by naming seven of the Roman and Jewish great men then in office. John did not begin then because of these men; they are listed only to show when John did begin his work. The time must have been important, else why is it stated so carefully?
“Traceable perhaps to the pages of the prophet Daniel, which fixed the time by certain measurements and which by means of Alexandrian culture had become known to the reading world, there had spread the expectation not merely of a coming Prince but that he was nearly due” (Elder Cumming—John the Baptist, Forerunner and Martyr, p. 11).
If John were to enter into the Levitical priesthood, according to Numbers 4:3, 23, he should start at the age of thirty. It is almost certain that he was thirty years of age when “the word of God came” to him in the wilderness (Luke 3:2). We know that Jesus was “about thirty years of age” (Luke 3:23) when He was baptized; that John was about six months older than Jesus, and that John was preaching and baptizing some time before the Lord Jesus came to him. We. also know that John did not enter the priesthood; in fact, he sternly rebuked the priestly hierarchy (Matthew 3:7-10). “He had broken with the old order; he had forsaken Temple and Synagogue, and assailed the rulers with fierce denunciation” (David Smith, The Days of His Flesh, p. 227). John introduced a new era with his baptism. “John never referred to the law of Moses, nor to sacrifices, nor to the Day of Atonement. John taught the Trinity” (Elder Cumming—John the Baptist, Forerunner and Martyr; p. 59).
John read Daniel and recognized it as pregnant with Messianic prophecies. Here was a possible time schedule, if only one could read it correctly. We now know that Christ regarded Daniel as a prophet, foretelling the future (Matthew 24:15); surely John the Baptist had an equally high opinion of him. But what did Daniel mean by the seventy weeks (heptads), or sevens of years? And when did the seventy sevens of years begin?
The commandment to restore Jerusalem (Dan. 9:25) probably referred to that in Nehemiah 2:1-8, when King Artaxerxes Longimanus of Persia gave to his cupbearer Nehemiah the royal orders to rebuild the city walls. “And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, but not for himself” (Dan. 9:26). What may appear as simple arithmetic is still a problem to Biblical scholars. Daniel’s cryptic dates must wait for future solution.
A greater concern is: What did John the Baptist do? And what did he say? How widely was he heard and seen?
CHAPTER 5—WIDELY HEARD AND SEEN
“Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judea, and all the region round about Jordan”
Individuals gravitate toward a crowd. Gravitation, apparently so simple, occupies twenty pages in the 1961 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica, much of it in complex mathematical formulae. Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) wrote that any two bodies in the universe attract each other in proportion to the product of their masses and inversely as the square of their distance apart. All this is worked out with exceeding niceties by the world’s space-travel scientists, in order to keep astronauts in proper orbit. But John the Baptist exercised an extra-gravitational appeal; his Spirit-inspired messages drew many with a supernatural force. Many of his hearers then went into orbit around the Son of God, called the “Sun of righteousness” in Malachi 4:2, and thus they started on their way to heaven.
The jet engines of faith are still propelling repentant sinners away from the gravitational pull of this sinful world, and into “the heavenlies” with Christ Jesus (Eph. 1:13; 2:6, 13; 3:10). Conversely, the appeal of worldly popularity attracts those who love philosophy more than Biblical theology. This could explain the continuing hold of liberals who boast superior scholarship. Their boasting seems vain in the light of Biblical archaeology.
John’s public ministry began when “the word of God” came to him in the wilderness of Judea (Luke 3:2). He began baptizing near the mouth of the Jordan, not far north of the Dead Sea, and due east of Jerusalem about a day’s journey. How did he get his first crowds? F. B. Meyer wrote (47):
“It may have befallen thus. One day, as a caravan of pilgrims was slowly climbing the mountain gorges threaded by the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, or halted for a moment in the noontime heat, they were startled by the appearance of a gaunt and sinewy man, with flowing raven locks and a voice which must have been as sonorous and penetrating as a clarion, who cried, `Repent! the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!’ It was as though a spark had fallen on dry tinder. The tidings spread with wonderful rapidity in the wilderness of Judea . . . Instantly people began to flock to him from all sides.”
Devout people had been looking for the kingdom of heaven for years (Luke 1:65, 66; 2:25, 36-38).
George W. Clark, in his Notes of Matthew (39), says that John began preaching in a Sabbatical year. During such a year of rest from ordinary labors the people would have more time to travel considerable distances to hear this new preacher.
Every person who heard this Elijah-like prophet would, on his return, tell his friends and neighbors. Many of them would hurry to see this phenomenal messenger prophesied by Malachi. For John was the first prophet to appear in over four hundred years.
The message of John the Baptist differed radically from that of contemporary religious leaders. The Pharisees were mainly concerned with their minute interpretations of the Old Testament laws. Their hypocritical lives and teachings were exposed mercilessly by our Lord Jesus in Matthew 23:13-29 and in Luke 11:42-44.
The Sadducees were not concerned about the minutiae of Pharisaical hair-splitting; they held mostly to the Pentateuch. They erred in denying the existence of angels, spirits and the resurrection. As ecclesiastical politicians they dominated the Sanhedrin. They cared little for Messianic hopes and objected to nationalistic passions and religious enthusiasm.
The Scribes were professional scholars, learned in the law, teaching its many requirements to the people and handing down legal decisions. They were outspoken opponents of the Hellenists and thereby gained much favor with chauvinistic Jews. Jesus exposed and rebuked their pride, insincerity and spiritual obstinacy in Matthew 23.
The lawyers were well versed in the laws of Moses and served as professional interpreters of them. Scribes and lawyers were the same people (Luke 11:44, 45). The lawyers and Pharisees rejected the baptism of John (Luke 7:30), as did the Scribes and Sadducees. The lawyers tried to defeat Christ in argument (Matthew 22:35; Luke 10:25) but were invariably defeated. Jesus rebuked them for burdening the people and for keeping from the people the key of knowledge (Luke 11:45-54).
The vast majority of Jewish people had no other teachers than these four classes of professional religionists. No wonder, then, that the Baptist gave them a pleasing contrast. His preaching was Scriptural, without the additions and accretions of human traditions which the Pharisees imposed upon the people, thereby “making the word of God of none effect” (Mark 7:13). John, Spirit-filled, spoke with the voice of divine authority, “and not as the scribes.” The people, at least the majority of them, knew instinctively that here was a prophet and they flocked to hear him. They by-passed the haughty religious hierarchy for a humble preacher in the wilderness.
The Holy Spirit could take a rustic farm lad, Dwight Lyman Moody, and cause him to burst into flame for his wonderful Lord. Arid the world turned aside to see this “Bush Aglow,” and to hear him, and many believed his message. They were gloriously saved—from sin, from empty formality, and from vain living. It was “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord” (Zech. 4:6). This same Holy Spirit waits for believers now who will surrender all to God.
John the Baptist was no miracle worker (John 10:41). If two miracles are required to establish one as a saint, then John could not qualify. His power was not in works of wonder, but in his wonderful Lord. Alleged miracles at shrines will draw multitudes of superstitious people, even though their leaders deny the authenticity of the reports. John drew crowds without tricks. The fact that many believed on Christ through John’s evangelism is, according to A. M. Symington (The Life and Ministry of John the Baptist, p. 185) “better than all miracles.”
John the Baptist had a substantial message. He announced the kingdom of heaven as at hand, and the long-prophesied King as soon to come. Most of the Jews apparently expected the King to exercise political, if not military, power. They were understandably anxious to be free from Roman domination, and their hopes colored their interpretation of prophecy. Is not that a common failing in every age?
When the record says that “all” the people of Judea and of the Jordan vicinity went to hear him, it means that people from all parts of those areas were John’s auditors. As with us, not every use of “all” is meant to be literal in the Bible (1 Cor. 13:7; Phil. 2:21; 4:13, 18; John 4:39; Col. 1:6). Even then, John assuredly had great congregations to hear him. Nahum Gale, in his The Prophet of the Highest, or, The Mission of John the Baptist (p. 68), wrote “The city of Jerusalem could not have had less than 200,000 inhabitants.”
Mark (1:5) supports Matthew with the phrase, “all the land of Judea.” Luke (3:7) refers to “the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him.” Among specific groups, perhaps representatives of many other classes of people mentioned by Luke, are the publicans (3:12, 13), soldiers (3:14), and even Herod (3:19).
Jean Steinman, a French author (Saint John. the Baptist, translated from the French by Michael Boyes, 1958, used by permission of Harper and Brothers, New York), comments (p. 69) on John’s word to the publicans. “In the same way he does not order publicans to give up a means of livelihood which the Jews considered despicable. Even the Essenes considered the publicans as godless because of their contact with the Gentiles. John simply asks them to carry on their trade honestly and loyally. He does not condemn even their collaboration with the regime of the Roman occupation.” (This supports our belief that Matthew, when Christ called him, was an honest tax collector.)
Likewise, John did not tell the soldiers to desert from the Roman army. He was apparently not a pacifist. After all, an army is only a big police force, and everyone seems to believe in the need for policemen. The danger is in men like Hitler, an international bandit, who must be put down by a huge army.
The Fourth Gospel records the visit of a committee of priests and Levites from Jerusalem, sent by the Pharisees, to interview the Baptist. This was in one sense quite an honor. The Pharisees were accustomed to having people come to them; here they must go out to a desert to inquire about an “upstart” preacher. Not many contemporary ministers have a comparable compliment paid to them. Jesus referred to this incident in John 5:33, and testified to John’s faithfulness.
Certain Pharisees and lawyers who heard John “rejected the counsel of God against themselves, being not baptized of him” (Luke 7:30). It is clear, then, that many of the “religious” people of that day rejected John the Baptist. Perhaps some twentieth century Christians need to re-examine their views on John.
Turning to the book of Acts, we find a very significant verse (1:22), “Beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection.” This vital witness was to be a replacement for Judas, the one who had betrayed his Lord with a kiss and then he hanged himself. The new witness also had to be one who had been with the other disciples “all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us” (1:21). Then the twelve original disciples had been with Jesus all the time, beginning with the baptism of John. And since John 1:35-45 clearly states that some of the Twelve had first been disciples of John, and therefore were baptized by him, it is a safe inference that all the Twelve had been baptized by him. Then the Twelve had all heard John. This is important, for too many assume that Christ’s call to the Twelve was their first call; they forget that John came to prepare people for his Lord.
Those who say that the eleven disciples made a mistake here in Acts 1:21-26, in that they should have waited for Paul, are in error. For Paul, great as he was, was not a qualified witness to the work of the Lord Jesus “in the days of his flesh.” He had not seen Christ at work; he had not heard Christ preach; he was not a baptized believer until much later (Acts 9:18). He was an apostle, but in a different sense from the original twelve. And as for Matthias not being mentioned again, the same is true with most of the others listed in Acts 1:13.
Who heard John the Baptist? Peter, in Acts 10:37, said the Word was preached, or published, “throughout all Judea, and began from Galilee, after the baptism which John preached.” And Paul in Acts 13:24 said, “When John had first preached before his coming [Christ] the baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel.” Then all Israel was responsible for the message. Apollos (Acts 18:24-28) had apparently heard John and had received his baptism, but missed much of the subsequent instruction in the Gospel which Christ and later preachers had given. Perhaps Apollos had spent considerable time in a secluded place and was therefore out of touch with Gospel preaching. We know he traveled much; perhaps he had been far from Palestine.
Many Bible readers are unnecessarily confused by the story of the few men in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-7) who said they had John’s baptism, but who had never heard of the Holy Spirit. But John did preach the Holy Spirit. And these men were hundreds of miles from Palestine. They likely had never heard John personally; they had only a garbled gospel, second or third hand. This incident shows how quickly the true Gospel can be perverted; how many cults arise; how divisions flourish; and how needful it is to read the Bible carefully.
- T. Robertson wrote about Apollos (John the Loyal; p. 292ff). “The mention of John’s baptism was for the purpose of dating him, so to speak. He occupied the pre-Pentecost standpoint. There is no hint that Priscilla or Aquila taught Apollos the insufficiency of John’s baptism.” And regarding Acts 19:1-7, “They betray a lamentable ignorance of important elements in the teaching of John, to such an extent that one hesitates to call them Christians at all . . . these ‘disciples’ may have been ignorant of John’s portrayal of the Messiah . . . Paul is, then, not discrediting John’s baptism, but interpreting the real significance of it . . . The rest of Paul’s explanation is in harmony with this idea . . . They are baptized afresh, not because they had only John’s baptism, but because they did not really have that . . . These men did not even have a real water baptism, let alone spirit baptism.”
Because many writers fail to study this passage, Acts 19:1-7, with enough care, they make the serious mistake of saying that John’s baptism was not Christian baptism. The New Testament is thereby divided, or dissected, into fragments, and difficulties multiply accordingly. J. A. Broadus wrote with his usual wisdom on this important point (Matthew; p. 240).
“If John’s teaching and baptizing are to be set off as essentially different in kind from Christian teaching and Christian baptism, these beginning only on the day of Pentecost, then we have the strange contradiction that Christ Himself, as a teacher and baptizer (John 3:22; 4:1), did not belong to the Christian dispensation. Moreover, in Matthew 11:12 and also in Luke 16:16, our Lord speaks of the kingdom of heaven as already in actual existence, and counts John among the preachers of the kingdom of heaven, as distinct from those who merely predicted it . . . those persons (in Acts 19:5) were re-baptized because it was evident that when they previously received baptism (probably from some ignorant disciple of John), it had been without knowing what they were about, without understanding the fundamental truths of the Messianic reign, as announced by John himself. As this isolated case can be accounted for in this way, and indeed in various other ways, it is quite unwarrantable to make it the proof of a radical distinction between Christian baptism and the baptism administered by John and by Christ Himself.”
All church members who have been wrongly baptized, or who were baptized before their conversion, should follow the example of these Ephesians. They should speak to a minister who understands New Testament baptism, and then obey their Lord in the way that will mean lasting satisfaction to them.
Now the record is fairly clear as to who heard John, and who did not hear him. More important, who will hear John’s message now? Some will reject him, and thus reject “the counsel of God”; others will believe him and thereby come closer to Christ.
John was seen as well as heard. His baptism was quite as spectacular as his spoken words. The majority of people apparently believed that the baptism of John came from heaven (Matthew 21:25, 26). And John gave as his reason for baptizing: that Christ “should be made manifest to Israel; therefore am I come baptizing with [in] water” (John 1:31). Since baptism pictures death, burial and resurrection (Luke 12:50; Rom. 6:3, 4; Col. 2:12; 1 Pet. 3:21), then baptism must be immersion and nothing else. No other “baptism” has any symbolic meaning.
Some expositors seek to point out a flaw, or shortcoming, in John’s preaching. They say he did not preach the resurrection of Christ. But every baptism he performed was a sermon on Christ’s resurrection! Each immersion of a believer made Christ “manifest” to every onlooker: the baptized person was converted to Christ; He was committed to Christ; he was “risen with Christ” (Col. 3:1); and in his baptism he testified to his belief in Christ’s resurrection.
If, as many Christians believe, Christ’s resurrection was the greatest event in the world, then baptism is the greatest symbol in the world. For baptism testifies to the greatest event; it testifies to the sinner’s conversion which is his greatest experience; and it testifies to Satan’s greatest defeat. For more on the importance of baptism, see the author’s Your Baptism Is Important.
Those who saw John’s baptisms witnessed a meaningful ordinance. James A. Stalker, not an immersionist, wrote about John’s baptism. “He embodied his teaching not only in words, but in an expressive symbol. And never was symbol more felicitously chosen; for baptism exactly expressed the main drift of his teaching” (The Two St. Johns of the New Testament, p. 211).
Immersion-baptism shows the believer’s own judgment on himself as -a sinner deserving death for his sins. His burial in water indicates his admission that he ought to die because he has sinned. Carl H. Kraeling, not an immersionist, came close to that great truth, in ” . . . the assumption that in John’s baptism the individual pre-enacts his judgment. . . ” (John the Baptist; p. 118). ” . . . as an act of self-humiliation before God it [baptism] was a clear, voluntary expression of true repentance, and that repentance was commonly acknowledged to have divine forgiveness as its response. If John’s baptism, then, was an act of repentance it could
mediate forgiveness without conferring it” (121, in John the Baptist).
That New Testament baptism (Greek, baptizo) is immersion is clearly seen in that Christ, “when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water” (Matthew 3:16); the Ethiopian “went down” and came “up out of the water” (Acts 8:38, 39); believers “are buried with him by baptism” (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12), and we are also risen with him to walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:4).
“The people who speak Greek at the present day wholly reject and ridicule the idea of using this Greek word (baptizo) in any other than its own definite and well-known sense; and the Greek church still holds nothing to be baptism but immersion” (Broadus, Matthew; p. 39).
Immersion-baptism is declarative in that it tells the world of a repentant sinner who is openly being counted on Christ’s side; it is commemorative in that it recalls to every beholder the death, burial and resurrection of Christ on behalf of all sinners; and it is protective in that it should keep out of each “local” church those half-hearted, indecisive, vacillating people who are unwilling to confess Christ in real baptism. This is the Baptist viewpoint; everyone concedes that Pedobaptist churches have many sincere and genuine Christians in their memberships. More and more of these latter are coming to see the mode and meanings of baptism in their New Testaments.
The Bible teaches that baptism is only for genuine converts, and that it should always come after one has been regenerated. This would result in “a regenerate church membership,” a gathered company of redeemed persons only. Wherever both salvation and baptism are mentioned in the New Testament, they are always in that order. In John 4:1, for example, we read that Jesus and His disciples “made and baptized . . . disciples.” A. W. Pink (Exposition of the Gospel of St. John; p. 157) wrote, “It is one of many passages in the New Testament which, uniformly, teaches that only one who is already a believer in Christ is qualified for baptism.” In perfect agreement with the above is the Great Commission where only those who are made disciples are to be baptized, and in Corinth where “many of the Corinthians hearing believed, and were baptized” (Acts 18:8).
John’s greatest moment was seen when he baptized his Lord. Humbly he tried to tell how unworthy he was for that unique honor (Matthew 3:13-17). Apparently John was not himself baptized; he had a direct commission from God to perform that important rite (John 1:33). At Jesus’ patient urging, John baptized Him in the Jordan River (Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:20, 21). How immersion could be described more definitely and unequivocally it is hard to imagine. Jesus was baptized in order to show to all people, for all time, how baptism should be done. He told John, “thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Then when He gave His last orders to His followers in Matthew 28:18-20, everyone would know without question exactly what He meant by baptizing converts.
Why was Jesus baptized? Among other reasons, A. T. Robertson (John the Loyal; p. 121ff) offered the following. “If Jesus did not submit to John’s baptism, he at once placed himself in the attitude of the Pharisees and scribes who rejected the baptism of John, Luke 7:29 . . . If Jesus had not Himself submitted to baptism, a powerful argument against baptism by the disciples of Jesus would have existed. The later command of Jesus to baptize would have lacked the force of the Master’s own example . . . The baptism did not consecrate Jesus as a priest. He was not a priest in the ceremonial sense at all. He was not connected with the priestly line and He was a priest after the order of Melchisedec. It was not a vicarious purification as the representative of a guilty people. It was not the Messianic consecration. The descent of the Holy Spirit was that.
“In a fuller sense it is true that the baptism prefigured Christ’s own death and resurrection as afterward explained by Paul (Rom. 6:2-6). In a sense, also, Jesus put Himself on a par with other men. The solidarity of the race was illustrated by this act of Christ.”
Jesus said of His baptism, “thus it becometh us.” F. B. Meyer (John the Baptist; p. 74): “I like that word, becometh. If the divine Lord thought so much about what was becoming, surely we may.” On the Emmaus road Christ said to certain disciples, “Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory” (Luke 24:26)? And in Hebrews 2:10, “For it became him, for whom are all things . . . to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.”
Jesus also said, “thus it becometh us.” He may have included John in that great word; yet, since John was not himself baptized He more likely meant all His obedient followers who submit to baptism. This word then teaches the Unity of Christ with All Believers. Blessed unity, blessed bond, blessed symbol, blessed act of obedience which every convert to Christ may observe in exactly the way his Master observed it.
Jesus was baptized in order “to fulfill all righteousness.” This He did actually on the cross when He took our unrighteousness upon Himself, and then gave us His righteousness. He did it symbolically in His baptism which promised, prophesied and pictured His real death, burial and resurrection.
On what date was Jesus baptized? It may not matter; yet the day of His crucifixion coincided with the Old Testament Day of Atonement. Perhaps the date of Abraham’s offering Isaac is the same; if so, it would be fitting. Isaac asked his father, “Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” This question had no real answer for about two thousand years. The real answer, after many substitutes, came with John the Baptist as he pointed to Christ: “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
The baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ! What a sight!
“Jesus saith . . . because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” (John 20:29).
Lord, I believe!
CHAPTER 6—SURPRISINGLY BELIEVED
“All hold John as a prophet”
“For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He hath a devil” (Matthew 11:18). This latter is Jesus speaking, in apparent contradiction to the first text above which was spoken by the chief priests and elders who opposed both John and Jesus. These critics, ostensibly leaders of the populace, considered John to be a long-haired fanatic, a rebel against the regular order of Jewish religion, an innovator, perhaps even a demoniac. It is surprising, therefore, that so many heard and believed him. Had the “rulers of the Jews” lost their influence?
MULTITUDES WERE BAPTIZED BY JOHN, CONFESSING THEIR SINS (MATTHEW 3:6).
Confession was accompanied by conviction and conversion.
Conviction of sin is due to the Holy Spirit. This has always been true, even before Christ promised in John 16:7-11 that this was to be one of the missions of the Holy Spirit when He would come more fully upon the young church. At Pentecost, Peter’s hearers were “pricked in their heart” (Acts 2:37) and after Stephen’s sermon his deadly foes were “cut to the heart” (Acts 6:54). John the Baptist was no less filled with the Holy Spirit than Peter and Stephen. Hence “the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then?” (Luke 3:10).
Every person who can remember his conversion can also remember his conviction of sin. Previously, he may not have thought about sin at all; but now the preacher, or a friend, or a tract, or a death, or a near accident, caused him to think on his ways. This is the Holy Spirit at work, softening the heart so that the Gospel seed may take root and spring up unto everlasting life.
Conviction does not always lead to conversion. Pharaoh (Ex. 9:27; 10:16), King Saul (1 Sam. 15:24, 30; 26:21) and Judas (Matthew 27:4) all said, “I have sinned” but they did not really repent and ask forgiveness. On the other hand, multitudes of others have asked God to forgive them of their sins (Rom. 10:13) arid they have then received the assurance of salvation. They have become converted. Conversion is the human side of salvation; regeneration is the divine side. Conversion is the sinner turning from his sin; regeneration is the Lord giving him a new nature. Conversion is thinking God’s way about sin—hating it—while regeneration is receiving the divine nature and letting it express itself (2 Pet. 1:4).
“Repent!” (Gk., metanoeite) was the word that John, Christ and Peter used so effectively. It means literally, “Change your mind.” Instead of loving or condoning sin, hate it and leave it. Instead of thinking sin does not matter—much—regard it as rebellion against a just and ,loving God. Instead of following Satan’s suggestions, resist him and obey the Heavenly Father instead. That is repentance and that is conversion. The common meaning of the English word “repentance” is to be sorry for one’s sins or mistakes. The Greeks had a word for that— metamellomai; it is the word used of Judas in Matthew 27:3 when he felt remorse for betraying Jesus. But Judas did not repent; after confessing to priests he went and hanged himself.
James Stalker (207) said about this word metanoia, “Repentance is perhaps not the best rendering of the first note of John’s message; conversion would be a more literal translation.”
Elder Cumming (36, 37): “But practical repentance is a New Testament doctrine, first taught by the Baptist . . . The thought contained in the word is a call to a total change of mind about one’s own sin, for the first time understanding it, for the first time hating it, for the first time renouncing it.
- T. Robertson (74ff) on metanoia: “This is John’s great word, and it is today a woefully misunderstood word. The trouble is not with the Greek word metanoeo.That is plain enough . . . The word in itself does not mean sorrow for sin, though that is, of course, involved. Another word is used for that, metamellomai. Sorrow may bring about repentance (2 Cor. 7:9) and ‘godly sorrow’ always does (2 Cor. 7:10). And contemplation of the goodness of God always leads to repentance (Rom. 2:4). Jesus came to call sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32). It was directed toward God (Acts 10:21). It is coupled with belief (Mark 1:15) and with conversion (Luke 17:4). It is the trait in a sinner that causes joy in heaven (Luke 15:7, 10). It is essential to salvation (Luke 13:3, 5). It was commanded by Jesus (Matthew 4:17) and by God (Acts 17:30; 26:20). It was a fundamental doctrine in the apostolic preaching (Mark 6:12; Acts 24:27; Heb. 6:1). Proof of repentance was demanded (Acts 26:20), as was true of John the Baptist’s preaching (Matthew 3:8).
“Indeed, ‘conversion’ is far more in accord with the real meaning of the word than ‘repentance.’ Least of all must it be imagined that the Baptist exhorted people to ‘do penance,’ as the Roman Catholic Vulgate has it (Poenitentiam agite). John would be horrified beyond measure to find his trumpet-call spiritual revival turned into medieval notions of earning salvation by paying money for it.
Conviction, conversion, confession. Confession may come before conversion, or simultaneously with it. The very act of confessing one’s sins opens the heart for God’s healing work. Everyone must confess his sins to God in order to be converted. Then when one is converted he should confess (profess) his faith to others. But no one can confess faith in Christ before he has it. He can confess his desire to live for Christ, and this act often leads to salvation.
Matthew 3:6 says the people were baptized, “confessing their sins.” It seems that John required each candidate for baptism to confess his sins. This confession was a testimony to sincerity, and to the genuineness of conversion. It indicated self judgment. The candidate said, “I have sinned,” and he then went into the water of baptism to indicate that he accepted the death penalty upon his sinful self. J. W. Shepard (p. 70, The Christ of the Gospels) wrote on this:
“It was John’s custom to examine the candidates before baptism. Usually the penitents came with humble confession of their sins and the manifestation of deep contrition. Jesus made no such confession of guilt nor showed any sorrow. Such an attitude in itself would disqualify the candidate for baptism. But here was a singular exception. There was a majesty, purity, and peace written in that visage, which caused John to draw back with a feeling of unworthiness and sin.” (Used by permission of Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan).
George E. Hicks (John the Baptist, The Neglected Prophet, p. 53) wrote, “The Baptist insisted on public confession; the Romanist insists on a private confession; the Protestant omits it; while the Baptist churches urge baptism, but are silent about confession. It is passing strange.”
“I knew him not,” John said twice about the Lord Jesus (John 1:31, 33). When was the wonderful moment of recognition? It may have been this way. After John had baptized a good number of people one day, last of all came Jesus for baptism. “Now when all the people were baptized, it came to pass, that Jesus also being baptized, and praying. . . ” (Luke 3:21). John was likely tired. He probably did not look at this hundredth, or five hundredth, person closely. After all, the majority of them had been total strangers to him before he baptized them. We may well assume that John asked each person for his or her name when he asked for their confession of sins. But Jesus had no sins to confess! Perhaps He said so to John. Surprise! Then John really looked at this unique Person. Perhaps at that instant John also saw the Spirit descending upon Christ in the form of a dove (Luke 3:22), for John indicated that that was the moment of recognition (John 1:33, 34).Marvelous moment! John said, “And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God.”
Now back to the Jordan with the crowds awaiting baptism. Incidentally, John baptized in other places as well (John 3:23). The place does not matter as much as the purpose. This writer baptized first in a farmer’s pond, then in a little creek after a dam was built to hold enough water, in church baptistries in five states, in a creek in France, and in a German river with snow falling. In each case immersion symbolized previous conversion.
Baptism is a sign of self-judgment, a confession of guilt. For John did preach the coming judgment: “flee from the wrath to come” (Matthew 3:7). This warning was not so much apocalyptic as practical. Those who really believed him submitted to burial in water as a sign that they deserved death. Since they pronounced judgment on themselves, God would not need to thereafter. “For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged” (1 Cor. 11:31).
When Western pioneers saw a prairie fire approaching fanned by high winds, they had to act speedily to save themselves and their homes. They would build small fires all around their buildings, being careful to keep their property from burning. These fires ate away the grass outwardly, leaving an enlarging ring of burned area. Then when the big fire came near, it had nothing there to burn. Buildings and owners were safe within the ring of burned ground. Likewise, the sinner that confesses his sins will, when the judgment Day comes, have no sins left unjudged. He is immune to judgment; Christ has taken away all his sins. Baptism is a sign that the sinner is judging his own sins.
Baptism is also a sign of submission to God. Those who believed John submitted to his baptism, surrendering their bodies completely to his control. The person baptized is entirely passive; he yields himself fully to his baptizer. But the baptizer is acting as God’s agent and authorized representative. This is an important fact to remember. The person baptized surrenders himself to God, by means of the baptizing minister. The entire body is involved; it ought to be. “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice” said Paul in Romans 12:1.
Baptism is a symbol of salvation. It does not secure salvation. Those who believed John’s message trusted for salvation in Christ whom John proclaimed so well (John 1:29). They brought their bodies to John; they laid their bodies wholly into the altar of water; when they rose again they arose to walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:4). They were told to bring forth fruits indicating real repentance (Matthew 3:8). Conversion is not cheap; it costs the surrender of bad habits and the practice of good works. This is what baptism means – and what “Baptist” ought to mean!
SOME UNBELIEVERS REJECTED JOHN THE BAPTIST (MATTHEW 3:7-10)
“Many of the Pharisees and Sadducees” came to see John’s baptism (Matthew 3:7). It is not likely that they actually asked for baptism; they wanted to see what vas going on, and who was taking leadership away from them. As they followed the crowds perhaps they said, “Don’t they know we are their leaders?” John saw them coming and spoke sharply to them, under the direction of the Holy Spirit. “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? . . . And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father” (Matthew 3:7, 9).
Proxy religion will not do. Those who trusted in Abraham, good and great as he was, to save them were tragically mistaken. “We be Abraham’s seed” (John 8:33), the Jews told Christ, but He demolished their fancied support by showing that all have sinned and each person must have personal faith in the Saviour. “So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God” (Rom. 14:12). Here is little room for “covenant theology.” Perhaps no one now trusts in Abraham for salvation, but it seems that millions of people trust in a kind of “baptism” that is allegedly traced back to Abraham and circumcision. Their parents had them “sprinkled” as babies in a ceremony or “sacrament” called baptism, but without any suitable Scripture text as an authority for this act. John’s warning in Matthew 3:9 needs to be repeated now; it is part of the New Testament Gospel of Christ. Here as always, loyalty to Christ has priority over deference to pedobaptism.
“For John came unto you in the way of righteousness,” Jesus told His critics, “and ye believed him not: but the publicans and harlots believed him: and ye, when ye had seen it, repented not afterward, that ye might believe him” (Matthew 21:32). This was stern preaching to the chief priests and elders (v.23). After they had seen the worst sinners converted, they still refused to believe John. To rationalize, they called John a demon (Matthew 11:18), even as they later accused Christ of working with Beelzebub (Matthew 12:24). The risk of rejecting the Gospel – and Gospel preachers – is terrifying. Jesus warned these unbelievers of the unpardonable sin, in this connection (Matthew 12:31, 32).
The Jewish religious hierarchy, the Sanhedrin, rejected both John and Jesus. They could not tolerate independents. History repeated itself in the persons of Martin Luther, John Knox, the Wesley brothers, George Whitefield and Billy Sunday. The common people, on the other hand, heard all these men gladly.
MANY JUSTIFIED GOD VIA JOHN THE BAPTIST (LUKE 7:29, 30).
“And all the people that heard him, and the publicans, justified God, being baptized with the baptism of John.” How did (how does) the baptism of John justify God?
Baptism, when rightly administered, is a vindication of the ways of the Lord. For all have sinned; all deserve the penalty of sin; but all who will voluntarily sentence themselves and trust in God’s mercy will escape the penalty of a just God upon sin. Baptism is a self-sentencing. When accompanied by a saving faith in Christ’s death, burial and resurrection, the sinner is justified. God is then able to declare him righteous (Rom. 3:26).
Baptism justifies God in that it is a recognition of divine revelation, accepted and approved. The repentant sinner sees in baptism a judgment on his sin; he accepts that judgment on himself and submits to it in symbol; then he rises to walk in newness of life. This also shows that God is too holy to look upon sin, or to condone sin in His heaven. Then in order to enter into the kingdom of heaven, or even to see it (John 3:3, 5), a person must be born again. The sinner is redeemed through the precious blood of Christ which cleanses us from all sin (Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14; 1 John 1:7; Rev. 1:5).
Baptism justifies God in that, since John the Baptist was Spirit-led and approved by our Lord, those who believe John and emulate him are by that much approved by the Lord. God sent John to baptize (John 1:33) which means that John evangelized by means of baptism; it was an object lesson. Seven times in the New Testament the words for “baptize” include evangelism (John 1:28, 31; 3:22, 23, 26; 4:1,2; 10:40).
Baptism justifies God in that it was the sign of the regeneration of publicans and harlots (Matthew 21:32; Luke 7:29). When the worst sinners are converted, the symbol of their conversion and profession of faith takes on great significance. Baptism signifies conversion, and conversion is the great event which justifies the ways of God with man. It glorifies Him.
CHRIST’S TWELVE DISCIPLES BELIEVED JOHN.
We have already seen from John 1:35-45 that several, perhaps all, of the twelve had first been disciples of John. It is important to remember the strong bond of continuity between John’s preaching and later New Testament doctrine. Unity is the first law of nature; it is a law of God, and it is a great principle of hermeneutics as well. (Some go to extremes on “dividing” the Word, basing their dissection on the King James version of 2 Timothy 2:15, “rightly dividing.” But this word,orthotomounta, means cutting or laying out, like a new road (Weymouth). John the Baptist laid out a new road so straight that even Christ could travel on it, how much more His disciples? Let every twentieth-century Christian return to, or remain on, that road!)
Judas was the tragic exception to faith among the twelve disciples. Of him Jesus said, “Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?” (John 6:70). Yet the divine plan called for twelve witnesses to the Gospel from its inception, and the eleven in a business meeting chose Matthias (Acts 1:15-26). This new apostle had been with the rest since Jesus began to teach them, “beginning from the baptism of John” (v.22). This verse is important as to the reliability of the Gospel records. It indicates the importance of the witness to Christ from the days of John to the ascension of Christ.
The twelve were faithful and capable witnesses. With Jesus, they “made and baptized more disciples than John, though Jesus himself baptized not, but his disciples” (John 4:1, 2). They had learned John’s message, they knew something of his methods, and now they had the Master preacher Himself.
Twentieth century Christians could profit from a study of John’s preaching as a background for witnessing to Christ.
But why did Christ take His evangelistic team away from a good revival in Judea and go into Galilee? (John 4:3). Perhaps He did not want to seem to compete with John for crowds. It was a move of beautiful courtesy, to let John have the area to himself for the few days that remained to him. Shepard (The Christ of the Gospels; p. 109) says, “The fundamental reason which led Jesus at first to decide to move the seat of His work to Galilee, was that the Pharisees were intriguing to bring about misunderstanding and friction between His own disciples and those of John.”
With two strong evangelistic teams working in Judea, the total number of converts must have been high. These would form the bulk of the multitude that welcomed Christ into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Those who say that this same Palm Sunday crowd shouted a few days later against Christ to crucify Him do them a grave injustice. Admittedly, some few of them may have been weak and vacillating turncoats, but there were still enough unconverted people to do the evil bidding of the chief priests. There always are weak hearts—in every age.
Incidentally, but importantly, most of Christ’s disciples were from Galilee. While they ministered in Judea they would likely write letters to their beloved ones in the north, recording many of Christ’s words and deeds. Matthew, accustomed to keeping accurate records, would likely take complete notes on everything Christ said and did. These would form the basis of the First Gospel which could well have been compiled immediately after the resurrection. We do not know that he wrote it then, but neither do we know that he waited thirty or more years. Why should he wait? And why he should borrow from Mark, who was not one of the Twelve, is a mystery hard to explain. (For more on this, see the writer’s Our Dependable Bible, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan).
WHAT WERE JOHN’S DISCIPLES TAUGHT TO BELIEVE?
George E. Hicks (John the Baptist, the Neglected Prophet; p. 7) said, “It is to the Baptist we are indebted for practically all the major articles of the Christian faith. Not only so, but the actual terms used by him have constituted the seed bed of all subsequent thought.” Dr. Merrill C. Tenney (John: Gospel of Belief, p. 80) wrote that John’s preaching “laid the foundation of all practical Christian theology.” John’s words in John 1:29 carry the significance of Calvary which is the heart of the Gospel.
A surprising number of Christian doctrines were first declared by John the Baptist, and repeated by his disciples. They are still believed by true Christians. Some doubted then; some will always doubt—to their loss.
- John the Baptist taught the deity of Christ (John 1:29, 34, 36). This doctrine is foundational; it is fundamental; it is essential to Christians. Like the North Star for navigators, the Deity of Christ is the reference and correction point for Christian thinkers. All other doctrines must line up with this. John set the pattern here for all Christians of all ages.
- John declared the pre-existence of Christ (John 1:15, 30), “he was before me.” John was born first, and began preaching first, but yet Jesus was before him in His preincarnate state. This involves the whole matter of the Virgin Birth of Christ, even though John did not mention it specifically. But how could Christ have existed before John unless the records in Matthew and Luke regarding His Virgin Birth are true?
- John the Baptist taught his disciples about the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33). These verses are given in parallel form in Acts 1:5 and 11:16. In every case it is said that Christ should baptize believers IN (Greek, en), not with, by or of, the Holy Spirit. Never is the Holy Spirit said to baptize anyone. First Corinthians 12:13 may be cited, but the word “by” should be “in” here also; it is in the Greek original. (Some scholars believe 1 Corinthians 12:13 refers to water baptism, with good reason). Since the first six verses cited above all clearly say that Christ baptizes in the Holy Spirit, it could not be right to make 1 Corinthians 12:13 mean otherwise. Christ did baptize believers at Pentecost. Some believe He does it now at the moment of regeneration. Filling is another matter; it may be repeated, or it may never really come to some people. (The author’s Your Baptism Is Important devotes an entire chapter to Spirit baptism.)
- John taught the sovereignty of God (Matthew 3:9). “God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.” Since God can do that, He can do lesser things. No one could tell John, “Your God is too small.”
- John taught the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 3:2, etc.). This kingdom was in contrast to worldly ways of living, to materialism, to secularism, and to all other false “isms.” (Dr. R. G. Lee said that all these isms ought to be wasms!) The kingdom of heaven implies a separation from the kingdoms of this world which are too largely controlled by the evil one.
- The first word of record from John is “Repent!” It means, Be converted from your former worldly, sinful, selfish self-centered ways, and be conformed to the principles of the kingdom of heaven and its great King. It is the word Christ used when He began preaching (Matthew 4:17). It has the same meaning to all classes of people: to the woman of Samaria who was a notorious sinner, and to Nicodemus who was a respected ruler of the Jews. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Christendom is that many unconverted people have joined churches and have thus introduced worldliness and false doctrines into them. Every church should examine each candidate for membership with great care, lest evil creep in unawares (Jude 4).
- John emphasized the need for confession of sins (Matthew 3:6). He may have given sermons based on Psalm 32 which says that forgiveness brings happiness (vv. 1, 2); guilt means misery until confessed (vv. 3, 4) confession brings relief (vv.. 5-11). After confession our prayers are heard (v. 6); our safety is assured (v. 7) our way is made plain (v. 8); our self-respect is restored (v. 9); our Lord shows His mercy, vs. 10; and our joy is endless (v. 11).
- John taught the propriety of baptism, by example and precept (Matthew 3:6). Since he refused baptism to unrepentant sinners, we may assume that he baptized only those who showed real evidence of conversion. And since John was filled with the Holy Spirit, he had the gift of discernment. He could tell who was sincere and who was not. He could baptize immediately after conversion instead of waiting through a testing period as seems necessary now. But if anyone should be mistakenly “baptized” before his real conversion, as this writer was, he should be really baptized after he has assurance of salvation. The example of those in Acts 19:1-7 is authority for this practice.
- John taught the inevitability of judgment (Matthew 3:7, 12). God does not “tear up the ticket” as a traffic court judge might do. The fine must be paid. Law and order must finally prevail in the universe. But since God loves all sinners, He sent His son to pay the fine for us. When any sinner receives Christ as Saviour and Lord, then his record is clear, his name is inscribed in the Lamb’s book of life, his soul is cleansed, and he has a ticket to heaven. But such a person must keep on judging his own sins in order to prove the genuineness of his conversion (1 John 1:7; 2:19).
- John taught that each individual is responsible for his own soul (Matthew 3:9). No one can trust in his godly mother or father or wife or husband for saving his soul. Each person must repent for himself and be baptized on his own volition. Baby baptism can be extremely harmful since it may give a person a false sense of security; it usually means that he will never be baptized properly if and when he is converted. Infant baptism has no sanction, example or authorization in the Bible. This is not to say that unimmersed believers are not good moral Christians. They may well be, but certainly they would be better satisfied with baptism if they followed the teaching of John and Christ.
- John the Baptist taught the supremacy of Christ (Matthew 3:11, 12). Only He can baptize believers in the Holy Spirit. Only He can separate the chaff from the wheat. Christ only is Lord; we have no human viceroy who can take His place; we need not obey any usurper, or bow down to anyone else.
- John preached the cleansing work of the Holy Spirit, as purifying fire (Matthew 3:11). When the Holy Spirit comes into a believer’s heart, He wants all unholy thoughts out. When a believer seeks to be filled with the Spirit, as he is commanded to be (Eph. 5:18), he must put all worldly trash into the fire. Fire is a cauterizing, sterilizing and purifying agent. As a type of the Holy Spirit it is apropos.
- The need for good conduct was stressed by the Baptist (Luke 3:8, 10-14). A Christian has no room for hypocrisy, or for ignorance as to what sinful conduct is. Holding to the absolute Lordship of Christ, a believer must obey Him. All his “members” —hands, feet, mouth—must be yielded to God as “instruments of righteousness” (Rom. 6:11-19).
- By his own example, John taught the need of being faithful unto death (Matthew 14:1-10). His baptism suggested such fidelity, for baptism signifies one’s belief in life after death. The person baptized, while under the surface of the water, is temporarily as dead, and when he rises from the water it is like a resurrection.
- By example again, John showed the need for sound Scriptural preaching (John 1:15-36). John quoted Isaiah (40:3) in John 1:23, even as Christ and Paul quoted much from the Old Testament. Since the Holy Spirit inspired the writing of both Testaments (John 14:26; 1 Cor. 14:37; 2 Peter 1:21), then any Christian who is submissive to the Spirit will respect the whole Bible as inspired of God (2 Tim. 3:16).
- John exhibited the grace of humility (Matthew 3:11, 14; John 1:15, 23; 3:27-30). Here is the mark of truly great persons: they are so intent on doing their work well, in serving others, in obeying orders, that they have no time or desire to advertise themselves. John was “all out” for his Lord. In giving his life to honor his Lord, he himself was greatly honored. And if a Christian does not receive honor in this life, he will have enough reward in heaven to do him for eternity. We have no business seeking honor now. Our orders are to honor Christ instead.
- John taught his disciples to pray (Luke 11:1). They must have liked that teaching, for some of them asked Jesus for more of it. Prayer is important enough for us to study its elements; it deserves concentrated attention. The best Christians appreciate it most. Lord, teach us to pray.
- John taught and preached the Gospel of Christ (Luke 3:18). The word used here, euangelizato, is the same word that is used for preaching the Gospel elsewhere in the New Testament. Those fortunate people who were in the Baptist’s school of prayer and preaching would be well equipped to carry on Gospel work wherever they went. Christendom today needs more seminary professors who will train young preachers in the methods and message of John the Baptist. Then Christ would be glorified and sinners converted to Him. For it must be repeated that John prepared people for his Lord. The New Testament does not say that he taught philosophy, or sociology, or political science, or contemporary theology (an obsession with many!), or economics, or anything but the Gospel of Christ. Perhaps our contemporary ministers need to know much of the above subjects, but they should not crowd out or displace the Gospel.
All of the eighteen items listed above are Christian. They are parts of Christian theology. They comprise John the Baptist; they define him. This list is not complete; more will be added later. Luke 3:18 says “many other things in his exhortation preached he unto the people.” But the list of doctrines is surprisingly long as it is. John was a thorough preacher. And while it is true that later New Testament preachers added more subjects, such as church, communion, missions, stewardship, second coming of Christ, etc., they did not alter or omit anything which John preached so faithfully.
The converts of John, then, were well-instructed believers in Christ. They were thoroughly saved by faith in Him and they were eagerly expecting further blessings from Him. They comprised a large part of the multitudes who heard Christ gladly on many occasions, after John’s voice had been silenced.
The Baptist’s followers were good building blocks for the church Christ came to build (Matthew 16:18). As David “prepared abundantly before his death” the material for his son Solomon to use in building the temple, so John prepared abundantly for Christ’s greater temple, the churches. David gathered gold, silver, brass, iron, wood, onyx, marble and other precious stones, while his “people rejoiced, for that they offered willingly” (I Chron. 22:5; 29:9). David had said, “the house that is to be builded for the Lord must be exceeding magnifical, of fame and of glory throughout all countries.”
Perhaps John the Baptist had King David’s example in mind as he prepared precious hearts for his Lord. Like David, John could not himself do the building but he could gather and prepare material. And John prepared it so well that Christ had unstinted praise for his work.
Any Christian now who believes what John believed and taught will be a strong, robust, brave and effective member of the body of Christ. As such he will be true to the encouraging word of Christ, “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life” (Rev. 2:10).
CHAPTER 7—CRUELLY MARTYRED
“And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison”
John the Baptist in Matthew 14, and not Stephen in Acts 7, was the first Christian martyr. Why, then, is Stephen so widely considered as the first? Is it not because the entire life and work of the Baptist has been effectively buried by too many writers and preachers? Have they not crowded him out of the Christian dispensation? Have they not relegated him back into the Old Testament, or into a mythical “bridge dispensation?” Our chapter six, especially, ought to have enough evidence to show that John was entirely Christian. His life was thoroughly Christian and he was no less so in his death. Certain facts about his martyrdom are worthy of extended notice.
JOHN’S MORAL CODE MADE FOR HIM A DEADLY ENEMY.
“For Herod himself had sent forth and laid hold upon John, and bound him in prison for Herodias’ sake, his brother Philip’s wife: for he had married her. For John had said unto Herod, It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother’s wife. Therefore Herodias had a quarrel against him, and would have killed him; but she could not: For Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just man and an holy, and observed him; and when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly” (Mark 6:17-20).
This Herod was a son of Herod the Great who ruled during the birth of Christ; his mother was a Samaritan. His first wife was the daughter of Aretas (2 Cor. 11:32), king of the Nabathean Arabs, with Petra his capital. Broadus wrote (314): “After many years Herod made proposals of marriage to his niece Herodias, sister to Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12), and wife of his own half-brother, Herod Philip . . . Although accustomed to incestuous marriages in this Herod family, the people must have been greatly outraged at the Tetrarch’s taking the wife of his still living brother, to whom she had borne a child (Salome).” Aretas, after John’s death, made war on Herod and destroyed his army, but Herod was rescued by the Romans. Later, Herod was banished to Lyons, in the south of France, where he and Herodias died miserably.
Flavius Josephus (37?-100 A.D.), a Jewish historian, gives an intensely interesting account of these events in his Antiquities, XVIII, 5, 2. “Some of the Jews believed that Herod’s army was destroyed by God, God punishing him very justly for John called the Baptist, whom Herod had put to death. For John was a pious man and he was bidding the Jews who practiced virtue and exercised righteousness toward each other and piety toward God, to come together for baptism. For thus, it seemed to him, would baptismal ablution seem acceptable, if it were used not to beg off from sins committed, but for the purification of the body when the soul had previously been cleaned by righteous conduct. And when everybody turned to John -for they were profoundly stirred by what he said—Herod feared that John’s so extensive influence over the people might lead to an uprising (for the people seemed likely to do everything he might counsel). He thought it much better, under the circumstances, to get John out of way in advance, before any insurrection might develop, than for himself to get into trouble and be sorry not to have acted, once an insurrection had begun. So because of Herod’s suspicion, John was sent as a prisoner to Machaerus, the fortress already mentioned, and there put to death. But the Jews believed that the destruction which overtook the army came as a punishment for Herod, God wishing to do him harm.”
Herod was a wicked man. John reproved him for taking his brother’s wife “and for all the evils which Herod had done” (Luke 3:19, 20). Herodias was worse still, for she it was who maneuvered to kill John, against Herod’s wishes. She knew how wicked she had been in leaving her first husband for his brother, and for allowing her husband to desert and divorce his first wife. When a preacher speaks out about such evil, saying what everyone knows to be true, he offends the wrongdoer. Then the guilty one attacks the preacher of righteousness. “For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved” (John 3:20).
But John did not compromise; he did not hedge; he did not fear. He had not read a book on How to Win Friends and Influence People; he had read the books written by Old Testament prophets. He spoke not as an ordinary individual; rather, he spoke as the voice of God. The Holy Spirit within him had to expose the unholy practices around him. While doing this he was not being impolite; he was simply being obedient to his Lord. The Lord Jesus was the most courteous of men; He was also the most severe in exposing sin and hypocrisy. John was like his Lord.
Herodias hated John so violently and vindictively that she kept plotting his death. She knew that Herod did not want to kill him; therefore, she had to resort to strategy. She kept pouring her poisonous malice into the ears of young Salome who was then perhaps a teen-ager. Slater Brown, in his fictional treatment of John the Baptist, tells how Herodias had hired two cutthroats to seek out and kill John. Her temporary failure only increased her venom. Actually, she hated John because he was a good man.
JOHN’S MACHAERUS PRISON MADE HIM DOUBT.
Machaerus was a summer palace and fortress combined, about seven miles northeast of the Dead Sea. “In the remote and hopeless imprisonment, in one of those deep and dark dungeons which were so cold in winter and hot in summer, the great Baptizer languished for probably more than a year” (Broadus, Matthew; p. 316).
Like an eagle, John the Baptist had been used to the wide open spaces. Like an eagle, he drooped in his narrow cage. Physically strong and active, he craved exercise, fresh air, sunshine and clean surroundings. His prison was without comforts or sanitary facilities. His torture was increased by the fact that he could no longer preach to great crowds. He wanted to see sinners repent of their sins, confess them, and get right with God. He longed to baptize more and still more converts. And he knew that any hour of the day or night his death might be accomplished by the unceasing scheming of Herodias.
Just what made John doubt? He had been telling his crowds that the Messiah was going to lay the axe at the root of the trees, that “Every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire . . . and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:10-12). But Jesus had not been fulfilling those eschatological predictions; He had not done all that John expected of Him. Yes, He had been preaching and healing, but He had apparently paid no attention to His enemies. He had done nothing about rescuing John from his insufferable prison.
Regarding John’s question as to whether or not Jesus were really the Messiah, Nahum Gale wrote, “It seems probable that John’s question was prompted less by secret unbelief, than by growing impatience at the slowness of Christ’s progress” (The Prophet of the Highest; p. 155). An added comment from Gale: “Despondence and doubt are born of inactivity. Christians who have nothing to do, but to sit and think of themselves, are very likely to become the prey of morbid melancholy, and black and baseless misgivings. The medicine they need is Christian action” (163).
Matthew recorded the action of John in sending a committee of two of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?” (Matthew 11:2, 3). One comfort John had: some of his disciples were allowed to visit him. Those men braved the captors of John to minister to him. Meyer wrote (John the Baptist; p. 111)
“It is very touching to remark the tenacity with which some few of John’s disciples clung to their great leader . . . To be loved like that is earth’s deepest bliss! These heroic souls risked all the perils that might accrue to themselves from this identification with their master; they did not hesitate to come to his cell with tidings of the great outer world, and specially of what HE was doing and saying, whose life was so mysteriously bound up with his own.”
Why did not Christ rescue John from his jail? He had raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead (Mark 5:21-24, 35-43); He was able, therefore, to do the lesser thing of bringing John back from a living death. He had healed a maniac (Mark 5:1-20); He could as easily break the bars of Machaerus. He had stilled a storm (Mark 4:35-41); could He not calm the passions of Herod’s family?
- Campbell Morgan wrote in defense of the Baptist (The Gospel According to Matthew; p. 111): “John was too accustomed to loneliness to be disloyal because he was within prison walls. His hard and rugged life in the wilderness had probably made him quite independent of the soft raiment and luxury of kings’ houses; and one cannot believe there was a tremor in his courage. His question was rather an evidence of the continuity of his courage. The thing that surprised him was that Jesus was not doing exactly what he thought He was going to do . . . in order to understand the question which John sent by his disciples, we must place the works of Jesus into contrast with what John had said of Him before He began His public ministry.”
It could be that John expected Christ to bring in “the day of vengeance of our God,” a prophetic phrase from Isaiah 61:1, 2, but omitted from Christ’s own reference to His mission in Luke 4:18, 7 9. Instead, Christ was all mercy; He was gentle, helpful, kind, and without any judgment thus far. And He apparently had no word of rebuke at this time for Herod anal Herodias!
James A. Stalker has words of approval for John (239, 249): “First, he put his doubts into words. Secondly, John sent directly to Christ. Thirdly, John never thought of withdrawing his condemnation of the conduct of Herod and Herodias . . . And John had an opportunity of being a courtier, because Herod had cast on him a favoring eye and listened to his preaching with delight.”
But how did Jesus answer John’s poignant request? He responded by keeping John’s messengers waiting while “in that same hour He cured many of their infirmities and plagues, and of evil spirits; and unto many that were blind He gave sight.” Seeing is believing, and Jesus wanted those two brave men to see for themselves just what their Messiah was doing. Then Jesus said to them, “Go your way, and tell John what things ye have seen and heard; how that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, to the poor the gospel is preached. And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me” (Luke 7:21-23).
Miracles were excellent evidences of the Messiahship of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus cited them to His critics in John 5:36, “the works which the Father hath given me to finish, the same works that I do, bear witness of me, that the Father hath sent me.” No one else in all the world could do such miracles as John’s disciples saw performed that day. And the phrase, “to the poor the gospel is preached,” should give John great comfort. This would assure him that his own preaching ministry was being continued, and it was in very good hands.
After John’s messengers were departed, Jesus spoke in highest praise of John the Baptist (Luke 7:24-35). Perhaps some of this eulogy would reach John in due time. If not, John would still remain faithful. By praising a man too much a strong temptation to pride is placed in his way. Jesus knew what was the right thing to do; we can trust Him in every situation.
JOHN’S MARTYRDOM ILLUSTRATES GREAT PRINCIPLES.
God does not bribe people with earthly rewards. The story of job is a classic example.
John the Baptist would be faithful unto death, even though he would be neglected in a dungeon.
We Christians are in a deadly battle against sin, Satan, and all worldliness. We, too, must be faithful unto death.
Our love for God and righteousness must be greater than our love for life itself.
Loyalty to Christ has priority over all earthly bonds. We ought to obey God rather than man. The laws of God are greater than the customs of man.
Why do Christians suffer? Some suffer because of their own former sins; some on account of the sins of others; some because of diseases common to all; some because of carelessness; some because of ignorance; and some because of wars and calamities which affect entire populations. In countries with totalitarian rulers, Christians may suffer persecution just because they are Christians. This is not surprising.
Jesus warned His disciples of the need for courage in the face of persecution. In John 16:2 He said “the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service.” And in John 16:33, “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”
JOHN’S MARTYRDOM ILLUSTRATES HIS BAPTISM.
Baptism signifies a convert’s death to the world of sin, worldliness and selfishness. If, then, a convert suffers physical death as a consequence of his opposition to sin and worldliness, it is in one sense the logical outcome of his profession of faith. Those who do not suffer martyrdom for their faith are more fortunate than their Lord and His forerunner, as far as a peaceful death is concerned.
To quote Steinman on the death of John (Saint John the Baptist; p. 177): “His death is also, most significant. It prefigured that of all Christian martyrs. They were to die without witnessing the glorious Second Coming, just as John the Baptist died before the fulfillment of the Messianic coming. Christianity has always venerated John the Baptist. The words of Jesus in which He pays him such stirring tribute have never ceased to awake an echo in the hearts of the readers of the gospel.”
Again, baptism signifies an entrance into a new life, a life of righteousness, and a life that leads to heaven with its perfections. When John baptized his converts in the Jordan River, his hearers and onlookers would be reminded that their fathers walked through the Jordan toward and into the “land that flowed with milk and honey.” John’s martyrdom ended his sufferings, even as it marked the beginning of his eternal rewards in the Heavenly Canaan.
Further, baptism is a pledge of fidelity until death, regardless of the manner of one’s decease. The early Christian martyrs believed this, and they were faithful. Modern Christian martyrs, perhaps in large numbers, are equally true to the Lord. Great will be their reward in heaven. We are engaged in deadly battle against Satan and all his hosts. As in every war the old saying is true, “Cowards die a thousand deaths, the brave but once.”
John the Baptist practiced what he preached. He was faithful unto death. He ratified and validated his own baptism. He gave real meaning to it. Henceforth, all men should know that when they asked for baptism, they were risking martyrdom for their faith. IF all men knew this, the proportion of heroes would be higher than it is.
In his courageous stand for righteousness, and in his death, John was a worthy example to all baptized Christians. Stephen, James, Peter, Paul and a host of others were inspired by his faithfulness.
The five martyred missionaries to the Auca Indians in 1956 have inspired thousands of young people to follow in their train! Those five did not die in vain. The widows of some, and the father of one of the martyrs have gone back to those savages in love and with the supernatural power of the Gospel have tamed them and won them to Christ. Such is the superb courage of dedicated Christians. John the Baptist would be proud of them.
The Baptist died a cruel death. It was gruesome, savage, ghastly, hideous. “The oriental tetrarchs, the sons of Herod, disgusted even the Romans themselves, which is saying a great deal” (Steinman, p. 103).
“Herod on his birthday made a supper to his lords, high captains, and chief estates of Galilee; and when the daughter of the said Herodias came in, and danced, and pleased Herod and them that sat with him, the king said unto the damsel, Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee” (Mark 6:21, 22). This would be a drunken feast. The dancing would be pagan, but perhaps no worse than is said to occur in some “night spots” of our big and wicked cities.
Salome asked her mother, “What shall I ask?” The limit was half of the kingdom. What could be worth as much? It depends on one’s hatreds and prejudices, or his loves and loyalties. But hatred, not love, ruled Herodias. All the gold in all the kingdoms of the world would not outweigh her aversion to John the Baptist. She must have vengeance at any cost. She had waited a seemingly long time for this moment of triumph. As the hateful mob at the farcical trial of Christ shouted, “Crucify him!” so Herodias told her young daughter to ask for the head of the saintly prophet. But what would a teenager want with a man’s head? And why did she return “with haste unto the king?” Perhaps Herodias scared her, or threatened her, or bribed her. Or perhaps she had by now filled the girl’s heart with evil equal to her own. In any case, Herod was impaled with his own foolish promise. He should have broken it and he knew it. But pride in his drunken oath made him still more foolish. He was afraid to be “chicken!”
How many young men and women, and oldsters also, are as foolish as Herod! When tempted to take the first drink, a person may know it is not smart at all, but because he fears to be different, he yields to temptation. When tempted to dance, the social pressure is almost unbearable. When tempted to gamble it takes a stout heart to resist. But Joseph resisted Potiphar’s wife—and went to jail for it. Daniel resisted Babylonian ways and was promoted, in time. John the Baptist opposed Herod’s sires and was promoted, suddenly, to Heaven.
So John, the first Baptist, died. “Thus ended the tragic destiny of the greatest of the prophets of Israel. John was the first of a long line of martyrs to be beheaded and put to death. These sorrows were the birth-pangs of Christianity” (Steinman, p. 103).
A life-size painting by Guido Reni, Italian artist (1575-1642) hangs in the Chicago Art Institute. Herodias dominates the scene. Resplendent in magnificent clothing, with facial cosmetics worthy of America’s exclusive beauty salons, the wicked wife of Herod looks as beautiful as a tigress standing over its prey, or as a cat after capturing a canary. She looks down with frank pleasure upon the severed head of John the Baptist, the man who baptized the Lord Jesus Christ. What a triumph for her! Here was the man who dared to criticize her conduct. She has killed the man of whom Jesus said, “Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist.” Here is the modern Jezebel who tried to kill Elijah but failed, whereas Herodias finally succeeded. What a diabolical deed, what a Satanic success, what a fiendish victory!
Salome, in Reni’s picture, looks on with an attitude of wonder, bewilderment and apparent satisfaction in having done her mother’s bidding. She is so very young to have had a part in this assassination.
The messenger who brought the head on a platter is also very young, a mere boy. He has a knife in his belt. He seems to be quite innocent of all that is going on. Too soon he has learned how wicked some people are.
Behind Herodias are two grown women, also beautifully dressed and coiffured. They are whispering to one another, with a suggestion of sly grins. One can almost hear them say, “The Queen is quite a killer . . . Look what happens to anyone who crosses her . . . That will teach those preachers a lesson . . . She’s as tough as ten lionesses; we’d better watch our step or our heads will roll too.”
“And when his disciples heard of it, they came and took up his corpse, and laid it in a tomb” (Mark 6:29).
After seeing the Lord Jesus in heaven, I should like to see John the Baptist and hear him speak.
CHAPTER 8—TRAGICALLY IGNORED
“They knew him not”
Jesus said that the religious leaders of His time did not understand or recognize John the Baptist. The same can be said about every century since that time, including the twentieth.
John the Baptist came to Israel in the spirit and power of Elijah, according to the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:17) and the Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 17:12). “But I say unto you, That Elias is come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed. Likewise shall also the Son of man suffer of them.” The religious leaders were jealous of John and likely were plotting ,how to do away with him, until Herod did it for them. Even so, those envious chief priests and elders (Matthew 27:,18) finally put Christ to a shameful death.
WHO FAILED TO APPRECIATE THE BAPTIST WHILE HE LIVED?
The Pharisees, as we have seen, rejected John, his message and his baptism (Luke 7:30). They had accumulated a surprisingly large number of man-made rules which they tried to impose on their people. Neither John nor Christ followed their picayunish practices or rigid regulations. The Pharisees once asked Christ’s disciples, “Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?” (Matthew 9:11). Even so, some Christians are now criticized by the “rightists” for working with the “leftists,” and vice versa. Jesus replied, “They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick . . . for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Matthew 9:12, 13). John did that too, and “the publicans and harlots believed him” (Matthew 21:32).
The critics of John were the more condemned because they failed to repent after seeing many sinners converted to God and to the life of righteousness. Jesus told them, “when ye had seen it, (ye) repented not afterward, that ye might believe him” (Matthew 21:32). Just so, all the converts of some revival preachers are not enough to overcome the prejudices of their critics.
The Sadducees were too haughty, proud and aristocratic to follow this “unauthorized” desert preacher in his unconventional clothing. John did not have their credentials. He lacked their ordination and accreditation. Poor John! How could he ever succeed without all these?
The lawyers, scribes, elders and chief priests were unwilling to bury in baptism their pride and reputations as leaders. Jesus said of them, “But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries . . . and love the uppermost rooms at feasts . . . and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi” (Matthew 23:5-7). They preferred pomp and vanity to John’s Christianity.
Herod and Herodias, more immoral than the harlots who repented at John’s preaching, killed the Baptist. For immorality opens the floodgates to all kinds of evils, including rationalization regarding sexual sins.
All these unhappy people failed to believe John, even though heaven itself had endorsed him in a spectacular way (Matthew 3:13-17).
In addition, there were certain unstable souls among the Jews who “were willing for a season to rejoice in his light” (John 5:35). They were like the seed which fell on stony ground, and because it had no root, it withered away (Mark 4:5, 6). Shallow, thoughtless curiosity-seekers want to be entertained; they do not want to think. They are reeds bending with the wind. They are soon gone with the wind.
Jesus said, “neither tell I you by what authority I do these things” to those critics who refused to acknowledge John’s baptism as coming from heaven. Robertson wrote (John the Loyal; p. 438): “The principle involved in His refusal is the same as when He refused a sign from heaven (Matthew 16:4), viz., that no man has a right to demand a superfluity of evidence on any question of belief or duty, and that as the call for such accumulated proof is a virtual rejection of that previously given; it is the law of that divine administration to refuse it even as a favor.”
WHO IGNORED JOHN THE BAPTIST IN CHURCH HISTORY?
The eleven disciples, in their business meeting, did not ignore John the Baptist (Acts 1:12-26). The early church was making progress carefully, making sure that their foundations were laid upon twelve competent witnesses. And Peter, in his first sermon to Gentiles, recognized John and his baptism as the beginning of the Gospel of Christ (Acts 10:37).
The Apostle Paul did not ignore John and his baptism in his preaching on his first missionary journey (Acts 13:24).
But corruption of doctrine crept into the thinking of undiscriminating people early, even in New Testament times. Someone had blundered badly in teaching and in “baptizing” those few “disciples” mentioned in Acts 19:1-7. When Paul met them (about 25 years after the resurrection of Christ), he knew. that something was wrong with them. They did not even know about the Holy Spirit whom John had preached so consistently.
Within one hundred years after Christ’s resurrection, according to The Didache (The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles), pouring was accepted as a substitute for immersion-baptism. This was allowed on the mistaken assumption that baptism was necessary for salvation. Then some unknown, misguided teachers reasoned that if baptism were required for salvation, then babies must be “baptized” also. No one knows when infant sprinkling began, but it may have been as early as the beginning of the third century. It is not found in the New Testament. Why it began is more important.
Mark 1:4 and Luke 3:3 have the phrase, “baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (Greek, eis aphesin hamartion). The word “for” seems to mean “in order to receive” as it sometimes does in English usage. But it does not always mean that; it may mean “because one has received.” It has this meaning, for example, in Mark 1:44. Jesus told the leper who had been healed, “show thyself to the priest, and offer for thy cleansing those things Moses commanded, for a testimony unto them.” The leper was to offer a gift because he had been healed, not in order to be healed. The gift was a testimony of his healing, even as baptism is an evidence or testimony of one’s salvation.
But the mistake started, and it spread. People were taught that baptism procured salvation. This heresy is called “Baptismal Regeneration,” the idea that in baptism, such as in infant sprinkling, a person is regenerated. It is directly contrary to the dozens of verses in the Bible which say plainly that salvation comes by sincere faith alone, apart from works or sacraments (See John 1:12; 3:16, 36; 5:24; 6:36; 20:31; Acts 16:31; Eph. 2:8-10). This sacramentalism was not only contrary to John’s message; it also contradicted and largely nullified the words of Christ. For if baptism saves, why did Christ need to die on the cross? If baptism saves, is it another idol? If baptism saves, then “Christ is become of no effect unto you . . . ye are fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:4).
So the Baptist’s clear gospel was too soon ignored or distorted. Kraeling says (John the Baptist; p. 183), “It is interesting to note that during the whole of the second and third centuries . . . Christian legend and the Christian Church Fathers have very little to say about John . . . But when in the fourth century the Gnostic crisis had passed, John suddenly became again for the Church a very important person. Festival days celebrated in his honor find a place in the Church’s liturgical calendar. Churches and martyria are erected in commemoration of him particularly in Samaria, Alexandria and Constantinople, but also in widely separated other parts of the Byzantine Orient.” But by the fourth century the evil doctrine of baptismal regeneration had become stronger, and the emerging Roman Catholic Church fastened it firmly on all its adherents.
Augustine (354-430), bishop of Hippo in North Africa, threw his considerable weight in support of the heresy of baptismal regeneration. He also was largely instrumental in popularizing the idea of the “universal” or “invisible” church theory. While he had in mind the Roman Catholic system, many protestants have unwittingly taken it over into their own thinking.
The Eastern (Greek) Orthodox Church practices infant baptism also; however they hold to immersion for they know well the meaning of baptizo.
But in every century there were dissenters from the Catholic churches. They went under various names and most of them rejected infant baptism. Almost invariably they were persecuted by the “established churches” and yet they persisted. Thus when Luther appeared with his famous ninety-five theses in 1517, Anabaptist churches were fairly numerous throughout central Europe. They could not have sprung up overnight; they had existed quietly all along.
John Wycliffe had been martyred for his faith which was closer to the New Testament than it was to Rome’s errors, in England in 1384. John Huss (1369-1415) had tried to reform the Roman Church but was burned at the stake for his efforts. Balthasar Hubmeier also tried and suffered a similar fate on March 10, 1528. When Luther (1483-1546) and Calvin (1509-1564) came into prominence with increasing influence, it would seem that all reformers could be safer. But the Anabaptists were severely persecuted by Catholics and Protestants alike.
- L. E. Verheyden, in his Anabaptism in Flanders, 1530-1650, cites evidences of the constant persecution, including tortures, of the Anabaptists during those years. The flyleaf of this book says: “The picture it (this book) presents is a new one in its evidence of the surprising extent of the spread of the Anabaptist movement geographically, as well as its depth and tenacity in the face of the severest persecution. That Anabaptism persisted in Flanders almost a half century beyond 1600 was not clearly known before. That, apart from certain aberrations from the very beginning, Flemish Anabaptism was completely peaceful, nonresistant, and evangelical, largely after the pattern of Menno Simons, is fully demonstrated. A major gap in our knowledge and understanding of continental Anabaptism has now been closed in an exceptionally competent fashion by a master in the field.”
These Anabaptists were, technically and historically, neither Protestants nor Reformers. They flourished in considerable numbers before Luther appeared, and they did not establish a “Reformed” church. Rather, they strove to maintain the original New Testament faith and order, not without success. True, some Anabaptists did not practice immersion for a time, but later Baptists did universally.
Most church historians ignore too much of Anabaptist history. They are much like the Encyclopedia Britannica (1961) which gives 1521 as the date of “their first rising!” Worse, the Encyclopedia (EB) identifies the Anabaptists with the “mad men of Munster” who were not really Anabaptists at all. Protestants and Catholics blamed all Anabaptists for the fanatical actions of those supposed Anabaptists. Even the name Anabaptist was proscribed. New names were confusing. Some were called Mennonites who repudiated the Munster fanatics as did all Baptists, yet the historians and theologians magnified the few deviates at Munster while ignoring the masses of peaceful, wholesome, persecuted Anabaptists. In England, John of Leyden gave a bad name to the Baptists of whom, says the EB, the vast majority were good quiet people who practiced the Christian ideals of which their persecutors prated.
George P. Fisher in his History of the Christian Church wrote (341) regarding the reformation in the Netherlands: “Anabaptists and other licentious and fanatical sectaries were numerous, and their excesses afforded a plausible pretext for punishing with severity all who departed from the ancient faith.” But on page 425 Fisher seems to be more reasonable toward the Anabaptists. “It is a gross injustice to impute to all of them the wild and destructive fanaticism with which a portion of them are chargeable.” The fanatical Munsterites were few in number compared to the large body of Anabaptists, much smaller in proportion than the one Judas among twelve disciples!
William Stevenson, in his The Story of the Reformation wrote (p. 51, used by permission of the John Knox Press, Richmond, Virginia): “History has witnessed many injustices, but surely none more flagrant than the disrepute of a generally pious and godly sect. For centuries their virtues were thrust into the shadows while the spotlight was focused on the disgraceful episode . . . at Munster, where a band of irresponsible fanatics plunged into a sorry experiment of communism, polygamy, and other antisocial vices. For those excesses of the guilty few, the innocent majority has been condemned . . . It cannot be too strongly emphasized that the Munster episode was exceptional and not typical . . . The Anabaptists, far from being evil-doers, ruled their lives by the highest standards, as even their bitterest enemies admitted.”
As a rule, European historians and theologians, professors and preachers, for four hundred years have spread the libelous fiction that these few “bad men” were representative of the Anabaptists. These biased historians have infected seminary professors in Europe and in America, if not all over the world, with this grave error of church history. The baneful effects of this fallacy is seen in much of the Baptist ministry, hence the need for real Baptist schools to teach the whole truth of Baptist history. Meanwhile, biased professors continue indoctrinating their students in countless schools with injustice toward Anabaptists.
Has all this affected the history of Baptists? Indeed it has. Continental Baptists were practically exterminated for two hundred years. Not until the 1840s did they get a fresh start in Germany, although they had grown slowly in the British Isles. They grew rapidly in Russia, under various names, and in the Scandinavian countries, during the past hundred years. They are still very weak numerically in Greece, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, France, Belgium and Holland.
Largely because Baptists have been severely persecuted, physically during Reformation days and scholastically thereafter, the false doctrine of baptismal regeneration prevails throughout 90-95% of Christendom. Over seven hundred millions of people in Christian churches are taught the deadening doctrine that baptism brings salvation to an infant. In this “faith” they live and die, depending on false hopes taught to them by priests, pastors and professors who were themselves taught this same heresy since the second or third century of our era. These false guides have ignored the plain teachings of John the Baptist, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul and countless Christians who were loyal to the Word of God in contrast to earthly ecclesiastical hierarchies.
Baptists, however, have had a remarkable influence upon many Christian churches during the past century. They have strengthened the Protestant stand against tradition by placing the Scriptures as supreme, and the sole guide for faith and practice in the Christian life. Their firmness against infant baptism, with supporting reasons from Scripture and history, have influenced many Pedobaptists to give their “infant baptism” a status more like dedication than sacramental baptism. Baptists have made headway in teaching the priesthood of all believers, democratic church polity, emphasis upon a regenerate church membership, the autonomy of each local church, and the separation of church and state. May their good influence continue.
On the other hand, some Baptists are apparently becoming more liberal and ecumenical, and therefore less interested in promoting their distinctive New Testament doctrines. They do not seem to dare claim any kinship with the heaven-sent man who was the first to be called Baptist. No claim is ‘here made for “apostolic succession” or denominational identity with John the Baptist; our purpose is rather to discover anew how all Baptists and other Christians may profit from a study of his short life. Yet no Baptist holds John as their final authority. There is a progression of authority, says D. F. Ackland, in the New Testament which must be reckoned with; otherwise, one runs a danger of the kind of schismatic heresy so plainly rebuked in First Corinthians 1 . . . This suggests another question.
WHO IGNORES JOHN THE BAPTIST NOW?
The sacramentalists seem to ignore him, for they place saving value on their “sacrament” of baptism. Nowhere in the New Testament is baptism called a sacrament; a better word for it is “ordinance” (1 Cor. 11:2). The word “sacrament” has taken on extra-biblical meanings which seem to give magical powers of regeneration to baptism. Neither John the Baptist, nor anyone else in the New Testament, ever taught that heresy.
A certain leftist pastor-editor who took the name “Baptist” from his church, substituting the name “Woodside,” wrote in the October, 1961, issue of Baptist Freedom regarding baptism, “Perhaps the biggest decision to be made is that which the church itself must make—are we interested in winning men to Christ and leading them into His Kingdom or is our objective that of immersing them in some relic ritual (sic) of the last century centering in the mourner’s bench and resplendent with emotional excess?” But can we not lead men into Christ’s kingdom best by means of inviting them to confess Christ as Saviour and Lord in baptism?
These liberals, so allergic to baptism and so infatuated with scholarship, seem to equate skepticism with wisdom. A thorough study of the Bible, however exhaustive it may be, is not considered “scholarly” by those who give priority to the opinions of big-name liberals.
The influence of Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918), a German critic of the Bible, lingers on in spite of numerous archaeological discoveries which have proven him wrong. A new generation of critics now are wielding disproportionate influence against everything supernatural in the Bible. Naive students think it is a sign of smartness to quote them. A favorite game is to “demythologize” that which ought never to have been mythologized in the first place! For example, Kraeling seems to have fallen into this error (18, 19): “The existence in Jewish religious literature and folklore of analogies to virtually all the important elements of John’s birth story shows that the narrative is fundamentally legendary (?) and that its episodes cannot be used directly for historical purposes.”
This mania for finding “parallels” in non-Biblical literature for many of the unusual incidents related in the Bible, e. g., the Virgin Birth, is quite widespread. Fosdick used this trick. By means of this dubious device, critics attempt to eviscerate Scripture of many supernatural elements. But this method of attack has gone too far, according to Rabbi Samuel Sandmel whom this writer heard lecture on “Parallelomania” at the meeting of The Society of Biblical Literature and Exegesis at St. Louis, Missouri, December 27, 1961. The learned Rabbi seemed to ridicule those who ‘sought to trace Paul’s teaching of non-retaliation in Romans 12:17-20 to the Qumran documents and the Manual of Discipline. Are not those who seek to find precedents or parallels to the baptism of John also victims of parallelomania?
The names of those who wrongly ignore John the Baptist are legion. The cultists seem to do that. Those who question or deny the deity of Christ would profit from John’s unequivocal statement that He is the Son of God (John 1:29-36). Those who refuse to observe baptism at all should read again our Lord’s hearty endorsement of John’s baptism as comparable to “the counsel of God,” and they should heed Christ’s Great Commission which is to be observed until the end of this age. Those who trust in modern “prophets,” be they prolific dreamers, or hat-peepers, or miracle-wheat sellers, or reincarnationists, and all devotees of extra-biblical revelations—these should follow the example of John the Baptist who held to Christ as the Son of God.
When the Spirit-filled Baptist spoke of the coming of the Holy Spirit, he implied that every Christian should be yielded to Him, not to the many false spirits “which are gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1-3).
One hesitates to rebuke the many faithful Christians who are serving the Lord as best they know how in non-immersionist churches. That many of them are winning converts to Christ is beyond question. They are also missionary minded and generous and clean-living and prayerful Bible readers. Some extreme dispensationalists have a belief that John belongs in the Old Testament, and not with New Testament believers. To all such we respectfully urge a new study of John in the light of all that the New Testament really says about him and about his baptism. They will find an unbroken chain of continuity of doctrine from John the Baptist to Paul the Apostle, and. throughout the first century of Christendom. It is our purpose to make more clear our need of a doctrinal connection with John. If that is done, Christ will mean more to us, for all that John said of Him will then be an integral part of our religious beliefs.
John Calvin supports the above view (Institutes IV, xv, 7): “It is very certain that the ministry of John was precisely the same as that which afterwards was committed to the apostles . . . The sameness of their doctrine shows their baptism to have been the same . . . If any difference be sought for in the Word of God, the only difference that will be found is, that John baptized in the name of Him who was to come, the apostles in the name of Him who had already manifested Himself.”
Baptists, of all people, ignore John the Baptist. Not all, but the majority of them do. Ask anyone how many sermons he has heard on John. One Baptist pastor did a rare thing: he gave a series of six sermons on the Baptist. But his sermon titles did not once mention or name his subject!
Why do Baptists seem so timid about the first Baptist? They seem to fear any attitude of boasting about their name. To claim John as their founder, humanly speaking, may seem like fanaticism or egotism. They fear distinctiveness in an age when ecumenicity is popular. They dislike controversy which might arise if they suggest John as their first hero. But no other denomination claims him; why should not Baptists have that privilege? (The French wine-cask makers claim John the Baptist as their patron saint; they dedicated a new window in the Rheims Cathedral to him!).
“They knew him not,” said Christ about John the Baptist. That is also true of the present generation concerning John. Books about him, especially by Baptists, are inordinately scarce, none apparently having appeared for over fifty years. Books about him by non-Baptists, while more in number, are often lacking in insight. Sermons about the Baptist by Baptists are infrequent and apologetic as far as any connection with Baptists is concerned. Seminary instruction follows the European pattern. For in downgrading the many Anabaptists of four and five hundred years ago, the name Baptist has likewise been devalued. The concern here is not to exalt contemporary Baptists; it is rather to instruct them regarding their namesake, their rich heritage, and their very name.
They knew him not. But Christ knew him, and approved him, and honored him by carrying on the ministry which John had started so well. The Christian faith grew robust under the preaching of Christ and His faithful apostles. It bore much fruit in its pristine first-century form.
One source of strength was the Spirit-filled tap root named John the Baptist. But when the tap root is cut off, the tree suffers; it remains a dwarf tree. How can the tap root be grafted in again, to make Christ more effective, and the entire New Testament restored to its rightful authority?
THE FIRST BAPTIST
CHAPTER 9—HOPEFULLY REVIEWED
“He shall be great in the sight of the Lord”
Is our sight the same as the Lord’s? It should be.
Each Christian should seek to please his Lord, not in order to be called “great,” but to show his gratitude for the Lord’s mercies. Everyone should try to be as useful as possible, and the more useful one is the more he will deserve to be called great.
The Lord told Jeremiah, “And seekest thou great things for thyself? seek them not” (Jer. 45:5). This verse, incidentally, was decisive in changing the life direction of young Charles Haddon Spurgeon from that of seeking fame to seeking his Lord’s will. It could have meant the same for young John the Baptist.
The brief review of the life of John the Baptist is not for the purpose of exalting him. It is rather for the purpose of examining his methods and message concerning his exaltation of Christ. It is to discover how the Baptist promoted Christ so well; how he witnessed to Christ; how he remained .humble; how he prepared people for his Lord, and how he won the Lord’s approval.
“THERE WAS A MAN SENT FROM GOD, WHOSE NAME WAS JOHN” (JOHN 1:6).
This prophet was to be a Pathfinder for the greater Prophet to come a little later. For John was to survey the spiritual wilderness that was Israel. He would mark out a trail; he would blaze the trees as markers for future travelers; he would chart a long-expected Messiah.
John the Baptist was to be a road builder for his Master, this Master Who was Himself to be the Way, the Truth and the Life, and apart from Whom no one can come to the Father (John 14:6). With the Holy Spirit as the Highway Engineer, the plans were sure to be the best possible. Every traveler on this spiritual highway could be sure of his direction, his destination, and his duty en route. No detours would exist, unless and until misguided pilgrims would themselves erect roadblocks such as baptismal regeneration, baby baptism, a priestly hierarchy or a fawning Mariolatry. When the debris of tradition had accumulated with passing centuries, more and more pilgrims lost hope or succumbed to deadening formalism or empty ritualism. However, persistent inquirers could examine the original blueprints in the Gospels and Epistles, and thereby plot their course in spite of ecclesiastical dictatorships. Among such brave men were Wycliffe, Tyndale, Luther, Bunyan, Wesley and Roger Williams. These heroes did not agree on all doctrines, but they did agree on the sole Lordship of Christ and the supreme authority of His Word.
John the Baptist was the advance agent for the Lord Jesus Christ. His work was to announce the coming of his King, to prepare people for His coming, to win loyal adherents for Him in advance of His coming, and to create enthusiasm for His kingdom. All this John did superbly well. He set up attractive signs to announce his King. Baptism was such a sign: to the Jewish mind it somehow pointed to Christ. The committee sent to John by the Pharisees asked him, “Why baptizest thou then, if thou be not that Christ, nor Elias, neither that prophet?” (John 1:25).
John was himself a sign post. Now, sign posts have no saving value in themselves except as they point toward a worthy goal. This John did. He always pointed to Christ.
When God was ready to start a new work in the world, He sent a baptizing preacher. Missionary statesmen and planners of new churches would be wise to learn pioneering methods from the first Christian pioneer.
“THE SAME CAME FOR A WITNESS” (JOHN 1:7).
The Baptist came “to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.” Why does a light need a witness? Does the sun need anyone to announce that it is shining? No; except to those who are blind. Jesus spoke to certain Pharisees in such a way as to maneuver them into asking Him, “Are we blind also?” Jesus answered them, “If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth” (John 9:40, 41). They were blind; they could not see the deity of Christ, even after He had healed a man who had been blind from birth. What blinded them? The debris of extra-Mosaic laws regarding the Sabbath (their man-made laws) blinded them to the divine Sonship of Christ and to His goodness in healing a blind man. Each Christian should ask himself if he is blinded, even in part, by mistaken notions which can not be supported by Scripture. Perhaps most of us have “blind spots” of which we are not aware. Such a possibility, not to say probability, should keep us humble.
Just as John was not the Light, so no Christian since his day can claim that unique honor. Self-styled messiahs have come and gone, each proclaiming himself to be the Lord’s chosen light, but they have miserably flickered and failed. Only the Lord Jesus shines through the world’s darkness, “and the darkness comprehended (overcame) it not” (John 1:5).
How did John bear witness to the Light? Just what did he say?
John the Baptist witnessed to the eternity of Christ. “He was before me,” said John (John 1:15, 27, 30). This could only be true if Jesus were the divine Son of God in a unique way. (This list supplements the points listed in chapter six.)
John declared the superiority of Christ. “He that cometh after me is preferred before me” (John 1:15). “He that cometh from above is above all . . . he that cometh from heaven is above all” (John 3:31).
The Baptist said that Christ was full of grace and truth (John 1:14, 16, 17). “Grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” This “fulness” of grace and truth “have all we received” in contrast to the law given by Moses. Now John HAD received it, no question, and it seems that only his politeness made him say that “all we” have also received it. Not that it is not available to everyone. It is free as air. But not all have opened their hearts to receive Christ. Too many hold on to worldly idols and playthings and prejudices. But the fulness is available still. Which is more valuable: grace and truth from God or the pride and greed of the world? John chose the former.
Again, John called attention to the Lamb of God Who was to bear all the sins of all the world for all time in His own body on the ~ accursed tree of Calvary (John 1:29, 36; I Pet. 2:24). True, the records we have do not say he mentioned the cross, but his use of the word for Lamb (Greek, amnos) indicated a sacrificial lamb. This word is found only four times in the New Testament (John 1:29, 36; Acts 8:32; 1 Pet. 1:19). Acts 8:32 is a quotation from Isaiah 53:7, 8 while the verse in Peter refers to our salvation depending on “the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.” Here is sacred ground, and John trod it reverently.
John also explained that Christ was going to baptize believers in the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:11; Mark 1:5; Luke 3:11; John 1:33; Acts 1:5; 11:16). Some believe He does so now at conversion; others say the Spirit’s baptism was completed in New Testament times. Charles G. Finney received the fulness of the Spirit at conversion; others like D. L. Moody experienced unusual filling subsequent to conversion. The Spirit comes when and “where it listeth” (John 3:8), but when a Christian desires purity enough, and Christ enough, the Spirit is willing to enter such a heart with His priceless gifts.
The forerunner of Christ declared Him to be the Son of God (John 1:34). He did not say a Son of God as some humanists have erroneously done. No; Jesus was unique; He is the only begotten Son (John 3:16); His name and the pronouns for His name deserve to be capitalized. It is dangerous to minimize His deity, even as it is folly to magnify man’s divinity.
This first great friend of Christ rejoiced to herald the coming of the great Bridegroom. “He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled” (John 3:29). John was the Bridegroom’s best man, the best friend, the one who would do his best for the success of this divine wedding. Much later the message is similar, but greater: “Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honor to him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready” (Rev. 19:7). “Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:9). Great and marvelous events are before us!
Finally, the Baptist preached the judgment of God, with belief in Christ as the deciding factor. “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him” (John 3:36). Jesus repeated this criterion of judgment in John 5:27, (The Father) “hath given him authority to execute judgment also, because he is the Son of man.” Here is no room for universalism, or namby-pamby sermonettes, or playing at church, or spineless double talk—all of which would be repulsive to John the Baptist. Any witness for Christ must be true to Him. John was true.
“HE THAT SENT ME TO BAPTIZE IN WATER” (JOHN 1:33).
Why baptize at all? Why bother with “ritual baptism” as some have irreverently and erroneously called it? Since baptism is not essential to salvation, why go to the trouble? Is not “open membership” much more convenient for modern churches?
To make Christ manifest is John’s declared reason for baptizing (John 1:31). This is worth a deal of trouble: it is worth bothering oneself about. Christ was hanged on a cross, on Calvary’s hill, exposed to public view where He “endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb. 12:2). Since Christ was willing to do all that for us, who are we to shun baptism for His sake? If a person would be baptized in order to save his soul, he would be considered sensible for his foresight. But if he refused to be baptized just because he believed it would not be needed to save his soul, he would be selfish and ungrateful. At least, that is the tenor of New Testament teaching. For baptism is an expression of gratitude to Christ Who suffered actual death and burial for our sakes. In the light of Christ’s agony on the cross, why should it be considered difficult to enter a watery grave momentarily for Him? In baptism we make Christ manifest now.
Christ’s greatest work on earth was to atone for our sins on the cross. He said so repeatedly (John 12:27, 32, 33; Mark 9:31; 10:32-34). And Paul summarizes that great work, which he says is the Gospel “by which also ye are saved,” in First Corinthians 15:1-4. This Gospel, Paul says, consists of three great facts: the death, the burial, and the resurrection of Christ. These three facts are symbolized, portrayed, pantomimed and exhibited in baptism.
The cross, perhaps, is the best symbol of the Gospel of Christ. It reminds us of how, and upon what, Christ died for us. It is a plus sign on the sky line (C. W. Koller). When anyone receives Christ he adds to his life a Saviour, a Friend, a Guide, a Counselor, an inspiring Example, an Advocate with the Father, and a coming King. This plus sign adds to a believer’s life a clean conscience, an unselfish attitude (theoretically for all nominal Christians, actually for all sincere believers), a generous heart, a soul-winning zeal, and a wholesome love for people. But without the cross, one’s life is a minus sign—it is minus all of these good things.
Our unregenerated hearts are like minus signs -horizontal, worldly, and without God. But then we allow God to cross our wills with His heavenly ways, then His vertical line crosses our horizontal line, giving us the plus sign of the cross. From then on it is “Not as I will, but as Thou wilt.” The good ways of heaven cross out the bad ways of earth, all to our advantage.
Excellent as the cross may be as a symbol, it does not portray the resurrection of Christ as well as does baptism. It is not quite as dramatic. Both are needed and both should be used.
John’s baptism not only symbolized the Gospel; it also synthesized the Good News. It tells many great truths in one simple ordinance. Baptism brings together in a few seconds of time the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. Baptism combines in one symbol a convert’s belief in Christ’s resurrection on his behalf, his willingness to follow Christ, his humbling of self in the burying of his sins, his desire to live a new life, his desire to be united with Christ, and his belief in his own future resurrection.
Further, John’s baptism immortalizes, or preserves, the Gospel. For in this ordinance the death, burial and resurrection of Christ are seen in every century as clearly as it was seen in the first. Baptism can be observed wherever a little water can be collected, enough to immerse a body. Every believer, in his baptism, helps to perpetuate this memorial, thus keeping it fresh and alive with real meaning. No granite or marble monument could do one-thousandth as well.
If baptism had not been changed, if immersion only had been continued, and if believers only had been baptized, it is almost certain that fewer heresies would have crept into Christendom. For immersion shows to all the world the main truth of the Gospel: Christ died for our sins! Christ rose from the dead! Then salvation is not of works. We are not saved by baptism, but by Christ alone. And since baptism teaches the burial of sinful ways, it teaches clean living. Only God could provide an ordinance with lessons so vital, powerful, meaningful, beautiful and eternal as baptism.
Again, John’s baptism is meant to help evangelize the world. In several places John’s entire work of evangelizing is described in Holy Writ by the one word “baptized.” This does not mean that baptizing does the evangelizing, but that baptism represents all the work of evangelism.
John said that God sent him to baptize in water. What John did, all believers should do also. The command is binding until the end of this age (Matthew 28:20). Thus John was our forerunner in showing us how to baptize and how to evangelize. He showed the way; Christ approved that way, and we are obligated to walk in it. The path for every convert leads through the baptistery, following the footsteps of Jesus. No one in the New Testament had a right to detour around baptism, except the repentant thief on the cross. He had no choice as to baptism; others do. He was saved without baptism, exactly as all Christians are saved without it. But having been saved, then baptism is essential to obedience.
“WISDOM IS JUSTIFIED OF ALL HER CHILDREN” (LUKE 7:35).
Jesus spoke these words at the close of a long section devoted to the importance of John the Baptist (Luke 7:18-35). It suggests commendation of John. “By their fruits ye shall know them” (Matthew 7:20). “Every tree is known by his own fruit” (Luke 6:44). What were some of the fruits, or children, of John the Baptist? What did John produce?
The first Baptist trained some men for Christ so thoroughly that the instant He called them, they left all and followed Him immediately (John 1:35-49; Matthew 4:18-22; 9:9; 10:1-5). These men became strong leaders (Acts 1:15-22), courageous witnesses (Acts 2-12), and the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20-22). While no remaining record shows that John was in the New Testament church, he prepared the first material for it and thus had a large part in its beginnings. And if, as some believe, Christ started the church with the calling of His first two disciples, then one could assume that He would include in His church all those who were obedient to Him. The author of Ecce Homo said, “The Christian Church sprang from a movement that was not begun by Christ.” It was necessarily begun by John the Baptist.
John the Baptist “justified God” (Luke 7:29), and led a multitude of people to do likewise. Here wisdom’s children were revealed. For John was the channel of God’s wisdom, and those who believed him were “baptized into Christ” (Rom. 6:3). These converts of John received and assimilated the counsel of God and thereby “justified” Him. The Pharisees and lawyers rejected the counsel of God in that they rejected John’s baptism. In these verses Jesus clearly argued the rightness and importance of baptism. Let those who quibble about it resort to Christ’s authority. He made plain the issue.
The first-century Christians were “children” of John in a real sense. He was the first Christian preacher, the first Christian baptizer, and the first teacher of New Testament doctrines. His converts went out and won many other converts, and they in turn won still more. These early Christians held firmly to their Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, even as John had taught his own disciples to do.
The first-century churches multiplied in number and spread over the Roman world. While John apparently did not teach church truth as such, yet as a prophet (none greater, Luke 7:28), he was a foundation stone of the church (Eph. 2:20, 21). These churches were united in faith and order more closely than churches have been in any century since. In one sense, then, the only century in which a truly catholic church has ever existed was in the first century. But divisions came all too soon. Rome exercised leadership in the West. As the Roman Empire weakened, and finally fell in 476, the leading bishop of Rome assumed more and more power until Rome claimed to be the seat of the papacy. Leo the Great won increasing power from 440 onward, and some regard him as the first real pope. But by that time several dissenting groups of churches had appeared. In 1054 the Eastern Church, the Greek Orthodox, separated from Rome and this schism has never been healed. Hence, the claims of Rome to be “The Catholic Church” are tar from true. The qualifying adjective “Roman” nullifies the name “Catholic.”
Were the first-century believers all Baptists? They were not called that, as far as we know, but since they all believed John’s doctrines they were all Baptistic. This name does not detract one iota from the honored name “Christian” which was first given by pagans (Acts 11:26), next by a pagan king (Acts 26:28), and used only once in the New Testament with its proper honor (1 Pet. 4:16). It seems entirely safe to say that the first-century Christians would consider that honored name an exact synonym for the name Baptist. This is not to slight non-Baptists of later centuries who bear honorable names, but which names were not known in Bible times.
A great ado is currently made about church union, or ecumenicity. (This author wrote his doctoral dissertation on “Ecumenicity in the Light of the New Testament” in 1947). Widely advertised ecumenical councils have been held: Amsterdam. in 1948; Evanston, Illinois, in 1954; and New Delhi in 1961. But with the inclusion of Eastern churches, real union seems more remote than ever, for the differences among them are increased. The Bible basis of unity is “One Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:5). If all churches really had one Lord, they could more easily have one faith; then with only one faith, one baptism would be enough. Conversely, if all churches had one baptism, then that baptism could point to the one faith, and thus to one Lord. In any case, unity based on the least common denominator of doctrine is hardly worth the vast amount of effort and expense currently expended on it.
The wisdom of John, implanted by the Holy Spirit and nourished by his study of the Scriptures, is seen again in the fact that unspoiled and unprejudiced people believed in him. For John was a popular preacher. His good sense appealed to the masses. His lack of pretense, of pride, and of presumption – so evident in the Pharisees – made him outstanding. And when the Holy Spirit spoke through him, the crowds recognized his wisdom and greatness. Like the early church at Pentecost, he had “favor with all the people.”
The many converts of John were all of one mind: they believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. They succeeded in their witness apart from television, radio, newspapers, magazines, books, tracts, quarterlies, telephones, telegraphs, buildings, headquarters, staffs, colleges, or an elaborate hierarchy. All these may serve Christendom well in modern civilization, but they are not all essential. What is essential is that one Christian wins an unbeliever to Christ, and then shows the new convert how to win others. That is what John did.
These first converts of the Baptist may have lacked many mechanical aids but they were rich otherwise. They had Scripture and they had the authority of Scripture in which they believed. They had Christ, love, zeal, power of will, humility, scorn for earthly glory, and disdain for worldly honors. They had the courage of their convictions, all in the face of “religious” opposition. John had taught his “children” well.
What may twentieth-century Christians learn from the wisdom of John? What rewards will follow a return to his methods and message?
CHAPTER 10—REWARDINGLY FOLLOWED
“All things that John spake of this man were true. And many believed on him there”
John 10:41, 42
A revival broke out in this place “beyond Jordan” where John at first baptized, and where Christ Himself had likely been baptized. The Jews had tried to stone Christ (John 10:31-39) but He escaped out of their hand and went to the Jordan to revisit the place of His initial public act. It is good for a person to return to the place where great spiritual experiences took place. When a Christian lives over again the chain of events leading to his conversion and baptism, his soul is revived, thrills of his first encounter with Christ are lived over again, and important loyalties are renewed.
Christ went back to the place where John baptized Him. “Many resorted to Him there,” the record says. Perhaps the hymn writer, John Keble (1792-1866), had this beautiful scene in mind as he wrote—
“Where is the lore the Baptist taught,
The soul unswerving and the fearless tongue?
The much-enduring wisdom sought
By lonely prayer the haunted rocks among?
Who counts it gain now?
His light would wane,
So the whole world to Jesus throng.”
Every loyal Christian, and especially every true pastor, wants attendance at his church services to be good. When Christ is made central, and the facts symbolized by baptism are preached winsomely, then people will resort to churches. John the Baptist had the satisfaction of seeing great crowds come to the wilderness to hear him preach Christ. If modern Christians learned his techniques, perhaps crowds would gather again to hear the Gospel. The question then, is—
WHAT IS THE BEST WAY TO PRESENT THE GOSPEL OF CHRIST?
“God hath made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions (Eccl. 7:29). Among the inventions for doing Christian work is “Group Dynamics” where people sit in a circle and exchange their opinions. When these opinions are summarized, or synthesized, each person is supposed to feel that progress has been made. But unless a higher authority such as the Bible is followed, one wonders about the progress made, if any. Too often poorly informed speakers will take the time with the result that no progress at all will occur.
Syncretism is another plan which some moderns advocate. Take a little of Christianity, a little of Buddhism, something of Taoism, some wisdom from Confucious, and perhaps a bit of Bultmanism; mix it all together, and the result should be the condensed best of all religions. But it does not work; it does not produce Christians.
Education is highly touted as the only savior of civilization. President Kennedy has given us a memorable quotation: “Knowledge, not hate, is the passkey to the future.” Certainly knowledge is better than hate, but it is still not good enough. The Japanese war leaders had much knowledge before Pearl Harbor; Hitler’s Luftwaffe had knowledge before they bombed Poland and Holland; Russian leaders had knowledge before they enslaved their millions; yet hate used knowledge as a tool to do its evil work. No; only the love of Christ can save mankind.
Culture is the god of many people, even of some church members. Culture is good, but without Christ to give it direction and purpose it will fail. The Kaiser of Germany in 1914 boasted of his “kultur” but it made him arrogant and warlike.
These inventions of men have been tried and they are found wanting. God’s plan is best. God’s plan at the very beginning of the New Testament era included a man He could trust, a man filled with the Holy Spirit. Slater Brown said it well (125):
“The baptism of repentance that John brought into the dark world around him was a new thing, and it will forever be new in an evil world . . . To reach Christ, to reach the gentle teacher of Galilee, one must make one’s own road straight through the wilderness of this world. We must follow the way the Baptist has shown us – after his example, constantly speak the truth, boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth’s sake.”
God’s plan for presenting the Gospel is best for our contemporary world. It is to depend upon the Holy Spirit’s filling, and leading, and saving power. Every successful evangelist, pastor, Sunday School teacher and missionary has learned that difficult lesson. Even then, not every one will have spectacular success. God chooses whom He will to be leaders. He chose John the Baptist before his conception, and made him a great prophet. God may choose some boy now living to be His future messenger to millions. He may be only testing that person to see if he will be as yielded to the Spirit as John was.
For those who wish to know just what is meant by being filled with the Holy Spirit, they have in the Baptist a clear example. Let them see what John did, how he lived, and let them study what he said, and they will find clues to Spirit-inspired success. However, God need not deal with any two persons alike. He leads one person one way and one another. The Holy Spirit will give directions to those souls who are sensitive enough and willing enough to listen to His still small voice. He never shouts at anyone.
“I walked today where Jesus walked,” begins a beautiful song. It is the right path to follow. That path was marked out for Him by the Holy Spirit Who led John to “prepare the way of the Lord, (and to) make his paths straight” (Luke 3:4). The Holy Spirit is still willing to do this work.
The password to the future is “Repent!” It was the Spirit-inspired word which John used, and which Christ used after him. It was used effectively by Peter at Pentecost, by the Wesleys in England, and by Finney in America. That word is still needed, not only in rescue missions and jails but also in homes and in churches. It is desperately needed in schools where the Bible is downgraded to the level of folk lore or “myth” and the students are left to flounder helplessly without divine authority. Those teachers who deny the supernatural in the Bible are putting out the eyes of their students as far as ability to see God is concerned. Those modern Philistines will nullify the potential strength of each Samson who is tricked into believing their false doctrines.
How present the Gospel? Repent! Judge your own sins first. Forsake all known sins. Receive Christ as the substitute-offering for sin. Confess sin and then confess Christ via baptism. Then, as a part of Christ’s body which is the church, go to work heartily for Him.
“John came unto you in the way of righteousness” (Matt. 21:32). His baptism declared righteousness, for it symbolized the death and burial of all sin with consequent rising to walk in newness of life. In one sense, therefore, those called by the name of Baptists are under greater obligation than all others to live lives of righteousness. For the name Baptist implies a clean life, since baptism is a symbol of cleansing. Christians having other church names (which may also convey rich meanings) will also want to live clean lives, but their names do not imply such obligation as “Baptist” does.
Rich rewards await those persons who follow their Lord Jesus Christ as sincerely as the first Baptist followed Him. Jesus praised John more profusely than He praised anyone else on earth, not excepting His own mother. John deserved this lavish praise because he first listened to the counsel of God, and then he followed that counsel. This leads us to ask—
WHAT IS THE BEST WAY TO PROMOTE THE COUNSEL OF GOD?
First, one must understand the nature of the Gospel. This involves an accurate knowledge of the Bible, especially the New Testament. Then with this knowledge sanctified and organized by the indwelling Spirit, the Christian will use all his energies in living and in teaching the Gospel. Lazy people will not succeed; they will not even begin to show results. Communist agitators are not lazy; they work strenuously at all hours for their atheistic and dialectic materialism. Cultists are not loafers; their fanaticism is equaled only by their zeal. They think they are superior to ordinary Christians, and they are – in effort. These cultists are imbued by the evil spirits of divisiveness, of antagonism to the deity of Christ, and of opposition to salvation by grace. Shall true Christians allow the world to think that the Holy Spirit has less power and influence than the spirit of evil? God forbid!
The wheat and the chaff will one day be separated, John said (Matt. 3:12). The sheep and the goats will eventually be identified, Jesus said (Matt. 25:32, 33). Paul (II Tim. 4:1) and Peter (I Pet. 4:5) said that God will some day judge “the quick and the dead.” But long before these future judgments, people will have been dividing themselves. They are taking sides with Christ, or against Him. In John’s Gospel the statement is thrice made, “So there was a division among the people because of him” (John 7:43; 9:16; 10:19). Jesus Himself said, “Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division” (Luke 12:51). This division is due to the fact that some will accept Christ as their personal Saviour and Lord, while others will reject Him.
Many liberals do not like this thought of division. They like to teach that all men are much the same; that God is too good to let anyone perish; and that He will somehow contrive to make room for everyone in His universalist heaven. They promote a “Cult of Commonism” in which we are all good fellows together. For example, Wendell Willkie wrote a book entitled “One World” after he had traveled through Russia during World War II. Still another man produced a book on “The Coming Great Church.” Great pains are taken to promote one race. Down with all divisions!
The “commonists” who wish to tear down all walls should temper their crusade by reading the inspired books of Ezra and Nehemiah in the Old Testament. Those two great men were led of the Lord to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, to reject all “united efforts” of their unbelieving neighbors, and to maintain the integrity as well as identity of their people. As clearly as anything in the Bible it is stated that God led Ezra and Nehemiah in restoring the walls of Jerusalem. This does not argue extreme isolationism and bigoted segregation, but it does suggest that integration has its limits. “The broken wall” of Ephesians 2:14 should be understood in the light of the restored wall of Nehemiah 4:6 and 12:43.
However desirable one world or church or race might be, the fact is that the present world is badly divided. It will likely not be otherwise until Christ brings in His own kingdom “wherein dwelleth righteousness.” The kingdom which John the Baptist proclaimed as “at hand” will one day be universal in extent. “For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14; Isa. 11:9). Of the millions who repeat the Lord’s prayer with its “Thy kingdom come,” one wonders how many realize what they are asking. But some day the Lord shall have one world, irrespective of Willkie’s naive prophecy.
The Cult of Commonism is busy at church union, not without some reason. Most divisions have been unnecessary. Some have occurred because the main body apostatized; in such cases a new reformed body needed to be created. But no true union can function when it is based more on tradition than on the Scriptures, or when it is controlled by self-perpetuating hierarchies more than by the Holy Spirit, or when the purpose is for the pride of bigness more than loyalty to Christ. Only when all Christians are determined to go back to—the Bible, back to Christ, and back to the Holy Spirit, will true union be possible. And since baptism is one of the main bases of union (Eph. 4:5), it is important to restore the original meaning and mode of that ordinance. The Lord’s Supper, while important, is less a symbol of unity than baptism—in the New Testament. And those who cheapen the Lord’s Supper by urging everyone, baptized or not, to share in it—all for the purpose of promoting “unity” —are really destroying the Scriptural basis of Christian union.
Further, the cultists of commonism are frantically busy at achieving one race, even at the price of miscegenation. They quote a portion of Acts 17:26, “And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth” but they seem to ignore the remainder of that verse—”and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation.” The slave trade which began to curse America as early as 1619 is still cursing the nation with racial troubles which seem to be insoluble. America is reaping what it has sown. But many well-meaning people seem to forget that it was God Himself who first divided mankind into segments and “scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth” (Gen. 11:5-9). It was God Who made people of different colors. “Thus saith the Lord . . . Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots” (Jer. 13:23). The Samaritans are not a happy example of integration, even though color of skin may not have been involved.
Jesus was always kind to the Samaritans, although He never urged a mixture of races. True Christians have always been kind to people of all races, and they always will be wherever they live. But the subtle propaganda of communists, and the less subtle demagogery of politicians, plus the liberals who are desperate for a “cause” – all these continue browbeating antimiscegenationists with accusations of prejudice and bigotry. One wonders, if southern churches have been so wicked all these years, why it is that most American Negroes respected Baptists enough to accept their faith? And where in the world axe non-whites as fortunate as in America? May God bless all races which are trying to live better. God loves them all without partiality; so must we.
Lest the above may seem like a digression, it may be well to quote John 1:29 again. “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” Then the Baptist had the whole world in view, with all its races and other differences. Here is the first strong missionary note in the New Testament. What required a miracle for Peter to see in Acts 10, John had seen long before. But John was not a “commonest”; he declared that Christ would “thoroughly purge his floor, and will gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable.”
In all this John was inspired by the Holy Spirit. He declared the counsel of God so well that Christ could endorse his preaching. If contemporary Christians desire Christ’s endorsement, they would do well to copy John the Baptist. Of course, Christ is the Great Example for all Christians, but those who follow His example will give much attention to John as He did. The purpose of John was to make Christ manifest. Our purpose should be the same.
WHAT IS THE BEST WAY TO REVEAL CHRIST NOW?
It is to live the Gospel. A person filled with the Holy Spirit, as John was, will have the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22, 23). These indispensable virtues adorn the Gospel (Titus 2:10). Love for all men must be practiced more than preached.
To reveal Christ one should preach the Gospel. This preaching need not be confined to churches or to congregations; it can be one person talking to one other, as in Acts 8:35. Philip preached the Gospel to the Ethiopian treasurer; he evidently included baptism for that was the new convert’s first request.
What is the Gospel, briefly? Paul condensed it in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4. “Christ died for our sins”; “he was buried”; “he rose again the third day.” This, said Paul, is the Gospel “wherein ye stand; by which also ye are saved.” John the Baptist preached this same Gospel in baptism.
Visual aids can be made to reveal Christ. John used one, an ideal object-lesson, in order to make Christ manifest and to make Gospel truth more easily understood. This visual aid is clearly described in three easy steps in Romans 6:4. “Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death” —this describes the convert renouncing his sins and burying them symbolically. “That like as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father” —this portrays the believer beginning his new life, enabled by the glorious resurrection power of the Father. “Even so we also should walk in newness of life” —this suggests close fellowship with Christ throughout one’s lifetime. The baptized believer has a new life, a new Companion, a new power, a new motive, a new goal, and a new fellowship. Praise the Lord!
Christ lives! He saves! He satisfies! All this He does for each believer because He rose again from the dead. Baptism testifies to this sublime fact. Immersion, and it alone, suffices for this heavy load of visual-aid teaching. Scripture knows no other “baptism” in example, precept, inference or type.
Since the ordinance of baptism signifies such extremely weighty facts, then it must follow that the name Baptist should also convey the same great truths. John was called “Baptist” because he baptized. In the American Standard Version of Mark 6:14, 24, he is called John the Baptizer. And he baptized in order to reveal Christ. Then every Baptist should reveal the same Christ, in a similar way even though in different degree.
Bible names are meaningful, significant and revealing. The name Baptist is no exception. It apparently is meant to convey the three essential facts of the Christian Gospel (I Cor. 15:1-4). The word “baptism” in its cognate forms apparently conveys the entire work of Christian witnessing and soul-winning.
The entire work of John the Baptist is described in John 1:28 by the single word “baptizing”; in John 1:31 by “baptizing”; in John 3:23 by “baptizing”; and in John 10:40 by “baptized.”
The entire work of Christ is described in John 3:22 by the single word “baptized”; in John 3:26 by “baptizeth”; and in John 4:1, 2 by “baptized.”
How can this be? Why did the Holy Spirit inspire the writing of such a brief record with this one new word? Perhaps for these reasons. Baptism is the logical culmination of all the work that goes toward winning a soul to confess Christ as his Savior. In New Testament times baptism of converts was taken for granted; it was the first duty of each convert. No one seemed to delay it, or debate it, or deny it, or revise it, as so many do now. An unbaptized convert was by that much a disobedient one. Thus baptism stands for ALL the work of winning souls.
Further, baptism signifies the new life in Christ, the life which goes on until death. The baptized life is the life IN, FOR and WITH Christ; it is the new life; it is distinct from the old way. Hence, baptism properly signifies all of the new life with its training for service, its witnessing, and its work.
With these facts in mind, one can readily see the divine wisdom in calling the first Christian by the name Baptist. He was not ashamed of it. It is a good name for several reasons.
First, the name Baptist is a Scriptural name. It is found fifteen times in the New Testament. It stands for the man whom Christ approved with high praise. It signifies all that John believed and taught his many converts to believe. They shared his views; they had his viewpoint as to the Lord Jesus; they were as firm believers in his Gospel and in baptism as converts could be. While it is not said they were called Baptists (no need then), they could have been so called with perfect propriety. They were Baptistic without being partisan.
Second, the name Baptist is a descriptive name. It describes one who believes in Christ’s death, burial and resurrection on his behalf, one who has voluntarily buried his past life of sin and has risen to walk in newness of life with Christ, one who believes all that John preached about Christ, one who believes all that Christ said about His forerunner, and one who is obligated by his baptism to exhibit the indwelling Christ in his life.
Third, the name Baptist is doctrinally sound. Besides conveying the salient points of the Gospel as mentioned above and in chapter six, it is solidly based upon Scripture. For the Lord Jesus approved the name Baptist. He used it repeatedly. The Holy Spirit directed its use. And God the Father approved the baptism of John by His voice at the baptism of His Son.
Fourth, the name Baptist is unifying. Here is one act that any convert, no matter how weak, can do in exactly the way Christ Himself observed it. It is the same for all races, for bond. or free, for men or women, for all ages, for rich or poor, for the learned or illiterate, for old or young, for entire families, for every country, for every age, and it is accepted by every denomination. No other “mode of baptism” has all these assets. “One Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:5).
Fifth, the name Baptist is Christ-centered. It points to Christ Who died and rose again for us; it points to Christ as the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world; it
points to Christ alone as our Savior. It therefore denies salvation by works, or by ordinances, or by birth, or by character, or by ancestral covenant. In symbol it puts to death and buries every claim anyone has on salvation by works. It indicates, by complete submission to the baptizer as God’s agent, entire dependence upon God. This name also reminds us of John’s oft-quoted promise that Christ would baptize His followers in the Holy Spirit.
All Christendom owes a tremendous debt to the first Baptist!
All Christians who, under God, would follow John as a soul-winner, as one wholly devoted to Christ, as faithful unto death, as worthy of trust by all who knew him, as receiving Christ’s warm commendation—all these would thereby deserve at least part of the approval which Christ gave to the first Baptist.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION
Every Christian who studies the New Testament for facts on John the Baptist will find him a great man – great in the sight of the Lord and great in the eyes of his contemporaries. Of all people, Baptists should take him seriously, and try to emulate him in service to our Lord. Since we cannot change him to fit modern Baptists, then we should change our ways to fit his principles.
All converts of John were Baptistic in belief. All accepted John’s beliefs and practices, otherwise they would not have been his converts. We do not read that they were called Baptists for there were no denominations, or divisions, among believers then. If they had been called Baptists then, it may have detracted from their. loyalty to Christ. But 1940 years later, with hundreds of denominations, the name Baptist is needed. It serves as a bright spotlight, focused straight on Christ. It is like a magnifying glass, revealing the many-faceted glories of Christ. All the New Testament meanings and implications of the name Baptist serve to define the gospel of Christ.
This New Testament study should make no Baptist proud; it should humble them instead. It reveals how far short we are from the character of John. He was Spirit-filled. Here is the challenge: let us be filled with the Spirit; let us reproduce those characteristics which Christ praised so much in John; let us be faithful unto death.
John the Baptist, if living now, would have little patience with Christ-dishonoring liberalism. He believed firmly in Christ’s deity, eternity, and coming kingdom. Rather than being a “good fellow” with modernistic leaders, he would rebuke them. His first loyalty would be to Christ; all other obligations would be secondary. He would define cooperation in the light of the Bible, not in the light of expediency or politics.
Ecumenicity would have little appeal to the first Baptist. “How can two walk together except they be agreed?” Besides, he would have no time for continual travel and endless parleys about minutiae; he was too busy winning individuals to Christ—thousands of them. Like Nehemiah he would say, “I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down: why should the work cease, whilst I leave it, and come down to you?” (Neh. 6:3). John saw multitudes of unsaved people, white unto harvest, and he would work as hard and as long as he could to save as many as he could. How can modern Baptists do less?
John would be delighted with soul-winning schools and churches, devoted to the New Testament Gospel. He would recommend that all needless traditions be discarded, and all strangling alliances be ended. No schismatic, he would unite people on Christ, and not separate them to himself. He would recommend united action, sound organization, and cooperation which focused energy on the Gospel. He was all for liberty and freedom in the best sense. His kind of evangelism freed him from endless committees and boards and conferences. However, modern conditions could change his methods, for he would use every means available to make his preaching more effective.
“Go!” is the astronaut word for “Everything is ready; let’s start.”
“Go!” is Christ’s word to us, in His Great Commission.
“Go!” was John’s motto, ready to preach or perish for Christ.
“Go!” is the word of John and Christ to us.