John the Baptist was the forerunner of Jesus and a preacher of messianic hope. Not much is known about John’s boyhood, except that he “grew and [became] strong in spirit” (Luke 1:80). The silence of his early years, however, was broken when he began thundering out the call to repentance, not too long before Jesus began His ministry.
John lived in the wilderness (a vast desert area), where, not long before Jesus began His ministry, he was called of God to preach a message of repentance (Mark 1:4). John’s message of moral reform, symbolized by baptism, was God’s way of preparing Israel for the coming of the Mightier One—the Lord Jesus Christ. It seems that John’s message drew large crowds who came out to hear him speak. John the Baptist was the “voice . . . crying in the wilderness” (Mark 1:3).
In this lesson, we will note three major themes:
- 1) John the Baptist: His lifestyle (Matthew 3:1-4)
- 2) John the Baptist: His message (Matthew 3:5-12)
- 3) John the Baptist: His doubting (Matthew 11:7-10)
1. The Lifestyle of John the Baptist (Matthew 3:1-4)
For over 400 years, the nation Israel had not heard the voice of a prophet. Then John appeared. The Old Testament prophet Isaiah had predicted the coming of the Messiah—and a voice crying in the wilderness announcing His coming. All four Gospel writers mention the ministry of John the Baptist, and speak of his preaching as a means of preparing the nation for the coming Messiah.
In ancient times, when it was known that a king was coming—every effort was made to ensure that the road was smooth, so that the king could travel easily and quickly. Therefore the words “make his paths straight” (Matthew 3:3), refer to making the road level and eliminating unnecessary bends. In a spiritual sense, those who responded to John’s call for repentance humbled themselves, confessed their sins, gave up their selfish way of living, and thus morally opened “the way” for the Messiah to take hold of their hearts and lives.
John preached in the rugged desert area between Jerusalem and the Jordan River (called “the wilderness of Judea” in verse 1)—and a measure of revival began to take place. People from all over southern Palestine were affected by John’s preaching, and many were baptized in the Jordan River (verse 6).
The angel told Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, (in Luke 1:17) that John would come in “the spirit and power of Elijah.” John dressed much like Elijah did (2 Kings 1:8). He ate the food of a common man (locusts and wild honey), and preached a stern message of judgment.
Concerning John’s garment—his “raiment of camel’s hair” (Matthew 3:4) was not the soft, luxurious camel’s hair cloth of our day, but a coarse fabric worn by outdoorsmen. He also wore a leather belt about his waist (verse 4), which served to alert believing Jews to the likeness between his message and that of Elijah (who dressed in the same way many years before).
Concerning the food—”locusts” were considered clean under Jewish law (Leviticus 11:22). Dried locusts dipped in salt are eaten by poor people today; and in fact, they can be bought in supermarkets in the United States. That kind of food may not sound appetizing to us, but people in some parts of the world really like dried insects of various kinds. Those of us who eat shrimp, crabs, oysters, and frogs legs—have no reason to shudder too much at the thought of eating roasted grasshoppers.
The picture we get of John the Baptist is that of a man who lived very simply.
2. The Message of John the Baptist (Matthew 3:5-12)
From verse 2 of Matthew 3, we gather that John’s key message was, “Repent . . . for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” To “repent” means to turn away from sin, and instead, turn to God. Repentance involves a change of mind which bears fruit in a change of life. In verse 8 John called upon the people to “bring forth . . . fruits meet for (worthy of) repentance.”
John the Baptist was clear, sharp, and bold in his preaching. His boldness in preaching was much like the approach of Elijah. John addressed the religious leaders who came to him by calling them a “generation of vipers,” and essentially warns them to “flee from the wrath to come” (verse 7).
John was not only preaching; he was also baptizing (verse 6). The “baptism of John” was authorized from Heaven, as noted later in Matthew’s account. Matthew 21:23-27 tells about the chief priests and elders who challenged the authority of Jesus—and in verse 25, Jesus (in simple words) said, “The baptism of John . . . was it from heaven, or of men?” Jesus clearly implied that John’s baptism had the approval of Heaven.
Baptism is a form of identification. Those who received John’s baptism were identified as those who looked forward to the Messiah’s coming. John’s baptism was a baptism of expectation (looking forward to the coming Messiah); Christian baptism is a little bit different. It is a baptism of fulfillment (counting upon the past completed work of Christ on Calvary as sufficient to save from the penalty incurred by sin).
John was a fearless, rugged, pioneer preacher. His message centered on repentance, on the kingdom of Heaven, and on judgment. John was no “reed shaken by the wind” (Luke 7:24). He did not go around to the people and say, “I approve what you’re doing; I affirm your actions; I endorse your policies.” John preached about sin. He didn’t beat around the bush.
When John was preaching about judgment, he spoke of “the wrath to come” (verse 7b of Matthew 3), and warned people to flee that wrath. We must remember that the wrath of God and the fires of Hell are very real, even though we may not hear as many sermons on these themes as some earlier generations did. In verse 10 we read about “the axe laid unto the root of the tree.” God’s judgment is poised to chop down and burn every unproductive tree. The idea is that unless there is repentance and a changed way of living, God’s judgment is surely going to come.
The “fan in his hand” (verse 12) is a reference to a winnowing fork. The farmer used the wooden fork to throw wheat into the air; the chaff was blown away by the breezes that came in over the Mediterranean. The good grain collected on the ground below. John the Baptist said that “his wheat” (God’s faithful ones) will be gathered into the barn, but “the chaff” (those who reject Christ) will burn with “unquenchable fire” (a fire that will never stop burning).
The message of John the Baptist was a declaration that Jesus was the true Messiah, and that each individual was to prepare for His coming.
3. The Doubting of John the Baptist (Matthew 11:7-10)
In Matthew 11 we find John in prison because he had courageously denounced the adulterous marriage of Herod Antipas and Herodias (11:2). Herod had paid a visit to his brother in Rome, and during that visit, he seduced his brother’s wife Herodias. Herod went back to Jerusalem, dismissed his own wife, and then married Herodias—his sister-in-law.
Luke 3:19-20 gives some details about John’s involvement. Luke says that John the Baptist rebuked Herod for his immorality and for “all the evils which Herod had done.” Because of this, Herod locked up John in prison.
It is easy to sympathize with John the Baptist as he suffered in prison. He had been an active man, now he was confined indoors. He had a mandate to preach; now he was silenced. He had announced judgment. He had said that those who reject the Messiah shall be “baptized . . . with fire” (Matthew 3:11). But instead of bringing judgment and burning up the wicked (that is, baptizing with fire)—Jesus took children into His arms, restored sight to some blind men, and healed a woman that touched the hem of His garment. It was all right for Jesus to heal the sick and raise the dead and cast out demons—but where was the judgment with fire?
John the Baptist is one of the great examples of holiness in the New Testament. However when John had been placed in prison, one blemish in his character came to the surface. He doubted whether or not Jesus was indeed the Messiah who was to come. Yet, in spite of that imperfection, Jesus said of John the Baptist, “Among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist” (Luke 7:28; Matthew 11:11).
While in prison, John had received only partial reports about Jesus’ ministry, and he was uncertain about what was happening. So John sent two of his followers to question Jesus (Matthew 11:2-3), and they were to inquire whether Jesus was indeed the Christ. John must have grown disillusioned by his own apparent failure, and by what he thought was a failure in the ministry of Jesus.
In the Old Testament, the Messiah was pictured as a suffering servant and as a reigning monarch. John saw Christ as a servant, but was not able to see Him as a reigning King who burned up His enemies. John was perhaps not so much expressing doubt, as requesting clarification—because he had expected the Messiah to be a leader who would judge wickedness and set up a physical kingdom—and that was not happening.
Jesus was very compassionate toward John, and sent a message back with John’s representatives (Matthew 11:4-5), saying that He was indeed doing precisely what Isaiah had prophesied (in Isaiah 35:5 and 61:1). And Jesus said in the reply to John, “Blessed is he . . . [that] shall not be offended in me” (Matthew 11:6).
After John’s disciples had left, Jesus addressed the multitude (11:7a), and expressed praise for John the Baptist. John was not a popular preacher who catered to the crowds. He was not an unstable person, swayed by every wind of belief (11:7b). John was a man of conviction and courage and boldness. John was a sturdy oak, not a trembling reed!
It is helpful to note that in spite of John’s doubting and discouragement (likely due to incomplete understanding), Jesus said that among those born of women none was greater than John (11:11a). Though John was a man of courage and principle and integrity, he also struggled with periods of weakness and dejection. The lesson for us is that Jesus does not judge a person by a mere passing mood! John was in a moment of doubt, but Jesus judged him by the general trend of his life.
All of us have fallen short at some point along the journey of life. We have worried when it was totally unnecessary. We have spoken quickly when we should have kept quiet. We have become disgruntled when something did not go our way. Jesus shows by example that it is wrong to condemn a person on the basis of one deviation from the straight path. It is wrong for us to condemn ourselves on the basis of one deviation from God’s perfect standard. As believers in Christ, from time to time we need to pick ourselves up and move forward. We must confess our sins, and face the future with the freedom of forgiven persons!
Matthew 14 tells the story of how John the Baptist’s life ended here on earth. It was Herod’s birthday. Herod and the immoral woman he had married were having a wild time at a party. The wine flowed, and the people were eating, drinking, talking, and laughing. At one point during the party, the daughter of Herodias came out and danced a sensual dance before the crowd. Herod and his guests were so greatly pleased (and aroused) by the carnal movements of the young girl’s body that he promised to give her anything she would ask for (Matthew 14:7).
She consulted with her mother—and the girl was told to request the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Because of the oath Herod had made, he sent and had John beheaded in prison (14:10). And so in Matthew 14, we see a man of God who lost his head—but because John the Baptist was loyal to God’s truth—he received a crown of life in the world to come.
We note some facts about John, by way of review. In Luke’s account (Luke 1:15), the angel foretold the birth of John the Baptist, and said to Zechariah, John’s father, “For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord.” And then the New Testament talks about the greatness of John the Baptist in four areas:
(1) The greatness of conviction.
With clear conviction, John the Baptist told his audiences the truth. John was a fearless and rugged preacher. His message centered on repentance, judgment, and preparation for the kingdom of Heaven. John was not a shy person afraid to speak the truth. He was not a “reed shaken by the wind” (Luke 7:24).
John didn’t go around to people and say, “I approve of what you are doing.” Instead, he preached boldly about sin. He addressed the religious leaders of the day by calling them a brood of vipers and warned them to flee God’s wrath.
John the Baptist preached about judgment, and Christians remember that the wrath of God and the fires of Hell are realities—even though not many preachers speak on those themes today. Earlier generations of preachers were more free to speak about God’s displeasure with sin. Like John the Baptist, preachers today need to strike out fearlessly against sin. The message must be spoken with compassion, but it must be clear and to the point.
(2) The greatness of humility.
One day, John’s disciples, concerned about the growing fame of Jesus, came to John the Baptist—and expressed great concern: they said something like, “Jesus (who was with you beyond Jordan) is baptizing converts, and all men are coming to him” (John 3:26). But instead of fanning their discontent, John gave them a great answer: he said that it is the bridegroom who is important; I am only a friend of the bridegroom; “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
The words of John 3:30 were a great statement of humility on John’s part. It’s not always pleasant to be told that someone else can write or sing or preach better than we can. We would just as soon be told something else! When John’s preaching had created a great sensation among the people, a delegation came to him one day and said, “Art thou the Christ?” No. “Art thou Elijah?” No. “Art thou one of the prophets?” No. They wondered what to say to those who sent them.
John could have founded a new religion, or started a new denomination. But instead, John told them to tell their masters that he was only a voice crying in the wilderness; it was not really all that important to know who John was (John 1:19-28).
(3) The greatness of courage.
Underneath John’s humility we see a man of uncompromising courage. When the multitudes flocked to hear him, John said, “Repent! for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” When the clever tax collectors came to him, he said, “Exact no more than that which is appointed you” (Luke 3:13). John also said, “Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages” (Luke 3:14).
But the greatest mark of John’s courage was his denunciation of sin in high places. One day John walked into the king’s palace and said to Herod, “It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother’s wife” (Mark 6:18). That sermon cost John his life. Mark 6:20 says that “Herod feared John knowing that he was a just and holy man.” But Herod gave in to the whims of his angry wife, and John the Baptist was beheaded.
It took real courage for John to do what he did. It doesn’t take much courage to stand on a platform and denounce the sins that are typical in our society. But to go to a high-ranking individual and “tell it like it is”—requires great courage.
(4) The greatness of his message.
Shortly before Jesus was crucified, He went back to the region near the Jordan River where He had been baptized by John the Baptist. The disciples of John had remembered what he had said about Jesus. John never did a miracle; he never stilled the tempest, nor opened blind eyes, nor raised the dead—but he always spoke a true message, and the people remembered what he said. When John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him, he said, “Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
John declared that man is still a sinner, and that his greatest need is redemption from sin. The Lamb of God has no substitute. Jesus is the sinner’s only hope. That’s why every creature in Heaven and earth will someday sing praises around the throne of God in heaven, saying, “Blessing and honor and glory and power be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever” (Revelation 5:13).
John’s influence continued to live on even after his death. When the Apostle Paul went to Ephesus approximately twenty-five years after John’s death, he found a group of John’s disciples still living there. When they heard Paul’s message about Jesus, these followers of John the Baptist responded by being baptized in the name of Jesus and received the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:1-7).
Even as John the Baptist was consumed by the divine call that was upon his life, just so Jesus Christ invites you to fully surrender yourself to Him and become holy, humble, bold, and courageous through Him (and not of your own strength). 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). John was the mountain peak between the Old Testament and the New. All that come after John, and gain entrance into the Kingdom through the shed blood of Jesus Christ, stand upon his shoulders. How do you choose to respond to this invitation by Christ?