John the Baptist, Forerunner of Jesus
THE accurate Foreteller of events, Almighty God, declared over four hundred years before the birth of John the Baptist: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of Jehovah come.” (Mal. 4:5, AS; Luke 1:17) And before that, more than 700 years prior to John’s birth, Jehovah announced that this Elijahlike one would be as “the voice of one that crieth, Prepare ye in the wilderness the way of Jehovah; make level in the desert a highway for our God”. (Isa. 40:3, AS; Matt. 3:3) It was therefore no mere accident, or according to natural processes, that John the Baptist was born some six months prior to Jesus. In fact, John’s birth was as miraculous as that of the promised child Isaac, for both his parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, were past the normal age of producing children.—Luke 1:18.
Even before his conception John’s commission and work and mode of living were ordained and appointed by the angel Gabriel at God’s command. He was to do great things in Jehovah’s service, he was to attack his work in the spirit and power of Elijah, and he was to turn back disobedient ones from the way of death and prepare them to accept Christ the Messiah. He was to be a Nazarite, wholly devoted to God, and hence was to touch no wine or strong drink. Even his name John, meaning “Jah is gracious”, was chosen by the Lord. (Luke 1:13-17; Num. 6:2, 3) Like Samuel, from his childhood he was consecrated to the glorious service of the Most High God.—1 Sam. 1:11, 24-28.
Because of such divine appointments, when the child was circumcised on the eighth day, his priestly father under inspiration revealed: “As for you, young child, you will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will pioneer before Jehovah to make his ways ready, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender compassion of our God.” (Luke 1:76-78, NW) This public ministry was to be of great importance; all other things in his life were of little consequence. Hence the Scriptures cover the first thirty years of John’s life in a single verse: “And the young child went on growing and getting strong in spirit, and he continued in the deserts until the day of showing himself openly to Israel.”—Luke 1:80, NW.
“VOICE” IN WILDERNESS BEGINS TO SOUND
In the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar’s reign, when Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea and Herod Antipas was ruler over the district of Galilee, John the baptizer turned up in the wilderness with a startling message: “Repent, for the kingdom of the heavens has drawn near.” (Luke 3:1, 2; Mark 1:4; Matt. 3:2, NW) The populace of the whole countryside was awakened and stirred. It was a strange message indeed, but the sincerity, conviction and force with which this preacher John spoke convinced vast multitudes of honest and sincere people that he was a man sent from God, and was moved by God’s holy spirit to sound a warning of utmost importance. As a prophet of the Lord he was easily recognized by his dress and devotion.—Matt. 3:4; Mark 1:6.
The fame of this man spread like a prairie fire, until even the priests and Levites journeyed down from the capital at Jerusalem to find out what it was all about. Repent? Why, and of what? Who was this man? they wanted to know. John explained:
“I am not the Christ.” “And they asked him: ‘What, then? Are you Elijah?’ And he said: ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you The Prophet?’ And he answered: ‘No!’ Therefore they said to him: ‘Who are you? That we may give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ He said: ‘I am a voice of a man crying aloud in the wilderness, “Make the way of Jehovah straight,” just as Isaiah the prophet said.’ Now those sent forth were from the Pharisees. So they questioned him and said to him: ‘Why, then, do you baptize if you yourself are not the Christ or Elijah or The Prophet?’”—John 1:20-25, NW.
On this latter matter of repentance and baptism this witness of God in the wilderness said in substance: ‘I baptize repentant sinners with water, but after me someone stronger than I is coming who will baptize them with holy spirit and with fire. Why, I am not even fit to stoop down and untie this greater One’s sandals! And beware! he carries a threshing instrument in his hand and will separate and gather the wheat for his storehouse, but will burn up and destroy the chaff.’—Matt. 3:11, 12; Mark 1:7, 8; Luke 3:15-17; Acts 1:5; 11:16.
“PEOPLE OF ALL KINDS” WARNED
There were many wheatlike ones that openly confessed their sins of unfaithfulness to the Law covenant, and publicly demonstrated their sincerity by allowing John to baptize them in the Jordan river. (Matt. 3:5, 6) They thus put themselves in the proper condition to receive the Messiah when he did appear. Wanting to learn more of the Lord God’s righteous commandments, John gladly instructed them as disciples, teaching them how to properly fast and pray.—Matt. 9:14; Luke 5:33; 3:18; 11:1.
Instead of exalting himself, John constantly called attention to the fact that he was only the one running ahead of Christ, crying out and warning all people of good will in order that they might be prepared to receive and accept the Messiah when he did appear. Concerning this forerunner the apostle John writes: “This man [John] came for the purpose of a witness, in order to bear witness about the light, that people of all kinds might believe through him. He was not that light, but he was meant to bear witness about that light. The true light which gives light to every kind of man was about to come into the world. (John bore witness about him, yes, he actually cried out—this one was the speaker—saying: ‘The one coming behind me has advanced in front of me, because he existed before me.’)”—John 1:7-9, 15, NW.
In order that “people of all kinds” and “every kind of man” might have an opportunity to accept the benefits of life that are extended through Christ, John “preached publicly to all the people of Israel the baptism of those repenting”. (Acts 13:24, NW) Tax collectors he cautioned against resorting to extortion. Soldiers he warned against using violence or plunder. And even when the Pharisees and Sadducees, those pious, hypocritical clergymen, came out John spoke to them only in the plainest language, telling them that visible, tangible evidence of repentance was necessary, and not just a reliance on the carnal fact that they were natural descendants of Abraham. “When he caught sight of many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to the baptism,” the account reads, “he said to them: ‘You offspring of vipers, who has shown you how to flee from the coming wrath? So then produce fruit that befits repentance; and do not presume to say to yourselves, “As a father we have Abraham.” For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.’”—Matt. 3:7-9; Luke 3:7-14, NW.
As a class, however, the clergy and principal ones of their flock did not receive and benefit by John’s warning. They refused to believe that John’s work was God-ordained and they falsely charged him with being demonized. They refused the way of righteousness that leads to life eternal in God’s glorious kingdom. On the other hand, the sinful tax collectors and harlots who believed John’s testimony repented and were baptized, and in due time accepted Christ and his provision for life.—Luke 7:31-33; Matt. 21:25-32.
THE KING INTRODUCED BY JOHN
God’s faithful witness John had done a marvelous work in the land in the short six months from the spring to the fall of A.D. 29. The work of preparing the nation of Israel for Messiah was about completed. The time was ripe for the King to put in his appearance. But when he did, to the amazement of even John, Jesus came down to those same Jordan waters and asked to be baptized. Not understanding the new meaning water immersion there took on, John protested that he was the one needing to be baptized by Jesus. The Master then explained that water baptism is a necessity upon Christians too in order to carry out all of God’s righteous purposes, so John complied and God’s holy spirit of approval descended upon Jesus.—Matt. 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11.
From now on it was to be John’s privilege to introduce his disciples to this Anointed One, and he lost no time in doing it as soon as Jesus’ forty-day stay in the wilderness ended. “See, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world!” John called out. “This is the one about whom I said, Behind me there comes a man who has advanced in front of me, because he existed before me. Even I did not know him, but the reason why I came baptizing in water was that he might be made manifest to Israel.”—John 1:29-37, NW.
John’s work did not cease immediately with the introduction of Jesus’ ministry, but continued along parallel with it for about six months. And while the working of the two side by side in the field caused some misunderstanding among the uninformed, yet there was no disagreement or confusion between John and Jesus. They understood perfectly the work the other was doing. John explained that he was the friend of the bridegroom Christ, and that his joy was to see the bridegroom increase while he and his work decreased.—John 3:22-30.
Likewise Jesus identified John as his forerunner pictured by Elijah. “Let him that has ears listen.” (Matt. 11:12-15; 17:12, NW) “The Law and the Prophets were until John. From then on the kingdom of God is being declared as good news, and every kind of person is pressing forward toward it.” (Luke 16:16, NW) Hence, after John was cast into the fortress prison at Machaerus Jesus expanded the work begun by John, saying: “The appointed time has been fulfilled and the kingdom of God has drawn near. Be repentant and have faith in the good news.”—Mark 1:14, 15; Matt. 4:12, NW.
And why was John arrested and imprisoned? Because he boldly declared the truth to all men, the low and the high alike. John did not shirk his responsibility to tell even Herod that he was living in adultery and sin with his brother’s wife Herodias in violation of God’s law, and John did so that the man might repent, obtain God’s mercy, receive Christ the Redeemer and live.
What an example John was of faith and love! Faithfulness to God as his witness. Love to fellow men even at the cost of personal freedom and life. Yes, in the end John lost his life, for after a year’s imprisonment he was beheaded through a fiendish scheme inspired by the Devil and engineered by that wicked woman Herodias. But what is all-important is that the forerunner of Christ, Jehovah’s faithful witness John, maintained his integrity even unto death, and shortly now will be raised from the dead to enjoy blessed living in God’s new world of righteousness.—Matt. 14:3-12; Mark 6:16-19.