He Was the Messiah’s Forerunner
A WIDE leather belt accented his sun-darkened skin. Dressed in a camel-hair garment, he did indeed look like a prophet. Many were drawn to him at the river Jordan. There this fascinating man declared boldly that he was ready to baptize repentant sinners.
People were astonished! Who was this man? What was his purpose?
Jesus Christ said of this person: “Why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and far more than a prophet. . . . Among those born of women there has not been raised up a greater than John the Baptist.” (Matthew 11:9-11) Why was John such an exceptional man? Because he was the Messiah’s forerunner.
His Mission Foretold
More than 700 years prior to John’s birth, Jehovah announced that this one would be calling out in the wilderness: “Clear up the way of Jehovah, you people! Make the highway for our God through the desert plain straight.” (Isaiah 40:3; Matthew 3:3) Over 400 years before John’s birth, Almighty God declared: “Look! I am sending to you people Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and fear-inspiring day of Jehovah.” (Malachi 4:5) That John the Baptizer was born some six months prior to Jesus was no mere accident, nor did this occur simply by natural processes. Like the birth of the promised child Isaac, John’s birth was a miracle, for both of his parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, were past the normal age for producing children.—Luke 1:18.
Even before John’s conception, his commission, work, and mode of living were disclosed by the angel Gabriel. With the vigor and spirit of Elijah, John would turn back disobedient ones from the way of death and would prepare them to accept Jesus as the Messiah. From birth, John was to be a Nazirite, wholly devoted to God, and was to touch no wine or strong drink. Indeed, his food in the desert consisted of “insect locusts and wild honey.” (Mark 1:6; Numbers 6:2, 3; Luke 1:13-17) Like Samuel, from childhood John was set apart for the glorious service of the Most High God.—1 Samuel 1:11, 24-28.
Even the name John was chosen by God. The Hebrew name rendered “John” means “Jehovah Has Shown Favor; Jehovah Has Been Gracious.”
When the child was circumcised on the eighth day, his father, Zechariah, was divinely inspired to declare: “As for you, young child, you will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go in advance 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. With this compassion a daybreak will visit us from on high.” (Luke 1:76-78) John’s public ministry was to be of prime importance in his life. Compared with it, all other things were of little consequence. Hence, the Scriptures cover the first 30 years of John’s life in a single verse: “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.
Voice in the Wilderness
In the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea, John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness with this startling message: “Repent, for the kingdom of the heavens has drawn near.” (Matthew 3:2; Mark 1:4; Luke 3:1, 2) The populace of the whole region was awakened. That bold declaration touched the hearts of people yearning for a sure hope. John’s announcement also challenged a person’s humility because it called for heartfelt repentance. His sincerity and conviction moved multitudes of honest and sincere people to regard him as a man sent by God.
John’s fame spread like the dawning of a new day. As Jehovah’s prophet, he was easily recognized by his dress and devotion. (Mark 1:6) Even priests and Levites traveled from Jerusalem to find out what was sparking all this interest. 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 someone crying out 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.
Repentance and baptism were necessary steps for those who would enter the Kingdom. Therefore, John replied: ‘I baptize repentant sinners with water, but after me someone stronger will baptize you with holy spirit and with fire. Why, I am not even fit to untie his sandals. And beware! He carries a winnowing shovel in his hand and will gather the wheat into his storehouse but will burn up and destroy the chaff.’ (Luke 3:15-17; Acts 1:5) Indeed, the holy spirit would be bestowed on followers of the Messiah, but his enemies would experience the fire of destruction.
“People of All Sorts” Warned
Many honesthearted Jews were deeply moved by John’s words and openly confessed their sins of unfaithfulness to the Law covenant. They publicly demonstrated their repentance by allowing John to baptize them in the Jordan River. (Matthew 3:5, 6) As a result, their hearts were in the proper condition to receive the Messiah. Quenching their thirst for knowledge of God’s righteous requirements, John gladly instructed them as his disciples, even teaching them how to pray.—Luke 11:1.
Concerning this forerunner of the Messiah, the apostle John wrote: “This man came for a witness, in order to bear witness about the light, that people of all sorts might believe through him.” (John 1:7) So it was that people of all sorts came to hear John the Baptizer as he “preached publicly to all the people of Israel baptism in symbol of repentance.” (Acts 13:24) He cautioned tax collectors against resorting to extortion. He warned soldiers against harassing anyone or making false accusations. And he told the pious, hypocritical Pharisees and Sadducees: “You offspring of vipers, who has intimated to you 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.”—Matthew 3:7-9; Luke 3:7-14.
As a class, the religious leaders of John’s day refused to believe him and falsely charged him with being demonized. They rejected the way of righteousness that leads to life eternal. On the other hand, sinful tax collectors and harlots who believed John’s testimony repented and were baptized. In due time, they accepted Jesus Christ as the Messiah.—Matthew 21:25-32; Luke 7:31-33.
The Messiah Introduced
For six months—from the spring to the fall of 29 C.E.—God’s faithful witness John focused the Jews’ attention on the coming Messiah. It was time for the Messianic King to appear. But when he did, he came down to those same Jordan waters and asked to be baptized. At first John protested, but then he complied. Imagine his joy when the holy spirit descended upon Jesus and Jehovah’s voice was heard expressing approval of His Son.—Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11.
John was the first to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, and he introduced his own disciples to this Anointed One. “See,” said John, “the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world!” He also declared: “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.
John’s work continued parallel to Jesus’ ministry for about six months. Each of them understood the work that the other one was doing. John viewed himself as the friend of the Bridegroom and rejoiced to see Christ increase while he and his work decreased.—John 3:22-30.
Jesus identified John as his forerunner, pictured by Elijah. (Matthew 11:12-15; 17:12) On one occasion, Jesus said: “The Law and the Prophets were until John. From then on the kingdom of God is being declared as good news, and every sort of person is pressing forward toward it.”—Luke 16:16.
Faithful to the End
John was arrested and imprisoned because he boldly declared the truth. He did not shirk his responsibility to expose even the sin of King Herod. In violation of God’s law, that king was living in adultery with his own brother’s wife, Herodias. John spoke out so that the man might repent and obtain God’s mercy.
What an example John was of faith and love! At the cost of his personal freedom, he proved his faithfulness to Jehovah God and his love for fellow humans. After a year’s imprisonment, John was beheaded as a result of a Devil-inspired scheme engineered by wicked Herodias, who was “nursing a grudge” against him. (Mark 6:16-19; Matthew 14:3-12) But the Messiah’s forerunner maintained his integrity to Jehovah and will soon be raised from the dead to enjoy life in God’s new world of righteousness.—John 5:28, 29; 2 Peter 3:13.