John the Baptist
What would it have been like to grow up knowing that an archangel had announced your birth…knowing that you have the unique and perilous calling of a prophet? That’s what John the Baptist knew his own destiny.
A lot of us have heard the stories of the Bible for so long that we forget to think about what it would be like to have lived them. If you believe these are just made up stories, then there isn’t much to wonder about. But if they are true…wow. What would it have been like to be a character…making choices, facing consequences, dealing with fears, desires, and unknowns?
The Lord gave Zechariah and Elizabeth a son when they were already old and grey. They were so old that everyone was certain that this child was a miracle from God. Every child is precious, but clearly this one had a very high and special purpose.
Gabriel declared that this boy would come in the spirit of the great prophet Elijah. He also gave John’s father special directions about the kind of life John was to live. There were things that he was never allowed to do. For example, he could never drink any kind of alcohol. He would be filled with the Spirit of the Living God instead!
As John grew, God called him out into the desert wilderness to live, just like the stories of Elijah in the Old Testament. And just like Elijah, John wore the simple, rough clothes of a man set apart for God. It was made of itchy, course camel’s hair. He wore a leather belt around his waist and he ate wild honey and locusts for his food. Imagine his long, hot dry days alone, meditating on the Word of God. Imagine the deep, dark, cold desert nights with thousands of brilliant stars sprinkled across the sky as John prayed and pursued the will of the Lord.
John had a vital message to declare to God’s people. The prophet Isaiah had told of John’s coming over seven hundred years before the time of Jesus:
“‘I will send my messenger to you,
who will prepare you the way-
a voice of one calling in the desert,
“Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him”’”
These verses are from Isaiah 40:3-5. This chapter is the beginning of the great prophecies about the Messiah in the book of Isaiah. The prophet explained that some time in Israel’s future, a man would come as a herald to declare the coming of the Messiah. This messenger would speak with the power and authority of one sent by God. He would be the last of the great prophets of Israel. But the great difference between John and the prophets of old was that John was preaching to the very people who would meet the Messiah Himself! Their hearts had to be made ready for their King! Would the nation listen to this messenger of the Lord? Would they repent of their sin?
The time came when God called John to leave the wilderness and begin his powerful ministry of preaching. As John the Baptist taught, he quoted Isaiah 40 to help the Jewish people understand who he was. According to the way we measure time now, this probably happened in the summer of 26 AD. But that isn’t how years were measured in those days. Back then, time was measured by the years of the seemingly all-powerful rule of the emperors of Rome.
Luke records that John began preaching in the fifteenth year of the reign of the emperor Tiberius Caesar. At that time, Pontius Pilate was the Roman official who governed Judea, the southern region of the land of Israel. There were also Jewish rulers that worked under the power of Roman rule. When King Herod died, the Roman leaders decided to break up the land of Israel between his sons. His first son, also named Herod, was made ruler over the land of Galilee. His brothers Philip and Lysanias were made tetrarchs over other regions.
Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, Caiaphus and Ananias were the high priests over the Temple in Jerusalem. They were appointed by the first King Herod. Needless to say, they did not receive their appointments in an honorable way. They commanded the highest religious position in Israel through political corruption and sheer ambition. It was a terrible way to become the priests that were meant to stand as mediators between a holy God and His people. But the role of high priest in Jerusalem was a position of tremendous power, and it attracted men full of selfish aims. They were meant to act as the spiritual leaders of the children of God, but their hearts were far from His will.
Luke was careful to record the men who ruled over the Israel during the time of John’s life and the life of Christ. These men held great worldly power, but John the Baptist came in the power of God’s Spirit, and he lived for the Kingdom of God. The rulers of the world would come up against God’s power through God’s servant, and they would have to make choices. Would they submit to the unstoppable plans of the Lord of all?
John began to travel throughout the countryside, preaching to the people and baptizing them. He told them, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.”
Now, this sentence is very, very important. It is the whole point of John’s powerful ministry. It is worth pondering for a minute.
John had the passion of a prophet. For him, repentance meant a radical change of heart. It meant turning away from anything that was against God. It meant rejecting anything that was impure or offensive to Him. When John baptized the people, they had to confess their sins as something they no longer wanted any part of. Then they were baptized. Their full body was dunked under the water, like in a rushing flood that washes away every unwanted thing. It was a powerful, symbolic and spiritual act, declaring to the world that they had died to one way of life and were rising up into another!
God made declarations all over Scripture that He loves a repentant spirit. He promises that He will always accept those who come to Him with true humility. He promises to take all the filth of sin and shame and cleanse the heart to make it pure and clean. He promises to give strength to anyone that trusts Him and seeks to live a righteous life. That was the longing of John’s heart for the people of Israel. Isn’t it beautiful?
What do you think John meant by the “Kingdom of Heaven?” Well, when a Jewish person heard this phrase, or when they heard “Kingdom of God,” a whole bunch of connected ideas would have come to their minds. They understood that their God, Yahweh, was eternal. He had no beginning, He always was. At some point in eternity, God moved in a special way. He created the entire universe, from the most vast spaces and regions in the dark deep and the most gigantic stars to the tiniest beetle on a blade of grass. All of it is God’s, and so it is all a part of His great, universal kingdom.
God had also given humanity the unimaginable privilege of watching over part of His kingdom. He gave humans dominion and authority over the earth. We were to be His empowered servants, doing His perfect will, ruling and reigning for Him over this beautiful blue planet we call home. When humans gave their allegiance to Satan and chose to believe him over God, we brought a terrible curse into our world. Our rejection of God plunged the world into a kingdom of darkness. Sin, disease, hard labor, suffering, and death became a part of everyday life here. Our first father, Adam, chose it, and as the father of the human family, he chose it for all of us. The disease of sin and shame infests every human life.
But God would not let the story end there! God had a plan from the beginning to break into the darkness with His Kingdom of Light. The Jewish nation was an important part of God breaking in with images and teachings of His holiness and love. It was their prophets that would tell of God’s wonderful plan to establish His righteous kingdom of light and joy and peace through the Messiah. That was the kingdom that Israel was waiting for.
John knew that the Old Testament said that with the coming of the Messiah, this great Day of the Lord was on its way. The righteous who truly loved their Lord and lived to be obedient to Him would be saved. But the hard hearted and sinful were going to be destroyed. Their refusal to turn away from evil made them unfit for the Kingdom of Heaven. It showed that God was not their true King. Their own decisions would make them fit only for God’s wrath and judgment.
John knew that his job was to prepare the people of Israel by presenting them with a choice. Yet he did not know all the details about the future. He didn’t know exactly how everything was going to happen. He went out and faithfully to preach the message of warning that God had given him so that the people would have their chance to welcome their Savior and his Kingdom with hearts made clean by repentance!