John the Baptist
A Faithful Preacher
“In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. And the same John had his raiment of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey. Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan, And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance: And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. And now also the ax is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire: Whose fan is in his hand, 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 3:1-12
Here the Holy Spirit gives us a description of John the Baptist, the forerunner of our Lord Jesus Christ, and his ministry. It is a ministry that deserves careful study. John was a faithful servant of God, a preacher worthy of imitation by all who would be faithful preachers of the gospel. He is a standard by which all who are called and ordained to this holy office must be measured. The Lord Jesus called him “a burning and shining light” (John 5:35) and said, “among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist” (Matt. 11:11).
Matthew describes the time of John’s ministry as being “in those days.” About 28 years had passed from the close of Matthew 2 to the opening of Matthew 3. “Those days” were the time appointed by God for the beginning of this gospel age and its ministry. “Those days” were the beginning of the latter half of Daniel’s seventieth week, when Messiah the Prince would confirm the covenant with many (Dan. 9:27).
The place where John preached was “in the wilderness.” John was an open-air preacher because the organized religion of his day would have nothing to do with him and he would have nothing to do with it. In times of apostasy and judgment, such as had now seized Israel, God’s prophets are always found outside the mainstream of religion, “in the wilderness,” so to speak. This world is a dark, barren wilderness spiritually. So, too, are the hearts of men, desolate, empty, and void.
John is described as “The voice of one crying in the wilderness.” And that is how he described himself (John 1:23). Christ is “the Word of God” (John 1:1), the Revelation of the Triune God (John 1:18). A gospel preacher is simply a voice conveying the Word of God, a voice echoing the message God has given. “And what is a voice?” asked Robert Hawker. “It is a nonentity, a mere sound, light as air, and so short in its being and existence, if it can be called by such a name, that when it hath performed its office, it dies away in the air, is dissolved, and is known no more. Such said John am I, when considered in any comparative view with my Lord and Master.”
Yet, the voice is not indifferent. He is found “crying in the wilderness,” arousing and awaking sinners with the claims of God. His garments were plain and simple. His diet was plain and simple. His companions were simple wilderness people (v. 4). Like John, God’s servants are ordinary men. They are not pampered, self-serving men of luxury and ease.
The purpose of John’s life and ministry was to “prepare the way of the Lord.” That is what preachers are sent to do, to prepare the way for Christ to come to men. John was Elijah (Mal. 3:1; Isa. 40:3). In a sense all gospel preachers, like him, are forerunners of Christ. Blessed are those people to whom God sends a faithful preacher. That is an indication that he intends to send his Son on a mission of mercy!
The success of John’s ministry was phenomenal (v. 5). Very few preachers in history, that is very few faithful preachers have been so widely received and heard as the messengers of God. It had been 350 years since the last prophet of God (Malachi) had spoken on the earth. When John came, the multitudes thronged to hear him. Truly, in all things John the Baptist was a remarkable servant of God. As such, he is held before us by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. He is here set before us as an example of what every preacher should be and what every preacher who is sent from God preaches.
What did John preach? What were the leading themes of his ministry? What subjects did he dwell upon and expound most constantly? With what message did he prepare the way of the Lord? John the Baptist spoke plainly about sin and repentance (v. 2).
No man is faithful to your soul or faithful to God who does not expose your sin and proclaim to you the necessity of repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Because we are all sinners, except we repent we must all perish. We are all sinners by divine imputation (Rom. 5:12). We are all sinners by birth and nature (Ps. 51:5). We are all sinners by choice and practice (Ps. 58:3; Rom. 3:9-19). We are all sinners at heart (Jer. 17:9; Matt. 15:19). We are all so thoroughly sinful that even our righteousness must be repented of (Isa. 64:6). John the Baptist was a preacher of repentance who faithfully exposed and reproved the sins of his hearers.
He was not a silver tongued orator, or a refined pulpiteer, or a man-pleasing puppet. John the Baptist was a prophet, the voice of God crying to men (v. 7). He plainly declared the necessity of repentance, warning religious men not to rest in their religious privileges and services. He was no less faithful in preaching to the great and mighty than to the meek and lowly (Luke 3:18-20).
It is commonly thought that everyone understands what repentance is. In reality very few do. Repentance, like faith, is the gift of God. It is that which God gives to us and works in us. Not until the Ethiopian can change his skin and the leopard his spots can a sinner turn himself to God (Jer. 13:23). The Lord Jesus “is exalted a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:31). That which Christ gives cannot be the work of man. There is a false repentance with which multitudes are deluded. False repentance is that which springs from a sorrow for the consequences, not the causes of sin. True repentance is that which flows from the consciousness of sin itself. False repentance is sorrow that arises because a person fears the punishment of sin. True repentance is a godly sorrow for having offended God. False repentance arises from fear of judgment. True repentance rises from the revelation of justice satisfied by Christ (Zech. 12:10).
John the Baptist preached the kingdom of heaven (v. 2). The argument and motive by which he urged sinners to repent was this: — “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” John did not preach an earthly, carnal millennium, but a spiritual, gospel millennium. He did not say, “The kingdom of heaven will come in a few thousand years.” He said, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” He was saying that when Christ dies and is raised from the dead, when he has ascended back to heaven and pours out his Spirit upon all flesh, the kingdom of heaven will be here.
The kingdom of heaven is the church of God. It is the kingdom of which Christ is the sovereign King. Its origin is heaven. Its character is heavenly – spiritual, not carnal and material. And its end is in heaven. It is a kingdom into which a son must be born (John 3:5-7). Yet, it is a kingdom, which must be willingly entered by personal repentance and faith. Surrender to Christ must be a willing surrender (Lk. 14:23-33; Mk. 8:35-36).
John the Baptist preached plainly and forcefully the sovereign independence of God almighty (v. 9). He told his hearers, “God does not need us. He can do without us. But we cannot do without him.” John the Baptist did not pass out invitation cards, begging people to come hear him preach, that read, “We can’t spell ‘church’ without ‘u’”. He said to the Pharisees and Sadducees, “God does not need you to fulfill his promise to Abraham. He can raise up these stones from the Jordan River and make them the heirs of his grace.”
What does that mean? It simply and clearly means that God does not need man. Man needs God! It means that no earthly privilege, performance, or pedigree is a guarantee of divine favor. God has mercy on whom he will. And it means that it is no problem for God to transform hearts as hard and cold as stone into hearts of love and faith. The children of Abraham are not Abraham’s natural descendants, but those who, like Isaac, are children of promise and of grace.
John the Baptist faithfully exposed the utter uselessness of false religion (v. 10). Judaism had degenerated into nothing but an outward, ceremonial system of works religion that God was determined to cut down and destroy as a fruitless tree. How his message needs to be heard in our day! All freewill, works religion is useless religion. All ceremonial, ritualistic religion is useless religion. All useless religion will one day be destroyed. There is only one way to deal with useless religion – “Come out of her!” (Rev. 18:4; 2 Cor. 6:14 – 7:1).
Christ the Savior
John the Baptist constantly preached Christ. He talked to men and women about the Lord Jesus Christ and pointed them to him (v. 11). He sent men directly to Christ. He did not seek to draw men to himself. He said, “I am just his servant. You need him. I can only baptize you in water. He can baptize you in the Holy Ghost. I can only warn you of judgment. He is your Judge!” The subject of John’s ministry was “Jesus Christ and him crucified.” He preached our Savior’s eternal existence (John 1:15) and deity (John 1:34), and his substitutionary, sin-atoning, effectual sacrifice (John 1:29).
John the Baptist spoke in plain terms about the person and work of God the Holy Spirit (v. 11). He preached that there is such a thing as baptism in the Holy Spirit, and that it is the special office of the Lord Jesus Christ to baptize his church into the Holy Spirit. The baptism in the Holy Spirit is not a second work of grace, but a primary work of grace. It is not something we work up by frenzied ecstasy, but something we enter into when we are born of God.
The Lord Jesus Christ baptized his church into the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). That was a one time act. It can no more be repeated than his crucifixion can be repeated. There is no need for a repetition. However, as we receive the benefits of Christ’s death by the new birth, so when sinners are born of God they are born into a spiritual kingdom and forever live in the realm of the Spirit (Rom. 8:3-17). “Ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit.” The Spirit of God dwells in us and we dwell in the Spirit. All believers walk in the Spirit. We are led by the Spirit. We are taught of the Spirit. And we have the witness of the Spirit.
John the Baptist preached the necessity of believer’s baptism, too (vv. 5-8). With God’s servant, baptism was not a matter of indifference or insignificance. He was called John the Baptizer because of his insistence that all who claimed to believe his message be baptized. He immersed (baptized) those who believed God, and only those who believed God. John baptized no one except those who brought forth “fruits meet for repentance.” Neither he, nor anyone else in the New Testament immersed believers and their children. The notions of infant baptism and some other mode of baptism, other than immersion, are mere human fabrications, utterly without foundation or precedent in the Book of God. When John baptized people, there was need for “much water” (John 1:28; 3:23), because it takes more than a fount will hold to immerse a man. The ordinance of baptism is a burial in water (Rom. 6:4-6; Col. 2:12). John Gill pointed out that this was the common practice of early believers. — “The Christians of Christ’s time were called by the Jews, in a way of contempt, apostates, that received the doctrine of baptism, and were dipped in Jordan.”
John the Baptist spoke plainly about the danger of unbelief and the certainty of divine judgment (v. 12). He told his hearers of “wrath to come,” “unquenchable fire,” and “chaff” that must be burned. John spoke of forgiveness; but he also spoke of judgment. He spoke of mercy; but he did not fail to tell sinners of wrath, and of hell, and of eternal torment. It is no kindness for a preacher to keep back what the Bible teaches about hell. Every unconverted sinner needs to be plainly warned and convinced of the fact that he is hanging over the brink of hell by a thin and frayed thread. One more breath, and he may fall headlong into destruction.
John the Baptist told his hearers of the safety and security of all true believers in Christ and by Christ (v. 12). As surely as Christ will burn up the chaff in hell, so surely also he will gather his wheat into his garner at the day of his appearing. All who are preserved in Christ from eternity by God the Father (Jude 1) were redeemed at Calvary by God the Son, and shall be born again, called and sealed in time by God the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13-14). And they are kept by the power of God, through faith in Christ (1 Pet. 1:5), who declares, “They shall never perish” (John 10:27-30).