The Ministry of John the Baptist
As each one of the Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John open up they deal with the presence and ministry in the land of Israel of a man who was called John the Baptist. The son of a priest, whose birth was especially announced and provided for as Luke 1:5ff describe, John the Baptist is one of the key figures in the outworking of God’s program and dealings with the nation of Israel. His coming was to be anticipated and looked for by the people of Israel, and his presence and ministry among them would signify to Israel that God’s program with them had entered its climactic stage. John is described as Israel’s greatest prophet, and his ministry to them was the subject and fulfillment of prophecy. Because of this, John’s ministry did not usher in or have any thing to do with this present dispensation of Gentile grace in which we live in today in which God is working out the “mystery of Christ”. Neither the gospel God gave John to proclaim, nor the baptism which he administered, pertain to the program which God is now working out with us Gentiles — which program God ushered in with the fall of Israel and the raising up of the apostle Paul as a brand new apostle. (Rom. 11:11; Eph. 3:1-12) John the Baptist’s person and ministry is clearly described both in the prophets and in the Gospel accounts as pertaining to God’s program and dealings with the nation of Israel. Therefore, his arrival on the scene and his ministry, as set forth in the opening of each one of the Gospel accounts, should testify to us that the record of the four Gospels have to do with God’s program with Israel, and not this present dispensation of God’s grace to us Gentiles. Though the reality of this should be apparent, unfortunately to many Christians it is not. But even a brief consideration of some of the issues pertaining to who John was and what he came to do should clearly show that this is the case.
THE PERSON OF JOHN THE BAPTIST
The coming of John to Israel was foretold in particular by two of Israel’s prophets. As Mark 1:2-4 records…
“As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.”
Both Malachi and Isaiah had prophesied to Israel about the coming of John the Baptist. His arrival on the scene, therefore, was not an unexpected thing, as if God was starting something new and different with him. And neither did he come to go to the Gentiles. But rather, John was a prophesied prophet whose coming was foretold, and whom Israel was to look for as God’s program and dealings with her advanced on. The people of Israel were to expect the time when “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” would come, just as Isaiah said. They were to expect the time when God, through that “voice”, would confront them with their sins and the crookedness they had made out of the Lord’s paths. At that time that “voice” would exhort them to “make straight” those paths in view of the fulness of God’s program with them being at hand. As Matthew emphatically declares concerning John…
“In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 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.” (Matt. 3:1-3) cf. Isa. 40:1-11
John was the prophesied prophet Isaiah had foretold Israel of, and his coming was in fulfillment of what God had said to Israel was going to happen, as His program and dealings with her advanced on and when the fulness of it was near.
The reality of this is further confirmed by the things which the angel Gabriel said to John’s father about John’s birth, and by the things Zacharias himself said when he was filled with the Holy Ghost. As Luke records in Luke 1:15-17, Gabriel declared…
“For he (John) shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb. AND MANY OF THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL SHALL HE TURN TO THE LORD THEIR GOD. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; TO MAKE READY A PEOPLE PREPARED FOR THE LORD.”
At John’s birth, after describing that the Lord’s program with Israel had advanced on to the point that God had “visited and redeemed his people”; had “raised up an horn of salvation” for them to save them from their enemies; and was ready to “perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant”; Zacharias declared in connection with all of this…
“And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; to give knowledge of salvation UNTO HIS PEOPLE by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God;…” (Luke 1:76-78a)
Again, it is clear that John the Baptist was a very special prophet to and for Israel. He didn’t come in connection with God setting His program and dealings with Israel aside, and ushering in an unprophesied dispensation of Gentile grace. Such was the case with God’s raising up of the apostle Paul, but not of John the Baptist. John, in contrast, came in fulfillment of prophecy, and in direct connection with the climaxing of God’s program and dealings with Israel.
THE MINISTRY OF JOHN THE BAPTIST
Ministry-wise John was Israel’s greatest prophet. The Lord described John as such when He pointed out to the people the significance of John’s ministry.
“But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? yea, I say unto you, and MORE THAN A PROPHET. For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. Verily, I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist:..FOR ALL THE PROPHETS AND THE LAW PROPHESIED UNTIL JOHN.” (Matt. 11:9-13)
John was Israel’s greatest prophet because of his special ministry to the nation. As the Lord explained, “all the prophets and the law prophesied UNTIL JOHN”. They all looked forward to the coming of the Messiah and the time of Israel’s redemption and consolation with the establishment of her covenanted kingdom of heaven in Zion. But John was raised up not to simply reiterate that these things were coming, but rather to herald to the nation that they were “at hand”. Just as the Lord declared again later on to the Pharisees,…
“THE LAW AND THE PROPHETS WERE UNTIL JOHN: SINCE THAT TIME THE KINGDOM OF GOD IS PREACHED, and every man presseth into it.” (Luke 16:16)
John’s presence and ministry clearly marked the climaxing of God’s program with Israel. The time schedule for the establishment of the kingdom, which God had given through Daniel the prophet, was nearing its end. Hence, John proclaimed to Israel,…
“Repent ye: FOR THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN IS AT HAND.” (Matt. 3:2)
The kingdom was “at hand” because the time schedule was near its end. The Lord echoed the same thing as John when He said…
“THE TIME IS FULFILLED, AND THE KINGDOM OF GOD IS AT HAND: repent ye, and believe the gospel.” (Mark 1:15)
With Israel’s covenanted kingdom being “at hand”, John not only announced it, but he in fulfillment of Isaiah 40 and Malachi 3 also confronted the nation with their sinfulness and uncleanness and perversion of God’s paths, in order to turn “the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people for the Lord”. In connection with this, John also functioned as “the Baptist” administering the “baptism of repentance for the remission of sins”. This he did in full accordance with the requirement of the law respecting uncleanness, and in fulfillment of Ezekiel 36 where God had set forth the details of the prescription for cleansing that He would administer to His nation. The initial instalment of that prescription for Israel’s cleansing states….
“THEN WILL I SPRINKLE CLEAN WATER UPON YOU, AND YE SHALL BE CLEAN: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols will I cleanse you.” (Ezekiel 36:25)
John and his baptism commenced the administration of Israel’s prescription for cleansing. With him the remnant began to be called out from the nation which would constitute the called out seed of Jacob — the “little flock” — that would inherit the glory and blessings of the kingdom with the Messiah. (cf. Isaiah 65:1-10)
In connection with the commencing of the administration of Israel’s prescription for cleansing, John also set forth in his preaching the rest of the prescription which would be carried out by the Messiah Himself as the time schedule moved further along. As Matthew 3:11-12 states, John declared…
“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 throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
The prophesied complete purging of Israel was at hand and would occur in connection with the establishment of the kingdom. God’s program and dealings with His people was truly climaxing, and John was fulfilling his special prophesied ministry to the nation in accordance with it. Those of the nation who responded to John would be “the wheat” in that day of purging, which would be gathered into the garner and enjoy the kingdom. The rest would be as “chaff”, which would be destroyed in the Lord’s day of purging wrath.
CONTINUING WHAT JOHN BEGAN
What John the Baptist began, the Lord and His 12 apostles continued on with and also amplified. With the Lord and the 12, the signs of the kingdom were manifested to Israel as the “gospel of the kingdom” continued to be heralded to her. (Matt. 4:23-24; 10:1-7; 11:1-6; 12:28 e.g.) The “little flock” continued to be called out from the nation, to whom it was taught that it would be the “Father’s good pleasure to give the kingdom”. (Luke 12:32) The Lord also taught the 12 about their special positions of rulership and authority in the covenanted kingdom. (Matt. 19:28) In view of all this, and more, the reality of what John the Baptist began heralding — “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” and God’s program with His nation was climaxing — was abundantly manifested to Israel.
Israel, though, rejected Christ and they crucified Him. But God used their rejection as the means of providing for their redemption. (Luke 24:25-27) Also, in accordance with the Lord’s prayer for them on the cross, an extension of mercy and forbearance was given unto Israel. (Luke 23:34) God graciously extended an opportunity to His people to change their minds about Jesus of Nazareth and to believe “the gospel of the kingdom”, before Christ began to “make his enemies his footstool” and purge His nation, as John the Baptist had said He would. This is what the 12 apostles proclaimed to the “men of Israel” and urged them to respond to, following Christ’s ascension, as the opening of the book of Acts relates. (Acts 1:1-8; 2:14-40; 3:19-26; 5:29-32)
GOD USHERS IN A NEW DISPENSATION
As Acts 1-7 describe, though, Israel spurned God’s mercy to them, and they capped-off their rebellion with the stoning of Stephen. At that point, just as Stephen disclosed in the vision given unto him, the Lord was ready at that time to “make his enemies his footstool”. (Acts 7:51-56) He was ready at that time to begin His day of wrath and purging of His nation, just as John the Baptist had forewarned. (Matt. 3:7-12)
But, as Acts 9 records, instead of the expected wrath, the Lord Jesus Christ unexpectedly came back from heaven and raised up a brand new apostle — Paul. In so doing, the Lord commissioned him as the “apostle of the Gentiles”, and sent him out with an unpropheised message. To Paul the Lord revealed that He was holding back His day of wrath, and that He was temporarily setting aside His program and dealings with Israel, and that He was ushering in a dispensation of His grace to the Gentiles. (Rom. 11:1-36; Eph. 3:1-12) To Paul God revealed the “mystery of Christ”; a secret purpose which God has in Christ, which He kept “hid in Himself” in ages and generations past.
We, today, live in this “dispensation of the grace of God for us Gentiles.” It is “the mystery of God’s will”, which was before kept secret, that God is NOW working out. (Rom. 16:25-27; Eph. 3:1-12; Col. 1:25-27) God’s program with Israel, as set forth in the Old Testament, the Gospel accounts, and the opening of the book of Acts, has been temporarily set aside by God until after He concludes this present dispensation of Gentile grace. (Rom. 11:25-27)
Accordingly, it is in the epistles of the apostle Paul that God has set forth His word which describes this present dispensation and is, therefore, the portion of His word which is expressly TO US and ABOUT US today.
ISRAEL’S PROGRAM RESUMED
As the apostle Paul teaches in Romans 11, God “has not cast away his people”. Israel’s “fulness” is yet to come, and will so come after this present dispensation is concluded. Israel’s covenanted “kingdom of heaven”, which John the Baptist heralded was “at hand” in his day, and which the Lord Himself and the 12 likewise preached and manifested to Israel, will yet be preached again to Israel and established. As the apostle Paul declares in Romans 11:25-27….
“For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part has happened to Israel, UNTIL THE FULNESS OF THE GENTILES BE COME IN. And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob: for this is my covenant unto them when I shall take away their sins.”
God has NOT changed His mind regarding Israel. God’s word to them, and His oath bound covenanted plan and purpose with them cannot fail. As Paul further states regarding Israel…
“…as touching the election, they are beloved for the fathers’ sakes. For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance.” (Romans 11:28-29)
Israel’s “fulness” is yet to come. God’s program with them, which was climaxing with the coming and ministry of John the Baptist, as the Gospel accounts relate, will resume and be fulfilled after this present dispensation.
It is in Paul’s epistles, indeed, that we have God telling us what He is doing today in this present dispensation of Gentile grace. And it should be apparent that the Gospel accounts record the outworking of God’s program with Israel BEFORE He set them aside and ushered in this present dispensation. One of the outstanding evidences of the reality of this is John the Baptist. His person and ministry pertain to Israel, and therefore clearly testify to the fact that the things recorded in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, along with the opening of the book of Acts, all pertain to God’s program and dealings with Israel, and not to this present dispensation of Gentile grace. – K.R. Blades