John the Baptist is one of those biblical figures that is easy to pass over in our rush to get to Jesus and the inauguration of his mission. This is unfortunate because John was a central figure in so many ways. We are all quite familiar with John’s role as the one who was to come before, making straight the way for the appearance of the Messiah. He was the trail blazer, setting the stage for the arrival of the Deliverer – the one whose sandals he said he was unworthy to unlatch. He baptized the Master and introduced him and his mission to the world.
Yet John fulfilled another role, a truly prophetic one, which many times gets little notice, even from astute theologians and Bible teachers. John was the last in the line of pre-New Testament prophets. He, in fact, was the voice that broke a long period of prophetic silence in Jewish history. After Malachi, the last prophet in the Old Testament, there was a period of 400 years when no prophetic voice was heard in Israel. Many scholars and Bible teachers overlook the fact that John the Baptist was a prophet of Israel – the one who broke the 400 year silence and the final prophet before the arrival of the Messiah. Dr. Myles Munroe explains this succinctly when he says:
This prophetic silence came to an end when John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a message of repentance and proclaiming that the Messiah was coming soon. Although John appears in the four Gospels of the New Testament, he was in fact the last of the Old Testament prophets. His death at the command of Herod Antipas and the initiation of Jesus’ public ministry marked the end of one era and the beginning of another. More specifically, the baptism of Jesus by John was the point of transference. From this point forward, a new order, the Kingdom of God, would be established.
Like many Christians, I spent more than a few years of my faith walk failing to understand the true significance of what transpired that day when Christ met up with John on the banks of the Jordan. I think the church as a whole has been negligent in teaching the import and the impact of the baptism of the Master.
In short, with that event we see the seal of the Old Testament age and the old covenant and the beginning of the New Testament age, the age of Christ and the Holy Spirit. It was in essence the inauguration not only of Jesus’ ministry, but also of the Kingdom of God arriving on earth. Now please, don’t miss the significance of this: with Christ we move into the age where God is with us – the age of Immanuel. And with the descent of the dove, the Holy Spirit came to dwell in Christ. Later on, as the Master breathes on the assembled disciples, he imparts this same Spirit to them. And then, in the drama of the Upper Room, the Holy Spirit descends in full manifestation on the disciples and we move from the age where God is with us to the age where God is in us.
I believe that many sincere followers of Christ rarely pause and reflect upon what a monumental event the baptism of Jesus was and the pivotal role played by John in the unfolding of God’s plan of restoration on earth. I think it is vital that we deepen our comprehension of these themes because it is only when we understand who and what John the Baptist was can we truly grasp who and what we are. Jesus’ words, recorded in Matthew 11:11 tells us exactly what we need to know:
Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he (New American Standard).
Before the arrival of Jesus, humankind had hints and intimations of what the kingdom was all about, but their insight was very limited. Although scholars and prophets talked about it and even prophesied about it, but at best they were looking through a glass darkly. Even John did not fully grasp what he was preaching as Dr. Munroe explains:
John the Baptist preached about the Kingdom, but even John never accurately perceived the full implications of his own message. He witnessed its coming in Jesus, but never fully entered into it himself. . . . . . . . . .John was an Old Testament prophet with a New Testament revelation. He introduced the King who was to reintroduce the Kingdom, but he never experienced it for himself. The Kingdom was of a new era, and John was passing away with the old. John never received the Holy Spirit. He witnessed the Spirit coming down on Jesus at His baptism, but the indwelling Spirit was also a part of the new era that John would not experience to its fullest capacity. This is why Jesus said that, as great as John was, even those who were the least in the Kingdom of heaven were greater than he was. . . . . . . . . .John was a man who stood in the middle, suspended between two dimensions of time. His voice was a voice of preparation, preparing people to enter into this new order. Once Jesus’ public work began, John’s ministry came to an end.
It should be clear by now th John the Baptist played a unique and indispensable role in the great plan of redemption and restoration that was unfolding on earth. When I first encountered these words of Dr. Myles Munroe I became critically aware that I had given very little time to reflecting on the significance of John the Baptist. For the most part, I saw him as the forerunner of the Master, a wild-eyed, bug-eating, finger-waving blowhard that managed to get on the bad side of Herod Antipas and his dark-hearted wife. This indiscretion ended up costing him his head.
John the Baptist, in addition to preparing the way for the appearance of the Messiah, was also preparing humankind for the advent of a whole new way of being. It is important to understand that with the arrival of Jesus there was an entirely different set of divine laws and principles set in motion. I doubt our limited human understanding can ever fully grasp the intricate, intangible aspects of these divine changes, but we can at least get a faint understanding by studying scripture in general and the life of Jesus and his disciples in particular.
In doing so, however, it is imperative that we not forget the sacrificial contributions of the John the Baptist. As he cleared the way for the arriving Messiah and the ushering in of the kingdom and this new way of being in the world, there is a bittersweet element in the life, mission, and death of John the Baptist. Even though he played such a major role in the progression of God’s divine plan on earth, John never had the opportunity to partake of this new way of being. He never had the experience of the full indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
As I reflect on this tragic aspect of the mission of the Baptist, I am reminded of Moses, who was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. As I recall, however, this was the result of some transgression of Moses. As far as we know, John never had such an issue. Instead, his life was cut short by the resentment of Herod’s wife.
One can take heart and have hope for John the Baptist, however. You see, Moses eventually did visit the Promised Land. Along with a pair of divine cohorts, he showed up on the Mount of Transfiguration to work some wonder of light and cosmic physics on Jesus in preparation for what was to come. We can only hope, and perhaps even assume, that based on God’s infinite mercy, the Baptist tasted the indwelling Holy Spirit in the afterlife. For all we know, in fact, he may have experienced something far greater. The Father has a way of turning tragedy into victory on a regular basis.
© L.D. Turner 2012/All Rights Reserved