“I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me” (Malachi 3:1). Who was this messenger? How did he prepare for Christ? Will there be another?
John the Baptist was born of parents who were of priestly descent. His father, Zacharias, was a priest who served in the temple every year at his appointed time. His mother, Elizabeth, was of the “daughters of Aaron” (Luke 1:5). He was born about six months before Jesus and was a relative of Jesus (Luke 1:36).
An angel appeared to Zacharias while he was serving his course in the temple to tell him his prayer was heard. His aged wife would bear a son, and he would be called John (Luke 1:11-13). Zacharias doubted the angel Gabriel’s message; and as a result, he was made mute until the time of the naming of John at his circumcision (Luke 1:18-20, 59-64).
John grew up and lived in the desert hill country and wilderness of Judea until he was called to begin his ministry (Luke 1:65, 80). He was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15). He was being prepared for a special calling and ministry.
The division of Abijah
Luke tells us that Zacharias served in the temple in the division (or “course,” King James Version) of Abijah. The priests were organized into 24 divisions by King David a thousand years earlier, and Abijah was the eighth division (1 Chronicles 24:10). In addition to all the priests serving during the holy day seasons, each of the 24 divisions served twice during the remainder of the year.
Although the timing of Zacharias’ service in the temple cannot be precisely established, it is likely that Zacharias, being in the eighth division, would have finished one of his appointed times of service sometime between the first of June and the middle of June (The Companion Bible, Appendix 179 III, “The Course of Abia”). Shortly after he returned home, his wife, Elizabeth, conceived (Luke 1:23-24).
Based on this timing, John would have been born around March of the following year. Jesus would have been born six months later in either September or early October of that same year (Luke 1:26). Jesus began His ministry when He was 30 years old (Luke 3:23). It is likely John also began his ministry at age 30, so he would have begun to preach six months earlier.
Who was John the Baptist?
When Zacharias came to the temple to serve in his division, the angel Gabriel appeared to him to tell him that his wife would conceive in her old age and have a son who would be named John. His name means “YHVH was gracious, showed favor” (Jewish New Testament Commentary, p. 15).
Through the angel Gabriel, God said, “He will also go before Him [Christ] in the spirit and power of Elijah, 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” (Luke 1:17; compare with Malachi 4:5-6). He would not literally be Elijah, but he would come in the “spirit and power of Elijah.” He would also be a “prophet of the Highest” and “go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways” (Luke 1:76).
John’s ministry began in the wilderness of Judea along the Jordan River. He dwelt at that time east of the Jordan at Bethabara (Matthew 3:1; John 1:28). From the beginning of his ministry, his message was very effective in drawing many people from Jerusalem, the province of Judea and the Jordan River region (Matthew 3:5). The apostles Andrew and John were originally John’s disciples or followers until they heard Jesus (John 1:35-40).
When the priests and Levites asked who he was, John said he was not the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet spoken of by Moses (John 1:19-21; Deuteronomy 18:15, 18). He said he was simply “the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Make straight the way of the LORD’” (John 1:23; Isaiah 40:3). His was a humble ministry, located in a very humble setting, the wilderness.
John baptized people in the Jordan River after they repented and confessed their sins (Matthew 3:6). This is how he became known as John the Baptist or John the baptizer. His ministry was to “prepare the way” for the Messiah by preaching a baptism of repentance of sin and of foretelling of the coming of the one who would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:4, 8).
When Jesus came to John to be baptized, he said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). His focus was on pointing people to the coming of Jesus Christ, who was much greater.
From the beginning of his ministry John had taught that one must “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:8). This requirement for baptism would not end with John’s ministry. Jesus likewise taught His disciples to preach on the importance of repentance (Luke 24:47; Acts 2:38).
A major thrust of John’s message was to exhort his audiences on the seriousness of Christ’s baptism, which was soon to begin. He explained that Jesus’ baptism would lead to either eternal life or eternal death (Luke 3:16-18). He spoke of a baptism with the Holy Spirit that would lead the sincere believer to eternal life. In the same teaching he spoke of a baptism with fire, which referred to the lake of fire or the second death for those who would reject Christ and the Holy Spirit (Hebrews 6:4-6; Revelation 20:13-15).
John’s message was in harmony with Jesus’ warning that one must “count the cost” if he wished to be His disciple (Luke 14:25-33). Jesus also said, “No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). John’s earlier message prepared the way for Christ’s message of how to become a Christian and receive eternal life.
John’s ministry did not last very long. Yet in a very short time John became highly respected in his ministry of repentance of sin and in looking for the Messiah to come. He baptized many people, including soldiers and tax collectors; but most if not all of the religious leaders rejected the idea that they needed to repent of their sins, so he didn’t baptize them (Luke 3:14; 7:29-30).
John not only preached repentance, he also trained disciples to carry on his ministry (Luke 11:1; Matthew 9:14). Just as Elijah and Elisha had trained disciples to carry on their work (2 Kings 2:15; 2 Kings 4:38), John did as well. Following the Jerusalem conference of Acts 15, the scriptural record shows that when Apollos came to Ephesus and began to powerfully preach “the things of the Lord,” he understood “the baptism of John” (Acts 18:24-25). When the apostle Paul came to this city in the early 50s, he found disciples who had been baptized “into John’s baptism” (Acts 19:3). The impact of John’s ministry clearly reached beyond the wilderness of the Jordan River.
Jesus said, “Among those born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he” (Luke 7:28). Even though he never did any miracles during his ministry (John 10:41), John was highly regarded by everyone, including Jesus, for his example of righteousness.
End of John’s ministry
John was arrested by Herod Antipas and imprisoned at the fortress of Machaerus on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea. This occurred just a short time before Jesus began His ministry in Galilee (Mark 1:14). The Gospels tell us that Herod arrested John for the sake of his wife, Herodias. John had told Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s [Philip’s] wife” (Matthew 14:1-9; Mark 6:17-19; Luke 3:19-20).
The Jewish historian Josephus says Herod arrested John because his preaching attracted large crowds and he feared it might create a revolt. Josephus’ explanation may have been the official reason or excuse that Herod gave for arresting John.
Josephus wrote very kindly of John, “Now, some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist; for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism” (The Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 5.2).
Herod Antipas’ army suffered defeat in A.D. 36. This was about eight years after John’s death. It reveals how much John was respected and remembered by the Jewish people. Also, the fact that Josephus wrote about John in the 90s shows the impact John’s life and ministry had in the first century.
Is the Elijah prophecy dual?
Jesus told His disciples that John was Elijah; that is, he was the one who had come in the “spirit and power of Elijah” (Matthew 11:14; Luke 1:17). Later, Jesus said, “Indeed, Elijah is coming first and will restore all things” (Matthew 17:11).
Jesus confirmed that Elijah must precede the Messiah, but His statement raises some questions: Will an Elijah or an Elijah-type work precede His second coming? What were the “all things” that would need to be restored? Did John’s short ministry “restore all things”?
The prophecy of the coming of Elijah is found in Malachi 4:5-6: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse [utter destruction].”
It has been almost 2,000 years since John. Will there be another work of Elijah before the “great and dreadful day of the LORD”?
Before writing about the coming of Elijah, God inspired the prophet Malachi to caution his readers: “Remember the Law of Moses, My servant, which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel, with the statutes and judgments” (Malachi 4:4). After 2,000 years, a common yet mistaken teaching in many churches is that all of God’s law has come to an end.
Notice what one representative commentary says: “The Mosaic code of laws included The Commandments (Exod.20:1-17), the Judgments stipulating their social life (Exod.21:1-23:33) and Ordinances, directing Israel’s worship (Exod.25:1-31:18). This Mosaic system, including the Ten Commandments as a way of life, came to an end with the death of Christ (John 1:17; Rom.10:4)” (Unger’s Bible Dictionary, “Law, The Law of Moses,” p. 646).
Did Jesus come to “destroy” the law and the commandments? No! (See Matthew 5:17.) Did the apostles teach Christians that God’s law and commandments were abolished? No! (For more on this, see “Are the 10 Commandments Upheld in the New Testament?”) Does the truth about God’s law and commandments need to be “restored” to Christianity before the “great and dreadful day of the LORD”? Yes! Why? To prepare a people for the second coming of the Lord by restoring the true knowledge about God’s laws and commandments.
If John the Baptist were alive today, what standard would he use to preach repentance? If one abolishes the laws of God, there is no standard to define sin. As the apostle John said, “Sin is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4, King James Version).
Preparing for Christ’s comings
Long before the birth of John, God had planned to have an individual in place to prepare the way for His Son’s first coming. John was a very dynamic speaker, and he was highly respected for the truths he taught. Lives were changed, and people were prepared for the coming of their Savior and baptism into His name.
Will God have a similar work before the second coming of Jesus Christ and the “great and dreadful day of the LORD”? The indications seem very strong that He will. Read the article “Elijah the Prophet” for additional insight on this point and to see how Elijah had previously called people to repentance.