(John 1:6-9 ESV) 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. 8 He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. 9 The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.
John the Baptist is truly an enigmatic figure. He’s mentioned near the beginning of all four gospels — and nowhere else. He was a prophet, and yet he did no miracles and wrote no books. Nonetheless, we find him mentioned very prominently here in the cosmic story of Jesus. John takes us from the over-arching narrative of creation and re-creation, only to suddenly shift to John. Why?
Oh — I nearly forgot to set the mood —
It’s not as though John said much that Jesus himself didn’t say. Both baptized their converts. Why the big deal?
Some suggest that John mentions John the Baptist defensively, that is, to counter the sect of the Jews that followed John but never accepted Jesus (evidenced by Acts 19 as well as Josephus). Maybe he’s discussed solely to demonstrate his submission to Jesus.
But that hardly explains how John winds up in chapter 1 immediately after Logos, light, and life. Why so prominent?
Well, we need to begin in Isaiah 40, which John himself declares to have prophesied about him (John 1:23) — he says that he’s “the voice crying in the wilderness” of Isaiah 40:3.
But the Jews often referred to a scripture by quoting only a small portion. After all, they didn’t have chapter and verse numbers. They just quoted a brief portion and expected the reader to recognize the larger passage being referred to.
Thus, we should quite properly consider John’s ministry in light of the larger context of Isaiah 40:3 — which is a promise that God will come to Israel after a time of abandonment.
(Isa 40:1-2 ESV) Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.
Isaiah then declares —
(Isa 40:3-5 ESV) 3 A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
God himself is returning to Jerusalem through the desert or wilderness. The Crier’s role is to clear a path for the returning King. The point, of course, is not the Crier or the path or the desert, but the coming of the King.
For John to declare himself the Crier of 40:3 is to declare Jesus to be YHWH. This fits John 1:1-5 quite nicely, you see.
(Isa 40:6-9 ESV) 6 A voice says, “Cry!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. 9 Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!”
What is the Crier to cry? “Good news.” Gospel. The return of the King to his people. That Jesus is God!
(Isa 40:25-28 ESV) 25 To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One. 26 Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name, by the greatness of his might, and because he is strong in power not one is missing. 27 Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God”? 28 Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.
Again, the Crier is to announce the coming of “the Creator of the ends of the earth.” Where does John get his theology of Christ? By inspiration, of course, but surely God showed him much of John 1:1-5 in Isaiah 40.
Now, in terms of the narrative of scripture, John the Baptist began the process of calling the people to repentance — declaring that their Jewish ancestry would not suffice for salvation. They must turn back to God and accept Jesus as Messiah. They must be reformed. And they should expect the baptism of the Spirit.
John introduces water baptism into the scriptural narrative, a practice adopted by Jesus and his apostles as symbolizing repentance and receipt of the Spirit, among many other things. After all, why be washed if you don’t need cleansing?
John went out of his way to remind people of Elijah.
(2Ki 1:8 ESV) 8 They answered him, “He wore a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist.” And he said, “It is Elijah the Tishbite.”
(Mat 3:4 ESV) 4 Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.
In 2 Kings 2, we read that Elijah crossed through the Jordan River near Jericho to be taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. John the Baptist first appears baptizing in the Jordan River in the same spot.
Why emulate Elijah? After all, Elijah was a worker of great miracles, but John did none. What’s the message he was communicating to the Jews?
Well, Elijah fought against the worshipers of Baal, helping to preserve true Judaism against the onslaught of pagan practices even among Israel’s kings. Elijah was a purifier and restorer of the worship of God.
Thus, when John appeared as a second Elijah, he was implicitly declaring that Israel needed cleansing of a wickedness just as destructive as the worship of Baal. He declared the power structure of the nation just as corrupt.
(Mal 4:5-6 ESV) 5 “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. 6 And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”
According to Naftali Silverberg, the Jews symbolically invite Elijah to every Passover meal they celebrate.
The four cups [of the Passover] correspond to the four “expressions of redemption” promised by G‑d: “I will take you out from the suffering of Egypt, and I will deliver you from their bondage; I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. I will take you to Myself as a nation…”3 The fifth cup corresponds to the fifth expression of redemption which comes in the following verse: “I will bring you to the Land…” This expression, however, is an allusion to the future messianic redemption which will be announced by Elijah. This is also why we do not drink, “enjoy,” the fifth cup — as we have not yet experienced this redemption.
Thus, the coming of Elijah was seen as a sign of the coming of the Messiah and the restoration of the fortunes of Israel.
John the Baptist, therefore, ties together elements of the Oral Law, the prophets, Kingdom prophecy, the gospel, and the Messiah. He brought much of Israel to repentance by his preaching, and introduced water baptism. He promised the baptism of the Holy Spirit — and he declared Jesus to be the Messiah by the power of the Holy Spirit.
He is a transitional figure, but he is a transitional figure in the most important transition in history. He prepared God’s people to receive their Savior.