The closing words of the Old Testament speak of a messenger who would prepare the way for the Messiah (Mal. 3:1). The work of this messenger is further described 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."
During His earthly ministry our Lord explained how John the Baptist was the "Elijah" who was to come. "Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come." (Matt. 11:11-14). After His transfiguration, our Lord would further expound upon this topic. "Then Jesus answered and said to them, 'Elijah truly is coming first and will restore all things. But I say to you that Elijah has come already, and they did not know him but did to him whatever they wished. Likewise the Son of Man is also about to suffer at their hands.' Then the disciples understood that He spoke to them of John the Baptist." (Matt. 17:11-13).
Jesus said that "among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist" (Matt. 11:11). Let us look at the life of this great man of God, the one who prepared the way for the Messiah.
Under the Law of Moses, all priests had to come from the tribe of Levi, but not all Levites were priests. The family of Aaron was selected as the priestly family (Exod. 28:1, 43; Num. 3:10; 18:7).
When the land of Canaan was divided, the Levites were not given their own territory -- certain cities located in the territory of other tribes were given to them (Num. 35:1-8; Josh. 21:1-42). When the priests became numerous it was not necessary for them all to reside in Jerusalem continuously. To establish an order and system, David divided the priests into twenty-four courses (1 Chron. 24:1-19). These courses served by turn in the temple and each course had a chief -- hence, the origin of the term "chief priest."
John's parents, Zacharias and Elizabeth, were both from priestly families -- Zacharias was of the course of Abijah (Luke 1:5-6).
Zacharias and Elizabeth "were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless" (Luke 1:6). Though they were both advanced in years, they desired a son (Luke 1:7).
The angel Gabriel appeared to Zacharias while he served in the temple and told him that Elizabeth would bear a son, whom they would name John (Luke 1:11-13). The angel also spoke of John's greatness, telling Zacharias that "you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will also go before Him 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 1:14-17).
John grew up in the hills and wilderness of Judea (Luke 1:80). This environment gave him time for meditation and communion with God -- as his character matured he was unspoiled by the world. This gave him great boldness in denouncing sin and error.
There was a general expectation among righteous people that a Deliverer would come about that time "and all reasoned in their hearts about John, whether he was the Christ or not" (Luke 3:15). Righteous and just men like Simeon were "waiting for the Consolation of Israel" (Luke 2:25), for "it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ" (Luke 2:26). Anna, a prophetess from the tribe of Asher, was one of the many "who looked for redemption in Jerusalem" (Luke 2:38).
As John preached in the wilderness of Judea, the Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem sent a delegation of priests and Levites to John to learn if he was the Messiah (John 1:19-27).
As John preached in the region around the Jordan, he was preparing the way for Christ. Quoting from Isaiah, Luke tells us how "every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill brought low; and the crooked places shall be made straight and the rough ways made smooth" (Luke 3:5). The imagery is drawn from the building of a highway. John was not literally digging down the hills and filling up the valleys -- he was dealing with people. "Every valley shall be filled" -- the downcast, the hopeless, the dispirited, needed to be lifted up, and to have their hopes rekindled. "Every mountain and hill brought low" -- the self-righteous, the arrogant, the haughty, the proud, must be brought to a true humility of spirit and bow at God's word. "The crooked shall become straight" -- those who had been crooked in their dealings with their fellowman needed to be straightened out. "The rough ways made smooth" -- otherwise good people who were rough in their ways and inconsiderate of the feelings of others needed to learn gentleness, forbearance and consideration.
Another work that John had was to point out and identify the Messiah to Israel. John pointed out who the Messiah was (John 1:32-34). After John baptized Jesus in the river Jordan, "John bore witness, saying, 'I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him. I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.' And I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God.'" (John 1:32-34).
John brought unto the nation of Israel the message of repentance and the imminent establishment of the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 3:2). John also warned of the judgment and eternal punishment which awaits the wicked (Matt. 3:12).
The message which finally cost John his life was doctrine of marriage and divorce (Matt. 14:3-4). John had taught that there are some marriages which are "unlawful" even though recognized by the civil government. Our Lord taught he same thing (Matt. 19:1-9).
John's baptism was a "baptism of repentance for the remission of sins" (Luke 3:3). It was preceded by a confession of sins (Matt. 3:5-6), and accomplished purification (John 3:22-26). The common people and even the tax collectors accepted John's baptism and thus "justified God" (Luke 7:29), "but the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the counsel of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him" (Luke 7:30).
Three classes of people came to John. Some men came "confessing their sins" -- these John baptized without question or delay (Matt. 3:6). There were also those who claimed they were already saved -- these John refused to baptize (Matt. 3:7-9). The third category consisted of a single case, i.e., the sinless Son of God (Matt. 3:13-15).
Jesus was the exception to the rule. Jesus could not confess His sins prior to His baptism, for He was sinless, thus John did not want to baptize Him. Jesus told John to, "permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness" (Matt. 3:15). Jesus was baptized because it was a commandment of God.
If to reject the baptism of John was to reject God, what is it to reject the baptism which Jesus Christ commands (Luke 7:29-30)?
It is hard to believe, but there are some people who are under the mistaken idea that John the Baptist established a church and they claim to be a member of it. However, John the Baptist was dead and buried when Jesus promised to build His church (Matt. 14:10; Matt. 16:18). John was never a member of the church Jesus promised to build (Matt. 11:11).
John's death is recorded in Matthew 14:1-12 and Mark 6:14-29. After John had rebuked Herod for his unlawful marriage, John was cast into prison and his judgment deferred because of the multitudes.
After John's rebuke of Herod for his unlawful marriage, it seems Herod's first wave of anger had passed and there returned a growing respect for John. However, in Herodias there burned a thirst for John's blood.
On Herod's birthday he gave a supper at which wine freely flowed. Herodias shamelessly sent Salome, her daughter by Philip, to perform a licentious dance. Herod was so pleased with the dance that he vowed to give her anything -- up to half of his kingdom. Acting on the advice from her mother, Salome asked for the "head of John the Baptist on a platter" (Mark 6:24). The king was "exceedingly sorry," but he would rather commit murder than break his word. John's head was brought in on a silver platter and given to Salome, who in turn gave it to her mother, "and when his disciples heard of it, they came and took away his corpse and laid it in a tomb. Then the apostles gathered to Jesus and told Him all things, both what they had done and what they had taught" (Mark 6:29-30).
Jesus summed up the life of John by saying, "among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he" (Matt. 11:11).
You and I have a tremendous opportunity that John did not have -- we can become members the church Jesus built and citizens of the "kingdom of the Son of His love" (Col. 1:13).