John the Baptist’s life is worthy of our study simply because Jesus called him the “greatest man born of woman” until that point (Luke 7:28). We often miss the strength of Jesus’ statement. When Jesus considered men like Enoch, Abraham, Moses, Samuel, David, Elijah, Isaiah, and Daniel, He singled out John as being greater than all of them. Quite frankly, that is a staggering evaluation of John’s life, and Jesus’ evaluation of John means that John’s life demands close study.
When we add to that the fact that John spent most of his life in obscurity and only had a visible, public ministry for approximately 6 months, it makes Jesus’ evaluation even more significant. There was something to this mean that made him the greatest among all Israel’s prophets and leaders. Jesus highlighted the wisdom of John’s life so that we would intentionally study John and follow His example.
It is important to see the person of John the Baptist as a real person. He was not socially awkward or eccentric. He was not a strange hermit. He was simply a man completely focused and set in place by God for a purpose. He came along a very difficult time in Israel’s history and his function was ultimately to prepare the people for the ministry of Jesus.
It is also important for us to understand the historical context that John emerged in and recognize how he prepared the way of the Lord. His season of preaching and proclamation was only part of how he prepared the way of the Lord. John’s entire life was swallowed up in preparing the way of the Lord. He prepared the way, not just by how he ministered, but also by how he lived. To understand the significance of John’s ministry, it is important that we briefly look at Jesus’ evaluation of John’s ministry. To better understand the context John ministered within, it is also important to understand John’s world and the conditions in Israel at the time that John emerged.
Jesus’ Assessment of John’s Ministry
When Jesus surveyed all of Israel’s glorious prophetic history, He named John as the greatest man born of woman. Considering the prophetic revelation given to men like Isaiah and the mighty ministry of signs and wonders men like Moses and Elijah had over decades, Jesus’ assessment of John’s ministry is shocking. Especially because it burned brightest for only about 6 months and he did no miracles.
We have to be careful not to dismiss John’s ministry because he is compared to an “Old Testament” prophet. The most dramatic miracles, signs and wonders and most of the prophecy in the Bible was all given through Old Testament vessels. The Holy Spirit used them in ways that are unparalleled to this day. It is a great privilege to be born after the first coming of Jesus, but we do not want to minimize God’s work through the saints of old (Hebrews 11), nor minimize John’s ministry for that reason. Jesus’ assessment of John’s life and ministry mandates that we study it carefully.
7As they departed, Jesus began to say to the multitudes concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 8But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Indeed, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. 9But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet. 10For this is he of whom it is written: ‘Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, Who will prepare Your way before You.’ 11“Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist… (Matthew 11:7–11 NKJV)
6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all through him might believe. 8He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. (John 1:6–8 NKJV)
Notice that Jesus repeated His question, “What did you go out to see?” three times. He was asking, when you look at John do you see what Heaven sees or something else? He is asking the people if they even perceived what was happening in front of them. Did they perceive John’s ministry and what it means? Did they really see? Jesus uses three key words:
- What – Did they people perceive what they were going out to see? Did they perceive who John was? Did they understand what God was doing in the wilderness through this man?
- Go Out – The people had to go out to the wilderness to hear John. They had to seek him and his message out. He was not in Jerusalem and that is significant. You don’t have to advertise a fire, and when God lit John on fire the people went out to see him.
- See – Did they perceive and understand what they were seeing or where they like the people who “see” but do not “see” (Isaiah 6:9)? Were there eyes opening to what was happening?
Jesus asks these pointed questions, because if you understood who John was then you understood who Jesus was. If you missed John, you missed Jesus. Jesus said that John was the one God referred to as “My messenger.” In John 1:6 John was referred to as a man “sent” by God. The word “sent” there comes from “apostello” (ἀποστέλλω) from which we get the term apostle or “sent one.” John was sent by God. Let that sink in for a minute. What does it mean when God chooses a man to go before Him? A man to not just speak messages about Him or messages from Him, but to actually prepare the people to face God?
When Jesus summarized John, it was not his words or his miracles that were the greatest. Other prophets far exceeded him in revelation and in power. In fact, John did no miracles and most of his recorded sermons come from the words of the Old Testament prophets. The proclamation of the coming King from the Scripture is the message that prepares the earth for the coming of the Lord.
Jesus did not measure John by his message or his miracles. He measured him by who he was. John was a prophet, but he was more than a prophet. John didn’t bring a message – he was the message. John, as a person, was the greatest man born among women. His life of preparation through prayer and fasting in the desert made him something more than a prophet.
“You can do the prophetic without prayer and fasting, but you’ll never be the prophetic in the way that God intended without embracing the grace of prayer and fasting.” – Mike Bickle1
Jesus predicted that John’s ministry was not unique to his first coming, but would also emerge against just before His second coming. While John’s coming was clearly in the spirit of Elijah, it also became clear that his ministry was not all that would preceded Jesus’ coming.
11Jesus answered and said to them, “Indeed, Elijah is coming first and will restore all things. 12But 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.” 13Then the disciples understood that He spoke to them of John the Baptist. (Matthew 17:11–13 NKJV)
For example, Elijah’s ministry was known for the miraculous and the miraculous was painfully absent in John’s ministry.
41Then many came to Him and said, “John performed no sign, but all the things that John spoke about this Man were true.” (John 10:41 NKJV)
The lack of the miraculous in John’s ministry emphasizes two things:
- The power of John’s preaching.
- Jesus’ prediction that the ministry of Elijah is coming again to prepare the way of the Lord. In other words, John is a prototype, but not a fulfillment of the preparation ministry.
Though John is the primary prototype for the ministry that prepares the way of the Lord, it is John’s life and ministry joined with Elijah’s provides a fuller context of the final forerunner ministry that prepares the way for Jesus’ return than John’s life alone – the ministry that Jesus predicts will come before His second coming. It is important to recognize that, just as a messenger prepared Israel for Jesus’ first coming, so also messengers will help prepare the nations before Jesus’s second coming so that as many as possible will be prepared for the day of His appearing. It is important to remember that, contextually, the witness of Matthew 24:14 that must go to every nation is not just the gospel of individual salvation, but the proclamation of Jesus as the rightful King who will judge the nations and fulfill all of God’s promises.
The Bible predicts a crescendo of singing in the nations just before the return of Jesus (Isaiah 24:14-15; 42:10-13; Romans 15:8-11). The nations will be singing because the power of God will sweep the nations, touch the hearts of millions of people and cause them to love Jesus with all their strength. The nations will desire Jesus because the witness of the coming King goes to all the nations (Matthew 24:14) and fills a remnant in the nations with deep love and tender devotion for Jesus (Revelation 5:9; 7:9). That witness will go forward in the Spirit of Elijah, meaning with power, and in the pattern of John the Baptist, meaning it will be known for strong preaching of the Scripture.
The Political and Religious Landscape
To understand John, we must also understand the historical context at the time of his ministry. It is important to recognize that John the Baptist’s ministry emerged and Christianity was born in one of the most sophisticated and difficult environments possible. John had to contend with numerous challenges, any one of which could have silenced his message. His challenges included:
- Religious Corruption – A corrupt religious system where some of Israel’s religious leaders were willing to do anything to remain in power. This religious system effective controlled the religious expression of the people.
- Greek Thought – Greece had captured the ancient world with it’s religion, philosophy, and values. These values are so strong that they continue to form the foundation of western thinking and affect the development of western culture to this day.
- Roman Might – Rome ruled John’s world with it’s military might. Anything that threatened Rome was crushed quickly. Rome’s glory captivated the Mediterranean world and the Roman emperor had brought an unparalleled period of peace and prosperity to the Mediterranean world. Rome would preserve this peace and the appearance of Rome’s glory at all costs.
- Pagan gods and Sensuality – The combined Grecian and Roman culture brought pagan gods, sensuality, and rampant immorality. Sexual deviancy of all kinds was celebrated, promoted, and even included as a part of religious worship.
All of these factors combined to make life in the land of Israel difficult for religious Jews. On one hand, the Jews had a great deal of religious freedom, but on the other they did not have political freedom. This was extremely difficult for the religious Jewish community because Israel did not separate between church and state.
Worship of YHWH was not simply an issue of personal devotion. The entire government was to be led by a king who followed the ways of YHWH. Because the government of ancient societies was fused with the primary religion of that society, the fact that the Jews could worship at the temple, but were still submitted to a pagan government was a source of pain and conflict for the first century Jewish community. God’s promise to establish Israel as the leading nation of the earth also stirred the hearts of the Jewish people after centuries of foreign occupation. The internal turmoil of the Jews and the political situation set the stage for their interpretation of John’s message.
The last few hundred years had been a frustrating cycle of occupation, domination, and brief freedom.
a. After the domination of Babylon, the Jews had endured 200 years of occupation under the Persians (538-323 BC). Then they saw their lands change hands repeatedly for the next 163 years between the Seleucid and the Ptolemaic families as Judea became a prize for ambitious rulers looking to build empires. Then after a 20-year struggle, they enjoyed 75 years of independence during which the ruling family descended into corruption. Finally, the 60 years before John the Baptist had been under the rule of an Idumean family as part of the Roman Empire. They had only known independence for 75 of the last 600 years.
External governance, currency, language, and culture from three great empires had bombarded them, sometimes mercilessly and ruthlessly as demonic attempts to shatter their identity into a sort of pre-modern “cultural cleansing.” This created tension in the Jewish community there were different ways the Jewish community responded to the tension.
- Frustrated Cooperation – The men in power, the Sadducees, were content to keep the peace and maintain the status quo, protecting the delicate balance of self-governance amidst Roman occupation and accountability. The Pharisees were playing a similar game and jockeying for power, but they were also attempting to placate God through strict observance of the law. They had Messianic expectation, but were also a part of the current power structure.
- Active Resistance – The Zealots were the one group who found the situation untenable. They longed for a military messiah to bring political deliverance and were willing to force the issue by maintain an ongoing physical resistance against Rome.
- Withdrawal – The Essenes combined apocalyptic expectation with a dedicated spiritual pursuit. They were eagerly longing for Messiah, but not involved in the power structure, instead choosing to live in religious community. They were hoping, waiting, and preparing for Messiah spiritually.
The corporate mood of the Jews in Palestine had shifted into one of mostly frustrated tolerance. As a nation they were again subject to the dominance of yet another gentile master. Many were longing for a Messiah and the prophetic voice had long been silent. They were beaten, but proud; broken, but still with an independent spirit; complacent, but simmering; spiritually dull yet stirring and yearning for the promises of God.
Some were eagerly looking for a Messiah while others had become dull and complacent because of their tenuous power sharing relationship with Rome. It all produced a spiritual dullness in which only a few like Simeon and Anna recognized the promised Child. In spite of the dullness of some, their internal longings are evident in their response to John the Baptist, and later Jesus. There was a quiet yearning, a secret hope within them that would become very visible. The stirrings of their prophetic hopes for the nation of Israel surfaced quickly in their response to John’s preaching.
Internationally Rome had just come into its own “golden age” of peace and prosperity. Augustus had created conditions for stability unlike any other time in the 500-year history of the empire. There was economic prosperity and an unprecedented peace throughout the Empire known as the “Pax Romana.” Stable governmental systems were in place throughout the empire to enforce that peace and Rome had the military might to enforce the unified systems of Roman law.
For the first time in centuries a type of global “quiet” had settled throughout the land. This pervasive international mood was in place when John emerged in the fifteenth year of the reign of the Caesar named Tiberius. God had used Rome to rearrange the map and to create the context He wanted. Now Rome’s empire was quiet so that God’s Son could take center stage.
1 Mike Bickle, Forerunners and the Spirit of Elijah, 2002, http://www.mikebickle.org.edgesuite.net/MikeBickleVOD/2002/20020227-T-Forerunners_and_the_Spirit_of_Elijah_S&W.pdf (accessed February 7, 2013), 13.