There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.John 1:6–8, ESV
When a king was going out, it was customary to send out a messenger ahead of him to inform everyone about his imminent arrival. This messenger was called a herald. Kings didn’t just show up and tell the people: “Hello. I’m the king.” No. The King always had an entourage, and he sent a herald ahead of him so that the people could arrange a grand reception for him. Because Jesus is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, He had to have a herald as well. His herald was John the Baptist.
Ever since God had brought His people Israel out of Egypt during the Exodus, God had periodically spoken to them through the prophets, who prophesied everything from the disastrous fall of Jerusalem to the glorious arrival of the Messiah and His messenger, until around 440–400 BC, when God sent His last prophet Malachi. Malachi (whose name means “The Lord’s messenger”) prophesied that God would send His messenger to “prepare the way before me” (Mal. 3:1) and that He would send “Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes” (Mal. 4:5). Then, for the next 400 years, God was silent.
Until one day, when a voice cried out in the wilderness. God was speaking again through another prophet, the promised messenger, John the Baptist (Luke 3:1–3). Like other prophets before him, he was quite eccentric. He wore clothes made out of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey (Matt. 3:4), akin to the prophet Elijah who wore “a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist,” (2 Kings 1:8).
John had come to prepare the way and the people for the King (Luke 1:17, 76–77), and announce His glorious entrance into the world: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand” (Matt. 3:2). Not only was the King of Kings coming into the world, but he was coming to establish His kingdom of believers on earth. Many Israelites were intrigued by this peculiar fellow, so they went out to see him and hear his message. Many were convicted and got baptized. Mark describes his enormous impact as he writes: “And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Mark 1:5). Later the leaders of the Jews also sent a delegation to question him. Their questions highlight the anticipation that was in the air around the time: Not only were the Jews anticipating the Messiah, but also His messenger, and they had been doing that for centuries (John 1:19–27).
In common with the other gospels, John the Apostle begins his with the witness of John the Baptist (Matt. 3; Mark 1:1–12; Luke 3:1–22). From beginning to end, the gospels portray Jesus as Savior and King; However, Jesus never appoints any disciples or makes any royal announcements about Himself or His kingdom, until John the Baptist had announced His arrival and baptized Him. Before the King could speak to the people, His messenger had to go ahead of Him and herald him.
There is a striking contrast between John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. When John first appears in the gospel, the author writes: “There was a man” (John 1:6). In comparison to the eternal Word Jesus Christ who has been the prologue’s subject up until now (John 1:1–5), John is described as just a man. However, although John the Baptist was just a man, he was God’s man. John had not sent himself; He had been “sent from God.” God had commissioned him to proclaim the arrival of the promised Messiah and His kingdom. Like the other prophets before John, even before God had formed him in the womb, God had ordained this singular mission for him and appointed him to be a prophet. Before John was conceived, The angel Gabriel appeared to his father Zechariah and told him about the glorious work that God had prepared for his son:
And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will 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 for the Lord a people prepared.Luke 1:16–17, ESV
John the Apostle is not the same person as John the Baptist. The Apostle is one of Jesus’s twelve disciples and the author of the gospel; The Baptist is Jesus’s messenger sent ahead to prepare the way. Interestingly, the three other gospels refers to John the Baptist with additional titles, such as “the baptist,” but this gospel simply refers to him as John, like in verse 6: “whose name was John.” Unlike the other gospel authors, John the Apostle doesn’t need to distinguish between himself and John the Baptist because he never refers to himself by name in his gospel.
To Witness for Christ
John the Baptist’s mission was not to exalt himself, but “to bear witness about the light:” Jesus Christ. The Greek words witness (marturia) and to testify (matureo) are legal terms related to facts, not options, used in courtroom settings. In the Bible, the words are predominately used by John the Apostle in his gospel, epistles, and revelation. The Apostle records eight witnesses in his gospel:
- John the Baptist: John 1:6–8
- Jesus Himself and His Words: John 3:11; 3:32; 8:18
- Some of those who met him: John 4:29; 12:17
- The works of Jesus: John 5:36; 10:25
- The Father: John 5:37; John 8:18
- The Old Testament Scriptures: John 5:39–40
- The Holy Spirit: John 15:26
- The disciples (and the New Testament Scriptures): John 15:27; 19:35; 21:24
The root of these Greek words (marturia and matureo) is the source of the modern word “martyr,” which Webster defines as “a person who voluntarily suffers death as the penalty of witnessing to and refusing to renounce a religion.” Originally, these words did not imply self-sacrifice. That is until the Jews and Romans persecuted countless Christians because of their faith. To witness for Christ then meant that they had to endure suffering and death. Renouncing Christ was not an option, not without losing their heavenly reward (Matt. 10:22; 24:13; Luke 9:26; Rev. 2:10). The New Testament records the first of these martyrs, including Stephan (Acts 7:54–60), James (Acts 12:1–5), and even the Lord Jesus Himself who said: “It [the world] hates me because I testify (matureo) about it that its works are evil” (John 7:7). John the Baptist was beheaded in prison because of his ministry. He spoke the truth and wouldn’t endorse Herod’s illegitimate marriage (Mark 6:18; Matt. 14:10).
To bear witness for Christ and the truth doesn’t only mean gathering on the Lord’s day for a sermon, some hymns, and desserts; it can also mean being persecuted and stoned to death in the street while loving and praying for those who are killing you (Matt. 5:44; Acts 7:60; Luke 23:34). However, it is worth it, always. The fleeting pleasures of life cannot compare to the treasures in heaven that God has stored up for those who love Him. And the most excellent gift God will bestow upon us is not material goods or a reunion with our departed loved ones. No. It is God Himself, to see Him face to face (1 Cor. 13:12). That day, we will be united with God to sing His praise forever, in perfect love and harmony with each other, basking in the light of Him who sits upon the holy throne, in a city that needs neither a sun nor a moon, because the glory of God gives it light (Rev. 21:23).
This life is brief like smoke; the heavenly life will last forever. Life is a small price to pay for eternal life.
Pointing to Jesus
When John the Baptist bore witness to Christ, he did it so that “that all might believe through him.” People believe in Christ through the testimony of men like John. When he pointed his two disciples towards the Savior, they followed him (John 1:35–38). We do the same by the lives we live and the testimonies we give.
Even before John the Baptist could utter his first words in the gospel, the Apostle writes that “He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.” Everything is about Jesus. He is the eternal light that was coming into the dark world. John was not the light, only the light’s witness and herald sent ahead to prepare the way, and he recognized this. When the people and the Pharisees came to ask John whether he was the Christ (Messiah), John told them no (John 1:20; Luke 3:15). Rather than receiving the praise and worship, John pointed everyone towards the only person worthy of it, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the sole Savior of the world. Although God had given John the Baptist an exceptional ministry on earth, preaching to and baptizing multitudes of people, he never let this ministry get to his head. He saw who he was compared to Jesus: a man not even worthy to untie the strap of Jesus’s sandal (John 1:27).
Possibly the best example of John the Baptist’s humility is recorded in Matthew 3. When Jesus came to be baptized by him, John recognized that he wasn’t worthy enough to baptize his own Savior and instead told Jesus that “I need to be baptized by you.” Jesus assured him that it was necessary to “fulfill all righteousness.” Because Jesus had to live a perfect life on the sinners’ behalf, he also had to be baptized. John consented and baptized Jesus. When Jesus rose again from the water, “the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’” (Matt. 3:16–17).
John the Baptist recognized that he was unworthy of baptizing Jesus and of being His servant. Later, when he pointed two of his disciples to “the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:36), he wasn’t just pointing towards the world’s lamb, but also towards his own lamb. He was a sinner in need of a savior as well. There is none who is righteous, no, not one (Rom. 3:11). John’s two disciples then left him to follow after Jesus. When some of his other disciplines approached him later because of a dispute about purification and being upset that “everyone is going after him [Jesus],” John tells them about his joy:
A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.John 3:27–30, ESV
He rejoiced that everyone was leaving him to follow Jesus. A good worshipper will lead your eyes to Christ to make you worship Christ; a bad worshipper will lead your eyes towards himself to make you marvel at how good he is at worshipping. Instead of pointing everyone to Christ, he will point one hand towards himself and the other towards Christ. Let us avoid that and instead follow in John the Baptist’s footsteps by only pointing everyone to the perfect Savior who died on the cross for our sins and secured our eternal salvation. When our brothers and sisters take their eyes off of us and look to the Savior, we rejoice. He must increase; we must decrease.