Vol. 8, No. 7
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One of the most intriguing portraits on divine canvas is that of John the Baptist. While several New Testament writers give us a glimpse into the affairs of his work, we want to share some thoughts on John's ministry as seen through the eyes of the apostle Matthew (3:1-12).
First, the time (Matthew 3:1). Historically speaking, writes Matthew, it was "In those days..." (3:1). "Those days" refers to the historical circumstances of John's ministry. In the physician's Gospel, John's ministry is dated with the finest precision (Luke 3:1-2), to correspond unerringly with the inspired Hebrew prophets of old (cf. Daniel 2:31-45). Spiritually speaking, John's ministry blended perfectly in time with the plan of salvation in the divine scheme. His place in the divine scheme is one of a bridge--a link between the Old Testament prophets and their fulfillment in Christ (Matthew 11:11-13). The time of John's ministry is historically and spiritually perfect.
Second, the work (Matthew 3:1b). John came "preaching," is the simple description of his work. Of all the offices and occupations of Roman society, of all the positions John could have held with his family genealogy (his father from the order of Abia, cf. Luke 1:5-6; 2 Chronicles 24:1; his mother from the priestly tribe of Aaron, cf. Luke 1:5), his personally and divinely chosen profession was "preaching." There has never been, nor will there ever be, a more controversial vocation than that of the preacher of righteousness. Whether the Immerser, the slain prophets of old (Matthew 23:25), or Jesus himself (Mark 6:4; 1 Corinthians 2:8), preachers of the Word have chosen the most unpredictable, yet rewarding of all work.
Third, the place (Matthew 3:1c). John's realm of work consisted mainly of the Judean wilderness. This area consisted of three sections in New Testament times. There was the maritime plain, a fertile, lush environment full of people along the coast of the Mediterranean; the shephelah or "lowlands," where many of the events between ancient Israel and the Philistines took place (Masterman 1765); and the hill country. Its relative harshness, only alleviated by its natural beauty, molded the character of John into a straightforward, no-nonsense, devoted prophet of God. The place of John's ministry set the stage for his difficult work, and the arrival of the King.
Fourth, the subject (Matthew 3:2). The subject about which John was to give his devotion is recorded in his sermon intro, "Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand," which included the act of immersion in water "for the remission of sins" (Mark 1:4). This subject was a new one, and it took a devoted faith to preach it. John was never instructed by the religious leaders of his day to do so, nor had his people practiced such previously in Jewish history. It was from God. Therefore he accepted it, practiced it and had no reservation to require it of all men who would be right with God. The subject of John's ministry was a call to a change of heart and action in the house of Israel.
Fifth, the relevance (Matthew 3:3). As Matthew tells us (Matthew 3:3; cf. Isaiah 40:3), the relevance of John's work is seen in its fulfillment of prophecy. There are several prophecies pertaining to John and his work, as recorded by the inspired biographers (Isaiah 40:3-6, cf. Luke 3:4-6, John 1:23; Malachi 3:1, cf. Matthew 11:10; Malachi 4:5-6, cf. Luke 1:17). Even his father Zacharias, by inspiration, knew the great relevance of this child and his future as a servant of God (Luke 1:76). The relevance of John's ministry can be attributed, in part, to its significant answer and fulfillment to the writing prophets before him.
Sixth, the manner (Matthew 3:4). The apostle tells us of the humble attire and provisions John accustomed himself to as a wilderness resident. He refused to use his office as an occasion of covetousness; he refused to be a "hireling." His life was spent neither in luxury nor opulence. With seemingly nothing to lose and everything to gain, he walked humbly with God, and accepted his role with grace as a steward of God's blessings. The greatness of John's ministry is seen in the unique manner of life he took in approaching it (see Kessinger 64-78).
Seventh, the effect (Matthew 3:5-6). We are told that John's ministry had ups and downs, the standard effect of preaching the truth in love. At first, he had popularity and incited obedience (vv. 5-6). But later he provoked anger, jealousy and eventually offended Herodias to the degree that she manipulated and accomplished his death (Matthew 14:3-10; Mark 6:17-28). However, never did he waiver in his purpose, though he experienced his share of depression and uncertainty (Luke 7:19-20). His effect was about the average and what may be rightly expected for the truth-bearing soldier of the cross.
Like the Lord Jesus, only the remarkable events leading up to, and including his birth (Luke 1:13-17, 41, 57-64), some incidental thoughts concerning his rearing and development (Luke 1:80) and his abbreviated earthly ministry are preserved for us in Scripture. However "short" the record (dare we negatively comment on the brevity and genius of the Spirit's work), John the Baptist's role in divine history is one that has made a deep impression, to say the very least.
The one whose voice cried forth in the wilderness (Isaiah 40:3) is still heard, from the rugged and humble Judean hill country of 2,000 years ago, to the uttermost parts of the earth. Surely he was, and still is "...a burning and shining light" (John 5:35).
Masterman, E.W.G. "Judah, Territory of." International Standard Bible Encyclopędia. 2nd. ed. Vol. III. Ed. James Orr. Grand Rapids: Hendrickson. 4 vols., 2002.
Kessinger, Dan. "The Harbinger of the King." The King and the Kingdom in Matthew. Cameron: Rushmore, 2003.