Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Messenger

This is the Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. It began just as the prophet Isaiah had written: “Look, I am sending My messenger ahead of You, and he will prepare Your way. He is a voice shouting in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming! Clear the road for Him!’” This messenger was John the Baptist. He was in the wilderness and preached that people should be baptized to show that they had turned to God to receive forgiveness for their sins. All of Judea, including all the people of Jerusalem, went out to see and hear John. And when they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River. His clothes were woven from coarse camel hair, and he wore a leather belt around his waist. For food he ate locusts and wild honey. John announced: “Someone is coming soon who is Greater than I am — so much greater that I am not even worthy to stoop down like a slave and untie the straps of His sandals. I baptize you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit!” Mark 1:1-8 (NLT)

All four Gospels give the account of John the Baptist (Matthew 3:1-11; Mark 1:2-8; Luke 3:2-16; and John 1:6-9, 19-34). John’s ministry represented the bridge between the Old Testament and the New Testament. John appeared preaching like an Old Testament prophet, similar to the Prophet Amos and the Prophet Elijah (Matthew 11:9; Mark 11:32). Like Old Testament prophets, John called for repentance of the people, which meant a wholehearted turning to the true and living God to experience His mercy and approval and away from sin to avoid God’s wrath and punishment (Matthew 3:2, 6, 8, 11; Mark 1:4; Luke 1:77; see also 1 Kings 18:18-39; Amos 5:4, 6, 14-16). Jesus said of John, “Among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11). He was the last and greatest of the prophets (Matthew 11:13–14).

John the Baptist ministered “in the spirit and power of Elijah (see Luke 1:17; Matthew 11:13-14; Matthew 17:12-13; Mark 9:11-13). John was not literally a reincarnation of Elijah (see John 1:21), but John did fulfill the function and the role of the Prophet Elijah as he preached repentance, moral renewal, and wholeheartedly turning to God (see Matthew 11:14; Matthew 17:10-13; Luke 1:17; see also 1 Kings 18:16-46). Similar to the Prophet Elijah, John spent his time in the desert and he was clothed with camel’s hair, wore a leather belt and ate locusts and wild honey (2 Kings 1:8; see also Matthew 3:4; Mark 1:6 Luke 1:17). In essence, John reminded the people of Elijah because of his dress and behavior (Matthew 11:14; Mark 9:12–13).

While Zechariah was in the sanctuary, an angel of the Lord appeared to him . . . .  “Do not be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John. You will have great joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the eyes of the Lord. He must never touch wine or other alcoholic drinks. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth. And he will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God. He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. . . . ” Luke 1:11, 13-17 (NLT)

John was the messenger and his job was to announce the coming of the Messiah (the Christ) into the world (Mark 1:2-3; see also Luke 1:76). Old Testament prophecies predicted that just before the Messiah’s arrival, God would send a special messenger first to announce and prepare the world for the Messiah’s coming (Isaiah 40:3; Malachi 3:1; Malachi 4:5-6; Matthew 17:10-13; Luke 1:17). John prepared people's hearts for the Messiah by urging people to repent because repentance was necessary to prepare the way for the coming Messiah. John’s preaching and baptism was tied to Jesus, who was Greater and Mightier than John (Matthew 1:11; Mark 1:7-8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33). As John baptized the people, John proclaimed:  “Someone is coming soon who is far greater than I am, so much greater that I am not even worthy to be His slave. I baptize you with water but He will baptize you with God’s Holy Spirit!” (Mark 1:7-8, TLB). Therefore, John represents a kind of bridge to what God did for His people in the Old Testament and what God would do through Jesus the Messiah. John’s singular ministry was to announce Jesus’ coming into the world (John 10:41).

John lived in the Judean wilderness (Matthew 3:1; Mark 1:4) and he preached near the Jordan River. He taught that all should be baptized as a public announcement of their decision to turn from sin and evil, so that God could forgive them (Matthew 3:2, 5; Mark 1:4). When the people confessed their sins, John baptized them in the Jordan River. With John’s preaching, people from Jerusalem and from all over Judea traveled to come see and hear John’s preaching and also to be baptized in the Jordan River (Mark 1:5). John’s preaching was connected to baptism. However, John’s baptism was not a baptism of ritual cleansing but a baptism that marked a newness of life and a turning from sin (Matthew 3:8).

Baptism was not a creation of John the Baptist or Jesus but a common practice of Jews in the first century. In the first century, Jews commonly performed baptism as a form of ritual cleansing. Also, a group of Jews called “Essenes” believed in ritual washings for ritual cleansing and their communities were filled with baptism pools. The Essenes where constantly engaged in ritual cleansing in these baptismal pools. Some commentators argued that John the Baptist was associated with the Essene communities until he become a follower of Jesus. Both John and the Essenes lived in the wilderness and performed baptisms. However, John’s baptism was not a baptism of ritual cleansing but a baptism connected to repentance and for the forgiveness of sins.

John lived and baptized people in the Judean wastelands or desert (Mark 1:5). “Desert” can also mean “wilderness” or a “dry place.” Palestine is already dry and hot. But the implication of “desert” in the Gospel means abandonment, particularly abandonment by God. From first century Jewish sources, demons and unclean spirits lived in abandoned desert places. Thus, the wastelands or desert was not just a hot dry place but a place where of demons and unclean people lived. For the most part, righteous and godly people stayed away from deserts.

When John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, all of Judea and all of Jerusalem came out to see and hear him. Itinerant or traveling preachers were not new in the first century. The appearance of traveling prophets, rabbis and preachers in the first century was very common. However, all four Gospels proclaimed that John’s preaching was different and authoritative. The people of Judea, including all the people of Jerusalem, saw something new and powerful with John’s preaching that had not been present for over 400 years! The Jews had not heard a true prophetic Word of God since the Prophet Malachi around 430 BC. The Jews believed that when the Messiah came, prophecy would reappear (see Joel 2:28-29; Malachi 3:1; Malachi 4:5-6). When John the Baptist burst onto the scene, the Jews were excited as John represented the power and Spirit of an Old Testament prophet.

There was a view in the rabbinic world that God had lifted His Holy Spirit from His people during the Jewish exile. The Jews believed God lifted His Holy Spirit after the Babylonian exile in 586 BC due to their punishment for disobedience to God’s Covenant and idolatry. God’s lifting of His Holy Spirit from the Jews did not mean God had abandoned the Jews. The Jews still believed they found God in the Holy Scriptures, the Law, and the Temple. For the Jews, the prophets spoke in the Old Testament only because the Holy Spirit gave the prophets words to speak. For example, Amos prophesied in the 8th century and Amos’ entire authority was “Thus said the Lord.” Within this view, there developed the belief that prior to the coming of the Messiah, which would be the coming of the Kingdom, God would pour out His Holy Spirit back upon His people as predicted by the Prophet Joel (see Joel 2:28-32) and the Spirit of prophecy would returned. The Jews believe that they would know that God had poured His Holy Spirit back on the people through the appearance of real prophet of God.

With the appearance of John the Baptist, the people believed he represented God’s Holy Spirit returning to all of Judea and Jerusalem (Mark 1:5). The Holy Spirit’s presence in John accounted for the great response to John’s preaching and baptism (Luke 1:15). Apparently, there were many people leaving Judea and Jerusalem to come see John. John’s presence, power, and authority of his preaching were evidence that God was pouring out His fresh Holy Spirit on the people and He was fulfilling His Old Testament promises. With this outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit, the people also believed that God was about to bring in His Kingdom and the Messiah into the world. Amazingly, all of the excitement and the returning of God’s Holy Spirit were occurring not in Jerusalem and the Temple but in the wilderness – the abandoned place and the place of unclean spirit. The people saw John as an authentic prophet of God (e.g., Mark 11:32). Clearly with John’s appearance, there was an awakening among the Galilean people of an expectation of the coming of the Kingdom. John’s ministry was a sign of God and a sign that God was about to do something new and the Kingdom was about to come.

Life Application Study Bible (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Pub., 2005).
Zondervan NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008).
Loyd, Melton, Ph.D., Professor of New Testament. Due West Campus: Erskine Theological Seminary, 2015.
Youngblood, Ronald. Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Pub., 1995).
Wiersbe, Warren W. Bible Exposition Commentary (Victor Books, 1989).

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