Previous article in this series: April 15, 2017, p. 326.
“But when Christ could be pointed out with the finger,” as we quoted last time from John Calvin, “the Kingdom of God was opened.” We looked briefly at the extent to which that was true of old Simeon. Some thirty years later, John the Baptist was privileged to do so even more literally.
I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias…. He it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose…. The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. This is he of whom I said, After me cometh a man which is preferred before me: for he was before me…. And I knew him not but he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God. Again the next day after John stood, and two of his disciples; and looking upon Jesus as he walked, he saith, Behold the Lamb of God! (John 1:23-36).
Behold! The Lamb of God! What can this be but “an allusion to the ancient sacrifices of the Law” (Calvin). The types…touching Antitype. God’s Lamb. The sacrifice that would accomplish what the blood of thousands of bulls and goats could only typify. Which was the forgiveness of sins. The sins, in fact, of “the world.” Not just of the Jews, but of the elect of every nation. And in this man, Jesus, an eternal majesty—“He was before me,” says John (though in time, He came after).
And who was He but the “Son of God”! Thus does John bring his testimony to what Lenski calls the “grand climax”—by declaring “the essential reality that stands out for all time, unchanged and unchangeable.” The incarnation. The mystery of the gospel: “God was manifest in the flesh” (I Tim. 3:16).
Surely, it would seem, John the Baptist had it all together.
But did he?
Let’s explore that a little.
I like Lenski’s caution here, that “it is idle and nearly always misleading to ask regarding the Baptist or regarding his disciples, to what extent they comprehended the testimony here uttered. The Baptist spoke by revelation, he uttered thoughts which towered above his own mind. They still tower above ours although we have now the full New Testament light” (emphasis added). But I especially like that Lenski did not stop there. “And yet,” he continues, “as in the case of Simeon, Anna, and the long line of Old Testament prophets (Is. 52:15; 42:6, 7; 49:6, 7), the Baptist uttered no empty sounds as far as his own mind and heart were concerned, no riddles or enigmas without key or solution, but glorious truth which his own mind beheld as truth, absorbed and penetrated more and more, in which his own heart trusted with ever increasing joy.”
So…did John the Baptist understand what he spoke concerning Jesus? As we said concerning David’s utterance of Psalm 51:16, 17, we had better believe he did!
Peter, in his first epistle (I Peter 1:10-12), testifies of ‘diligent searching’ on the part of the prophets of old. This is a very interesting passage. For our purposes in this series, it warrants a closer look, which I would like to give it later. Suffice it now to say simply that, though the prophets can be said to have ‘searched’ also their own prophecies, this does not at all mean that, when those prophets spake or wrote prophetically, they could afterwards reflect on their words and think, “I wonder what that could mean!” What was revealed to them was, not mere words, but truth. Truth that they understood. Veiled truth, to be sure, and truth characterized by some obscurity, but truth that had meaning…for them. “Repent ye,” John preached, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2). And, again: “Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance” (v. 8). John knew full well that that flew in the face of the thinking of the majority of Jews in his day. Certainly of the Pharisees and Sadducees, who were at that moment in his audience (v. 7). The Messianic kingdom of their vain imagination was one that would bring about the restoration of the glory days of David and Solomon. Political power. Earthly riches. No repentance needed for a kingdom like that. A kingdom that is a spiritual reality, on the other hand, is an entirely different story. That was what John the Baptist was preaching. And he did it with conviction. As he did also in his preparing of the way for a Messiah whose concern would be, not the power of Rome, but the power of sin. And who would be, in fulfillment of Old Testament types and shadows, God’s Lamb. All that, I say, John the Baptist preached with the power of conviction. Conviction that can come only from understanding.
But did John understand all of the implications of what he preached in the wilderness of Judea? He spoke of God’s Lamb. Surely, then, he must have anticipated Calvary, right?
Again, however, we must remind ourselves that the shadows that enshrouded the saints of old were not dispelled in a moment at the dawn of the new dispensation. They were lifted gradually…by the Master Teacher—and, more often than not, in direct connection with the event itself. Death, and resurrection, of the Messiah!? Think Luke 24:45-46: “Then [that is, on Resurrection Sunday] opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures, and said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day.” And then, what about John the Baptist’s reference to the sin of the world? Think of Peter, on the housetop of Simon the tanner, having to respond to a plea from Cornelius, a Gentile centurion. Clearly, what the prophets, and the apostles after them, learned was by revelation. And what was revealed by the Spirit, in both dispensations, was exactly what they needed to know—at the time.
Likewise, the Baptist. John understood what was revealed to him. And what was revealed was all that he needed to know in order to prepare the way of the Lord, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” (Matt. 3:3). What he did not understand, because he did not need to understand, was how all this would play out. How will this kingdom of Christ, which is spiritual, come to manifestation? John did not know. No doubt he expected that kingdom to come about by some visible display of power on the part of the Messiah. “The axe,” he said, is “laid unto the root of the trees” (Matt. 3:10). And, “every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.” In other words, some kind of decisive action on the side of righteousness, in opposition to the wickedness and carnality that prevailed in Jewry.
And then…that did not happen, from John’s perspective. In short order, John found himself languishing in the dark dungeon of the castle of Machaerus, a prisoner of Herod Antipas. The carnality and wickedness anathematized by John in his preaching in the desert still prevailed. And the Messiah, the Messiah whose way John had faithfully prepared, the Messiah who, John had thought, would take decisive action on the side of righteousness, appeared to be…looking the other way! How can this be? So grossly incongruous this was, in the mind of John, that he needed Christ’s assurance that things were not in fact going awry. Hence, the question put to Jesus by John, through a couple of his disciples: “Art thou he that should come? or look we for another?” (Luke 7:19).
How could Jesus set John’s mind at ease? There was really only one way, and that was to ask what the Scriptures had to say.
As it happened, providentially, the disciples of John arrived on the scene when Jesus was in the midst of healing many people “of their infirmities and plagues” (Luke 7:21). That, really, was enough. “Go your way,” Jesus said to the disciples of John, “and tell John what things ye have seen and heard.” The facts, in other words, speak for themselves. But, to make sure that John got the point, Jesus added: “…how that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, to the poor the gospel is preached” (v. 22). An unmistakable, and deliberate, reference to the prophecy of Isaiah: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped…” (Is. 35:5-6). And: “he hath sent me…to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Is. 61:1-3). Fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies concerning the kingdom of Christ. This is decisive. We can be confident that John received it as being so. And that he experienced, too, the ‘blessedness’ of those who are not offended in Jesus (Luke 7:23).
“What went ye out into the wilderness for to see?” Jesus asked the people still gathered around Him after the departure of John’s disciples. “A prophet? Yea, I say unto you, and much more than a prophet” (Luke 7:24-26). How so? Because of his great work as the “messenger” who would go before the very face of the Christ (v. 27). As such, he stood head and shoulders above David, who could but behold dimly, enshrouded still as he was by shadows, at a distance. Some 1,000 years distant. Whereas John had the great privilege of pointing out His bodily presence. Truly, from that point of view, as Jesus went on to say, “among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist” (v. 28).
And then this: “But he that is least in the kingdom is greater than he” (v. 28).
John would die just, as it were, outside “the kingdom.” On its very threshold. He would not live to see that great work of God’s Lamb that would one day be proclaimed in the glorious gospel. Think of the contrast between the message of the greatest of the prophets of the old dispensation and the preaching of the apostles and of the ministers of the gospel in the new. John could only say “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The apostles could preach “Christ, and him crucified” (I Cor. 2:2). They were able to preach Christ, who “by one offering… hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified” (Heb. 10:14). They preach Christ, “who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption” (I Cor. 1:30).
No wonder, then, that he that is least in the kingdom is ‘greater’ than the greatest of the Old Testament prophets!