Regarding John the Baptist Jesus earnestly declared, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist… [Matt. 11:11], yet there is very little written exclusively on this “great” man and the significance of his ministry. When the angel Gabriel appeared to Zacharias, he declared that his son John [the Baptist], was to be a Nazirite 1 and forerunner of the incarnate Christ–the herald for the coming of God to earth. (Luke 1:13-17, Jn. 1:6, 14). In other words, John was to pave the way for the Lord Jesus Christ. Amazingly, in eternity past Christ was in full glory and equal with the Father, but He emptied Himself, took on flesh and humbly ministered to mankind on earth. (Jn. 17:5, Phil. 2:6-7, Jn. 1:14, Luke 4:17-18). It’s mind-boggling to contemplate, that the God of the universe employed a mere man [John the Baptist], to be the precursor for His Son, Jesus Christ.
In the prologue 2 to the John’s Gospel [the first eighteen verses], John the Baptist is referenced four times (Jn. 1:6, 7, 8, 15). The prologue is very important to John’s Gospel, because it outlines: 1) The eternal Christ (vv. 1-3); 2) the incarnate Christ (vv. 4-5); 3) the forerunner of Christ (vv. 6-8); 4) the unrecognized Christ (vv. 9-11); 5) the omnipotent Christ (vv. 12-13); and the glorious Christ (vv. 14-18). 3
Interestingly, the heretical system of Roman Catholicism deifies Jesus’ mother Mary and she sparsely appears in Scripture. John the Baptist on the other hand, is referenced numerous times in Scripture, yet there is little recognition of his greatness in the sphere of Christianity. This seems antithetical to the teachings of Jesus, who frequently gave strong testimonies to John and his ministry. For example He proclaimed: “You have sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth But the witness which I receive is not from man, but I say these things that you may be saved. He was the lamp that was burning and was shining and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light.” (Jn. 5:33-35). Jesus also declared: “But why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I say to you, and one who is more than a prophet.” (Matt. 11:9). And: “For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him; but the tax-gatherers and harlots did believe him; and you, seeing this, did not even feel remorse afterward so as to believe him”. (Matt. 21:32).
In John chapter five Jesus names John the Baptist as one of five significant witnesses, who testified to His deity; that He is the sent Son of the Father. The other four witnesses Jesus named are: 1) “His [Jesus’] works” [Jn. 5:36]; 2) “God the Father” [Jn. 5:37-38]; 3) “The Scriptures” [Jn. 5:39]; 4) “Moses” [Jn. 5:46]. Quite an incredible group of witnesses! Moreover, of those four witnesses, only [God’s servant] Moses was human, the other three witnesses are divine.
In fact, John the Baptist was affirmed by all three members of the Trinity: “God the Father“ [Mal. 3:1, Mark 1:2, Luke 1:15, 66, 76, 3:2, 7:27, Jn. 1:6, 33); “God the Son”[Matt. 11:7-14, 21:32, Jn. 5:33-36]; and “God the Holy Spirit“ [Luke 1:15, 41, 44].
J. C. Ryle considered John the Baptist, to be the most important Old Testament prophet:
“…John ‘was more than a prophet.’ He was one to whom God had given more honor than all of the Old Testament prophets. They indeed prophesied of Him, but died without seeing Him. John not only prophesied of Him, but saw Him face to face…To them it was given to predict that Messiah would be ‘led as a lamb to the slaughter’, and ‘cut off’,’ To John it was given to point to Him, and say, ‘Behold the Lamb of God which takes away the sin of the world.”‘ 4
Sadly, John the Baptist’s greatness came to a tragic end, while imprisoned he was beheaded at the hands of the evil king Herod. All because of vengeance on the part of Herod’s wife Herodias, who was the wife of his brother Philip, but she illegally married Herod. When John informed Herod of his illegal union to Herodias– “It is not lawful for you to have her“, she wanted him put to death [Matt. 14:4]. When Jesus heard of John’s execution He was exceedingly sorrowful: “Now when Jesus heard it, He withdrew from there in a boat, to a lonely place by Himself; and when the multitudes heard of this, they followed Him on foot from the cities…” (Matt. 14:13, cf. 14:2-13). –
The Beginning of John the Baptists Greatness
Isaiah prophesied the coming of God’s messenger John the Baptist approximately 700 years prior to his being sent: “A voice is calling, ‘Clear the way for the LORD in the wilderness; make smooth in the desert a highway for our God'”. (Isa. 40:3). Some 300 years after Isaiah’s prophecy [ca. 420 B.C.], the prophet Malachi predicted John’s coming: “Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me...” (Mal. 3:1, cf. Matt. 3:3, 11:10, 14, Mark 1:2, Luke 1:17, 3:4, 7:26-27, Jn. 1:23). After Malachi which is the last book of the Old Testament, God gave no revelation for 400 years. 5 John the Baptist was the last of the Old testament prophets, who proclaimed the first words in New Testament, regarding the arrival of God’s kingdom (Matt. 3:2).
In the New Testament, the angel Gabriel appeared to Zacharias, declaring that his barren wife Elizabeth will bear a son [John the Baptist] and his ministry will have a great impact upon the people of Israel:
“For he will be great in the sight of the Lord…and be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God…to make ready a people prepared for the Lord,” (Luke 1:15-16, 17d).
Interestingly, aside from when John baptized Jesus, Scripture does not record any prior meeting between them, except seeing Jesus from a distance (Jn. 1:36). Perhaps the closest they came to meeting was when Mary, the then pregnant mother of Jesus, visited Elizabeth who herself was six months pregnant with John (Luke 1:39-40). But, what made their encounter fascinating was when “…Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby [John] leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Luke 1:41–brackets added). Thus, fulfilling Gabriel’s prophecy: “and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, while yet in his mother’s womb.” (Luke 1:15).
Zacharias, also filled with the Holy Spirit [Luke 1:67], understood the great blessing and calling God had bestowed upon his son, boldly prophesied:
“And you, child [John the Baptist], will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare His ways; to give to His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, with which the Sunrise from on high shall visit us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:76-79–brackets added).
“And the child continued to grow, and to become strong in spirit, and he lived in the deserts until the day of his public appearance to Israel.” (Luke 1:80).
As often was the case with the Old Testament prophets, God’s effectual call for service came directly to John. (Luke 3:2). Immediately he answered the Lord’s call and began preaching God’s kingdom: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt. 3:2). John the Baptists ministry consisted of baptizing for repentance, boldly testifying for the coming Messiah, and teaching a multitude and his disciples. It is hard to imagine John having consistent disciples, considering he dwelled in the scorching hot and arid Judean desert. However, two of Jesus’ twelve disciples [Peter and Andrew] were disciples of John before transitioning to the Messiah. John knowing that his ministry was concluding [Jn. 3:30], directed them to follow Jesus rather than himself, proclaimed: “Behold the Lamb of God!”(Jn. 1:36). Scripture states, “And the two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus.” (Jn. 1:37, cf 1:35-38). But until John the Baptist’s service to God was finished, he continued to baptize and proclaim the coming Messiah. For he was a “burning and shining lamp” that bore witness for the true Light that has come into the world. (Jn. 1:6-8, 5:35, cf. 1:4-5, 8:12):
John 1:7 “He came for a witness, that he might bear witness of the light, that all might believe through him.”
John 1:8 “He was not the light, but came that he might bear witness of the light.”
John 1:15 “John bore witness of Him, and cried out, saying, ‘This was He of whom I said, He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.'”
John 1:19 “And this is the witness of John, when the Jews sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?'”
John 1:32 “And John bore witness saying, ‘I have beheld the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him.'”
John 1:34 “And I have seen, and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.
John 3:26 “And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have borne witness, behold, He is baptizing, and all are coming to Him.”
John 5:33 “You were sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth.”
John 5:36 “But I have a greater witness than John’s; for the works which the Father has given Me to finish — the very works that I do — bear witness of Me, that the Father has sent Me.”–emphasis on all. Incidentally, by Jesus saying “But I have a greater witness than John’s...”; indicates His recognition of John the Baptist’s “greatness”.
The Greek word for “witness” in these verses, is either marturia [noun]or martureo [verb],and both defined: “witness”, “to bear witness”, testify” “to testify”, “testimony”. Both words are a derivative of “martus“[noun], which also means “a witness”. Where the English word “martyr” comes from. Most Christians are familiar with the solemn history surrounding that term. Martyrs typically died for having unwavering faith in Jesus Christ. Dr. J.D. Watson explains a “witness” for Christ: “The Christian…is one who testifies of Christ and gives evidence through his or her life. So, it’s not just we witness for Christ with our lips, but rather what we also do with our life.” 6 Sometimes a witness is put to death for his faith. John the Baptist was a true soldier of God, martyred for the sake of Christ and the truth!
According to the Scriptures God gave John the Baptist great authority, because He was “sent by God“; this truth is documented in both Testaments of the Bible. “There came a man, sent from God, whose name was John…‘” [Jn. 1:7–emphasis added]. This verse along with numerous other verses [Mal. 3:1, Matt. 11:10, Mark 1:2, Luke 1:15, 66, 76, 3:2, 7:27, Jn. 1:6, 33, 3:28], gives evidence that sovereign God was behind John the Baptist’s ministry.
Furthermore, not only did John display authority, but was also a great teacher who elicited reverence from all who went out to him. For example, John’s disciples referred to him as “rabbi” [Jn. 3:26] and tax gatherers called him “teacher” (Luke 3:12). In fact, numerous people came to him seeking instruction: “And the “multitudes” were questioning him, saying, ‘Then what shall we do?'” (Luke 3:10); “And some “tax-gatherers” also came to be baptized, and they said to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?'” (Luke 3:12). “And some “soldiers” were questioning him, saying, ‘And what about us, what shall we do?”‘ (Luke 3:14). Nearly everyone in Israel ventured into the wilderness, to confess their sins and repent: “All of Jerusalem and Judea and all the region around the Jordan, came out to him; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins. (Matt. 3:5-6). However, John the Baptist displayed great perspicacity, when the Pharisees and Sadducees went to him seeking to be baptized. Perceiving their hypocrisy, he wisely refused and instead harshly rebuked them: “…You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matt. 3:7, see 3:7-10).
Additionally, John the Baptist’s teaching was not only authoritative, but also of great profundity (Jn. 3:27). For example, Jesus’ disciples implored that He teach them how to pray, just as John instructed his disciples: “And it came about that while He was praying in a certain place, after He had finished, one of His disciples said to Him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray just as John also taught his disciples.'” (Luke 11:1).
In the beginning of the third chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus instructs Nicodemus that one must be “born again“; “born of the Spirit“, in order to enter the kingdom of God. (John 3:5, 7, see 3:1-10). Jesus also taught that He exclusively was the object for salvation: “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” (Jn. 3:18). In the second half of that same chapter, John the Baptist instructing his disciples declared: “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” (Jn. 3:36). If one is unfamiliar with the third chapter of John’s Gospel, both Jesus and John the Baptist made almost identical declarations (Jn. 3:18, 36). They are parallel verses and unless familiar with them, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between the two speakers.
Another example of John’s depth in teaching: “He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice…” (Jn. 3:29). Jesus utilized a similar metaphors in Matt. 9:15: “And Jesus said to them, ‘Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.'” (Matt. 9:15–NKJ).
In Matt. 9:15 Jesus employed the same metaphor [a bridegroom] as John the Baptist used in Jn. 3:29. Although the two verses have varying contexts, the terms “bridegroom” and “friend(s)”, are employed in both verses. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus answers the disciple’s of Johns query, regarding why His disciples do not fast. (Matt. 9:14). John the Baptist was emphasizing the need for his ministry to dwindle and for Jesus’ to enlarge. (Jn. 3:29-30). However, the similar words in both verses [Matt. 9:15, Jn. 3:29–NKJ ] are “bridegroom” and “friend(s)”. In both verses the word “bridegroom” carries the same meaning. But when the words “friends” [Matt. 9:15] and “friend” [Jn. 3:29] are examined, two different Greek words are utilized. In Matt. 9:15, the word for “friends” or “guests” [NIV], is huios, which literally is defined, “sons” or “sons of the bridechamber”– it refers to followers of Jesus. 7 John the Baptist on the other hand, regarded himself as the “friend” philos of the “bridegroom”. (Jn. 3:29). In that usage “friend” refers to deep intimacy. According to biblehub.com, philos  is defined: “a friend; someone dearly loved (prized) in a personal, intimate way; a trusted confidant, held dear in a close bond of personal affection.” In other words, John the Baptist was Jesus Christ’s best man! There may be many “sons of the bridechamber”, but there can only be one best man.
But, perhaps John’s most significant achievement during his ministry, was when he baptized the Christ, the Son of God (Matt. 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11, Luke 3:21-23, cf. Jn. 1:32-33). This monumental moment was the only time Jesus and John the Baptist met face to face, when he baptized Jesus. Amazingly, when he performed the baptism of the Savior the other two members of the Trinity affirmed it (Matt. 3:13-17, Luke 3:21-23):
“When Jesus arrived from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John [the Baptist], to be baptized by him. But John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?” But Jesus answering said to him, ‘Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness’ then he permitted Him. And after being baptized, Jesus went up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon Him and behold, a voice out of the heavens, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” (Matt. 3:13-17–brackets and emphasis added).
It was most likely the single greatest event between the Holy Trinity and an individual man!
A multitude of people testified that John the Baptist’s ministry was bold, provocative, and solely an oratory “witness” to the Messiah . “And many came to Him and were saying, ‘While John performed no sign, yet everything John said about this man [Jesus] was true.’ (Jn. 10:41-42–brackets added). Amazingly, John performed not a single miracle for the multitude and even though he was granted great heavenly authority, he only witnessed by oral proclamation: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make ready the way of the Lord, Make His paths straight!'” (Matt. 3:3). In essence, because the incarnate Christ validated everything John predicted about Him, many believed in Jesus, thus fulfilling the prophecy of the angel Gabriel: “…And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. (Luke 1:16).
John the Baptist himself must have been somewhat strange to behold. His truthful witness to the Messiah, unique baptism of repentance, and authoritative preaching and teaching, were from a man who appeared shaggy, disheveled, and dwelled in the harsh Judean desert (Matt. 3:1, Mark 1:3-4, Luke 3:2). The very sight of him must have been shocking. For John was clothed in a garment made solely from camel’s hair, adorned a leather belt around his waist, and daily sustenance was that of locusts and wild honey (Matt. 3:4). Obviously there was divine orchestration regarding John’s ministry, for if it were void of such power, would most likely have failed to draw as many penitents as it had done. As in the case of John the Baptist, here is yet another example of God exalting the lowly for His service. By human standards of achievement, John the Baptist would be considered unfit and unworthy for noble service. But to the contrary is such a common theme in the Bible (cf. 1 Cor. 1:26-29). I am reminded of what God declared to the prophet Samuel: “…for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Sam. 16:7b). That is the power and sovereignty of the almighty God!
The MacArthur Study Bible asserts: “John the Baptist’s ministry marked the turning point of redemptive history. Prior to that, the great truths of Christ and His kingdom were veiled in the types and shadows of the law, and promised in the writings of the prophets (cf. 1 Pet. 1:10-12). But, John the Baptist introduced the King Himself .” 8
“And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in Him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” (Acts 19:4).
In closing, Christians should strongly consider the impact of John the Baptists ministry and how it fits into God’s plan of redemption. John’s ministry signaled the end of the “old age”, while ushering in Jesus Christ and the “new age”. His words “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” [Matt. 3:2], is the nascence of that new age (Matt. 3:2). Uniquely, John the Baptist was God’s chosen instrument and sent messenger, to perform the significant duty of heralding Jesus’ first coming. Even more to contemplate is the future when there will be two [chosen] “witnesses” similar to John the Baptist [perhaps Moses and Elijah], who will herald Jesus Kingly return. Amen!
1 Nazirite [Vow] or “Nazirite of God” (“to separate” to God). A Nazirite vow had strict physical restrictions, such as: 1). Drinking no wine or even grape juice 2). No razor cutting the hair 3). Not touching a dead body and being defiled (Num. Chapter 6). Besides Christ’s forerunner John the Baptist, the two prominent men in the Bible under a Nazirite vow was; Samson one of the thirteen theocratic judges of Israel [Judges 13:4-5] and Samuel, the prophet for King Saul (1 Sam 1:11). Scripture tells that John the Baptist abstained from wine or grape juice [Luke 1:15] and it appears by his hairy appearance, as if a razor never touched his head. The MacArthur Study Bible asserts: “No mention is made here of any restriction on the cutting of John’s hair. Luke may have simply omitted that detail, to avoid weighing his Gentile audience down with the details of Jewish law.” The MacArthur Study Bible, Word Publishing, 1997, pg. 1510, footnote on Luke 1:15. Furthermore, John the Baptist dwelled in the inclement Judean wilderness (Luke 1:80), was clothed in camel’s hair with a leather belt and his food was locusts and wild honey (Matt. 3:4). One could definitely conclude that John the Baptist was undoubtedly “separated to God” his entire life–just by the fact that He “was sent by God” (Jn. 3:26). John the Baptist’s witness for Christ had to be absolutely pure, perhaps that is why God made him a Nazirite. For divine purposes only God knows, He placed strict physical restrictions on certain servants of His.
2-3 Prologue to John’s Gospel, The first eighteen verses of the Gospel of John. Six basic truths about Christ as the Son of God are found in the prologue: 1) The eternal Christ (vv. 1-3); 2) the incarnate Christ (vv. 4-5); 3) the forerunner of Christ (vv. 6-8); 4) the unrecognized Christ (vv. 9-11); 5) the omnipotent Christ (vv. 12-13); and the glorious Christ (vv. 14-18). Courtesy of The MacArthur Study Bible, Word Publishing, 1997, pg. 1573
4 J.C. Ryle, Ryle’s Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, Vol. I Matthew — Mark, Baker Book House, reprinted 1977, pg. 110-111
5 God gave no revelation for four hundred years. Better known as the “Intertestamental Period”, it was the time-frame between the Testaments, when God went silent and provided no revelation to mankind, until the beginning of the New Testament. In other words, God did not speak to mankind through the mouths of servants or prophets for four hundred years. Soon after the New Testament began, John the Baptist began his preaching ministry, heralding the arrival of the Messiah [Matt. 3:2], that was prophesied to come in the Old Testament (Isa. 40:3, Mal. 3:1).
6 Witness “”Martus”, J.D. Watson, A [Greek] Word of the Day, Key Words from the New Testament, AMG Publishers, 2006, “martus”–pg. 189
7 followers of Jesus, Craig L. Blomberg, The New American Commentary, Broadman Press, 1992, pg. 158
8 John MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible, Word Publishing, 1997, pg. 1548–footnote on Luke 16:16