In Lesson I we discussed how John’s call was predetermined by God as an essential component in preparing the way for Jesus and His ministry. In the previous Lesson, we learned how God bestowed His faithfulness and grace upon John’s parents by blessing them with a long awaited child that would turn the children of Israel back to God. Now it’s time to dig into John’s ministry and see how he provides three prerequisites for a God-glorifying ministry. Would he have what it takes to perform such a monumental task as the one God laid before him? Well, if we go back to our text that we read in Lesson II, Luke describes the angel Gabriel’s pronouncement about John’s character. We pick up in Luke 1:15, “15 For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” As John MacArthur points out, we get insight into John’s future character, both internally and externally. On the exterior he will live a life of self-denial not partaking in wine (fruit of the vine) or strong drink (alcohol), while on the inside he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. It’s on these two points we’ll begin our discussion.
The Apostle Paul, in his second letter to Timothy writes, “9who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began.”2 II Timothy 1:9 John the Baptist was called to a “holy calling” as Paul phrases it and as such, he could not conform to world or her sinful standards, lest he be deemed hypocritical. This isn’t to say that John wasn’t without sin, because as Romans 3:23 reminds us, “all have sinned.” Everyone except Jesus has been born into sin, it’s hereditary. Just as Paul points out in Romans 5:12, “12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned”2 But clearly John was called to be special, set aside for the glory of God even before birth. It seems evident that this is the reason we read of his social seclusion, which was at the heart of his self-denial, in Luke 1:80, “80 So the child grew and became strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his manifestation to Israel.” There is a reason why John remained in the wilderness until his ministry was to begin. As we’ve established, John was able to fulfill prophecy by declaring he was the “voice of one crying in the wilderness”, but the wilderness was also where his spiritual growth took place. He was able to avoid the many temptations that face each of us on a daily basis, by denying himself even the simplest pleasures of life. Perhaps God even used this time of seclusion to not only train him, but to protect him from those who would no doubt enjoy seeing the downfall of a man declared for greatness before birth.
There is an interesting parallel we can draw here between John and the initial ministry of Paul. The first two verses of this passage we’re already familiar with, but pay special attention to verse 17, “15 But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, 16 to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood, 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went to Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.” Galatians 1:15-17 Interesting isn’t it? Paul did not immediately begin proclaiming the Gospel as it was revealed to him through Jesus Christ, instead he went to Arabia for three years (Galatians 1:18). As pointed out in John MacArthur’s study Bible, this area was Nabatean Arabia, a wilderness desert, stretching East of Damascus. Paul too was sent to the desert to be trained by God and prepared for his ministry. It’s as though this time alone, by both men, was used as a sanctifying time to be instructed by God. John’s seclusion and ultimate self-denial from a worldly lifestyle included not only abstinence of wine and strong drink, but any semblance of a nice home, fancy clothing, or fine dining. As Matthew 3:4 ESV states, “4 Now John himself was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey.” What we are seeing with John is a complete and total dependence on God for all of his needs. There’s nothing to get in the way of his spiritual education. A Biblical parallel to John’s attire can be found in II Kings 1:8 “8 So they answered him, ‘A hairy man wearing a leather belt around his waist.’ And he said, ‘It is Elijah the Tishbite.'” Remember back to Lesson I when we discussed Malachi’s prophecy of an “Elijah-like” figure? Here we find a direct correlation between the two regarding their clothing.
As we pointed out earlier, not only was John’s character rock solid and above reproach on the outside, but his character was spiritually complete on the inside. We already know that John was filled with the Holy Spirit while he was still in his mother’s womb and as our text in this Lesson points out he grew in the Spirit as he got older. So we have to believe that his time spent in the desert prior to his ministry was for the purpose of establishing truths within him. Let’s face it, how difficult would it be to stand up and preach the Gospel boldly if you weren’t an expert in what you were teaching. Simply put, one would be blown around like “a reed in the wind” from the various challengers to the Gospel. (Matthew 11:7) John needed to be scripturally solid in order to communicate effectively as a witness for the coming Messiah. It’s not likely John carried a copy of the scriptures with him as he went baptizing throughout Judea, so when he quotes Isaiah, as recorded in Matthew 3:2-3 “2 and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” 3 For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the LORD; Make His paths straight.'” then we have to believe that this knowledge has become ingrained within him. Not only did John grow in scriptural wisdom, but he advanced in his understanding of Jesus Messiah. If he is going to bear witness about Christ, then he must be able to understand the fallible, fallen nature of man due to sin, he obviously had to have a full comprehension for the necessity of repentance, and most importantly he needed to recognize and submit to the authority of Jesus.
Submission to the Authority of Jesus
Clearly John’s instructional time also filled him with knowledge of the One whom he was preparing for, Jesus Christ. He had to fully understand what God’s plan would be in sending His Son to die for the sins of the world. In the Apostle John’s Gospel we get an introduction to the purpose and ministry of John the Baptist, from a different perspective, “6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all through him might believe. 8 He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.” John 1:6-8 In this passage, not only do we get a firsthand account of the providence of God in sending John, but we see that his purpose was not to be light, but to reflect the light. John’s role was to deflect all attention and glory from himself to Jesus and he was absolutely, 100% on board with that idea.
There are four clear indicators of John’s recognition of the authority of Jesus as he prepared the way for Him. As we read in John 1:15, “15 John bore witness of Him and cried out, saying, This was He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is preferred before me, for He was before me.'” John was establishing early on that he wasn’t the promised Messiah, but instead makes it evident to the crowds listening to him preach that Jesus is higher than him because Jesus was before him. If we think about what John is saying here, he is actually declaring the supremacy of Christ by pointing out His eternality. The second signal provided by John is found in his statement from Mark 1:7, “7 And he preached, saying, ‘There comes One after me who is mightier than I, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to stoop down and loose.'” Again we see the example of John submitting to Jesus Christ. There are not many more demeaning tasks than stooping down to take off someone’s shoes, especially in ancient Jewish days when sandals were worn and feet were extremely dirty, but John is saying that he’s not even worthy to do that. He is trying to get his point across to all those who will listen that they might understand just how majestic the Messiah is. “11 I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Matthew 3:11 Here John is pointing out the fact that Jesus is God, capable of pouring out the Holy Spirit on those who believe in Him. We find the fourth and final example of John’s acknowledgement of Jesus’ authority in Matthew 3:13-14, “13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. 14 And John tried to prevent Him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?'” Just before the culmination of John’s ministry with the baptism of Jesus, we see him humbly objecting to this act and stating that instead Jesus should be the one baptizing him. In each of these examples John submits himself to Jesus, immediately recognizing and making known the supremacy of Christ that all glory may be given to the Messiah.
In answering God’s call to prepare the way for Jesus, John obediently and dutifully followed the will of God for his life. Although, as we learned from the proclamation of Gabriel, John was set aside and filled with the Holy Spirit from the womb, he still had to be molded into the vessel that God could use for His purpose. In doing this, John isolated himself from the world, not to avoid the world, but instead to be instructed and trained to confront the world about her sins and turn the hearts of Israel back to God. In his seclusion, John abstained from the many pleasures and luxuries that the world offers such as strong drink, nice clothing, rich meals, or even a home. His ministry, even his life, was totally and wholly dependent on God. His lifestyle of self-denial framed his outward character for all to see how different he was, but his internal character was equally as impressive as he became filled with the Holy Spirit and taught to have a solid foundation in the scriptures. His righteous living, combined with his biblical wisdom paled in comparison to his submission to the authority of Jesus. John understood the fact the Jesus was the Son of God and that His mission to save the world from her sins was established with divine authority.
John’s ministry provides the essential elements required for serving God. These examples illustrate that answering God’s call to service involves sacrificing to live righteously, wisdom to understand the Bible for effectively preaching/teaching the Gospel, and a total submission to the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ. What things in your own life are impeding your ability to live a righteous, God-glorifying life? Have you neglected reading and studying the Word of God? It’s imperative that this be the foundation of your life, not only for those planning on serving in a ministry capacity but for everyone. Finally, Jesus has the ultimate authority over everything in our lives, but we don’t often recognize or appreciate that. Think about the humble, submissive attitude of John the Baptist and how you can apply that in your own life.