Topical Studies

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What the Bible says about John the Baptist
(From Forerunner Commentary)

John appears in each of the four gospels, and in each case, his story is subordinated to that of Jesus. This is as it should be, yet John was quite effective in what he did in preparing the way before the Christ. Even Josephus writes about him. Though Josephus pens only a vague few sentences about Christ, he devotes an intriguing, longer paragraph to John. By putting together what Josephus records with what the Bible provides, we get a picture of a vigorous man of God who was turning the small nation of Judea on its spiritual ear.

Judeans had no radio or television, but knowledge of him spread quickly by word of mouth. His ministry appears to have been short, perhaps about the same length as the three and a half years allotted to Jesus. Some authorities feel John's ministry may have only been one year long. If so, he must have been an electrifying speaker! However long he preached, most of it occurred before Christ began His ministry.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Elijah and John the Baptist

Related Topics: John the Baptist


Deuteronomy 30:1-3

Deuteronomy 30 contains the premier discussion of the restoration of Israel in the Scriptures. While there may be passing intimations of Israel's restoration earlier, it is in this passage that God first introduces most of the significant themes that accompany later treatments of that restoration. The historical setting is Moab, probably about sixty days before the children of Israel crossed the Jordan River, entering the Land of Promise after almost four decades of wandering. Moses died shortly after he delivered this message from God, and after thirty days of mourning, the people obeyed Joshua's command “to go in to possess the land which the LORD your God is giving you to possess.” See Deuteronomy 34 and Joshua 1.

It is vital to remember, however, that Moses' message is not merely historical but prophetic; the great leader here introduces the concept of a future restoration of Israel. Note well: He clarifies that his audience is “you and your children.” He understands that he is addressing not only those standing before Him that day on the east side of the Jordan River, but all the descendants of the children of Israel as well. This prophecy pertains to today's descendants of Israel.

In verse 1, Moses establishes the timeframe of the prophecy: When Israelites come to consider the things that have happened to them, “the blessing and the curse which I have set before you.” In the time of Jacob's Trouble (Jeremiah 30:5-7), the folk of Israel will reflect, he says, upon both—that is, both the blessings and the curses. Importantly, it will not be just the agony involved in the afflictions that Israelites will consider in their distress during the Tribulation, but they will contemplate the blessings as well. Israelites will reflect upon the blessings of liberty, prosperity, and peace they enjoyed for decades in the lands of their exile (Northern Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand, etc.), generation after generation, comparing those blessings against the curses of disease, deprivation, slavery, death, and scattering they are experiencing wholesale in the land of their enemies, where they are held captive.

This prophecy explains why God has determined to prosper Israel in this time of her seemingly boundless decadence, blessing her today despite her high indebtedness, her deindustrialization, and the unprecedented prevalence of her peoples' failing health. It appears to us an unseasonal prosperity, irreconcilable with the depth of America's current depravity.

Does God reward sin? Why is Israel experiencing this prosperity now? One reason is undoubtedly that, during the Tribulation, God wants to ensure that the blessings enjoyed by this last generation of Israelites stand out in their minds from the curses they experience in the Tribulation—and stand out in all the starker relief, as day differs from night, light from dark. This is an application of what psychologists call “Treatment Learning.”

God will use both—blessings and curses—to send Israelites a powerful message. At the end of Isaiah 10:22, God makes an essential point in this regard: “The destruction decreed shall overflow with righteousness.” The destruction God has proclaimed for Israel will be like an overwhelming flood, uniquely vast and deep. Overpowering. Unescapable. Unstoppable.

But for all that, it will be in righteousness. It will be just. Isaiah means that God will fulfill all righteousness, the blessings and the curses of Deuteronomy 28. In fact, this is another way of saying He is faithful to the terms of the covenant—all aspects of the covenant, positive and negative. In Jeremiah 16:18 (New English Translation), God says He will punish Israel “in full” for her sins. But afterward, the blessings He will offer repentant Israel will be beyond belief.

In Matthew 3:15, Jesus tells John the Baptist that it is proper for him, John, to baptize Him in order to “fulfill all righteousness.” At least in part, this phrase means that Christ does not take half measures, but fully loves and obeys God. He takes action to meet God's standards of justice while, at the same time, acting in mercy. He does everything right, punishing in justice, healing in mercy. In the context of His end-time dealings with Israel, God makes this principle explicit in Jeremiah 31:10:He who scattered Israel will gather him, and keep him as a shepherd does his flock.”

God's scattering and then His gathering of Israel is yet another application of, respectively, His severity and His goodness. Interestingly, Paul enunciates the concept of God's goodness and severity in the same passage where he writes of God's restoring Israel, Romans 11:19-27.

Charles Whitaker
Israel's Restoration and the Zeitgeist of Zeal

1 Kings 18:19-21

Elijah is quite instructive here. He began to prophesy in a time of immediate crisis, one that would become far worse before it ever improved. There was tremendous evil to overcome. His ministry took place about 150 years before Israel was to fall, becoming the Lost Ten Tribes, so God was beginning to make a powerful witness to them. Elijah's work was to reveal the true God to Israel in a time of growing national crisis. Elijah prepared the way for Elisha, who had a double portion of Elijah's spirit and did many more miracles. In this regard, Elijah was a type of John the Baptist, and Elisha, a type of Christ. God's pattern is being established. He sends someone long before the real crisis reaches its peak, while it is building.

Elijah says disturbing things. This is a prophet's job, a hallmark of a prophet of God. People like to feel comfortable. The only trouble is that people like to feel comfortable in moral mediocrity. They become "settled on their lees," as it says in Zephaniah 1:12. The prophet comes along and troubles people by awakening them to their sins, making them feel guilty about their relationships with God and each other. He awakens them to their spiritual and moral responsibilities. These Israelites were lethargic in terms of true, spiritual matters.

When a person is freezing to death, he feels a pleasant numbness that he does not want to end. He just goes to sleep as he is freezing to death. But when heat is applied, and the blood begins rushing into the affected areas, pain immediately occurs. Though it hurts, the pain is indicative of rescue and cure. God sends a prophet to people who are cold in their relationship with God—spiritually freezing to death—though they want to stay that way. The prophet turns the heat on, and they become angry with him when he is actually working to make them better. He is often accused of causing their pain.

A prophet's life is not a happy situation. Perhaps the clearest example of this is Jeremiah, who moaned and complained to God, "This is more difficult than You ever told me it would be. You tricked me." He did not like the position God put him in. He wanted people to like him, which is understandable. Nevertheless, he was still faithful, and he did his job. Yet, he was in trouble his whole life, from his teenage years on.

There are several ideas as to exactly what Elijah meant by "How long will you falter between two opinions?" One idea is that he means, "How long are you going to hop from branch to branch?"—like a bird in a tree. The bird cannot make up its mind where it wants to settle down, so it just keeps hopping around. Another idea is that it pictures a person shifting his weight from one foot to the other, indicating a degree of lameness. A third is that he is describing somebody teetering on a tightrope and trying to maintain his balance. Whatever the case, there is no doubt about Elijah's intent: "How long will you keep shifting from one opinion to the other?" Their spiritual lethargy for the true God made them uncommitted. Their commitment went one way, and then it went the other way.

Once Elijah began preaching, their conscience pricked them, and it encouraged them to worship the true God. But their carnality and their fear of men persuaded them to worship Baal, because they wanted to be friends with their fellow Israelites. They were straddling the fence in a precarious state of imbalance, attempting to combine the worship of God with the more popular worship of Baal and Asherah. This is typical Israeliltish syncretism, but it will not work.

At one point in A Stillness at Appomattox by Bruce Catton, he deals with soldiers who left the service of their army—either the Confederate army or the Union army. These soldiers would surrender themselves to the other side to be given a bit of favor and put into prison. In exchange, they would offer information about their unit. For a while, both sides—the Confederate and the Union—accepted those turncoats and took their information. However, before the war was over, both sides were summarily executing anybody who did this because those traitors could not be trusted. Most of the information they gave turned out to be wrong, to be lies. Most of them were just saving themselves and making themselves comfortable in their situation. They were not committed to the side that they were supposed to be on. Elijah was dealing with the same thing here, albeit spiritually.

When Elijah preached his message, it put the people in a bind because they knew their conscience was telling them that they had to commit themselves to God or to Baal. It disturbed them. Only the individual could decide which side he would be on, because Elijah made it clear, "God does not want you the way you are. Either you are going to be committed to Him or not. If you will not be committed to Him, you are going to die."

Baal, of course, could not talk to them, but if he could, he would probably have said basically the same thing, so the people were in a very uncomfortable situation. The lesson for us becomes clear, because Jesus says the same thing (Matthew 6:24; 12:25). The Sovereign Creator is not a God who allows His favor to be bought with crumbs. He is a loving Master who only is to be obeyed and served—and only on His terms.

Elijah was sent by God, and he was fulfilling the responsibility of a prophet, to prod the people to whom he was sent to their responsibilities. He was to be an aid in getting them from their state of being merely "churched" to that of being truly religious and servants of the Most High God.

Some become discouraged with the church because we are always being told—to some measure anyway—disturbing things about ourselves. But church is where we come to have our minds stretched and measured against Christ's standard. For one to keep on coming to services and leaving, like a theatergoer, without his options, opinions, or decisions resolved but deferred, is an erosion of character. "Whatever is not of faith is sin" (Romans 14:23).

The sum of what Elijah said is actually spiritually dangerous, due to the fact that God is judging. Christ's purpose is to cure, not merely to comfort, so pain will be often involved when dealing with a prophet.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Prophets and Prophecy (Part 1)

Isaiah 40:3-5

Isaiah begins with "the voice of one crying in the wilderness." The voice prophesied was that of John the Baptist, which Scripture confirms in Malachi 3:1; Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:2-3; Luke 3:4; and John 1:23. Who would John be speaking to, proclaiming his message of repentance? To all who would "hear" him! Those "who have ears to hear" (see Matthew 13:9, 43, etc.), which would be all those with whom God is working, His firstfruits!

What did that "voice" say? What did he call on his audience to do? "[P]repare the way of the LORD." The instruction becomes more specific: ". . . make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill shall be made low, the crooked places shall be made straight and the rough places smooth." Filling up valleys and removing the tops of mountains seems like a lot of work for one man. This is where the firstfruits come in. Why are we to do this? So that "the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together."

Albert Barnes, in his commentary on Isaiah written in 1851, remarks on these verses:

The idea is taken from the practice of Eastern monarchs, who, whenever they entered on a journey or an expedition, especially through a barren and unfrequented or inhospitable country, sent harbingers [forerunners] or heralds before them to prepare the way. To do this, it was necessary for them to provide supplies, and make bridges, or find fording places over the streams; to level hills, and construct causeways over valleys, or fill them up; and to make a way through the forest which might lie in their intended line of march.

Those who went before, to mark and improve the route, were the forerunners. They were "the scouts, the pioneers, the ones sent before a king to prepare the way," as forerunner is defined. Recall Daniel Boone and his party of thirty expert woodsmen laying out a 200-mile-long route. Over time, as more people came over the trail, it was improved, widened, and smoothed. It all began, however, with one man. That man then led others, and it multiplied from there.

John the Baptist was one man "crying in the wilderness," yet he prepared the way for the Son of God. Each of us, in our daily lives, interacts with family, coworkers, neighbors, and others who may know little or nothing of God and His Word. Our words and deeds could well pave the way for any of them to answer God's call at another time. Each of us has opportunities to set an example that will affect their lives, hopefully in a positive way. In this way, each of us is a forerunner, marking and improving the trail through the conduct of our lives.

Mike Ford (1955-2021)
Blazing a Trail Through the Wilderness

Isaiah 40:3-4

Verse 3 mentions “preparing the way,” one that God will be traveling: “make . . . a highway for our God.” This refers to the common practice of monarchs, who, before traveling into a new place, would send a party ahead of them to make sure that the road—the way—was easily passable. This crew would open up difficult passages, level out the road, make sure that it was as straight as possible, and remove any impediments to smooth travel. The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (Diodorus of Sicily) gives an account of the marches of Semiramis into Media and Persia that illustrates this practice:

In her march to Ecbatana she came to the Zarcean mountain, which, extending many furlongs, and being full of craggy precipices and deep hollows, could not be passed without taking a great compass about. Being therefore desirous of leaving an everlasting memorial of herself, as well as of shortening the way, she ordered the precipices to be digged down, and the hollows to be filled up; and at a great expense she made a shorter and more expeditious road, which to this day is called from her the road of Semiramis. Afterward she went into Persia, and all the other countries of Asia subject to her dominion; and wherever she went, she ordered the mountains and precipices to be leveled, raised causeways in the plain country, and at a great expense made the ways passable.

In the gospels, Isaiah 40:3-4 is quoted in reference to John the Baptist, because this was his calling: He was to prepare the way for the uncrowned Monarch, and he did that by preaching a message of repentance. He told the people how to straighten out their lives to be prepared when the King arrived. He told the multitudes to bear fruits that indicated true repentance and advised them to be willing to share their goods with their neighbors. He warned tax collectors to stop being crooked and not to collect any more than was legally required. He instructed soldiers to stop being crooked through intimidating people, falsely accusing, and being discontent. While John did not actually use the word “crooked,” his message, in essence, was to equalize the areas of their lives that were askew (Luke 3:4-18).

We, too, are looking forward to the arrival of the King, and so we are also called to “prepare the way” within our own lives—though not, like Semiramis, to leave an everlasting memorial to ourselves. Isaiah 40:4 describes the preparation as bringing every valley up and every mountain down to the level of the road. The crooked places have to be made straight, and the rough places smoothed.

However, this prophecy does not say that the King will not arrive until we are ready. Rather, the King will arrive at the appointed time, and whether or not we have straightened our crookedness will determine if we face His wrath or His reward when He does.

We cannot straighten the crookedness of the world, but through God's power, we can straighten our own paths. God has given us the gift of His Word, which will help us to evaluate properly whether something in our lives will make the path crooked or straight. He has given us the example and teachings of the Messiah. He has given us inspired letters. He has given us laws, statutes, judgments, reflections, proverbs, praise, prophecy, and history. He has given us specifics and principles, all of which can be used to help us consider our ways: to consider whether a word or action is sin; whether we are asserting our will against another; whether something will make our path to the Kingdom more difficult; and whether our attitudes, approaches, or activities will make someone else's path crooked.

Another thing that God has given us in His Word is hope—because we can read about the future. We know that when God's plan is complete, nothing will be crooked. God will wipe away every tear; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for—to paraphrase Revelation 21:4—the former crookedness will have been straightened out. There will be a new heaven and a new earth. There will be new spiritual bodies, and most importantly, new hearts.

God tells us, and shows us, how to be a part of that future. Right now, our responsibility is to make our paths as straight as possible—not just for our sakes, but also for the effect it has on others.

David C. Grabbe

Isaiah 58:1

This verse describes a prophet's major responsibility, but here and there in the Bible a prophet is called a "watchman" or "man of God." They are also described as pastors. Whatever they are called, there is always some indication that they were set apart from the normal system, even if they happened to be Levitical priests. Jeremiah and Ezekiel were both priests, but they were not part of the system, standing apart from it despite being of Aaron's family. What God did in setting them apart made them recognizable to the people as "a man of God," as a "watchman."

Although the biblical record appears to show gaps between prophetic activities, it is probable that, until the New Testament times, there were always prophets among the people. The last Old Testament prophet was John the Baptist, who, although appearing in the New Testament, was still operating under the Old Covenant. His father, Zechariah, was a priest, and even though John came from a priestly family, he was definitely different from the priests of his day. In fact, he stood out like a sore thumb. This standing apart is always an identifying mark of a prophet. Though a prophet may be a priest, he is definitely not part of the priesthood system.

The prophets whose writings make up much of the biblical record tend to appear just before a time of crisis or during the crisis itself. Sometimes they were well organized, as in Samuel's or Elijah's day, when schools of the prophets existed. However, these schools tended to produce - not prophets in the classic sense like Samuel, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, or Isaiah - but the equivalent of modern-day theological seminarians. We can speculate that they were probably mostly Levites, who, as part of their Tabernacle/Temple service or priesthood training, attended these schools. Undoubtedly, some of these spoke under the inspiration of God, but they were not prophets in the same sense as the well-known prophets of Scripture.

Sometimes a prophet's ministry was accompanied by tremendous miracles, as with Elijah and Elisha. God used these signs and wonders to reinforce their ministry. At other times, as with John the Baptist, no miracles at all were performed (John 10:41). In other words, no one pattern emerges on this point. The chief distinction is that they were men set apart.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Prophets and Prophecy (Part 1)

Jeremiah 15:17

John the Baptist was like this too; he sat alone. When push came to shove, the other prophets of God, like Isaiah and Hosea, also sat alone.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Prophets and Prophecy (Part 2)

Malachi 3:1

John the Baptist fulfilled this role before Christ's first coming (Matthew 17:12-13). He was "the voice of one crying in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the LORD, make His paths straight'" (Isaiah 40:3; Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:3; John 1:23). He brought an urgent message of the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God and the need to

repent, turn from sin, and change one's entire attitude and way of life. . . . But the repentance had to be real and thorough; the repentant person had to "bear fruits worthy of repentance" (Luke 3:8). . . . It was a stern, fiery, fearless warning of imminent doom from which escape was possible only by prompt and genuine repentance matched by thorough obedience to God's will. (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 2, p. 1109)

Richard T. Ritenbaugh
New Name - Same Teaching!

Malachi 3:1

Jesus came to this earth as a Messenger from God the Father: "'Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple, even the Messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight. Behold, He is coming,' says the LORD of hosts" (Malachi 3:1). Two messengers are mentioned in this verse. The first is John the Baptist, who prepared the way for the second Messenger, "the Messenger of the covenant," Jesus Christ.

It is helpful to understand that, as Messenger, He did not speak His own words. John 8:38-42 combined with John 12:49-50 confirms this. Thus, the message He brought is notprimarily about Himself but about the good news of the Kingdom of God that the Father ordained to be announced on earth. This does not discount Jesus in any way because He is clearly the most important person ever to inhabit this earth. Rather, it emphasizes the fact that the gospel Jesus preached is not just about Himself.

The inspired Word of God makes it quite clear that the good news Jesus brought is about the Kingdom of God. Mark 1:14-15 is typical: "Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. repent, and believe in the gospel.'" Luke 8:1 shows that proclaiming this good news was His customary activity, "Now it came to pass, afterward, that Jesus went through every city and village, preaching and bringing glad tidings of the kingdom of God." He says plainly in Luke 4:43 that this was His appointed task: "I must preach the kingdom of God to the other cities also: because for this purpose I have been sent."

Even in those last days before He ascended to heaven and the church was born, He used His time with the disciples to teach the same message. ". . . to [the apostles] He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God" (Acts 1:3).

Jesus was not alone in preaching the gospel of the Kingdom of God. He charged His disciples with this responsibility, and they followed through as commanded. "Then He called His twelve disciples together and . . . He sent them to preach the kingdom of God . . ." (Luke 9:1-2). Later, others like the evangelist Philip joined in this effort: "But when they believed Philip as he preached the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, both men and women were baptized" (Acts 8:12).

Just in case one might think the apostle Paul preached a different gospel, he himself states in his farewell to the Ephesian elders, "And indeed, now I know that you all, among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom of God, will see my face no more" (Acts 20:25). As Paul reached the end of his life, Acts 28:30-31 states of him, "Then Paul dwelt two whole years in his own rented house, and received all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him."

One final reference, Galatians 1:8-9, is pertinent to this important issue:

But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.

The Father's message, purposely given to Jesus to deliver to mankind, had already been corrupted just a few decades after Christ's death, and the Galatians had been deceived into believing the corrupted one! Similarly, the gospel Jesus Christ brought has been corrupted in modern times. Rather than focusing on the coming Kingdom of God, the message being palmed off in our day primarily focuses on the Messenger.

Without a doubt, within the context of the message, Jesus is important as God in the flesh, our sinless Savior, and our resurrected High Priest. However, the message He preached focuses on other important issues besides Himself. If this were not so, why did God not title the message with something focusing directly on Jesus? God intends the title "gospel of the Kingdom of God" to fix our attention on the issue He wants to be the focus of our lives after we are called and converted, since it is the only hope for the resolution of mankind's numerous and presently unsolvable problems. The Kingdom of God is of such importance that, once we grasp the essence of its instruction, we can honestly say, without exaggeration, that it is the theme of the entire Bible.

Spiritual resurrection into the Kingdom of God is held out as the goal of those making the New Covenant with God. A covenant contains requirements that are to be met by both parties entering into it. Will those of us who have done so escape the responsibility to make efforts to live up to the New Covenant's terms comparable to those required of Israelites under the Old Covenant? Many - those who say that no works are required of Christians - believe so.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Is the Christian Required To Do Works? (Part Five)

Malachi 4:5

Before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: This phrase lures people into interpreting this as occurring just before Christ's second coming. However, the verse does not say "immediately before"—that is an assumption—it only says "before." The apostle John writes that the world was passing away in his day 2,000 years ago (I John 2:17)! In terms of time, verse 18 is even more incredible because John says that by biblical reckoning it was already the last hour (Romans 13:11-12; I Peter 4:7)! It is imperative we learn to consider time as God does rather than men.

The last days began with the arrival of Jesus Christ. John the Baptist, the prophesied Elijah, appeared as one epoch ended and the next began. He was the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets, his preaching turned the hearts of the fathers to the children, and he prepared the way for the Messiah. He most certainly came before the great and dreadful day of the Lord.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Elijah and John the Baptist

Matthew 3:7-10

Notice that his scathing attack is against both the Pharisees and Sadducees: The Pharisees had public power because they tended to be successful people in private life. In spite of this, they also had the admiration of the people. The Sadducees were largely from the priesthood and thus controlled the Temple. Consequently, they pretty much controlled the religious life of the people. Yet, because they also tended to be wealthy but haughty in disposition, the feelings of the people were prejudiced against them.

John courageously confronts the establishment's leadership. His was an unpopular message of judgment aimed directly at the powerful, and they did not take kindly to what he said. "And when all the people heard Him, even the tax collectors justified God, having been baptized with the baptism of John. But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the counsel of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him" (Luke 7:29-30).

Matthew 21:32 confirms John's rejection when Jesus speaks to the chief priests and elders at the Temple: "For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him; and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him." The powerful knew John was speaking about them, so in disdainful anger, they rejected him, while the publicans and harlots accepted his teaching.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Elijah and John the Baptist

Matthew 11:7-11

Despite the greatness of the Old Testament prophets that filters through the record of their deeds, Jesus declares that none was greater than His cousin, John. In fact, several commentaries contend that Jesus' statement literally means that John was the greatest of all men, not just the greatest prophet! When we consider the greatness of the other prophets, we must marvel at how great this man was! Yet we know so little of him.

The Greek literally says He was much more than a prophet. Part of the reason for this is that John fulfilled the prophecy given in Malachi 3:1. No other prophet, aside from Jesus Christ, was ever the fulfillment of a distinct prophecy—and such an important prophecy on top of that! There may be a great deal more to John than we ever considered.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Elijah and John the Baptist

Matthew 11:7-11

John is an Old Covenant prophet whose work is reported in the New Testament, He is really the last of the Old Covenant prophets.

Despite the great deeds of the other Old Testament prophets, Jesus declares that not one of them was greater than His cousin, John. Several commentaries claim that Jesus' statement in verse 11 literally means that John was the greatest of all men who ever lived! He was not merely the greatest prophet, but of all men born of women, he was the greatest. When one considers people like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and David, how great John the Baptist must have been, yet we know so little of him.

In verse 9, where Jesus says, "and more than a prophet," the Greek literally reads, "much more than a prophet." In the larger context, Jesus goes on to say that the reason for this is that John was himself the fulfillment of a prophecy. No other prophet was ever the fulfillment of a distinct prophecy, and what an important prophecy it was!

John W. Ritenbaugh
Prophets and Prophecy (Part 2)

Matthew 13:24-30

Jesus defines His symbols to His disciples (Matthew 13:38). The field, He says, is “the world.” While there can still be an application of this parable to the church, Jesus' immediate audience was “great multitudes” (Matthew 13:2, 34, 36), and the scope was “the world,” rather than the limited assembly of called-out ones.

Jesus defines the tares as “the sons of the wicked one.” While it is common to interpret this parable and its players strictly in terms of the church, consider that both God and Satan have had “sons” from the very beginning, long before the founding of the church. Abel lived by faith, but Cain, the first murderer, bore the spiritual image of his father, Satan (see John 8:44). Seth likewise was of the “good seed,” as were Enoch, Noah, and others. God planted in the world all these righteous men, who had to contend with the sons of the Adversary.

The parables in Matthew 13 come after a verbal altercation with the Pharisees in which Jesus calls them a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 12:34), indicating they were offspring of the serpent—sons of Satan—because they bore his spiritual image. John the Baptist also dubs the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers,” implying they will be burned like the tares (Matthew 3:7-12). In John 8:44, Jesus tells the Pharisees that they were of their father the Devil, just another way of saying “sons of the wicked one.” He uses parallel imagery in Matthew 15:13, again regarding the Pharisees: “Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted.”

Jesus says that “while men slept,” the “enemy came and sowed tares” (Matthew 13:25). The Bible often uses sleep as a symbol of obliviousness, non-awareness, or inattention. As such, it is frequently a negative symbol, often coinciding with lethargy, apathy, and letting down in one's duties (see Proverbs 6:4-10; 24:30-34).

Within Israel, God appointed watchmen who were not merely to keep an eye out for approaching armies but were also to monitor the nation's moral condition (see Isaiah 56:10-11). Those who should have sounded the alarm about the problems creeping into the nation before the captivity were—as we would say—asleep at the switch! Focused on their own concerns, they allowed ungodly elements to take root, leading to the nation's spiritual downfall.

Jesus ends the parable's explanation with, “Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (Matthew 13:43). Similarly, Daniel 12:3 says the “wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament, and those who turn many to righteousness like the stars forever and ever.” This glorification is also linked with the “harvest” in John 5:28-30. This end-time harvest is not limited to righteous individuals who lived from AD 31 onward—that is, the church—but includes all who have lived and died by faith, beginning with righteous Abel. As Hebrews 11:40 explains, all the true sons of the Kingdom, planted throughout history, will be made perfect at the same time.

Certainly, this parable can apply within the assembly of believers, for the New Testament is replete with warnings about false teachers and false brethren. Yet the principle is not limited to the church. The Pharisees were “sons of the wicked one”—and thus tares—even before Christ founded His church. The parable warns that not everyone who appears to be under the dominion of God is actually of God. The Pharisees and other leaders defied God's sovereign authority, but He commands His servants to leave Satan's offspring in place until the conclusion of His purpose.

David C. Grabbe
God's Kingdom in the Parables (Part Two)

Matthew 16:18

Does this say the church will never die out? Yes, but only indirectly.

The translation of one word, "prevail," alters the focus of what Jesus says. It could also be rendered "stand." By choosing to translate the word as "prevail," it changes the church from being on the offensive against the kingdom of Satan, represented by the word "Hades," to being on the defensive, as continually under attack.

Jesus is promising that He would enable His church to be on the offensive and triumphant against Satan and death. Is the church constantly under attack? Of course it is, and there have been several times that, as far as we know, it has almost died out, but it has always emerged triumphant and continued on.

How was this accomplished? Jesus Christ would raise up a man to preach the gospel once again. Peter Waldo is one of the clearer examples. In the process, he became the one God used to call others into His truth, and around him, He formed a continuation of the church of God. Using this interpretation, even the first-century apostles, as they took the gospel into new areas, became weak types of Elijah—as did all the men God used down through the ages, like Peter Waldo.

Each of them, in type, had to reestablish things and preach repentance in preparation for the receiving of the gospel and the Messiah. But not a single one of them was the Elijah to come because that office and prophecy—by Jesus' own words—has already been fulfilled, and there is no higher authority.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Elijah and John the Baptist

Matthew 17:10-13

Matthew 17:10-13 is the second occasion Jesus declared John as Elijah. Again, He gives no indication that He expected yet another Elijah to appear. This is Jesus' commentary on Malachi 4:5-6. He is neither indicating there will be another Elijah to come, nor contradicting what He said earlier in Matthew 11. In verse 11, He speaks in a future sense because that is how Malachi 4:5-6 is written. He also did it to emphasize that the scribes had correctly interpreted the prophecy in terms of Elijah preceding the arrival of the Messiah.

Jesus begins the next sentence of His reply with "but," an adversative conjunction indicating disagreement. But means "on the contrary," "conversely," or "however," and it is used here to indicate an exception. Jesus makes it clear He did not agree with the scribes beyond the point that they had correctly taught Elijah must come first. He clarifies further by saying that the scribes did not recognize Elijah when he came and badly mistreated him. Matthew 17:13 clearly establishes that the disciples understood He meant that John was the Elijah of Malachi 4:5-6. In other words, Jesus is saying Malachi 4:5-6 has already occurred—the greatest of the Old Testament prophets already fulfilled it.

What about "restore all things"? Does it refer to doctrine? Not specifically. It is a very general statement. The Greek word means "to put back again," "to reorganize," "to set up," "to bring back," "to reclaim." It can refer to health, authority, or government—or, for that matter, to straightening out or bringing back true conceptions about the Messiah. What did the original Elijah do? He straightened out—restored—right conceptions about who God is because the Israelites had lost sight of Him.

Who says "restore all things?" Jesus does. This is mentioned in no other place in reference to John the Baptist or Elijah. The Bible's marginal references refer us to Luke 1:17 and Malachi 4:6 where nothing is said directly about either Elijah or John restoring all things. Remember, this is Jesus' commentary on what John did. Even as Elijah restored right conceptions about God in his day, John the Baptist restored right conceptions about the Messiah, God with us.

That is not all. John, the Elijah of Malachi 4:5-6, turned the hearts of the fathers to the children and the children to the fathers. Logic demands this refer to his preaching as having a positive impact upon family life. Turning hearts is a fruit, an effect, that happens alongside preparing a people to receive the Messiah.

Malachi 2:14-15 reveals that in Malachi's day the Jewish community was having serious marriage problems. Family problems were extant, and they continued among the Jews down to John's day.

Secondly, this cannot refer to "the Fathers" in terms of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob because they were dead, and when they died, their thoughts perished. Their hearts cannot turn to the children. What John restored in anticipation of the Messiah's coming were right conceptions about Him, and his preaching of repentance led to right relationships within human families and within the Family of God.

What is lacking in the Bible by God's express design is a detailed review of all John preached. We know only that he was very effective in what he did. We do not know all that he restored, but we can understand that he restored everything necessary for the Messiah to be recognized and received. To take "restore all things" beyond the scope of what was prophesied to be the extent of John's ministry is getting into the area of fanciful interpretations because Jesus confirms both that John was the Elijah to come and that his ministry was great.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Elijah and John the Baptist

Matthew 17:10

Jesus says that John the Baptist was Elijah (see verses 12-13).

John W. Ritenbaugh
Prophets and Prophecy (Part 1)

Matthew 17:10

The question, asked by the disciples, is about what the scribes were saying: that the actual prophet Elijah—not the Elijah—must first come. What the scribes believed was in question, not the truth regarding Malachi 4:5-6.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Prophets and Prophecy (Part 3)

Matthew 17:11

Jesus responds to the disciples' question essentially by saying He agrees that the scribes are correct in saying, "Elijah must come before the Messiah appears and before that great and dreadful day."

The word "truly" is important to understanding His agreement with the scribes. He is saying they have correctly understood Malachi 4:5-6 to this pointthat "Elijah must come first." He does not say He agrees with them totally, nor is He indicating that another Elijah will come in the future. Jesus says verse 13 in the future tense, because it is the tense in which Malachi 4:5-6 is written, which is a promise to be fulfilled at some later point in time.

He adds a quotation from the prophecy given about John in Luke 1:17. He wants to turn our attention away from Elijah to John.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Prophets and Prophecy (Part 3)

Matthew 17:12

Here in verse 12, Jesus' disagreement with the scribes becomes clear. He agrees with them to a point, that "Elijah must come first." He signals His disagreement by using the word "but," an adversative conjunction, which joins two thoughts together while indicating a difference or exception. In this case, but means "on the other hand," "to the contrary," "except that," or "however."

Jesus' disagreement is with the scribes' interpretation. He is in no way saying that there will be a future Elijah beyond John the Baptist. He simply reiterates what Malachi 4:5 says, adds "and restore all things" to it, and then clearly states that this prophecy has already been fulfilled by John. He had already come, and they had missed him. They had rejected the message of the Elijah to come and did to him whatever they wanted. Here they had "the Elijah" right in front of them—the fulfillment of Malachi's prophecy—and they killed him!

To take what Jesus said further, because He paraphrased the future tense of Malachi 4:5-6, is to twist and add to what He said. All He says is, "This is what the prophecy says, and this is My disagreement with the scribes' interpretation."

John the Baptist clearly came before "that great and dreadful day." The last biblical day—indeed the "last hour"—was already begun in the AD 90s, as I John 2:18 states. God does not perceive time as we do; we are the ones that must adjust our thinking.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Prophets and Prophecy (Part 3)

Mark 1:1-8

In his dress and diet, he was distinctive from what was normal for the times. His dress was durable and serviceable—what would normally be associated with the clothing of the poorest of the land. The same is true of his diet. His diet would be unusual for us but common for the poor folk of his time.

Regarding how he lived, Luke 1:80 adds, "So the child grew and became strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his manifestation to Israel." Mark 2:18 shows that he and his disciples lived an ascetic lifestyle. Taken together, these verses indicate that despite John's greatness, God kept him a poor man. People who live their entire lives in the desert do not usually become rich. His home, though undoubtedly not a hovel, was certainly nowhere near what we are familiar with in wealthy, modern Israel. From this we can learn that God does not owe us what we would like to have, but He provides what we need to serve His purpose for us.

We can be assured that since he had God's Spirit from birth, as Luke 1:15 states, he was in no way the almost wild man he is usually perceived as in movies. Paul says in II Timothy 1:7, "For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind."

Also note that, though John was of the Aaronic line from both parents, no direct connection is ever made between him and the already installed system of Temple worship.

Mark 1:1 says, "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." The Bible positions John's ministry as the starting point of Christ's gospel, not because John literally preached the gospel, but apparently because of his preparatory work to Jesus preaching it. Verse 5 records, "And all the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem went out to him and were all baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins." This reveals the impact of his ministry: All Judea, including folk from Jerusalem, went out to hear and be baptized by him, believing he was a prophet. While "all" does not mean every last person, it indicates a sizeable majority of the population was conversant about John and his message.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Elijah and John the Baptist

Mark 1:9-11

Mark 1:9-11 speaks of Jesus and John's first recorded contact.

The "all" of verse 5 includes Jesus both as believing his message and being baptized of him. God at this time fully revealed to John who the Messiah was. However, verses 7-8 make it plain that, before baptizing Jesus, he already knew he was preceding someone. The prophecy given to his father Zacharias (Luke 1:76) had undoubtedly been communicated to him.

Despite the fact that he was no wild man, he was radically alienated from those who were part of the system God had installed during the time of David a thousand years earlier, reestablished under Hezekiah and Josiah, and then later still reinstituted under Ezra following the Jews' return from Babylon.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Elijah and John the Baptist

Mark 1:14-15

Though many today conclude that the essence of Christianity is the forgiveness of sins or the wonder of God's love, a considered reading of the gospels reveals that Christ's message centered on the Kingdom of God (or the Kingdom of Heaven). His ministry began with preaching repentance and the good news of the Kingdom (Matthew 4:17, 23; 9:35; Luke 4:43; 9:11; Acts 1:3).

His forerunner, John the Baptist, preached the same basic message (Matthew 3:1-2), as did the apostles (Matthew 10:7; Luke 9:2, 60; Acts 8:12). The Kingdom theme accompanied Paul on his travels (Acts 14:22; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31) and lights up his epistles (Romans 14:17; I Corinthians 4:20; 6:9-10; 15:50; Colossians 4:11; I Thessalonians 2:12). Though Christianity comprises many principles, the essence of Christ's message is the Kingdom of God. Grasping God's purpose for humanity begins with comprehending the Kingdom.

The same Greek word for “kingdom,” basileia, is used in all these references, and its basic meaning is “dominion.” However, the Bible's writers do not always speak of the divine Kingdom in the same way, so understanding the Kingdom of God depends on recognizing its different applications.

  • A common usage of basileia is future-oriented: The great hope of true Christians is Christ's return to bear rule over the earth (Revelation 11:15; Daniel 2:44).

  • The Kingdom of God is also a present spiritual reality, such that those God calls in this age are figuratively translated into that Kingdom (Ephesians 2:6; Colossians 1:13), even as they live out their lives in, but not of, the world. God has dominion over the church, making it a component—though not the fullness—of the Kingdom of God now.

  • A third usage of basileia refers to Christ Himself as the King of His Kingdom, such as when He told the Pharisees that the Kingdom of God was in their midst (see Luke 17:21).

Basileia is used in yet another, often-overlooked way that is necessary to understand a large measure of Christ's ministry. This disregarded usage appears most clearly in the Parable of the Wicked Vinedressers (Matthew 21:33-44). At the end of the parable, Jesus says, “Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it” (verse 43; emphasis ours). This refers not to the future establishment of Christ's Kingdom on earth, but to a dominion then in existence.

Jesus considered the chief priests, the elders, and the Pharisees part of God's Kingdom, and also certified that they would have the Kingdom taken from them. They, like tenant-farmers, had a measure of responsibility over that national Kingdom because of their leadership positions within it. They wielded religious power that Jesus acknowledged (Matthew 23:2-3), which had its source in God (Romans 13:1).

In the Parable of the Wicked Vinedressers, the vineyard is the Kingdom of God, and the vinedressers are those tasked with attending to it. Jesus prophesied that stewardship would be transferred because the original caretakers had proven themselves unfaithful. Psalm 80:8-19 also represents the Kingdom of Israel as a vineyard (as does Isaiah 5:1-7), and the shared symbol confirms that the Kingdom of Israel was the Kingdom of God at that time, though not in its fullness. This fourth usage of basileia is found in a number of Christ's least understood parables, particularly those in Matthew 13.

David C. Grabbe
God's Kingdom in the Parables (Part One)

Mark 6:17-27

John's most powerful foe was Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee. Herod and John had an interesting relationship because Herod respected John, yet at the same time he feared what he perceived to be John's growing political power because of the prophet's popularity.

Josephus provides a bit of background the Bible lacks. Herod was married to the daughter of Aretas, king of Petra. However, before John became a popular figure, Herod divorced her and married his sister-in-law, Herodias. This caused a problem, as Herodias was already married to Herod's brother, Philip. At this point, a convergence takes place between John's rising influence with the people and Herod and Herodias' adulterous and incestuous marriage, which clearly violates the sexual purity laws in Leviticus 18.

Josephus writes that Herod took John prisoner because he feared the prophet's prominence, believing that rebellion against his rule was growing in response to John's preaching. Apparently, during John's captivity, he warned Herod that he and Herodias were in an adulterous relationship.

Thus, when a convenient occasion presented itself, Herodias took her revenge, getting away with John's murder because of Herod's foolish timidity. Subsequently, Aretas came against Herod in war, seeking revenge for Herod divorcing his daughter. Josephus writes that Aretas soundly defeated Herod's forces. The people of Judea concluded that Herod's defeat was God's punishment for taking John's life.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Elijah and John the Baptist

Mark 11:32

Mark 11:32 provides insight as to how the people perceived John. Clearly, the common people considered him a prophet, and indeed, he was. This also shows that the highest Jewish authorities were fully aware of his reputation as a prophet and feared it. We can begin to see that in many respects the magnitude of John's work was similar to Jesus'.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Elijah and John the Baptist

Mark 11:32

The highest Jewish authorities—the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders—were fully aware of John's reputation as a prophet, and they feared it. These men, who were accustomed to the use of power and authority within a nation, would not fear something they did not respect, and they would not respect a wild crazy man. When John talked, people listened. They had something to lose by yielding to his preaching, and so they would not repent.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Prophets and Prophecy (Part 2)

Luke 1:5-7

God miraculously caused John's conception and birth, even as He did Isaac's and Jesus'. Jesus' conception in a virgin woman without the involvement of a human male is an exception. Isaac and John's conceptions were normally produced except that Sarah and Elizabeth were beyond childbearing age.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Elijah and John the Baptist

Luke 1:5

From both parents, Zechariah his father and Elisabeth his mother, John was a Levite. He was from Aaron's line, yet not one acknowledgement is made regarding John having any tie at all with the already-installed system of Temple worship.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Prophets and Prophecy (Part 2)

Luke 1:15-17

John fulfilled Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1 as the messenger who prepared the way for the Messiah. In Luke 1:15-17, by God's estimation, John would be great already. No other prophet was given such an accolade from the Highest Source in the entire universe.

» John's greatness lay in the office he filled.

» His greatness lay in the subject he dealt with: repentance and preparing the way for Christ.

» His greatness lay in the manner in which he did it, that is, in humility, calling no attention to himself, and voluntarily receding into the background when the Messiah appeared (John 3:30).

» His greatness lay in performing his function with great zeal.

» His greatness lay in his personal attributes of character as being above reproach in terms of sin, self-denial, and manner of life. He was courageous in the face of opposition.

» His greatness lay in doing his service for his entire life. His whole life, from the womb, was devoted to God. John was "the crown" of the Old Testament prophets.

» His greatness lay in the number and the greatness of his sacrifices, including his life in martyrdom.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Prophets and Prophecy (Part 2)

Luke 1:17

"In the spirit and power of Elijah" indicates John resembled Elijah in doing a similar work of revealing the true God through a ministry devoted to preaching repentance and the certainty of things contained in the Scriptures regarding Christ. Perhaps it also includes working with a similar zeal, though he accomplished his function without miracles (John 10:41). Obviously, God does not measure a man's greatness by the miracles he does.

On two separate occasions, in Matthew 11:13-15 and again in Matthew 17:10-13, Jesus says John is the Elijah to come. Notice first Matthew 11:13-15: "For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!" Let him who has ears, listen! Jesus wants His audience to pay the utmost attention. To what? To the fact that John is the Elijah to come! He had fulfilled Malachi 4:5-6.

Notice, too, Jesus' introductory comment in verse 14, "And if you are willing to receive it. . . ." This strongly suggests that He was about to say something different than what His listeners expected. They supposed Elijah would appear in person! This explains why, when John was asked by the delegation from Jerusalem whether he was Elijah, he replied, "I am not" (John 1:21). Though he was Elijah in spirit and power, he was not the literal Elijah they were expecting. The Jews of Jesus' day were just as wrong about Elijah as are many today who are looking for another Elijah to appear before Jesus' second coming. Yet, Jesus gives no indication that anyone will follow John in that office.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Elijah and John the Baptist

Luke 1:17

Why does the angel refer to Malachi 4:6? He is expanding on John the Baptist's responsibility. Jesus summed it up in Matthew 17:11 by saying John would "restore all things." What does "all" refer to? It covers everything necessary to prepare a people for the arrival of the Messiah the first time.

This phrase "restore all things" appears no where else in any connection to the work of either Elijah or John the Baptist. In this phrase, however, Jesus gives us a clear understanding of the mission of John the Baptist. He has turned from considering Elijah to John the Baptist to make a connection between the two.

John restored all things necessary to the fulfilling of his mission, and his mission only, which was to prepare the way before the Messiah. His mission parallels Elijah's, which was to reveal the true God to people who had lost their way. Elijah was a light in his day, and John too was a light in his time, but he was not the Light. John clearly pointed to Jesus as the Messiah so that the people could repent, even as Elijah differentiated the true God from the Baals so the people at that time could repent.

Since Jesus' day, many have done similar restorative preaching, but not one of them was the Elijah of Malachi 4:5-6. If somebody in the future does a similar work, he will not be the Elijah either. Nobody ever will, because John the Baptist already filled that role. We have this on the authority of Jesus Christ, who clearly said that John the Baptist was Elijah, and they killed him (Matthew 17:12).

John W. Ritenbaugh
Prophets and Prophecy (Part 3)

Luke 1:76-77

John the Baptist's message laid the groundwork for the ministry of Jesus Christ who would reveal the knowledge of salvation and demonstrate that it comes about through the remission of sins.

Earl L. Henn (1934-1997)
Basic Doctrines: Salvation

Luke 1:76-79

Verses 76-79 comprise a prophecy devoted without qualification to John and his work.

From the very beginning, John and Jesus are allied in the salvation scheme. However, the Bible shows in interesting ways how John is subordinate to Jesus. For instance, in Luke 1:36, Mary and Elizabeth are shown to be related, probably cousins. Both women conceive in a miraculous way, but Mary's conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit is far more miraculous. Then, when Elizabeth greets Mary (Luke 1:39-41), John, while still in her womb, leaps for joy in the presence of our Lord in His mother's womb. Finally, Luke 1:76 shows John to be only a prophet, but verses 32-35 show Jesus to be the Son of God and Heir to the throne of David.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Elijah and John the Baptist

Luke 1:80

This parallels the description of John in Mark 1:1-8, but it indicates an additional thing, and that is, despite John's greatness, God kept him a poor man. He was not wealthy like Abraham, David, Solomon, and many other biblical heroes. This man, who was possibly the greatest of all men who have ever lived (other than Jesus Christ), was kept poor by God. People who live their entire lives in the desert do not become rich. His home, though undoubtedly not a hovel, was certainly nowhere near to what we are accustomed in the rich nations of modern Israel.

God does not owe us what our emotions tell us we would like to have, but He will always provide us with what we need to serve His purpose for us. A big difference lies between the two. Sometimes, we have to repent, adjust our expectations, and try to understand what God is working out in through us. John's diet would be unusual for us, but it was fairly common for the poor of his time.

We can be assured that, since he had God's Spirit from birth (Luke 1:15), he was in no way the wild man depicted in movies—running around, ranting and raving, hair askew, and generally seeming like a fool to whom nobody would pay any attention. When he spoke, people listened, considering deeply and carefully what he said. This does not happen to wild men and fools. Being filled with the Holy Spirit, he had a sound mind (II Timothy 1:7).

John W. Ritenbaugh
Prophets and Prophecy (Part 2)

John 1:6-9

To appreciate this self-subordination of John, we must relate what is said here to the cultural environment in which these books were written. We must consider what the apostles wrote from the perspective of first-century Jews who witnessed John the Baptist's ministry.

In the twentieth century, we tend to think that John's ministry was little more than a blip on a radar screen. However, in terms of impact and importance, there was no true ministry greater than his except Jesus'. Thinking that John's ministry was insignificant flirts with diminishing what Jesus says about none born of a woman being greater than John.

In God's own estimation, recorded in Luke 1:15—the very first thing said about him by the angel speaking for God—John would be great! He was the prophesied messenger who fulfilled Isaiah 40:3, "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God'" (see Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 1:76; 3:4; John 1:23). He also fulfilled Malachi 3:1, "Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me" (see Matthew 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 1:76; 7:27).

His greatness lay:

1. in the office he filled;

2. in the subject he dealt with (repentance and true knowledge of the Messiah);

3. in his humility in calling no attention to himself and voluntarily receding into the background when the Messiah appeared (John 3:30), as well as his great zeal in performing his function;

4. in his personal attributes of character, above reproach in terms of sin;

5. in his self-denial in terms of his manner of life;

6. in his courage in the face of opposition;

7. in his lifelong service to God.

John was the crown of a long line of Old Testament prophets.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Elijah and John the Baptist

John 1:19-21

When John the Baptist replied, he knew in advance what they were thinking because he knew what the Jews believed in regard to Elijah. This is why he answered, "I am not Elijah." In other words, since he was preaching and doing certain things, they expected that he was Elijah. The definite article is left out: "No. I am not Elijah."

The reason he answers this way is because he probably did not know at this time that he was the Elijah of Malachi 4:5, so he answered honestly the only way he could: "No, I am not the resurrected Elijah."

John W. Ritenbaugh
Prophets and Prophecy (Part 3)

John 1:26-30

John the Baptist makes it clear that, though he was a prophet, he was not the Prophet, but rather was sent as a preparer of the way for the One who was the Prophet. John the Baptist's ministry was "unto repentance." He came revealing to people their sins, something the prophets always did. What we have here is not so much his ministry as the unique position he was in, chosen by God to be the one who would introduce the Messiah to the Hebrew world.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Prophets and Prophecy (Part 1)

John 3:25-27

Consider this situation. Jesus later testifies that of all men born none was greater than John the Baptist. Earlier in his ministry, John had attracted a great deal of attention. Crowds followed him everywhere and seemed to hang on his every word. Now his bewildered disciples watch the fickle crowds leaving John to hear and follow a new voice. To compound the problem, John himself had extolled Jesus and seemingly set off the exodus of his followers to Him. So in their frustration at not wanting to see John in any sort of disadvantage, they enter into an argument with others around them.

Their question is, "John, this other fellow, this Jesus, is growing great, but you are diminishing. Why? Have you lost your touch? What does He have that you do not?" John's reply reveals a great deal about his character: He is a humble man, not jealous, presumptuous, envious, or bitter. He exhibits no rancor but a generous spirit. He knows who is guiding and directing His servants. He rejoices in the operations that he, as a servant, can perform in being the forerunner of Christ. A paraphrase of his response might be: "I have to work at whatever God charges me and be content with what He gives me. It is not as if Jesus is stealing disciples from me but that God is giving them to Him." He undoubtedly perceives God as His sovereign Ruler.

John W. Ritenbaugh
The Sovereignty of God: Part Three

John 10:40-41

No prophet was greater than John the Baptist. If there were none greater, maybe others were equal to him. Maybe they were all on the same level, but even Jesus refused to say that even Moses was greater than John, and yet by worldly standards—especially from a Jew's perspective—Moses was the greatest of all. But not according to Jesus, who said nobody was greater than John. It almost looks as though He is saying, "John is the one that everybody else ought to be measured against." At the very least, he was equal to the ones who the people in the world would think were greater.

John did the work of Elijah, revealing the true God through a ministry devoted to preaching the certainty of the things contained in Scripture regarding Christ, yet he did no miracles. It is obvious that God does not measure a prophet's greatness by the miracles he does.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Prophets and Prophecy (Part 1)

John 14:12

When we first read this verse, most of us think that Jesus is talking about miracles, signs, wonders, and healings, that is, that those of us who really believe in Him will be able to do those great works. However, He may not be thinking only about such grand acts.

He is probably also suggesting that the great works we will do are the day-to-day works of Christian living—not necessarily the ones that will make the lead story on the evening news. He means things like having good relations with one's spouse and children. He means overcoming a sin and growing in character. He means helping others in their walk toward the Kingdom of God. In the end, these are far greater works than miracles and spectacular healings.

Consider the twelve apostles. How many people did Jesus convert during His ministry? Acts 1:15 tells us that the number of disciples was only 120. Yet, just a few pages later, we find that the apostles did even greater works, baptizing 3,000 on Pentecost (Acts 2:41) and 5,000 on another day (Acts 4:4). People were saying that the apostles had "turned the world upside down" (Acts 17:6)! Their greater works were preaching the gospel, feeding the flock, and helping others to overcome and grow toward the Kingdom of God. Sure, they did their share of miracles, but their most lasting, eternal works were their preaching and their Christian sacrifices for the gospel.

Jesus said no one was greater than John the Baptist (Matthew 11:11), and what did he do? He did not perform one miracle, but he preached repentance (Matthew 3:1-2), which is a great work. It makes people realize that they are sinful and that they need a Savior to redeem them and to help them turn their lives around. Many were baptized and later followed Christ.

We need to apply this personally. What great works are we supposed to do? They may be mundane—overcoming sin, growing in character, producing spiritual fruit, and encouraging others in their walk with God—but they are the day-to-day Christian activities that, in the end, will assure that not only will we be in the Kingdom but those we love and fellowship with will be too. Those are truly great works! "Miraculous" works may be flashy and draw a lot of attention, but the greatest works are the ones with eternal consequences, those that help others maintain a firm grasp on salvation.

In Acts 10:38, Peter pares the life of Christ down to just a few insightful phrases: ". . . how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good . . ." That is the gist of His life: He did good with every minute He lived. The apostle Paul gives us similar marching orders in Galatians 6:10: "Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith." If we follow this advice, following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, we will one day be where He is.

Richard T. Ritenbaugh

Hebrews 6:19-20

This word "forerunner" is the Greek prodromos, used in Scripture only this one time. It means "scout," "guide," or "one sent before a king to prepare the way." The Greeks also used prodromos to mean "firstfruits."

In the story of Daniel Boone, he went first to scout out Kentucky, then later took a party of thirty woodsmen to improve the trail, and after that, even more people followed. Boone was the forerunner, but so were those who went with him to develop the route. That first small group was the firstfruits. Spiritually, Christ has gone ahead, showing us the way, and we, as the firstfruits, improve the trail so that others will someday walk it more easily.

The concept of a forerunner runs throughout the Bible. We could say that Adam was a forerunner, as well as Noah, Abraham, Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist, and of course, Christ. Notice that each of these forerunners had followers—their firstfruits. Adam had Eve and their sons and daughters that followed them. Noah had his wife and family. Abraham had Sarah and Lot, and later were added Ishmael and Isaac, and then Jacob and his children. Moses had Aaron and Miriam and then all the children of Israel. Elijah led to Elisha. John the Baptist proclaimed the coming of Christ, who called His disciples—us.

In other words, we have a part to play as well. It is not the leading role but a supporting one. Nonetheless, it is a necessary part. There is no call for a "big head" here: God could have called someone else or raised up stones, as John the Baptist says in Matthew 3:9. However, He did not; He called us specifically (John 6:44). Therefore, we should not waste our opportunity.

Mike Ford (1955-2021)
Blazing a Trail Through the Wilderness

Revelation 11:3

"Clothed in sackcloth." II Kings 1:8 is the response of some people who reported what they had seen to the king, Ahaziah: "So they answered him, 'A hairy man wearing a leather belt around his waist.' And he said, 'It is Elijah the Tishbite." Matthew 3:4 describes John the Baptist: "Now John himself was clothed in camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locust and wild honey." So Elijah and John the Baptist both wore sackcloth. In a way, they are types of these Two Witnesses.

Being clothed in sackcloth has several meanings in the Bible. They are all somewhat similar, but they have nuances that we need to consider.

Sackcloth was worn by those who were in mourning. Recall in Ezekiel 9 that the angel was supposed to mark all those who sighed and cried for all the troubles of Jerusalem. That is a sign of woe, of mourning, or of being sorry for the fall of this once great nation or for their sins.

Sackcloth also can mean repentance, as an outward sign of the inner repentance of a person. Therefore it also has another meaning of being humble. A repentant person should be a humble person. He has seen his sins and turned from them.

Another meaning is austerity. This is one that the world often sees in John the Baptist and Elijah, that they were "poor" men. However, that is not necessarily the case. Austerity does not necessarily mean that one is poor. It can mean though that a person leads a simple lifestyle, and that he has removed the frills that complicate his life. Wearing sackcloth, then, could mean a person has stripped down to the simplest essentials of his physical life.

Of course, the one that goes with this would then be poverty, yet not necessarily physical poverty (a lack of money) but spiritual poverty (poor in spirit). This is a fine way of looking at the wearing of sackcloth in the case of the Two Witnesses—and frankly, of Elijah and John the Baptist. They were ready to be filled and given the riches of God because they had considered themselves lowly and needy. They knew they needed what only God could give. They were poor in spirit.

However, all of these meanings could apply to the Two Witnesses: They mourn for the troubles this world is going through; they are repentant and humble; they are austere, not having any of the frills and complications that clutter other people's lives—they have stripped themselves of the things that would weigh them down so that they can run (Hebrews 12:1); and they are certainly poor in spirit.

Richard T. Ritenbaugh
The Two Witnesses (Part Three)


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