The First Ministry of the Baptist

Of those born of this world, Jesus said, none was greater than John. Evangelist F. B. Meyer explains the might of the fearless forerunner of Christ.

“Saint John the Baptist and the Pharisees” (circa 1886-94) by James Tissot

“For many years John had been living in the caves that indent the limestone rocks of the desolate wilderness which extends from Hebron to the western shores of the Dead Sea. By the use of the scantiest fare, and roughest garb, he had brought his body under complete mastery. From nature, from the inspired page, and from direct fellowship with God, he had received revelations which are only vouchsafed to those who can stand the strain of discipline in the school of solitude and privation.”

“At last the moment arrived for him to utter the mighty burden that pressed upon him; and . . . ‘the word of God came unto John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness.’ It may have befallen thus. One day, as a caravan of pilgrims was slowly climbing the mountain gorges threaded by the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, or halted for a moment in the noontide heat, they were startled by the appearance of a gaunt and sinewy man, with flowing raven locks, and a voice which must have been as sonorous and penetrating as a clarion, who cried, ‘Repent! the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.'”

“It was as though a spark had fallen on dry tinder. The tidings spread with wonderful rapidity that in the wilderness of Judea one was to be met who recalled the memory of the great prophets, and whose burning eloquence was of the same order as Isaiah or Ezekiel. Instantly people began to flock to him.”

Popular Prophet, Telling the Truth

“Many causes accounted for John’s immense popularity. The office of the prophet was almost obsolete. Several centuries . . . had passed since the last great prophet had finished his testimony. The oldest man living at that time could not remember having seen a man who had ever spoken to a prophet.”

“Moreover, John gave abundant evidence of sincerity — of reality. His independence of anything that this world could give made men feel that whatever he said was inspired by his direct contact with things as they are. . . . He spoke what he knew, and testified what he had seen. His accent of conviction was unmistakable. When men see the professed prophet of the Unseen and Eternal as keen after his own interests as any worldling . . . they are apt to reduce to a minimum their faith in his words. But there was no trace of this in the Baptist, and therefore the people went forth to him.”

“Above all, he appealed to their moral convictions, and, indeed, expressed them. The people knew that they were not as they should be. For a long time this consciousness had been gaining ground; and now they flocked around the man who revealed themselves to themselves, and indicated with unfaltering decision the course of action they should adopt. How marvelous is the fascination which he exerts over men who will speak to their innermost souls! . . . Though a man may shrink from the preaching of repentance . . . he will be irresistibly attracted to hear the voice that harrows his soul.”

Pharisees and Sadducees

“John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism. Their advent appears to have caused him some surprise. ‘Ye offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’ The strong epithet he used of them suggests that they came as critics; because they were unwilling to surrender the leadership of the religious life of Israel, and were anxious to keep in touch with the new movement, until they could sap its vitality, or divert its force into the channels of their own influence.”

“But it is quite likely that in many cases there were deeper reasons. The Pharisees were the ritualists and formalists of their day, who would wrangle about the breadth of a phylactery, and decide to an inch how far a man might walk on the Sabbath day; but the mere externals of religion will never permanently satisfy the soul made in the likeness of God. Ultimately it will turn from them with a great nausea and an insatiable desire for the living God.”

“As for the Sadducees, they were the materialists of their time. . . . Disgusted and outraged by the trifling of the literalists of Scripture interpretation, the Sadducee denied there was an eternal world and a spiritual state, and asserted that ‘there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit.’ But mere negation can never satisfy. The heart still moans out its sorrow under the darkness of agnosticism. . . . It was hardly to be wondered at, then, that these two great classes were in the crowds that gathered on the banks of the Jordan.”

The Kingdom of Heaven

“Let us briefly enumerate the main burden of the Baptist’s preaching. First, ‘the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.’ To a Jew that phrase meant the reestablishment of the Theocracy, and a return to those great days in the history of his people when God Himself was Lawgiver and King.”

“But some misgiving must have passed over the minds of his hearers when they heard the young prophet’s description of the conditions and accompaniments of that long-looked-for reign. Instead of dilating on the material glory of the Messianic period, far surpassing the magnificent splendor of Solomon, he insisted on the fulfillment of certain necessary preliminary requirements . . . in which the inward and spiritual took precedence of the outward and material.”

“It was the old lesson, which in every age requires repetition, that unless a man is born again, and from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God. . . . No outward circumstances, however propitious and favorable, can bring about true blessedness. We might be put into the midst of heaven itself, and be poor, and miserable, and blind, and naked, unless the heart were in loving union with the Lamb. . . . Life must be centered in Christ if it is to be concentric with all the circles of heaven’s bliss. We can never be at rest or happy while we expect to find our fresh springs in outward circumstances. It is only when we are right with God that we are blest and at rest.”

The Wrath to Come

“Alongside the proclamation of the kingdom was the uncompromising insistence on ‘the wrath to come.’ John saw that the Advent of the King would bring inevitable suffering to those who were living in self-indulgence and sin. There would be careful discrimination. He who was coming would carefully discern between the righteous and the wicked; between those who served God and those who served Him not. . . . There was no middle class. Men were either for Him or against Him. The sheep on this side; the goats on that.”

“There would also be a period of probation. . . . The Jewish people had become sadly unfruitful; but a definite period was to intervene, three years of Christ’s ministry and thirty years beside, before the threatened judgment befell. All this while the axe lay ready for its final stroke; but only when all hope of reformation was abandoned was it driven home, and the nation crashed to its doom.”

“Perhaps this may be the case with one of my readers. You have been planted on a favorable site, and have drunk in the dews and rain and sunshine of God’s providence. But what fruit have you yielded in return? How have you repaid the heavenly Husbandman? May He not be considering whether any result will accrue from prolonging your opportunities for bearing fruit? . . . He may well consider the advisability of removing you from the stewardship, which you have used for your own emolument, and not for his glory.”

What Shall We Do? Repent!

“It is for want of a vision of the inevitable fate of the godless and disobedient that much of our present-day preaching is so powerless and ephemeral. . . . Only when we modern preachers have seen sin as God sees it, and begin to apply the divine standard to the human conscience; only when our eagerness and yearning well over into our eyes and broken tones; only when we know the terror of the Lord, and begin to persuade men as though we would pluck them out of the fire . . . shall we see the effects that followed the preaching of the Baptist when the people crowded around him, saying, ‘What shall we do?'”

“All John’s preaching, therefore, led up to the demand for repentance. The word which was oftenest on his lips was ‘Repent!’ It was not enough to plead descent from Abraham, or outward conformity with the Levitical and Temple rites. . . . There must be the renunciation of sin, the definite turning to God, the bringing forth of fruit meet for an amended life. In no other way could the people be prepared for the coming of the Lord.”

Excerpts from john the baptist by F. B. Meyer (morgan & scott, 1900)

One thought on “The First Ministry of the Baptist

  1. The gospel in action: How have you drunk in the dews and rain and sunshine of God’s providence? What fruit have you yielded in return?

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