Life of Christ 18
John the Baptist is one of the most fascinating characters in the Bible. From the very beginning (the miraculous angelic announcement to his father, Zacharias, in the Temple) all the way to his untimely end (having his head cut off after an incestuous and lustful dance in order to satisfy the anger of an aggrieved adulteress) he never fails to interest us.
He was rough in his carriage, wearing camel's hair and leather, and eating locusts and honey (Matthew 3.4). He was uncompromising in his message, calling the religious leadership of Israel snakes (Matthew 3.7). He was also wildly successful, attracting a large following (Matthew 3.5) which eventually developed into the accepted view that he was actually a prophet (Matthew 21.26). Indeed, Jesus Himself said that a greater man than John had never walked the face of the earth (Luke 7.28).
The whole point of his ministry was to prepare Israel to receive her soon coming King (Matthew 3.1-2). The Jews of John's day were longing desperately for the Messiah, a great king who would show up and smash Rome's power to smithereens. John the Baptist preached that this promised King was coming, and that Israel needed to spiritually prepare to receive Him. This spiritual preparation involved personal repentance of sin, and an outward visible expression of faith in the coming Kingdom of God via baptism.
The Jews of John's day would have been familiar with the concept of baptism. It was required of proselytes (Gentile converts to Judaism), along with circumcision and sacrifices. The Greeks used the word 'baptize' in the fuller's trade, which produced cloth. Woven wool was first baptized in bleach and then in dye to produce a dramatic and visible purification. As such, baptism came to be understood metaphorically as symbolic of just such a dramatic cleansing and change coming to a person as well. John's baptism, then, was a public declaration of confession and repentance already taken place in the heart, and of faith in God's promises of a soon coming King.
The common Jewish man of the day swallowed the line fed to him by his religious leaders that he would get into Heaven on the basis of his ethnic identity as a Jew. John's job was to show them plainly that this was not so, but to rather show them the necessity for a genuine heart change, repentance from their sin, and faith in God's promises. The commonly held idea of the day that all Jews went to Heaven simply because they were Jews was called 'the merits of the fathers.' In other words, the Jews of John's time would skate into Heaven because of what Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had done. In fact, the Talmud taught that Abraham sat at the gate of hell to turn back any Jew who somehow accidentally got that far.
John the Baptist's message flew directly in the face of that, demanding a personal repentance from sin and a personal faith in the promises of God of a soon coming King (Matthew 3.9).
There never has been but one way to Heaven, whether one lived before Christ or after Him. We must, in humility, repent of our sin, and in faith believe the Word of God regarding Jesus Christ. The Messiah was sent to take away Israel's sin (Isaiah 53) and He did exactly that. John's message was that He was coming. Our message is that He did come, and that He is coming again.