What was the subject of John the Baptist's preaching?

by Luke Wayne
2/23/16

John the Baptist preached a message of repentance expressed in water baptism and bearing active fruit in one's life in preparation for the appearing of the Messiah, whose coming would represent a divine visitation; the very presence of God coming to His people. In other words, he preached the essential gospel message of repentance and faith in Jesus as the divine Messiah. Mark 1:1 describes the ministry of John the Baptist as "the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." Luke 3:18 says that John "preached the gospel to the people." Acts 18:25 introduces us to a man named Apollos of whom it is said:

"This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he was speaking and teaching accurately the things concerning Jesus, being acquainted only with the baptism of John."

While Apollos still needed further instruction and clarification in the faith (v 26), accounts like this make it clear that the core of the gospel can be found in the preaching of this last (Matt. 11:13) and greatest (Matt. 11:11) of the prophets.

Repentance

Like many of the prophets before him, John was sent to call the people to an urgent repentance in light of what God would soon bring about. Matthew 3:2 summarizes the content of John's message as:

"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."

And in verses 7-8, John says:

"You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance."

Luke 3 echoes these warnings, and in verses 10-14 we are told that the crowds cried out to know what they must do. John commanded tax collectors to stop collecting deceitful wages, soldiers to stop extorting people by force and to be content with their wages, and the crowd as a whole to give up the extra things they possess to meet the needs of those who did not have enough. He painted a clear picture of repentance as not a mere ritual or sacrifice, but an actual turning in heart and life from sin to God. One can see in his words the message of the prophets before him, such as when the prophet Micah wrote of a similar question of the people and its answer:

"With what shall I come to the Lord and bow myself before the God on high? Shall I come to Him with burnt offerings, with yearling calves? Does the Lord take delight in thousands of rams, in ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I present my firstborn for my rebellious acts, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you, but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:6-8).

The gospels also repeatedly explain that, while John was not a literal return of the actual man Elijah, he is a fulfillment of the "Elijah" promise of Malachi 4 (Matt. 11:13-15, Matt. 17:12-13, etc.). This identification also clearly points to John's mission to proclaim repentance, or "turning of hearts," in urgent fear and anticipation of what God would soon bring about. John's willingness to call even Herod to repentance is what lead to John's arrest and imprisonment and ultimately his execution. Even unto death, John called the people high and low to turn their hearts and their lives from their sin unto God.

Baptism

The message of John connects intimately to his practice of baptizing those who came to him. He even acquired the name "John the Baptist" (or "baptizer" or "immerser") by which he is most commonly known. John's baptism was an expression of his message of repentance. Mark 1:4 explains that:

"John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins."

Matthew 3:6 tells us of those coming to John that:

"they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins."

Right afterward John himself says:

"I baptize you with water for repentance," (Matthew 3:11). 

Luke 3:3 agrees:

"And he came into all the district around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins."

Even the Apostle Paul says that "John had proclaimed before His coming a baptism of repentance," (Acts 13:24) and "John baptized with the baptism of repentance," (Acts 19:4).

In Jewish culture, there was an intimate association between water and ritual purification, and by extension with repentance. The books of the law, especially Leviticus, are filled with references to people, their clothing, and even inanimate objects being washed as part of their purification if they have come into contact with something or someone that is ceremonially unclean. This purification from ritual uncleanness came to be a common symbol for turning from or being forgiven for sins. In Psalm 51, for example, the repentant David calls to God:

"Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin," (Psalm 51:2)

And:

"Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow," (Psalm 51:7).

Isaiah calls Israel to repentance, saying:

"Wash yourselves, Remove the evil of your deeds from My sight. Cease to do evil," (Isaiah 1:16).

And Jeremiah likewise cries out:

"Wash your heart from evil, O Jerusalem, that you may be saved," (Jer. 4:14).

In the time of the New Testament, ritual washing and immersion were common religious practices among the Jews. In the Mishnah (an ancient rabbinic collection of interpretations of the law), there is an entire section that preserves traditions on immersion pools which explain in painstaking detail exactly what makes the water itself clean and pure for use in cleansing, what will defile it, and how it can be made clean again.1 Clearly the idea of ritual cleansing by water was not only common but highly important in Jewish thought at the time.

Likewise, the Talmud preserves a tradition that in those days gentile converts to Judaism, in addition to circumcision and offering a sacrifice, had also to be immersed in water for purification.2 The Dead Sea Scrolls contain a number of passages that not only testify to the regular practice of ritual water purification but also show the tendency to use this language to express one's state of sin or redemption, just as we saw in the Old Testament. For example, in the "Community Rule" (scroll 1QS) we read of those who would not turn from the ways of the world and enter the covenant of the Qumran community, they said:

"He shall not be reckoned among the perfect, he shall neither be purified by atonement, nor cleansed by purifying waters, nor sanctified by seas and rivers, not washed with any ablution. Unclean, unclean shall he be. For as long as he despises the precepts of God, he shall receive no instruction in the community of His Council."3

None of this, of course, implies in any way that John's baptism was itself a common practice already in the day, but rather that it drew from imagery known to the culture and to the Old Testament scriptures that held a particular meaning. This is why we see, for example, John 3:25 records of a dispute that arose between John's disciples and another Jew over purification in the context of John's and Jesus's practice of baptism. John's baptism, like the prophets of old, used the common Jewish image of water purification to express the idea of repentance and forgiveness of sins, only John went beyond expressing this in words. He expressed it in a powerful symbolic action. Baptism was an outward expression of repentance, a ritual declaration of a greater reality; of turning from one's sin and seeking cleansing and forgiveness.

Divine Visitation and the Coming Messiah

All four gospels express that John the Baptist was a fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3. He is a "voice crying in the wilderness, 'prepare the way for the Lord, make His paths straight,'" and John makes it clear that he understood this and claimed it himself (John 1:23). John, therefore, in some sense understood that he was preparing the way for the coming of God to His people.

In fact, the Bible frequently connects ritual washing with entering God's presence, so even John's baptism may point to this. For example, Exodus 30:17-21 describes a bronze laver of water at the entrance of the tent of meeting so that the priests can wash before entering, "so that they will not die." In Genesis 35:35, when God calls Jacob to bring his household to Bethel (which means "house of God" and is where God had previously appeared to him in Gen. 28:20-32), Jacob has everyone bury all their idols, wash themselves, and change their clothes. Leviticus 16 also explains that the priest must bathe himself before he can put on the priestly garments to enter the Lord's presence in the Holy of Holies, "so that he will not die." Washing oneself to prepare when one knows they are going to be in God's presence is a recurring theme. John's preaching of "repent and be baptized, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" may also connect to his self-understanding of being, "a voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way for the Lord." It may mean something like, "Repent of your sins and be washed in preparation for the coming of the Lord!"

This direct relationship between John's baptism and his understanding of the immanent coming of the Lord is, however, debatable. What is clear is that John knew the Lord was coming, and woe to His people if they were not ready for His coming! Indeed, Jesus Himself would later pronounce destruction upon Jerusalem, "because you did not know the time of your visitation," (Luke 19:41-44).

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all also attest that John was the messenger promised in Malachi 3:1-2 (Matt. 11:10, Mark 1:2, Luke 7:27). Here, too, we have testimony that he is preparing the way for the coming of the Lord:

"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; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap." (Malachi 3:1-2)

Again we see a messenger before the coming of the Lord, and a warning about the day of the Lord's coming. What is interesting is that the coming of the Lord seems to be synonymous with the coming of a second figure in the passage, the "messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold he is coming." The coming of the Lord and the coming of this "messenger of the covenant" are one and the same event. And while the Hebrew word for "Lord" used here can technically refer to a human ruler, the fact that the Lord is coming to "His temple" leaves no doubt whom we are speaking. There is only one Lord to whom the Jewish temple belongs. The coming of the "messenger of the covenant" was to be the coming of the Lord, God of Israel.

When we look at the preaching of John the Baptist, this is exactly what we see. All four gospels and the words of Paul recorded in the book of Acts all report that John preached of one who would come after him who was so much greater than him that John was not even worthy to untie or carry His sandals. (Matt. 3:11, Mark 1:7, Luke 3:16-17, John 1:26-27, Acts 13:25). All four gospels also report that John said that this unimaginably greater one coming after him would "baptize you with the Holy Spirit." Clearly, the prophetic image John was attempting to conjure up is that of Joel 2:28-29, where the Spirit will be "poured out on all flesh." This use of the language of the Spirit being "poured out" like water on all the people is strikingly like the idea of immersing (baptizing) the people in the Spirit like in water. The book of Acts makes this same connection, repeating in 1:5 that "John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit" and then directly stating in the next chapter when this actually occurs that it is what Joel prophesied (Acts 2:16-18). John the Baptist says that the great one coming after him will baptize them with the Holy Spirit, but Joel says that it is The Lord God Himself who will pour out His Spirit.

What's more, in John 1:15 and again in 1:30 it mentions that John said of this great one to come after, the Messiah, that "He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me." John the Baptist here also testifies of the pre-existence of the Messiah.

Taken together, we see that John understands the coming of the Messiah to be the coming of God Himself. This is completely consistent with the Malachi prophecy which John was sent to fulfill. It is also affirmed in other Old Testament Prophesies like Isaiah 9:6 which said:

"For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."

The prophets before John had told of the coming of Messiah as the coming of God Himself, and this was John's message as well.

Jesus

John did not leave the crowds guessing who this great one to come was. He was quite explicit. Matthew 3:14 tells us that when Jesus came to John to receive baptism, John already recognized something of the greatness of Jesus, insisting, “I need to be baptized by You, and yet You come to me?” However, it was what he saw afterward that confirmed for John that Jesus was indeed the promised one of God.

The scene at Jesus' Baptism when heaven opened, God the Father spoke, and the Spirit descended upon Jesus (Matt. 3:16-17), this was what John had been anticipating. The Gospel of John records John the Baptist's own words of testimony on the subject:

"The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, 'Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the One I told you about: ‘After me comes a man who has surpassed me, because He existed before me.’ I didn’t know Him, but I came baptizing with water so He might be revealed to Israel.' And John testified, 'I watched the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He rested on Him. I didn’t know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The One you see the Spirit descending and resting on—He is the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and testified that He is the Son of God!'” (John 1:29-34).

This was not the only time that John would call Jesus the "Lamb of God," (John 1:35). While John may not have yet fully grasped that Jesus would literally have to die on the cross to atone for sins and rise again thereafter, he certainly understood that Jesus had come to take away the sins of the people and that the comparison to a sin offering was appropriate.

John stated his faith in Jesus as the Messiah further when his disciples were becoming jealous that more people were going to Jesus for baptism than to John. He corrected them, saying:

"You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I’ve been sent ahead of Him.’ He who has the bride is the groom. But the groom’s friend, who stands by and listens for him, rejoices greatly at the groom’s voice. So this joy of mine is complete. He must increase, but I must decrease." (John 3:28-30).

John saw his ministry as one preparing the way for Jesus, the Messiah who was greater than he. John was happy to fade into the background as people rightly began to turn to the one to whom he was pointing. We also have further evidence of John's public testimony that Jesus was the Messiah in whom they were to believe when we later read of the crowds responding to Jesus in the areas that John the Baptist had been ministering, saying:

"So He departed again across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing earlier, and He remained there. Many came to Him and said, “John never did a sign, but everything John said about this man was true.” And many believed in Him there." (John 10:40-42)

John the Baptist not only spoke of a great and worthy one to come after him but he also widely made it clear precisely who it was. Jesus was the Messiah, and all were to believe and follow Him.

Conclusion

John the Baptist preached a message of repentance from sin and turning back to God. He commanded for this to be expressed in the act of water baptism but was also clear that repentance was not a mere ritual or one time, outward action. Repentance was a life-altering turning away from sin and to God. He preached that repentance and baptism were urgent because of the imminent coming of God Himself in the promised Messiah to deliver His people and judge the wicked, and when Jesus public ministry began John was clear that Jesus was the Messiah they were waiting for and that the people should believe on and follow Him.

  • 1. Herbert Danby, The Mishnah: Translated from the Hebrew with Introductory and Brief Explanatory Notes (Hendrickson Publishing, 2001) 732-745
  • 2. Emil Schurer, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, Second Division - Volume 2 - 5th Printing (Hendrickson Publishing, 2001).
  • 3. Geza Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls (Penguin Books, 2004) 100-101