John, the forerunner of Jesus

In John chapter one, we are told no less than seven times that John was the witness, that is, the one who bore witness or bore record concerning Jesus (John 1:7 (twice),8,15,19,32,34).

There is no doubt that John’s powerful testimony bore bountiful fruit. Near the end of our Lord’s ministry he could be found in Jerusalem. John’s gospel (10:22-23) bears the account: “And it was at Jerusalem the feast of dedication, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon’s porch.” Called also the feast of lights, the feast of dedication (Hanukkah) commenced on 25 Kislev and marked the conquest of Antiochus by Judas Maccabeus in 164BC. It acts as a ‘date stamp’ in John’s gospel, reminding us that it was only some four months before the crucifixion.

Following controversy with “the Jews” (v24-39), he went down from Jerusalem beyond Jordan near the Dead Sea to Bethabara (the place “where John at first baptised” v40), the very place of Jesus’ baptism. Crowds flocked to him. Note their testimony: “John did no miracle: but all things that John spake of this man were true! And many believed on him there” (v41-42). Not Jerusalem, not that place—but there, in the region beyond Jordan where John’s resounding voice was heard. They believed in Jesus because they saw John’s accurate testimony as the forerunner confirmed.

John the Baptist – the man in the wilderness

There was an irresistible moral force in John and his teaching (cp Mark 1:4-6). The word went out; the crowds flocked in. He was young, powerful, charismatic. The way he lived was dramatic, compelling: “And John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey”. His austere life, in itself, was a challenge, drawing men and women to him, conscious of their own need.

Jesus’ testimony concerning John

When John was languishing, depressed in Herod’s dungeon, he sent to Jesus: “Art thou he that should come? Or look we for another?” In reply Jesus sent his servants back with vivid demonstrations that he was indeed the son of God: “…tell John what things ye have seen and heard; how that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, to the poor the gospel is preached” (Luke 7:19,22). Then Jesus turned to the crowd, some of them baptised by John, others who were merely spectators. What did you make that trek into the wilderness to see, he asked them? Three times Jesus uses that expression, as if to say, were you merely tourists, sightseers?

John was no “reed shaken with the wind”, he was not “clothed with soft raiment”. He was not even just “a prophet”. No, said Jesus, he was “much more than a prophet”. He was the very one spoken of by Malachi: “Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.” So “there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist”, declared Jesus (Luke 7:24-28).

Jesus later proclaimed of John: “He was a burning and a shining light” (John 5:35). Throughout his ministry he made no such statement of anyone else.

How then is our light? Like John’s—powerful and compelling; or flickering fitfully, hardly to be seen?

Jesus travels from Galilee to be baptised

John’s teaching led multitudes to make their journey down to Bethabara, on the east bank of the Jordan (John 1:28) to hear him. He taught of the need for repentance. He explained that they must bring forth good fruit, and what that meant to the varying groups that came before him (Luke 3:8-14). John had the answers—he had given deep thought to the application of divine principles.

Now Jesus too joined the throng and came down from Galilee (Matt 3:13) to Jordan, perhaps in the company of others from that region. Mark notes that he came from Nazareth (Mark 1:9), a distance of about 130 kilometres. And he came with a purpose: “to be baptized of him” (Matt 3:13). This was always Jesus’ disposition, always purposeful and focussed in all that he did. Another lesson for us to learn.

It seems that all those who would become his apostles, the twelve, were present and observed Jesus’ baptism. We know this from Peter’s statement in Acts 1:15,21-26. There is no hint of their presence in the gospels. Peter’s point is that the apostle selected to replace Judas, must be one who had to know Jesus and his ministry intimately, “Beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us” (v22). This was necessary for the new apostle to be an effective witness to Jesus and his ministry.

The beginning of Jesus’ ministry

Peter’s comments indicate that the baptism of Jesus was the marker for the beginning of his ministry. And it likewise marked the effective end of John’s ministry as the forerunner. Note Paul’s comments in Acts 13:23-25, particularly verse 25: “As John fulfilled his course”. John himself recognised the situation, declaring to his disciples: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:26-30).

Jesus’ baptism

When Jesus presented himself to John requesting baptism by him, it was likely some conversation took place. And Matthew 3:14 tells us the outcome was that “John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?” Jesus’ response was kindly but firm: “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness” (v15, ESV).

So having that very definite statement from the Lord, for which there were very good reasons as we shall see, John proceeded to baptise him.

We should note that when he was baptised, he was praying (Luke 3:21) and as he was doing so “he saw the heavens opened unto him” (combining the records of Matt 3:16 and Mark 1:10). The heavens were open to Jesus’ view. The Father surely declaring thereby to His Son that his ministry would have direct access to heaven for its successful completion. And at the end of his ministry, heaven is opened to Jesus once more, to usher him in that he might take his place at the Father’s right hand (Acts 1:9-11).

What was Jesus praying for? We can only surmise, based on what took place, perhaps:

  • for divine blessing on his ministry,
  • for the availability of the Spirit to aid that work (cp John 1:32-34),
  • for public divine acknowledgement—that he should be made manifest to Israel (John 1:31,34),
  • for private acknowledgement—that He was a Son seeking his Father’s will and glory.

Why was Jesus baptised?

Though John tried at first to stop this baptism since it did not seem appropriate to him (Matt 3:13-14), there were many reasons why it was “fitting”, indeed necessary for Jesus to be baptised.

  1. It was fitting to fulfill all righteousness. Jesus had no sin to repent of, but a nature like all mankind, prone to sin. Robert Roberts explains it well in Nazareth Revisited: “Although Jesus was not a transgressor by his own action, he was partaker for the time being, of a sin-constitution of things… His mission was to break into this reign of death by obedience, death and resurrection, illustrating and establishing God’s righteousness in all its bearings… In view of all this, it was not incongruous—on the contrary, it was in beautiful harmony with his work, that on the threshold of the public phase of it, he should be called upon to submit to a ritual act which symbolized the putting away of sin”.

Brother John Carter wrote this:

“The Lord, against the background of the message of John that all flesh is grass, that man is mortal and Jesus is the sharer of our mortality, witnesses to his acknowledgment of the fact by the symbolic baptism, as he goes down into this symbolic death, fulfilling all righteousness. It was only a symbol but what was there a symbol was wrought out in fact, three and a half years later, when he voluntarily went to the cross” (Unity Book, page 37).

Note too Jesus’ words in Luke 12:50: “I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished!” He saw his death and resurrection as typed by baptism. Thus, baptism featured at the beginning and the end of his ministry! It’s our symbol too. By it we acknowledge God’s righteousness, we declare that the flesh profits nothing and that God is right in all His decrees (especially the one enforcing the sentence of death as the penalty against sin). In so doing, we identify with Jesus’ death and resurrection and begin our new life in him.

  1. There was too, a vital principle of identity with those he came to save. The river Jordan, coiled in the valley like a serpent and descending from its fresh beginnings to the Dead Sea, was a symbol of humanity on its inevitable path to the grave. Jesus went down into those muddy waters to mingle with his fellows, there, like them, to be baptised. Luke makes the connection plain: “Now when all the people were baptised, it came to pass that Jesus also being baptised…” (Luke 3:21). We cannot fail to see the point.
  2. He needed to give an example to all the people. Imagine if Jesus did not submit to baptism, what great disquiet there would be. The example of right, godly living that Jesus set is compelling to all who would follow him. No less in the matter of obedience to the requirement to be baptised.
  3. The baptisms carried out by John the Baptist were by God’s appointment. Note John 1:33: “he that sent me to baptize with water…”. Jesus would not fail to comply with such an appointment.
  4. The baptism of John was “from heaven” (Matt 21:25). Jesus, near the end of his ministry, reaches back to the beginning to remember and endorse the baptism of John. It represented a directive from heaven. We cannot imagine our Lord failing to acknowledge that directive in full obedience.
  5. John says it was “that he should be made manifest to Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water” (John 1:31). Jesus’ baptism was an official introduction of the Messiah to Israel, with public, divine endorsement.
  6. John came (baptising) “in the way of righteousness” (Matt 21:32). Baptism—and on this occasion, Jesus’ baptism—was an assent to that way. He left an example for us to follow in that way.
  7. Acknowledgement of John’s teaching, and submission in baptism “justified God” (Luke 7:29). Jesus accepted and demonstrated that baptism acknowledged the righteousness of God.
  8. Submitting to John’s baptism involved accepting (not rejecting) “the counsel (purpose) of God” (Luke 7:30). Weymouth: “But the Pharisees and expounders of the Law have frustrated God’s purpose as to their own lives, by refusing to be baptized”. So, our Lord accepted the will of God in that regard, and so have we.
  9. Jesus’ baptism by John demonstrated his complete faith in God’s grace and salvation. God will raise him from the dead!

The result of Jesus’ submission to the ordinance of baptism was immediate public divine approval. Matthew gives the account (Matt 3:16-17): “And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him (note John 3:34): And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

When we compare the gospel accounts, there seem to be two divine declarations:

  • One statement to Christ, “Thou art my beloved son, in whom (in thee) I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22).
  • One statement to the people, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17).

So, John’s ministry ended, and Jesus’ ministry commenced. We know the saying: “Begin as you mean to continue”. This Jesus did.

His baptism by John demonstrated:

  • his submission and obedience to the Father,
  • his oneness with his people,
  • the coming death and resurrection which would mark the triumphant fulfillment of his work and be the ultimate declaration of God’s righteousness.

Each week we meet to remember and to rejoice in that work. And to be thankful that we have acknowledged it in baptism, and remember it in bread and wine. How wonderfully he both began and completed that great work of salvation.