4. What was John the Baptist’s role in redemptive history? Why was it significant?
In this question we will be considering the purpose and goal of John the Baptist’s ministry in redemptive history. This role is eluded too in John’s response to his inquisitors and it is this exchange we will be considering in the following verses of our text:
22So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” 24(Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) 25They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, 27even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
After dealing primarily with the context of this scene and the motivations of the inquisitors we now turn to John the Baptist and consider his role in God’s drama of redemption. We will begin our assessment of John the Baptist by first examining his response to the inquisitors in this scene. His initial response is a quotation taken from the prophetic writings of Isaiah, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord…’”It is evident from this response that a major role of John the Baptist was one of preparation. This is further reinforced when reviewed in the context of the original writings, which would be beneficial for us to review at this time:
3 A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.5 And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” 6A voice says, “Cry!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. 7The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass. (Isaiah 40:1-7)
Although it is evident that either John the Baptist or the apostle are paraphrasing, the sense of Isaiah 40:3-4 remains consistent in our own text. However, reviewing the quote within the original context helps to provide a more robust understanding of what our first century audience would have understood about the role of John the Baptist. First, we can observe that the implications of this quote infer that at this period of redemptive history things had to be “crooked”, thus the need for them to be “straightened”. Moreover, the imagery of the valleys being lifted up and the mountain/hills being lowered implies that a “leveling” was necessary. Thus, we can reasonable assume that God is revealing through the prophet that a condition of injustice would need to be corrected or begin being rectified prior to the advent of the Messiah. When we consider our Lord’s interaction with the religious leaders of His day it is evident that this injustice could possibly be the unnecessary burdens they were laying on the lay people of that day. This would explain the location of John the Baptist’s ministry being out in the wilderness as opposed to the religious center in Jerusalem. This concept of leveling is repeated by the prophet in Isaiah 49 after describing the ministry of God’s servant in verses 1-10 in verse 11 he indicates, “And I will make all my mountains a road, and my highways shall be raised up.” Thus, this great “leveling” that will be accomplished by the Servant of God will begin its preparation with His forerunner. The inquisitors may have been surprised that in this instance, appeal was not made to the prophetic writings of Malachi. However, this helps us to understand that John’s ministry was characteristic of the whole corpus of the prophetic witness. This point is picked up in the following comment by Michael Horton:
John the Baptist is not only the “forerunner” in view but stands in their prophetic line as prosecutors of God’s covenant curses. Defending the covenant and sharply rebuking its violators, John the Baptist prepares a people for Jesus as the shadows of the law prepare the way for the reality of the gospel and the old covenant prepares to give way to the new. …John stands in the river, baptizing for repentance, answering the people’s questions about his identity (“Are you the promised prophet?”) by extending one last prophetic finger toward the Coming one. 68
As Horton points out John the Baptist stands in the line of the prophets who were God’s covenant prosecutors pronouncing to the people the curses for their disloyalty. He goes on to rightly identify John as the “last” of a long line of prophets that God had sent to His people appealing to them to turn back to Him. We will come back to this point before we conclude this question, however let us first move onto the subsequent discussion in our specific text.The inquisition responds to this quotation as if they were perturbed with his elusive response directly challenging his authority to baptize. It is implicit from there response that only someone with the right credentials was authorized to administer this sacrament. As we see in our text, John indicates that the Servant of the one who authorized him would soon validate his credentials. At this point we would like to examine the significance of the sign of baptism and return to our comments from the question 2 answer, which included reference to the synoptic gospels. Specifically we have in mind Matthew 3:11, which states “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John was proclaiming that two subsequent baptisms would occur with the emergence of the Messiah. The first is easily identified as the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which is manifested in the book of Acts during the Pentecost experiences. Some may also assume that the baptism of fire is in apposition with the baptism of the Holy Spirit. However, many biblical scholars have pointed out that this is not the case and the baptism of fire is distinct from the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, the baptism of fire is referencing a coming judgment that fits the overall context of the preceding and succeeding verses. This point is supported in the following comments by Geerhardus Vos:
The ‘fire’ specified as one of the two elements in which the Coming One will baptize is undoubetedly the fire of judgment, not, therefore, a synonym, but the opposite of the Holy Spirit. Mark omits reference to the ‘fire,’ and names only the Holy Spirit. If the Holy Spirit stands for the salvation-element, the advent as coinciding, a feature in which likewise he reproduces the Old Testament standpoint. The phraseology of this earlier stage of the preaching is largely derived from Mal 4, that in which the Evangelists speak of it from Is 40. 69
Furthermore it is supported in the following comments by Meredith Kline:
Baptism symbolizes the divine judgment ordeal and, indeed, the curse of death. The outstanding water ordeals of the Old Testament are identified in the New Testament as baptisms. (On the Noahic Deluge ordeal see 1 Pet 3:20-22; and for the Red Sea ordeal see 1 Cor 10:1,2.) John the forerunner describes Messiah’s impending judgment of the covenant community as a baptism and he interpreted his own ministry of water baptism as symbolic of that (Matt 3:11, 12). Also, Jesus referred to his death on the cross as a baptism (Luke 12:50). 70
In Vos’ comments there is an interesting connection that is eluded too between John the Baptist’s words and the prophet Isaiah. It is possible that the point that is being made is between the reference in Isaiah 40 the “people are like grass” with the Baptist’s comments in Matthew 3:12, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Although we would hesitate to assert the connection boldly, it appears to be a reasonable explanation of the meaning in the prophet Isaiah. As Kline points out, baptism as a sign symbolizes judgment and goes on to rightly draw the connection with Christ’s own reference to His death as a “baptism”. Moreover, the reference to Noah and the Red Sea add strength and support to the conclusion that baptism symbolizes judgment. This judgment is executed upon unbelievers and covenant breakers, however carries the same symbolism when associated with believers. For, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Rom 6:3) Our baptism into Christ identifies us and symbolizes our being united with His “baptism” on the cross (Rom 6:4). However, the believer does not receive the judgment he/she deserves it is imputed to Christ who bears it for them.
We have taken the time to demonstrate how the sign that John was administering in the desert was a symbol of judgment. This was an appropriate symbolism for John and his ministry, which we mentioned above, was the last in the line of the Old Covenant prophets. Considering the parable of vineyard (Luke 20:9-18), John would fit in as the third and final slave that was sent to the tenants before the landlord sent his son. This was John’s role in the history of redemption, which would reveal that the tenants would inevitably reject the landlord and kill the son. Thus, he sought to warn the people of this impending judgment, call them to repentance and point them to Christ the promised one who would crush the head of the serpent. Those who heeded the call to repentance then underwent a sign that symbolized the judgment to come and awaited the Bridegroom to be revealed. And as was foretold (1 Pet 1:20) the Lord of glory was rejected by His own (John 1:11), who proclaimed “His blood be on us and our children” (Matt 27:25). These words were fulfilled as the blood of the Lord of glory incurred the judgment of the subsequent generation when Jerusalem was destroyed. As John proclaimed “the axe is laid at the root and the tree that does not bear fruit would be cast into the fire” (Matt 3:11). When our Lord appeared the tree was found to be lacking fruit (Matt 21:18-19) and thus underwent a devastating judgment.
As the holy covenant community of the Lord, Israel’s purpose was to preserve the “seed” that would eventually crush the head of the serpent. Moreover, during the theocratic period Israel was a foreshadowing of Christ being called God’s Son. (Hosea 11:1) Throughout their history, however they had failed to keep the covenant they made with the Lord on Sinai and underwent exile from the land. By God’s grace they were restored to the Promised Land and sought during the time of Ezra to renew the Sinaitic covenant (Neh 9-10). As is evident from history, God did not allow a total restoration of the theocratic kingdom manifested in the nation being ruled by foreigners. As they sought zealously to do everything in their power by purifying the community in order to regain God’s favor, they missed the signs of the times. Starting with John the Baptist, God began to prepare the way for the Promised Seed who had a mission to fulfill the covenant on behalf of His people. John was a witness who testified to this coming and proclaimed to the people to repent and be spared from a coming judgment.