12: John the Baptist
When a king in the ancient Near East wanted to make a journey through his land, he would send one of his servants ahead to prepare the people for his coming. This forerunner would cry out to the people that the king was on his way. If the roads along which the king was to travel needed repairs, this could be done in time for his coming. That way the people would be ready to properly greet their sovereign.
The time had almost come for King Jesus to go out to His people. John, the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, was to be the forerunner announcing His coming. He would be the royal herald who would prepare the people for the advent of the Messiah.
John had lived for years as a hermit in the wilderness, far away from people. During the daytime he wandered under the searing sun and sought his simple food—locusts and wild honey that he found in cracks in the rocks. At night, as he lay down somewhere in a cave or under the open sky, he could hear the cries of beasts of prey nearby.
John was safe under God's protection. God's voice had spoken to him in the lonely solitude and called him to be a great prophet. A desire to serve the Messiah burned in his heart.
When God's command to begin the work finally came, he hurried eagerly to the edge of the wilderness. He went to a spot where travelers often crossed the Jordan River. There he cried out to the people that the King was coming. He went to the people dressed just as he was dressed when he was alone. He was bareheaded and wore a rough garment of camel's hair which he fastened around his waist with a leather belt.
A herald? No, he didn't look much like the herald of an earthly king. But that's not what John was.
He did not cry out to people that they had to repair the roads in their district. He told them that they should change their sinful hearts when the King came. They would have to become new people, people who hated sin, people with hearts full of faith, people eager to receive the Messiah.
"Repent!" he cried out. "Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand!"
People came from far and near. They crowded around John on the riverbank and listened in amazement to his preaching. Was the Messiah really coming? Was the One for whom the people had waited so long really as near as John said?
Some people who believed also knew that they were not yet in any condition to receive and welcome the Redeemer. They came to John penitently and told him how much evil they had done. They confessed their sins to God and to John.
John knew what to do with them: he baptized them in the name of the Lord. He took them into the water of the same river in which Naaman the Syrian was healed of his leprosy centuries before. There he dunked them. Just as the water washed the dirt from their bodies, it cleansed their souls of sin. That was what baptism signified.
Just as the people who were baptized went under the water, their old, sinful nature would go under. And just as they arose again from the water, new life would arise within them because they had repented and turned to God.
The news about John's preaching raced through the land. "A prophet has arisen!" people cried to each other. "He says that the Messiah is coming! He cries out for repentance!"
People streamed toward the Jordan from all sides. It had been 400 years since the voice of a prophet was last heard in Israel. Fishermen and farmers, shepherds from Judea, scholars from Jerusalem, nobles and poor people—a great host crowded around the prophet.
They saw him standing in his humble garment of camel's hair. They saw what a skinny, bony figure he cut.
They saw his dark, sparkling eyes.
The prophet looked a little like Elijah. He was just as powerful, courageous and fiery as Elijah when he proclaimed the Word of the Lord. "Repent," he cried out, "for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand! The axe has been laid to the root of the tree. Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire!"
The people understood these strange, threatening words, and they trembled with fear. Indeed, when the Messiah came, He would be a stern gardener. The people well knew how little good fruit they had brought forth in their lives. They had thought only of themselves, of their riches and honor. They had lived sinfully and forgotten about God.
"What must we do?" they cried in despair.
John knew their loveless, self-seeking hearts. Therefore he answered, "Repent! Anyone with two suits of clothing must share with those who have nothing. Anyone who has enough to eat must share with those who have nothing." That was how John preached.