John the Baptist

King Herod heard about this, for Jesus' name had become well known. Some were saying, 'John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.'

Others said, 'He is Elijah.'

And still others claimed, 'He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago.'

But when Herod heard this, he said, 'John, the man I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!'

For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, whom he had married. For John had been saying to Herod, 'It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife.' So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.

Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests.

The king said to the girl, 'Ask me for anything you want, and I'll give it to you.' And he promised her with an oath, 'Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.'

She went out and said to her mother, 'What shall I ask for?'

'The head of John the Baptist,' she answered.

At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: 'I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.'

The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John's head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother. On hearing of this, John's disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb. (Mar 6:14–29)

Herod Antipas

News about Jesus had spread throughout Galilee and people were wondering who this miracle worker was.

Some thought Elijah had come back to life, which was understandable since many prophets in the Old Testament had performed miracles—Elijah and Elisha being notable examples. Herod, however, was convinced that John the Baptist, whom he'd beheaded, had been raised from the dead.

Mark tells us that Jesus didn't begin his public ministry until John had been put in prison (Mar 1:14). John was arrested and imprisoned by Herod, but it wasn't the Herod who had ordered the killing of the infants after our Lord's birth (Mat 2:13–18)—that was Herod the Great.

This was Herod Antipas, one of his sons, who became ruler of Galilee after his father's death. But he was still part of the Herodian dynasty which ruled in Palestine for nearly a century and was notorious for its cunning, family brawls and gross immorality.

Trials and testings

Elizabeth (John the Baptist's mother) and Mary (the mother of Jesus) were relatives (Luk 1:36), although we don't know how they were related. They obviously knew each other well because Mary went to see Elizabeth as soon as the angel had left her (Luk 1:38–40).

No indication is given, however, that John recognized Jesus when they met at the Jordan (Joh 1:29–34), which suggests they'd been brought up separately.

Normally the longer God takes to prepare someone he is going to use, the greater their ministry. Their preparation usually involves years of trials and testings:

Deserts, in the Bible, symbolize places of testing and refining, primarily because they are places of heat. When the Refiner of Metals applies heat to our lives, hidden impurities rise to the surface and can be removed (Mal 3:3).

No refining was needed in our Lord's life of course but even he was tested, by temptation, in the desert, for forty days before commencing his ministry.

A test is a procedure designed to establish the quality, performance or suitability of an object or person. To be our Saviour Jesus had to resist all temptation—even extreme temptation. He did that in the desert and, after his testing, he left in the power of the Spirit (Luk 4:14).

In order to minister a person must be anointed. God can anoint anyone at anytime and, as soon as they're anointed, they'll begin to minister (1Sa 10:9–11)—God even anointed a donkey in Balaam's day and it spoke the word of God to him (Num 22:26–31).

But godly character, and the wisdom required to handle the anointing and the pressures that come from ministry, take time to develop. God usually prepares a chosen servant by putting them through a series of experiences designed to mould them into the vessel he requires. John the Baptist was one of those vessels and it had taken God thirty years to prepare him.

Jesus said:

'I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist… (Mat 11:11a)

Think about that. No one who had ever lived, prior to John, had a ministry greater than his. His ministry was greater than Moses, Isaiah and all the other prophets. Why? Because not only did he announce the arrival of the one the world had been waiting for since the fall of mankind (Joh 1:29), but he also prepared God's people for his arrival (Mar 1:2–3).

The prophet's ministry

The ministry of the prophet spans both Old and New Testaments. To prophesy, essentially, is to speak a message from God. In the Old Testament those who prophesied were usually prophets, but that's not so in the New Testament.

In the New Testament all believers are told to desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy, because prophecy edifies (builds up and strengthens) the Church (1Co 14:1,4). However, to have the gift of prophecy does not make a person a prophet.

Prophecy is one of the nine spiritual gifts given by the Holy Spirit to believers (1Co 12:7–11), whereas a prophet is one of the five ministry gifts given by Jesus to his Church (Eph 4:11–13). Because of that the office of prophet carries with it a position of leadership and authority.

Paul says that the Church is built on the foundation of apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus being the chief cornerstone (Eph 2:19–20). Prophets are second in importance only to apostles (1Co 12:28), but what does their ministry involve?

The prophet's ministry includes the Old Testament functions of correcting and directing, together with the New Testament functions of strengthening, encouraging and comforting (1Co 14:3).

In the Old Testament, when Israel had a decision to make and sought the face of the Lord, it was usually a prophet who gave the answer. Likewise, when they fell into sin, God sent his prophets to correct them. Prophets also bring warnings from God (Act 11:27–28).

In the Old Testament prophets were known as 'men of God' (1Ki 13:1). They were men who had devoted themselves totally to God and, because of that, they knew the heart of God. They stood in the council of the Lord to hear his word (Jer 23:18) and, to do that, they had to be righteous.

Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place?

He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear by what is false. (Psa 24:3–4)

No one can stand in God's presence if there is sin in their life. Even Herod acknowledged that John the Baptist was a holy and righteous man (Mar 6:20).

Get yourself ready

John's mission was foretold by the prophet Isaiah.

A voice of one calling in the desert: 'Prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.' (Isa 40:3)

The God of Israel was going to visit his people, and his people had to be ready.

I watched a television programme recently concerning a state visit of HM Queen Elizabeth II to the USA. Everywhere she went was prepared for her. Things that were immaculate already were either cleaned, polished, repainted or renewed—even things she would not see.

There was tremendous activity. Why? Because royalty was coming. Queen Elizabeth II is not America's queen, but as I watched the preparations being made I saw a spiritual picture.

Jesus was born king of the Jews (Mat 2:1–2), and now Israel's king was going to visit his people. Is there any wonder, then, that John's message was a message of righteousness? 'Purify your lives; get yourselves ready; your righteous God is coming!'

Jesus came to earth two thousand years ago but, at some undisclosed time in the future, he will return and his Church, at that time, must also be ready (Mat 24:42–44). How will she make herself ready? The Book of Revelation tells us:

Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting:

'Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.' (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.) (Rev 19:6–8)

The Bible says that the Church, the Bride of Christ, will make herself ready for her bridegroom's coming by putting on the fine linen God has given her to wear. The fine linen represents her righteous acts.

Paul tells us to put off our old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires, and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:22–24).

That is something we have to do. We have to make ourselves ready for our bridegroom's return by putting on the wedding garments we've been given. Those garments are our righteous acts which come from lives lived in obedience to God (Rom 6:16).

The wedding banquet

John told the people to produce fruit in keeping with repentance. When they asked him what that meant, he gave them examples (Luk 3:7–14). John was teaching righteousness (Heb 5:13). What is righteousness? Righteousness is doing what is right in the sight of God. The Bible says that he who does what is right is righteous, just as Christ is righteous (1Jo 3:7).

Jesus told his disciples a parable about a wedding banquet which a king prepared for his son (Mat 22:1–14). He said that when the king came into the room to see his guests he noticed a man who wasn't wearing wedding clothes.

He asked him how he'd got in without wearing wedding clothes and the man was speechless. He told his servants to tie the man hand and foot and to throw him outside into the darkness, where there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

What was Jesus teaching in this parable? The wedding banquet is the wedding supper of the Lamb (Rev 19:9). Our heavenly Father is the king and we, the Church, have been invited to it. But we'll only be allowed into the banquet if we're wearing wedding clothes. Those clothes represent our righteous acts.

Righteousness essential for salvation

The New Testament teaches two kinds of righteousness: the righteousness of Christ, which is ours by faith (Rom 3:21–22), and our own righteousness which comes from doing what is right in the sight of God (1Jo 3:7). Both are needed for salvation.

Paul tells us that sin leads to death. But turning from sin and obeying God leads to righteousness; righteousness leads to holiness, and holiness to eternal life (Rom 6:15–22).

There are some who quote Eph 2:8–9 and say that we are saved by grace, through faith in Christ, and not by any works (good deeds, righteous acts) we can do. They say that Jesus has become for us our righteousness, holiness and redemption (1Co 1:30); we have a righteousness that is ours by faith which doesn't come from ourselves (Rom 1:17).

All those statements are true. Salvation is by faith in the righteous life Jesus lived on our behalf, but that doesn't mean our own righteousness is unimportant.

If I'm born again but continue to lie and steal and sleep with my neighbour's wife, do you think God will welcome me into heaven because of my faith in his Son's righteousness? Jesus didn't die so we can carry on sinning; God's grace to us is not a licence to sin. Paul tells us that we've died to sin, how can we live in it any longer (Rom 6:1–2)?

Jesus died to save (Greek: rescue, deliver) us from our sins (Mat 1:21). He came to set us free from our slavery to sin so we can become slaves to righteousness (Rom 6:17–18). Make no mistake about it, Christians who live sinful lives will not go to heaven (Gal 5:19–21). Turning from sin and living righteously is essential for salvation (Jam 1:19–21).

Persecution

John the Baptist was a righteous man who lived a righteous life and was persecuted for speaking the truth (Mar 6:17–18). Our Lord was also persecuted for speaking the truth (Joh 8:39–40).

Jesus told his disciples:

'Remember the words I spoke to you: "No servant is greater than his master". If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also…' (Joh 15:20)

Paul wrote that everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted: it's not a possibility, it's a certainty (2Ti 3:12).

However, Jesus said that if people insult us, persecute us and falsely say all kinds of evil against us because of him, we should rejoice, because great will be our reward in heaven. For in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before us (Mat 5:11–12). John the Baptist was one of those prophets.

John's death

Even though Herod imprisoned John, he protected him and liked to listen to him. His wife, however, wanted him dead. Then the opportune time came.

On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for the important people in his kingdom. His wife's daughter came in and danced for them and pleased them so much that Herod promised to give her anything she asked for, even up to half his kingdom.

What a rash and foolish promise that was. What sane man would promise a child up to half his kingdom for dancing for him? It was total madness.

We are not told, but he probably said those words under the influence of drink and, as he said them, he ensnared himself. His wife was quick to seize the opportunity and got what she wanted—the head of John the Baptist.

Why did it happen? Couldn't God have protected his servant from this evil woman? Of course he could, but martyrdom glorifies God (Joh 21:18–19); and there is an even deeper lesson here. John was the last of the Old Testament prophets, and his death was prophetic.

The Romans had three methods of execution: throwing prisoners to wild animals, crucifixion and beheading. John was beheaded because Herodias asked for his head, but in dying that way he types all who will be beheaded for their adherence to the truth under the reign of the Antichrist (Rev 20:4).

Who will be behind this future persecution of Christians? Satan. Who was behind John's death? Satan.

Jesus said:

'If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.' (Joh 15:18–19)

Who do the people of this world follow? Satan (Eph 2:1–2). Satan hates believers and, in the last days, his hatred of the Church will be manifested as never before.

He will be given power to make war against the followers of Christ, through the beast (the Antichrist), for a period of forty-two months. It will be the greatest persecution of Christians the world has ever seen, and he will behead those who refuse to renounce their allegiance to Jesus (Rev 13:5–8; 20:4).

Satan has always tried to separate believers (the Body of Christ) from their head (Jesus Christ) through persecution (Mar 4:16–17). In the last days, if he cannot do it spiritually, he will do it physically. This will call for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of God's people (Rev 13:10b).

Not every believer will die at that time (Rev 13:9–10a), but those who do will reign with Christ for a thousand years (Rev 20:4).

Conclusion

As God sent a prophet (John the Baptist) to prepare his people for the first coming of his Son, so I believe in the last days God will send prophets to prepare his people (the Church) for the second coming of his Son, and for the events that will precede his coming (Mat 24:1–44). And the message they preach will be a message of righteousness.

Michael Graham
July 2008
Revised May 2012

Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version ®. NIV ®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society.

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