John the Baptist: Prophet of Repentance

Like any sane individual, I hate alarm clocks. I mean what sick mind looks forward to being roused from a wonderful dream by being bombarded with a clanging alarm. However, such infuriating tones serve a purpose: to wake up an otherwise peaceful sleeper. John the Baptist served God’s people in a manner similar to an alarm clock. He was sent by God to rouse God’s people to the truth that the time had come for the Messiah to bring His Kingdom to fruition.

John the Baptist is the transitional figure between the Old and New Covenant. His entire ministry was one of preparation for the coming Messiah. His ministry was foretold in the very end of the Old Testament in Malachi 3 and 4 and He adorns the beginning of the Gospels. Although John the Baptist is found in the New Testament, he properly belongs to the Old order. In a sermon on the Gospel of Luke, the late Dr. R. C. Sproul noted as much when he said, “John was the last of the Old Testament prophets…[but he] was still on the outside, looking in.” John’s entire ministry was designed to set the stage for the coming of the Christ.

Much of the New Testament teaches this very truth. We can consider the Lord Jesus’ own analysis of the ministry of John the Baptist in Matthew 11:7-14. In these verses Jesus refers to John as “more than a prophet”. Jesus left nothing to the imagination when he quoted Malachi 3:1 as he informed the crowds of John’s status: “This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’” (Matt. 11:10 ESV) Later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus again made it clear that John the Baptist came in the spirit of Elijah: “‘But I tell you that Elijah has already come’ …. Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.” (Matt. 17:12-13 ESV)

What does it mean that John came in the spirit of Elijah? It does not mean that John the Baptist and Elijah were the same person. Instead, both men came with the anointing of the Holy Spirit to prepare God’s people for His holy Word. They had a unique ministry in preparing the people of God for the Word of God. They both had to deliver God’s inspired Word in a time of great spiritual darkness where it appeared as if God’s promises had seemingly been forgotten. 

Malachi had prophesied that before God came to His people, Elijah would return. This arrival of the prophet of God would be the signal to the people of God that the LORD’s return was imminent. This return was not merely a calendar event. Instead, this prophetic call was to be a call to repentance. This is why John’s ministry has one central focus: calling the people of God to repent. Matthew wrote, “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” (Matt. 3:1 ESV). Elijah had called the people of God to the very same end (cf. 1 Kings 18:21).

No matter how marvelous John’s ministry was it was still part of the former system. John was passing the baton from the Old Covenant over to the New in the person and work of Christ. He was a faithful herald, but not the message itself. He remains the most important figure in all of the Old Covenant according to Christ, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.” (Matt. 11:11). All of this makes sense since he prepared the people of God for the Son of God.

But Jesus doesn’t finish his message with the greatness of John. He continued forward in a most unexpected way. After speaking of the accolades of John, he then shifted towards those participants of the New Covenant when He said, “Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matt. 11:11 ESV)

How can this be the case? We stand in a privileged position on this side of redemptive history. We know the name of the Messiah. We have all of His special revelation in Scripture. We have His very Spirit within us as believers. We have all the fruits of redemption applied to us. We are in a uniquely privileged position on this side of Christ’s Resurrection, Ascension, Session, and His sending of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

The ministry of John the Baptist leaves us then with four reminders. First, John’s ministry is a reminder to us of God’s faithfulness to keep His promises. Second, we are also reminded that repentance is not absent from those yearning for Christ’s presence but a marker of His people. Third, we are reminded of the necessity of boldness in speaking God’s Word in the midst of a wicked generation. Lastly, we are reminded that God may even bid us to die for the sake of faithfulness as we see John die a martyr’s death. May these lessons and more guide us as we have opportunity to reflect on God’s faithfulness to keep His Word and use ordinary people in extraordinary ways.