The Burning and Shining Lamp: John the Baptist

John the Baptist

Jesus used the figure of an oil lamp to speak about the revelation and ministry of John the Baptist. In responding to those Jews who opposed Him, Jesus claimed John’s witness: “You sent a delegation to John, and he testified to the truth. Although I don’t accept human testimony, I say these things so that you can be saved. John was a burning and shining lamp, and, at least for a while, you were willing to celebrate in his light.” (Jn.5:33-35 CEB)

In the Gospel of John, the apostle, introduces the Baptist in the first chapter and records the testimony John gave to the Jewish leaders: “The Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask John who he was. John gave witness to them. He did not try to hide the truth. He spoke to them openly. He said, ‘I am not the Christ.’” (Jn.1:19-20 NIRV). Upon further questioning, the Baptist quotes Isaiah 40:3 as who he was and describes his ministry as the Lord’s forerunner announcing His arrival: “John replied, using the words of Isaiah the prophet. John said, ‘I’m the messenger who is calling out in the desert, Make the way for the Lord straight.'” (Jn.1:23 NIRV). This “making the way straight” refers to the Jewish people’s spiritual condition that they should return to the Lord individually: “Before Jesus came, John preached that we should turn away from our sins and be baptized. He preached this to all Israel.” (Acts 13:24 NIRV).

John the Baptizer would be the “Elijah” sent before the Lord’s advent as announced to John’s father by the angel during the incense offering in the Holy Place: “He will bring many Israelites back to the Lord their God. He will go forth before the Lord, equipped with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will turn the hearts of fathers back to their children, and he will turn the disobedient to righteous patterns of thinking. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Lk.1:16-17 CEB). The angel quotes some of Mal.4:6 and seems to refer to verse 5 also when he mentions John’s ministry: “Look, I am sending you the prophet Elijah before the great and dreadful day of the LORD arrives. His preaching will turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers. Otherwise I will come and strike the land with a curse.” (Mal.4:5-6 NLT). This section in Malachi constitutes the last verses of the Old Testament and seems expectant for the Messiah’s arrival.

Immediately after the revelation of God on the Mount of Transfiguration where Jesus appears glorified with Moses and Elijah speaking with Him, the disciples ask Jesus about the common understanding of the Elijah prophecy in Malachi, and Jesus seems to answer with possibly two Elijahs: “As they went back down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, ‘Don’t tell anyone what you have seen until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’ Then his disciples asked him, ‘Why do the teachers of religious law insist that Elijah must return before the Messiah comes?’ Jesus replied, ‘Elijah is indeed coming first to get everything ready. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, but he wasn’t recognized, and they chose to abuse him. And in the same way they will also make the Son of Man suffer.’ Then the disciples realized he was talking about John the Baptist.” (Mt.17:9-13NLT). This seems to imply three Elijahs, since in The Transfiguration the Old Testament Elijah appeared.

Additionally, Jesus gives testimony to the importance of John and quotes Malachi 3:1: “He is the one written about in Scripture. It says, ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you. He will prepare your way for you.’ What I’m about to tell you is true. No one more important than John the Baptist has ever been born. But the least important person in the kingdom of heaven is more important than he is.” (Mt.11:10-11, Lk.7:28 NIRV). In one way, the Baptist was more important than other prophets because at least in two places in the Old Testament he was foretold.

The fact of John’s preparatory ministry before the Lord’s revelation to Israel also makes him supremely important. John’s message was the same as Jesus’ proclamation but from a different perspective as Jesus describes the general reception both received from the nation: “But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces, who call to their companions and say, ‘We played the flute for you, and you didn’t dance. We mourned for you, and you didn’t lament.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But wisdom is justified by her children [actions].” (Mt.11:16-19 WEB).

John’s parents were told that he would be a Nazarite from birth, thus showing his separation from the world in a very outward, physical manner. John the Baptist would also be filled with the Holy Spirit while still in his mother’s womb: “for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born.” (Lk.1:15 NIV). While John was in his mother Elizabeth’s womb he rejoiced when the virgin Mary, now pregnant with Jesus, greeted his mother: “For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” (Lk.1:44ESV).

The questioning from the Pharisees seems to show that either they expected the Messiah or His forerunner to baptize: “The ones who had been sent were from the Pharisees. They asked him, ‘Why then do you baptize, if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’” (Jn.1:24-25 WEB). This raises the question of what John’s baptism actually signified. Some Bible students believe it pictured the experiences the Israelites went through in the Red Sea crossing and the Jordan River miracles. The idea is that The Prophet who would be like Moses in authority and other aspects needed to have this similarity somehow. Further, it is significant that Jesus’ name is the same as Joshua of the O.T. who took the Israelites into the promised land. In a future post, I plan to show the similarities of Jesus, the promised Prophet to Moses, but will focus on the Baptizer here.

John, of the house of Aaron, seemed to understand or it was revealed to him that the sacrificial system of the Jews was about to be fulfilled. Notice that he announced Jesus, not in the role of “the Son of David,” (and therefore King) though Jesus was David’s promised son, but as Jesus the substitute, for that was what the sacrificial system was all about: “The next day, he saw Jesus coming to him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who is preferred before me, for he was before me.’” (Jn.1:29-30 WEB). John also knew of Jesus’ divinity from this statement and Christ’s greater role of Savior of the “world.”

In another way, very possibly, that John recognized this ministry of Jesus’ sacrifice was in the words John used against the shallow professions of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and much of the crowds who came to be baptized of him: “He said therefore to the multitudes who went out to be baptized by him, ‘You offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’” (Lk.3:7 WEB). This echoes the words of Gen.3:15: “I will put hatred between you and the woman. Your children and her children will be enemies. Her son will crush your head. And you will crush his heel.” (NIRV). In this passage, God both pronounces a curse on the serpent (the Devil) and promises redemption for humanity by the Seed of the woman (virgin birth). By calling the Jewish leaders and the fickle crowd viper offspring, was John prophesying to the nailing of Jesus’ heel in crucifixion? I plan to post a more detailed discussion of Gen. 3:15 in a future post, but, the Baptist’s words seem a striking fulfillment.

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