All four gospels apply the same passage from the book of Isaiah to John the Baptist. He was sent to summon Israel to repent “for the remission of sins” in preparation for the arrival of the Messiah and the Kingdom of God. All this was in fulfillment of key messianic promises in the Hebrew Bible.
The citation from Isaiah identifies John as the forerunner, the one like Elijah who is expected before the “day of Yahweh.” He will call the faithful “to prepare the way of the Lord.”
And many of John’s activities parallel aspects of the prophetic ministry of the prophet Elijah – (Malachi 3:1-3, 4:5, Mark 9:12-13, Luke 1:17):
- (Isaiah 40:1-5) – “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak to the heart of Jerusalem, and cry to her that accomplished is her warfare, that accepted is her punishment, that she has received at the hand of Yahweh, according to the full measure of all her sins. A voice of one crying, in the desert, prepare the way of Yahweh, make smooth in the waste plain a highway for our God: Let every valley be exalted, and every mountain and hill be made low, and the steep ground become level, and the chain of hills a plain: Then will be revealed the glory of Yahweh, and all flesh will see it together, for the mouth of Yahweh has spoken!” – (Mark 1:4-8).
IN THE WILDERNESS
John’s ministry is associated with the “wilderness” areas in and around the Jordan river valley to the east and north of Jerusalem. At the river, he proclaimed the “baptism for the remission of sins.”
A passage in the gospel of John claims he baptized many there because “there was much water” since an ample supply was necessary to carry out large-scale immersions – (Matthew 3:1-12, Luke 3:1-11, John 3:23).
The Greek noun rendered “repentance” denotes a “change of mind.” The call is for more than just remorse. The “remission of sins” requires a deliberate change of mind and direction of one’s life.
The Greek word rendered “remission” means “to release, discharge, liberate; to remit” something – (Strong’s – #G859). Elsewhere in Scripture, it is applied to the “discharge” of debt and “divorce” decrees. Thus, repentance discharges the stain of sin and releases the penitent from its dominion and obligations.
ENTIRE NATION SUMMONED
All of Israel was summoned to repent. The gospel of Matthew adds Pharisees and Sadducees to the mix, and the gospel of John includes “priests and Levites.” Hence, representatives from all levels of Jewish society were called by John to repent, including the religious leaders from Jerusalem – (Matthew 3:6, John 1:19).
The description of John as being one “clothed with camel hair and a leather belt” echoes the story of Elijah, who also “wore a garment of hair with a girdle of leather” – (2 Kings 1:1-8).
John’s preaching and actions pointed to the coming Messiah, but it is Jesus who brought the good news of the Kingdom. John’s baptism prepared hearts for the arrival of that kingdom and its King.
The Baptist contrasted himself with the “Coming One” in three ways – Might, Worth, and Mode of Baptism. The Greek adjective rendered “mightier” is used later to describe Jesus as the “mighty one” who binds the “strong man,” namely, Satan – (Mark 3:22-30).
“I am not worthy to unloose the strap of his sandals.” In first-century society, removing another man’s footwear was a menial task normally assigned to slaves and domestic servants.
BAPTISM OF THE SPIRIT
In this way, John portrayed himself as less than worthy to be even the lowliest slave of the “Coming One.” Even his baptism in water was preparatory, not final. And John baptized repentant sinners in water, but the Messiah would “baptize in the Holy Spirit.”
In the Hebrew Bible, the gift of the Spirit is an expectation of the “last days,” the prophesied “promise of the Father” and one of the “blessings of Abraham.” It is the cornerstone of the predicted New Covenant – (Acts 2:38-39, Galatians 2:14, Isaiah 44:3, Ezekiel 36:26-27).
John declared that the Coming One will “baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” In the gospel accounts, Jesus does not abandon water baptism. But his baptism adds something new and significant – The baptism in the Spirit. Thus, his baptism is unique and vastly superior to anything previously experienced.
With John’s announcement, the stage was set for the public unveiling of the Messiah, the Son of God, the Herald of the Kingdom, and the one who would baptize his followers in the Holy Spirit.
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