Preaching through John’s gospel, I have paused to meditate upon the person and work of John the Baptist. Here was one who came as a “witness, to bear witness about the Light” (Jn 1:6). Consistently (1:7, 14, 20) we are told that the Baptist was not the Light but a witness to the Light. The biblical record elsewhere tells us that John came to “prepare the way of the LORD” (Is 40:3) and would be the messenger of the Lord for that very purpose (Mal 3:1). The Baptist’s ministry has several important factors, each of which contribute to our understanding of the gospel.
First, John’s ministry was a ministry of comfort. I know we do not normally think of his ministry in such terms. John is often portrayed as abrasive, one who cared little or nothing about what others thought of him. Not exactly the picture of comfort, you might say. Yet, John was a prophet of God, a messenger of the Lord, labouring at the cusp of the old and new covenants. The words of Isaiah 40 (which prophesied John’s work) are spoken in the context of great judgment on Judah, particularly upon Hezekiah’s boastful pride in his treasure and storehouses (Is 39). However, the promise of comfort and redemption closely follow these words of impending judgment: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God, Speak tenderly to Jerusalem … A voice cries “In the wilderness, prepare a way for the Lord” (Is 40:1-2). The message of and preparation by John, was for the purpose of readying of Israel to receive the long-awaited and foretold Comforter of the people – the Messiah.
Isaiah prophesied that John would exercise his ministry in wilderness and desert locations – both metaphors of ruin and desolation. This catastrophe had, historically, come upon Judah in Isaiah’s time, and, spiritually, in the inter-testamental period on all of Israel. Calvin describes John as a “minister of consolation” and one who “lifted up the banner of joy” for the people of God (Commentary on Isaiah, Baker Books, 205). We ought not to think of John simply in the terms of the summary of his message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2). Rather, John’s message was much richer and more comforting to those who were willing to accept it. He came “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk 3:3).
Yes, John’s ministry was certainly preparatory for the Christ, but it contained the very elements of Christ’s ministry – the need for repentance and the comfort of sins forgiven (cf Lk 3:3 and Mk 1:15). He pointed to the long-awaited One, in whom the sins of all those who trusted in this One would finally be atoned for.
In Isaiah 40, it is God who provides this comfort, though it is a comfort mediated by the messenger of God. John’s ministry and baptism of repentance and forgiveness prepared the way for the Comforter that God himself was providing. This comfort from God was seen in two ways. First, Christ came at the bidding of the Father to redeem those in exile, thus the remedy for sorrow was provided by God. Second, the comforter was also God himself, reminding us that in Isaiah, it was God who spoke tender words of comfort to His people. E J Young wrote, “True comfort consists in setting forth the entire truth concerning the people’s tragic condition and in causing them to see God as their only hope … Indeed, apart from that preceding declaration of judgment, the words of comfort are without much point”(The Book of Isaiah Vol III, Eerdmans, 19). Such was the context and message of the Baptist’s ministry. He was sent to bring the people to a place of repentance, from which they might be ready for the comfort of their Messiah. God was their only hope, and He would provide comfort to them. This was John’s calling.
In a similar manner, if we are to receive the gospel, we must first be confronted by our sin. There is no place, in human experience, for peace where there is not enmity; we have no need of rescue if we do not sense the danger; we cannot be comforted without sorrow.
But the Baptist’s message is for us! Be comforted! Though you were helpless, help has come! Though you were hopeless, hope has drawn near to you! Though you were enslaved and in captivity to the curse and power of sin, liberty has been proclaimed to the captive! Whereas you stood under judgment, in the gospel you are vindicated and righteous! Where there was sorrow, there is now comfort, for Christ Jesus has redeemed you, and cleansed you from sin’s guilt and power. The debt is erased; you are clothed in righteousness and welcomed into the divine family. This is God’s doing – not yours. Not even our greatest work could effect so great a salvation. “Comfort, yes comfort”, says our Lord to us.
Second, John was also a witness to the Light, and he came to prepare the way for the light. We might ask ourselves this question: why was there a need for one to “prepare the way”, and what does this teach us about the gospel?
In my home country of South Wales, there is an abandoned coal pit (called a colliery), in the town of Blaenavon, in Trofean. Locally, it is known as Big Pit. It now opens its doors as a museum. When the pit was functional, not only young boys and men worked there, but horses were employed as well. These were not the usual “pit-ponies,” but full-grown horses. Such were needed because of the weight and quality of Welsh coal. These horses lived underground. They were stabled underground and worked constantly. Only once a year were they brought up to the surface and exposed to the light of day. Exposed to the brightness of the daylight, the horses went wild. The whole town would gather to see their annual release and manic behaviour. They had grown too accustomed to darkness and could not endure the light.
Similarly, Israel was a place of profound darkness. Isaiah prophesied “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined” (9:2). The spiritual darkness of Israel was as profound as the darkness of the depths of Big Pit: four hundred years of God’s silence – not one messenger of hope or comfort for the people. Yes! There was profound darkness – not merely a lack of “widespread revelation in those days” (1 Sam 3:1). There was no revelation at all. Well did the prophets speak of the people walking and dwelling in darkness.
But God comprehends our human frailty. This God, who is as rich in mercy as He is replete with wisdom, sent one to prepare the way of the Lord. That preparation consisted in slowly drawing out those dwelling in the profound darkness of the Jewish night. They were provided a candle, or a lamp, prior to the dawning radiant and glorious Sun of Righteousness (Mal 4:2). They had dwelt in darkness too long. Just as the horses who dwelt in Big Pit could not bear the intensity of the midday sun, the people of John’s day could not bear the intensity of the radiance of Christ’s glory. John the Baptist, whom Jesus called a “burning shining lamp” (Jn 5:35) provided a mediated light. Again, not the true Light, but a soft and partial light, that those coming from the darkness, may gradually (and by repentance), see the true Light for who and what He was. John was an illuminating foretaste of the Messiah who himself was the “true Light which enlightens everyone” (Jn 1:9)
The gospel is light to those in darkness. The light of God is “unapproachable” (1 Tim 6:16) and when God reveals himself openly (though never fully) we are left undone (Isaiah 6:5). Yet, this is a necessary component of the gospel – the light that leads to life is the light which first illuminates our sin. Even the thoughts of our hearts are not left hidden by the piercing light of God. The apostle John emphasises the effects of sin on our lives (as does all Scripture) by describing it as an existence of darkness. It is an existence in which it is impossible to see one’s way; an existence where danger and menace lurks in otherwise serene situations. It is an existence of confusion and chaos. In short, it is a hopeless existence.
But the gospel is light which leads to life by penetrating that darkness. Or, perhaps we should say that the life that Christ possesses intrinsically is the light to all men (Jn 1:4). This light shines in the darkness of the world and of our hearts and opens our eyes to the truth of Christ. For Christ is the “light of the world” that “whoever follows [him] … will have the light of life” (Jn 8:12). If it is life you are seeking, abundant and eternal life, then Christ Jesus is your only source. If you have dwelt in the darkness of sin, or of false religion or selfish philosophies, then you have no light but only darkness. If you habitually live gratified by the lusts of the eyes and flesh and the pride of life, then you have only hopeless darkness that leads to death. But Christ has come. The light has shined and continues to shine. Your sin-darkened existence can be forever and radically changed by trusting in the Light that is Jesus Christ. Believe on him and be saved.
Two other concluding thoughts: our Lord stated, “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness” (Jn 8:12). The gospel of Christ frees you from not only the death-penalty of sin, but from the death-power of sin as well. Those who receive Christ are filled with his Holy Spirit, and are enabled to turn their back on sin. Yes, we may say a categorical “NO!” to the horrors of our past. And when we do fall into sin and offend God, we may repent, calling on him not as our judge, but as our Father who loves us beyond measure. And so, in seeking to live a holy life, we fulfil the command of our Lord, who taught that WE are also the light of the world (Matt 5:14). As such, we are to “let our light shine” to the end that men will see our “good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven” (5:16). We shine as lights, because we are united to the true light, and thus in shining, we take part in the work of Christ in this world – bringing glory to our Father in heaven
Secondly, we must also be mindful that the first coming of Christ was a veiling of the true intensity of His glorious light. His second coming will not be so. No longer will we think of the babe in the manger, of the bleeding, suffering Servant. Rather the world will be confronted with the “one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.” (Rev 1:13-16). At his coming, those who in this life have not received Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour, will “fall at his feet as though dead” (Rev 1:17). But those who have accepted the light and comfort of Christ will rejoice at the voice which says, “Fear not” (Rev 1:17), “Well done thou good and faithful servant… enter into the joy of your Master” (Matt 25:23).