The Voice Crying in the Wilderness (3)
Why did such unprecedented and consistently large crowds come, in the providence of God, to hear John the Baptist? Right at the start, we should note that it had nothing to do with John’s miracles. People flocked to Christ and His apostles in part because of the signs they wrought, but it was not so with John the Baptist. He did not perform any mighty wonders or even a single sign for, as John 10:41 states, "John did no miracle." One wonders how the Pentecostals seek to explain this. Maybe John did not have enough faith! Perhaps he did not have enough of the Holy Spirit? Yet John the Baptist was filled with the Spirit from his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15). Even in biblical times, when many in the extraordinary offices of prophet and apostle did perform miracles, not all the prophets were given these powers. We do not read of Jeremiah or Hosea, for instance, performing a single miracle. John the Baptist was the forerunner and the greatest of the Old Testament prophets in that he heralded and met the Messiah (Matt. 11:11), yet he wrought no miracles.
1) One big factor in the massive crowds that John the Baptist drew was the 400 silent years. Since the death of Malachi, no prophet had risen in Israel for some four centuries. In the British Isles, this would take us back to the days of King James I (1603-1625) or before the Pilgrim Fathers landed in New England! In those 400 years, how earnestly the Jews must have sung Psalm 74:9: "We see not our signs: there is no more any prophet: neither is there among us any that knoweth how long." You say, "What about the inspired utterances of Zacharias, Mary and Elisabeth in Luke 1, or of Simeon in Luke 2?" But these were one-offs and not indicative of their possessing an on-going preaching prophetic office. John the Baptist was the first prophet in the New Testament Scriptures (coming 400 years after the last Old Testament prophet) and John the Apostle was the last prophet in New Testament Scriptures (dying over 1,900 years ago).
2) Another element that helps to explain the large crowds who attended on John’s ministry was the heightening of Messianic expectation. In many passages, the Old Testament predicts not only the coming of God’s kingdom, but also the arrival of an individual Saviour or Redeemer. He is the seed of the woman, Shiloh, the prophet like Moses, the priest after the order of Melchizedek, the son of David, the Branch, the suffering servant, the messenger of the covenant, and so on. For centuries, God’s people had been praying and looking for the Coming One who would bring deliverance. This Messianic expectation was increased towards the end of the 400 silent years by stories about Jesus’ birth and early days. A son was born to a virgin! The Bethlehem shepherds who saw an angel of the Lord, a host of angels and the new born babe; Simeon and Anna with the eight-day-old infant in the temple; those who were astonished at the wisdom of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple—all had spoken about this amazing boy. Moving from Luke 2 to Matthew 2, we have the wise men who followed the star, Herod the Great and the religious leaders in Jerusalem, and the slaughter of the innocents in and around Bethlehem—again, word of these things had gotten out. Add to this the reports of Jesus’ holy life in Nazareth!
3) There was also great expectation about John from his childhood and even before his conception. The people at the temple who saw dumb Zacharias gesticulating that an angel had appeared to him; the birth of John to two very aged, barren saints; Zacharias’ prophecy on the recovery of his voice at the naming of his son—how could these things be kept quiet? Thus we read that "all these sayings were noised abroad throughout all the hill country of Judaea. And all they that heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, What manner of child shall this be!" (Luke 1:65-66).
4) Then there was John himself, living alone for many years in the deserts (80). He forewent the priesthood and temple service. His food and clothing were also unusual. He dressed in camel hair, a rough garment worn by prophets (Zech. 13:4; II Kings 1:8). His diet consisted of locusts and wild honey, and never any product of the vine. John stood out with his very long hair because of his life-long Nazarite vow.
5) Furthermore, there was the location of John’s ministry: the wilderness (Luke 3:2). Admittedly, it meant that people had to journey some distance to get to him. But John’s location was unique and solemn, and this too served to draw the crowds.
6) Vast numbers were drawn to John because of his special activities (Luke 3:3). First, there was John’s water baptism: a unique, once-for-all, initiatory rite. Second, there was his preaching, which was especially earnest, sincere, forthright and bold. There had been no such preaching in Israel for centuries so crowds flocked to hear him.
7) Many heard John’s testimony (John 1:23) that his coming was in fulfilment of prophecy: "As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight" (Mark 1:2-3). The "prophets" here are Malachi (3:1) and Isaiah (40:3). This too increased interest in his ministry.
Together, the reasons given above help explain why multitudes came to John the Baptist. We ought also to remember that the Most High willed that Israel know about John and hear his message because he was the forerunner who heralded the coming of God’s incarnate Son. John’s ministry could not be a secret known only to a few.
Next time, Lord willing, we shall consider the wonderful message about the Messiah that was declared by that voice crying in the wilderness (Luke 3:3-6). Rev. A.Stewart, Pastor, Covenant PRC, Ballymena, N.Ireland
- Volume: 15
- Issue: 8
Rev. Angust Stewart (Wife: Mary)
Ordained - 2001
Pastorates: Covenant Protestant Reformed Church of Ballymena, Northern Ireland - 2001Website: www.cprf.co.uk/
Address7 Lislunnan Road
State or ProvinceCo.Antrim
Zip CodeBT42 3NR
Telephone(01144) 28 25 891851