In Liverpool, Pennsylvania, near the Susquehanna River, lies a little cemetery. One wet, gray afternoon, I was there as a new pastor to say a few words in memory of a church member’s infant daughter. The baby had been just a few days old, and her casket was the size of a shoebox. I watched as the mother and father held the tiny box and each other before kneeling and putting it into the ground. I had never buried a baby before—and I will never forget that experience.
My pain was even more acute when I read about Kyle Bosworth, former football player for the Jacksonville Jaguars and Dallas Cowboys. His wife, Kara, was due with their second child in early April 2020. During delivery, the baby experienced shoulder dystocia, becoming lodged in the birth canal and deprived of oxygen. After minutes that must have felt like hours, medical personnel freed the baby and rushed him to a special care unit in the hospital. Tragically, six days later, they took little McCoy off life support. As I looked at the pictures of Kyle holding his newborn son, face pressed against the brain-dead baby, I saw my own son. My chest hurt, and tears began to flow. I asked myself, to what extent are we called to feel the pain of someone else?
Scripture declares, “ ‘Among those born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he’ ” (Luke 7:28, NKJV). William Simmons comments, “Apart from Jesus Christ, John the Baptist is probably the most theologically significant figure in the Gospels. As was the case with Jesus,” Scripture meticulously recorded his birth; Divine intervention and an angelic proclamation marked his entrance into the world.1
John first met Jesus at an early age. While still a fetus, John leaped when the Holy Spirit gave him the recognition of the presence of the Messiah. The incident so impressed Doctor Luke that he recorded it twice (Luke 1:41, 44). Although he lived his formative years in obscurity in the desert, Simmons declares that John the Baptist’s public ministry ended nearly four hundred years of prophetic silence. He came in the spirit and with the message of Elijah. His was the voice crying in the wilderness preparing the way for the coming Messiah. In this sense, his ministry marked the culmination of the law and the prophets but heralded the inbreaking of the kingdom of God. Simmons concludes, “John was truly a transitional figure, forming the link between the Old and New Testaments.”2
A message of preparation
The Baptist’s role had deep prophetic roots, first announced in Isaiah 40:3–5 and repeated in the Gospels: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. . . . And all people will see God’s salvation’ ” (Luke 3:4–6, NIV).
Before giving his prophetic promise of the one who would introduce Jesus, the prophet cried out for the comfort of his people. John’s prophesied role would have both an eschatological and a temporal impact.
His call for his listeners to repent because the kingdom of heaven was near galvanized many. He was straightforward in his summons to turn from sin and selfishness because eternity looms before all of us. Later, John the disciple used “beloved” to address his audience. But not the preacher on Jordan’s bank; he employed the strongest negative label appearing in the New Testament:
“ ‘vipers!’ ” (v. 7, NIV).
For decades, the forerunner of Jesus had grown and studied in semiquarantine. Now he was attracting more listeners than the Jewish leaders did to their services. The theme of the preacher on the bank of the Jordan was one of change,3 and it caught the attention of everyone standing on the banks of that river. John was calling everyone, including national and spiritual leaders and Roman soldiers, as children of the devil.
John declared, “ ‘Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? . . . The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire’ ” (vv. 7–9, NIV). His challenge led his listeners to consider what would happen in their future. Luke says that they “were waiting expectantly” (v. 15, NIV).
Such apocalyptic preaching, centered on the Lamb of God, did not raise the question “When is the end of the world?” but “What should I do now?”
John was an end-time prophet. He conducted his ministry with eschatological authority. When he taught that judgment was at hand, it caused people to think about what awaited them.
A message of proclamation
And it was that preaching—of judgment,4 of a coming God with His kingdom—that changed their immediate behavior. Luke reports the crowd as asking, “ ‘What should we do then?’ ” (v. 10, NIV). That is, in light of the coming Messiah and the establishment of His kingdom, what should we do?
“John answered, ‘Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same’ ” (v. 11, NIV). Speaking to tax collectors, he said, “ ‘Don’t collect any more than you are required to’ ” (vv. 12, 13 , NIV). As for soldiers, “ ‘Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay’ ” (v. 14).
Such apocalyptic preaching, centered on the Lamb of God, did not raise the question “When is the end of the world?” but “What should I do now?” A message of the end of the world, of prophecy being fulfilled, of judgment, did not create a community out of touch with the world but one that led its members to examine their personal involvement in the world.
We find confirmation of this in an oft-quoted, first-century, Jewish-Roman historian, Flavius Josephus, who wrote that John the Baptist “commanded the Jews to exercise virtue; both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God; and so to come to baptism. . . . [Many] others came in crouds [sic] about him; for they were very greatly moved . . . by hearing his words.”5
The voice preparing the way for the first advent of Jesus, faithfully preaching the eschatological message to every class and culture, raised up a community intent on making a difference in the world around them by helping the hurting and caring for those in need. Such a result will surprise some, as many will conclude that such preaching only will bring to being a people “too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good.”6
It was this very message that mobilized my community of faith, the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, to establish hospitals, schools, and community service centers. Could it be that the message that pointed the world to the coming Messiah is the same message to be given before that same Jesus comes back in the clouds—with the same results?7
Matthew tells us that when John the Baptist was in prison, his disciples went to ask Jesus if He was the “ ‘Coming One, or do we look for another?’ ” (Matt. 11:3, NKJV). Although not replying immediately, Jesus finally said, “ ‘Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor’ ” (vv. 4, 5, NIV).
Jesus knew that John would recognize the tension between the eschatological and the immediate. Jesus knew that John would understand that the hope of eternity breeds not an indifference to the present world but a greater dedication to it.
Tragically, John’s death silenced his call for both readiness and action on earth. After burying his body, John’s disciples reported to Jesus. “When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick. . . .
“Jesus replied, ‘They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat’ ” (Matt. 14:13–16, NIV).
We know what happened next. Thousands were fed in the only miracle recorded in all four Gospels. Its appearance in all four has led some to conclude that it was the most important of Jesus’ miracles.8
The one who had preached the coming Messiah and His judgment was dead. The devil hated the impact that John’s message of hopeful anticipation and immediate action had on people. To honor the greatest prophet,9 Jesus threw a banquet on the hillside. This greatest of Jesus’ miracles “anticipates the great eschatological banquet at the end of the age. . . . The miracle also demonstrated Jesus’ holistic ministry that recognized the physical and economic needs of His people.”10
The feeding of the five thousand reminds the whole universe that the gospel is a perfect tension between both what is coming and what currently is. The banquet that afternoon looked toward both the then and the now. It warned Satan that the messages of John and the Voice that gave them would not be silenced.
A message of expectation
There will be a movement that has its eyes on the great supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9), but instead of distracting them, global crises actually cause the church to practically engage in its world, not simply with social media posts and formal statements. The expectancy of eternity, through Lamb of God–focused apocalyptic preaching, can and will mobilize us today as it did on the banks of the Jordan 20 centuries ago. We will, with hands stretched, hearts touched, and homes open, reach out to a hurting world.
- Adapted from William A. Simmons, “John the Baptist,” Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 1996, https://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionaries/bakers-evangelical-dictionary/john-the-baptist.html.
- Luke 3:8 does not leave the listener condemned but speaks of producing fruit in keeping with repentance. It employs language calling for and pointing to their potential for change.
- See also Luke 3:16, 17.
- Flavius Josephus, The Jewish Antiquities, book 18, trans. William Whiston (London: 1737), http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-18.html.
- Credited as first having been said by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.
- See Acts 1:9–11.
- Andrews Study Bible (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2010), notes on Matthew 14:13–21.
- See Matthew 11:11.
- Andrews Study Bible, notes on Matthew 14:13–21.