JOHN THE BAPTIST
In extolling the work of John the Baptist, Jesus said, “Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matthew 11:11).
This is a strange statement, and on the surface it appears to be a contradiction. How is it possible for one to not be greater than John the Baptist and yet for the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven to be greater than he? Jesus was “born of a woman” (Galatians 4:4). Was/Is He not greater than John the Baptist?
H. Leo Boles in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew points out that the expression “born of woman/women” is an idiom that was used to refer to the appearance of a great person. It is used several times in the book of Job (14:1; 15:14; 25:4). Luke, in his account of the same conversation, indicates that Jesus was not comparing John the Baptist to all people who had ever been born, but only to all the other prophets. “For I say to you, 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). As we shall later see, John died before the kingdom of heaven, the church, was set up or established, and consequently he was never a citizen/member of it. Therefore, the very least person in the kingdom enjoys privileges that were not available to John, making that person greater than John.
The parents of John the Baptist were Zacharias, a Jewish priest, and his wife Elizabeth, both of whom were “well-advanced in years” (Luke 1:5-7). Elizabeth was a relative of Mary who would later give birth to Christ (Luke 1:36, NKJV; NASB). (The King James Version identifies Elizabeth as Mary’s cousin, while the American Standard Version refers to her as a kins-woman. John and Jesus therefore were in some way related according to the flesh). When the angel Gabriel first announced to Zacharias that he and Elizabeth would have a son and that his name was to be John (Luke 1:13), Zacharias did not believe him. For his unbelief Zacharias was struck dumb until the child was born (Luke 1:18-20). When the child was born, the relatives wanted to name him “Junior,” but his mother said, “No, but he shall be called John” (Luke 1:59-60). When they made signs to Zacharias (he was still mute, and apparently also deaf) as to what the boy’s name should be, he wrote on a tablet, “His name is John” (Luke 1:62-63). Immediately Zacharias’ mouth was opened and his tongue was loosed and he could speak.
“Baptist” was no part of John’s name. It was descriptive of the great work he did in baptizing/immersing people in preparation for the ministry of Christ (Matthew 3:1-12; Mark 1:1-11; Luke 3:1-20; John 1:19-34). “Baptism” is the English spelling (anglicizing) of the Greek term baptisma, meaning to dip, plunge, submerge, immerse. “Baptist” is the anglicizing of the Greek term baptistes and refers to the work of one who dips, plunges, submerges, immerses others in the waters of baptism. John was called “the Baptist” because that is what he did! He baptized people! (cf. John 3:23).
It is to be noted that John was not called “the Baptist” because he was a member of the Baptist Church. John was beheaded before Jesus ever made even the promise to build His church (see Matthew 14:1-12 and Matthew 16:18-19). John had been martyred and his headless body buried well before the church, the kingdom of heaven, was established and well before Peter used the keys of the kingdom to announce the conditions on which people could be saved and added to the church (Acts 2:1-47), or, which is the same thing, “delivered from the power of darkness and translated into the kingdom of the Son of His love” (Colossians 1:13). It is for this reason that the very least in the kingdom, the church, the body of Christ is greater than John the Baptist. John was never a member of the church! The Baptist Church did not come into existence until the early 1600s and was established by John Smyth almost sixteen centuries after the establishment of the church of Christ on the day of Pentecost in c. A. D. 30 (Acts 2). “The use of the term ‘Baptist’ as a denominational designation is of comparatively recent origin, first appearing about the year 1644” (The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. I, p. 456). “Baptist is a name first given in 1644 to certain congregations of English Separatists, who had recently restored the ancient practice of immersion” (The New International Encyclopedia, Vol. II, p. 646). (Both quotations as cited by John D. Cox in his book, Church History, DeHoff Publications, Murfreesboro, TN, 1951, p. 68). John the Baptist had nothing to do with the establishment of the Baptist Church (or of any other church), and he was not a member of the Baptist Church! These are historical facts available to anyone willing to do the study and research.
John the Immerser was a rugged, “in your face” kind of preacher. He dressed in camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist. His food consisted of locusts and wild honey (Matthew 3:1-3). He proclaimed a message of repentance and preached “hell fire and brimstone” (Matthew 3:7-12). He baptized Christ, not for the remission of sins (as he did others, Mark 1:4), but “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:13-17). He preached to Herod the tetrarch and rebuked him for his incestuous and adulterous marriage to his brother Philip’s wife (Matthew 14:1-4). As a result of that message, and the lewd dancing of Herodias’ daughter, Herod “lost his head” emotionally and John lost his literally! At the behest of Herodias and in order to “save face,” Herod ordered the beheading of John the Baptist (Matthew 14:6-12).
In announcing the birth of John the Baptist, the angel Gabriel had said that John would go before the Savior “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17). Jesus Himself would later say of John, “And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come” (Matthew 11:14). Elijah was a great oral prophet of Israel who lived in some of Israel’s darkest days morally and spiritually. He courageously confronted the evil king Ahab and his wife, the wicked Jezebel (I Kings 16:29 – II Kings 2:18). In that same spirit, John the Baptist preached to apostate Israel and prepared the way for the coming of the Christ and His earthly ministry. Examples of John’s preaching and his instructions to specific groups can be found in Matthew 3:1-12; Matthew 14:1-4; Mark 1:1-8; Luke 3:7-20; John 1:19-34). In his preaching John exalted Christ, stating that Christ must increase but that he (John) must decrease (John 3:23-30). In a play on words, I once wrote in an article that there never was but one Baptist, and he said he was going out of business!
What a man! What a preacher! Still and all, the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. What a privilege to be a Christian, a citizen of the kingdom of heaven, a member of the blood-bought church of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (Acts 20:28)!
Hugh Fulford, March 31, 2020