Between the Old Testament and the New Testament, there’s a gap of about 400 years where the Jews were in a spiritual wilderness with no prophets of God. However, you can argue that John the Baptist belongs to the Old Testament rather than the New as he does predate Jesus and the new covenant which defines the New Testament.
John’s call was for people to repent. This call did bring about a revivial; repentance is serious business – you can’t pretend to do it, nor can you do it half-heartedly. It’s a big thing. Repentance is a complete change of mind, heart and position, and it is a steadfast commitment to a principe that is in opposition to your previous behaviour and beliefs. It is a conviction. Much of the apostate church today tries to jolly people along, refusing to challenge or offend people when they clearly are in the wrong. This is not love. Love is not allowing people to indulge in dangerous behaviour for fear of upsetting them. Love is correcting, by whatever means necessary to help that person be the person they were designed to be. John knew in this case that gentle persuasion wasn’t going to work, he had to shock them into looking at themselves and realising that against God’s standards tey didn’t measure up. Repentance, as mentioned, required action. And action required fruits. The difference between a nominal or a carnal Christian and a solid believer is spiritual fruit. True believers grow and develop and fruit is almost a side effect of a life lived in pursuit of a closer relationship with God. Carnal Christians are not interested much in God; they made an initial commitment to him but other than that they are wrapped up in the immediacy of their own lives, whereas nominal Christians are those who call themselves Chrsitians but don’t really know why, have not made a commitment to God, don’t realise they need to and therefore are not believers at all. The apostate church today specialises in the ear-tickling of such people. Its members are not made into disciples of Chrsit, nor do they mature. They attend church to be entertained and to feel good, therefore it’s almost that they become inoculated against the true message of salvation. Not only this, church becomes somewhere to go, a place rather than a true fellowship of believers akin to a family, as it was designed to be by God.
As is often the case, many of the people who responded were not those of high status, they were the people who were looked down on. The rich people, the rulers, the priests, for the most part weren’t interested in repentance because they had too much to lose. It’s the camel going through the eye of a needle. Such people couldn’t let go of what they perceived ot be their own righteousness but that God recognised as pride and self-deception.
The Pharisees were the ‘experts’ in Jewish law, the Sadduccees were the ruling party. Despite their differences, they both got it wrong about God. Both became adversaries of him because they were against jesus. It’s the age old problem, people try to impress God with their righteouness, trying to buy his favour, but this isn’t possible for anyone who has sinned. God’s standards are higher than earthly standards.
With John’s baptism there was revival. Many repented and were baptised but it is unclear how many of these maintained this conviction and developed into mature believers, and how many returned to their unenlightened lives.
John’s message was an urgent one. Not only was he preaching the need for individual repentance but, in the way of the Old Testament, he was preaching the necessity of national repentance. The Jews had unique access to prophecies regarding when the Messiah would appear (Daniel 9:24-27). They knew the time was now and so the call for repentance was all the more urgent. To reject God now would be disastrous. As John said; ‘The axe is already laid at the root of the trees,’ (verse 10) and Jesus later told the parable of the fig tree, describing the disaster that was coming to Israel if wshe were to reject her Messiah.
John’s baptism was of water; it symbolised God cleaning away the sins of those who repented.
There is sometimes confusion over who John was. Malachi prophesied that Elijah would come back. And it is clear that John the Baptist came in the spirit of Elijah but was not Elijah himself.
John’s practice of baptising Jews was guaranteed to provoke a reaction. Jews weren’t baptised; gentiles were. This would have offended many. John was clearly saying that following Jewish law was not enough. By baptising, John was helping people to realise this and was therefore preparing the way for the Messiah. John mentions two other baptisms; one by spirit (which came first in Acts 2 at Pentecost and occurs for every believer) and another by fire, which is judgment.
Why did Jesus get baptised? First of all to show John had divine approval, but also for Jesus to die for people’s sins, he had to be identified as one of them. The Passover lamb that was slaughtered for each family group in Exodus 12 was first resident with that family for two weeks before being killed.
The baptism of Jesus shows us the Trinity. As he is baptised God the Father speaks of his pleasure in Jesus, and the Holy Spirit descends on him, assuring Jesus that God’s power is in him.
Wiersbe mentions a possible significance of the dove; that Jonah, who was a type of Jesus, means ‘dove’, possibly thereby showing Jesus’ identification with the sign of Jonah (Matthew 12:39-41), that is, the death, burial and resurrection in three days. God’s approval of Jesus at this point shows that Jesus had served God well in the hidden 30 years before his baptism.
With thanks to my spiritual uncles: Uncle Warren Wiersbe, Uncle Chuck Missler, Uncle Matthew Henry, Uncle Jacob Prasch and Uncle Arnold Fruchtenbaum.