“In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying ‘Repent, because the Kingdom of Heaven has come near!'” Matthew 3:1-2.
John the Baptist is one of the most interesting characters in the New Testament. Though his story only takes up a small portion of the Gospels, his role in the Gospel narrative is crucial.
To understand John’s important role in the Bible, we must go back to the Old Testament. One of Israel’s greatest prophets was Elijah, who performed many miracles and preached boldly against the sin and moral corruption into which Israel had allowed itself to fall. The most incredible and unique aspect of Elijah’s life and career as a prophet deals with his “exit” from Scripture–he never died. 2 Kings 2:11 recounts Elijah’s departure from this world: a whirlwind appeared accompanied by a chariot of fire which took Elijah up into Heaven, his job on Earth completed and Elijah still very much alive. Due to this phenomenal departure , the Jews believed that Elijah would one day return to prepare the world for the arrival of the Messiah. So the Jews waited patiently for Elijah’s return, waiting for the signal their Messiah was coming.
Enter to this scene John the Baptist. Christian doctrine teaches that John fulfilled Elijah’s preparatory role as the forerunner of the Messiah. Though John lived in the New Testament period, in many ways he is the final prophet of the Old Testament. He was born miraculously to godly elderly parents, he lived alone in the desert clothed in camel fur and sustained by locusts and wild honey, and he boldly proclaimed the words of the Lord. In addition to this, John had a close connection to Jesus the Messiah–they were second cousins.
John prepared the hearts and minds of Israel for the impending appearance and ministry of the Messiah. He helped fan the fires of a religious awakening within Jewish society, baptizing into God’s service those who wished to seek after God and live according to His commands. John attacked the rigid legalism of the Pharisees and the dead theology of the Sadducees and all other aspects of the religious establishment of the day. John took his message straight to the people, and it is this fact that makes his proclamation of the proximity of the Kingdom of Heaven so true. In God’s kingdom, all man’s social constructs will be thrown out; the poor and oppressed, the forgotten and downtrodden, will be elevated to the level of the rich and powerful. God’s kingdom would be open to those who were pure of heart and wished to see Him.
Yes, Christ’s arrival had brought the Kingdom of Heaven closer than it had ever been before, as John proclaimed, but the Kingdom was never that far away to begin with. Wherever believers searched for God diligently, wherever God’s people called out to Him, wherever the innocent and righteous were oppressed–that’s where the Kingdom of Heaven could be found. John the Baptist understood this and called on those around him to realize this and for them to repent–to turn from sin and self and turn toward God–to prepare themselves for the great and wondrous things that were about to take place.
Prepare yourselves, for the Kingdom of Heaven is here!