Revival Under John the Baptist
Just prior to Jesus' public ministry there was a sweeping religious revival in Judea with John the Baptist as main person. John himself, as we shall see was a special case so we should not expect to see his likes in our time, but there may still be lessons in what happened then that we can learn from.
John was the fulfillment of prophecies made more than 500 years before his birth. Jesus attested to this: “… a prophet? Yes, I tell you and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: 'I will send my messenger ahead of you who will prepare the way before you' [Mal.3.1]” (Luke 7.26,27) and the Gospels bring in another prophecy: “He went around the Jordan preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet. 'A voice of one crying in the desert, “prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filed in, every mountain and hill made low. The crocked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all mankind will see God's salvation”' [Isaiah 40.3-5]” (Luke 3.3ff).
His birth was doubly miraculous: It was announced to his father by the Archangel Gabriel and it involved an elderly previously barren woman becoming pregnant! Gabriel's message was: “ … he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel he will bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go before the Lord in the power of Elijah ...”
After his birth his father gave an oracle which included both these themes after the vital part that God's salvation was about to dawn in the person of Jesus: “Praise be to the Lord the God of Israel, because he has come and redeemed his people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David ...” (Note: Jesus was, but John was not of the line of David) “And you my child will be called a prophet of the most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare the way for him. To give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins ...”
So John was no ordinary evangelist and this was no ordinary revival, it was to prepare the way for Jesus ministry among the people. None the less it was a revival and we see again the key element which marked the earlier prophets.
The immediate purpose was to bring the people back to God by them coming to repentance so that they could receive knowledge of God's salvation by the forgiveness of their sins. This is an important and succinct statement of God's purposes for humankind! It is then in Jesus that we learn what it cost God to make this forgiveness available.
John's message was as blunt as any of the prophets before him: “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance … a man who has two shirts should share with him who has none …” (to tax farmers) “Don't collect any more than you are required to” (to soldiers) “No bullying, no blackmail: make do with your pay” His message is also easily recognisable as in harmony with all the Old Testament prophets.
His reception among the people however was much better than his predecessors. “And so John came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins they were baptised in the Jordan River.”
His reception among the religious leaders was in stark contrast. We see this illustrated in an exchange between Jesus and the religious leaders when they questioned his authority and he asked them about John's authority: “John's authority, was it from heaven or from man?” They discussed among themselves: “If we say 'from heaven' he will ask 'why didn't you believe him' But if we say 'from men' the people will stone us because they are persuaded that John was a prophet” (Luke 20) The saddest part of this, besides the fact that the religious leaders had not believed John was that they did not care whether his message was from God or not. Earlier Luke comments: “the Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God's purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptised by John.” (Luke7.20)
Lessons I think we can safely apply to our times are these:
a) John, like the prophets, was sent by God: this revival did not spring from any human plan or desire.
b) John's message, like the prophets before him, was: “repent and receive God's forgiveness, and show it in your new lives.”
c) John operated outside the religious institution, and indeed the established religious leaders rejected his message.