The appearance of John the Baptist on the world scene was a very significant event. It signaled a monumental change in things. "The law and the prophets were until John; since that time the kingdom of God is preached" (Luke 16:16). John’s coming heralded a new day. Shadow would become substance; prophecy would become fulfillment; the focus would shift from Sinai to Calvary; the Gospel, salvation, and the church would come front and center; and the Gentiles would be included in the family of God. All of this was wrapped up in Jesus Christ, the One Whom John came into the world to herald.
The world into which John came certainly needed his ministry. He came into a hostile, godless world. "Darkness" (Luke 1:79) is the one-word description of the times given by Scripture, and it is a most accurate and adequate one-word description. The righteous were few and far between. The wicked were in power, and wickedness dominated the deeds of man.
To begin our study of John the Baptist, we will examine in more detail the conditions of the world into which John was ushered. We will note the political conditions, the parental conditions, and the priestly conditions. This will give us a look at the nation, home, and religion that encompassed John at his coming and will thus give us a good picture of just what sort of world John entered.
A. THE POLITICAL CONDITIONS
"In the days of Herod, the king of Judea" (v. 5) succinctly describe the terribly dark political situation in Israel when John was born. Herod (distinguished from the other Herods of history as Herod "the Great") ruled over all the land of Palestine. Though called the "king of Judea," Herod’s rule covered more than the province of Judea. It also took in Galilee, Samaria, and considerable territory east of the Jordan River. Thus as king he ruled over all the land of Israel. Better we should say, as king he oppressed all the land of Israel.
Herod was not a true king of Israel, however. He was not a Jew nor a descendant of David. He was, in fact, an Idumean, an Edomite, which means he was a descendant of Esau. How repugnant this would be to the Jewish mind to have an Edomite, of all things, to sit on the throne of the Jewish nation. What a sad state of affairs this indicated for the Jewish people. Few things would so disgrace the nation of Israel as to be ruled by an Edomite. It was all contrary to the Word of God; it was a reverse of the plan of God. Jacob should rule, not Esau. But Israel had forsaken God, and this was part of their judgment. Great sin brings great judgment. And great judgment it was to have an Edomite ruling them.
Since Herod was not of the line of David nor even a Jew, he did not gain his kingly throne by rightful heritage but had to gain the throne by other means. The means he used was to court the favor of Rome, which was the power of the nations then. Through bribery, fast talking, corrupt politics, and constant scheming, Herod was able to maintain favor with Rome for many years. The prestigious and coveted title "king of Judea" was bestowed upon him by the Roman Senate on the recommendation of Anthony and Octavious about thirty-five years before the birth of John the Baptist. Not all those who ruled for Rome were given the title of king. It had to be gained by political maneuvering. As G. Campbell Morgan rightly says, "The title was the result of his sycophancy with the Roman empire." But though Herod was called a king, he was still a vassal of Rome.
Herod was a moral cesspool (he had ten wives), and he was terribly brutal and bloody. He did not hesitate to kill whenever it served his purpose. He killed his competitors. He killed his enemies. He killed a number of wealthy Jews and confiscated their wealth for his own coffers. He even executed a number of the members of his own family. One of his wives, some sons, and other relatives were executed when he felt they were in the way and threatened his rule. Through stabbing, forced drowning, strangulation, poisoning, and other violent means, he executed people. His most famous brutal act is recorded in Scripture. This act was his ordering the killing of all the children two years and under in Bethlehem after the wise men had visited the Christ Child (Matthew 2:16–18). With such a history of bloody behavior, it certainly is no wonder that one of his sons, Herod Antipas, ordered the beheading of John the Baptist some years later.
But as terrible and treacherous as the days were, it was still "in the days of Herod" that God brought John the Baptist—and also Jesus Christ (Matthew 2:l)—into the world. We must ever remember this fact, for it is a great encouragement to our faith. God delights to show His power in the most difficult of situations, and so we should not be surprised when in the darkest of times God does a great work. God is not limited by the circumstances, by dark times, by great difficulties. We often forget that truth and have a habit of adopting in our mind a theology which limits God to circumstances. When the Herods are in power, we conclude God is shackled. But how foolish and faithless. God is greater than any circumstance, any difficulty, any Herod. And He delights to do great works when the conditions are the worst so that His power will better be seen and honored. How encouraging this should be to His people. When we are in an "in the days of Herod" situation, we need not give up, cease to expect God’s help, and deny our faith. No, we should instead look for and expect God to demonstrate His power.
B. THE PARENTAL CONDITIONS
God always has His remnant even in the darkest of times. Not many were godly at the time John came into the world, as we noted in our introduction; but some were. And what a noble bunch those few godly ones in Israel were: Joseph, Mary, the aged Simeon and Anna, some shepherds, and an elderly priest and his wife—Zacharias and Elisabeth—the future parents of John the Baptist. We want to especially focus on his parents here. In doing so we will note two significant things about John’s future parents: their righteousness and their reproach.
1. Their Righteousness
The character of Zacharias and Elisabeth is given in some detail in Luke’s account. And what we are told by Luke about Zacharias and Elisabeth tells us that John the Baptist would have outstanding godly people for his parents. Like lights piercing the darkness around them, their righteous character shown forth with holy brilliance. "They were both righteous before God" (v. 6) sums it all up. It is one thing to be judged righteous before man; but when you are judged righteous before God, you are indeed righteous! They walked "in all the commandments [the moral law] and ordinances [ceremonial law] of the Lord, blameless [not sinless perfection, but without legitimate re-proach before man]" (Ibid.).
What a great performance, for they walked in "all" not just a few of the commandments and ordinances, and they did so in a day when just about everyone else lived wickedly. That teaches us a much needed lesson. If Zacharias and Elisabeth could live godly in such times, then so can we in spite of being surrounded by a godless society. We cannot excuse our laxity in holiness on the fact that most people are living unholy lives. The character failures of others does not force or excuse our failures. We do not have to go along with the crowd. Zacharias and Elisabeth prove that fact well.
Of course, not going along with the world will cost. You do not march to a different cadence than the world does without the world getting upset. They will do all they can to get you to conform to their beat (and by the sound of things, much music in our churches certainly has conformed to the beat of the world); and if you do not conform, they can get pretty nasty. But that still does not mean you cannot walk uprightly, nor does it excuse you from walking uprightly.
2. Their Reproach
Zacharias and Elisabeth carried a very heavy burden of re-proach nearly all their married life. We learn some important truths about trials here in the character of this trial, the couple in this trial, and the conduct during this trial.
The character of this trial. The reproach was caused by the fact that "they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren" (v. 7). Furthermore, all hope was gone that they would ever have a child; for "they both were now well stricken in years" (Ibid.). The sting of barrenness will not be appreciated in our age of bloody, heartless abortion. But in those days it was a terrible thing for a Jewish woman to be barren. It took away any hope of the promised Messiah coming from her, and it "was not infrequently looked on as a mark of the Divine displeasure, possibly as the punishment of some grave sin" (H. D. M. Spence). The hopes of Zacharias and Elisabeth would be high and joyous when they were first married. But as time went by, their hopes would diminish and the trial would become heavier as their reproach among men would be ever increasing. The reproach was so prominent in their lives at the time Elisabeth conceived, that the first thing Scripture reports her saying after she conceived was, "The Lord . . . looked on me, to take away my reproach among men" (Luke 1:25).
The couple in this trial. The trial of John the Baptist’s parents reminds us that righteousness does not exempt one from painful trial. Though "righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord, blameless," still God permitted bitter, burdensome trial to dog their lives for years. Righteousness prevents many trials—those trials which are a result of sin—but it does not prevent them all as "Many are the afflictions of the righteous" (Psalm 34:19) attests. Thus to have troubles and trials does not indicate one is a lesser saint. It may mean, in fact, that one is a superior saint; for the best saints are subject to the most attacks by Satan because they are the most trouble to him of all the saints. Furthermore, the best saints will be polished the most by the Lord just as a lapidary puts the best stones to the grindstone the most to bring out their beauty. Hence, the righteous will indeed know trial in their life.
The conduct in this trial. The reaction of Zacharias and Elisabeth to their trial was very exemplary. The trial only served to reveal more fully their godly character. Though burdened with heavy trial, the devotion of Zacharias and Elisabeth to the Lord and His service did not decline. They did not castigate God, forsake Him, complain, and murmur as so many lesser souls do in such times. Rather, they continued to be faithful in all things, trusting God’s wisdom as to the reason for their trial. It was a noble response to the trial, and it is the only way to face trial. As Maclaren said in commenting on their trial of unfulfilled hopes, "Let us learn that unfilled wishes are not to clog our devotion, nor silence our prayers, nor slacken our running the race set before us."
The world, of course, responds much differently to trial than did Zacharias and Elisabeth. "Curse God, and die" (Job 2:9) is a favorite response to trial by the world. But no one will face trial victoriously by blaspheming and blaming God and then throwing in the towel and quitting.
C. THE PRIESTLY CONDITIONS
The religious life of Israel rose or fell on the condition of the priesthood. By examining the condition of the priests in Israel at the time of John’s coming into the world, we will learn much about the condition of religion in Israel at that time. In examining the condition of the priests, we will learn about the corruption of the priests, the conspicuousness of the priests, and the consecrated among the priests.
1. The Corruption of the Priests
When John the Baptist came into the world, the religious life of Israel was corrupted because the priesthood was greatly corrupted. One big reason the priesthood was so corrupted was that it was considerably influenced and controlled by Herod. This was done in two significant ways. First, he chose the High Priest; and second, he constructed a very impressive Temple in Jerusalem for the Jews.
Choosing the High Priest. The High Priest was the virtual head of the religious system in Israel. He was over all the priests and had great authority and influence. A good High Priest would improve the character of the land; a bad High Priest would do just the opposite. The important High Priest post was, according to God’s law, to be a lifetime position and one dictated by one’s relationship to Aaron, the first High Priest of Israel. But when John came into the world, the High Priest position was a political appointment. It was being dictated by Herod. Thus the High Priest would curry favor with the wicked Herod, overlook his evils, and encourage and influence the other priests to do likewise—all of which would corrupt the priesthood in a great way. The greatness of the corruption of the priesthood culminated in the priests’ terrible opposition to Jesus Christ which was seen so vividly in their leading the people to call for His crucifixion.
Constructing the Temple. Herod’s firm and corrupting hand on the priesthood and the religious life of the people was strengthened considerably by his building a new Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple was, of course, the hub of the religious life of Israel as it was intended to be from the time of Solomon’s Temple. Thus in building the Temple, Herod would ingratiate himself to the Jewish people. They would feel indebted and obligated to him which in turn would give him undo influence over their religious life. Having this control of their religious life meant he had even more control over the people politically—which was Herod’s main goal.
Started in 20 b.c., this Temple was a huge and magnificent project that was not completed until some years after Herod died and his sons were ruling the land. The length of time it took to build the Temple is seen in the statement made by some Jews during Christ’s ministry, "Forty and six years was this temple in building" (John 2:20). Herod was quite the builder of buildings. And typical of government, it was done through burdensome taxation of the populace. He built a royal palace, many fortresses, temples for Gentile idolatry, and other edifices. But the building of the Temple in Jerusalem was considered by many to be the greatest of Herod’s achievements. Rabbinical literature emphasizes the beauty of the structure by stating that you had not seen a beautiful building until you had seen this Temple. But the beauty of the Temple did not include the beauty of holiness. The Temple was simply a corrupt political ploy of Herod, so he could dominate the people all that much more. In fact, he so dominated things, he was able to put the Roman eagle on the main entrance of the Temple.
2. The Conspicuousness of the Priests
It is believed that there were as many as twenty thousand priests at the time John came into the world. Such a large number of priests meant the priests would be very conspicuous. This conspicuousness helped them to be very prominent and influential in the land. They kept their Temple service (based after the service originating with the Tabernacle) with great care. So much so that we read that Zacharias was "of the course of Abia [Abijah, 1 Chronicles 24:10]" (v. 5). During David’s time, the priests were divided into twenty-four groups to better organize their administration. The groups were named after the sons of Eleazar and Ithamar who were the sons of Aaron. Abijah was the eighth course of the twenty-four. During the captivity, most of these courses lost their identity. "Only four of these courses (Jedaiah, Immer, Pashu, Harim) returned from Babylon, but these four were divided into twenty-four with the old names" (A. T. Robertson). When John came into the world, the priests were following the twenty-four course set-up to the letter. This would go along with their being so particular about following tradition, but it would also make the administration of the priests more efficient since there were so many priests.
Because of the prominence of the priesthood, "The great national feasts of the Passover, of Tabernacles, and of Pentecost, were celebrated with solemn pomp, and attracted vast crowds from all the world. In every part of the land synagogues were maintained with punctilious care, and crowds of scribes were perpetually engaged in a microscopic study of the law, and in the instruction of the people. In revenue, and popular attention, and apparent devoutness, that period had not been excelled in the most palmy days of Solomon or Hezekiah" (F. B. Meyer).
But it was all superficial. Few worshippers were genuine. As F. B. Meyer adds, "Beneath this decorous surface the rankest, foulest, most desperate corruption throve." We have much religion today that is no different. From popular religious TV programs to homosexual churches to the immoral behavior of some so called "fundamentalist" leaders, we see much duplication in our day of the corrupt religious situation that existed in Israel at the time of the coming of John the Baptist into the world.
3. The Consecrated Among the Priests
Though "the general character of the priesthood was deeply tainted by the corruption of the times, and as a class they were blind leaders of the blind" (F. B. Meyer), there were still some who were true and genuine in their piety—Zacharias for one. He was indeed a true priest in both heart and heritage. With the godly character he had, which we noted earlier, Zacharias would not go through the motions in mere outward show in his service as most priests in his day did; but he had his heart and soul in his service. His heritage was superb, too. He was of the line of priests. Not only was he a descendant of Aaron, and thus rightfully a priest; but his wife was also "of the daughters of Aaron" (v. 5). In fact, her name, Elisabeth, was the same name as Aaron’s wife (Exodus 6:23, "Elisheba" is the O.T. form of the N.T. "Elisabeth"). "To be a priest and married to a priest’s daughter was a double distinction" (Plummer). A. T. Robertson adds that it was "Like a preacher married to a preacher’s daughter." Would that all priests had been like Zacharias. In fact, would that all ministers even in our day were of the caliber of Zacharias—righteous, a good marriage, morally impeccable, genuine, and devoted to God’s Word.
With both of John’s parents being descended from Aaron, John would be very much entitled to the priesthood. He could claim priestly succession if anyone could. And normally it would have been logical and expected for him to enter the priesthood. But, of course, John did not go into the priesthood. It would have been incongruent with his calling. Instead of the priesthood, John was Divinely commissioned to herald in "that very kingdom of grace that destined to unconsecrate and abolish the old order of things" (Grosart), which we noted in the introduction of this chapter. He would point to the One Great High Priest Who would make it unnecessary to continue the priestly arrangement so honored in the Temple, and Who would establish a pure priesthood composed of born-again believers.
Being born into a priestly family—today we would say he was raised in a preacher’s home—would make John well acquainted with the religious conditions in the land and the corruption it represented His scathing denunciation of the religious leaders during his public ministry would come from personal, first-hand information of their degradation. He knew from his father’s reports and from his own observation what a farce religion was in his day. Therefore, when he began his public ministry, he would say to the religious leaders, "The axe is laid unto the root of the trees; therefore, every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire . . . he [Christ] will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner [granary]; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (Matthew 3:10,12).