The relationship between John the Baptist and the Lord Jesus is one of the most fascinating in the Gospels. They are blood relatives through their mothers Elizabeth and Mary, and in a very memorable family reunion between the miraculously pregnant women, John in the womb recognizes and rejoices in the presence of Christ (Luke 1:39–45). Later in their lives, they are each misidentified and mistaken for one another: early in his ministry, John is thought to be the Messiah (John 1:19–20), and then in the middle of His kingdom activity Jesus is feared to be John raised from the dead (Mark 6:14). In his preaching, John points to Jesus as the preeminent Lord and “coming one” (John 1:26–29); Jesus in His public proclamation points back, saying, “Among those born of women there has arisen no one greater” than John (Matt. 11:11).

The great movement from prophecy to fulfillment is realized as the Lord sends the trailblazing messenger and then the triumphant King. John sums up the “Law and the Prophets,” and Christ fulfills them (Matt. 11:13; 5:17). Taken together, they represent the very climax of God’s redemptive revelation in terms of the “old and the new”—Augustine’s lovely phrase is thus applicable not only to two testaments, but to two men: “The new is in the old concealed, the old is in the new revealed.”

This symbiotic interplay between John the baptizer and Jesus the baptized (“anointed”) opens up a very significant theme in the gospels: to recognize the identity of the one means to realize the identity of the other. It is no accident then that when the temple authorities present an inherently skeptical question: “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?” Jesus responds with a question of His own: “Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me” (Mark 11:27–33). The assumption is that if John’s ministry is accepted as carrying the authority of God Himself, Jesus’ also bears this same authority in consummate form. If one rejects John’s prophetic word, however, such recalcitrance will only be magnified when confronted by the word and presence of Jesus.

One of the most memorable summaries of John’s ministry comes from his own lips when he says, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Before universalizing this statement to apply to all ministers of the gospel, it is important first to particularize it in the character of John himself. Remarkably, this utterance concerning the necessity of his own diminishment for the sake of the enhancement of Christ is fulfilled in the very pattern of John’s life and death. For instance, Jesus commences His public preaching of the kingdom only after John is first arrested and imprisoned (Matt. 4:12; Mark 1:14). Far from making a parenthetical aside, the Gospel writers communicate the providential ordering and pattern, as John stays in the wilderness (so to speak), while Jesus will emerge with the fullness of the Spirit from the wilderness to conduct His mission in the land of Israel. John as Jesus’ forerunner begins and ends his ministry in a way that shows how the kingdom he has preached will come: by defeat in the eyes of the world, but victory in the plan of God.

When anticipating His own ordeal and the rejection with which He will be met in Jerusalem, Jesus refers to John’s suffering as a foreshadowing of His own.

Having set the stage for the coming King, John is then removed from that stage. Or is he? John’s arrest is in fact not the last time we hear about him. Later, as Jesus has continued His gospel ministry, we learn what became of John after he was imprisoned: he died an ignominious death at the hands of evil men. The story of John’s scandalous execution functions on the narrative level as a “flashback” because the recounting of it explains the background to King Herod’s guilt-ridden fear that Jesus is John come back to life: “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised” (Mark 6:16). The details of the proceedings are familiar: King Herod has a birthday party with an impressive guest list, and as part of the entertainment, Salome (his wife Herodias’ daughter) dances for those present. (The comment “it pleased them” indicates it was probably not ballet or tap-dance but rather suggests a performance with salacious overtones.)

Herod in his delighted (perhaps drunken) response gives her the opportunity to “ask for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.” She then asks her mother what to do. The narrative indicates that Herodias, whose hatred of John is well known, has plotted all these events so that her dark desire for John’s death might be fulfilled (Mark 6:18–20). Salome as her mother’s mouthpiece says, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” Herod regretfully authorizes the execution in light of pleasing those around him and will then live with a guilty conscience afterwards.

How are we to understand the significance of John’s death in relation to the gospel story about Christ? Ultimately it serves as a “flash-forward” in relationship to the destination of Jesus’ ministry. Our Lord explains this to His disciples on the way down from the Mount of Transfiguration, as He instructs them concerning the necessity of His suffering before entering His glory: “How is it written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him” (Mark 9:12–13). The prophecy of the coming “Elijah” is in reality fulfilled in John the Baptist (see Mal. 4:5).

When anticipating His own ordeal and the rejection with which He will be met in Jerusalem, Jesus refers to John’s suffering as a foreshadowing of His own. Jesus would also be arrested because He exposed the works of darkness committed by those in power. He would be executed by political authorities who exchanged the demands of justice for the demands of the crowd. Jesus’ innocence would also be maintained by silently enduring a patently unjust verdict. While Christ’s death is singularly redemptive in meaning, the manner of John’s death would serve to prefigure Jesus’ suffering at the hands of lawless men.

Perhaps the most striking feature of John the Baptist’s death is that the “central character” is silent in the midst of the proceedings. Here is the prophet whose voice has rung out so clearly in his life, yet his death occurs so suddenly that none of his last words are recorded. John is entirely passive in his “passion,” a victim of a vindictive conspiracy by an evil queen and a cowardly king (very much along the lines of Jezebel and Ahab in their persecution of Elijah). Yet John would not cease to be the great forerunner and herald of the Messiah even in this dark hour: John’s prophetic word would be communicated not through his speech but through his silence. Indeed, as John decreased to the point of death, Christ would increase. Even his suffering would be used to shine the spotlight on Christ whose glory would be revealed.

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