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.