These were the words and testimony of Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, at his son’s circumcision (Lk 1:63).
Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were devout Jews, childless and well-advanced in years, living in the time of Herod, king of Judea. Both were descendants of Aaron, of priestly family, and Zechariah served as priest before God, in the Temple in Jerusalem. One of the priest’s duties was to keep the incense burning on the altar in front of the Most Holy Place. On the occasion of Zechariah’s exercise of this duty, a once in a lifetime event for a priest, the angel Gabriel appeared to him, informing him that his prayer had been heard, that his wife would bear a son, and that the child’s name would be John.
The Holy of Holies, the place of the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple, was God’s appointed place to reveal His answer to Zechariah’s prayer. The fact that John would be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb (Lk 1:15), as told to Zechariah by the angel, is in line with the uttermost sacredness of the place God chose to reveal His promise and purposes. These two things alone tell us that John’s task was to be of utmost importance. He would be the one chosen by God to go before Jesus to prepare the way for Him. John would fulfill the prophecies and bring many of the people of Israel back to the Lord by the authority given him by God.
Malachi, whose book is the last in the Hebrew Covenant, prophesied about the coming of the prophet Elijah who would turn the hearts of the fathers to the children before the coming of the Day of the Lord. Jesus Himself testified that John was this promised Elijah. As with the former prophets, John was sent from God to call Israel to repentance. And yet, his lot was to be more than a prophet (Mt 11:9). He was the last of the Jewish prophets to proclaim the coming of the Messiah, but he was also the one who would welcome the King. John’s task was to usher in the Messianic Age, a completely new era following the end of the Biblical Period, which is why his ministry is recorded in the New Covenant.
The means by which John was sent to minister to the Jewish people was baptism with water. John’s immersion was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mk 1:4, Lk 3:3). In other words, it involved turning to God from sin in order to be forgiven. Traditional Judaism recognizes immersion for purification, but John’s immersion differed from this. John’s baptism was unique in that it symbolized or demonstrated God’s forgiveness, providing the immersed person with the assurance that they had indeed been forgiven. John brought the Lord’s people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, so that they might believe.
Divinely commissioned to baptize with water, John’s role in the baptism was essential. He was granted the authority of forgiveness exclusive to Jesus, which is unique. However, John made it very clear that there is only one worthy and that the reason he came to baptize was that the Worthy One might be revealed to Israel. Pointing away from himself to Jesus, he gave way to the One who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Mt 3:11). John’s task as the friend of the Bridegroom was to introduce the Messiah to the Jewish people, and now the appointed time had come, the Kingdom of God had come near.
When John saw Jesus passing by, he encouraged his disciples to follow Him. Pointing to Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (Jn 1:29), John must have captured the people’s attention, as the Jewish sacrificial system revolved around the slaughtering of lambs. People were familiar with the prophecies of Jeremiah and Isaiah, which stated that the Jewish Messiah would come like a lamb led to the slaughter and redeem Israel by giving Himself as the perfect sacrifice for sin. John made it very clear that there would be no other sacrifice for sin except the Messiah – Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews (INRI) for whom he had paved the way.
John’s name in Hebrew is Yochanan, which means JHWH is gracious. John’s testimony of his cousin, the Son of God, whose grace brings salvation or circumcision of the heart to all who receive Him, Jew and Gentile alike, is in his name.