I have a confession to make. When I do one of the “read through the Bible” plans, I always hate it when I have to wade through one of the genealogy sections. I mean honestly — it is the worst reading in the world. It goes on and on and on and on and on, page after page of who begat whom. That would be bad enough, but it is filled with strange names names that I have no idea how to rightly pronounce in my head. Since I am an idealistic perfectionist, I always feel bad that I never look up the pronunciation of any of them. Besides, not only am I an American, I am a Texan. I come from a deeply entrenched culture where it is not at all about who your parents are, but what you make of yourself. I understand rugged individualism — not long lists of genealogies! They really don’t keep genealogies in Texas, as far as I know. In my whole life, I’ve rarely heard anyone mention it. I rejoice when I read that Paul condemns disputes about genealogies (Titus 3:9) — does that mean I can skip those sections in my Bible reading? I suppose I can, as long as I don’t care if I can say that I read the whole Bible!
However, there is something that is very important to notice about these genealogies: in Jewish culture, they really matter. Only descendants of Aaron, Moses’ brother, could be priests. It really meant something to be descended from Judah. It was important that the “blessing” was handed down through a certain descendant (e.g. Genesis 28:13). Paul was even careful to list that he was of the tribe of Benjamin (Philippians 3:5), because the geographical and demographic divisions in the Jewish nation were determined by your lineage. This is a foreign idea to democratic free west societies, so we lose the emotional impact of the idea that Jesus is “the son of David” (Luke 18:38, Romans 1:3). Your lineage meant something in that culture.
The Pedigree of John the Baptist
So, it is important to notice that John the Baptist is a descendant of Aaron on his father’s and his mother’s side, and that he is a Levite through and through. In that culture, he could not be more clearly associated with the law. Also, perhaps because he tended to hang out in the wilderness and give fiery sermons, he was associated with Elijah the prophet. We can debate the reason that John represents Elijah, but we know it is so because Jesus confirms it:
7 As these men were going away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ palaces! 9 But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and one who is more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written,
‘Behold, I send My messenger ahead of You,
Who will prepare Your way before You.’
11 Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist! Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force. 13 For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 14 And if you are willing to accept it, John himself is Elijah who was to come. 15 He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
Matthew 11:7-15 (NASB)
The point is, when John the Baptist affirms Jesus, it is a very much bigger deal than we might have imagined. John is the greatest prophet, because he is the end game. He is the prophet who embodies the law and the prophets; the law and the prophets culminated in John the Baptist. He is the last of the line, the final flame of the old covenant and the witness on the stand who acknowledged the greater glory of the new covenant which was ushered in through Jesus Christ.
The Witness of John the Baptist
From the very beginning of their relationship, John the Baptist saw Jesus’ chief work to be His propitiatory death:
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming to him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is He on behalf of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.’
John 1:29-30 (NASB)
John the Baptist was so publicly respected and so known for supporting Jesus that the chief priests and elders were afraid to give an opinion on him:
23 When He entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to Him while He was teaching, and said, “By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?” 24 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one thing, which if you tell Me, I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 The baptism of John was from what source, from heaven or from men?” And they began reasoning among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say to us, ‘Then why did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘From men,’ we fear the people; for they all regard John as a prophet.” 27 And answering Jesus, they said, “We do not know.” He also said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.
Matthew 21:23-26 (NASB)
Isn’t this amazing? Others may have seen Jesus as a prophet, a healer, a leader, or a great moral teacher. However, before He had spoken a word in public ministry or done a single recorded deed, John identified Him as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The whole country, all the way up to the chief priests, knew this — so much so that Jesus was able to exploit this knowledge to keep the pharisees under control. From the very inception of His public ministry, He was known to be the Lamb who would be slain.
Not Just John the Baptist
It is a strange thing to consider that an unexpectedly large amount of the Old Testament law is not devoted to outlining a moral code, but rather to sacrifices. In the book of Leviticus we have burnt offerings, meal offerings, animal sacrifices, grain offerings, peace offerings, sin offerings, and every kind of offering you could think of. The job of the Levitical priest was a very bloody one. In fact it would appear that the main job of the priest was to make offerings. These offerings were the heart of the law.
The writer of the book of Hebrews makes the point that these things worked because they were pretend atonements for copies of heavenly things (Hebrews 9:23). In fact, the whole book of Hebrews leads us through various stages of Christ’s superiority: He is superior to angels, He is superior to Moses, He is to Aaron the High Priest, His new covenant is superior to the old covenant, and finally the book climaxes with the declaration that the blood of Jesus is superior to the blood of animal sacrifices. This is the perspective from which to read the entire book of Hebrews, just as it is the perspective from which to read all of the scriptures.
So we find the entire Jewish religious practice to be a picture of Christ. It isn’t simply that Jesus acted out a few isolated predictions from the Old Testament. It is that their entire culture was predicated on the coming of a Messiah who would be our savior through His own sacrifice. Their whole culture was law and gospel, morals and blood atonement. From Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:15, 21) through Abel and Cain (Genesis 4:5), Abraham (Genesis 15:9-10, 17, 22:12-13), and many other passages, the practice of the generations leading up to the Mosaic sacrificial practices had propitiation at their heart. The prophets also have many passages alluding to Christ, climaxing with the famous passage in Isaiah 53. The message of the law and the prophets was not simply that we should be good and obedient, nor simply that a Messiah was coming, but that a savior was coming who would save His people through His sacrifice.
The Cross of Christ fulfills the Law and the Prophets
When Jesus says that He came not to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill (Matthew 5:17), He does not not mean that He came to press us more strictly into a higher and better obedience. He means that He came to fulfill the entire intent of the Law and the Prophets, that He was the Savior/Messiah come to embody all of the things of which they were only copies and shadows. The law proposed that we should behave like this and that, while Jesus came and in His person acted out that perfection. Nothing is more condemning than the perfect life of Jesus. The law declared that we should sacrifice a lamb or goat as a blood atonement for our sin, but Jesus died once for all as our redemption. He is the exact embodiment and fulfillment of the law and the prophets in His very person, and it is the cross itself which is the moment when this was all realized.
For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.
John 1:17 (NASB)