Wild, hairy, ‘out there’. That’s how I’d describe what must be one of the most unusual persons in the Bible. I’ve always found John a little uncomfortable to deal with. He’s the kind of personality that is, well, prickly.
He’s the one who doesn’t ‘fit in’, who has a completely different view of how the world should be. Maybe you’ve met some people like that. They don’t always sit easily with people.
While John might be like this, there’s more to him than the camel hair apparel and wild honey diet. His uncompromising call to holiness and personal change is a tough message to swallow. But John is also intriguing, mysterious, unstinting in conviction and also a surprisingly popular figure in his time. He’s not just the one who introduces Jesus to the world, he’s a man and a ministry all of his own.
John the Baptist was ‘the Greatest Man to ever live.’ (Matthew 11:11).
So we should take a closer look at this remarkable figure, he has a lot to say to us about how we live our life for Christ. These are some ways John the Baptist’s life and ministry can help us to help us grow in God.
1 You’re meant to be different.
From Luke’s gospel it’s clear that John was set aside for a divine purpose. He was meant to be different. From the extraordinary events surrounding his conception and birth we fast forward to the grown man, prowling the desert and howling at the injustice of his time, because there were reasons to howl. Israel was ruled by the most powerful empire the world had known, Rome. They were pagan whose rulers opposed the rule of Israel’s God, while Israel awaited the promised messiah to liberate them and inaugurate the Kingdom of God.
We can’t overestimate the feelings of most Jews at the time and their expectation of this deliverer from Roman oppression. It inspired all sorts of sects and religious movements. Among the communities living in isolation close to where John was preaching and teaching were the Essenes, a strict religious community closed off from the outside world who through pursuit of personal holiness sought to bring about the Kingdom of God.
John was different. He had no interest in retreating, his message was very much on the offensive, while being disarmingly simple;
‘and so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mark 1:4).
The lesson for us as followers of Jesus is to be distinctive and set apart from those values that are opposed to God’s values. Our ways of living and operating may not be in line with God’s ways so we need to make personal changes, to even repent so as to be truly different.
2. Challenge the status quo.
What attracted people to John was the fact he wasn’t ‘business as usual’ and he was popular for it.
The temple authorities even got to hear of him, ‘Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was’ , (John 1:19). What’s more Jewish historian Josephus mentions John a number of times in his work, Antiquities, proving again he was well known in Israel.
The big issue was that the religious, temple establishment faced some opposition from more devoted followers of Jewish law. They felt that everyday religious life was not hastening the rule of God and the overthrow of their oppressors. John’s alternative message attracted those disaffected with religion as it was, those who were looking for something more.
For us today, our faith may at times need to challenge the established form of religious expression. All traditions can get stale and lose its heart yet people today crave an authentic spirituality as much as they did two thousand years ago. Genuine seekers will go out into their own ‘deserts’, away from the business as usual, to find a more genuine way of living for God. John the Baptist’s life is as much a challenge to our own religious comfort and conformity as it was in his own time.
3. Like John, practice what you believe.
John, to quote a well trodden cliche, ‘walked the talk’. He practised what he preached and his preaching was pretty straight forward; repentance (greek metanoia) meaning a complete change of one’s life and the rite of baptism to signify the repentance of sin. He lived his life completely consistent to his beliefs and calling because John had turned away from the standards of the world to live by God’s standards.
This is just as difficult for us to do today. How do we live for God and not ourselves? We can’t do both so a change of heart and mind to live a life consistent with God’s standards is needed. It will be hard sometimes but the fruits of that life and decision are so worth it even though at times we may seem to fail. God’s amazing grace and mercy in Jesus will always inspire us to keep going.
4. Lead people to Christ, not ourselves.
John’s life had a single purpose: to prepare people for the coming of the messiah. ‘I am the voice of the one calling in the wilderness, “make straight the way of the Lord.” (John 1:23). John was a great prophet of God. You could say he was the last prophet of the Old Testament as he bridges the two covenants leading to Jesus. Yet he remained consistent in his calling, to prepare for the coming of someone greater.
However great or small we think our calling and ministry may be, it’s irrelevant unless it’s true purpose is to lead people to Christ. When human ambition gets in the way of fulfilling God’s purposes we diminish our true identity in Christ. John’s life is a challenge to holiness and living truthfully.
5. Be genuine in humility.
John had a following, he had disciples, he had a reputation. The very things that would make people proud but John’s perspective was never on earthly glory, it was always pointing to the greater glory of God. His was a time when many people had it in their heads to lead rebellions, start movements and agitate against Rome. Reputations could be made or broken according to anyone’s claim to carry divine favour.
But John clearly spent more time listening to God. Perhaps that’s why he felt more at home in the desert, away from the distractions of towns and cities. There he could hear and discern what God wanted to do through him for his people, Israel.
Being this close to God can only build in his character a deep sense of humility. He lived it out right down to his lifestyle, his clothes and his food! Living truthfully and in holiness expressed itself in humility. ‘After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.’ Mark 1:7. Only a man as great as John could acknowledge his place in front of, Jesus. His purpose in life had been fulfilled.
We need to imitate this way of humility like John.
6. Doubts are normal.
Some time after John baptised Jesus, he began to hear news of what Jesus was doing. ‘John’s disciples told him about all these things. Calling two of them, he sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”’ Luke 7:18-19.
Clearly John had expected something different of Jesus. Perhaps he thought he should be more like the prophets of old, more separate from the world? But what Jesus was doing was initiating the new covenant of grace, not repeating the old. This was as much of a surprise to John as it was to others. The life of Jesus had challenged even John’s worldview and understanding of God. So he had doubts.
None of us have it all worked out and all of us can still be profoundly challenged by Jesus, no matter how young or old our faith. And at times we may even question whether we’ve got our faith right at all! This is no problem, it just needs us to trust, remain faithful and work it through, just like John.
7. Oppose injustice & corruption
John, in the tradition of the great prophets of Israel railed at injustice. The law given by God was there to protect all people and it’s kings were appointed by God to uphold righteousness. This was not the case in John’s day.
The ruler in his region was the tetrarch Herod Antipas, who just like his tyrannical father, Herod the Great, over indulged his own power for personal gain while remaining subservient to Rome’s interests (not God’s).
John wouldn’t have a bar of it. Herod Antipas had contravened Jewish law by marrying his brother’s wife and he protested loudly about it as well as all the other evil things he was doing as ruler. But it all got too much for Herod (and his wife Herodias) so John was arrested and locked up deep inside his palace fortress.
It may not need us calling out in the desert like John but we can sure howl at the gross injustices in this world. Learning to see the world as God sees, to remember what he says is right and wrong should always drive us to put it right.
8. Don’t compromise your convictions
The story of John the Baptist’s life takes an extraordinary macabre twist. So strange as to what happens next, it couldn’t possibly be made up! John had been languishing for a period of time in jail under Herod’s control. But one night during one of Herod’s more outrageous parties, the drunk Herod demanded his step daughter dance in front of the party in return for her having whatever she requested. Of course there was a darker sexual motive to all this but Herod’s wife seized her opportunity and instructed her daughter, Salome, to request the head of John the Baptist on a platter. She duly did and Herod had to honour his word.
John was beheaded, his life ended as a martyr. But John’s witness and ministry was felt far beyond his own short life. He had awakened the people’s conscience but paid the ultimate price.
The question is, would we be prepared to face the same consequences for our faith as many Christians around the world have to do?
John’s life is an inspiration for us. The last great prophet of the Old Covenant, a forerunner for the new. The impact we could have could be so significant if we pursued even just a little of God’s righteousness the way that John the Baptist did.
© Not Only Sundays, December 2016.
All scripture quoted from the NIV translation.
Images CC0 Public Domain – Sourced on pixabay.com. Saint John the Baptist by Leonardo da Vinci image under a creative commons licence CC https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/ photo taken by Dennis Jarvis flickr.com