John the Baptist’s life lessons are so relevant for our Christian life today.
Here I’ve listed eight of what I believe is the most significant of those life lessons that we can learn from his ministry, as the last prophet to prepare the way for Jesus.
John the Baptist is one of the most important and unusual people in the Bible. The challenge for me is that I’ve always found John a little uncomfortable to deal with. This is the kind of personality that is, well, prickly.
He’s the one who doesn’t ‘fit in’ because John has a completely different view of how the world should be. Maybe you’ve met some people like that. They don’t sit easily with people.
But 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 but necessary message to swallow.
Nevertheless, John is 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.
So why should we take notice and learn from him in our Christian life?
Because John the Baptist was ‘the Greatest Man to ever live.‘ (Matthew 11:11).
And he has a lot to say to us about how we live our life for Christ. Here are the eight significant life-changing lessons of John the Baptist’s life and ministry and how they help us to help us grow in God.
John the Baptist’s life lesson one: 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.
We can’t overestimate the feelings of the Jewish people 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. They were a strict religious community closed off from the outside world who through the pursuit of holiness sought to bring about their salvation.
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 repent to be truly different.
John the Baptist’s life lesson two: 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 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 needs to challenge the established form of religious expression. All traditions can get stale and lose its heart. But 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.
This is as much a challenge to our own religious comfort and conformity as it was in his own time.
John the Baptist’s life lesson three: live what you believe.
John, to quote a well-trodden cliche, ‘walked the talk’. He practised what he preached and his preaching was pretty straightforward; repentance (Greek metanoia). This means a complete change of one’s life. This also included the rite of baptism to signify the repentance of sin.
John lived his life completely consistent with his beliefs and calling because he had turned away from the standards of the world. He chose 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.
God’s amazing grace and mercy in Jesus will always inspire us to keep going.
John the Baptist’s life lesson four: lead people to Christ.
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.
John the Baptist’s life lesson five: 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.
This 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. He was away from the distractions of towns and cities. There he could discern what God wanted 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.
John the Baptist’s life lesson six: doubts are normal.
Sometime 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 from 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 has 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.
John the Baptist’s life lesson seven: oppose injustice and corruption.
John, in the tradition of the great prophets of Israel, railed against 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, overindulged 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.
John the Baptist’s life lesson eight: don’t compromise your convictions.
The story of John the Baptist’s life takes an extraordinary macabre twist.
What happens next is so strange, 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 stepdaughter dance in front of the party. The price for this was that she could have in return 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 were felt far beyond his own short life. He had awakened the people’s conscience but paid the ultimate price.
Would we be prepared to face the same consequences for our faith as many Christians around the world have to do?
And it’s there that 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.
And in that, John the Baptist’s life and ministry is an example for us all.
© 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