Just a Voice, Just a Servant, Just a Signpost
“What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?” Jesus asked.
No. They went out to see a prophet, a holy man, a man who spoke God’s words; his name was John. His words riveted the crowds. They marveled at the conviction behind them! If only we lived as though we (like John) were ready for God to do some shocking new thing. As if God will come to this earth where we live. (He will.) And if only we would read and think about the scriptures in the way John did. (As though God gave them.)
John’s story begins with the scriptures.
Long before him, the prophet Isaiah spoke God’s promise: “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ ”
This defined for John his life—a thrilling calling: Elijah-like, he would “turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” (An angel told his father this. An angel!) What is almost more surprising though, is how once he gained a following John did not overstep what the scriptures said.
John, How Low Can You Go?
What we can love about John is the same as with Jesus: his humility. If you find a humble, godly person in your life, be glad! He or she is not competing with you for this world’s goods or for others to see them as wise; he or she looks upon a horizon beyond the shore of death. (2 Cor. 5) As the scriptures say, “His praise is not from man but from God.” (Rom. 2:29) His or her life is only to serve the one who gave Life.
So it was with John. He let God shape him according to the model of the Son of Man. Jesus came not to be served, but to serve. Will a successful CEO dress himself as a waiter (or in a shirt with his first name on it!), serve a meal, and wait on all his employees? Yet one day, the CEO of the whole universe will come to those who were His servants, and have them sit down so He can serve THEM. (Luke 12:37)
In one striking scene, John the Baptist declared himself “not worthy to stoop down and untie” the strap of Jesus’ sandals. Put in context, that is even more extreme than it sounds! At that time, a teacher expected his disciple to do any task all the way down to untying the strap of his sandals. John declared himself unworthy of even this low, dirty task for THIS man—Jesus. Not only that, this was John’s cousin. Consider that. How do you know someone for years (literally since you were in the womb) and still speak that way?
A Glorious Man of Heaven, a Scandalous Baptism
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” cried John, when he pointed out Jesus to others. This is one of the sweetest lines in the scriptures. In Jewish ears it must have resounded: “Look, for centuries and generations, we have brought lambs to God to seek forgiveness, so that our sins may be atoned for. Now God has given a lamb to us.”
Wonder of wonders, Jesus then put Himself—for a moment—below where any of us might imagine He would ever go. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Mark 1:4) And for a moment, He who knew no sin (1 Cor 5:21) appeared just like another member of the sinful multitude, going under the waters just like someone who needed forgiveness for their sins. No wonder John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” What a glorious Lord, who hides His glory and let us think Him worse than He is. To become like one of us.
More of Him, Less of Me
A stunning testimony to John’s godliness is his response to fame. Some people encouraged him to envy the popularity of Jesus, in the subtle, wicked way people do. “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” (John 3:26) They were really saying, “John, look at how your disciples are going to Jesus now! Think of how hard you have worked for God, and how much you had to bear to get where you are. You are famous now! Are you going to lose what you’ve gained?”
Yet John stands secure in who he is. He turns this trap into an opportunity. (Oh, how we yearn for this skill in our own conversations!) John declares his own identity, and reveals more of Jesus’ glorious identity. A step further, he warns his friends and enemies of their own sinful hearts. Not only did John not give in to the normal “way of the world,” he turned it around and used it as another opportunity to point the way to heaven. He replied, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.” (John 3:27)
John showed that to “take back” his influence on the disciples who once followed him would be like stealing a bride from her rightful bridegroom—a crime as heinous as usurping the marriage bed. Of his best friend. On the wedding night. Except the best friend is God. (John 3:28-29) He points out his own role—as the friend to the bridegroom, who listens out in the hall and rejoices when his friend consummates his marriage to the bride. (God’s people are His bride.) Read these scriptures. Watch how John weaves these ideas. Emulate him; but remember, it will only “work” if your whole life is for God, as his was.
When Jesus described John as “a burning and shining lamp,” surely that praise rang true.
A Shaken Prisoner, Martyrdom, and a Glorious Legacy
But John the Baptist’s daring words—which spared no one—carried a great risk, an unavoidable price.
King Herod imprisoned John for the offense those words gave. His time in jail even shook John’s hope in Jesus as the coming messiah. He sent messengers to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?”
Only death freed him from prison. Oscar Wilde’s famous play “Salome” immortalizes John’s fate: a martyr’s death, beheaded, his head a grisly prize on a platter for a spiteful enemy. But John’s influential life did not end with death!
When Jesus’ disciples speak to a group of people about the Gospel, they call to mind John to explain how important Jesus was: “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.”
They ask groups of people what they know about Jesus, and sometimes the answer is, “We know the baptism of John”: that is their launching-off point for spiritual knowledge. And, they cite John’s preaching repeatedly; they use John as a reliable witness, a holy man, a man from whom you could hear the truth about God. The apostles pointed to John, for all the times he pointed to Christ so unfailingly.
At first glance, John’s part in the story may seem minor and brief, but it is crucial, and everlasting.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Victoria Williams is a Christian woman who loves reading, teaching math, and watching people grow. Her obsessions include the Gospel, loving the weak, peacemaking, cross-cultural ministry, storytelling, nerdy conversations with friends, and coffee. She also blogs.