Who was John the Baptist? We remember his garment of camel’s hair, his leather belt, his diet of locusts and honey, his reclusive nature, his ascetic lifestyle and his bombast. These are important because of their connection to Elijah. But who was John himself?
John the Baptist was a miracle child, born of a barren woman and announced by an angel. His father was a priest and in line to be High Priest although with the advent of Jesus and the ending of Temple worship, that would never be.
John was raised for strict devotion to God. A student of Scripture, he understood and firmly believed in the coming Messiah and the prophetic signs that would precede him. Radical and unwavering, he spoke this truth to power. He himself would be the last in that great line of prophets.
John knew who he was and who he was not. He was the voice in the wilderness, the preparer clearing and leveling the way for the Messiah. He was not the Messiah, only the forerunner. Jesus, not he, was the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. He wasn’t fit to carry Jesus’ sandals. Still, Jesus identified John as the fulfillment of the prophecy that Elijah must return before the Messiah comes.
Jesus and John were reported only twice to be in each others presence. Both times they were in the water, once while in their mothers’ wombs and once at the Jordan. Both were times of advent and both times John bore witness to Jesus.
When they met that appointed day at the Jordan, John proclaimed Jesus the long-awaited Messiah. He saw no reason to baptize Jesus but on Jesus’ word he gave way. When the Spirit descended as a Dove and spoke his favor upon Jesus, John understood the time had come for him to diminish as Jesus was to be exalted.
Jesus called John the greatest among men. John felt the same about Jesus.
John stood for Israel – the Chosen People, The Law and the Prophets. John’s message was clear: the Messiah is near! The Kingdom is near! The Judgment is near! Repent! Confess! Believe in the coming Messiah! Prepare yourself! Show you mean it, be baptized! And if you think you can fake it you have a rude awakening coming.
With mighty acts, unquenchable fire, and a winnowing shovel, the Messiah would be God’s instrument to rid the world of sin and evil. His coming would be great and terrible. He would restore Israel as God’s blessing to the all the world.
But Jesus did not come brandishing fire or shaking the foundations. Men continued to rule.
How could this be? John, at the end of his life and work sent to Jesus for reassurance. He asked on behalf of Israel. “Are you the one that comes or should we look for another?”
What was John thinking to ask such a question? Was he confused? Shaken? Afraid? Concerned for his legacy? Could he have been wrong?
How could it be that the kingdom may come and the world go on as it is? How could righteousness rule without vanquishing unrighteousness? What good is there in all of the preparation that he preached if the world was not transformed unto holiness?
There were some things that John did not understand. Surely one can ask what good is salvation that does not subdue the world by force but God answers with another question, what good is a salvation that requires the subjugation of the world?
The Kingdom transcends the world. The world can have nothing to do with anyone’s entrance into God’s kingdom. God’s Grace is sufficient and stands as the greatest mystery of all.
Jesus sent his answer, ‟tell John what you see and hear. Tell of the miracles that you have seen. Tell what I teach.” And in a very short while, the witness would include the atoning death and redeeming resurrection of God’s Messiah. Then came Pentecost – Kingdom come.
Whatever doubts John may have had, he went to his violent and vulgar death trusting that God knew best. He did not understand all of the mysteries, but he knew God when he saw him.
To this day the preparation of repentance and baptism preached by John remains but being ready does not save. Yes, you must repent, confess and believe, but then you must also receive God’s own.
Deliverance comes only when Jesus arrives. Only then comes forgiveness. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Armed with Grace, the world stands powerless to bar the way. Perhaps this is why Jesus said that the least in the Kingdom will be greater than John.
John, no other is needed. The gospel is complete. The preparer has come. The Messiah has come. The Sacrifice has been made. The Son has returned to the Father. The Holy Spirit has been given. The kingdom of God has arrived.