November 27, 2021 - John the Baptist

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Today we’re going to talk about John the Baptist. “It seems to me that you lived your life like a candle in the wind…Your candle burned out long before your legend ever will.” These words sung by Elton John at the funeral of Princess Diana could just as easily have been spoken at the funeral of John the Baptist, as his followers laid his lifeless body in a tomb in the desert. Here’s a guy whose candle definitely burned out too soon.

All four Gospels make a huge connection between Jesus and John the Baptist. The historian Josephus (Antiquities 18:116-19) pays more attention to John than he does to Jesus. Josephus writes 163 words in Greek about John, versus possibly 80 about Jesus, depending on how much of his most famous passage about Jesus (Antiquities 18:63-64) is authentic. In fact, we need to answer the question whether or not the Gospels have exaggerated the connection between John and Jesus, and whether John’s endorsement of Jesus is historical, or whether it is an invention of the early church to try to hitch their wagon to John’s popularity.

We talk about this in my book The Historical Jesus and the Historical Joseph Smith. Jesus’ baptism by John meets both the criteria of multiple sources and embarrassment. Three sources record the actual baptism. And together, the four canonical Gospels tie John and Jesus together in such a way as to make Jesus look like a follower or at least someone who endorses John, a move that could potentially send the wrong message about who is greater, John or Jesus.

Bible scholar Craig Blomberg writes, “Given the early Christian concern to play down the role of John the Baptist and to exalt Jesus, just about everything that places John in a positive light is likely to be historical…” In Matthew 11:11 and Luke 7:28, Jesus credits John with being the greatest human who ever lived up till then (including Abraham and Moses). Jesus even says that John is the Elijah predicted by Malachi (Matthew 11:14). Such high praise for John by Jesus is unlikely to have been invented.

Matthew is the only Gospel that says John tries to prevent Jesus from being baptized. John reflects the mixed feelings of Matthew’s audience. In a doubtful scene quoted in Jerome (Against Pelagius 3:2), the Gospel of the Hebrews has Jesus object: “How have I sinned, that I should go and be baptized by him, unless perhaps this very thing I have said is a sin of ignorance?” Craig Blomberg argues that, because of the problems created by Jesus receiving John’s baptism (a symbol of repentance of sin), “it is inconceivable that the early church would have created this story.” The connection between Jesus and John is historical bedrock.

John the Baptist was the first prophet to hit the scene in Israel in almost 400 years. You can imagine the excitement! It had been a long time since God’s people had heard straight from God. And what a character God sends as his spokesman: a guy who looks like he crawled out from under a rock – a guy who lives off the land, who takes the simple lifestyle to an extreme. John was a fiery, thundering type of guy, and yet his name means “The Lord is gracious.” What a contrast between his name and his image!

John was the kind of guy who’d never win a popularity contest. He was not Mr. Personality. John didn’t mince his words. As Charles Swindoll says, John was as subtle as an oncoming freight train, and as diplomatic as a buzz saw. John was as blunt as a butter knife. He was as abrasive as sandpaper. He was not a feel-good type of guy. You wouldn’t want John at your dinner party. Nobody in their right mind would want to elect John as their pastor. John didn’t fit our profile for what a pastor should be.

And yet, the crowds went wild for John. John had busloads from all over Judea coming down to the Jordan to hear him preach. Why? One reason is because John hits the scene in the year 26 AD, a sabbatical year, a year when farmers are supposed to take a year off, meaning there are lots of people with time on their hands to go hear him.

But a more important reason why the crowds were attracted specifically to John is because they knew that John told the truth. Maybe John wasn’t a likeable guy, but they knew that John was in touch with God. They knew that John had the truth, and would tell it to them straight, with no baloney. Sometimes the people we need to hear are not the most likeable people. Students often hate tough teachers, but later on we recognize that they were the teachers we learned the most from.

John’s message was all about repentance: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2). I used to think that “repent” means to get rid of every single sin in your life. But the Bible’s word for “repent” means a change of mind or a change of direction. It means to turn toward God instead of away from God. It means to love God more than you did before, and to hate sin more than you did before, which requires a complete turnaround, a change of mind, a change of heart.

John borrows the Jewish ceremony of baptism as a powerful symbol of the kind of repentance he has in mind. The Jews would perform a complete dunking in water on pagans who wished to convert to Judaism, to wash away the uncleanness of their old pagan identity. John takes this symbol of conversion and applies it to Jews also. He argues that even good Jews must come to God like unclean pagans who need to turn to God from their sin.

Naturally, many Jews in the crowd objected. “Hey! We’re already children of Abraham. We were born that way. We don’t need your baptism of repentance.” John says, “So what if you were born a descendant of Abraham? God can make children of Abraham out of these stones on the ground!” (A joke in Aramaic: “God can make benayya out of abinayya!”) John proclaims: “Nobody gets born into the kingdom of God. Nobody gets in except by being re-born.”

But getting people dunked was not what was most important to John. What was important to John was changed lives. What John wanted to see was repentance. Notice: John would not accept people for baptism who just wanted to go through the motions. John cries: “Who gave you the idea that baptism was cheap fire insurance? Bear fruit that befits repentance. Show me evidence from your life that you’ve had a change of heart toward God.” John wouldn’t baptize anyone who didn’t understand what they were doing. Let’s face it: John…was a Baptist!

John the Baptist is my favorite Biblical character. It’s not surprising that Jesus says, “Among those born of women, there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist.” Yes, I’ve noticed that John’s candle was blown out well before his time, and I have no great desire to suffer a similar fate, and yet I am attracted to John’s strengths. In many ways, I identify with John. Following in John’s footsteps is no way to have a long career, but I admire John for his courage, for his radical simple lifestyle, and for his humility.

John had the courage to act on principle, not expedience. John had the courage to speak the truth, even when it was dangerous to do so. It’s not that he enjoyed hurting people; John just had the courage to say what needed to be said, no matter whom he had to offend. John becomes the Headless Prophet for daring to suggest that the First Lady had no business dumping her first husband to marry Herod. How many of us would have found excuses to avoid the issue?

But John was not always as hard-nosed as we might imagine. Contrary to what we might expect, John did not command soldiers or tax collectors to quit their jobs, even though the Jews considered both of these to be unacceptable professions for a faithful Jew to practice. All John required is that soldiers and tax collectors pursue their jobs honestly. And unlike the Pharisees and the monastic groups out in the desert, who had rigid, exclusive membership requirements, John’s community of faith was open to all, even tax collectors and hookers, anyone who was willing to repent and believe.

We can also admire John as a man who had renounced the luxuries of the world. Since John’s parents were old when he was born, he probably became an orphan at an early age. A lot of orphans at this time were taken in and raised by a monastic group in the desert called the Essenes, where the members took vows to practice celibacy and radical simple lifestyles. (We talked about them in our October 16 program.) John may have been taken in by this group. A 1st-century writer tells us that John refused to eat human-made products like bread or wine. All we can say about John’s menu is that at least it was kosher. John’s radical simplicity gave tremendous power to his message when he tells the crowd, “Whoever has two coats, let them share with whomever has none, and whoever has food, let them do likewise” (Luke 3:11).

Finally, we can admire John as a man of exceptional humility. He made no claims to greatness. Lots of people back then thought that John might be the Messiah; John could have easily pretended to be the One. But John knew that he was not the star of the show. It was his job to point the way to Someone else. And when that special Someone arrives on the scene, John quickly and gracefully steps aside.

John allows Jesus to walk away with his followers, without protest! He lets Jesus steal the show out from under him. How many of us could have done that? John insists: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). What if John had refused to step aside and give up control? John was able to look beyond his own self-interest. John would have been sad if he had lived to see that today, 2000 years later, die-hard followers of John (known as the Mandeans) still exist in modern-day Iraq.

In a day like ours where the body of Christ demands leaders who make us feel good and cater to our desires, we need a few more characters like John the Baptist. No, we don’t need any more insensitive, self-appointed head-bashers, but we do need more prophets, individuals who are willing to challenge us with unpopular truth, people who are willing to take the same kind of risks that John did with Herod, without regard to their own self-interest, even if it costs them money, job, friends, or freedom.

A guy named Robert Quinn talks about what he calls the “transformational leader,” a leader who is driven not by personal survival, but by a moral vision of the way things ought to be. Such a leader is so tied to that vision that he/she is willing to sacrifice their own job, their own personal survival, even their life, of the sake of that vision. As I was reading Quinn, I suddenly realized that John the Baptist was one of those transformational leaders. He was willing to sacrifice his own personal survival for what he knew was right.

In a day like ours where we are intoxicated by comfort, we need more Christian souls who are willing to get rid of the distracting entanglements of material comfort, so that we can accomplish God’s mission for us, without being encumbered by the cares of this world and the delight in riches. In a day like ours where so many of us crave the limelight, where so many of us crave credit and recognition, we need more humble souls who are willing to do what needs to be done, without worrying about who sees or who gets the glory.

John the Baptist was a shining example of courage, simplicity, and humility. As John Piper has said, John’s life burned with authenticity. His was a powerful message of repentance: that in order to come to God, each of us must have a change of heart that produces evidence in our lives. No, he was no warm fuzzy personality, but John the Baptist was a guy who was real, a guy who told the honest truth even when it was not safe to tell, a guy who had the guts to act on principle, not political expedience, which led him to pay the ultimate price for what he stood for.

John truly lived his life like a candle in the wind. His candle burned out long before his legend ever will, and yet his life is a shining example to us today.

Christmas is a season of sharing. But it’s a season where we feel so much pressure to buy, when most of us already have more stuff than we’ll ever use. Why buy more, for someone who already has everything? John the Baptist calls us to do just the opposite.

Now, we have to understand that John was a very different type of guy. The guy who’s telling us to give away our extra change of clothes is a guy who only had 1 camel’s hair garment and a leather belt for his wardrobe (according to Matthew). John had no job, no family, no retirement account, no transportation, he ate kosher bugs and honey, and the only home he had was the open desert. The only reason John didn’t stink to high heaven is because he probably took constant ritual baths. Why John was the star attraction all over Judea at this time, literally God only knows.

So here’s the guy who’s calling us to unload whatever we don’t need. His target audience is crowds coming to him to be baptized. John puts on the brakes. Before he’ll baptize anyone, John wants evidence that these folks aren’t just trying to get cheap fire insurance. So John cries, “Bear fruit that befits repentance!” Show me evidence that your life has turned around before you come to me for baptism!

The crowd asks, “What shall we do?” What kind of evidence do you want? For starters, John gives just 4 examples of what a changed life would look like. He could have said much more. In all 4 examples, we see that genuine repentance will lead us to treat fellow humans justly.

John spells out the unspoken assumption that it is unjust for anyone to keep more than they’ll ever need while others lack even the basic necessities of life through no fault of their own. John tells the crowd that if they have even one more robe than they need, they should give the extra robe away to someone who has none. (The item of clothing here is not a coat, but the equivalent of a shirt or blouse.) And whoever has food, John says, should do likewise. (Again, these are the words of a guy who practices what he preaches, a guy who has no spare goods left to share.)

John then gives further advice to tax collectors and soldiers who want to be baptized. Now, other Jewish groups would have turned these potential followers away, but not John. John does not require them to give up their professions. What John does expect them to do is to practice their trades justly. And in both cases, that means they’re going to take a hit in their pocketbooks. God will not let tax collectors cheat the taxpaying public. And God will not let soldiers get extra income by “shakedowns” on civilians (a common practice). Such is the cost of showing that one means business with God. John tells both groups to be content with earning an honest living.

How should we implement John’s call to share? To help us answer that question, I would suggest these 2 questions: “Do I have more than I need?”, and, “Does someone else need what I have?” John reminds us that God has a passion for justice. If we claim to know God, we will likewise have a passion to share whatever we can spare, so that others who have nothing can have what they need.

Can we all live exactly like John the Baptist? Not unless we are willing to bring civilization to a halt and all go live off the land, and not unless we are willing to sacrifice advancements in medicine, technology, and basic utilities. Few can live like John lived, and few are ever called to do so. But all of us can be inspired by this man who practiced what he preached. And each of us can be legitimately challenged by his words.

A few questions you may have about John the Baptist. Did John hold the priesthood? If we accept the evidence from Luke, John was a pureblooded Levite on both sides of his family, and his father was an active priest in the Jerusalem temple. But we have no evidence that John was ever ordained as or served as a priest, at least, not the kind of priest found in the Bible. And we have no evidence in the Bible that John passed any priesthood on to anyone else. All John did was baptize.

A tougher question: since John was the Elijah predicted by Malachi (according to Jesus), how did John fulfill the prophecy that he would turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents? Malachi is not talking about doing genealogy or being baptized for one’s ancestors. Malachi is talking about breaking down barriers between the generations in his day, resolving conflict for which this verse is the only evidence we have. Notice: in Luke 1:17, the angel only says that John will turn the hearts of parents to their children. The angel also says John will turn the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous. Both of these involve restoring harmony. That’s what Jesus means when he says that Elijah will “restore all things.” John’s central task, says the angel, is to “make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” It’s not about restoring lost ordinances. John’s mission will be to restore relationships and prepare people’s hearts to receive the Messiah when he comes.

If John the Baptist was the greatest mere man who ever lived, Mary the mother of Jesus is arguably one of the greatest women. We'll talk about Mary next time on Biblical Words and World.