John the Baptist
3. Are You He?
It had been revealed to John the Baptist that when Israel’s Messiah appeared, he would recognise him by the witness of the Holy Spirit. (John 1:33) The two men, Jesus and John, may have known each other since they were boys and met when their mothers met. Perhaps John’s departure for the desert had meant that they had not seen each other for many years. Now, as Jesus approached the Baptist, John found it hard to understand why his cousin needed a baptism of repentance. Evidently John believed that Jesus needed no such baptism. However, John was about to enact a ritual which added a new dimension to baptism.
When Gentiles had entered the Jewish faith as proselytes, they had been baptised. By doing so, pagans had indicated that they had left their former life behind and had adopted the way of life of the Jews with its Law and ritual. Israelites born into the Kingdom of God as known in the Old Testament required no such repentance. Their moral standards had come to them as children of Abraham and in him they were right before God. If they had failed to live up to those standards, then they may have felt the need to go to John in order to renew their covenant.
The difference between the Baptism of John and the Baptism of Jesus is clarified by the early Church record in Acts 19:1‑7. Paul was at Ephesus when he came across twelve disciples who had progressed no farther than the baptism of repentance. The work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts and lives had not yet begun. They had never discovered that when Jesus comes into the life of a believer, it is not just a work of reformation. Baptism in the name of Jesus brings new life with powerful growth that transforms the believer into the likeness of Christ.
When Jesus came to John he was taking a step which no one else had ever taken. He was not asking to be given back the status which he as an Israelite had lost because he had broken the covenant given through Moses. Jesus had never lost that relationship. He was now pointing the way forward to those who would receive resurrection life by God’s mighty power. (Rom.6:5‑11) It is this which enables the disciple to conquer sin and do the things which God wants him to do.
The power of the Spirit, so evident in the fellowship and witness of the Early Church recorded in the Book of Acts, was first manifest in the life of Jesus. All who give real evidence of believing that he is the Son of God receive the same Spirit. John’s baptism of repentance was now coming to an end by this act of baptising Jesus; he was able to give his witness to the identity of Jesus.
John began to see the change in the work of God, so he introduced his disciples to his cousin. Instead of the fiery prophet denouncing the evil of his generation in such words as "the axe is laid to the root of the trees," (Matt.3:10 RSV) he announced Jesus as "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world." (John 1:29‑37 RSV) The sacrifice which was now prepared removed not only the sin of one nation, but the sin of the whole world. John began to see that God is not going to remove the sinner but that his heart goes out to the sinner in order to remove the sin.
At that moment too we see the greatness of John, he realised that his work was now almost finished. He accepted that the number of his disciples and the extent of his influence would decrease. He foresaw that the work and discipleship of Jesus would correspondingly increase. Like Elijah before him, he must be swept away from the scene of Divine activity before he could really see the fruit of his work; he must step down from the limelight so that another might shine in the glory of the Father. There was no thought of envy in John but rather a willingness not to stand in the way of God’s work which must go on; he rejoiced that Christ had come to give to the world that which he could never give. Envy there was, among his disciples who remained loyal to him. He began the hardest part of his ministry, that of retiring gracefully. He rejoiced to see Jesus’ success in attracting people to the Gospel but this could only mean his own eclipse in public ministry. As with all those who do God’s work, while his mission was in progress his enemies could not destroy him. Once the work was done and Messiah had come, John had to bear his final witness in prison. What a prison it was. High in the hills overlooking the Jordan valley John could hardly see the wonderful landscape which he must have loved and where he had so freely roamed. He was like a caged eagle, with all his strong, still youthful energy, pent up in chains. All his life he had been free from the confinements of men and stone walls; now he sat brooding upon what had happened. It is not surprising that his mind turned to that other young man, still free to preach and work among men and women, boys and girls. John must have believed that Jesus was establishing the kingdom of God; as Messiah he must surely bring to end, the injustice, the corruption and cruelty of such tyrants as Herod. He might well have asked why Jesus was not judging sinners and bringing the wrath of God upon those who disobeyed His law. Surely those who had borne witness to the Kingdom and purpose of God would be set free. Unable to bear it longer, John sent messengers to Jesus to ask him "Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?" (Luke 7:19 RSV) John knew that Jesus would not deceive him; his problem was not trust but confusion. How did Jesus feel when he heard that question? Had others asked it from similar motives? Some had left him after the feeding of the five thousand. (John 6:66)
Jesus invited John’s disciples to observe what was going on. This was more effective than sending a harsh reply, warning John to have stronger faith. Jesus knew human frailty and the temptations to which it was subject. His answer to John remains a monumental witness to what Jesus came for and how to judge the work of others. Like many another, John’s pious hopes of good people receiving their just deserts, were being dashed. God is never in a hurry; He does not do things in the human way.
As John’s disciples watched, they saw Jesus heal the sick and give sight to the blind. They heard how he cleansed some from leprosy and raised others from death. There appears to have been a great deal going on which is not described in the Gospels. Jesus was showing that the only power which can overcome evil is love. The power of the Spirit of Christ would take a long time to dislodge the powers of darkness; love is a slow worker but its results are more lasting than that which would only scratch the surface with human methods of retribution. His rebuke to his cousin was simple and loving. "Go and tell John what you have seen and heard...and blessed is he who takes no offense at me." (Luke 7:22‑23 RSV) Some did take offence and turn away; another did also and became a traitor. Would that his followers were half as gentle. When John re‑opens his eyes in the resurrection there will be no one greater to accept that everlasting love which will conquer the Herods and Ñeros of this world.
Blessed is he that is not offended in me, said the Lord. (Luke 7:23) Many more were going to be offended by Jesus’ method of introducing the Kingdom of God. It certainly did not suit the ears of many in Israel to be told that the Son of God could mix with tax collectors and what they considered to be the dregs of society. It was offensive to Israelites to hear that God sent His prophets to foreigners to bestow their favours, as Jesus showed in the Nazareth synagogue. (Luke 4:25‑27) Jesus was different from John. John was an ascetic type whose life was pure and free from the atmosphere of human society; he probably would not have moved among the poorest outcasts or touched those suffering from leprosy. He would never have had a meal with the drunkards. Jesus was different in that he saw something of the heritage of Abraham (and perhaps something of the image of God) in poor depraved sinners. Jesus did not find the company of the elite rich religious folk comfortable. J. B. Phillips translates the passage in Luke 7:31‑35 "What can I say that the men of this generation are like—what sort of men are they? They are like children sitting in the market‑place and calling out to each other, ‘We played at weddings for you, but you wouldn’t dance, and we played at funerals for you, and you wouldn’t cry!’ For John the Baptist came in the strictest austerity and you say he is crazy. Then the Son of Man came, enjoying life, and you say, ‘Look, a drunkard and a glutton, a bosom‑friend of the tax‑collector and the outsider!’ Ah, well, wisdom’s reputation is entirely in the hands of her children!" The Jewish people found Jesus and John very disturbing, and like many others, they did not want to be disturbed.
Ordinary people’s comment on the life of the Baptist was "Though John never performed a (miraculous) sign, all that John said about this man was true." (John 10:41 NIV) Would that such comment could be made about everyone who has claimed to follow Jesus. Could it be said of our witness?
Jesus’ epitaph to John has puzzled many. He said, "I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John; yet he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he." (Luke 7:28 RSV) Would John find no place in the kingdom he so valiantly proclaimed? John was numbered with those who proclaimed the Kingdom of God, and like Moses and Samuel, Isaiah and Jeremiah he must have a place in the ultimate purpose of God. John’s greatness, like that of all the prophets, lay in his deep humility and trust.
They remain extraordinary examples to all disciples of Jesus; but those who share the suffering and the throne with Christ are different from those who will be subject to Christ on earth. Because they will be the type of people that they were in this life, they will be completely happy and mature in the place God has assigned to them when they rise from the dead into the Kingdom of God’s dear Son. God does not fail to honour those who honour Him. They who sometimes suffered so much for His cause, will receive a life of peace and joy wherever it is and whatever they are doing.
The final word therefore is left to the writer to the Hebrews who so vividly described the faith of the men and women of the first and "old" order of spiritual things. It was a shadow or type of that which was to come. Now it had come and so the writer completes his picture gallery with the words "...all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect." (Heb.11:39‑40 RSV