I love Caravaggio's renderings of John.
When I taught the gospel of Matthew at Bethlehem Baptist I spent a lot of time with John.
But this weekend as I was preparing for a meditation on John, I learned so much more about him from a talk on Revelation and the weekend's overall emphasis upon 'hope'. Now I have more questions, more interests and an even deeper devotion to John as one of my heroes.
Below is the meditation with some of these insights woven in (but by no means with full integration--that will take a couple more years.)
John the Baptist
One of the things I have always loved about the Kingdom of God as it appears in the Scriptures is how real it is. There are very few men and women in the Scriptures who fit the profile of “Superhero Christian.” They struggled – really struggled – with their own sin, with doubt and despair, with confusion about how God was working in their lives and in the world around them. They were really real people.
When Abraham started thinking he was getting too old for God to fulfill his promise of a son, he worked out an arrangement whereby his wife would give him her concubine to sleep with. And all sorts of chaos erupted in his family life. He ended up exiling the faithful servant and his own son because of all the jealousy and trouble that caused. And yet he is the father of our faith.
David had continual problems with women, his sons turned against him, his generals were not men of integrity and he was unable to rein them in. And yet this is the one of whom God said, “Here is a man after my own heart.”
Jesus asked three of his closest disciples, at a critical moment, to pray with him in the Garden. They fell asleep. Jesus called an hour long prayer meeting (and these were young men) and they fell asleep. Peter, James and John. Along with Paul these men became the leaders of the first century church.
Paul himself wrestled his entire life with some unknown “thorn in the flesh,” something so significant that he begged God three times to take it away. But bearing that thorn he spread the gospel throughout Asia Minor.
In the lives of these men, in the things they built and the works they accomplished, the Kingdom did come, God did work.
And that gives me tremendous hope.
One of my favorite characters in this mix is John the Baptist, someone who demonstrates both this full and flawed humanity as well as the power of hope in the life of a believer.
As you listen to his story, put yourself in his shoes. Get caught up in his hopes, his disappointments, and his relationship with Jesus.
We don’t know anything about it from the scriptures, but John must have had a pretty interesting childhood.
He must have heard time and again the story of how his father was struck dumb by an angel while serving in the Holy of Holies and had regained his voice only at the time of John’s consecration in the temple.
People probably said to him on more than one occasion, “The Lord must have plans for you, young man!”
Some scholars think it is more likely that he was orphaned at a young age and grew up in the desert area outside of Jerusalem, in one of the prophetic communities that had sprung up out there.
One way or another, John seems to have been a young man who loved the scriptures, especially the prophets. He saturated himself in the vision of a restored Israel, of YHWH’s eventual triumph in the world.
And sometime in his mid 20’s the Holy Spirit put a word for his people into John’s heart. John started to realize that, just as in the days of those prophets he loved, all was not well in Israel – especially not in the Temple or in the Synagogues. He saw just what the prophets of old had seen – sheep without true shepherds, wolves who devoured the flock, leaders who either made peace with Rome and allowed themselves to be used by the Empire or who went to the opposite extreme and talked about Rome as if the real problem in Israel was foreign soldiers rather than idolatry and a loss of spiritual vision for the work of the Lord on the part of the People of God.
So John set up camp in the wilderness – because that’s where you went if you were anti-establishment. That’s where you went if you were a prophet. And that’s where you went if you thought God was going to judge those in the city and you wanted to make a point. It’s safe out here.
When the Pharisees and Sadducees later came out to see him, John sarcastically quipped, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Who told you to come out here?”
In imitation of the prophet Elijah, John wore camel’s hair and a leather belt
He ate locusts and wild honey.
And he had a message.
John believed that YHWH was on the move.
He adopted the mission of the prophet Isaiah:
Prepare the way of the Lord; Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted And every mountain and hill brought low; The crooked places shall be made straight And the rough places smooth; The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, And all flesh shall see it together; For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
The Messiah was coming, and he was coming on a highway of holiness.
In that day the heir to David's throne will be a banner of salvation to all the world. The nations will rally to him, for the land where he lives will be a glorious place. In that day the Lord will bring back a remnant of his people for the second time … The LORD will make a dry path through the Red Sea …He will make a highway from Assyria for the remnant there, just as he did for Israel long ago when they returned from Egypt.
And this must have been particularly sweet to John:
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb sing. For waters shall burst forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert. The parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water; in the habitation of jackals, where each lay, there shall be grass with reeds and rushes. A highway shall be there, and a road, and it shall be called the Highway of Holiness. The unclean shall not pass over it, but it shall be for others. Whoever walks the road, although a fool, shall not go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast go up on it; it shall not be found there. But the redeemed shall walk there, and the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing, with everlasting joy on their heads. They shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
He believed that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand. He believed in a New Exodus. He believed in a fully realized return from exile. He believed it was a new day for his people, Israel.
This was John’s vision. This was his hope. This was the stuff he believed in. He wanted to see it happen and he believed that it was happening.
When the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and purged the blood of Jerusalem from her midst, by the spirit of judgment and by the spirit of burning, then the Lord will create above every dwelling place of Mount Zion, and above her assemblies, a cloud and smoke by day and the shining of a flaming fire by night.
Or as Malachi said:
And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple, even the Messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight. Behold, He is coming," Says the Lord of hosts. "But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears?
For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, and all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble. And the day which is coming shall burn them up," says the Lord of hosts, "That will leave them neither root nor branch. But to you who fear My name The Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in His wings; and you shall go out and grow fat like stall-fed calves. You shall trample the wicked, for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day that I do this," Says the Lord of hosts.
John’s message was this: “YHWH is on the move. But he is coming as a refining fire. Therefore repent. The kingdom of heaven is at hand! Repent and be baptized. Join it! Join it right now out here in the desert! “
“And start living right, because if you don’t bear the fruit of repentance, YHWH will cut you down like a barren tree, and the one who is coming after me will sift you like chaff.”
Before long, he was getting attention. Crowds were pouring out of Jerusalem to be baptized by John. They asked him what they should do to be saved. He was a regional phenomenon. Some people started following him around to help out. He had disciples! He had a ministry!
And John knew what he had to do. The Holy Spirit showed him that this was the one.
And so, even though he believed that he was not fit to untie his cousin’s sandal, John baptized Jesus in the wilderness, anointing him for his ministry. “He must increase, and I must decrease.” He turned it all over to the one he believed was the Messiah, the Savior of Israel, his cousin, Jesus, from Nazareth.
Maybe it was bittersweet but if so it was more sweet than bitter. After all, this was what he had been waiting for! This is what it had all been about!
Immediately, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to undergo his testing. And when he came out and began his own formal ministry Jesus picked up right where John had left off. He even borrowed John’s message:
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
John continued to preach and baptize, now pointing people in expectation to Jesus. And he must have heard of the incident in the synagogue where Jesus had read the passage from Isaiah and announced its fulfillment.
He must have inwardly cheered. That was a nice piece of work.
He must have watched eagerly to see how Jesus would be received, how John’s own legacy would move forward.
To begin with, John had gotten himself in hot water, speaking out against the marriage of Herod to his brother's wife and calling it not a real marriage but adultery. The wife in particular was upset and John ended up in jail. But he wasn’t killed (no instantaneous martyr’s death; no quick, sharp final words.) He was simply left there to rot.
Jesus wasn’t quite stacking up.
It seems, for one thing, that Jesus’ followers weren’t quite as careful in their obedience to the law as John’s were. They ate with unwashed hands for one thing. And they didn’t fast as John and his disciples did and as even the Pharisees did. In fact, they seemed to be found more often feasting than fasting and praying.
Then there were these people he had gathered about himself – Zealots and tax collectors and fishermen. And worse than these were hanging around the fringes – prostitutes and Roman soldiers.
Where was the winnowing fork he was supposed to bring?
Where the judgment?
Where the baptism with fire that John himself had promised?
What exactly was going on here? Some of the people in John’s circle began to wonder. Began to grumble. John himself started asking whether or not he had done the right thing to baptize this Nazarene, cousin or not.
So from prison he sent a couple of his followers to Jesus with this simple question:
"Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?"
Can you imagine what it must have cost John to even ask that question?
John had baptized Jesus.
John had functioned as credibility for Jesus’ fledgling ministry.
Jesus had even used his connection with John as a foil against his critics.
But John saw what was happening and as committed as he had been to Jesus, his commitment to YHWH was stronger. If this was a false Messiah, he needed to know. He needed to move on. But after all that prep work in the desert? And what was he going to be able to do from prison?
"Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?"
And that very hour He cured many of infirmities, afflictions, and evil spirits; and to many blind He gave sight. Jesus answered and said to them, "Go and tell John the things you have seen and heard: that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.
Jesus spoke into John’s confusion and doubt. And he did two things for John.
First of all, he acted in power and in a manner recognizable to anyone who knew YHWH as YHWH at work. He healed people, he cast out demons, and he opened the eyes of the blind.
Then he gave John – sitting in prison, frustrated, confused, but still faithful to YHWH – a winsome answer that must have spoken straight to John’s heart:
The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the gospel preached to them.
Jesus took John right back to Isaiah, to the prophets he loved, to the hope he had for Israel and the trust he had in YHWH.
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb sing.
Jesus probably knew that John was not long for this world. Living in a cell in Herod’s palace was not good life insurance. And Jesus probably knew that John knew. They weren’t dumb.
And into the midst of all that, he said:
“Cousin, open your eyes. Open your eyes not only to the present, but also to the future.
“The blind see, John. The lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised. The poor, John, have the gospel preached to them.
“And the ransomed of the Lord shall return. They shall obtain joy and gladness. Sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
“Keep hoping, John. These are but the first fruits. The Kingdom is coming.”
And he had one more word for John:
“Blessed is he who is not offended because of me. Keep hope and keep faith, John. Keep faith with me.”
Within a year, John was dead, his undignified, back-alley beheading the tragic outcome of a sick tale of lust and politics.
But he died in hope. He died looking forward to what YHWH was going to do in his cousin, Jesus. Maybe even as the sword fell he was able to say with Simeon, “Now you are letting your servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation, a light for the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
Whether or not he washed his hands or hung out with prostitutes, this was the man through whom the prophecy would be fulfilled:
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing, with everlasting joy on their heads. They shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
And here we are.
We are the ransomed of the Lord.
We live in a different world from John the Baptist in some sense. We have Jesus. We know what God was doing in Him. And we are all full of the Spirit.
But sorrow and sighing have not fled away. There is still more to come. Like John, we live in a time between times. We live in the already and the not yet. The Kingdom has come but the Kingdom is still coming.
So like John, we sometimes end up in circumstances that are not of our choosing. Like John, we sometimes face frustration and confusion. And like John, we sometimes question at a very deep level what the Lord is doing and sometimes whether he is doing anything at all.
Briefly, I want to offer three things we can learn from John’s story that might help us not only in those times of frustration and confusion, but at all times when we are looking for what the Lord is doing or working to understand how the kingdom is coming in our own day and age.
First of all, consider the unexpectedness of what the Father was up to in sending Jesus.
The expectations of the Israelites in Jesus’ day were all over the map. Based on the things YHWH had promised them, some expected that he would judge Israel with fire from heaven. Some thought he would send a Messiah who would lead a political revolution against Rome and usher in a new era for the Jews in the holy land, and they were on the lookout for just such a leader. Others thought that God was waiting on his people to faithfully keep the Law and then he would act.
Jesus was an amazing frustration to all of these expectations and at the same time, the Father really did fulfill all his promises to Israel in Jesus.
It just didn’t look like what they thought it would look like.
And God still operates that way. He is still a surprising God. What he is doing by the power of the Spirit still catches us by surprise and takes our breath away even as we are a part of it.
Expect to be surprised by God.
Desire to be surprised.
Otherwise, we stand a good chance of missing what He’s doing.
In fact, ask the Lord to surprise you again, especially if you are feeling discouraged or confused or simply worn out or spent, but even if you are not.
Secondly, learn from the faithfulness of John. Even in prison, confused and frustrated by this would be Messiah who seemed to have started so well but gone down a strange path, he asked, “Are you the one, or should we look for another?” He didn’t say, “Are you the one, or has God failed us?” He said, “are you the one, or should we look for another?” He kept faith with his God.
Even in his confusion and doubt, he believed what YHWH had promised. Presumably if Jesus has not been the Messiah for whom John was waiting, he would have kept looking, even in prison, listening for rumors, sending out his disciples. He would have continued to believe in the promises of his God, in the word of the prophets, in hope for the future of the People of God.
So have faith in what you know of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Trust that He is being faithful to you now and that he will continue to be. Trust that he will never leave you or forsake you.
Finally, learn from this encounter that one of the best ways to grab a hold of the hope that God wants to work in you, the kind of hope that will sustain you through joy, fear, gladness, confusion, disappointment and even death, is to open your eyes to the work of Jesus now.
So pull back the veil of whatever curtain threatens to keep you from seeing how wonderfully God is at work all around you.
The dwelling of God is with men!
Today, brothers, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.
The dwelling of God is with you.
In this hour and in this place, Jesus is working.
And he wants to say to you, “Brother, think of all you have seen in the years you have followed me. Think of all you see me doing now. Keep faith, brother. Hope in God.”
Tonight, when you come back in for the opening of the Lord’s Day, prepare yourself to pull back the veil and see over 150 men sitting down at table together in the Lord.
Pull back the veil and see high school students, college students, men who are the fathers of young families, men who are the fathers of those high school students, and men who are the fathers of those fathers – all together in the same work.
The blind see.
The lame walk.
The lepers are cleansed.
The deaf hear.
The dead are raised.
The poor have the gospel preached to them.
The message of hope, like the book of Revelation we heard about earlier, is a message in three tenses, a message of faith in the God who IS and WAS and IS TO COME!