My name is John. John. One of the most common names in history. But my story is far from common. First off- my name was divinely given. An angel appeared to my dad, a priest named Zachariah, and told him that my mom, Elizabeth, was going to have a child- a boy. They were to name him- me- John, which means “God is gracious.” The angel told my dad that I’d be filled with God’s Spirit. He also told him that I was to be raised under the strict code of the Nazirites- Israelites consecrated specifically to the service of God.
Most descriptions of me are short and sweet, brief and stark. I wore a camel’s hair garment, bound by a leather belt. I mostly ate locusts and wild honey. And all of that begs the question- WHY? Why did I wear those kinds of clothes? Eat that kind of food? Live out in the wilderness? As I said, I was raised as a Nazarite. I was trained to live a simple, sacrificial life. I was prepared, from an early age, to focus on being the one who came to prepare…the way of the Lord.
Secondly, I’m often referred to as John the Baptizer or John the Baptist. And no- that doesn’t mean I’m a member of the Baptist Church! Instead, it means “one who administers the rite of immersion”. Baptism. My baptism was with water, for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus would come, however, to baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit.
My mom, Elizabeth, is the cousin of Mary- Jesus’ mom. That’s no accident. It also makes Jesus and me cousins. My conception was somewhat miraculous, but Jesus’ conception was immaculate. I was born about 6 months before Him. I also preceded Him in the coming of His earthly ministry. I was His herald, His messenger.
Any Hebrew familiar with the Old Testament should have expected my ministry- it was foretold all the way back in the Book of Isaiah- “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness; prepare the way of the Lord”. The last book of the Old Testament, Malachi, even more directly points to me- “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to His temple; the Messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come.” I am “the messenger who will come”. But Jesus is “the Messenger of the covenant”.
As I said, I tended to be a loner, living out in the desert by myself. I never sought out crowds of people. Instead, somehow, I seemed to attract them. Thousands of people came to me and were baptized by me. And I want to be clear- it wasn’t my clever wit or sparkling personality that attracted them- it was solely the message I preached. There was a God-shaped hole in the people’s hearts. They were searching for something that was missing. The Word that God gave me to share with them began to fill that hole.
Some of the Jewish leaders began to take notice of me and sent a delegation of priests out to find out who I was…and who I THOUGHT I was. They wanted to know if I was claiming to be the Messiah. They wanted to know if I was claiming to be the Old Testament prophet Elijah, reincarnated. I assured them, in no uncertain terms, that I was NOT the promised Messiah OR a reincarnated Elijah. Then they asked if I was a prophet. I again assured them I was not. Finally, in desperation, they asked, “Well, then who ARE you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
I told them I was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. I told them I was the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’ I told them I was the voice of preparation, announcing the coming of Emmanuel- God with us. I am NOT the Light. I simply came to bear witness TO the Light. I’m not even worthy to carry His sandals.
Turns out, they weren’t done with their questioning, “If you’re not the Messiah, or Elijah or a Prophet, why do you baptize?” Again, I was ready with an answer, “I baptize with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than me- I’m not worthy to carry His sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand. He’ll clear the threshing floor, gathering His wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
One day, I was talking with two of my disciples. As we talked, I looked up, saw Jesus and said to those with me, “Look, the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world! THIS is the one I meant when I said, ‘A Man Who comes after me has surpassed me because He was before me’.”
Soon after that, I was in the Jordan River, baptizing new believers when Jesus came walking down the hill. I was stunned. I waded near the bank of the river and said to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by You. Why do You come to me?” Jesus laid His hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eye and, as He waded out into the water next to me, said, “Let it be so now. It’s correct for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” And so…I baptized…the Messiah. And as I brought Him up out of the water, the most amazing thing I have ever seen happened. Heaven opened and the Spirit of God descending like a dove, landing on Jesus. And then, God spoke. “This is my Son, Whom I love. I am well pleased with Him.”
If you remember the story, Herod the Great was king when Jesus was born. His son, Herod Antipas, was the king when I was in the middle of my ministry. He didn’t like what I was doing, so, during the time that Jesus was being tempted by the devil in the wilderness, he had me arrested.
Although already married, King Herod fell in love with Herodias, the wife of his half-brother, Philip. He convinced her to leave his brother. He then divorced his wife and married her. I heard about this…sinful arrangement and couldn’t keep silent. I told Herod that what he was doing was wrong. And even though he didn’t like what I said, he saw me as a righteous man and wanted to protect me. But his “wife”- Herodias- was furious- so she had me thrown in prison. While I was there, I began to struggle with…everything. I KNEW Jesus was the One. I KNEW it. But I had SO hoped that the Messiah would come as a conquering king…not a suffering servant. So, I sent people to ask Jesus, “ARE you the One Who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus understood my question- He knew I was struggling. So, He sent them back to me with these instructions, “Tell John what you’ve heard and seen. Tell him about the blind receiving sight, the lame walking, the lepers cleansed, the deaf hearing, the dead raised, and the good news proclaimed to the poor.” Then Jesus added something else- especially for me, “Blessed is anyone who doesn’t stumble because of Me.”
All along, Herodias was looking for an opportunity to get rid of me. And finally, she found it. It was Herod’s birthday, so he threw a big party. Herodias’ daughter danced at the party. He was so pleased with her dancing that he told she could ask for anything she wanted and he would grant it. She went to her mother to see what she should ask for. Herodias was ready. She asked for my head on a platter- literally. Herod, to honor his word, send an executioner to the dungeon to finish the deed. My earthly ministry was done.
I would like to take a second to clear something up. People are often troubled by the fact that the Bible quotes me as saying that I didn’t know Jesus until the day I baptized Him. I DID say it- but my words have been misunderstood ever since. Of course I knew Him- we were cousins. But until that day- the day I baptized Him, the day God’s Spirit came down from heaven- until that day, I didn’t know Jesus fully as Messiah. Once God’s Holy Spirit came down on Him, there in the Jordan River, there could be NO doubt- He is the Messiah.
I WATCHED the Spirit of God come down from heaven, like a dove, and envelope Jesus. I have seen and I can testify that Jesus IS God’s Chosen One. I didn’t perform any signs or miracles. That wasn’t my job. My job was simply to prepare the way for Jesus. Instead, my ministry focused on a simple but challenging call- repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is near. I challenged those who were baptized but refused to change, “You sons of snakes! Who warned you to run from the fury that’s about to break over your heads? You’ve got to re-shape your lives. God’s new order of the Spirit is confronting you!” I wanted their faith to produce fruit. Spiritual fruit is the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual conviction. Without spiritual fruit, there’s no real repentance.
I’m NOT the Messiah. I’m the one who was sent ahead of Him. HE is the One. The bride belongs to the bridegroom. And the friend, who attends to the bridegroom, waits and listens for Him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and now it’s complete. I must become less so He can become greater.