One of the very first people encountered in the gospel story is the person of John. He was called “John the Baptist,” most likely to distinguish him from John the apostle, but also because it was a brief and accurate description of his ministry: John came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin (see Mark 1.4).
John was unique among the people whom Jesus met for many reasons. First, he is one of the very few people identified in the Bible to be born of a woman who was previously barren. John’s mother Elizabeth joined the impressive group of barren women whose womb was miraculously and purposefully opened by God: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Manoah’s wife, and Hannah. His birth was one of the very few in the Bible announced by an angel (see Luke 1.8-17), and he is one of the first to respond to the presence of the Messiah, even while still in the womb (see Luke 1.44).
John was no ordinary baby boy; he was born with the purpose of being the forefunner of the Messiah. The prophet Malachi foretold that a messenger would come who would prepare the way for the Messiah (see Malachi 3.1), and this messenger would come in the spirit and power of Elijah (see Luke 1.17). Jesus Himself identified that John was indeed that messenger (see Matthew 11.14).
But like all prophets before him, the life of a prophet was not an enjoyable nor comfortable life. John lived in the wilderness for most of his life, wearing the clothing of wild animals and eating the food of the wilderness (see Matthew 3.4-6). He was given a harsh message to share, a message of judgment and conviction, a message calling those who would hear to confess their sins and to repent. He confronted the religious people who trusted in their religious pedigree to make them right with God (see Luke 3.8). He confronted the soldiers and tax collectors who abused their positions of power for personal gain (see Luke 3.12-14). He confronted those who lacked love for their neighbor (see Luke 3.10-11). And while he called the religious leaders a “brood of vipers,” the common people responded to the message of John by being baptized for the forgiveness of sins in the expectation of the coming Messiah.
As far as we know, the great John the Baptist only had one or two face to face meetings with Jesus. A lifetime of preparation and sacrifice came down to two interactions over the course of two days. One day when John was baptizing and preaching, Jesus appeared to be baptized by John. The Spirit had already told John that he would be able to identify the Messiah because he would see the Spirit descend upon that person. And even though this had not yet happened, John knew there was something special about Jesus. At first, John did not want to baptize Jesus, claiming that Jesus should baptize him. But Jesus insisted to “fulfill all righteousness” (see Matthew 3.15), and John complied.
And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3.16-17)
Seeing the Spirit descend upon Jesus, John knew that Jesus was the Messiah. The next day,
He saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ 31I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” (John 1.29-34)
And that appears to be the end of John’s personal interaction with Jesus. Two brief but life changing encounters.
After that, John continued his ministry of preaching a baptism of repentance and pointing people towards Jesus. In fact, the people by and large turned their attention from John and begin to focus on Jesus. When John’s followers noticed this shift, they came to John and said to him,
“Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” 27John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. 28You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ 29The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. 30He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3.25-30)
It appeared that John’s fifteen minutes of fame was coming to an end. After spending years in the desert being prepared to make a way ready for the coming Messiah, and after months of preaching repentance, John’s ministry began to fade into the background.
John was soon arrested by King Herod because he had been preaching against all the evil things that Herod had done (see Luke 3.18-19). He was eventually be-headed at the foolish request of King Herod’s step-daughter (see Matthew 14.1-13). But before that fateful day, while still in prison, John sent messengers to Jesus.
And John, 19calling two of his disciples to him, sent them to the Lord, saying, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” 20And when the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you, saying, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’” 21In that hour he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight. 22And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. 23And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” (Luke 7.18-23)
We are not told why John questioned Jesus towards the end of his life. Many find it hard that the prophet who wandered in the wilderness in a garment of camel’s hair eating locust and honey, who sacrificed his life to prepare the people for the coming Messiah, who experienced the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus, and who heard the voice from Heaven declaring Jesus to be the Son of God would later question the Messiah.
But as great as John was, John was a human prophet. And at the risk of putting words into his mouth, surely John must have wondered that if Jesus was the coming Messiah, the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the worlds, then what was he doing in prison? Even John needed to hear the words of Jesus, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
The life of John has so many lessons for those who follow Christ two thousand years later. Even though John devoted his life to his calling as the forerunner of the Messiah, and even though he sacrificed his life and reputation to carry out his calling to preach a baptism of repentance, and even though he personally experienced the voice of God, and even though he suffered the humiliation of being left behind as people flocked to Jesus, and even though he boldly preached a message of righteousness in the face of a King’s anger, John still had to wrestle in faith. John had to constantly submit his life to the plan of God, to be used by God to exalt the Messiah, even though that may have meant that he was trampled in the dust.
I am sure John had his “Nathan Hale moments” where he cried out “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my Messiah,” but he also had his John moments where he wondered, “Is He the one, or should I look for another.” And in those moments of doubt, in those moments when the Enemy whispered in John’s ear that if Jesus was truly the Messiah he wouldn’t be suffering in prison, in the loneliness of the prison, John was reminded of the miraculous ministry of Jesus. He was reminded of the voice from Heaven, and he was encouraged to not be offended by the mission and plan of Jesus.
We all have our John moments, those moments in life where we are tempted to think that if Jesus really loved us then He would rescue us from our troubles and deliver us from all evil. The Enemy wants to sell us the lie that our sacrifices for the Kingdom surely have earned us a free pass from suffering in Herod’s prison. The Enemy wants us to feel the humiliation of being discarded and ignored as the ministry of others increases. The Enemy wants us to be offended by Jesus.
If you feel Herod’s jailers coming for your head, if you feel discarded and forgotten, if you feel the emptiness of a life of decrease, then take encouragement from the one “among those born of women none is greater” (see Luke 7.28). Be encouraged that John knew the same doubts, the same despair, and Jesus did not speak words of anger or judgment to John. He simply told John’s followers to remind John of what he had seen and heard. John had heard his calling. John had heard the voice of God. John had seen the Spirit descending upon Jesus. And in the end, John needed to hear his own words over and over again: Jesus must increase, and I must decrease.
Blessed are the ones who are not offended by the Messiah.