“For I say unto you, Among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist” (Luke 7:28).
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The calling and life of John the Baptist are perhaps the greatest example of all of the prophets for the Gospel Age Church. He was born to a destiny of announcing the Messiah to the Jewish nation. He accepted that calling and ordered his life in full consecration to fulfill it. In his example, we see our calling to a similar destiny 2000 years later. We are inspired with his purpose. We desire to fulfill our destiny of announcing the Messiah to the world. We also must develop strength of character and hope to receive the approval of Jesus Christ. As with John, this may come with social stigma and rejection.
John the Baptist was a relative of Jesus. John’s father was an official of the Temple. John’s birth was miraculous, and it was announced to Mary by the angel Gabriel. John lived the sanctified life of a true prophet and had the privilege of introducing the Son of God. His rugged, ascetic lifestyle was true to his purpose. He spoke his mind. Jesus commended him as equal to the greatest of all prophets.
John the Baptist lived the dream of all the holy prophets who lived before him. John witnessed and announced Messiah (Matthew 13:16‑17). But how did he find his destiny? How did John the Baptist realize that he was the one spoken of by the Old Testament prophets? How could he be certain? What steps did he take to order his life to fulfill that destiny?
His Found Destiny
John found his destiny by studying present truth. Was it the 70 week prophecy that opened his mind? Was it the experience, teaching, and example of devout parents? Was it by the prophecy of his father Zachariah? (Luke 1:76‑79). Was it by observing Jesus during his formative years?
God probably prepared John in some measure through these channels and others. John responded to God’s call by living a life of purpose in the providence of God. These are the same channels that God uses to send messages to us about our calling and purpose. Our desire toward God and our study of present truth reveal our work. The time prophecies show its urgency and compel us to action, and God sends His holy angels to encourage and support us. If we are properly exercised, we also will have the strength to do God’s work; we also will find the destiny to which we were called.
There are many hidden treasures in the calling and life of John the Baptist, for our encouragement. Two experiences act like bookends to a storied life of announcing the presence of Jesus. The first experience was while John the Baptist was still in his mother Elizabeth’s womb. Mary, who was pregnant with Jesus, visited Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist. John “leapt” in her womb as soon as Mary arrived and saluted Elizabeth. This may picture how we also can announce the parousia (unseen presence) of Jesus Christ while we are spirit begotten. The second experience was at the end of his life when John sent some of his disciples to Jesus with a question: was Jesus the Messiah or were they to look for another?
These experiences encapsulate John’s life work of announcing Jesus, as well as provide insight into our work at the end of the Gospel Age. The first experience shows John the Baptist announcing Jesus to his mother and to Mary. The second experience shows John the Baptist announcing Messiah to his spiritual children. Both instances evidenced the authenticity of Jesus to people who either needed encouragement or who were spiritually hungry. Elizabeth and Mary were surely in a state of wonder and ecstatic joy co-mingled with many serious questions. John leaping in Elizabeth’s womb was surely an encouragement to both women. In addition, the disciples whom John sent to Jesus surely had doubts that needed to be dispelled, and Jesus delivered with great signs and miracles.
These two instances of John’s work beautifully illustrate the work of the antitypical John the Baptist (the Church) in the harvest at the end of the Gospel Age. The prophet Isaiah spoke of this work. “Strengthen ye the weak hands, and confirm the feeble knees. Say to them that are of a fearful heart, Be strong, fear not: behold, your God will come with vengeance, even God with a recompense; he will come and save you” (Isaiah 35:3‑4). As John the Baptist did this work during the harvest of the Jewish age, the Church is privileged to follow in this work during the harvest of the Gospel Age.
Some believe that sending his disciples to Jesus with this important question reveals an element of doubt in the mind of John the Baptist at the end of his life. This theory seems not plausible, as John was true to his mission in every other particular. From the day he baptized Jesus in the Jordan to the end of his life, John was resolute and faithful in his mission to convince his disciples of present truth: first to be baptized to repentance, then to follow Jesus Christ. John’s method of teaching by delivering a relevant question to his disciples was blessed by Jesus and resulted in one of the most memorable teaching moments in the New Testament. What could we do if we had confidence in Jesus Christ to answer the questions of our spiritual children? We also must send them to Jesus.
Greater than John
Jesus said: “Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matthew 11:11).
Many believe that Jesus was declaring John the Baptist to be the greatest prophet ever. They reason that John had the unique privilege of introducing the Son of God, with a singular resolve to do God’s will. John the Baptist knew his mission in life. He clearly understood that he had been set apart by God for a purpose. We cannot think of any servant of God who demonstrated such a rugged determination; it consumed every aspect of his adult life.
This powerful character is what God admires most in his servants: a total commitment to do His will, regardless of the challenges that confront them. John understood that God gave him a mission, and we should understand the same directive by God in our lives. All who are called of God are called for a purpose. All have unique gifts and talents that our Lord Jesus promises to multiply if we but put forth the effort to serve the Lord and thereby find and fulfill our own destiny.
A Sanctified, Rugged, Ascetic Life
“Jesus began to say unto the multitudes concerning John, What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind? But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses” (Matthew 11:7‑8).
Jesus used a contrasting question to correct the people’s perception of what to expect of a prophet. Servants of God are generally resolute, not easily “shaken with the wind,” and they most often do not lead a life of luxury or ease. John shows us that God’s people should be distinguished by their unbridled devotion to God’s will and not by wealth and circumstances. The spiritually weak among us have the responsibility to become spiritually strong.
Matthew records an interesting description of John’s rugged lifestyle. “And the same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 3:4). Locusts and wild honey were considered food for the poor, compared to the diet of many wealthy and indulgent Jews of the day. The stark sight of such a person was certainly hard for the Israelites to relate to, especially its religious leadership.
John’s unusual deportment was a result of the life choices that he made. Were his life choices a result of rituals he adopted to keep him focused? Were they a result of a lack of income because he was totally devoted to his mission? In either case, he received the approval and commendation of Jesus and we should take note. First, we should not confuse our material success with God’s approval. Like John, we should concentrate on the body of our work and have supreme confidence in God to provide for our material needs while we do His work and He does His work in us.
Additionally, we should not judge a book by its cover. As the Apostle Peter said, “God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him” (Acts 10:34‑35). How many blessings in life do we miss because we dilute our life’s work by being overly concerned about our appearance? Alternately, how many times have we dismissed someone because of their appearance? If our spiritual life could be helped by staying away from certain foods or activities that would please our physical senses, our life for God would benefit by adding these rituals into our lifestyle to keep us from temptations that could derail our work. That was John’s part in the process of his sanctification.
John displayed the character virtue of boldness as he challenged Herod to repent of his sins (Luke 3:19,20). Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, was involved in an illicit relationship with Herodias, his half-brother’s wife. John was viewed as an eccentric preacher. Herod was an exalted ruler. We might think that anyone objecting to Herod’s lifestyle would shrink away at the prospect of challenging such a powerful man, but not a prophet of God. The Lord’s people should not exhibit cowardice when delivering God’s messages. When rebuking for unrighteousness is called for, we should not temper our objection based on a person’s earthly rank or position. John stood for principle even though it resulted in his murder.
John helped the spiritually weak become strong. His earthly poverty provided the platform for this work. He demonstrated this memorably when he sent his disciples to Jesus. His gentle concern for their spiritual welfare was in the midst of his own dire, life‑ending circumstances. By sending them on this mission to observe Jesus, they too would be convinced of Jesus’ Messiahship and would be better enabled to follow Jesus after John’s own passing.
Jesus also is a wonderful model of this behavior. In the Garden of Gethsemane, being arrested before his own ignominious death, Jesus focused on the needs of his disciples when he said, “I have told you that I am he: if therefore ye seek me, let these go their way” (John 18:8). Hours later, when Jesus was suffering on the cross, he asked one of his disciples to care for Mary, his mother (John 19:26,27). When we find ourselves in trying circumstances, we may have spiritual success when we focus outwardly, on the spiritual welfare of others.
He Was Sure of His Mission
At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry he went to John to be baptized. The gospel of Matthew tells us that John at first objected. “John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?” (Matthew 3:14).
Was it not odd that John would challenge the decision of one he knew to be the Messiah? Whom he had lived his life to introduce? Similarly, was it not odd for Peter to object to Jesus’ request to wash his feet? (John 13:8). The similar reactions of John and Peter show their certainty of Jesus’ authenticity and their visceral understanding of their mission. Their willingness to comply must have provided a warmth of fellowship to Jesus.
These experiences are rich with meaning to us. When Jesus told John why he wanted to be baptized, John immediately proceeded. When Jesus cautioned Peter about his reluctance to have Jesus wash his feet, Peter enthusiastically asked for more. Similarly, in our lives, there are times when Jesus approaches us in a way that seems counter‑intuitive. Do we provide Jesus with that same warmth of fellowship? Like John the Baptist and the Apostle Peter, if we have sufficient reason to believe that Jesus is directing the matter, our primary focus should be simple obedience to his will and to his standards of righteousness.
John was humble. He did not seek his own glory. His primary message was repentance from sin in preparation for Messiah. Accordingly, he kept Jesus in the forefront of everything he said or did. We should emulate this pattern in our ministries, which is possible only because of the finished work of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Seeking self‑gratification, advancing our own agenda, or seeking partisan success, should never be part of our mission in the Narrow Way. “My goal is Christ, and Christ alone.” Do we know our mission? Are we sure of our mission? What steps are we taking to do our part in our sanctification? We will gain rich insights from the life and work of John.
Elijah, John and Us
Anyone who wondered if John the Baptist was, in some way, Elijah returned from the dead, would have every right to be confused. When asked if John were Elijah, Jesus said in Matthew 11:14, “If you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come” (NIV). In John 1:21, however, we read the words of John himself: “They asked him, Then who are you? Are you Elijah? He said, I am not” (NIV). So, is the answer yes or no? It is actually yes and no, and for very good reasons.
Both Elijah and John were prophets with similarities in their manner of life. Please compare 2 Kings 1:8 and Matthew 3:4. They also mirrored one another in confronting wicked rulers (1 Kings 18:17,19, Matthew 14:3), in calling Israel to repentance (1 Kings 18:39, Matthew 3:5), and they shared the plight of being victims of evil women. For Elijah it was Jezebel, for John it was Herodias.
The scriptures tell us that John came in the “spirit and power of Elias” (Luke 1:17). John was the New Testament forerunner who pointed the way toward the Lord, as Elijah fulfilled that role in the Old Testament. Not all those listening to the words of Jesus had sufficient motivation to distinguish between Elijah and John, which is why he began his declaration in Matthew 11:14 with the stipulation “if you are willing to accept it.” John was a fulfillment of the type of Elijah. We want to be in the category of those who seek the Lord’s arrangements well beyond a surface glance.
With all of the wonderful aspects of John’s short life, we might wonder why Jesus said, “Verily I say unto you, among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matthew 11:11). How is it possible that those least in the kingdom of heaven will be in a greater position than John in any of God’s arrangements? The answer lies in timing, not in worthiness. John died shortly before the heavenly call was offered and the prospect of living and reigning with Christ as partakers of the divine (spiritual) nature was made available. John will come back to life on earth, not in heaven. Rewards for obedience can differ within the scope of God’s divine plan of the ages, just as what we do and how we live depends greatly on where we are born and where in the stream of history we live. We can be fully assured that everyone who serves the Heavenly Father will be richly rewarded beyond their ability to imagine. Everyone’s reward will be “just right” for them.
John was a forerunner of Jesus at his first advent. We are forerunners of Jesus at his second advent. Though John’s way of life was far different from ours, the vital principles of consecration transcend time, place, and lifestyle. Few of us live the austere life of John the Baptist. But we can copy his dedication and determination to fulfill God’s will for our life.
What are you willing to give up in order to accomplish the will of God?