How did John the Baptist face persecution, discouragement, doubts, and finally the beheading and martyrdom? Why did Jesus attribute John with such unusual and lofty praise by referring to John with names like Moses, Elijah or David? Assuredly I say to you, among those born of women there has not been one greater than John the Baptist” (John 11:11)? Surely, you have asked these questions many times yourselves.
Before I get into it, let me go back for a moment to my last post, Part I on the matter of seclusion prior to facing major challenges in life etc. As to Jesus, I do not narrow it down only to his forty days in the wilderness. Of his thirty three years of earthly life, the Son of Man worked thirty years in seclusion as a labourer preparing himself for the divine task ahead. Even the forerunner had not met Jesus, most probably, until close to his baptism!
That begs the question how did John recognize “the lamb of God”? John’s ministry was already in full swing while that of Jesus was just starting. Was it something in Jesus’ face or the beauty of his sinless life? Or was it “ the moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him? And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:13-17).
Did you notice the child-like humility when John asked Jesus to baptize him instead? This was no ordinary meeting; it was the historical meeting of the Forerunner and the Saviour of the world – two covenants, the old and the new. What a meeting indeed!
The scene suddenly and drastically changed for John. Two factors evolved. First, John’s popularity waned directly proportional to the increase of Jesus’ fame. John was fully aware of it. As a forerunner, it was in his job description! This may sound like an idealistic axiom, but this process is extremely difficult even for the most saintly. John faced it brilliantly, standing behind his words “he must increase and I must decrease”. Jesus knew it.
Remember King Saul of the Old Testament? I always had a soft spot for him. He started well, with so much potential – he even did some prophesying. The beginning of his end came after David’s victory over Goliath and the Philistines. “And the women came out of all the cities of Israel singing and dancing with tambourines…..and said Saul has slain his thousands and David his ten thousands” (1 Samuel 18:6-7). Jealousy and fear destroyed Saul. Many kings, prophets, priests and Christian leaders are not far behind Saul. John, however, stayed the course to the end.
The second factor was the storm clouds of persecution that gathered fiercely as John fell into the bad books of Herod, whom the Roman Government installed as the king of the Jews. Herod divorced his own wife in order to marry his brother’s wife. John denounced this as it was contrary to the Jewish law. Herod’s wife succeeded plotting to imprison and later behead John.
What I’m about to say is not in the Scriptures and I am musing into a field of human limitations. We see John of the open air and wilderness, now as a caged eagle with dimming or filming eyes in a dungeon, facing death. Many of his disciples left. What was John thinking? Could he have thought that Jesus abandoned his forerunner? John dispatched two of his followers to Jesus with an earnest but sad question: “Art thou he that should come or should we look for another” (Mathew 11:3)? Is this possible to come from John? Absolutely!
Think about it – among all the miracles that Jesus had performed, could he not spare one to his forerunner? Jesus was in the town of Nain, not far from John, when he performed the miracle of bringing the widow’s son back to life. Notice, John conveyed his feelings to the Lord, none else. Did John become also the forerunner of what Tertullian later wrote (Apologeticum, 202 AD): “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”?
Recall, God himself organized the burial for his servant Moses, “whom He knew face to face”, on mount Nebo (Pisgah)! God sent his special chariot and horses to swing low and fetch Elijah, the fiery prophet. He even gave Moses and Elijah a leave of absence from heaven to discuss the Cross with Jesus. Jesus did none of these for John but kept the noblest for his forerunner, a fitting honour, a foretaste of his own -the Crucifixion! He set John on a larger place by not despatching twelve legions of angels to rescue (compare -Matthew 26:52-53). I find this very touching and hard even to write.
God himself selected John, to prepare the sending of His beloved Son, the Lamb of God. In a small measure, there is a little bit of “The Man from the Wilderness” in all of us; his birth (our new birth, many call it “born again”). Then there was the pre-pentecost (Luke 1:15) baptism of the Holy Spirit. The mission is the good news, the gospel, though, I must admit again, the spiritual discipline and humility to maintain the principle: “he must increase and I must decrease” is the most uncommon.
Merciful God chooses and enables us to deal with our journey as well as our “journey’s end”, be it Moses, Elijah or John or those through prolonged sickness, pain, even facing the knives. We take comfort through the words of Paul “My grace will be sufficient” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). While writing this post I was humming the chorus of one of my favourite hymns:
“Some through the waters, some through the flood, some through the fire, but all through the blood. Some through great sorrow but God gives a song. In the night season and all the day long”. (God leads us along, by George Young)
God bless, Danny Paul