We meet John the Baptist at the very beginning of John’s Gospel. Even before the public appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ, John the Baptist comes on the scene. He becomes a famous preacher who calls for national repentance. We read that crowds quickly gather around him, John’s renown grows, and because the Jews have been awaiting the Messiah, they surely began to wonder whether this John might be the one they were expecting. That’s why they send emissaries to him, asking if he is the Messiah. In the time when John, and also the Lord Jesus Christ, appeared, there were also others who claimed to be the promised Messiah. The Roman occupation and rule were unacceptable to the Jews, and so the Messianic expectations increased. From time to time someone would appear, claim to be the Messiah, sometimes even call for a rebellion which was violently put down, and then history would repeat itself.
John the Baptist gained considerable influence because he openly called out many abuses which were well-known, but not talked about. Moreover, his words were prophetic, because he was a prophet and thus his words deeply touched people’s hearts. That’s why the delegation comes with the question, “Who, John, are you? Aren’t you the Messiah?” At first glance it is quite clear what John the Baptist should answer. Basically, say that he isn’t. But if we try to put ourselves in his place, we suddenly realize that is does not necessarily have to be so simple, and that John’s answer reveals to us something about his character.
What is behind such a question? Let’s try to imagine a little… “John, the crowds are following you! You are a good preacher. Our nation has long awaited someone who would have a clear message, who would be sent from God. John, you are a blessed man—God himself speaks through you! You are God’s special envoy, John. You are not like those who came before you—you are someone!” Today we would say that John’s star is on the rise. None of us are in a role or situation like John the Baptist. People around us don’t ask whether we are messiahs, but we have other temptations…
Each of us has certain gifts, just as John the Baptist’s was being a prophet. It is wonderful when we use those gifts—like John did. At the same time, it is important to know that everything we have is a gift from God. It would have been so easy for John to give in to feelings of his own irreplaceability, uniqueness, almost-perfection. A mother can just as easily give in to messianic feelings in connection to raising children, men with regards to their work, a pastor with his congregation, and so on. In other words, a messiah complex threatens all of us in our relationships with our children, our work, our church, etc… In addition, often we really are good… John is able to say, however, “Not at all—I am not the one you’ve been waiting for and whom, moreover, you would like to see in me.” It would be easy to answer, “I will think about what you’ve said,” or to ask them what characteristics they saw in him which prompted them to think in such a way. Instead of that, John refuses to play that role, in contrast to many people who gladly take on the role of Messiah. The reason why John was able to do that was his humility, which is revealed in how he was aware of who he was and also who he was not.
Another text: John 3:23-28 “ Now John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and people were coming and being baptized. (This was before John was put in prison.) An argument developed between some of John’s disciples and a certain Jew over the matter of ceremonial washing. They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan—the one you testified about—look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.” To this John replied, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ “
After John the Baptist baptizes the Lord Jesus Christ, he continues to devote himself to his prophetic ministry. Crowds continue to come to him; he continues to have something to say to the people, he continues to fulfill the task given him by the Lord God. But then suddenly his followers come to him and tell him that the one he baptized is more successful than he is. John hears the words, “Everyone is going to him.” At first glance, there is nothing in this, but…let’s ask the question, “How would we react when, ‘Everyone goes to him.’?” That is, when someone is better than we are? In short, when they attend his sermons, they (in contrast to us) wonderfully bring up their children, he is more successful at work, better, richer, healthier, more handsome, more gifted, she is more beautiful… What was really said to John the Baptist...? “John, the one you baptized is more blessed,” or, to put it more simply, “is better.” A few days ago, I was at a conference where the main speaker, a German pastor, said that in Germany only 20% of pastors make it all the way to retirement. Most of them in time find other jobs. I waited for him to give the reason—whether too much work, a work schedule that’s too unstructured, feelings of futility…these reasons probably do play some role, just as in other professions. Nevertheless, the speaker claimed that the main reason is low self-confidence. It has to do with how the value of the work of a pastor is derived from one’s effectivity and results—which is probably true for all of us. Because they don’t see results as fast as they would like to, in time they begin to have doubts about themselves and they quit. John the Baptist still had results; people still came out to hear him, but not as much as they did before. And yet he accepts this reality and, in contrast to his disciples, does not feel threatened by it. In fact, he rejoices that the one for whom he was to prepare the way is glorified, that someone else is better… Acceptance and joy from the fact that someone else is better are in no way only for the ministry of pastors, but for all of us.
The last part of John the Baptist’s life shows again how extremely complicated man is, how our ideas about spiritual growth, about how a person becomes more and more perfect, how a disciple becomes a the teacher who now has the answers—these ideas now fall apart. John doesn’t limit himself to criticizing just his own social class, but he also openly criticizes Herod. In response, he earns strong disfavor and is thrown into prison.
While in prison, John hears about Christ’s works and sends his disciples to him with a message, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” Matthew 11:2-3
I think I would probably expect anything from John the Baptist, but certainly not this. During his entire active life, John has been preparing himself and Israel for the coming of Christ, then he clearly recognizes him; in fact, he even baptizes him, hears a voice from heaven announcing the Lord Jesus Christ as “beloved son”, doesn’t give in to the temptation to become a Messiah, nor does he allow himself to be lured into some kind of competition with Jesus. This man who had more clarity about Jesus than anyone else, about whom it was even said, “Truly, truly I say to you, among those born of women, there has never been one greater than John.” (Matthew 11:11) now comes with a question that practically wrecks everything he’s done. In his question we see doubts. When others asked him about Jesus, he knew the answer. Now he is asking the question himself!! How can such a thing happen? If the same thing had occurred to anyone else but John the Baptist, the answer would probably be something like, “His faith was weak,” but John??? Surely we can conclude that John, being in prison, came to a crisis in the midst of his imprisonment. Perhaps these and other things played a role—we don’t know, and we can only suppose and conjecture. Perhaps a better explanation, however, is that not only John the Baptist, but everyone at some point goes through similar periods of uncertainty, questions and questioning. A period during which we ask questions which we have already answered in the past, about which we thought we understood. A time when we need to grab hold of the foundations on which our faith stands. Sometimes it happens during puberty, when suddenly the answers of our parents or pastor are not enough; sometimes during a mid-life crisis, or during a crisis arising from difficult circumstances… The reasons are many. What is more important is that scripture is not silent about these spiritual conditions, and does not scorn those who have similar questions. In fact, it does not even hide the fact that such a giant as John the Baptist suffered from it. In the end, John doesn’t get a direct answer, but an answer which is a quotation from Isaiah and points to the coming Messiah. And so he learns the truth and finds out that his mission and his life had a purpose. Later he is unjustly executed—a really awful end… Well-known American pastor and best-selling author Tim Keller writes, “Faith without doubt is like a body without antibodies…” Doubts which sometimes come as a result of a struggle of faith are legitimate and—it is necessary to add—sometimes do come along. In certain periods of life, the answers which had been sufficient before somehow aren’t enough anymore. Our story is not criticizing or judging John for his questions. What is important in his case is that “no one born of women is greater than he”. Despite his struggle, which scripture does not hide, John remains a very inspiring character who did not give in to the temptation of a Messiah complex, who prepared the way for the Lord Jesus Christ, and who shows us, by his life, that when we become less, the Lord Jesus Christ becomes greater. And that is what is at work in the Christian life above all else… The important thing is not to never have any doubts or to have everything clear, but instead to make room for Christ in one’s life. And that is what happened to John the Baptist in greatest measure.