We meet John the Baptist in the very beginning of the introduction to the Gospel of John. Even before the public appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ, John the Baptist appears on the scene. John was the much-prayed-for child born to an elderly couple—the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth. We know nothing about his childhood, but nevertheless we know that when he grew up, he accepted his prophetic calling and went out into the wilderness. He becomes a famous preacher who calls his nation to repentance. John’s fame spreads, and because the Jews were awaiting the Messiah, surely they wondered whether or not John was the one they were expecting.
John gained considerable influence—on one hand, he criticized the religious leaders, which is always well-received, and on the other hand, he openly called out many abuses which were well-known, but not talked about. Moreover, his words were prophetic, and because of that, they deeply touched the hearts of the people. John, therefore, quickly gained influence, and so it is completely understandable that a delegation is sent to him with the question, “Who 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 wasn’t necessarily 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 harsh preacher, but a good preacher. Our nation has long awaited someone who would have a clear message, who would be sent from God. John, you are an anointed 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!” It’s clear that if the religious leaders didn’t take John seriously, they would have just ignored him. But they couldn’t ignore him, because his message and influence could not be ignored. Today we would say that John was a “rising star”. None of us are in a role or situation similar to John the Baptist’s. No one around us is asking whether we are messiahs…but we have other temptations.
It would have been so easy for John to give in to feelings of his own irreplaceability, uniqueness, almost-perfection. Similarly, a mother can just as easily give in to a messiah complex in connection to raising children, a man with regards to his business, a pastor with regards to 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… Moreover, often we really are good… John, however, is able to say “Not at all—I am not the one you’ve been waiting for and whom, moreover, you would gladly take me for.” It would have been so easy to keep his hearers in suspense, perhaps saying, “I will think about what you’ve said,” or maybe to ask which of his (understandably, positive) characteristics had prompted them to think in such a way. Instead, however, 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. But what kind of humility? Usually we talk about humility in terms of not thinking too much of oneself. John’s attitude was different. We don’t know what he thought or didn’t think of himself, but we do know what he thought of Christ. John called people to repentance, but at the same time, he knew that he was only an instrument, not the source of repentance. The One who takes away sins is Christ. This is an immeasurably important distinction. Many people before and after John the Baptist called people to repentance, many harshly criticized the sins of the people, as well as the sins of the nation as a whole. But John doesn’t condemn, doesn’t moralize, but rather calls people to repentance which leads to forgiveness. If one simply rebukes and points out sins and shortcomings, the result is feelings of guilt and sermonizing, but not change. Pointing out sin must always lead to the fact that there exists a way out, which is Christ’s forgiveness.
“Now John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and people were constantly 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—well, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.” To this John replied, “A man can receive only what is given him from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him.’“ John 3:23-28
After John 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 to him by the Lord. But then suddenly his disciples 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 seems to be nothing in this, but…let’s ask the question, “How would we react if we heard, ‘Everyone is going to someone else.’?” To be specific, when everyone is going to hear his sermon, when they (in contrast to us) wonderfully raise their kids, when he is more successful in business, is better, richer, healthier, more handsome, more gifted, when she is more beautiful, etc… What is really being said to John is “John, the one you baptized is more blessed,” or, to put it more simply, “is better.” John the Baptist still had results—people still came out to hear him, but not like before. And yet he accepts this reality and, in contrast to his disciples, somehow 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… a better preacher, teacher, manager, parent, etc…
The last part of John the Baptist’s life shows once again how extremely complicated man is: how our ideas about spiritual growth, about how a person is always improving, becoming more and more certain and never doubting, we take all this for granted. John openly criticizes Herod, and as a result, he falls into strong disfavor and is thrown into prison.
In prison, John hears about the works of Christ 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 ministry, 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 the “beloved son”. He doesn’t give in to the temptation to become a Messiah figure, 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)—this man now comes with a question that practically wrecks everything he’s done. In his question we see, above all else, doubt. When others asked him who Jesus was, 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. Periods in which we ask about things to which we used to have answers, 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 adolescence, when suddenly the answers of our parents or pastor are not enough; sometimes it’s during a mid-life crisis, or during a crisis caused by difficult circumstances… The reasons are many. What’s more important is that scripture is not silent about these phases, and does not scorn those who have similar questions. In fact, it doesn’t 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 that is a quotation from Isaiah, pointing to the coming Messiah. And so he learns the truth and realizes that his mission and his life had a purpose. Later he is unjustly executed—a really awful end… Tim Keller has written, “Faith without doubt is like a body without antibodies…” Doubts which sometimes come as a result of a faith struggle are legitimate and—it is necessary to add—sometimes do come along. In certain periods of life, answers which had been sufficient before somehow aren’t enough anymore. Jesus doesn’t criticize John for his doubts; he doesn’t judge. What counts for John the Baptist is that “no one born of women is greater than he”. Despite his struggle, on which scripture is not silent, John remains a great inspiration; one 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, above all, is what is at work in the Christian life…
The important thing is not to never have any doubts, or to always have everything clear, but instead to make room for Christ in one’s life. And that is what happened in John the Baptist’s life in greatest measure.