The fourth stop on our tour of Bible characters who struggled takes us to the New Testament and to a fairly unique individual who ate locusts and honey, lived in the wilderness and preached a pretty stern message. 
John the Baptist’s story has a miraculous beginning similar to that of Jesus. He is the other character that was predicted to come in the messianic journey. His birth was also announced by an angel and required divine intervention. His birth serves as a pivotal moment in the story of God’s plan of salvation and redemption. 

When John started his public ministry it marked the end of 400 years of prophetic silence. Think of it this way, it’s the year 2020. It was 400 years ago that the pilgrims landed at Plymouth rock and disembarked the Mayflower. Prophets were the primary form of communication from God to the people in the second half of the Old Testament. And that communication had been gone for a long time. 

John was kind of like the ring-bearer or flower-girl in a wedding. When you see the ring-bearer and/or flower-girl coming down the aisle, you know that it’s just about time for the bride to make her grand entrance. You start to anticipate a change of music and make yourself ready to stand up and watch as she walks down the aisle. John’s coming was similar. It has been foretold and he knew that he was here to prepare the way for the Messiah.
However, John was a little bit different from your typical ring bearer. While many ring bearers have been known to act up as they walk down the aisle, as funny as it may to imagine, it’s hard to picture a ring bearer calling the weddings guests the children and family of a poisonous serpent. Can you imagine him looking your grandparents and family in the face and saying: “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee?” 

By all accounts John was the prophet many of us have imagined in our minds. He spoke with authority, passion and clarity. He didn’t pull any punches. He was not concerned with pleasing those who came out to hear his message. His concern was with repentance. 

John was Jesus’ cousin, though it doesn’t appear that they probably knew each other growing up. All we know for sure is that John the Baptist leaped in his mother’s womb when he heard the voice of Mary, Jesus’s mother. John was full of the spirit from before birth and lived his life that way. But, it would appear that John and Jesus’s first encounter is when Jesus goes to be baptized by John. John resists Jesus’s request, which I can fully understand. It would be like if Billy Graham came to me to perform the altar call. “I’m honored Billy, but you go ahead.” But, Jesus uses a higher form of persuasion on John, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented and became the firsthand witness of the Spirit descending on Jesus and hearing the voice of the father saying “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” 
Pretty incredible stuff. You might be asking where is the struggle? Don’t worry, it’s coming. 

At one point, John and his disciples end up baptizing people near the same place Jesus and his disciples were baptizing. John’s disciples say, “Hey, that guy that you baptized and testified about, everyone is going to him to be baptized.” To which John replies: “Look guys, you heard me say with your own ears that I’m not the messiah. I’m the friend of the bridegroom, he’s the one we’ve been waiting for.” And then says the incredible line, “He must become greater; I must become less.” (John 3:22-30)

But John carried on with his mission. He kept being bold, preaching against those things that weren’t in alignment with God’s plan. It even looks like John made a mistake in his bold proclamation. In Matthew 14, we get the story of John’s imprisonment. Apparently Herod had taken a liking to his brother’s wife and John publicly confronted Herod by saying, “It’s not lawful for you to have her.” But what law was John speaking of? I’m guessing John was referring to the Torah, God’s law. But Herod was a ruler for Rome, he lived by a different law. He was outside the kingdom. More on that in a bit. 

John get’s thrown into prison. While he’s in prison his disciples report back to him about the things Jesus had been doing and teaching. Remember, John’s whole life has been about preparing the way for the Messiah. He had the Spirit from before birth, he baptized Jesus, saw the Spirit descend on Jesus and heard the audible voice of the Father. But John’s circumstances have changed. Not only was his popularity waning, not only did he start losing some of his disciples to Jesus, then he gets thrown into prison for standing up for the truth. 

That’s when he tells two of his disciples to go to Jesus and ask: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

John preached a message of righteousness and repentance. Though he had the Holy Spirit and had probably been taught his whole life about the Messiah, it would appear that even John’s understanding of who He thought Jesus was supposed to be differed from who Jesus turned out to be. Perhaps it’s because he heard the reports of Jesus spending so much time with sinners and tax-collectors, or maybe it was just the change of circumstances. Whatever it was, John seems to have lost some of his confidence regarding Jesus. 

Jesus responds by saying: “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” And John’s disciples take that message back to John. 

Jesus probably knew what was coming for John and responds with a blessing. We may have scoffed at the question. Trending news for the past few months has been the fact that Kayne West has become a Christ-follower and has since taken a bold stance for Christ, using his platform to tell people about Jesus. If he were to get thrown into prison and then then question Jesus, we’d probably all say, “See, I told you he wasn’t really a Christian.” But Jesus responds with a blessing. Yes, it’s a blessing and a warning, but he says, “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” Imagine John receiving that word from Jesus in prison, “John you receive the blessing of God for not stumbling on account of me.” 

John doesn’t appear to be in prison because of Jesus. He’s in prison because of his confrontation of Herod. Perhaps, Jesus could have been saying to John, “You’re not in prison because of me, so don’t let the struggle of your present circumstance change your position on me.” 

Finally, it all ends for John. On Herod’s birthday, the daughter of his brother Philip’s wife whom Herod has taken for himself performs a dance for Herod. Did you know they had Birthday parties back then? Archeologists have yet to uncover a Chuck E Cheese in the middle east, though it appears to me the Chuck E Cheese costume may in fact be that old. Herod’s niece/step-daughter pleases Herod so much that he offered her anything she wanted, up to half his kingdom. It seems like a missed opportunity to me, because the girl’s mother convinces her to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. 

And he does just that. John is beheaded in prison and his disciples take his headless body and bury it in a tomb. That’s a rough ending to anyone’s story. 

What can we learn from John the Baptist? 

1.) Don’t let the Overwhelm of the now drown out the reality of your calling. 

It would be easy to be critical of John’s questioning Jesus, but I’ve never been thrown in prison for taking a stand for my faith. Probably the most crucial lesson we should learn from John’s imprisonment is that Jesus reassured Him that He was in fact the one they had been waiting for. 
Do you know what’s shocking about that exchange? Jesus waits until John’s disciples leave to brag about John the Baptist to the crowd. Jesus confirms to the crowd that John was a prophet, the messenger announced hundred of years ago and then says, “among those born of women there is no one greater than John.” Why not say that so John’s disciples can hear and tell him? 

This is just speculation, but I have a feeling it’s because what John needed in prison wasn’t confidence in himself but confidence in the Messiah. If Jesus shares that message with John’s disciples, it’s easy to surmise that John may have had more questions about his situation. “If I’m the greatest man alive, then why aren’t you getting me out of prison?” That wouldn’t have helped John endure the struggle. What John needed was reassurance that Jesus was the one they had been waiting for, so that’s what Jesus sent. 

2.) Confronting non-believers who don’t live up to God’s standards. 

Was John’s confrontation of Herod the right thing to do? I would assume so because it’s in scripture, but Jesus also never condone’s John’s decision to call out Herod. So, I don’t know. But, I do know that a lot of harm has been done by believers confronting people outside the faith because of their failure to live up to God’s standards. 

As believers who have the presence of the resurrection power of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, we still fall short sometimes. And we have the power to do right. Non-believers have no such power or ability and should not be held to Christ-like standards. What they need is Jesus, not works. Does that mean there isn’t a place to talk about human thriving and how when people live by God’s standards communities and societies flourish? There absolutely is a place for that and that is an absolute truth. But the call to follow Jesus never begins with getting your life together first. It always begins with receiving Jesus first, and it is only in Him we have the power to leave behind our life of sin. 

3.) My life’s purpose and calling are superior to my situation

I believe that every believer has a purpose and calling. Unfortunately I also see many believers struggle to persist and even completely abandon that calling when their situation challenges it. John very well may have been imprisoned by his own doing, just as many of us may be in difficult situations as the result of our own bad decisions. Then there may be others of us who are in terrible situations because of what others have done to us. None of this changes our purpose and calling. You have heard stories of people in prison because of choices they made who find joy through incarceration because they still have purpose. They understand they are paying for the crimes they have committed against others, but that doesn’t in any way diminish their status with God, their purpose in this life and the call on all believers to make disciples. 

I don’t know what situation you’re in today. Maybe you’re in a prison of your own doing or maybe you’re struggling under the weight of chains that were put on you by someone else. Regardless, who you are and who’s you are does not change. You are in Christ and Christ is in you. That’s eternal, and nothing about the temporal could change that. You are a new creation in Christ, the old has gone the new is here. Even if your physical body still experiences the bondage of things that have passed away, the truth of your current reality is, you are new, the new is here. It may not feel like it, when you look at your circumstances it may not look like it, but there is more to life than what we feel and see. There is God and his plan for you is the abundant life of His son. 

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