John the Baptist is an enigmatic and intriguing figure. Like Jesus, there's a supernatural aspect to his birth story (Luke 1:5–25). As he grows, we find him living the life of an ascetic out in the desert, wearing camel's hair and living off of a diet of locusts and wild honey.
In spite of these eccentricities (or maybe because of them), John draws huge crowds to hear him preach. Even the Pharisees come out to listen to him, and John doesn't shy away from publicly challenging them.
Jesus gives John the highest compliment when he says, "Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he" (Matthew 11:11).
Let's take a look at three lessons from the life of this fascinating man.
1. Be courageous
John was out in the desert building anticipation for the coming Messiah. But he didn't shy away from speaking his mind. The crowds of people coming out to hear him drew the attention of the Pharisees and Sadducees. When they arrived on the scene, John turned his attention on them:
"'You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
"I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (Matthew 3: 7b–12).
Those are some pretty strong words to level at respected figures in the religious community. But John doesn’t stop there. When Herod, the ruler of Judea, arrives on the scene, he receives an earful, too. Luke tells us:
"But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother's wife, and all the other evil things he had done, Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison" (Luke 3:19–20).
John isn't afraid to speak truth to power—even when the cost is high. The decision to call out Herod for his sins put John in prison (and would eventually cost him his life). But John was preparing the way for Jesus, and it was necessary for everyone present that John expose the corruption that Jesus would replace.
There are times when it’s important and appropriate for us to speak up. And while we typically won’t be locked up for our honesty, there are other consequences. Sometimes it's important to speak up anyway.
2. Be humble
For a brief, shining moment, John the Baptist is a local celebrity. He's amassed his own disciples, and people are coming from all over Judea to be baptized by him. As we've noted, even the most respected officials were making the journey to hear him.
It doesn't matter who you are; it's easy for that kind of attention to go to one's head. Many well-meaning and devout leaders are led astray when they begin receiving recognition for their piety.
John never seems to fall victim to this mentality. John's Gospel gives us a glimpse into John's humility:
"The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, 'Look, the Lamb of God!'
"When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus" (John 1:35–37).
John has one job: to prepare the way for Jesus. He doesn't allow himself to get bogged down in building his own kingdom or making sure that he stays the center of attention. He's happy for his disciples to graduate to following Jesus.
John sums it up well when he says, "He must become greater; I must become less" (John 3:30).
And this should be our heart's cry, too.
3. Be steadfast
As we saw in the last point, John recognizes and celebrates Jesus' arrival on the scene. When the Lord comes to him for baptism, John almost refuses. In all sincerity, he looks at Jesus and says, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" (Matthew 3:14)
But as John sits in Herod's prison, he starts hearing disturbing reports. The Messiah is eating with tax-gatherers. While John's remote and extremely ascetic lifestyle had started a rumour that he had a demon, people were accusing Jesus of being a glutton and a drunk (Matthew 11:18–19).
At one point, John's remaining followers confront Jesus, "How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?" (Matthew 9:14) It makes sense that John's confused. He's sitting in prison because of his ministry, and the man that he has endorsed is behaving in ways that don’t make any sense. Did he make a mistake?
Matthew tells us what happens next:
"When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, 'Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?'
"Jesus replied, 'Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 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'" (Matthew 11:2–6).
Because John's disciples ask this question so politely, it's easy to miss what's really being asked. They're asking Jesus if they were wrong. Is he really the Messiah or not? Jesus points to the miracles and work being done as proof. And then he makes a profound statement:
"Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me." Many translations—like King James Version, the New American Standard Bible, and the English Standard Version—translate His words this way: "And blessed is the one who is not offended by me."
Jesus doesn't always do what we imagine He should. It's heartening to know that even John, who saw Jesus first hand, struggled with some doubts. But in the end, Jesus' advice is critical. We can't allow our expectations to sidetrack our faith. We can't allow our limited perspective to cause us to stumble—or even take offense at the Lord.
The star that burns brightly
Herod ends John's life to appease his wife and her daughter. You can read all about it in Mark's Gospel (6:14–29). It’s a heartbreaking end to John’s story. He's a star that burns brightly in the Gospels and fades too quickly. If we had an opportunity to ask him about it, he'd probably remind us, "He must become greater; I must become less."
If you're interested in learning more lessons from the lives of biblical characters, check out 3 Lessons from the Apostle Paul.
All Scripture references quote the New International Version unless otherwise noted.