Comfort from Christ
“A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” – Isaiah 40:3
The Gospels identify John the Baptist as the “voice crying in the wilderness,” the one who would make a way for the Messiah. He was Jesus’ cousin and his father Zechariah was a priest. He was born six months prior to Jesus, and his story has some similarities to the Christmas story in the way that his mother was visited by the angel Gabriel (Lk. 1:5-25).
At some point in John the Baptist’s adulthood he started a ministry of baptism, calling for Jews to repent of their hypocritical lifestyles and return to the God of Israel. He echoed the Old Testament prophets in the way they criticized the sins of the people of Israel, and he frequently argued with other Jewish religious leaders such as the Pharisees and Sadducees. His baptism signified a ceremonial washing away of the collective guilt of Israel.
Though the New Testament accounts of John the Baptist and his ministry are rather brief, this man was an extremely popular teacher. When he would speak he would draw very large crowds. He baptized hundreds if not thousands of people in the waters of the Jordan River. When Jesus started to gain notoriety, people would speak of Jesus as the one who carried on the tradition of John the Baptist, rather than referring to John the Baptist as the one who “prepared the way” for Jesus.
This could very easily have gone to John’s head, but he clearly understood his place. He told the crowds: “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mk. 1:7-8). And in another Gospel he is quoted as saying: “I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him… He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn. 3:28-30).
Here was a man whose birth was foretold in the Bible and by an angel, who was the head of a thriving ministry and who was given celebrity treatment throughout Israel, but he was still willing and able to point others to Jesus. John the Baptist did not become lost in his own status, but understood that everything he had was a gift from God, and all his words were derived from somewhere else.
It is telling that in his darkest hour, when he was imprisoned, he did not reassurance of his own status. He needed reassurance that Jesus was in fact the Christ. John understood that without Jesus, his preaching and teaching – even his death – would be in vain. But Jesus comforted him by pointing to the prophecies that he was fulfilling through his ministry: “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (Mt. 11:2-5).
If John the Baptist had lost sight of his own role, and had let his celebrity status go to his head, his ministry would not have survived. His ministry only amounted to something because it pointed to the work of Jesus.