John the Baptist Prepares the Way
3 In those days John the Baptist came to the Judean wilderness and began preaching. His message was, 2 “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” 3 The prophet Isaiah was speaking about John when he said,
“He is a voice shouting in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming!
Clear the road for him!’”
‘Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming!
Clear the road for him!’”
A lot of things could be said to describe John the Baptist; Pretty boy is not among them. Scary looking, maybe. Hairy, unkempt, prehistoric caveman, probably. No doubt, this guy was quite a character!
He was the son of Zechariah, the priest, and on his maternal side, the barely older cousin of Jesus Christ. He was also the first prophet to come along in 400 years.To say that the people of Israel were hungry for a word from God is an understatement. But to say they were actually ready for their Messiah, well, that's another matter altogether. That was John's purpose; To prepare them.
God didn't need to send Slick Willy in to the crowds to get their attention. There were plenty of them already. You see, religion had begun to more closely resemble politics than anything else, and before I go on about John, I should include a brief 'who's who' about the ruling class of Israel.
The Sanhedrin: Sum it up as the 'government', although the government was under the control of Rome at the time.
The Sadducees: The aristocrats of Israel who comprised the majority of the Sanhedrin. They were wealthy and out of touch with the common man, and held powerful positions, like priests and high priests. Their one redeeming quality was that they believed in the authority of the written Word of God. But really, there wasn't much else good to say about their doctrinal views. They didn't believe that God gave a darn about every day life. They disputed any claims of dead people being brought back to life by Jesus and the apostles. They didn't believe in demons or angels, and they thought that when a person died, their soul just ceased to exist. They were more interested in their own political maneuvers than they were about the church and the spiritual well-being of the Jews, and so they paid little attention to John, or to Jesus, until they felt their control of the people was threatened. The Sadducee party was wiped out of existence in A.D. 70, when Rome destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple.
The Pharisees: This branch of government was far more popular with the people. They were the minority, but they actually controlled the majority of the decisions made by the Sanhedrin, because they had the support of the people. They were more concerned with religious matters than with politics, but they were still a bit misguided. While they did believe the scriptures (i.e. the Old Testament, because that's all there was at the time) to be inspired by God, but they gave equal validity to oral, man-made traditions. In spite of that short-coming, they did believe in the spiritual realm, an afterlife (reward for godliness, punishment for lack thereof), and resurrection of the dead. They also believed that although God is ultimately in control, He allowed people to make their own decisions, and their actions contributed to the course of their lives. They opposed the rebellion that brought on the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, and made peace with the Romans afterward.
I'll get back to John, now. Like I said, God didn't need another spit-shined and polished mouth-piece to tell either half a story, or a twisted story designed to suit a political agenda. As is characteristic of God, He chose to use someone who would jolt the average Joe from their sensibilities. He chose someone who would stick out like a sore thumb. He chose John.
Like a Nazarite who had voluntarily taken a vow, John abstained from consuming any alcohol or product of the vine, as well as from typical grooming habits like getting a haircut and a shave. He kept himself separate, in Holy dedication to God. He was filled with the Holy Spirit before he was even born, though, so he was a Nazarite from birth, rather than by choice, much like Samson had been.
He didn't like city life, and opted instead to live in the wilderness. He dressed like someone from ancient times instead of in modern clothing. He went around wearing some garb made of nsaty looking camel's hair with a leather belt around it. That's nothing compared to the things he ate, though. He lived off wild honey and locusts. Can you imagine eating grasshoppers and crickets? Yuck.
For some reason, though, people were drawn to him. Oh yeah, that reason would be the Holy Spirit that filled him from birth! Despite his odd appearance, people wanted to hear what he had to say even when it made them cringe. It's interesting, because he didn't waste time tickling people's ears like preachers do today. Nope, he was a fire and brimstone kind of guy. He wanted people to understand that they'd better get right with God, because He was about to rock their world!
He was brave, he was bold, he was an in-your-face kind of guy, and he didn't cower to anyone. He was right up front with King Herod about how wrong he was for marrying his brother's wife. He was about as blunt as a baseball bat to the Pharisees and the Sadducees,, calling them a brood of snakes and telling them to prove their repentance through a change in their behavior (a warning they didn't heed, by the way.) He called a spade a spade, whatever the sin might be, and there was plenty go go around. He wasn't afraid to call anybody out.
He was constantly in the spotlight, because of the message he proclaimed. But he never let it go to his head. His message was always about the coming of Jesus, the coming of the Kingdom of heaven, and about preparing oneself for that inevitability. He always remained humble, and when Jesus came to him to be baptized, John protested because he didn't consider himself worthy enough to do so. He conceded only when his younger cousin reminded him that it must be this way, because it was what God required.
Yet even though he was fully confident in God, in Jesus, he still had moments of doubt and weakness. After having publicly criticized King Herod, he was thrown in prison. It was during that time that he heard about the miracles Jesus was performing, so John had two of his disciples go to find Him. Once they caught up with Jesus, they relayed the question that John had asked; Are you really the Messiah, or should we keep looking? Jesus sent them back to assure his cousin that yes, indeed, He was.
Although Herod had him locked up in prison, he had a lot of respect for the guy, and enjoyed visiting him and hearing what he had to say. Of course, he was greatly annoyed by John's continued insistence that his marriage to his brother's wife was wrong. Still, he didn't want the man to die, and was even known to protect him. But he couldn't protect him from the wrath of his wife and daughter, so, sadly, John's life met with a tragic end.
It was Herod's birthday, and he was having quite the party. All the high government officials, army officers, and leading citizens were there. The highlight of the evening was a dance performed by his daughter, a demonstration of beauty and grace that pleased the entire audience. Herod was so proud that he made a monumental mistake; He told the girl that he would reward her with anything her heart desired. Whatever it was, even up to half his kingdom. Famous last words, right? At her mother's request, his daughter asked for the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter. As much as it grieved the king, he'd promised her anything, and there was a whole room full of witnesses. That very evening, John was killed, and his head was given to Herod's daughter, who in turn presented it to her mother.
So, John's work had now ended. But the work of the Savior he'd come to tell about was just beginning.