One of the most impactful parts of studying John’s life is studying how his life ended. While John was a burning and shining light that proclaimed the coming Bridegroom and the power of His ministry, John himself did not do any miracles, was not invited to join Jesus’ disciples, never traveled with Jesus, and was executed on the whim of a wicked family. Though he fiercely proclaimed the coming kingdom with power, he never got to see the breakthrough he proclaimed or even participate in Jesus’ ministry. He truly heralded the ministry of the Bridegroom even though he did not get to participate in the Bridegroom’s ministry.
John’s light burned extremely brightly, but it burned for a very short period of time. After 6 burning months, John willingly let his ministry and influence fade at just 30 years of age. He even encouraged his disciples to leave him and follow Jesus instead. All these decisions were the very practical outworking of John’s commitment to be a friend of the Bridegroom.
29He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled. 30He must increase, but I must decrease. (John 3:29–30 NKJV)
John was perfectly positioned to be Jesus’ first and greatest disciple. He had prepared Himself for years. He was one of the only human beings who actually recognized who Jesus was. However, it was not to be, and I think we fail to realize just how shocking John’s end is. John’s bright light would be snuffed out due to the sensual whim of a drunken king and twelve young disciples who had not given themselves to John’s preparation would instead get to minister with Jesus in signs and wonders for 3 ½ years and ultimately become the foundation of the church. We often overlook just how offensive this could have been for John.
This is why Jesus called the “greatest.” Jesus’ evaluation of John’s life can only be understood in context to John’s death. When the One John proclaimed appeared came on the scene, John did not shine brightly as a part of Jesus’ inner circle; he actually faded. John’s spotlight had to move to Jesus and the staggering thing is that John was ok with this.
Though John’s life was cut down as a young man, he had performed his ministry well, and his extravagant preparation had prepared him for his grand finale – a quiet, grisly execution by pagan guards in a dark prison cell at night. No last words. No final sermon. No public statement.
Evaluating John’s Ministry
Ultimately, we have to recognize that John surrendered his “calling” for Jesus’ calling. He lived to see Jesus’ calling emerge in strength, and, once that happened, he was willing for his extremely brief ministry to fade because John’s had found success in Jesus’ success. John’s life challenges every one of us to follow in John’s footsteps and to surrender our success for Jesus’ success, our calling for His.
His life calls us to shatter the illusion of our own “calling,” lay down our lives, and labor to see Jesus to receive His reward. Jesus laid down His glory and honor for the sake of our purpose, so why it we find it so hard to lay down our “calling” to see Jesus get His inheritance? If you labor to see Jesus’ receive His inheritance, I guarantee you that He will make sure you receive yours.
John’s greatness was ultimately displayed in his burning zeal to see the Bridegroom take his bride even if it meant John’s own ministry would flicker and ultimately falter. His joy in Jesus’ success overcame any offence in John’s heart at the way his role in the story ended.
The Bridegroom’s voice became his joy so much that he sent his disciples to ask Jesus to tell them about His ministry (Luke 7:20-23). As they returned to John with Jesus’ stories of signs and wonders, John’s joy would have been full. The Bridegroom’s voice assured John, and his disciples, that the kingdom really would come and that John’s ministry had prepared the people for the ministry of Messiah. Jesus’ final words to John were very revealing:
23And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.” (Luke 7:23 NKJV)
Jesus gave John a special blessing, not only because of how he had lived, but how he died. Jesus wanted to acknowledge how many chances John had to be offended and how significant it was that he had endured faithfully to the end. Jesus also took direct responsibility for the way John’s story played out. John was blessed because he was not offended with Jesus who seemed to have overlooked and ignored John after John baptized Him. Jesus was directing the story and John submitted to his role in the story as a friend of the Bridegroom who rejoiced in the Bridegroom’s future rather than his own.
John the Baptist is one of the most significant individuals in the Scripture. The fact that Jesus identified him as the greater than all the towering figures of the Old Testament should cause us to study his life carefully. By all outward appearances, most of the heroes of the Old Testament far surpassed John in their lives and ministries and yet Jesus evaluated John very differently.
Not only is John’s life worthy of study, Jesus also told us that John’s ministry would reemerge to prepare His way a second time. Though His statement seemed cryptic to the disciples at the time, it ends up being one of the most significant statements Jesus made about John because it illustrates the fact that John was not just a forerunner to Jesus’ first coming. He was actually a prototype for a preparation ministry that would emerge again on the earth before Jesus’s second coming.
Therefore John’s significance transcends his own life. He models what it means to prepare the way of the Lord and to prepare the nations to see the Lord. Ultimately, his way of living embodies what will be required to fulfill Matthew 24:14 and give a witness to every tribe and tongue of the coming King. Out job as we carry the gospel into the nations is to leave them prepared to face Jesus, therefore we must learn from the life of John what it looks like to live in such a way to prepare the nations for the great day when they will see Him return.
You have to decide whether you see John as an anomaly or as a pattern. Was he an enigmatic figure that emerged, or was he a forerunner of a witness that will be given in the nations before the return of the Lord? How you answer this question will dramatically affect how you view John. John’s ministry was in the spirit of Elijah (Matthew 11:14; Luke 1:17) and yet when we compare John to Elijah we see some interesting differences.
- John was extremely familiar with the prophecy over his life that he will operate in the power and spirit of Elijah, but he refused to be called Elijah. It is as if John knows that a greater witness is coming (John 1:21).
- Elijah’s ministry was marked by unusual miracles. In contrast, John did no miracles (John 10:41). John did not demonstrate the primary characteristic of Elijah’s ministry.
- John’s ministry was the ministry of Isaiah 40, but Isaiah 40 has global implications that John’s ministry did not involve and it describes an ultimate conflict that did not occur in the first century.
- John’s prophecies about Jesus were not fulfilled in the first century. John prophesied that Jesus would judge and purge the nations with fire (Matthew 3:11-12; Luke 3:15-17).
- Jesus called John Elijah after John was executed while also predicted that Elijah’s ministry would still come again in the future.
In the gospels, Jesus repeatedly reminds the disciples that, “all that are written must be fulfilled.” (Luke 18:31; 21:22; 24:44) If the suffering that the prophets hinted at had to be fulfilled, how much more His glory? If the nations had to be prepared for the hour of His suffering, how much more will they need to be prepared for the hour of His glory and judgment? In other words, John was a forerunner, not just for Jesus, but a forerunner of a witness in the church that would emerge before the end of the age. He was a prototype in the spirit and power of Elijah, but not the final manifestation of the preparation ministry.
God will again release unusual power in the nations to prepare every tribe and tongue for the return of Jesus. John’s ministry is part of the glorious “already but not yet” of Jesus’ first coming. Jesus came, but He’s coming again. He brought the power of the Spirit, but Paul tells us it is just a down payment and more is coming. Israel experienced judgment related to their rejection of Jesus, but the nations will receive judgment. Jesus brought the baptism of the Spirit in power, but there is a baptism of the Spirit and fire that will purge the earth.