The Gospel writer Luke precedes his account of Jesus’ birth with that of a lesser (though still prominent) figure in Jewish prophecy: the forerunner who would prepare the way for the Messiah and announce his arrival.
The circumstance of this forerunner’s birth were memorable. His mother, Elizabeth, was a relative of Jesus’ mother, Mary. His father, Zechariah, served as a priest in the temple. One day the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah to announce that he and his wife would have a son. When Zechariah asked how that could be possible, since he and Elizabeth were well past the age when most people become parents, Gabriel told him he would be mute until his son was born because of his unbelief (Luke 1:5-20).
Zechariah and Elizabeth named their son John. In time, he would become konw as John the Baptist.
From a distance, John the Baptist may seem like an inscrutable New Testament eccentric-a cross between a slightly deranged street-corner preacher and a hardcore wilderness survivalist. The man lived in the desert outskirts of civilization. He wore a cloak made of camel’s hair and a leather belt. He ate locust and wild honey.
A closer look at John, however, reveals a person whose passion and struggles are quite relatable-and whose example deserves careful consideration. John understood from an early age that he was set apart by God for a purpose. It seem his whole life was geared to fulfilling that purpose.
Blessed with a sense of the Lord’s plan of salvation for the world, John was among the first to know that the long-awaited Messiah had finally come (John 1:29). For the Jewish people of the first century, there was no bigger news. By the same token, though, John also was one of the few people who understood that the Jewish people weren’t ready for what was about to happen.
His God-given mandate was to ready the people of Israel-and he took the responsibility seriously. He challenged the people of Israel to turn away from their sin and publicly demonstrate their repentance by being baptized. Hundreds responded to his message.
One day Jesus showed up at John’s ministry site near the Jordan River and asked John to baptize him. With genuine humility, John admitted that he was unworthy to baptize Jesus, who had nothing to repent of because he had never sinned. When Jesus explained that his baptism was part of God’s plan, John fulfilled his responsibility (Matt 3:13-17).
With the advent of Jesus’ public ministry, John grew bolder in his own work. He challenged Herod, the king of Judea, to repent of his sins-specifically, his illegal marriage to the ex-wife of his brother.
John paid a steep price for his boldness. He was thrown into prison, where his body and spirit suffered tremendously. At his lowest point, he sent his disciples to Jesus to get assurance that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.
But that momentary display of weakness makes John’s boldness throughout the rest of his life all the more remarkable. He understood that he’d been entrusted with the greats news the world had ever received. He was not about to let concerns for his own safety, well-being, or likability get in the way of his responsibilities.
He refused to back down, even though he was angering the most powerful people in Israel. He spoke the words God had given him as powerfully and effectively as he could and left the consequences in God’s hands.
Eventually John paid the ultimate price for his radical boldness and obedience. Herod was inclined to keep him alive, perhaps because he recognized the power and authority behind John’s words. Herod’s illegitimate wife had other ideas. She devised a scheme that involved her daughter dancing for Herod, something that pleased the king greatly.
When Herod promised to give the young dancer anything she requested, her mother instructed her to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a plate. His hand forced, Herod ordered the execution of the wilderness prophet.
Yet death could do little to diminish John’s legacy. “I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John” (John 7:28). Those words came from Jesus himself, who understood better than anyone else how difficult it is to stand boldly in the face of opposition.