All Christians celebrate our Savior’s birth and resurrection annually. I reckon if we knew the date He realized the time had arrived to begin His ministry it’d be an occasion to commemorate, too. For some thirty years or so Jesus had lived a rather unremarkable life in and about the small town of Nazareth. Other than the infamous “temple episode” that happened when He was a pre-teen we know zip about His youth and early adult years. There are things we can assume, however. His stepdad taught Him the craft of carpentry. After Joseph’s death Jesus took over all the responsibilities that come along with being the male head of household. He became the primary breadwinner. He took on the role of father figure for His younger brothers and sisters. In other words, He had to grow up fast. We can gather He responsibly and skillfully plied His trade for many years, making a reputable name for Himself as a proficient, reliable worker. He probably had His own little shop near the family home. Not a bad life, all things considered. Yet, we can only wonder how His ever-increasing awareness of His divinity and His ordained-by-God mission must have affected Him. All we know for sure is that when He knew His hour had come He got His affairs in order and stepped away from the workbench to bring a new covenant into the world and drastically alter history forevermore. It’s certainly worth our while to investigate the circumstances surrounding His finally “making His move.”
The fact that all four Gospel accounts bring up John the Baptist in conjunction with Christ’s emergence from obscurity elevates him to Bible VIP status. Thus he deserves our focused attention. Never forget that the archangel Gabriel announced he’d be born to his way-too-old-to-be-having-a-kid parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, months before he appeared before Mary. That alone designates John as an irreplaceable part of God’s master plan to redeem mankind. As is the case with Jesus, we know nothing about John’s childhood but it’s fair to surmise he wasn’t anything like his peers. To say he was “different” as an adult is an understatement. He stuck out like a sore thumb. The Scriptures say John lived in the wild and that he “… wore a garment made of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey” (Mark 1:6). Not your typical cosmopolitan Jew! Yet there was something about him that compelled folks to stop and listen to what he had to say. Perhaps they were attracted by his total lack of pretense or his magnetic, spell-binding oratory acumen. He possessed undeniable charisma and exuded an unshakable conviction of purpose. He was no phony, no mere “…reed shaken by the wind” (Matthew 11:7). He cared nothing for popularity or acclaim and he had no fear of the religious or political “authorities” whatsoever. “…When he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Therefore produce fruit that proves your repentance, and don’t think you can say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” For I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones! Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire’” (Matthew 3:7-10). The Jerusalem supermarket tabloids had to have a field day with his quotes! John didn’t even hold his accusatory tongue from lambasting King Herod to his fat face when he knew it’d likely spell his doom. No doubt his defiant attitude earned him a lot of “street cred.”
Moreover, it was obvious to all that John was a genuine Man of God. When I was growing up mom insisted I watch Billy Graham with her every time his crusades came on TV. I was always impressed that thousands would crowd into stadiums and arenas just to hear him preach. People knew the “real deal” when they saw it and Reverend Graham definitely was. The same was true of John the Baptist. Thomas Carlyle wrote, “To teach religion, the first thing needful and the last, and indeed the only thing, is to find a man who has religion.” John had “it” and folks flocked into the desert just to hear “it”. Imagine how refreshing it was for everyday Israelites to discover there was a holy man who was dispensing with all the stuffy subtleties and confusing sophistries the persnickety Jewish leaders specialized in spouting and getting right down to the nitty gritty! John spoke their lingo, using terms they readily understood. But most of all, the Baptist had a clear message to deliver: “The Messiah is making His move! Y’all need to ready yourselves ASAP!” John said, “I baptize you with water, for repentance, but the one coming after me is more powerful than I am – I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is his hand, and he will clean out his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire” (Matthew 3:11-12). Few were able to resist his urgent, impassioned pleas and, as a result, throngs got baptized.
Who were these people who trekked into the boonies to hear this strange dude? Was it just the ne’er-do-wells of society with nothing better to do? Not on your life. The crowds that showed up encompassed the entire strata of types and classes. There were beggars, soldiers, doctors, housewives, young, elderly, healthy, sick, and purple-robed priests in attendance. Suffice it to say that not all of them were there to seek profound revelations of truth. No doubt many came simply to quench their burning curiosity. The Baptist was causing a sensation and they didn’t want to miss out on the hoopla. Others came for political reasons. The nation hadn’t heard a word from Jehovah in four centuries and suddenly there’s what appeared to be a bona fide prophet preaching fire and brimstone down by the river. They thought maybe John was an omen that God was finally going to run the racist, pagan Romans out of town for good and restore Israel’s sovereignty! He was worth checking out, regardless. However, it’s safe to say many came because they harbored deep guilt over ignoring God’s laws for so long. They had sins to confess but no one to confess them to. They were looking for a ray of hope in what was otherwise a hopeless situation. Here was one of “the anointed” telling them there was something they could do to instigate a dramatic change in their life. He took them as they were, dunked them under the water and then brought them up into a new beginning. In this way John the Baptist paved the way for the one who would not only instruct them on but demonstrate for them how to become righteous in the sight of their Heavenly Father.
It’s no stretch to think the news of what John was doing reached Nazareth and the ear of Jesus. He could’ve reacted in a variety of ways. He could’ve treated it as a passing fad that had nothing to do with Him. Or He could’ve harshly criticized the Baptist, deeming his sermons too negative overall, too lacking in compassion and the love of God. He could’ve rejected John as a misguided fear monger using threats of damnation like sharp weapons to prod men and women into repenting of their evil ways. (While later on Christ didn’t hesitate to warn His listeners of the eternal consequences of living a sin-filled life, He did so in a tactful and tender manner that matched His gracious character.) No, the fact of the matter is Jesus reacted in a way nobody would expect – God Incarnate walked to where John was for baptism. Picture the scene in your mind. John, busy at work immersing folks in the muddy waters of the Jordan, glances up to find himself staring into two piercing eyes radiating a divine light he’d never encountered before. He knew in that instant he was standing in the presence of the Son of God. The Bible describes it splendidly: “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John to be baptized by him in the Jordan River. But John tried to prevent him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and yet you come to me?’ So Jesus replied to him, ‘Let it happen now, for it is right for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then John yielded to him. After Jesus was baptized, just as he was coming up out of the water, the heavens opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my one dear Son; in him I take great delight’” (Matthew 3:13-17). I can’t fathom what the angels, much less John, must’ve thought.
On the surface the whole idea of the perfect Son of God submitting to baptism seems absurd and wholly unnecessary. Therefore we must search for the reason behind it. One theory is that Christ did it to honor John for his self-sacrificing efforts to get folks prepared to receive His earth-shaking Good News that would transform the world. Before John began stirring things up the population had gotten jaded regarding their relationship with Yahweh. But now there was a palpable religious awakening coursing through the countryside because of him. Now folks craved spiritual guidance. Now they yearned for something more than hollow subsistence. Now they cried out for the light of God to shine into their depressed souls. James S. Stewart wrote, “…We may well believe that when Jesus offered himself for baptism, He did it partly, at least, from a sense of the debt He owed to His great predecessor and from a recognition that this revival which had been sweeping the land was a real movement of the Spirit of God.”
Another theory is that Christ subjected Himself to baptism in order to identify with common sinners; that He did it to prove He wasn’t some kind of untouchable or unapproachable “being from beyond” whom no ordinary man or woman would ever be able to relate to. No, Jesus was Emmanuel, or “God with us”; a man shunned by the elite as being, “…a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Matthew 11:19). After all, He mingled among society’s riff-raff, outlaws and outcasts. Through the act of baptism Christ took on our shame as His shame, our miseries as His miseries, our heartaches as His heartaches and our burdens as His burdens. Our Savior maintained that selfless countenance all the way to Calvary. Stewart opined, “Hence the baptism of Jesus points up the fact that the only love which can ever possess redeeming power is a love that goes all the way and identifies itself with others.” Recall that Moses was willing to personally take on God’s punishment for his people’s rebellious iniquities. He pleaded for God to have mercy on them and then said, “…but if not, wipe me out from your book that you have written” (Exodus 32:32). In a similar vein Paul proclaimed, “For I could wish that I myself were accursed – cut off from Christ – for the sake of my people” (Romans 9:3).
Going by the Gospel narratives there are things we can be certain of. When Jesus came up out of the water He received two unmistakable affirmations from His Heavenly Father – a voice and a vision. (1) He audibly heard words spoken directly to Him by the great I AM and (2) He saw the softly-descending dove, a supernatural representation of His receiving the energizing, life-affirming Holy Spirit into His physical body. Any doubts His mortal, material brain (or the devil, for that matter) may have tried to plant and fertilize in His intellect were swept away like dust particles when our precious Lord heard His Father say, “This is my one dear Son; in him I take great delight.” We may never know this side of heaven what other stupendous confirmations Christ heard during the unique moment of unadulterated bliss He experienced while standing by the stunned John the Baptist. But we can venture to surmise the cosmos at large was never the same. One thing we do know is Jesus then left to follow the Holy Spirit into the treacherous wastelands where He’d be severely tempted by the extremely agitated Satan. Considering what Christ had just witnessed in the Jordan the devil never had a chance in hell of succeeding.
We all know Jesus went on to perform miracles and wonders that still thrill and inspire His disciples all over the globe. On the other hand John the Baptist, in an admirably humble fashion, accepted his fate graciously. He knew he’d done God’s will without a hitch and that it was now time for him to acquiesce to his (and our) higher power, Jesus Christ. I love to read what John had to say to one of his devoted followers: “…No one can receive anything unless it has been given to him from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but rather, ‘I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands by and listens for him, rejoices greatly when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. This then is my joy, and it is complete. He must become more important while I become less important. The one who comes from above is superior to all. The one who is from the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things. The one who comes from heaven is superior to all. He testifies about what he has seen and heard, but no one accepts his testimony. The one who has accepted his testimony has confirmed clearly that God is truthful. For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he does not give the Spirit sparingly. The Father loves the Son and has placed all things under his authority. The one who believes in the Son has eternal life. The one who rejects the Son will not see life, but God’s wrath remains on him” (John 3:27-36). How eloquent! One can only guess what John felt that day as he watched the Messiah he’d waited his whole life to meet walked away toward His date with destiny when He’d shoulder the weight of all mankind’s sins and throw open the gates to salvation. If any human ever had a flood of mixed emotions engulf their whole being, it had to be John the Baptist after Jesus “made His move”. He’s a hero.