Sometimes I wish we still wrote pamphlets with incredibly long titles.* If so, this post/pamphlet would be: “’Who are You, Then?’ and Other Questions Asked of John the Baptist Which He Probably Also Asked Himself,” or “Two Sides to the Conversation: John the Baptist’s Exchange with the Religious Leaders” or “The Confluence of Identity and Faith, as Presented in John the Baptist’s Exchange with the Temple Delegation.” Actually, those sound like master’s thesis titles, and I promise this is not a thesis!
We’ll just stick with “Q & A.”
John the Baptist didn’t exactly fit the religious leaders’ idea of a teacher.
- He wasn’t associated with the temple.
- He wore hairy clothes with a piece of leather for a belt.
- He ate locusts and wild honey (all from Matthew 3:4)—probably without washing his hands first.
- He didn’t have the education of a teacher or the breeding of a priest (despite being a Levite).
He was an unorthodox preacher, too. (But then again, was anything about John orthodox?) He called his audience a “brood of vipers” (Luke 3:7) and urged them to dunk in the river.**
John was very popular—a prophet
at best, a spectacle at worst.
Yet, or maybe consequently, he was very popular—a compelling prophet at best, a spectacle for entertainment at worst. Before long, everyone in Jerusalem had gone down to the Jordan River to see him. Or at least it felt that way.
The Sanhedrin (the religious governing body in the region) finally sent a delegation of priests and Levites to investigate this John character. Can you imagine their upturned noses scoffing at this ruffian, their voices tinged with fear that they might lose some of their power? Can you see them recoiling from the muddy edge of the river, lifting the tassels and their robes so as not to get soiled?
Just who do you think you are, John?
Their next step would depend on his answer. There had been other revolutionaries, maybe even “messiahs” in the past, but those other movements fizzled in the face of Roman domination (Acts 5:34-39).
“Are you the Messiah?” I am not the Messiah.
“Are you Elijah?” I am not.
“Are you the Prophet?” No.
Notice how John’s answers get progressively shorter. He wasn’t there to answer questions or label himself. He seems uninterested in justifying himself or in their opinion of him.
The delegation was out of options. They came with three possibilities, and all three were exhausted.
Story break for the temple delegation: We do the same thing. We come to God with a problem or question, and we have a list of possible solutions. Those solutions may come from testimonies others have shared, from a book or sermon, or simply from our own common sense. In those instances, God acted in a certain way, so we expect Him to act similarly in our lives. When he doesn’t, we become disappointed or doubtful.
If John the Baptist heard our consternation, he might say (in his customarily blunt fashion), “Hey! It’s gonna be different this time. And next time. And the time after that.”
Let’s leave room for Him to surprise
us in a way that completely aligns
with Scripture but also completely
blows our preconceived notions of Him.
Let’s leave the possibilities open. Let’s keep an open mind about how God might be working in our particular situation. Let’s leave room for Him to surprise us in a way that completely aligns with Scripture but also completely blows our preconceived notions of Him. That’s what happened with John the Baptist. (Related post: Whatever…or Whichever?)
In exasperation, the temple delegation asked John, “Then who are you?”
Maybe John had, himself, wondered who he was and what he was doing. Maybe he had a bit of an existential crisis, standing there alongside the muddy river. Maybe he squelched his toes into the mud, lifted a silent prayer, and said the first thing that came into his head. It was a quote from Isaiah.
Or maybe he’d thought about it all before, and God used this verse in calling John to his ministry months or years earlier. I don’t know. But I’m fairly sure there was some point at which John asked himself, “Who am I and what am I doing here?”
I can go to Scripture for my
essential identity because who
I am is pointless without Him.
Story break for John the Baptist: We all have these moments, these times when we seek our identity and purpose. When John faced that universal question, he went to the Scriptures for his answer. His identity was wrapped up in the One he proclaimed. I’m not saying there are Old Testament prophecies about us individually, but our identities as Christ-followers (a) come from the Bible and (b) should (I use that word cautiously) be wrapped up in Jesus.
The delegation pressed: “Why then do you baptize…?” John, already frustrated with the line of questioning and never a respecter of persons anyway, seized the opportunity to shift the focus away from himself and talk about Jesus even to these religious elites.
“I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one…who sandals I am not worthy to untie.” –John 1:26-27
The other John (a disciple and the author of this gospel) doesn’t tell us how the temple delegation reacted to John the Baptist’s declaration. I tend to think they looked around in puzzlement and wandered off, formulating their report for the Sanhedrin on the walk back to Jerusalem.
Let’s finish with perhaps the most significant point for our present-day culture. Don’t miss this!
As quickly as possible, John the Baptist
made Jesus the center of conversation.
John started with his personal identity, but he didn’t stay there. As quickly as possible, he made Jesus the center of conversation. Self-identity, self-worth, and related phrases consume our thinking these days, perhaps especially in faith-based circles. It’s easy to stay there, seeking encouragement and value from our identity in Christ, but we are not called to dwell there. We are called to exalt One who is greater, holier, and more precious than us. We are called to turn not just the conversation but our base-line thinking toward Jesus and away from ourselves. That’s what John the Baptist did.
I want to tread lightly here, and it’s not my intention to offend. Hear me coming alongside, hear me cleansing myself of self-centered thinking to bring Jesus into greater focus, hear me using my own experience and identity as merely a jumping-off point for thinking and talking about Jesus. Can we all do the same? Can we stop worrying so much about who we are and concentrate instead on Who Jesus is?
Such a shift in focus would solve many of our problems, don’t you think?
We’ve all been on both sides of this conversation. How have you learned to ask God opened-ended questions rather than multiple choice? How do you balance your need for affirmation for yourself with the call to glorify God? Anything you’d like to contribute to this conversation would be much appreciated! Use the comment section below.
*Hannah More: The Apprentice’s Monitor; or, Indentures in Verse Shewing What They are Bound to Do, William Carey: An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. (Contact the author for sources.)
**Baptism wasn’t a new idea. It was used in other cults/religions, and the Jews used it to signify conversion for those born as Gentiles. (NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, article on baptism)
More on John the Baptist:
- Two Nazarites Walked Into a Juice Bar
- Confident Humility is Not an Oxymoron
- The Voice of One Crying in the Wilderness