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!
Two Nazarites walked into a juice bar. (It was a juice bar because, being Nazarites, they don’t drink alcohol.) Both were the long-desired offspring of barren couples, both dedicated entirely to God before they were born, and both destined to die at the hands of oppressors (though the reasons for their death were very different).
They are the only two Nazarites most of us could name, one from the Old Testament and one from the New: Samson and John the Baptist. (You get extra credit if you know that Samuel was also a Nazarite. See 1 Samuel 1:11. I didn’t know it until I read the study notes in my Bible today.) Let’s stand these two side by side and see what we can learn.
Birth: Barrenness, Angels, and Life-Long Dedication
Both men were set apart for
God from before conception.
Manoah’s wife (we don’t get her name) was barren when “the angel of the Lord appeared to her and said, ‘You are barren and childless, but you are going to become pregnant and give birth to a son’” (Judges 13:3). Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, was also barren when an angel appeared to Zechariah in the temple and said, “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John” (Luke 1:13). On both occasions, the angel went on to explain that the boy would be set apart for service to the Lord. In Samson’s case, it was explicitly as a Nazarite (Judges 13:5). In John’s case, we infer from the text, which says he would never drink alcohol and he would be “filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born” (Luke 1:15).
Not clear on what a Nazarite is? Check Numbers 6 and/or skip down to the first comment below, where I’ve summarized it.
Life: Wilderness, Honey, and Owning One’s Identity
Both Samson and John the Baptist grew up to be “the outdoorsy type.” After killing a lion, Samson knew how to find the exact spot later (Judges 14:5-9). He was also able to catch 300 wild foxes—no easy task (Judges 15:3-5). John lived in the wilderness when “the word of God came to him” (Luke 3:2), and he stayed there to do his preaching (Matthew 3:1, 5). Both men liked wild honey, but only Samson took his from a dead animal (Judges 14:8-9, Matthew 3:4).
From the beginning, Samson disregarded his Nazarite identity. While he enjoyed supernatural strength from God (despite his bad behavior), he never guarded his vows and frequently touched dead things (e.g. Judges 14:6, 19; 15:14-15; 16:3). Judges doesn’t say, but I bet he drank alcohol at some of those parties, too. Throughout his life, Samson never pointed people to God. John, on the other hand, embraced his Nazarite identity. The gospels aren’t explicit, but one gets the impression that John’s wilderness roamings, his hermit-like tendencies, and even his camel hair clothes (Matthew 3:4), reflected his effort to uphold the vows he never asked to take. John’s whole adult life centered on pointing people to Jesus (John 1:26-34).
Death: Oppressors, Lust, and Leaving a Legacy
Both men died
because of lust.
Lust led to the death of both Samson and John, and both died at the hands of oppressors. But they left very different legacies.
Samson’s desire for Delilah—a woman to whom he wasn’t married—clouded his judgement. After much nagging (Yes, the Scriptures use that word!), he told her the secret of his strength. She shaved his head, and the Philistines captured him, plucking out his eyes before they put him to work in prison (Judges 16:4-21). At a big party, the Philistines put the blind, weak Samson on display. The Bible says, “He performed for them” (Judges 16:25). How humiliating! But Samson saw his opportunity. He prayed,
Sovereign Lord, remember me. Please, God, strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes. –Judges 16:28
Even here, weakened and humiliated, Samson didn’t honor God with his request. Instead, he sought revenge, even though it meant his own death. Samson’s lust led to his death.
Herodias hated John for telling the truth about her marriage to Herod. She talked Herod into arresting John and putting him in prison (Mark 6:17-20). On Herod’s birthday, he threw himself a big party. Salome, Herodias’ daughter, danced for her step-father and his guests. Matthew explains:
On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for the guests and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison. –Matthew 14:6-10
His judgment was clouded by lust (for his wife’s daughter!!) and probably alcohol, but Herod had to fulfill his oath. John died because of Herod’s lust.
Samson lived a reckless
life solely for himself.
John lived a weird life,
but he focused on Jesus.
Samson lived a reckless, sinful life, taking advantage of God’s gifts and grabbing as much attention as he could for himself. Yes, God used Samson to destroy Israel’s enemies, but He could have been so much more, had he gotten beyond himself—his pain, his resentment, his selfishness—to focus his life on God’s glory. Instead, he remained vengeful and proud, and he died in that vengeance.
John lived an unusual (to our eyes), single-minded life pointing others to Jesus. “Look,” John said, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). He died for speaking Truth to power.
We’re all born into situations for which we never asked. Some are negative: hereditary diseases, legacies of substance abuse, racism. We struggle to rise above those. Others are seemingly positive: preachers’ kids, high educational standards, parents in demanding occupations. We may rebel against those for a time (some do it for a lifetime). Both Samson and John the Baptist received their Nazarite vows before they were born, but they “grew into” those vows very differently. This comparison makes me question how I accept and use my heredity, call it my received legacy (the good and the bad), for God’s glory.
Or maybe we need to talk about what we’ve claimed for ourselves. We say we’ve dedicated our lives to Jesus, but how’s that playing out in our attitudes and actions? Which kind of Nazarite will I be? Which kind of Nazarite will you be?
I imagine Samson walking into the juice bar with lots of tattoos, his seven braids like dreadlocks, his massive bulk filling the room. What kind of drink would he order?
I imagine John walking in right behind him, his long hair and beard studded with twigs, his camel hair vest drawing a few eyes, an intense look on his face. They don’t serve locust protein powder yet (that’s a thing—Google it!), so what would he order?
Congratulations on making it all the way through this long post! Use the comment section below to let me know your thoughts on Nazarites in general, these two guys in particular, their comparison, or what you think they’d order in the juice bar. I love hearing from my readers!
For a great summary of these lives (plus Samuel) and an interesting comparison of them to Jesus, check out Vanessa’s recent post.
John the Baptist had a disciple named Andrew. When Jesus walked by John’s location one day, Andrew and another disciple left John the Baptist to follow Jesus. It only took a few hours for the two disciples to recognize that Jesus was the Messiah. Andrew’s first reaction? Go get his brother, Simon!
As John pulled Jesus up out of the water at His baptism, the Spirit of God came down on Him and a voice—the voice of God!!—said, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). God was happy with the adult Jesus, with Who He had become in the thirty years of His life on earth.
Here’s a picture-perfect moment: Jesus dripping wet and blinking a little to clear the water from His eyes, the clouds parting and the sun shining through Continue reading →
I think I’m fairly humble. I’m not proud of this fact (because if I was, then it wouldn’t really be humility). It’s just that I have incredible confidence in what God can do through me. It’s not what I do, but “God who works in [me] to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13). While I don’t do it perfectly, I try to focus my gifts, skills, and resources on His glory. That’s why I write and why I parent the way I do and…well, why I do just about everything I do. But sometimes, I sense that people find me overly confident, maybe even arrogant. I used to feel bad about this…until I took a closer look at John the Baptist.
Mark 1:1-8. Also Matthew 3:1-17 and Luke 3:1-20.
We know from the other gospels that John was Jesus’ relative and that he was set apart (a Nazarite) from before he was born. When he was roughly thirty or thirty-one years old, he appeared in the wilderness, preaching (1:4). Not in a synagogue, not credentialed through Bible college or seminary, not paying his dues as a youth minister and waiting for his chance to shine in a pulpit. He was out in the sticks. People had to come to him. And boy did they come! Sure, it’s hyperbole, but Mark says all the country folk and all the city people showed up. There was this…charisma about him that didn’t come from his family tree or education. He was a messenger, a herald (like one who goes before a king to announce his arrival), a preparer (Mark 1:2-3, based on Old Testament prophecies).
John the Baptist confidently “owned”
his calling as a prophet.
Despite his lack of education and experience (Had he been preaching before this? The way Mark says he appeared makes me think not.), John identified himself with the prophets of old. The camel’s hair clothes and leather belt were the uniform, so to speak, of the Old Testament prophets. (I learned that in my NIV notes.) He confidently “owned” his calling, even confronting the Pharisees and Sadducees. Remember what he called them? “You brood of vipers!” (Matthew 3:7). Ouch.
John unapologetically said what needed to be said—not just to the religious leaders but also to the common people. The gospel writers summarize his message, but it would go something like this: “You have sinned, and you need forgiveness. Make a public display (baptism) of the fact that you recognize your sins for what they are and you truly want to change.” No sacrifices, no giving of alms. Forgiveness was between the individual and God. John didn’t beat around the bush, try not to step on people’s toes, or start each sermon with a joke.
People wanted to make a bigger deal
out of John than he thought proper.
At the same time that he spoke so confidently, John insisted that he was not the focus, not the important one in his ministry. Always, always, always, he pointed to the Messiah—even before he knew Jesus, his cousin, was the one to whom he was pointing. Remember, John was the first prophet in Israel for over 400 years. Camel’s hair coats with leather belts hadn’t been “in vogue” for a long time. You get the impression that people wanted to make a bigger deal out of John than he thought proper. His words in Mark 1:7 sound like a protest. In today’s language, he might say, “Stop it! There’s another guy coming who is way more important than me. In fact, I don’t even deserve the privilege of loosening the straps on his Chacos!” The Message puts it like this: “The real action comes next: The star in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will change your life.”
Just think for a minute about the vigorous confidence of John’s authentic humility. How does it compare to the world’s concept of humility?
After pondering this for quite a while (like, years!) and reading about faithful people in the Bible, I’ve come to this definition of humility: Humility is a constant awareness of my position in relation to God Most High.
Example #2: Jesus
The Pharisees actually asked Jesus straight-up, “Who do you think you are?” (John 8:53). Check out His answer. It’s spot-on for confident humility:
If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me. (John 8:54)
Jesus was confident in His relationship to the Father. That’s why James’ admonition to humble yourself before the Lord, and he will lift you up (James 4:10) finds its best example in Philippians 2:6-11, where Jesus made himself nothing and yet God exalted him to the highest place. If God wants to raise me, He will raise me. If He wants to lower me, He will do it. As believers, we don’t need to “scratch and claw” to get ahead. We don’t follow the American ideal of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” (a notion which Malcolm Gladwell disproved anyway in Outliers). Oh, I could write a whole post on this!
It’s our job to reflect Him.
It’s His job to put us in the
place where He is best reflected.
Think of yourself like a mirror in the sunlight. The mirror doesn’t—can’t—produce light. It creates that blinding glare by focusing diffuse sunlight. As believers, we simply reflect the Light while He repositions the mirror (rotating it, lifting it, lowering it) for greatest effect. In other words, it’s our job to reflect Him. It’s His job to put us in the place where He is best reflected.
A mirror is only as beautiful as what it reflects. It would be ridiculous for a mirror to be vain, and it’s similarly ridiculous for us to be prideful.
For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. –Luke 14:11
Here’s my conclusion.
I don’t need people to tell me how great I am, and I don’t worry about how great I am. I know how great He is…and that’s enough.
Why am I sharing this now? Well, I read two separate articles on humility this week. Both of them say—more eloquently than I—much what I’ve stated here. Made you read mine first! I also included a couple of related links that I wrote.
Last month, I wrote “A Writer’s Confession: Pride” on Me Too Moments For Moms. In that post, I touched on John the Baptist, but I also wrote a lot more about my own pride and how God has dealt with it over the last ten years.
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”-Matthew 3:1-3 (Isaiah 40:3)
I was flipping through some old journals the other day, and I found this poem about John the Baptist from November 2006. I thought it would be fun to share it with you (with a few edits).
The Voice of One Crying in the Wilderness
“Behold: The Lamb of God!”
Then my head began to nod.
Yes, looking back, I can see
The boy this man used to be.
He always was a different sort
Though He liked games and every sport.
He was gentle, kind and good
Obeyed His mother, worked with wood.
I saw the Spirit land on Him—
The One God promised Abraham
I shouldn’t even tie His shoe
But God sent me to shout to you.
Look! People, can’t you see?
Messiah stands in front of me.
This is Him—the Son of God—
Walking here on muddy sod.
Listen! People, can’t you hear?
The words He speaks: hold each one dear.
His days are numbered here on earth You are what His life is worth.
It’s not me; it’s Him you seek,
This one you’ll spit on, say He’s weak.
Oh Son of God, my cousin, friend
My life is Yours until the end.