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Christmas Special Ė John the Baptist
Several years ago on the advice of my youngest son, Nathan, I chose "voice of one crying" to designate this website and obtained the rights to www.voiceofonecrying.com. The phrase is taken from the words of John the Baptist in Luke 3:4; and I especially liked the idea, because John has always been one of my favorite New Testament characters. And for this reason I decided to write this article.
The Christmas season is, of course, a special time for all "Christians" including those who really know God and those who have only a pretense of knowing Him through their various religions. The Biblical narrative of the birth of Christ is fairly well known, even though we live in a world where the enemies of the cross are determined to ban all mention of the words Christ, Jesus, God, Christmas, etc and prevent the public display of the Ten Commandments, any depiction of a cross, manger scenes or anything else they think might represent God in any way. And for those of us who have experienced the reality of God in our lives, we fully know, understand and accept the miraculous birth of our Lord (for a fairly complete explanation of the birth of Christ see the article "Grace, Faith and the Plan of God", go to Point 2 Ė God Condemns Us, be patient, read all of part 2 and youíll see what I mean).
So, for something a little bit different, I want to talk about the birth of John the Baptist, the one Jesus was talking about when He said, "Iím telling you, among those born of women there is none greater than John." (Luke 7:28) Letís get started with Luke 1: 5-7.
"Now, during the time when Herod was king over Judea, there was a priest whose name was Zachariah, of the daily service of Abia; and his wife, Elizabeth, was also a descendant of Aaron. And they were both righteous in the sight of God, walking in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord; and even where men were concerned, no fault could be found in them. But they were childless, for Elizabeth was barren, and they were both very old."
Zachariah was a Levite, a direct descendant of Aaron, carrying out his appointed duties in the temple. He was a priest and a member of the eighth course or daily service of Abijah, as designated by David in I Chronicles 24:1-19. Both Zachariah and his wife were Godly people who did not simply follow the rituals of the Law; they also understood their meaning. It is clear from the text that these two were not caught up in the religious pursuit of self-righteousness so prevalent in the Judaism of their day. They had put their trust in and were looking for the coming Messiah as the Law had foreshadowed (Hebrews 10:1-10).
But there was a problem. They had no children, Elizabeth was barren and they were both very old. The phrase "well stricken in years" found in the KJV (found also in verse 18, and translated "of great age" in 2:36, referring to the prophetess Anna) is from probaino and literally means, "to go forward". In all three references it is used metaphorically to illustrate advanced age. In the case of Anna in chapter two, the verse tells us (if you do the math) she was around 100 years old. And, we donít know exactly how old Zachariah and Elizabeth were, but it is clear that they were well past the age that having children was possible.
Now, if you follow the text youíll see that while Zachariah was fulfilling his duties in the temple the angel Gabriel appears and tells him that Elizabeth will, in fact, bear him a son and his name will be John (verses 8-13). And there is an interesting twist in verse 13. Where the KJV says that Zachariahís prayer "is heard", the original text uses an aorist passive verb, telling us the action had taken place at some point in the past. In other words, Zachariah had prayed for a child in the past, but had long since given up on the idea. So, the verse should say that his prayer "was heard". God tends to do things in His timing, not ours.
By this time you probably know where Iím going with this, do Abraham and Sarah come to mind? The birth of John the Baptist, while not quite up to the standard of Jesusí miraculous birth, does parallel the birth of Isaac. Abraham struggled somewhat with the idea that he would have a son at his age (Genesis 17:17); Zachariah did too (verse18). Sarah laughed at the idea (Genesis 18:12), while Elizabeth hid herself for the first 5 months of her pregnancy because she couldnít believe what had happened (verses 24-25). But I like what Paul says in Romans 4:17, referring to the Lordís promise to Abraham, that He is a God "Who gives life to those who are dead (past the age of child-bearing) and speaks of things that do not yet exist as though they already existed." So, the coming of the God-man, Jesus is not the only miraculous birth described in Luke 1!
However, it is not the birth of John (as miraculous as it was) that is the most important thing here. It is his life and message that impresses me. In Luke 1:16-17 Gabriel describes what the ministry of John is going to be and points out four distinct characteristics of that ministry. Letís quickly look at them.
"And he will cause many of the sons of Israel to return to the Lord their God."
The question immediately comes to mind, where did the sons of Israel go that they needed to return? The answer is just as immediate; they had perverted the way of the Lord, and had immersed themselves in a Judaism that led only to the pursuit of their own self-righteousness (Romans 10:3). John clashed with the religious leaders of his day (Matthew 3:7-12) and his perception of them was correct, as evidenced by the fact that Jesus did too (Matthew 23).
Iím reminded of how the religion expert I saw on TV the other day went into great detail about the way Jesus had rejected the man-made, traditional forms and rituals of Judaism in His day, and on this subject he was quite articulate. Itís too bad he was not able to express just as clearly how Jesus would be equally unimpressed with the forms and rituals of Christianity today, the same forms and rituals that this "expert" had ignorantly embraced, as evidenced by his meticulous explanation of their importance as the program progressed. What arrogance! What spiritual blindness, that people can understand Jesus disagreed with traditional Judaism, but then choose to believe He is perfectly content with their traditional Christianity.
"And he will go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn back the hearts of the fathers to their children"
The similarities between John the Baptist and Elijah are striking. To begin with, as the verse above states, John the Baptist would have the same measure of the Spirit and the same ability to penetrate the hearts of men that Elijah had. Both of these men spent extended times alone in the wilderness (I Kings 19:4-14, Luke 1:80). And when you think of it, itís difficult to find any man either in the Scripture record or otherwise that is used of God who didnít spend extended time alone with Him. From Abraham to Moses to David, on to Jesus, then Paul and many others too countless to name here, there is one common characteristic, the one thing I mention over and over again in these articles; they all had an intimacy with God that only comes from spending time alone, submitted to Him.
They both wore rough, leather girdles (II Kings 1:8, Matthew 3:4); they were fearless in their willingness to rebuke kings (I Kings 18:17-18, Matthew 14:4); they both incurred the wrath of evil queens (I Kings 19:1-7, Matthew 14:3-12); both experienced discouragement and doubt (I Kings 19:1-4, Matthew 11:1-6); and both are identified as forerunners of Messiah, John before His first advent (Malachi 3:1) and Elijah before His second advent (Malachi 4:5-6).
And one of the effects of his ministry would be to turn the hearts of fathers away from their selfishness and the cowardly neglect of their own children. What could be more needed today than a message to make men realize how devastating and damning is their reluctance to be true spiritual examples to their own children? This is another example of the fact that real truth is timeless and for every generation.
"And (to turn back) the disobedient to the wisdom of those who understand the will of God"
You will find in Johnís message of repentance (Luke 3:3), a certain practicality, a call to reality, if you will. When you look at Luke 3:8-14, John is explaining that true repentance can only be seen through the changes that take place in a personís life as a result of that repentance. Johnís message gave self-absorbed people the ability to love one another, to care about one another. It caused tax collectors (notorious for their dishonesty) to stop taking unfair advantage. It made rough, even cruel soldiers humane and decent.
The "wisdom of those who understand the will of God" is the real, experiential knowledge of the fact that repentance and the resulting change is the key ingredient in Godís plan to conform us to the image of His Son. Anyone who determines to spend time alone with God, not distracted by the religious notion that they need to be telling Him what they want or what He needs to be doing, but submitted to Him and to what He wants, will find that He will bring to mind their faults and weaknesses and thus, their need of repentance. And if theyíll stay in the presence of God and repent, then change will come; and when it comes, theyíll be glad and theyíll thank God for it. And that is wisdom.
Repentance absolutely requires that we come into agreement with God, and when we do the outcome is assured Ė we begin to demonstrate His character and nature. And when reasonable people see the character (Who He is) and nature (what He does) of God in others, they are drawn to Him, because they see for themselves how it works. And note that I said reasonable people. The enemies of God are numerous and all around us; and when they see God in us, it only frustrates and infuriates them. But, as Iíve said before, God will test us and He expects us to be loyal to Him in the midst of the unbelieving and disobedient. From beginning to end the Scriptures make it clear that the "few" will seek wisdom, but the "many" will do everything they can to avoid it.
"To make ready a people who are prepared for (the reality of) the Lord"
As I often do, I chose to translate the last phrase of Luke 1:17 above according to its context. The ministry of John prepared people for an ongoing, experiential reality in God. This message of repentance gave them the opportunity to prepare themselves spiritually for the Lordís entrance into their lives in a real way; the way that accomplishes His purpose; the way that changes them and allows them to experience Godís love and acceptance firsthand. This was not the religion of the Pharisees; it was something different, it was the power of God.
So what was Johnís message? If you condense it and look at it in practical terms, it looks something like this: repentance, reality, reality, reality and continuing reality. True repentance is doing business with God on a personal, individual level. All the pretense and distraction of religion with its forms and rituals, rules and expectations and the comfort and reassurance of its group activities is taken away. Reality sets in. God and religion is not the same thing.
More reality begins to take shape. God is changing you. Your selfishness and worldliness are diminishing, while your concern and care for those around you grows. Then, yet more reality becomes apparent. You begin to discern true wisdom, an understanding that this is the purpose of God for you. And finally, this reality settles into your spirit. You have literally made yourself ready and prepared a way for the Lord to work in your life to do what He wants to do. Johnís message has come full circle.
And what may you ask is the final result of all this "reality"? Let me quote Paul:
"But we are citizens of the state which is yet in heaven, and from it we patiently await the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, our Savior; Who will transform the body of our humiliation to be like the body of His glory, by exerting on it that power which enables Him to subject all things to Himself." (Philippians 3:20-21)
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