John the Baptist did not make his home in the desert scrubland for the good of his health. That was where he felt that God wanted him, and he was prepared to stay there until God’s reasoning behind this became apparent.
John was part of a rich heritage of God’s people who had dreamed of Messiah coming. The 2 verses prior to those that we read say
"It is written in Isaiah the prophet: 'I will send my messenger
ahead of you, who will prepare your way - a voice of one calling in the
desert, Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'"
So there was an air of anticipation about John the Baptist and he wasn’t one to sit down in a comfy armchair and wait for something to happen – John saw himself as the one spoken of by Isaiah and his task therefore was to get out there and start getting the place ready for Messiah.
And what a difference he was making – people were flocking from the city to hear him speak, and to be baptized with water for repentance. John was passing on his expectation to others, changing lives.
When Billy Graham preached in Shreveport, Louisiana, liquor sales dropped by 40% and sales of Bibles increased by 300%. During a mission in Seattle it was reported that several impending divorces were cancelled, and in Greensboro it was noted that ‘the entire social structure of the city was affected’ I guess something similar was happening where John’s words were being heard.
Interestingly, just as we think of Jesus seemingly turning Jewish religious thinking on its head with the things that he said and did, here’s John the Baptist doing something similar. We’re quite familiar with the idea of baptism, and the expression of repentance that is a part of this act, and so were the Jews – but not for them!
Their everyday life included ritual washing as an act of spiritual cleansing,
but it was Gentiles that had to be baptized by immersion as part of their
conversion to the Jewish faith to repent of all their past sins, definitely
not Jews. Just as Jesus challenged the religious leaders about the depth
of their real faith, so John challenged the ordinary Jew to look at their
Were they relying on the belief that they were Jews, and as Jews obviously OK with God? In fact they were no more God’s chosen people than the Gentiles if that’s what they believed, it was where their heart was that mattered and how they lived their lives, and not so much the race that they belonged to.
There was no automatic right to God’s
blessing without changed lives. So John challenged the Jews to join the
Gentiles in making a public profession of repentance. He also challenged
them with the expectation that there was something far more profound about
to happen for which this was just the beginning – "After me
will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not
worthy to stoop down and untie"
Then Jesus arrives and is recognised by John. If there was ever someone who didn’t need baptism for repentance it would have been Jesus, but because he had come as a Jew and identify with their lives and sins he also identified with those who passed through the water and to a closer walk with God. For John the Baptist this event must have been a real moment of true worship, and this act of ministry his gift to the Messiah.
So how did others react to the presence of Jesus?
Well, we know how the disciples reacted. They met with Jesus, heard him speak and were so convinced that here was someone so special that they were prepared to leave everything and follow him. OK, it didn’t work out for all of them, and there were times when some wondered if they had done the right thing, but with a notable exception the offering of their lives in service to Jesus was honoured by God who used them to be the seeds by which the Gospel message would be proclaimed throughout the known world.
But what of the ordinary folk who maybe didn’t have the close contact with Jesus that the disciples enjoyed?
Well, like the wise men and John the Baptist the ordinary man on the street,
if they were devout Jews then they had an expectation that one day the
Messiah would appear.
The problem was that Jesus didn’t tick the right boxes!
John chapter 7 is a good one to consider the dilemma that Jesus posed
for both ordinary folk and the religious leaders of his day.
Some folk were definitely confused, but they were also fearful because they knew the authorities were against Jesus and they didn’t want to get involved with anything that could be considered dangerous or subversive. But at least they were talking about him – there was a real debate going on!
So what was the reaction to Jesus among the Jews?
1) Some were afraid to say anything 7: 13 ‘But no one would say anything publicly about him for fear of the Jews.’
People were prepared to talk and debate privately about who Jesus was, but they were less keen to be seen to identify with him in public. They were probably both fearful and embarrassed – not wanting to be seen to be cranks or worse as heretics. Nothing changes, I suspect. A lot of Christians prefer to keep their faith locked away in a little box… a private thing!
2) Some admitted that Jesus was certainly a good man – John 7: 12 "Among the crowds there was widespread whispering about him. Some said, 'He is a good man.'"
Presumably some had heard about the miracles
and the way that he showed compassion to the poorest members of society
and the outcasts. But of course, Jesus was so much more than a ‘good
man’ although I think some folk today would only go so far as to
call Jesus that – a good example to follow, sound moral teaching,
a "good chap!".
3) Some said that he deceived people, or more rightly led them astray from the teachings of the Jewish leaders – Jesus’ teaching often challenged the status quo and made the authorities very nervous and angry. He was accused of being a Sabbath breaker, a drunkard and glutton, of having some very dodgy friends and challenging the fundamentals of orthodox religion. Their privileged position in society was being undermined and that couldn’t continue!
4) Some said to Jesus "You are demon-possessed – completely mad" And it’s very true what someone once said, that you have two ways of evaluating Jesus and his claims. Either he is what he said he was, or else he was a deluded madman. John 7:20
who chose a cross rather than power, was a servant rather than a king,
washed his disciples feet rather than have them kneel at his feet. He
challenged people to believe one thing or the other, and that’s
still the way it is today.
5) Some said he was a prophet. v40 of John chapter 7 says "On hearing his words, some of the people said, 'Surely this man is the Prophet.'" Well, in a sense, Jesus was a prophet in that he spoke the word of God. What is a prophet?
According to one commentator "The man who has
lived so close to God that he knows his mind and purposes." Moslems
are quite happy to think of Jesus as a prophet, did you know that? The
difference is that whereas a prophet says "This is what God says…"
Jesus says "I say…!"
6) People said of Jesus that he was a charismatic speaker "No one ever spoke the way this man does," the guards declared. Jesus could stand up to the fiercest criticism from the authorities, he was no gentle Jesus, meek and mild but a powerful personality. People were affected by his words, and still are today. There’s no sitting on the fence with some of the things Jesus said – you either believe him and act on his words or reject him. John 7:46
7) Others said, "He is the Christ." John 7: 41
Some at least were coming to the correct decision based upon what they saw and heard of Jesus – to them there was no other explanation. Some believed, "At this they tried to seize him, but no one laid a hand on him, because his time had not yet come. Still, many in the crowd put their faith in him." John 7:30,31
Sometimes courage takes over from fear and embarrassment, courage born
8) At least one was prepared to defend him. Nicodemus (remember him?) was an official and had his position to think about, but faced with the authorities openly plotting Jesus’ arrest he says "Does our law condemn anyone without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?" John 7:51
Hang on, he says, surely this man is entitled to state his case before we condemn him out of hand?
As we read about him in our Bibles, as we listen to preachers, as we
look at the world and compare what we see to the words of Jesus, as we
consider his claims, the way he died and the claims of his followers as
evidence of Jesus’ resurrection and power.
Are we embarrassed to admit in public that Jesus was born to be Saviour of the world? Are we fearful as to what people might say, what they might think of us?
Do we look at Jesus, not as Saviour but as a wonderful teacher, a moral
and charismatic leader whose teachings if followed would make such a difference
in the way that people behave to one another?
Do we see him as a prophet, bringing God’s truth to the Jews and ultimately to the world? I’m guessing that you probably don’t fall in the group thinking he was a madman or deluded, but is your reaction to Jesus a claim that here is the answer to the world’s ills because here is Messiah, Saviour, the only one who can bring humankind back into a relationship with their creator?
Or is it less than that?