And John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey. (Mark 1:6)1
I grew up immersed in Bible stories. I often wondered what it would have been like to meet the passionate David, the pious Abraham, or the powerful and holy Moses. For me, the most mysterious of all the Bible characters was John the Baptist. I imagined him a very stern man, hard as stone. He had a blow horn voice that shook the rocky hills. He wore rough burlap bags for clothes and his diet invited speculation.
Childhood games grow into adult convictions. Now I do not need to justify John’s nonvegetarianism. Nor am I troubled by his appearance; instead, these dimensions challenge me. I have found a radical nonconformity in John’s lifestyle and message that helps me understand my own identity as an Adventist.
It is not surprising that Adventists have always identified themselves with John the Baptist. In fact, John’s message of repentance sounds very much like the First Angel’s message of Revelation 14:7: “Fear God and give glory to him [a reference to repentance] for the hour of his judgment is come.” In Hebrew, the name John means the Grace of YHWH, and his purpose was to point people to a gracious and forgiving God, who “taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
John was a separatist who modeled lifestyle reform, but lifestyle was not his message; it was only the result of intense dedication to his message. His message was repentance, forgiveness, and holy living. It was Adventism in verity, “God is coming! Get ready!”
So why have I not heard many sermons on John the Baptist? Perhaps he was a bit too imbalanced, too extreme, too radical. But as a people who preach and believe in Christ’s literal and imminent second coming, we ought to take very seriously the life and message of the prophet who heralded his first coming.
Jesus said that there has not risen a prophet greater than John the Baptist. What was so great about him? We are not told much about John the Baptist but in each of the brief Gospel accounts three things stand out: his message, his lifestyle, and his humility.
And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire: Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. (Matt. 3:1012)
John’s message is birthed in the expectation of judgment. It was not an event far in the future; it was imminent. He preached with prophetic urgency. Perhaps John had Psalm 21:8-9 in mind as he prepared his fire-and-brimstone sermons
Your hand will find out all your enemies; Your right hand will find out those who hate you. You will make them like a fiery furnace when you appear. The Lord will swallow them up in his wrath, and fire will consume them.
The message of judgment leads naturally to a call for repentance. But this was not a scare tactic like that of Jonathan Edwards, nor was it a manipulative desert guilt trip. It entailed grace, forgiveness, and faith that looked forward to promises handed down from Adam to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and the prophets. Repent because God is merciful, because there is still time. Baptism was a symbol of the grace and forgiveness offered by a merciful God. “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:34). It meant complete cleansing, wholeness, and new life.
The repentance preached by John led to action. Like prophets before him, John preached social activism. It was not enough to believe in God, to be children of Abraham. A people prepared to meet their God demonstrate good fruit in their daily affairs. Anyone with more food or clothing than needed was commanded to share (Luke 3:11). Those who held positions of power, were forbidden to use extortion (verse 13). Everyone between was commanded to treat their inferiors and superiors alike with kindness and respect (verse 14).
In his message of social reform, John’s preaching and life of asceticism intersect. He could not have been so successful with crowds if he had owned an extra coat. He would have lost credibility had he indulged in occasional rich foods or expensive pleasures that he condemned in others. John’s austerity was the seal of the authenticity of his message. By his example, he moved those who would never have been moved by words alone. His hearers caught a vision of holiness that was entirely otherworldly yet practical and relevant.
John’s simple lifestyle did not depend on the corrupt systems of lust, greed, and covetousness, which breed oppression, so he could freely denounce them. He needed nothing, so he could give freely to all who needed. In John’s life and ministry, the Advent hope and social action are shown to be not opposing philosophies, but partners, one growing naturally out of the other. Concern for the poor is the fruit of repentance and church membership.
Finally, John’s fiery sermons were paired with deep humility and self-awareness. “He confessed and did not deny, and confessed‘I am not the Christ’” (John 1:20). He did not even consider himself worthy enough to carry the sandals of the Christ. He refused to participate in other’s dreams of greatness. Crowds believed in him and would have followed him had he only given the word.
John understood that his calling was not to gather followers around himself but to point people toward the Christ. “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30), he said. That single phrase alone could provide fodder for a lifetime of Christian meditation.
John the Baptist was only a passing doomsday prophet, one of many madmen who have come and gone. He may seem insignificant by the world’s standards, but for those today who are waiting for the Second Coming, he can be a mentor teaching us how to “prepare the way for the Lord.”
What have I learned from John the Baptist about being an Adventist? Three things. Firstly, John’s story teaches me that the message of God’s coming must be preceded by the message of who God is. John’s name spoke more loudly than his great booming voice echoing over desert rocks. He knew the forgiveness and mercy of God, he preached it, and he lived it.
Secondly, words must be accompanied by action. Not only did John preach a coming judgment, he also lived it. By word and example, John taught that those who are forgiven will be generous, honest, and content, and that they will walk, talk, dress, and eat differently than the world around them.
Finally, those expectantly await the coming of the kingdom of God must know who they are. They are not the saviors of the world; their job is to point people to Jesus and then to get out of the way so Jesus can do his thing. Like John, they must be willing to labor without seeing the reward, and they must trust the one who has called them.
Notes and References
1. All Scripture references taken from the King James Version.
A recent theology graduate of Walla Walla University, Gina Helbley writes from Almaty, Kazakhstan, where she and her husband are teachers.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/789