[This is part of a series on John The Baptist as Prophet. You can read the other posts here!]
My husband and I recently became foster parents of a baby boy. We picked him up from the hospital when he was just 2 days old. His life, very unknown to us, stretches out like a blank manuscript, waiting to be written.
When a smile breaks across his face, I sometimes think about all the things ahead that will make him laugh, bring him joy. When he cries, I know all too well the possible heartbreaks he may face, already having braved a traumatic entry into this world. His life is one big deposit of potential. He could be an artist, a teacher, a criminal, or a revolutionary.
God has marked us all, built in each of us the DNA that will shape the rest of our lives. Here at this blog we talk a lot about apostles, evangelists and prophets. I believe these are both gifts God gives people at certain times for certain purposes, but also ways that God has hard-wired some of us to be. This “wiring” can be seen throughout our life, if we look closely. The journey of our lives often shows us marks, or signposts, of what God is calling us into becoming.
The life of John the Baptist reveals such marks, they are the fingerprints of God’s call on his life and also obedient responses from John and his family. The marks on John’s life as a prophet are clear from the beginning, and stretch throughout his life, giving us a glimpse of what marks may exist in our own lives or in the lives of those around us.
Here are six marks of a prophet in John’s life that pave the way for his life purpose.
1. Marked before birth
Both the angel that appears to Zechariah announcing the plan of John’s birth, and Zechariah himself speak words over John’s life, before he could even focus his eyes or speak a word.
From the angel:
“[John] will be great in the sight of the Lord…he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah,to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:15-17)
What a destiny to live up to! Imagine John’s father hearing this proclamation over his son’s life. No doubt that led Zechariah to rejoice through prayer over his son’s birth into the world. He prays eloquently over John, having traded doubt at the angel’s message to faithful assurance:
“And you, my child, will be called a prophetof the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins,because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sunwill come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” (Luke 1:76-79)
We may not have had an angel foretell our purpose in life (wouldn’t that be helpful?), and our parents may or may not have prayed prayers over our life. But perhaps there have been ways people have spoken over you, maybe while you were growing in your mother’s womb and your parents were dreaming about who you would be. Maybe words spoken by grandparents or friends as you toddled around. Words are powerful, and often prophetic. John’s life was marked by these powerful proclamations about what he would do, and who he would become.
Another prophet we will celebrate collectively on Monday, Martin Luther King, Jr. was named after his father, the preacher Martin Luther King, Sr. His father changed his own name to Martin Luther, and passed that name to his son as well. I don’t know all the reasons why MLK Sr. took the name of the great church reformer, but imagine a young Martin, Jr. already sizing up the shoes of his father he would step into, but also drawn into a the life of a revolutionary, calling for change in the church and society, by his very namesake.
2. Time in the wilderness
Not much is known about John’s life before his public ministry, but we are told that he “grew and became strong in spirit;and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel” (Luke 1:80). It has been hypothesized that John may have spent some time among the Essenes, a mystical sect of Judaism that focused on purity and separation, living in the desert set apart from society. What we know from scripture is that John spent a lot of time alone, growing in the Spirit and in the clarity of his purpose. Imagine what powerful times with God shaped his adolescent years!
The experiences in our lives, often our “wilderness” experiences, prepare us powerfully for the ministry we are called to. The dark nights of the soul can forge new paths in our life that we never predicted. Prophets often experience acts of injustice, deep tragedy, or powerful experiences with God that then provide the fuel and direction for ministry.
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3. Radical Lifestyle
This aspect of John’s life will be explored in future series posts, but it is an important mark of John’s life as a prophet. Not only did he spend most of his life in the desert, but when he showed up in public, he dressed strange and ate bugs and honey. He spent his days preaching down by the river and publicly calling people out (sometimes through name-calling). He lived a radical lifestyle, obedient to the One who gave him life.
Not all prophets wear strange clothes or isolate themselves, but a mark of a prophet’s life usually includes radical life choices. These choices authenticate their message, and help their audience gain a deeper understanding of the truth. When Jewish audiences looked at John, they would have been sharply reminded of Elijah, a prophet that had come long before John, and pieces of the Messianic puzzle would have been fallen into place.
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4. A hard message
This is probably the most obvious marker of a prophet… the message they deliver and the pain that likely comes with it. Martin Luther King Jr. certainly knew the division and anger that his message would bring, as he prepared civil rights activists for a non-violent response. Old Testament prophets often pleaded with God (or hopped a boat out of town) to avoid delivering the message they knew would not be
John the Baptist’s message was harsh and direct, leaving no one untouched. He spoke to everyday believers, common methods of employment, and entire systems. His words of conviction were directed at the highest rulers, eventually landing him in jail.
Often the message that God gives us to share is difficult. That is the mark of a prophet: a message that challenges the status-quo and corrects the dominant assumptions in culture and religious institutions, that sets fire to your heart and is uncontainable.
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5. Human response
One of the most compelling sign of a prophet in John the Baptist is his humanity. He wasn’t divine. He didn’t know fully the mind of God. He was a person, just like you and me, trying to be obedient and live out his calling.
As John lingered in jail for his critique of Herod’s marriage to his sister-in-law, he sends his cousin Jesus a message. “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Luke 7:19) This vulnerable moment has always given me great hope in my own doubts, that even John, with his life experience and connection to Jesus could struggle, especially as his life was probably not turning out how he expected it would.
Often the humanity of prophets in our culture is looked at as weakness. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa both struggled with doubt in their faith. I see their doubts as markers of the prophets they truly are, human people struggling to obey.
A prophet’s life is always marked by sacrifice, often of their very life. John did not escape this fate, as he was beheaded while he rotted in jail for his convictions and his message. So many prophets have received a similar payment for their lives and their words. The willingness to give one’s life in obedience to God is the mark of a true prophet, and the mark of true faith.
In Martin Luther King Jr’s last sermon before his assassination, he spoke these words: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”
His prophetic call for racial equality and freedom from oppression caused him to sacrifice everything. It wasn’t his lofty ideals, or revolutionary zeal, but it was an unswerving obedience to God and the calling He had placed on his life. This last signpost led him home, to rejoice with his King.
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Take some time to reflect over your life. What are the markers God has placed throughout your life to help you live into your calling? Have you been obedient to follow them?
[This is part of a series on John The Baptist as Prophet. You can read the other posts here!]