John’s Witness to the Truth
Alan H. Linton, Bristol, England
John the Baptist's impact on his generation is truly amazing since he was only about thirty years of age when he was executed. His witness to the person and mission of Christ, which lasted only about six months, brought about national, spiritual revival. But John's ministry extended beyond his witness to the Lord. In His defence against the accusation by the religious leaders of Sabbath breaking and blasphemy, Jesus calls up a wide range of witnesses to His deity that included John. Of him, Jesus said, 'You have sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth’, John 5. 33. This included not only his witness to Christ, who is the Truth, but also to the true standards of righteousness. John stood for what was right in the sight of God and he was martyred because of his rebuke to an earthly tyrant.
We live in a day of declining standards and, as the 'salt of the earth', we, too, should uphold the standards of righteousness. Since often this involves 'swimming against the tide' of public opinion it is likely to be costly. Nevertheless, as the Lord's representatives on earth we are called to be witnesses to the truth. How did John do this?
1. John was sent to make ‘the crooked places straight and the rough places smooth’, Isa. 40. 4.
In preparing the way of the Lord, John spoke out against the evils of his time. This touched every level of society and drew forth the question, 'What shall we do?' His answer was ‘repent’, but he taught that the reality of the people's confession was to be matched by practical actions. To the Pharisees, ‘bear fruits worthy of repentance’, Matt. 3. 8; to the people generally, ‘he ho has two tunics, let him give to him who has none, and he who has food, let him do likewise’, Luke 3. 11; to the tax collectors, ‘collect no more than what is appointed you’, Luke 3. 13; to the soldiers, ‘do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages’, Luke 3. 14. The evils prevalent then are still with us today; hypocrisy, dishonesty, greed and discontent and, as Christians, we must follow John's example and uphold the true standards of righteousness.
2. John's influence reached to the King
After presenting Jesus to the nation as the 'Lamb of God', John had only three months freedom before his life's work was brought to an abrupt end by his imprisonment and execution. This was the consequence of his clear testimony to the truth. John's witness did not stop with the common people, the king was not excluded from his denunciations. Herod Antipas was tetrarch of Galilee from 4 to 39 A.D. and therefore spanned the whole of John's life. He was notorious as a weak and selfish tyrant and his rule was marked by craft and cruelty, whilst his private life was steeped in scandal. In John 3. 23 we learn that John had moved up to Aenon in Salem, Herod's jurisdiction, but he did not shrink from denouncing the king (that ‘fox’ as Jesus so scathingly called him, Luke 13. 32). John rebuked Herod for his adulterous marriage with the wife of Phillip, his half-brother, 'and for all the evils he had done', Luke 3. 19, with the words, 'It is not lawful, (i.e. against the law of God – Lev. 20. 10), for you to have your brother's wife’, Mark 6. 18. The tense indicates that he kept on saying this. Does this imply that John had audiences with the king as had Elijah before him? Consequently, Herod being reproved by John added yet this that he shut up John in prison, Luke 3. 20.
John had come like another Elijah to be involved in deadly conflict with their rulers. Herod was to an Ahab, just as Herodias was to a Jezebel. Thus commenced this New Testament triangle of intrigue. Despite the unequal contest, we note the triumph of true moral ascendancy for, 'Herod feared John knowing that he was a just and holy man’, Mark 6. 20. Even in prison John continued to witness to the king, for we read 'Herod heard him, he did many things and he heard him gladly’, Mark 6. 20. Yet, there was no change of heart regarding Herodias!
Herodias, on the other hand, 'would have killed John but she could not’, Mark 6. 19. She knew that as long as Herod feared John, and showed signs of responding to his words, her position in the royal house was in jeopardy. She was a desperate woman and the end was inevitable. Her desire for revenge could not sleep so long as John was alive. Herodias waited her opportunity and this came with Herod's birthday. The banquet, the sensual dancing of the daughter of Herodias, the wild extravagant promise by a less than sober king, all led to the girl's request for the head of John the Baptist on a platter and precipitated the king's order for his execution. The request was unnatural, unfeminine, and macabre. It seems impossible but Herodias knew what she was asking. All at the banquet were stunned but for his oath's sake, the king granted her request. Thus the life of the greatest of men born of woman closed in the dark dungeon of Machearas in Peraea.
So often we, too, are faced with the great and unfathomable mystery of the divine will. It was God's will that the friend of the Bridegroom should enter eternity ahead of the Bridegroom. His death was not prevented but his course was done, Acts 13. 25, and John entered eternity to receive his reward – the 'well done’, for the good and faithful servant, an abundant entrance into the joy of his Lord. But those sightless eyes would haunt Herod to his dying day.
There was no last message from John, or any final word of consolation from him. He died in the silence of the dungeon and was as lonely in death as he had been in life. Matthew adds the sweet and sanctifying comment that John's disciples went and told Jesus, Matt. 14. 12. To whom else could they go? Their example encourages us to do the same when we too are unable to solve the great mysteries of life.