Saints Who Suffered (5): John the Baptist

There was a man sent from God”! After four centuries of divine silence, the bright hope of John 1:6 dawned on the world. John the Baptist, the forerunner of our Lord Jesus Christ, was an unusual man, much like his prophetic namesake, Elijah. This greatest of prophets bore a stern message, a simple demeanor and sterling character. Unlike our previous subjects, this suffering saint’s life ended in martyrdom. He died knowing his mission was complete: The way of salvation was prepared, and a path led straight to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Recounting the Scene

John the Baptist’s message changed everything the world thought it knew about religion. He eschewed the synagogues of Jerusalem to preach in the wilderness of Judea. A rough camel’s hair coat replaced rabbinical robes. Simple, wild foods supplanted the curated diet of the legal Jews. But these changes paled in comparison to his preaching.

Stern and powerful, John’s warning reached multitudes who flocked to be baptized with repentance (Mar 1:5). The past works of dead wood and dried chaff and the sideways viper-crawl of religion must be replaced with honest, caring and responsible lives and hearts that beat to receive the coming Messiah (Luk 3:7-14).

For all the strength of his words, the Baptist’s holy character, self-denial and humility illuminated the path for Christ, too. Speaking of the Lord Jesus, John advised his disciples, “He must increase, but I must decrease. He who comes from above is above all” (Joh 3:30-31 ESV).

John was no social revolutionary, but his straightforward message of personal change and preparation affected the highest strata of Jewish society in the scribes, pharisees and kings. Shamed by his preaching, Herod the Tetrarch had John imprisoned and ultimately put to death. John the Baptist died a faithful messenger of the Word of God. We can take comfort that his service was recognized by many, and by the Lord Jesus Himself.

The Reality of Suffering

Few in the western world have any personal understanding of John’s experience. He was imprisoned for preaching, and his death came without trial, defense or justification. A word from Herod and the executioner’s work was done. We don’t read much of his suffering. In fact, John’s only words from prison focus on the testimony of the Lord Jesus instead of his own plight (Mat 11:2-3).

While the circumstances surrounding John the Baptist’s execution were capricious at best, his beheading was likely swift and short. Other prisoners did not fare as well, dying of exposure, strangulation or being hurled off high cliffs. We don’t doubt, however, that he suffered. Unlike house arrest, secular history describes first-century prisons as dark and cold, dirty and not designed for long-term incarceration. Prisoners were beaten or whipped and locked behind metal gates in chains as they awaited near-certain execution (Act 16:23-26).

The Response of the Sufferer

John the Baptist’s responsibility was to preach of the coming Messiah and baptize those whose repentant hearts looked for Him. He was faithful to this charge, deferring to Christ and preaching righteousness daily in the place beyond Jordan; it would seem he was always available to those who would accept the Word of God. Hear the joy and deference in his words as he pointed out, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (Joh 1:29 KJV).

Consider, then, the great hardship of going from reaching multitudes and doing the work of God daily to dark confinement in the palace prison. It is here, in the response to his suffering, that we see the sterling character of John the Baptist. John sent messengers, his own followers, to ask the Lord Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Mat 11:3 ESV).

Why did he ask this question? Some have suggested that John heard of Jesus’ miracles, was feeling sorry for himself, and asked so as to remind the Lord of his plight. Some suggest there was doubt in the mind of the man who declared, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” Please allow me to propose an alternative: John had dedicated his life to preaching about the coming Messiah and baptizing those who believed. Now he was suffering in prison, unable to continue his physical, preparative work. Was his mission complete? Was Messiah revealed? With Jesus’ confirmation, John could accept the prison sentence, decrease entirely and give full place to the Lord Jesus Christ. Could there be a more noble and Christ-honoring response than this?

What courage! What deference to Christ! Consider John’s humility in the trial. Hear how the Lord Jesus summarized the complete life of such a devoted and humble man: “Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Mat 11:11 KJV).

The Result of the Strife

John the Baptist poured his life into serving God and exalting the Lord Jesus Christ. He preached the Word! When prison and the impending death put an end to that prolific preaching and baptism, he could rest in knowing that souls were prepared to receive the Lord Jesus as Messiah, God’s anointed One. When the Lord Jesus returned to the Jordan, where John first baptized, “many resorted unto him, and said, John did no miracle: but all things that John spake of this man were true. And many believed on him there” (Joh 10:41-42 KJV).

Could there be a higher commendation for a believer than this? Despite the hardships, everything he said about the Lord Jesus was true! Because of John’s witness many believed. Indeed, there could be a higher commendation. In Matthew 11, the Lord Himself challenged the multitude: “Did you expect to see a man easily shaken, or a man with an easy life in soft clothes?” He commended John openly as more than a prophet and “my messenger” (v10).

Might such an encouragement to John, suffering in prison, cause each of us to press forward in our own humble service. John’s experience erases all doubt that any called to sacrifice and suffering for the Word of God bring true delight to Him and honor our Lord Jesus with their very lives.