He married His brother’s wife. The preacher said, “That’s against the law.”
She hated this preacher, but he protected the preacher because he knew where his power really came from. He couldn’t understand a lot of what the preacher said, but there was something about him that was fascinating to hear anyway.¹
His name was Herod Antipas, and the preacher was John the Baptist.
What people needed in John was not a “reed swayed by the wind” or “fine clothes”, but a prophet.
Same Prophetic Voice To Society
In many ways the anointing on John the Baptist is the same anointing on the Church since its birth. It is now we who baptise people in water, a baptism of repentance. It is we who preach the coming Messiah Who takes away the sins of the world. Indeed He has come, lived, died, and was resurrected, and our baptism now identifies with His historical death and burial, and we too are raised in Him and new life, as new creations. It’s a glorious and profound experience to be washed clean, indistinguishable from who we once were.
We more joyously preach the Messiah’s Second Coming, when the whole world will be made new, when there will be a Righteous Judge reigning over all the kingdoms of this world, and there will be no more suffering, sin, or sorrow. We His Church are now
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.'”
But was John the Baptist purely prophetic about the future, or was he also prophetic about the present, the immorality and weak character of those in political authority, the leaders of society and consequently society in general?
Poorly Chosen Targets
John the Baptist was a prophet, and spoke with a resolute conviction of Truth. No one ever accused him of choosing style over substance. He was distinctly lacking in what many would call graciousness – but not grace. People confessed their sins and asked him to baptise them and they received forgiveness. People just don’t flock to someone like they did to John if he offered no grace for their humanity. Compassion and righteousness are not mutually exclusive, but complementary.
John the Baptist was as subtle as a sledgehammer. See how boldly he addressed the Pharisees and Sadducees who turned up at the scene. He was in the wilderness, and the people flocked to him there. Nobody was passing by on their way to the markets or their neighbour’s house to borrow a cup of sugar. They sought him out in the middle of nowhere. Jesus later spoke to a crowd about John and rhetorically asked,
“What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces.”
Jesus spoke of John’s moral inflexibility and indifference to what was considered “socially acceptable” when he observed that what people needed in John was not a “reed swayed by the wind” or “fine clothes”, but a prophet, and then some.
Historically there was no separation of Church & State in Ancient Israel, and occupying Rome had a philosophy of letting conquered people rule themselves, as long as they paid their taxes and didn’t resist the Empire. The Pharisees and Sadducees were the two local major political parties that ruled Israel. They weren’t necessarily the priests – they were the ruling factions². They had a power base that was jealously guarded, and so when a new voice gained popularity in the whole region, they had a vested interest to find out what he was saying, and what threat he may have posed. It was a story that had played out before, and would dramatically play out again in just a few precious years.
We read in Matthew chapter three that, as he was baptising people in the Jordan River in the wilderness, John saw many of these leaders of Israel were coming to that place, and he unloaded on them with both barrels.
“You bunch of snakes! Who told you there might be trouble for you? Practice what you preach. You’re not better than anyone else because of how you were born. God can do that for anyone. You’re already in trouble because you talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. So be warned: deadwood makes big bonfires.
“I’m only offering a chance to turn it around – repent. But wait until you see what’s next – He’s the real deal; next to me, a holy giant. He’s going to put God in you and you’ll be immersed in God. Right now He’s getting ready to welcome and protect everyone on His side but wage a very short and terrible war on everyone who thinks they’re too good for Him.”
That’s not a direct quote; it’s the David Pellowe paraphrase. Read it in more accurate versions in Matthew 3:7-12. The point is he was really, really harsh, to really, really powerful people.
John the Baptist wasn’t apolitical. We can’t say he had no interest in political affairs when he’s clearly recorded laying into members of the two major parties of Israel and then telling Rome’s Governor in the region, Herod, that he was in an immoral marriage. His opposition and lack of gentle conversation to those in authority wasn’t a character flaw. Jesus intimated that anything less would have been a “reed swayed by the wind”.
And the anointing on John the Baptist is the anointing on the Church.
But Herodias, the new wife of Herod, formerly the wife of Herod’s brother, didn’t take too kindly to John the Baptist’s reflections on the morality of her marriage, and not too much later John wound up in Herod’s prison. The story didn’t end well for John. Herodias’ daughter was dancing at a Roman feast and did so well that the men were really, really impressed. I mean, really impressed. Infer what you will, but it’s safe to assume it wasn’t suited for younger audiences. So Herod, in a telling moment without inhibitions and in front of everyone, promised the girl that she would be rewarded with whatever she wanted. The scorned mother prompted her daughter with some creativity and the result was John’s head on a platter. Herod had no choice, and John was executed, his head severed from his shoulders, and Herod’s wife happy.
What laws did John break? None. His offence was to offend political power, to speak Truth, to preach righteousness, to operate in an anointing to be the prophetic voice to his society.
And the anointing on John the Baptist is the anointing on the Church.
Jesus Was Not Apolitical
We know another man Who offended those in authority, political power, social leaders. The same Pharisees and Sadducees that came to inspect John baptising in the wilderness are very well documented as having been extremely threatened by Jesus’ popularity and prose. They tried to trap Him with clever questions, and Jesus strategically answered them, evaded their questions, avoided their traps.
They asked him politically charged questions like, “Should we pay the legal taxes to the much hated Roman occupation?” This was a yes/no question, a lose/lose set of options. If He said yes, He would lose the popularity of the people which the Pharisees coveted for their own political power. If He said no, He would be guilty of tax evasion, and dealt with by Rome.
What’s really interesting to me is the flattery they approached Him with. It was disingenuous – false affection put on for the people listening so they could look good no matter the outcome. They honoured Him with the title, “Teacher”. They declared He was true, and taught the way of God in Truth. They acknowledged, interestingly, that like John whom Jesus described as not like a “reed swayed by the wind”, He did not care about anyone’s opinion or public position when He taught. It was the perfect set up to invite a qualified opinion on the popularly hated Roman Empire.
The crowd waited. I’m sure you could have heard a denarius drop. Then Jesus spoke.
He didn’t mirror the diplomacy masking their treachery. He bluntly described their very weak character and asked, “Why are you trying to trap me, you hypocrites?” WHAM! “Give me the coin used for the tax.” He was given that denarius one of the Pharisees’ disciples might have nervously dropped.
I can imagine His continuing annoyance, as He asked them, “Whose face is this on one side; and whose inscription on the other?”
There were no options, so they fell into His own political trap and answered simply, “Caesar’s”.
As if swishing meaningless flies away Jesus replied, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Hashtag BOOM. Drop the mic’. Everyone was amazed, and the trap failed.
More than defensive, Jesus was also offensive to those in authority. There’s no better way to describe His attitude towards them then character assassination. The religious/political leaders who controlled Israel’s social standards were actively targeted by Jesus, and He called them mean names like “white-washed tombs full of dead men’s bones.” That’s right, He described them as umistakeably full of corruption and rot inside no matter how well they tried to present themselves outwardly. Ouch! His favourite description of them is well known: hypocrites.
And so they determined that He too, like John the Baptist, was too great a threat to their political power, and must go. His criticism of their morality and challenge to their authority must not be allowed to continue unchecked. They conspired to have Him arrested, and though His trial was a complete miscarriage of justice, they wielded their political influence and had Him executed by Rome.
There’s no mistaking this for a sad ending, although it was sad. It simply was not the end, but the beginning. History firmly established the facts of His life, death and resurrection, and He lives forevermore. But as He left, He gave instructions and a promise. He said to keep up the good work, making disciples of all nations, baptising them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything He commanded. He passed the baton from John the Baptist, to the Disciples, and thus the Church soon to be born.
In Luke 24, right before His ascension into Heaven, He said, “I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” What power? Political power? No. Spiritual power, the anointing and immersion in the Holy Spirit.
“If you love me, keep my commands. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.19 Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.”
Now check this out, paying attention to the part I’ve put in bold format.
“13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. 16 He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 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.”
The Spirit of Truth that lives in us does not sway in the wind like a reed. Truth is not relative. The Spirit of Truth that lives in us does not speak with any regard to people’s opinions or powerful positions. The world cannot accept Him. His anointing is to bring back many people to God, and to turn hearts to the wisdom of the righteous, and to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
Compassion and righteousness are not mutually exclusive, but complementary.
The Church’s Prophetic Voice To Society
These two Spirit-filled prophets, John the Baptist and Jesus, had this in common. They were such a bold voice of Truth and righteousness to leaders in authority and society in general that it made them many enemies. On one level, it ultimately cost both of them their lives. But both of them were full of compassion for the lost, and were attractive despite their political boldness, and maybe even also because of.
Both of them preached an everlasting Kingdom, and that Kingdom was their mission – not the kingdoms of this world. Although they didn’t seek political power for themselves, when human agendas intersected and conflicted with Truth & righteousness they were unflinching and unambiguous in their communication. Lobbying for social morality is not personal ambition, but a patriotic ambition for the benefit of everyone – the common good. It’s loving your neighbour.
Many people, often unbelievers, offer an isolated and subsequently misinterpreted verse of Scripture when Believers debate contentious social/political issues. They seem to spit out with smug contempt, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone!” You can almost hear them thinking, “Checkmate!”
However, “give to God what is God’s”. He said it and recorded it, so they don’t get to steal it for their carnal agenda. I offer back the entire context of the verse: the woman caught in sexual sin. (I deliberately use that term instead of adultery because it accurately relates the conversation to contemporary attacks on marriage.) She was brought to Jesus to seal her fate of capital punishment for sexual immorality. The first point to make is no Christian is suggesting execution when discussing the rights and wrongs of contentious issues, so the metaphor is far from relevant. Secondly, Jesus said two things to her, not one, so you must quote both to be objective and faithful to the context.
“Neither do I condemn you.” Compassion.
“Go and sin no more.” Righteousness.
Jesus absolutely judged her. He told her to stop sinning which categorically implies she was sinning and was wrong. And that is the killer blow to the shallow argument of anyone flinging this verse around casually. The world and media hate the thought that there are such things as right and wrong and absolute Truth. Truth is by nature exclusive and discriminates between right and wrong like a compass discriminates between North and South. That’s not bigotry or hate. That’s simple Truth.
The Church also has a moral compass, the Spirit of Truth which filled John the Baptist even before he was born. That same Spirit descended upon Jesus at His baptism, and was given to the Church at Pentecost. With that compass comes our responsibility and privilege to be politically present: the prophetic voice to society, individually and corporately.