Did John really go wild? In the previous post, I mentioned that much artwork depicting John the Baptist has him looking like a caveman. Why?
Because in Matthew 3:4 we read this about John, “John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.”
Clothes made out of camel’s hair? What would that even be like? Google it, and you might be surprised that there’s a whole camel hair clothing industry, and perhaps John wore a garment that wasn’t so wild as it first seems. Actually camel’s hair clothing can be quite soft. Camel’s hair, being so accessible in the ancient near east, was often used for clothing.
But there seems to be another reason John had this clothing, one that was not at all wild like a caveman. In 2 Kings 1:8, we read this: “He was a man with a garment of hair and with a leather belt around his waist.” That’s the same description as John the Baptist’s clothing, except 2 Kings 1:8 was talking about a man who lived nearly 1000 years before John the Baptist. That man was the famous prophet Elijah, and he wasn’t a caveman either. Instead, the symbolism was very clear. John the Baptist was purposefully dressing in the same style as Elijah.
If you’re wondering “Wouldn’t that style have gone out of fashion in 1000 years?” the answer is almost certainly No. You and I are used to fashion trends changing wildly year to year and season to season. Especially decade to decade and century to century. Not so in biblical times. In fact, there are some nomadic peoples that still wear ancient clothing styles in our day. Certainly there were changes and innovations over time, but a basic camel’s hair cloak was common for centuries. Some scholars suspect that many people would have worn them.
So what about eating locusts? That seems wild. Eating bugs? When my wife took groups to Cambodia they purchased fried and seasoned bugs of many varieties, and team members would try them! There is scholarly debate about what John’s diet of bugs and honey could mean, but the majority opinion is that it was rather wild. Honey is delicious, so maybe he soaked the bugs in honey? Either way, John was cultivating a prophetic aura. He wanted people to make the connection between himself and the great prophet of history, Elijah.
Even his choice of living in and ministering in the desert or wilderness had prophetic overtones, as the prophet Moses led the Israelites through the wilderness. It seems the people centuries later in John’s day made the connection. Matthew tells us in Matthew 3:5-6 that, “People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.”
Let’s talk about the prophetic role a moment. We tend to think of prophets as people who give messages from God about the future. But that’s more rare in the biblical view than what you might think. Instead, most prophecy is in the category of “If-Then” prophecy, and it still has a relationship to the future. If you don’t stop sinning, then your future will not be good. If you turn from your sinful way, then your future will be good.
Instead of telling the future, prophets tended to tell the truth about what people were doing now. Remember our study through Ezekiel? All his skits and dreams and really weird behavior? All of that was primarily a very creative way that God was trying to get his people’s attention about their current behavior. Almost always, the message was “You are sinning! Stop it, return to me, or you will face the consequences.”
God’s prophets were very clear indications of God’s desperate love for his people. God, through his prophets, attempts to intervene, pleading with the people to return to him. John was in that line of prophets, calling the people back to God. But John’s prophetic ministry had a unique twist. He was the forerunner.
Turn to Malachi 4:5 and 6, the very last words of the Old Testament. “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.”
That ancient prophecy was yet another reason why John is cultivating his image to be like the return of Elijah. But this Elijah 2.0 had the responsibility of preparing the people for the Lord.
How did John accomplish that ministry. It depends. The crowds of peasants seemed to adore him, flocking to him to be baptized. They loved John’s preaching because he was not afraid to tell the truth about the nation.
But there were some other people who didn’t seem to have a good impression. Why? John was bold. Prophets like Elijah and John are often bold in speaking God’s truth. John called out hypocrisy, injustice, and sin. John said the darndest things. For example, in Matthew 3, listen to what John says,
“He saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Did you hear that? John called the religious leaders, snakes! But there’s more. Another time John confronted King Herod. We read in Matthew 14:3-5,
“Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, for John had been saying to him: “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered him a prophet.”
Though the people loved John, not long after the episode above, Herod had John killed, and that means John’s prophetic ministry lasted likely only a few months until Jesus came on the scene. During those months, John’s primary ministry was calling the people to repent of their sins and be baptized. Because he said the darndest things, John’s message did not sit well with the religious or political leaders.
In fact, as we return to John 1:19-34, we’ll learn more about the religious leaders’ concerns about John in the next post.