The Unexpected Journey
Chapter 15

Climbing Down

There are a number of things that are extremely difficult to do.  One of those things is to “go down the ladder” quietly and graciously.  ”Climbing the ladder of success” (in whatever way one defines success) usually is achieved with difficulty.  Occasionally one will achieve his or her goal without personal sacrifice, hard work, and a major utilization and development of personal ability.  However, such is rare.  Most of those who are not part of this “rare group” merely hold a position.  The majority of men and women who achieve their goals in life do so with a major investing of self in his or her ambition.

For many reasons, it is difficult to “turn loose” of achievements that required personal sacrifice, hard work, and an investment of self.  It is difficult to become uninvolved when you have spent years being very involved.  It is difficult to go from “the right to know” to “it is none of my business.”  It is difficult to accept change that ignores (or will ignore) you when you were accustomed to serving as the effective change maker.  It is hard to stifle the “I would not do that, and I certainly would not have done it that way” when “your way” would have been disaster in the current circumstances.  If a person has been perched on the top rung of the ladder for a long time, it is a major challenge to realize that he or she rightfully belongs on a much lower step or perhaps off the ladder entirely.

If a person has the personal courage to “climb the ladder,” he or she is wise to realize that the moment will come when he or she must quietly go “down the ladder.”  Maybe age, a lack of health, a disease, declining abilities, or new needs will make the change necessary, but the moment will come when “climbing down” is as important as “climbing up.”  Never does anyone want the necessity of “turning loose” to be obvious to everyone but himself or herself.

For these reasons, I have great admiration for John the Baptist.  He dared to climb and he dared to turn loose.  He knew who he was, who he was not, and he never forgot either.


John’s Beginning

Little is said in the Bible of John’s childhood.  It is noted that he was born into a Jewish priestly family.  His father and mother were beyond the age of pregnancy when the angel, Gabriel, announced that Elizabeth (John’s mother) would conceive (Luke 1:7, 13-20).  Well before the first century, there were too many Jewish priests to serve in a lucrative position of performing a role in the Jewish temple ritual worship, thus the priests were divided into groups to be provided opportunity to serve in a temple role.  Zacharias, of the Abijah group, was offering incense when Gabriel informed him that he and Elizabeth would have a son to be named John.  The only physical thing unusual about the “before birth” events of John was his conception to an elderly couple beyond the age of conception.

All that is recorded about his early existence is this:

1.     John’s parents’ home was in a city in the  hill country of Judah (Luke 1:23, 39, 40).

2.     John (as he developed and as an adult) would refrain from drinking wine or liquor (Luke 1:15).

3.     John would be filled with the Holy Spirit before birth (Luke 1:15).

4.     John would have an appointed mission (Luke 1:17).

The only other pre-preaching information given concerning John were these.  He lived in the deserts (Luke 1:80).  He seemed to be a conscious imitator of Elijah in both wardrobe and nourishment (Matthew 3:4; 2 Kings 1:8).


John’s Attitude

One of the striking things about John was this: he never forgot what his purpose was.  When a person is popular, it is simple for popularity to destroy the person’s sense of self and to replace the original sense of self with popularity’s designed sense of self.  Many refer to that happening as “being full of self.”  The more we are impressed with ourselves, the more others are not impressed with us.  There is a powerful difference between being used to satisfy others’ self-centered desires and leading others in a useful, selfless direction.

Jesus’ mission and John’s mission were different.  John was to lead people [Israel] (1) to focus on sinfulness, (2) to regret sinfulness, and (3) to turn from sinfulness [the message of repentance] (Matthew 3:2).  Jesus’ mission was to save from sin (Matthew 1:21).  Deliverance from a danger occurs only if the person perceives the danger exists.  (Spiritual response wise, repentance must occur before forgiveness can occur—a person will not respond to forgiveness unless the person understands that he needs forgiveness.)

John regarded himself as unworthy to perform as the lowliest servant for Jesus (Mark 1:7).  If a slave was the least significant, lowest slave in a servant group, it was his task to remove sandals and wash feet.  John at the height of his popularity said he was unworthy to be Jesus’ lowest servant.  Quite a voluntary statement in his circumstances of that moment!

John constantly pointed people to Jesus (John 1:29-34)   Even at the height of his popularity, he pointed people to Jesus (John 1:29-37).   As Jesus’ ministry began, there was a period of overlap in John’s ministry and Jesus’ ministry (John 3:22, 23). Some of John’s disciples were concerned because Jesus was growing in popularity.  John’s answer to his own disciples: “He (Jesus) must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:26-30).

As one’s popularity grows, it is easy for one’s sense of importance to change.  As one’s sense of importance grows, there can come a moment when one’s purpose/role changes.  Popularity easily makes us think we are more indispensible than we actually are.  John never allowed his popularity with people to make himself a rival to Jesus.  He never forgot who he was, who Jesus was, and what his (John’s) purpose was.  That is an exceptional trait in anyone in any popular circumstance!  Self-importance easily becomes self-deception!


John’s Popularity

Perhaps the reader thinks the author exaggerates John’s popularity.  The elevation of modern Jerusalem is about 2500 feet above sea level.  The elevation of the Jordan Valley around Jericho is about 1200 feet below sea level.  The actual place in the Jordan Valley that John taught and baptized (in modern identification) is questionable.  The Bible says that Israelites from Jerusalem, all Judea, and the vicinity around the Jordan were going to John to hear him teach and to be baptized (Matthew 3:5, 6; Mark 1:5).

The people went to John; John did not tour.  That trip would have been made by foot by the majority, and by donkey by some.  Most who heard and responded to John traveled down a significant distance, listened to the man, and traveled up an equal distance to return home.  The travel conditions would not have been inviting to us!

Compare people going to John at an inconvenient location and Jesus touring (Matthew 4:23; Mark 1:39; Luke 4:42-44).  Jesus even sent people in advance of his arrival to inform people of his message (Matthew 10:5, 6; Mark 6:7-9; Luke 9:1-6).  The point: both men were extremely popular, but people traveled to John.

There are two Bible-recorded incidents that indicate the popularity of John.  The first is recorded by the Gospel of Matthew in Matthew 3:7-12.  This gospel said many Pharisees and Sadducees were coming to John for baptism.  John did not give serious spiritual significance to their enduring the trip or wishing to be baptized. He called them descendants of poisonous snakes who were fleeing rather than repenting.  He said their attempt to flee would be useless.  They placed their confidence in their genealogy rather than a desire to repent.  The tree in which they trusted (the physical nation of Israel???) was facing certain destruction.  Soon God would lead through the Messiah, not through them.  They were a part of the undesirable, useless chaff destined for destruction.

From John’s statements combined with the fact of the Pharisees' and Sadducees' presence, I would conclude the following.  (1) John was so spiritually popular with the common people that the leadership of the Pharisees and Sadducees did not dare appear to ignore John (see Matthew 21:23-27).  (2) The Pharisees' and Sadducees' motives for coming to John arose from a selfish desire to protect their position rather than to hear a message/emphasis from God.  (3) The Pharisees and Sadducees were at the foundation of the nation’s problems—if anyone needed truly to repent, it was these people.  (4) Though John had the necessary credentials (he came from priestly roots) to become a part of the leadership power structure in first-century Jerusalem, he declared that power structure was a fundamental part of Israel’s problem.  (5) Obedience to God involves more than complying with a formula.

The second was recorded by the Gospel of John in John 1:19-28.  The Jews (the power structure—most people in Jerusalem were Jewish) from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to represent them by asking the question, “Who are you?”  Put in our terminology, “Why should we conclude you have the right to do what you are doing?”  They did not authorize John’s message or purification by baptism, so who authorized his message and his baptism?

John responded without hesitation declaring that he was NOT the Jewish Messiah (the Christ), or Elijah, or the anticipated Prophet.  He did not seek to justify his activity by making false claims, as some did.  The priests and Levites asked, “Then who shall we tell those who sent us that you are?” John replied that he was the person Isaiah wrote about in Isaiah 40:3.  They asked,  “If you are not the Christ, or Elijah, or the Prophet, what gives you the right to baptize?”  John answered, “I am baptizing to declare the coming of the One too significant for you to imagine!”

The interest of “the Jews from Jerusalem” who would inquire about the identity and authority of John is a verification of John’s popularity.  It is likely the most powerful men in first-century Israel inquired about John’s identity.  Yet, with his undeniable spiritual prestige in a religious nation, John never forgot who he was or what his mission was.  He could be asked by the powerful, adored by the common people, and watch his disciples follow Jesus (John 1:35-37) while never forgetting that Jesus would increase as he decreased.  John had the courage to climb the ladder of success and to come down the same ladder.


Jesus Paid Tribute to John in Matthew 11:2-15

The very independent John who dared to live life “his way” (perhaps in the tradition of the Old Testament Jewish prophets of renown???), a man accustomed to options, was imprisoned.  He dared confront Herod Antipas, condemn the marriage of Antipas, and endure the consequences—imprisonment.  The independent man who had options lost his independence and greatly limited his options.  His limited options in prison made him wonder about how he used his life.  (Being in a first-century prison of a ruler would provide a lot of time for thinking and evaluating.)  Thus John sent disciples to Jesus to inquire if John had achieved his mission.  He wanted to know if he had correctly identified Jesus as the Christ.

Jesus did two things.  First, he responded to John’s question.  Second, he questioned the multitude around him about John.

First, he did not answer John’s question with a “Yes” or “No.”  He answered more meaningfully.  Jesus told John’s disciples to report to John what he was doing.  Then call John’s attention to a statement Isaiah made that began in Isaiah 35:5 (consider also 29:18-20; 32:3, 4; 42:7, 16).  John should understand that through Jesus the blind saw, the lame walked, lepers were cleansed, the deaf heard, the dead returned to life, and the poor heard the good news.  Those who did not stumble because God worked in Jesus were blessed.

Second, he asked what the multitude expected when they went to the Jordan wilderness to listen to John (an indication of some asking how John could be placed in prison for upholding God’s values when Antipas ignored God’s values???)  Did they go to listen to an indecisive man or a man of conviction?  Did they go to see a ruler dressed in soft clothing or a prophet dressed in coarse clothing?  If all they went to see was a Jewish prophet they need to understand that John was more significant than a prophet.  He was God’s messenger who announced the coming of God’s long promised Messiah.  No one “born of women” was more significant than John the Baptist.

Jesus’ point had a double emphasis.  The first emphasis was a tribute from Jesus concerning the significance of John.  The second emphasis followed immediately.  The person of least significance in the kingdom of heaven was of more significance than John.  The man or woman who accepted God’s acts and message through Jesus was extremely important to God.

Imprisonment did not diminish John’s significance to God!



For many, their life circumstances will take directions they never considered.  Simply because they do not wish a circumstance to happen does not mean it will not occur.  More is involved than nutrition, exercise, and a responsible lifestyle.  While those are surely important (and their neglect will produce unnecessary problems), not everything is preventable by nutrition, exercise, and a responsible lifestyle.  Never (20 years ago) would I have thought I could possibly have speech and balance problems that increasingly get worse!  There are some circumstances that just cannot be prevented.   While there are numerous things that can be prevented, there are also numerous things that cannot be prevented.  The person also who would live a useful life will encounter some risks.  A risk-free life is not possible or desirable.  Following are some suggestions that I hope you find worthy of consideration. 

1.     As early as possible in adult life accept as fact that you are not invincible.  Everyone you have known either died or will die.  (You accept that reality about everyone else—accept it about yourself.)  I am not suggesting that you live your life as a morbid, depressed person who goes about saying, “Woe is me!  In fact, woe is everyone!” Do what you can to help your body, but refuse to define yourself only by the physical realities of your body.  Use life fully, but do not expect to physically live forever. 

2.     Learn life amounts to more than physical realities.  Some of the people you find and have found greatly inspiring are those who refuse to be defined by physical reality.  They did not win a dunk-the-basketball contest, or score a winning goal-touchdown-hit, or climb Mount Everest, or do some incredible physical feat.  They taught more about living in the way they expressed their spirit than you ever learned about life from someone who did the physically incredible.  Honor your spirit as well as your body.

3.     Learn how to lose as well as how to succeed.  Never forget who you are—whether you win or lose.  You do not have to “be better” than someone else to respect yourself for being who you are and to respect others for being human.  If you live long enough, you will experience physical decline, aging, and the loss of abilities.  That is a part of the life experience, too.  To worship youthfulness is to waste a part of your life.  Prepare to decline—that is what you want.  Is it not your plan to live long enough to physically decline?

4.     Learn the essential qualities of character.  Do not sell genuine humility short as one of those essential qualities.  Not fake humility that disguises less than noble intents as a syrupy graciousness that reduces everything to a formula of “the right thing to do” in every situation.  Nor the one that is more concerned with impressing people than in being.  Nor the one that seeks to advance personal objectives.  It is the one that respects a person’s self because it respects others.  It is the one that understands the value of serving others.  It is the one that fashions the way a person looks at self by the knowledge of the kind of person “I wish to be” (not what I wish to physically experience). 

5.     Learn that “emptiness” is a too common experience in life for too many.  Some never find “meaning” in their life.  No matter what they chase, the end result is meaningless.  Too often such people define living as some form of depression or despair.  “Meaning” is often decided to be in possessing the right things, or in having the right experiences, or in knowing the “right people,” or in achieving the right recognition.  Ultimately, the person encounters the post-possession blahs, the “what’s next” pursuit, that “knowing the right people” does not produce the anticipated results (success is rarely a transfer item), and “the moment in the spotlight” is truly just a moment.  Pursuing objectives that typically result in deepening feelings of emptiness does not give life meaning.  Learn not to pursue life’s meaning in deceiving objectives.

Life is a pursuit, not an accomplishment.  Regardless of how accomplished a society becomes or what benefits that society offers its members, living is challenging because it is often complex and complicated.  Using life well in a fulfilling manner is not to be found in a formula, but in relationships. 

The person who is sacrificial enough to found enduring relationships is more likely to find fulfillment in physical existence.  The person who focuses his or her life on being will be better equipped to cope with the challenges and unexpected turns in his or her life.

Is life easy and simple?  Never!  Is meaningful existence possible?  Absolutely!  Does everything have to be “perfect” for one’s life to be meaningful?  Fortunately, no!

Copyright 2010

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