“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness” (Luke 3:1–2).
An Ordinary who was Extraordinary
This introduction to the ministry of John the Baptist reads like a Who’s Who in the quest for political power and influence. Beginning with the unhappy but long-reigning Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar, Luke proceeds to list the key power-brokers of the Middle East. First, he names the fifth Roman governor or prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate. Then he lists three of the four tetrarchs or “rulers of a quarter.” They are Herod Antipas tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, Philip the tetrarch of Iturea and Trachonitus, and Lysanius tetrarch of Abilene. Then, of course, there were the Roman-appointed high priests, Annas and his son-in-law Caiaphas.
These were the men who had schemed their way to the top of their particular domain. They had used selective loyalties to key superiors in order to advance themselves as far as the system would permit. Their hunger for power, influence, and significance was the driving force in their lives. They considered themselves “in the know” and considered the rest of the world as dumb sheep.
Luke tells us, despite the perceived importance of these ambitious men, God’s focus was on an obscure individual in the desert—John the Baptist. In contrast to the aforementioned leaders, John had only one pursuit in life—God Himself.
John the Greatest Under the OT
In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told us not to make food and clothing our preoccupation (Matthew 6:25–32). John the Baptist carried this command to an extreme. John lived on nearly nothing. His clothing and food were incredibly simple. He wore a garment of coarse camel hair with a leather belt around his waist. His food amounted to whatever he could find in the desert—mostly wild honey and locusts—which he ate raw or roasted. John had purposely stripped his life down to the simplest essentials so that nothing would distract him from his single-minded pursuit of God.
The result? The Word of God came to John in the wilderness. John became the most significant person in the world at that time. John didn’t settle for pleasing or flattering mere men. His sights were far higher. John sought to do nothing else but please the King of the Universe, the Most High God. Consequently, it was John whom Jesus considered to be the greatest man under the Old Covenant (Matthew 11:11).
Jesus told us to seek first, make as our foremost pursuit, God’s rule in our lives and to be in a right relationship with Him (Matthew 6:33). He promised that, if we did so, all the things that unbelievers race after would be given to us. In John’s day, everyone was pursuing power and importance. But it was John who became the most important man on the planet.
A Blessing in Disguise
One of the best-selling novels of all time was Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. In a way, it’s really the tale of two men, Judah Ben Hur, a man who loved God and lived righteously, and Messala, an ambitious Roman officer. As the plot unfolds Messala betrays Judah, who was once his close friend. He imprisons Judah’s mother and sister, confiscates his property, and condemns Judah to be a galley slave for life. This was all part of Messala’s scheme to eliminate potential threats, to spread fear among the Jews of Palestine, and to advance himself in the process.
But it doesn’t turn out as Messala planned. By divine providence, the galley slave, Judah, saves the Roman Consul’s life when their ship is sunk. The Consul befriends Judah and trains him as a warrior and charioteer. He finally adopts him as his son and makes him sole heir of his title and all his property. Now, the just and faithful man of God, Judah Ben Hur, outranks the man who betrayed and tried to kill him. In the end, Judah is vindicated, Messala is punished, his mother and sister are restored, he becomes a follower of Jesus, and learns to forgive those who have wronged him. All that Messala had schemed for by treachery and evil, Judah Ben Hur obtains by remaining faithful to God.
Remember the words of Jesus, “Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need” (Matthew 6:33, NLT). Make God your chief pursuit in life and He will fulfill your destiny and make you into the person He created you to be.
Dear Father in heaven, please give me the faith to see beyond the short-term pursuits of this life and its temporary rewards, so that I may seek to please You alone and obtain that which is eternal. Amen.