Did John the Baptist know who he was?

I wish I didn’t fall asleep so easily while reading. If I start reading a book — and it doesn’t matter if its written by freaking Stephen King — around 9pm or later, I will invariably get extremely tired and wake up to the sound of the book dropping on the floor or the feeling of it hitting my chest as I let it go (this last option is frightening). But to be sure, the worst part about falling asleep while you’re reading (at least for me) is that you never remember what you read. Often, after an episode of falling asleep whilst reading, I will return to the book the next day and realize I’m not sure I had read anything at all.

Are you bored yet?

I’m telling you this because the human brain is very strange. Have you ever walked into a room only to discover you had no idea what you’re doing there? Or found your watch in the refrigerator? How many appointments or dates have you missed simply because you forgot them even though you had several conversations about the particular place and the particular time of said arrangements? And why is misplacing your keys one of the dominant examples of absentmindedness? Probably because we’ve all done it at least twice.

While we do know a lot, we do not know much more. And the limitations of the human brain can be fascinating when considering the larger questions of life — like, is there a God? and, if so, what is he like? To realize through science and literature what we do know about life is a beautiful and compelling thing. But to be humiliated philosophically by what we do not know about life is much more interesting.

Christians today are obsessed with desiring to know things like, “what are my gifts” and “what my calling is.” These phrases mean nothing and appear very little in Scripture, but we obsess over them mostly because the dominant subject in each clause is “me.” Many young people I meet are paralyzed if they do not know the answer to this question. When I say, “paralyzed,” what I mean is, they often make a million excuses about not doing things the Bible is clearly telling them to do because of something they don’t know. But I wonder: do we really need to know what we’re called to do in order to do it?

Two weeks ago, a student of mine asked a very good question in class about John the Baptist. I’ll take any question that has to do with that dude. The question surrounded John 1:21, when curious people ask this Baptizer straight up, “Are you Elijah?” Very clearly and without any disclaimers, John says, “No.” He also declines being any sort of prophet or Messiah (John 1:20–21). Then, at the end, he says what he knows: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said” (John 1:23).

We had just gone through all of the gospels for our class and so the student rightly identified Matthew 17:12–13 when Jesus explicitly teaches his disciples that John was in fact Elijah. And so, the question goes, was John the Baptist Elijah or not? Who is right here? Which text do we go with?

A cursory and crass interpretation might go like this: well, Jesus said he was and even though John said he wasn’t…Jesus wins. And that actually might work. But I’m not satisfied.

What we do know is while John didn’t claim himself the office or title of Elijah, he did do something very important: he laid out the red carpet for Jesus. He knew that’s what he needed to do. He needed to lead people to repentance and make a clear landing strip for the Messiah who will come. This is all very Elijah-esque. It seems John did all of the Elijah-y things without thinking he was, in fact, Elijah.

He also understood how great this Messiah was going to be and what the Messiah would do. He correctly identifies this man as Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:29). And he “bore witness” about him and baptized him (John 1:30–34). Most profoundly, John understood in order for Jesus to “increase,” he was convinced, “I must decrease” (John 3:30).

Was John the Baptist Elijah? He did all the things Elijah was supposed to do as described in the Old Testament. He fulfilled every one of them and Jesus himself spoke the name “Elijah” onto him in connection with everything he did, even though the disciples and religious leaders didn’t see it. But what is so strangely compelling is how not only the townspeople and Jews did not know John was Elijah, but it even seems as though John himself did not know he was Elijah.

In an age obsessed with “finding our callings,” “facing our giants,” and “living into our identity,” I wonder if any of it matters at all anyways. John did not know who he was or even what exactly he was doing. John knew something far more important and radical: he knew his position next to Jesus.

“He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30)

“Among you stands one you do not know…the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to tie.” (John 1:26–27)

“Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)

“I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” (John 1:34)

Who did John think he was? “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness.” He was just a voice. John understood very little about himself and everything about Jesus. Perhaps this was his secret. Maybe the more we know about ourselves the less we know of God. It’s possible for all of the time and money we spend on personality tests and self-assessments we only lead ourselves further into…well…ourselves, which always seems to bring us a bit further from God. It’s also possible I’m wrong.

But I listen to the story of John the Baptist for a very specific reason. Jesus considered John to be the greatest human to ever live (Matthew 11:11). How could the greatest man in the eyes of Jesus not know such key information about himself? That’s precisely his secret: a beautiful ignorance. C.S. Lewis, of course, speaks about humility as “not thinking less of yourself” but “thinking of yourself less.” For the little record we have of John the Baptist it seems the key to his greatness was not what he knew, but what he didn’t. He seemed to be able to do the very thing he was called to do without fully knowing all he was called to do. He was able to do this because of the One he knew well. The lack of self-knowledge seems unimportant in light of all we know of Christ anyways. John was great not because of what he knew about himself, but what he knew about Jesus. Maybe that’s enough for us. I hope it is.

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Chris Nye

Living in Portland, Oregon with my wife and son. Doctoral candidate at Duke University. Author of a few books: chrisnye.co/books