English service - August 20, 2023
Messenger: Pastor Jim Allison
People Jesus Praised: John the Baptist
Hello again, everyone joining us online or in person. Last month we began looking at people Jesus praises in the Bible stories, trying to find what we can learn about Christ, His Father, and how we can become more of the people God wants us to be. We are on the quest for character formation, under His guidance and in His strength.
Let’s walk through the story together today. Soon after the one about the Roman commander (last month’s), we come to John the Baptist. In verse 18, his disciples report to him the amazing things Jesus is doing, such as healing the servant of the Roman commander and then bringing back to life the son of a woman in the town of Nain.
At this time, John is in prison. He has been put there by King Herod for saying that he (Herod) should not have taken his brother’s wife, Herodius, as his own partner. Matthew 14 tells this story. When John hears about all that Jesus is doing, he chooses two of his own disciples and sends them to Jesus with a question: “Are you the one who was supposed to come? Or should we look for someone else?”
To understand clearly what they are asking, we have to back up to the Old Testament. John’s disciples are talking about promises of God written there related to the Messiah, the Savior whom God has promised from long, long before to send His people to save them.
Of course, people have wanted to know what this person is going to be like. There are two main streams of thought. One is that the Messiah would be a suffering servant. It is based on teachings such as Isaiah 53:3,5.
Men looked down on him. They didn't accept him. He knew all about sorrow and suffering. He was like someone people turn their faces away from. We looked down on him. We didn't have any respect for him. . . . But the servant was pierced because we had sinned. He was crushed because we had done what was evil. He was punished to make us whole again. His wounds have healed us.
The other stream of thought about the Messiah (or in Greek, the Christ) grows out of God’s word just as much as the first, but you get a very different impression when you read it. For example, Daniel 7:13-14 describes the coming Savior this way.
In my vision I saw One who looked like a son of man. He was coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Eternal God. He was led right up to him. And he was given authority, glory and a kingdom. People from every nation and language worshiped him. His authority will last forever. It will not pass away. His kingdom will never be destroyed.
Well, of those two views of the Messiah, which one is correct? Is He the suffering servant or the King of glory? Some people have even said that there will be two Messiahs because these accounts appear so basically different from each other. Many Bible scholars love to debate, and there have already been hundreds of years of back and forth about the coming Savior even at the time Jesus of Nazareth is alive. In fact, many Jewish people today are still waiting and hoping today for the Messiah to come, with a wide variety of expectations.
John apparently imagines Jesus as more like the second version of the Messiah—the King of glory. All four gospel stories of Jesus’ life include sections on John the Baptist, and the way he presents Jesus there focuses much more on the Christ’s power and greatness. He describes the Messiah as coming to judge sin and bring salvation to those who are prepared to receive it. For example, in Matthew 3:11-12, John says:
I baptize you with water, calling you to turn away from your sins. But after me, one will come who is more powerful than I am. And I'm not fit to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His pitchfork is in his hand to clear the straw from his threshing floor. He will gather his wheat into the storeroom. But he will burn up the husks with fire that can't be put out.
That doesn’t sound much like a suffering servant Jesus, does it. No “gentle Jesus meek and mild” there, it seems.
John isn’t a mild-mannered character, either. When people come out in the desert to hear him speak and be baptized by him, he realizes that some of them are not humble truth-seekers. They are religious authorities coming to check him out. They can make trouble for him if they want. But instead of speaking politely and trying to get them to like him or leave him alone, he says (Matthew 3:7b-10):
You are like a nest of poisonous snakes! Who warned you to escape the coming of God's anger? Produce fruit that shows you have turned away from your sins. Don't think you can say to yourselves, “Abraham is our father.” I tell you, God can raise up children for Abraham even from these stones. The ax is already lying at the roots of the trees. All the trees that don't produce good fruit will be cut down. They will be thrown into the fire.
John knows Jesus’ greatness and goodness and plans to judge evil. Now that he is in prison because of the decision of a corrupt politician, he naturally hopes that the Messiah will use some of His awesome power to get him freed. After all, John and Jesus are relatives (Luke 1:36) and working toward the same goal. John has spent his life preparing people to receive Jesus as the Christ.
But it isn’t happening. John may have been in prison for a months or years at this point. How do you think the food is there? Does he have a nice, comfortable bed to sleep on at night and friendly, wholesome people to spend his time with? Probably not. How is his mental health at this stage? Could he be suffering from depression? It seems easy to imagine, doesn’t it.
His faith is under attack, too. Jesus has quoted words from the Old Testament that are known as the words of the Messiah. He has used them as His own words, indirectly claiming to be the Christ. He has said (Luke 4:18a), “The Spirit of the Lord is on me. He has anointed me to tell the good news to poor people. He has sent me to announce freedom for prisoners. . . . He wants me to free those who are beaten down.” So it is awfully difficult for John to understand why Jesus does not make this prophecy come true by getting him out of prison. That would be the perfect way to demonstrate that He is truly the Messiah, wouldn’t it? I would probably think exactly the same if I were in his position. I might struggle greatly to believe and keep believing in God’s goodness and power. Wouldn’t you? Even people of deep, sincere faith have times of weakness, John’s example reminds us.
Yet Jesus doesn’t respond to John’s question in the way he expects. Have you noticed God acting that way in your life of faith, too? Sometimes God doesn’t meet our expectations. We can tell Him honestly in our prayers what we feel and think and believe we need. He teaches us to do exactly that. But there are times when what is in our heart doesn’t match with God’s dreams and will and plans for us. There are other times when our expectations do match with God’s, but He does not choose to act in the particular time or way that we want.
We can see examples throughout the Bible. Think of Abram and Sarah waiting deep into old age to have the child that God has promised them. Remember David, whom God has chosen as king, but who is threatened and chased all over the country for years before this happens.
In Jesus’ time, even a great man like John struggles to understand God and His ways. Gladly, Jesus does not just leave him to figure it out on his own. Luke tells us that Jesus performs a series of miracles right then and there (7:21), so that John’s disciples will have their own eye witness account to report to him. Then Christ instructs them to do that (7:22b).
We can only imagine how much encouragement these words gave John. But there is a word of challenge, too (v. 23): “Blessed are those who do not give up their faith because of me.” That word translated “give up their faith” is from skandalidzo, the same word from which we get scandal in English. We could say, “Blessed are those who do not think that what I am doing is scandalous.” Other English translations have the following:
those who have no doubts about me (GNT)
anyone who does not stumble on account of me (NIV)
he who is not offended because of Me (NKJV)
anyone who takes no offense at me (NRSV)
I’m guessing John was the kind of person who could receive this as a challenge and respond positively to it rather than take it as a threat or condemnation and sink into a darker mood. As we’ve learned before, we must never make the mistake of thinking that God’s love for us can be measured by how easy or difficult our circumstances are. As one great woman of faith named Elisabeth Elliot wrote, “The secret is Christ in me, not me in a different set of circumstances.”
In any case, it turns out that God’s best plans for John are not what he is wanting or expecting—but even greater. The Lord chooses to call him home to heaven. He allows injustice and violence to take place. As Matthew 14 tells the story, King Herod makes the foolish mistake of offering a young woman who has danced at his party anything she wants. When she requests the head of John the Baptist on a plate, he is too weak in character to refuse. John is killed. In choosing to let this evil take place, God brings down the curtain on John’s life in this world and prepares the way for him to enter his eternal home in the perfection of heaven.
Does Jesus already know at this point all that is going to happen to John? That is not completely clear, but when John’s messengers have left, Jesus begins speaking to the crowd about John. He is speaking about the past, which may be a hint. Christ asks them (v. 24b), “What did you go out into the desert to see? Tall grass waving in the wind?” Grass will wave this way or that, depending on which way the wind blows. We see politicians, and sometimes religious and other leaders, who shift and change their positions shockingly easily, depending on what the most recent poll says. But John does not do that. His central message remains the same, no matter who is hearing it from him. Mark 1:4 summarizes it simply and well. “And so John came. He baptized people in the desert. He also preached that people should be baptized and turn away from their sins. Then God would forgive them.” We can learn from John’s teaching. We all need to repent and let the Lord clean our hearts so that they will be suitable places for a holy God to make His home. Even after He has forgiven us once-and-for-all, we need to be in the habit of repenting regularly because we all continue to fall short of the goal and sin against God.
Jesus also asks the crowd (7:25), “If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No. Those who wear fine clothes and have many expensive things are in palaces.” Matthew tells us (3:4) that “John's clothes were made out of camel's hair. He had a leather belt around his waist.” He was no slave to fashion, it seems. His food seems to have been remarkable, too—locusts and wild honey.
Bill Gates (Microsoft and other organizations) has been working hard recently trying to convince people that we need to eat insects in order to protect the environment in the future. I enjoyed trying some fried insects on a visit to Thailand several years ago. I thought they were pretty good, though I mainly tasted the oil and salt they were fried in.
I’m not sure why John eats locusts in the story, but I suppose it has to do with the fact that he is staying in the desert to do his work of teaching. The limited food available is probably part of the sacrifice he is willing to make in order to do the particular work God has given him to do.
What is that work? Jesus gets to that as he continues (7:26-27):
Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. He is the one written about in Scripture. It says, “I will send my messenger ahead of you. He will prepare your way for you.” (Malachi 3:1)
John is in the New Testament but, strictly speaking, we could say that he belongs to the group of Old Testament prophets we read about in the Bible. Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel are famous examples. One key role that these people play in God’s salvation story of the Bible is pointing forward to the coming Messiah. One pattern of God’s work in our world is that, before He does something really important, He often announces it ahead of time. John is here to proclaim that the coming of the Christ is about to happen. That is the particular way he plays the role of a prophet, hearing God’s word and giving the message of it to His people.
A key reason prophets do this is to get people ready, to help them live in hope while they wait and prepare their hearts and lives to welcome God’s salvation when it arrives. John does this in a way that no other prophet does, in that he sees and knows Jesus personally and directly. We could say that all the other prophets across the centuries have been building up to what John is doing and saying. In that sense, he is the final prophet and at least as great as any other the others. So Jesus gives him remarkably high praise (v. 28): “I tell you, no one more important than John has ever been born.”
Well, if Jesus thinks that much of him, we certainly need to pay attention to what we can learn from John’s life. I won’t spend much time on this, but I’ll briefly mention four that stand out to me in the Bible stories.
First, John has courage. He speaks truth to everyone, including people in power. He does this even when it gets him in trouble. In this way, he practices what he preaches. Especially in countries where freedom of speech is not guaranteed or is being weakened, it seems to be taking more and more courage to speak and write honestly. If we are going to do it, we may have to face the possibility of receiving harsh criticism, losing a job, or even being killed in some cases, as John’s case reminds us. But we need more people with the courage to be truthful today. God, give us strength and wisdom to speak the truth in love, under your leadership.
Second, John has and uses moral authority. He does not just tell his listeners what he thinks they want to hear. Getting “likes” is not one of his goals. He tells them what he believes God is saying to them. And God is not shy about warning people when we are doing wrong and steering us in a better direction. So He gives words to people through John, His spokesman, like “If you have extra clothes, you should share with those who have none. And if you have extra food, you should do the same” (Luke 3:11b). People know that what he says is true because they know right from wrong. God has placed in humans’ hearts an awareness of what is good and bad. Unless we are determined to ignore it, we know on some level, for example, that it is bad to kill a baby, and it is good to raise a baby. John is a tool that God uses to speak to people so that they will love the light and hate the darkness.
Third, John knows his role. He is a prophet and not the Messiah Himself, and he does not allow himself to forget it. John knows what he is supposed to do and what he has no business trying to do. He also knows when his work is finished and it is time for him to exit the stage. When he has announced Jesus to the world, he knows it is time to say (John 3:30), “He must become more important. I must become less important.” God, give us the courage to begin all that we should, but also the wisdom not to try more, and to stop when your leading is no longer there.
Fourth, and as a kind of summary of the whole story of John the Baptist, he focuses his life on Christ. In a good sense, he is selfless. That does not mean he has no personality, will, or individual thoughts. It means he chooses to submit these to the leadership of Christ and place Jesus rather than himself at the center of his thoughts, words, and actions. In doing this, he is able to become his best self and lead many others to the source of life, Christ Himself. Getting involved in something bigger than himself frees him from the bondage of self-centeredness. When people look at him, they see Jesus. John is excellent at getting out of the way and letting his life be a tool for God to use in bringing people to Himself. I think he knows what Paul means when he writes in Philippians 1:21 (King James Version), “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (In the NIRV it’s “For me, life finds all of its meaning in Christ. Death also has its benefits.”)
We have recently sung the song, “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus.” John the Baptist led people to do that. Remember? “Turn your eyes upon Jesus. Look full in His wonderful face. And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of His glory and grace.” I love that song, but I always feel a little strange when we sing it because it is open to being misunderstood in an important way. When we truly become closer to Jesus and increasingly aware of Him, it sometimes leads us not to even pay attention to the things of this world or notice them. Yes. But there are also times when growing closer to Jesus will result in His sending us back into the world and paying closer attention to the people in it who need our help. If paying attention to Christ leads me to ignore my neighbor in need, I have to wonder if I’m really following Jesus in the way He wants. John doesn’t do that. When he calls people to Christ, he leads them to very much “this-worldly” things like the following (Luke 3:14b). “Don't force people to give you money. Don't bring false charges against people. Be happy with your pay.”
Finally, after giving John such high praise, Jesus makes a comment that links Himself, and John, with us in our lives here and now. He says (7:28b), “But the least important person in God's kingdom is more important than he is.” What? We are living in God’s kingdom if we have given God control over our lives and welcomed Him into them as our king. But how could we be greater than people like John?
Jesus doesn’t mean that we are morally better or more faithful than John. He is pointing to the great change that John has been announcing and Jesus Himself now is bringing into our world. John proclaimed (Matthew 3:2b), “The kingdom of heaven is near.”
Soon he passed the baton to Jesus (Mark 1:14-15). “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee. He preached God's good news. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God is near. Turn away from your sins and believe the good news!’”
Moving us from John to Jesus, God is shifting the focus. He is bringing us from the age of the Law to the age of grace, from salvation through works to salvation through faith, from the Old Testament to the New Testament, from preparation for the Messiah to the age of the Messiah Himself. We are incredibly privileged to be living today, in the age of grace. The chance to live in the kingdom of God has been given to us through the life, death, and resurrection of His Son, Jesus.
That is the good news we are receiving again today. Luke tells us that it sounded like good news to the first ones to hear it. “All the people who heard Jesus' words agreed that God's way was right” (Luke 7:29a).
Let’s join in with them now in saying that in prayer as we respond to God about the message we have received through His word today.
Father in heaven, thank you for models of faith like John the Baptist, who have been willing to work, struggle, and even die in receiving the great prize of life forever with you. Help us to appreciate how great the gift of life in your kingdom is. Make us able to receive it with joy and thanks, then play the particular roles you have given us in bringing your kingdom into this world in our individual situations in life each day. This is our prayer, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Elliot, Elisabeth. (2004). Keep a Quiet Heart. Revell. GoodReads. Retrieved August 12, 2023 from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/618800-the-secret-is- christ- in-me-not-me-in-a