“The Ministry of John the Baptist”
Matthew 3:1-12, John 1:29-34, John 3:25-30
January 8, 2017
When the time comes, point to Jesus.
I. When the Kingdom is near (Matthew 3:1-10)
II. Point to Jesus (Matthew 3:11-12, John 1:29-34, John 3:25-30)
Once upon time a man, a fine trumpeter, was named the chief herald of the kingdom. You know how that works. The heralds played long trumpets and when the king or queen entered the hall, this man would lead them in a fanfare and then announce “King Edward the Just” or “Queen Lucy the Valiant.” And all the people would stand for the fanfare, then bow to the sovereign. But this man, fine trumpeter though he was, was really not the right man for the job. He had a bad habit of trumpeting for himself. He would at random times lead his ensemble in a grand fanfare, and then announce “Marko the Chief Herald.”
The first few times this happened people laughed. But after a while the joke wore thin, and Marko showed no sign of stopping. Finally the chief advisor to the king took him aside. “Marko, you may not realize it, but this job is not about you. It’s about King Edward. It’s about Queen Lucy. They’re the real royalty. You can’t keep heralding yourself. It’s just not right.” The very next day there was a formal ball, and all the key subjects of the kingdom were invited. Marko was there, looking fine in his red herald’s uniform with gold trim. And five or ten minutes before the real king and queen were to arrive, Marko could resist no longer. He signaled the ensemble and they played the finest fanfare ever. All the guests looked to the doors, expecting the king or the queen. But all they heard was a clear loud voice proclaiming “Marko the Chief Herald.”
Most of us, I’m afraid, have the same bad habit as Marko the Herald. We tend to make things all about us. Call it selfishness, pride, ego or just human nature, but all of us want a title “Papa Bob the Well Liked” or “Pastor Bob the Long Serving,” or something. And we wouldn’t mind a fanfare once in a while and a crowd of people lined up to see us. The only problem is that a real king has entered our world, and we only confuse people if we herald the wrong king.
Fortunately, when the real king did arrive, the herald God chose got it right. When the time came, he relentlessly pointed to Jesus. His name was John the Baptist. He played the key role of ‘forerunner’ in God’s Big Story. Let’s read his story in Matthew 3 and see how he models for us that when the time comes, we too should point to Jesus. Matthew 3:1-12 In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 3For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’” 4Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.
5Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 7But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. 9And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 10Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
We know from Luke’s gospel that John was Jesus’ cousin. His birth was announced by an angel, his ministry was foretold by the inspired words of his father Zechariah and while in the womb he recognized the presence of Jesus through the voice of Mary. We don’t know anything about his growing up, but all four of the Gospels give us pictures of his ministry. Verse 1: he “came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The Greek word for repentance is metanoia, a radical change of mind, but in Hebrew the word is ‘shuv’ which is a turning of life, and in the prophets very explicitly a turning from sin to God. This is how John would have been understood. And part of the excitement was that he was recognized as a prophet, and the first to speak the word of the Lord in 400 years: repent.
Why repent? “For the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The word kingdom is characteristic of the Gospels, and carries the overtones of reign, an activity rather than a place. So the reign or rule of heaven is at hand. Both Luke and Mark usually use ‘the Kingdom of God,’ but Matthew appears to modify this because his readers were mostly Jews and they did not use the name of God but rather implied it. Matthew may also have been generalizing so that both God the Father and ultimately Jesus the Son could be seen as king who reigns.
Unlike the earlier prophets, who often spoke of the age to come, John talks about the age that is here, or arriving. He is the herald, blowing the trumpet so people will prepare now for the soon arrival of the king. In this, Matthew says, he was anticipated by the prophecy of Isaiah 40. “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’” When a king came topay a royal visit to a city, the population of that place would often go out and straighten the entrance road to make a highway for the king. This is what repentance does, makes a straight road for the king to enter our lives.
Verse 4 describes John in phrases that make it clear he is a prophet like Elijah. In 2 Kings 1 evil king Ahaziah was given a message from Elijah and he says “What kind of man was he who came to meet you and told you these things?” 8They answered him, “He wore a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist.” And he said, “It is Elijah the Tishbite.” Elijah, of course, has other connections to John the Baptist. In the last verses of the Old Testament God says “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. 6And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” Although John formally denies being Elijah, the angel at his birth had said that he would go forth in the spirit and power of Elijah and Jesus taught that he was the Elijah who was to come.
In response to all this, people come from Jerusalem and Judea and all the nearby regions. They confess their sins and are baptized. But John gets upset when the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the religious leaders, come to be baptized as well. He sees hypocrisy in their coming. Don Carson, in his commentary on Matthew, says that they “may have come for baptism with the ostentation that characterized their other religious activities . . . they were showing the world how ready they were for Messiah, though they had not truly repented.” Thus John's question is sarcastic: "Who warned you to flee the coming wrath and come for baptism—when in fact you show no signs of repentance?"
So he calls on them to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance. 9And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” One of the saddest developments in Jewish thought in those years was the idea that simply being Jewish was enough to merit salvation. This “merit theology” said that “Israel was chosen because it was choice and that the merits of the patriarchs would suffice for their descendants.” But God, John says, can raise up true children of Israel from "these stones," perhaps the stones lying in the river bed. This rebukes the self-righteousness of the leaders and implies that participation in the kingdom results from grace. But for those who refuse the grace, John says, “the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Just as the kingdom is dawning, so also judgment. The two are inseparable. To preach the kingdom is to preach repentance, and the consequence of not repenting is judgment.
So what have we seen so far? The time had come. Jesus actually says that in Mark 1, but it is clearly John’s message as well. He’s convinced that what was in the age to come is now near and that makes it urgent. Because all people will chose between turning to and remaining turned away from Jesus.
And that is true for everyone in this room and everyone you will meet this week, this month, this year. A few weeks from now as we continue to pursue redemptive moments in the life of Jesus we will hear him ask a key question: “Who do you say that I am?” That’s key for all of us, and the point John would make to us is that the answer is urgent. And what would John have us do in this urgent moment to answer that question? By example and by words I think he would say “point to Jesus.” Point to Jesus. Live this year as a true herald, playing a fanfare for Jesus, announcing Jesus, pointing to Jesus. Matthew 3:11-12 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
John says specifically that one is coming who is mightier than he is. The implication of ‘mightier’ is mostly in terms of significance, not raw power, though Jesus of course had that as well. But this is more about worth. John says “I’m not even worthy to carry, or in other place, untie, his sandals, the work of a lowly Greek or Roman slaves. This is not false humility. I’ve been reading David Copperfield recently, and one of the sleaziest, slimiest most evil characters in all of literature is Uriah Heep, whose smothering false humbleness revolts us. But John is not like that. His humility is genuine, not because he had low self- esteem or whatever we say today. It was because he knew that no matter what place God had given him, the person and work of Jesus was far far greater.
So he compares their two baptisms. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” The word baptize, in Greek, means to wash or immerse with the implication of cleansing or purification. So John says “I’m baptizing you with water.” That’s a symbol of cleansing or purification and it’s associated with your repentance. But Jesus, this one who is coming after him will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
The baptism of the Holy Spirit, which was not unknown in the Old Testament, would be associated by John’s hearers with the exchange of a cold sinful heart for a heart of flesh, a renewed heart. That’s the offer and the promise of Jesus, true renewal by His Spirit. A purification of fire, however, on the other hand, would be associated with judgment, Verse 12: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Jesus purifies through his sacrifice, applied by the Holy Spirit to those who believe, and through judgment, which consumes those who will not believe. John knows this and points to this one who will come after him with both hope and with warning.
Next week we’re going to talk about the baptism of Jesus and how it incorporates so many things we’ve seen in God’s Big Story. But today I want to close with two of the John the Baptist texts in the John’s Gospel to reinforce this idea that when the time comes we should point to Jesus. The first is John 1:29-34 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ 31I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
When the time comes, John points to Jesus. He had to have literally pointed, or at least gestured when he saw Jesus coming toward him and said “Behold the Lamb of God.” The next day he said the same thing to two of his disciples, Philip and Andrew, who immediately followed Jesus. So John says “Behold,” that’s the pointing word, and then ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” As we saw last fall, one of the repeated truths of God’s Big Story is that a sacrifice, a substitute is needed to take away sin. Every Jew of every generation would have understood that, and hearing the words ‘Lamb of God,’ would immediately think of a sacrifice. Few would have been bold enough to apply that sacrifice to the sins of all people. But John was that bold. He pointed to Jesus and said ‘this is the one, the final Lamb after we’ve slain so many, so many Passovers, so many sacrifices. Now sin will be taken away.
He then goes on to testify, witness about Jesus, making two main points. First, this is the Messiah, the one who I’ve been sent to herald. I came baptizing not just to help people see their sins, but that this Messiah might be revealed to Israel. Second, this is the Son of God, who we know from the prologue as the Word Incarnate, the Word made flesh who dwelt among us, that is, Jesus. John says “I know this is the Son of God because I saw the Holy Spirit descend on him when I baptized him, and God had already said to me, “the one the Holy Spirit comes on is the one who will go on to give the Holy Spirit.” So when the time came John not only pointed, but testified. He affirmed in words that this was the one who would rescue by sacrifice and give Holy Spirit renewal.
But there is more to this than simply pointing and speaking. There is an essential humility in pointing to Jesus. John has already said, “it’s not me, it’s him, it’s not about me, it’s about him.” Fallen human nature is such that you rarely hear this said, at least not said sincerely.
We tend to want to make things all about us. It’s my needs, my wants, my concerns, my failures and especially my successes that I want to focus on, that I want you to focus on. We’re more often narcissistic than altruistic, more often taking a selfie than focusing on someone else’s picture or plight. Even our faith can be more about “what can God do for me, to make my life better and more successful and to make people speak well of me.” But John shows us that our faith can be about “what can I do to encourage people toward Jesus, to make the rule and reign of his kingdom more pervasive. What can I do to serve Jesus?” As people say these days “what can I do to make him famous?”
John the Baptist has got this. He’s a tremendous example. Our last text is John 3:25-30 Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification. 26They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” 27John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. 28You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ 29The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. 30He must increase, but I must decrease.”
John’s disciples are concerned for his reputation, which by reflection is concern for their own. “This guy has been baptizing,” though Jesus himself didn’t baptize, only his disciples, “and everyone’s going to him.” “He’s more successful. We’re losing ground.” Isn’t this how it always goes? For twenty-five years people have been saying to me “Look at this church. Look at this model. Look at this program. If you’d do this you’d be successful.” John handles this better than I often do. He says “This is from heaven. This is from God. Let me remind you of my role. I’m the herald, the trumpet player. I’m not the Messiah, I’ve only been sent to point to him. I’m like a best man at a wedding. I don’t get the bride, but I rejoice with the bridegroom. No matter what y’all may say, I’m experiencing this joy now as I watch what’s happening to Jesus.”
We know that John had doubts at times. Once he sent his followers to say “Are you really the one,” because Jesus wasn’t going about his mission the way John expected. But overall John’s attitude is completely admirable and imitable. You can’t do much better for a life motto than verse 30: “He must increase but I must decrease.” That’s the humility of a true herald. I point to Jesus, I speak of Jesus and I pray that in the minds and hearts of everyone who comes near me, Jesus increases and I decrease. Imagine that. Imagine wanting to be disremembered as people go on to grow closer and closer to Jesus and more and more his servants. That’s real humility.
How can we do that? How can we point to Jesus? How can we, in our circumstances and callings be those who say “Behold, the Lamb of God.” Let me offer six quick practical suggestions: (1) Pray for people. I’m not talking about your private prayer time here, though that’s foundational. I’m talking about being bold enough to say to someone at church or in your family or even at work or in your community ‘can I pray for you,’ and then praying, right then, so that you essentially step into the presence of Jesus and call that person and their needs to his attention and him to their attention. This is a lot easier and more accepted than you might think. Someone says to you “I’m not going to be here next week, I’m going to have shoulder surgery.” After you’ve asked the polite questions to get a little detail, you say “I’ll be praying for you.” And everyone nods, because they expect this. Then you say “Can I pray right now. And people will let you. And don’t be surprised if God acts in amazing ways as a result of those prayers. Because he wants people pointed to Jesus.”
Ok, a couple more that are similar, that might come up in everyday conversation. Number two: give him the credit for good. When something good happens to you, point to Jesus by saying something like, “Oh, I’m so thankful that God allowed this. And you’d better be sincere, because a lot of people have a very sensitive sincerity detector that knows false humility when they hear it. But if you can honestly say thankyou to Jesus, then say it in front of others. Point to Him. Third: truly depend on him in hard circumstances. Again, I’m not talking about false bravado that says “Oh, it’s probably nothing, just a little follow up visit about the tests.” No, I’m talking about an honest dependence on Jesus that recognizes the realities of the hard times but says “I know I can count on God to carry me through.” I’ve seen Jesus as people around us have modeled that in recent months. Fourth, point to Jesus by having His word on your lips, even on your pen or your facebook page. I can’t tell you how many hours – profitable hours – I spent in 2016 responding to a facebook post or a prayer request by opening my Bible and asking God to lead me to verses that would be a real encouragement. Fringe benefit: it points people to Jesus.
Fifth: make the most of opportunities for evangelism. A key kind of pointing to Jesus is telling people, reminding people of the Good News. “Always be prepared to give an answer for the hope that is in you, but do so with gentleness and respect.” Do you and I see the people we meet as desperately needing the Good News of salvation? If we do, we will take the awkward step of asking “Do you have a saving relationship with Jesus?” or, “Let me tell you what God did for me in that kind of circumstance.” Sixth, and finally, cultivate the practice in your own heart and mind, of praise. He must increase and I must decrease. The path is to see his virtues, his saving grace, his unconditional love, his selfless sacrifice, his mighty power, his perfect plan and eternal hope.
And when you see those things, praise him. Give thanks. Lift him up in your own life and all these practical skills of pointing others to him will become more and more second nature because that’s what you’re doing inside all the time. Point to Jesus. Point to Jesus. Point to Jesus.