Dr. Charles Franklin DeVane, Jr., Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
January 26, 2014
In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For 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. ’” Now John wore a garment of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But 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? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And 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. Even 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. “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. 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.
— Matthew 3:1-12, ESV
Put four Christians in a room and you’ll probably get four different opinions or theological perspectives on any subject. Commission four men to write the Gospels for the New Testament and you get four different vantage points of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But one thing all Christians can agree on, and one subject that all four Gospel writers cover with the same sense of urgency, is the importance of John the Baptist.
Next to Jesus, to whom he was related on his mother’s side, John the Baptist may have had the most miraculous and celebrated birth on earth. Next to Jesus, John the Baptist may have carried the greatest expectations to accompany any prophet or preacher in Israel. Next to Jesus, John the Baptist lived the noblest and most exemplary life of any person on the planet. And next to Jesus, John the Baptist accomplished the most important ministry of anyone else mentioned in the Gospels.
Therefore, we need to know all we can about John the Baptist. Apart from the stunning details of his birth and the sad account of his death, this text in Matthew (paralleled in Mark 1:1-11, Luke 3:1-27, and John 1:19-24) tells us all we need to know about his life and ministry, a life and ministry that introduces and then gives way to the greatest life and ministry of all time.
A name is usually a parental choice that has nothing to do with the will or wishes of the person named. The choice usually reflects parents’ concept of beauty, ethnicity, family heritage, or faith. I’m still waiting on some devout, Bible-believing mother and father to name their son Mephibosheth, or perhaps Maher-shalal-hash-baz.
John (Jonah in Hebrew, something akin to Ian in Greek) actually got his name from God. His father, Zechariah, a Jewish priest, was on duty one day when an angel appeared to him and gave him the news of John’s impending birth and name (ref. Luke 1). Dad and mom, Elizabeth, were past the normal child-bearing years but probably not as old as Abraham and Sarah. The word of the Lord was fulfilled, as it always is, and the name the Lord chose was applied.
The nickname, the Baptist, by no means is an indicator of John’s denomination. By the time the Gospels were written, the big John was the Apostle, so references to another required differentiation. The name fits the origin of John’s work “in the wilderness of Judea,” probably in association with the strictly religious Qumran or Essene community, who were famous for using immersions in water as an initiation and symbolic ritual.
When we first meet John the Baptist he is baptizing (what else?). Before he fades from the scene he actually baptizes Jesus, as Matthew will describe in the next paragraph. And, Matthew will revisit John again in chapters 11 (John’s doubts and Jesus’ ultimate compliment) and 14 (John’s untimely death). But now that we know his name, let’s take a look at his personality and character.
A person’s personality is a complex combination of divine sovereignty, biological genetics, parental and other influences, and personal choice. John the Baptist was a part of God’s sovereign plan revealed in the Old Testament (ref. Isaiah 40:3; Malachi 3:1, 4:5-6) and New. He had great parents and good mentors. But it was his own attitudes and actions that reveal his character.
John was a simple man (queue Skynyrd’s “Be a Simple Kind of Man”). Judging from his clothing and diet, you might even call him a minimalist. He took from nature and the economy only what he needed to subsist and held no ambition for much in the way of material things. Some of God’s greatest people have been more extravagant (Abraham, David and Solomon, Joseph of Arimathaea) and some have been more given to poverty (the widow who cast her two mites into the offering), but all of God’s people have a simple focus on the spiritual above the material, and use material things for spiritual purposes. John probably patterned his clothing after his hero, Elijah, and I understand those honey-covered grasshoppers could be quite tasty.
John was a brave man. Like his namesake surnamed Wayne, he stood tall in the saddle and shot straight. He feared God and no man. He spoke truth to power, even calling the corrupt religious leaders (the Sadducees, whose liberalism had corrupted the word of God; and, the Pharisees, whose legalism had turned the word of God into a cruel club) a bunch of snakes, which they were. He told the Jews their religious heritage alone would not get them into Heaven. John did not bend to expediency nor concern himself with popular whims. He simply took his orders from God and did what the Lord commanded him and commissioned him to do. This is bravery in the highest degree.
John was a humble man. He could have compared himself favorable to any other mortal on the planet and puffed himself up with pride. But, the only comparison that mattered to John was in relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ, which left him eating humble pie. His humility will shine even brighter as John decreases his roll in God’s kingdom so that Jesus’ may increase.
What you are determines what you do. Character defines conduct. John the Baptist’s simple, brave, humble, and faithful character gave him the ability to conduct a God-honoring life and ministry with laser-like focus.
John was called to preach, and preaching was the way in which he magnified God. Few are called to preach, but all Christians are called to know God and make Him known with the specific and general aspects of their lives. John practiced what he preached and practiced preaching at every opportunity. Like his character, the content of his sermons were faithful and focused, touching on three major themes.
John’s first spoken word in Scripture is “repent,” a word hardly spoken in this modern age of church and state. It literally means to turn or change, away from some thing and towards another. In the context of Christian preaching, it means to turn away from sin, selfishness, and the priority of worldly pursuits and turn to salvation and commitment to God and the things of God. Preaching on repentance acknowledges the reality of sin and the only remedy of salvation by grace through faith in God, as God reveals Himself to man. And we men and women need to hear more these days about repentance and the fruit it produces.
Because, the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matthew chose “heaven” rather than the other Gospel writer’s “God,” since his target audience was Jews who had a cultural condition against reading or saying the name of “God” out loud). Jesus’ first sermon would echo John’s, and as John predicted Jesus provided this kingdom with His coming to earth. The kingdom does not require a temple nor a palace, although those things were built in Old Testament times to be a visible expression of the spiritual kingdom. The kingdom does not require a church building, although I do not see how a person can claim access to the spiritual kingdom without passing through the confines of the visible church. The kingdom of God is where we repent to, it is where we by faith enter, in order to live our lives under the lordship of Jesus Christ now and forever. The kingdom of God exists wherever and in whomever Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, and it is very much still at hand, for now.
But the doors won’t be open forever. John the Baptist’s third theme was the end of time, but not in the immature, overreaching, and threatening way the current crop of end times preachers preach. He encouraged people to repent, turn their lives over to God, because in the end, it really matters. Those who give their lives to Jesus Christ will be saved, purified, and kept alive with God forever. Those who do not turn to Christ will suffer a fiery and fatal judgment never to be overturned. Turn or burn, this is the summary of the gospel according to John the Baptist.
John the Baptist’s legacy is much more than the obituary of a turn or burn preacher. He was, according to Jesus, the greatest man who ever lived, at least up to that time. He is immortalized in the four Gospels of the New Testament. He accomplished so much in his short life, but leaves us a long legacy of lessons to be learned about living our lives for Jesus Christ.
For preachers and teachers of God’s word, John’s legacy reminds us to keep the message biblical, understandable, and powerful. It it is the first two, it will be the third. John got everything from God and gave everything to God. Whenever I read about Jonathan Edward’s mind, George Whitefield’s mouth, and Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s heart, or hear any great sermon, I think I hear John the Baptist in the background.
For believers everywhere, John’s legacy is the grace of spirituality, simplicity, and focus. Find something you can do for God and do it with all your might. Make sure you are guided by the Spirit and the word, make sure it glorifies God and does good for others, make sure it builds up the church and does not distract nor destroy, makes sure it introduces and instructs others about Jesus, then go all in. The earthly results may not be headlines nor lead to health and wealth (remember, John died in an infamous injustice), but earthly results are not necessarily what we are after.
For the unbelievers among us, John’s legacy is love, a love strong and sincere enough to tell you the truth. Whether you are a religious leader, a religious hypocrite, and an abstainer from religion, you don’t need religion, you need Jesus. You need to learn the definition of sin, repentance, faith, and the gospel of Jesus Christ, and know your time on earth is exceedingly short.
John the Baptist lived his life in a certain way and in such a way. None of us will touch the certain way he lived his life, but we can all live lives in such a way as John. For to know all about John is to know about a man who was all about Jesus. And that’s all we need to know.