ALL ABOUT JOHN
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.
THE PECULIAR PROVIDENCE OF GOD
Dr. Charles Franklin DeVane, Jr., Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
January 19, 2014
Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child's life are dead.” And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.
— Matthew 2:13-23, ESV
A children’s Sunday School teacher asked her kids to draw a picture from the story of Christ’s birth. By the end of class time there were several drawings of the baby Jesus, Joseph and Mary, angels, stars, shepherds, and wise men. One boy drew a rather odd picture, a kind of crude rendering of a Boing 747 airplane. When asked by the teacher what the airplane had to do with the young Messiah, he responded, “This is the flight to Egypt.”
Perhaps he captured a glimpse of the big picture after all. Far above the earth there is someone and something hovering over every event in the life of Jesus, over the lives of Joseph and Mary, and over all human life. But that someone and something is not a pilot and an airplane. That someone, of course, is God; and, the something that governs and guides our lives is called providence.
An excellent academic definition of providence would be: “God is continually involved with all created things in such as way that He keeps them existing and maintaining the properties with which He created them; cooperates with created things in every action, directing their distinctive properties to cause them to act as they do; and, directs them to fulfill His purposes (Wayne Grudem).” If you’d rather have a biblical explanation, refer to Ephesians 1:11, which reads, “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” By providence, we mean that God ordains, controls, and directs all things that happen to all people, allowing for human freedoms and responsibilities, for His own glory and the good of His chosen ones.
Providence is a peculiar biblical doctrine and perhaps the most difficult to understand. It blends the sovereignty of God and the free choices of His creatures. It bends to the will of God but does not negate the fact that humans have a will, too. It shows God’s involvement in all of the good and all of the bad things that happen in human history, while holding all of us accountable for the part we play in the ongoing and ever changing dramas of life. And at the end of the day, the doctrine of providence gives us a billion reasons to love, trust, and obey God.
Matthew 2:13-23 reveals what happens to Jesus in the aftermath of His birth in a manger, brief settlement in a Bethlehem house, and the visit from the Magi. It indeed includes the “flight to Egypt,” a thrilling sort of second exodus. It reveals the murderous plot carried out by an ungodly king. Then, it closes with a real estate transaction completed by Joseph and Mary. Each brief scene is a piece of a puzzle that puts together for us the big picture of the peculiar providence of God.
God’s Providence is Often Plain
Often it is easy to believe that God is in control. Often it is easy for God’s people to do what God tells them to do. Often God’s providence is plain.
God told Joseph, in the special and spectacular revelation of a dream, to take Mary and Jesus and lay low in Egypt until another dream would tell him their short time on the lam was done. God has never spoken to me in a dream like that, but if He ever did, and it was plainly a message from God, I would plainly do whatever He said. So, Joseph and Mary and Jesus took a flight (not a literal one) to Egypt and joined the substantial Jewish community that existed there for a season.
Where did they get the money to go and live on while they were there? In the providence of God, an entourage of eastern magicians has just laid a small fortune on them in the very valuable and marketable currencies of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (ref. Matthew 2:1-12). When God guides, God provides. This is a cliché, but it is also a truth.
And, if there are any reservations about this being God’s will, let it be known that the events which transpired are perfectly consistent with the inspired, infallible, inerrant word of God. Hosea 11:1 is a prophecy that harkened back to the exodus of God’s people, Israel, out of Egypt and into the promised land. It also beckoned forward to a time when the Messiah would sojourn in Egypt for a season then return to the land of Israel to accomplish the salvation of God’s people. Joseph did what he was told, trusting in the providence of God, so Jesus could live, and die, and rise again.
God’s providence in the life of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus is plain to see. It makes for a good story, or Sunday School drawing, or a single sermon on the delightful providence of God. But, sometimes the providence of God does not seem so delightful, nor feel exciting, nor is it easy to see. Sometimes we are blinded to providence because of pain.
God’s Providence Allows for Pain
Sometimes it is hard to believe that God is in control. Sometimes it is hard for God’s people to do what God tells them to do. Sometimes God’s providence brings pain.
Not long after the Magi returned to their posh eastern homes, not long after Jesus slept safe in His new apartment in Egypt, Herod the Great could not sleep. His attempt to trick the Magi into telling Him the exact whereabouts of Jesus had failed. Herod feared this so-called, prophetically-predicted Messiah would grow up and cut into his fortune and fame. His initial aim was to find Jesus quickly and kill Him quietly.
When he realized the Magi had double-crossed him, and not realizing that Jesus has been taken safely into Egypt, Herod carried out an abominable massacre. He sent henchmen to Bethlehem to murder every male child two years of age and under, figuring one of them would be Jesus. Bethlehem was a very small village, so it is likely that only about twenty baby boys were slain. This is no small tragedy, which sadly fulfilled yet another Old Testament prophecy about Christ (ref. Jeremiah 31:15).
Where was God in Bethlehem, Judea two thousand years ago, when those twenty boys were murdered? Where was God in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012, when twenty kids plus six teachers were killed? Why does God allow the Herods and the Hitlers and the serial killers of the world to exist? Where was God when your loved one died, when your trusted husband or wife left, when the child you raised in church told you he was an atheist, when someone else’s dishonesty cost you a job? Where is God and His providence when their is pain?
If I said God was not there, I would be liar or an infidel. If I said God was there but could not do anything about it, I would be a poor preacher and theologian of a anemic God. If I said God was there and caused such bad things to happen for some greater good, I might be overreaching by speaking in fatalistic or hyper-Calvinistic terms. Let me just say that God was there, that God wept like at the grave of Lazarus, and that the tragic thing that happened was part of the perfect providence of God.
In such cases God’s providence is not plain to see, clouded as it is by pain. But the pain is not caused by God, but by the apex of God’s creation, human beings, which He indubitably endowed with the freedom to make choices, many of which are wrong, some of which are tragic.
Let me say a brief word to all of you who have been hurt and feel like God has let you down. I know how you feel. God could have prevented that death, that divorce, that loss of health or income or esteem, yet He allowed it to take place. God does not stop tragedies. He redeems them. But only if you are one of His people, by grace through faith in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, whose life ended in the most horrific betrayal and injustice and tragedy of all.
God’s providence is a complex equation that factors in the sovereignty, or absolute control, of God with man’s freedom of choice. God’s providence provides for a God who cannot do anything wrong to oversee a race of people who, apart from common and saving grace, cannot do anything right. God’s providence is something you often can and sometimes cannot see. And God’s providence is something you want, very much, in your life.
God’s Providence Requires our Participation
Always, God is in control. Always, God’s people should do what God tells them to do. Always, God’s providence brings glory to God and good things to God’s people.
Let’s get back to Joseph and look very carefully at how he picks a place for him, Mary, and Jesus to live. Special revelation is involved again, and for the third time within a short time in his life, Joseph gets a message from God through an angelic dream. Common sense is involved, for Joseph figures out that if Herod the Great wanted to kill Jesus, his heir and oldest son Archelaus would want to kill him, too. So he avoids the perils of Judea for the safer, rural confines of Galilee. Scripture is involved, too, for settling in their home town of Nazareth would be very fitting for a Messiah who is prophesied to have humble, almost anonymous roots, which a carpenter’s life in such a small town could afford. So, in the providence of God, and with Joseph’s full participation, Jesus grows up in Nazareth.
This is the way to live the Christian life, under the providence of God. If God ever comes to you in a dream, get up, put on your Nikes, and “just do it.” Chances are He won’t, but that does not leave you without a witness or guidance. God has given you a brain, please use it. And fill your mind and heart with Holy Scripture in daily readings and weekly worship, so that the word of God can guide your God-given brain and help you to make good decisions, decisions that glorify God and do good for others.
I’m going to gather with the church on Sunday and publicly worship God, because in His providence He has told me to and enabled me to come. I’m not going to go out an intentionally murder someone or commit adultery this week, since God in His providence and in His word has told me not to do such things. As a matter of fact, I’m not going to do anything but worship and obey God and try to help other people, because that’s what God’s people do. I will succeed and I will fail. I will gain some reward and I will find some forgiveness. And like Jackson Browne’s Pretender, “When the morning light comes streaming in, I’ll get up and do it again.”
This is life lived in the providence of God. It was Joseph’s life. It is a joyous and peaceful life, in spite of the storms. And it is a life that lasts, under the providence of God, forever.
Dr. Charles F. "Chuck" DeVane, Jr., is the Pastor of Lake Hamilton Baptist Church in Hot Springs, Arkansas. His weekly sermon article, "The Gospel Truth," has been published in newspapers in Arkansas and Georgia. Dr. DeVane is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and has served in the pastorate for over 20 years. Contact Pastor Chuck at PastorChuck@lakehamiltonbaptistchurch.org