Intro – How do you measure greatness? By someone’s position? Celebrity status? The size of their bank account? It often comes down to size, doesn’t it? Pastors are not immune. One pastor went to a conference with an elder. Asked the size of his church, he said, “Between 8 and 900.” The elder pulled him aside: “How can you say that? We don’t average more than 70 people a week” The pastor replied, “Yes, and 70 is between 8 and 900!” That takes quite a spin doctor.
Most of us will never be great in the world’s eyes, but we have an obligation to be great in God’s eyes. Lu 12:48, “Everyone to whom much was given, of him (or her) much will be required.” And we have been given a lot. The key to our passage this morning in Lu 7:28, “28 I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” That is a loaded verse. Jesus is saying, “No OT prophet, not Moses, Daniel or Isaiah, was greater than John. But anyone who is part of the God’s kingdom is greater than John.” That takes in every believer in this age. We are all kingdom people, and so, greater than John.
So, in what sense could we possibly be said to be greater than John the Baptist? Many say it’s because the HS indwells us, which was not true of people in the OT where the HS came selectively on people for specific purposes. However, that wasn’t true of John. Remember his father Zechariah was told in Lu 1:15, “and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” So I take it that John lacked nothing of the Holy Spirit.
So, how are we greater? The answer has to do with progressive revelation. God did not just spill His whole plan of redemption from day one. It was gradually unveiled over time. Even great prophets like Moses and Isaiah and Daniel did not have the full picture. They knew that a Messiah was coming and that an ultimate sacrifice for sin had to be made. But the picture was fuzzy for them. OT prophets could say at best, “An anointed one (Messiah) is coming,” John could say, “He’s here! At long last, he is here.” John knew more than anyone before him. They had promise; he saw fulfillment. In that sense, he could be said to be the greatest. Jesus once told His disciples, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! 24 For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Lu 10:23-24). The fulfillment was happening and greatness attached to the privilege of seeing and announcing it.
But even John was limited. His message was, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” He knew repentance was key, but John still did not know or see the whole picture. He did not see the death and resurrection of Jesus. He was killed before he saw how redemption would unfold. But WE have seen it all. We live, not in an age of promise, but in the age of fulfillment. We have full knowledge of the person and work of Jesus. We understand the separation of the two comings of Christ. Thus, we are greater than John, not in terms of personal character or influence, but because we see and proclaim the fullness of the gospel. John announced Jesus’ coming, but we are full-fledged ambassadors for Christ – representing all that He is and said and did. Our issue now is to live up to our great, privileged position!
Now, back to Lu 7:24, “When John’s messengers had gone, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John.” Think how encouraging this is. John, filled with doubt from unmet expectations and personal adversity, bluntly asks if Jesus is really the One. Jesus points to His fulfillment of Scripture and sends the messengers back to John. But, lest these people think less of John for his doubt, Jesus gives a ringing testimony to John’s greatness. You don’t have to be perfect to be great in God’s eyes. That’s good news for all of us. So, despite his flaws, what made John great in God’s eyes?
I. Unwavering Dedication to Truth
Lu 7:24, “When John’s messengers had gone, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?” This blows my mind. This is not exactly John’s finest hour, yet Jesus commends him. Wouldn’t you want Jesus to brag on you? What Jesus thinks of us is far more important than what others think. John is great because his whole life exalts His Lord who exalts him in turn.
Jesus reminds them they thought John was the first prophet in 400 years, and they were right to do so. Reason 1 was John’s unwavering dedication to truth. They believed him because there was no compromise in him. Now having heard him question Jesus, they might conclude that John is fickle! But character must be judged by the whole life. They did not go to John because he was like a reed blowing whichever way the wind blew. They went because he was like an oak tree – unmovable in the truth of his message.
Greatness is shown by dedication to the truth. When I was a boy we lived on a farm about 7 miles from my grandparents. I loved something Grandpa had that we didn’t. He had an electric fence that I found out about the hard way one day. He had umbrellas on his tractors which I loved. He had a couple of tractors with hand clutches which were a lot easier than foot clutches at my size at the time. He had an automatic milking machine. Cool! And he had a big old red barn, on top of which was a metal rooster with an arrow pointing whichever way the wind was blowing. A weathervane. That old rooster had no mind of his own – no backbone – no commitment to anything other than to go along. He was not great. Someone has well said, “Popularity comes from pleasing people; greatness comes from pleasing God.” You can’t do that by following every human trend that comes down the pike.
That implies two things. First, we must know truth; we must stand for truth. Our culture has swallowed the lie that there is no such thing as absolute truth. Like the rooster, the accept anyone’s belief as truth. Just blowing in the wind. It grieves me to say that many Christians are like that. They can’t stand for truth because they don’t know it. I often hear statement like this, “All religions are basically the same. They are just different ways to get to God.” I have heard cults, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism and Scientology defended because they revere Jesus. People are unaware that these cults not only deny the Bible’s teaching on hell (part of their attraction), but maintain that man can either work his way to a god-like existence himself or worst case be totally annihilated. All deny the deity of Jesus Christ. That makes them anti-Christ. John warns in I John 4:2-3, “2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.” I am not picking on any specific individuals but I am saying these doctrines are false and they are leading people to a hell that they deny exists. It is not sufficient to say “Jesus was a great man, a prophet, even a god (small “g”) but not Jehovah God.” Unless we see Jesus as fully God, and believe He died for our sins on the cross, we are blowing with every wind of doctrine that comes along. We can’t stand for truth if we don’t know truth.
In Eph 4 Paul tells us God gave gifted teachers to the church ”to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, One could hardly find a greater definition of greatness than that – to become like Christ! But notice the result of greatness, v. 14 “so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” Baby believers follow every new wind of doctrine. Mature believers know truth and speak it in a firm but loving way.
In the interest of being relevant we have strayed. One of the most influential evangelical pastors in our country today says, “Unchurched people today are the ultimate consumers. We may not like it, but for every sermon we preach, they’re asking, ‘Am I interested in that subject or not?’ If they aren’t, it doesn’t matter how effective our delivery is; their minds will check out.” Sounds good, doesn’t it? But do you realize that is like saying “I’ll just teach what interests people whether it is what they need or not.” Hundreds of times the Bible emphasizes the responsibility of the audience to “Hear the Word of the Lord.” But it never once gives the preacher the responsibility to be entertaining. Not once! Every preacher has the obligation to make truth as interesting, relevant and engaging as possible. But he must not compromise the message. If people check out for lack of interest or because they do not like the message, the onus is on them. Brennan Manning got it right: “Many lay people have remarked to me that from ministers today they hear just about everything but proclamation of the Good News of the kingdom. They hear about race, pollution, war, abortion, ecology, and myriad other moral problems. None of them prevents proclamation, but not a single one is an adequate substitute for issuing invitations to the banquet. . . .To really be a disciple of Jesus, one preach [the kingdom] whether or not the audience finds it relevant. . . . The fundamental issue is not whether the world considers it relevant; it’s whether it is true.” Greatness has an unwavering commitment to truth!
II. Unswerving Avoidance of Extravagance
Lu 7:25 What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who are dressed in splendid clothing and live in luxury are in kings’ courts.” People didn’t flock to John to see his fancy dress and luxurious ways. This ought to stop every prosperity gospel preacher dead in his tracks. The gospel has never been about building prosperity; it is a disgrace to present it as such. John’s greatness was the opposite of such nonesense. Matt 3:4: “4 Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.” You can bet your life John’s latest best-seller wasn’t, Your Best Life Now. His attraction wasn’t his lifestyle. It was the message of peace with God through repentance. Jesus commends John for avoiding luxury and extravagance. Jesus says, “Behold, those who are dressed in splendid clothing and live in luxury are in kings’ courts.” That’s not a compliment. Greatness is not found in an extravagant lifestyle. It is found in avoiding luxury.
Some people imply that Jesus lived a luxurious life. They imply he had a house in Capernaum, and that since the Romans were gambling over his clothing at the cross He must have been wearing designer clothes. What foolishness! Jesus own testimony to His lifestyle is found in Matt 8:20, “20 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Greatness in God’s eyes is to live modestly; it is not found in luxury. If God gives you nice things, enjoy them, but make sure that your attentions are not focused on getting more than you need. And make sure that you are concentrated on how you can help those who are in greater need. We must not be spending time or effort pursuing that which we do not need for God’s service!
Everything believers have belongs to God. Everything. The question isn’t how much are we giving to Him, but how much are we withholding from Him? When we think that way, life will change. Frederick Huntington says: "It is not scientific doubt, nor atheism, nor pantheism, nor agnosticism, that in our day and in this land is likely to quench the light of the gospel. It is a proud, sensuous, selfish, luxurious, church-going, hollow-hearted prosperity." If that was true in 1890 when Huntington said it, imagine how much more true it is today. We have an obligation to greatness, dear friends, to leave the luxury and extravagance in the King’s courts while we invest in eternity. Jesus said, “20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt 6:19-21). So, where is our heart? Is it focused on eternity or only on the next 30-40 years?
III. Uncompromising Allegiance to Christ
Lu 7:26-27: 26 “What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 27 This is he of whom it is written, “‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’” It was John’s greatness that his whole life pointed toward Christ. He was more than willing to sacrifice his own success to that end. When Jesus came on the scene and began to attract people away from John, John’s disciples were dismayed, but John simply said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Are we willing to be diminished for the sake of Christ? Would we pass up a promotion to make sure we had time for family and ministry at church? Ask yourself, if I asked 10 of my closest friends what my life is most about, what would they say? Would it be career, a hobby, sports, card games, gossip sessions, keeping up appearances in the yard and house, arts and crafts? Would anyone say, “He or she lives to point others to Christ?”
In 1528 when the great Spanish explorer, Cabeza de Vaca sailed into area known today as the Gulf of Mexico, he and his companions made a startling discovery. As they sailed across the mouth of one particular river, they realized it must be massive because they could dip their buckets into the salt water of the gulf on top and bring up fresh water to drink from below. They were, of course, at the mouth of the mighty Mississippi which roared in to the gulf with such force that it overcame even the salty depths of the ocean. That is greatness, and that’s a great picture of what a Christian life should be – one that overcomes a world of selfishness to demonstrate the selflessness of Jesus, one that offers a solution to guilt through forgiveness in Jesus, one that overcomes immorality with the purity of Christ, one that has purpose and meaning by pointing to Him. One that is willing to pay any price that He might be exalted. We have a ways to go, don’t we, but let’s do it together. We want to make sure that when people dip into us, they find Jesus.
Conc – How do you measure greatness? Fame, fortune, celebrity? One professor sent his class to look at a bust of the poet, John Milton, then write a poem about it. Most of the class wrote in effusive style – “Immortal bard, I see thine image here”, etc. However it was the college football hero who earned an “A” with his two lines: “Milton’s bust/Gathers dust.” Worldly fame doesn’t last long. God measures greatness differently – by an unwavering dedication to truth, because “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matt 24:35). He measures it by an unswerving avoidance of extravagance so that you can “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matt 6:20). And He measures it by an uncompromising allegiance to Jesus that prepares the way for Him into the hearts of others as an ambassador for Christ. Every one of those takes more account of the life to come than our present existence. That is tough to do. Tough. Few people can muster that kind of faith. Those who can are great in God’s eyes. They’ve pushed through the barrier of sensual experience to the reality beyond – by faith. They believe what God says and they live like it.
Greatness is best expressed in the little things in life – things the world would never consider great. I love the description Jill Briscoe gives of seeing her mother-in-law washing dishes as if her life depended on it. Above the sink was a plague that read Divine service conducted here three times daily. That was a woman turning ordinary into great by doing it for Christ. Jill remarks, “She would cook as if Jesus were going to eat the dinner she was preparing. She would shine shoes as if he were going to put them on. And she would dress daily as if Jesus were coming to visit! Eternity was in her heart; it permeated her time and motivated her activities.” Is eternity in our heart? Are we pointing people to Christ? Imagine someone coming up to you in heaven one day and saying, “Thanks for praying for me. I wouldn’t be here but for that.” “Thanks for inviting us to dinner to befriend us and point us to Christ.” “Thanks for inviting us to that church social. It showed us that Christian people are normal and started us thinking about Christ.” Who will be saying “Thank you” to us? Let’s pray.