What is the Gospel -- According to You?
Intro – Want to know your purpose in life as a Christian? God’s opinion: II Cor 5:20, “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” Whatever our earthly career, our calling is a high one -- to be God’s representatives. It’s not a question of being an ambassador. It’s just a question of what kind. Do we draw or do we repel people? In a Peanuts comic strip Sally says to Linus, "I think I would be a good evangelist." "Why?" asks Linus. Sally answers, "I convinced the boy who sits behind me at school that my faith is better than his." "How did you do that?" asks Linus. Sally answers, "I hit him over the head with my lunch box." Perhaps her technique could be improved – but you have to admire her heart. She was at least trying.
I fear many of us aren’t trying at all. We are ambassadors en absentia. Ask yourself this, do my friends know I represent Christ? We need the help E. V. Hill used to get. E. V. was the world-famous African-American pastor of a church in Watts in LA. Years ago I spoke at some seminars there and I can tell you it was a lively church! One elderly woman in his congregation was called 1800 – because no one knew how old she was. I never did figure out whether 1800 was intended to refer to the year she might have been born, or to her actual age!! 1800 was hard on visiting pastors. She would sit on the front row, and as soon as the preacher began she would say, “Get Him up!” (referring to Christ). After a few minutes, if she didn’t think there was enough Christ in the sermon, she would shout this time, “Get Him up!” If a preacher didn’t get Him up, He was in for a long, hard day! Beloved, we have a calling to “get Him up!” Our king will one day rule this whole world. To show Him off is our greatest privilege. So, how do we “get Him up (exalt him)?” John is a great example.
I. By the Life He Lived
Lu 3:15, “As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ.” Wow! Anybody ask you lately if you might be Jesus? Do you represent Him so well that people are asking, “Is that John? Or is that Jesus?” Have you got that going on in your life? Not literally, of course, but does your life reflect Him? Are people drawn to Jesus by seeing us? Or might they be repelled? John was a perfect ambassador – perfectly reflecting the One he represented.
We don’t have to be oddballs to represent Christ. Sure there are some things we don’t do and places we don’t go. But we can have good friends and good times. But Christ comes first. We’re looking for ways to represent Him. Get creative! Here just one example. When adversity or illness strikes, ask if you can pray for them. Don’t just do it – ask if you can. Let them know you are! I have never yet had anyone say, “Don’t pray for me.” They will appreciate the love and say – “Can’t hurt” and you have left a testimony.
Johnny Hart was a Christian cartoonist who did B.C. before he died. Often his cartoons reflected his Christian commitment. One time Dick Browne, the cartoonist who drew Hagar the Horrible, was extremely ill. Johnny sent a ltr. Inside was a piece of paper with a tracing of Johnny's hand. The note said, “Dick -- call me.” Dick called and said, “I got your letter -- what does this hand mean?” Johnny replied, “Open it up and put it flat on a table. Now put your hand where the drawn hand is.” Dick put his own hand over the outlined hand and said, “Ok, now what?” Johnny said, “Now we're holding hands -- let's pray a little bit.” Representing Christ. That’s a great ambassador.
One of my dad’s favorite preachers was John R. Rice. He wrote a short poem that went like this: “You are writing a gospel, a chapter a day, By deeds that you do, by words that you say. Men read what you write, whether faithless or true. / Say, what is the gospel according to you?” How about it? It’s not a question of being an ambassador – just a question of what kind!
II. By the Attitude He Cultivated
Lu 3:16, “John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John was a confident, powerful man. But when asked, “Are you the One?” he responded, “Not even close. I’m not even worthy to tie his shoes. My baptism? Just shows outwardly what’s happened inside. But actually making it happen inside? That’s what He does.” We need a few more humble preachers.
The Jews held teachers in high esteem. The rabbis had a saying: “Every service which a slave performs for his master shall a disciple do for his teacher – except the loosing of his sandal-thong.” Yet, it was this least of all duties that John says, “I’m not even be worthy to do that.” Sometimes preaching venerates the preacher more than Christ. Not with John.
John knew life is not about success; it’s about God’s glory. How big was the crowd? How many were baptized? Irrelevant. God’s glory? That’s everything! God reminds us in Isa 43:7, “everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory.” Jesus taught in Matt 5:16, “let your light shine before men, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Our lives are to glorify the Father, not us. When we subtly boast about some good thing God has done through us, we’re stealing the glory. But we can steal the glory through silence as well. We don’t want to be identified with that religious crowd – don’t want people to think we’re radical. What we’re really saying is, “I’d rather be accepted by the crowd than identified with Christ.” When I do that, I’m putting my worth above His. I’m stealing His glory for the sake of my reputation. Listen – silence isn’t humility; silence is pride. It is stealing His glory. It is done to protect people from thinking ill of me for being identified with Christ. It is putting my feelings above His glory – stealing His glory. And God warns against touching His glory in Isa 48:11. We don’t want to go there!
Life for an ambassador is not about getting me up. It’s about getting Him up. And it will cost. John’s disciples complained about his decline as Jesus began His ministry. John’s simple answer: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” So simple, but profound. It challenges us. Will we suffer loss of reputation, position, self-image to exalt Christ? Will we decrease so He can increase? Is God’s glory more important than the glory of me?
III. By the Gospel He Proclaimed
Lu 3:18, “So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people.” “Preached good news” is all one word in the original (ευαγγελιζω) – often translated “preached the gospel.” The gospel is the best news the world has ever heard. It’s interesting that mention of John preaching good news comes right after a strong statement judgment! So, is Luke suggesting that judgment is part of the gospel? Really? Well, I think Luke is saying exactly that. It is the half of the gospel that is often ignored today. We have become ashamed to that half of the gospel – but John wasn’t. Neither was Jesus.
To get perspective, what is the gospel? It is stated most simply in I Cor 15:3-4: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” Note the gospel is not a creed or ritual. Rather, it is the person of Christ and what He did. He died, was buried and rose again – unique in history! He did that for our sins – to pay the penalty for our sins. Jesus taught the same in Mark 10:45, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Ransom means to buy out of slavery. That’s the gospel. Because of Christ we don’t have to be slaves to sin anymore. John didn’t yet know all those details yet, but he knew the broad outline. He said of Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). And in Luke 3:16 he refers to Him as “he who is mightier than I.” John was great, but he couldn’t begin to do what Jesus could. Only a perfect God could die for the sin of the whole world, and that is just what Jesus did. He is incomparable. There is not one like Him.
But now – in Lu 3:16-17 John shows that this good news cuts two ways. It causes two different effects. We’ve already seen that some were truly repentant, but others were baptized just because it was the trend. They were following the crowd -- “covering the bases.” They are the “snakes” of v. 7– not repentant, just trying to escape judgment. John can’t tell the difference; he can only see outside. But the One who is coming can see inside. He can, and He will, discriminate. He knows a true confessor from a mere professor. Everyone is one or the other, and the gospel makes the difference clear. People’s response to the gospel leads to one of two results.
A. It Transforms lives
First, Christ transforms those who repent -- true confessors. Lu 3:16, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John baptized with water. But that baptism didn’t save people. It didn’t change them. But Jesus baptizes believers in the Holy Spirit and effects a true inward change. This is the experience of every true believer of the church age. Paul told the most carnal Christians on the planet in I Cor 12:13, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” The believers in Corinth were involved in a mixed bag of scandalous activities. Their spiritual childishness was on full display. Yet all – note, all – had been baptized in the Holy Spirit. Time prevents developing this theme in detail this morning, but suffice to say that every genuine believer is indwelt by the Holy Spirit of God for all time, and in the words of Paul in II Cor 5:17 has become, “a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” You can’t see this change, nor feel it nor hear it, nor perceive it physically – but it is as real as seat you’re sitting in right now. The good news is that those who have received Christ have sins forgiven, are adopted by God, given the Holy Spirit, and are being transformed by Him. John’s baptism was symbolic. Jesus’s baptism in the Holy Spirit is the real deal – effecting real change.
But John goes on: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Controversy swirls around that phrase – all revolving around how to interpret “fire.” Does it refer to judgment – or does it refer to cleansing and refining? If judgment, John is suggesting there are two baptisms – one for those who accept Christ and are thus baptized in the Holy Spirit – and one for those who do not and are thus baptized in the fire of judgment. It would be contrasting the two possible responses to the message. Why might fire mean judgment? Well, “fire” in the Bible often refers to judgment. Even more compelling is that “fire” is used three times in this context ( 9, 16 and 17). It clearly symbolizes judgment in 9 and 16, so it must mean the same in 16. For many years I believed that the word fire referred to judgment for all those reasons.
However, with deeper study, I’ve come to believe that in v. 16, fire symbolizes the purging, transforming, sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. Why? First of all, the word “with” (εν in Greek) modifies both “Holy Spirit” and “fire.” That allows for only one baptism here which involves both Holy Spirit and fire. If there is only one baptism with two elements, then since the baptism of the HS is good, the baptism with fire must also be good. Second, the “you (plural)” refers us back to those in v. 15, who think John may be Messiah in v. 14. These are the true confessors.
Now, turn to Malachi 3 which prophesies exactly what we see in Luke. Mal 3:1, God speaking, “See, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me (John the Baptist). Then the Lord you seek (Jesus, the Messiah) will suddenly come to His temple, the Messenger of the covenant you desire—see, He is coming,” says the LORD of Hosts. 2 But who can endure the day of His coming? And who will be able to stand when He appears? For He will be like a refiner’s fire and like cleansing lye. 3 He will be like a refiner and purifier of silver; He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver.” “Fire” in this context symbolizes cleansing, purifying, refining. How do you get gold out of ore? You heat it until it becomes liquid, wait for the impurities to rise to the top, remove them and you are left with pure gold. God is saying, that’s just what my Messenger (Jesus) is going to do with those who repent. On the other hand, beginning in Mal 3:5, Malachi prophesies judgment for those who will not repent. He sees both a transforming as well as a judging work for Messiah – just like John. And the fire mentioned in Luke 3:16 equates to the fire of Malachi 3:2 – it is a refining fire; it speaks of the fact that Jesus transforms lives.
Paul said in Rom 1:16, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes.” It doesn’t happen overnight, but Jesus takes shattered lives and puts them back together. He turns Abram into Abraham, Sarai into Sarah, Jacob into Israel and Saul into Paul. And for me it turned old Dave into new Dave. That’s good news.
B. It Destroys Evil – Mere professors
If Jesus is baptizing believers in the Holy Spirit and fire on the one hand, Lu 3:17 gives us the other side of the story. “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” The imagery here is unmistakable. The farmer must separate useful wheat from useless chaff. So as the crop comes to his threshing floor, he grabs his winnowing fork, throws a bunch in the air and watches as the wheat lands safely back on the floor while the chaff blows away. Eventually he has separated the wheat from the chaff. He stores the wheat and burns the chaff in unquenchable fire – the word “unquenchable” used to differentiate from the refining fire of Lu 3:16 – and to emphasize the eternal nature of the punishment. The word “unquenchable” is literally the word ασβεστος (asbestos) – inextinguishable. It is forever. Wheat and chaff, of course, represent people – repentant people are the wheat and non-repentant people are the chaff. Outwardly, they look alike. But Jesus looks at the heart. There is no hiding from His gaze. We are all open books. He sees to the core of our being. He knows who are fake and who are real.
It is an awesome thing to fall under the judgment of God. But we cannot just slough it off. A good ambassador must represent both halves of the gospel. It is not up to him to invent or change the message; it is up to him to deliver the message. John Wesley said, “I desire to have both heaven and hell in my eye.” Why? Because he loved judgment? No – because he wanted to be faithful to the message. He knew Jesus Himself spoke more about hell and in more vivid terms than anyone in the Bible. Rev 20:14-15 gives the ultimate description of those who refuse to repent. Listen -- “Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” This is the other side of the gospel, Beloved. It is the other side of the good news because it is the guarantee that sin and evil and Satan and alienation and pain and suffering and devastation will all be one day done away with. That’s good news – but it is bad news for anyone caught in the destruction because the refuse to accept God’s grace.
Jesus, who suffered God’s wrath against sin on the cross – who became sin for us – it is He who administers the judgment. The unrepentant often joke about it. Peter Pan author James Barrie said, “Heaven for climate, hell for company.” But divine judgment is no joke. Barrie forgot that every soul in hell is alone. There is no companionship there – only a Godless eternity. God loves us more than anyone, but we force Him to judge us if we refuse Him. C. S. Lewis said it so well. “In the end there are only two kinds of people – those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘Thy will be done.’”
This is a tough message that should always be given with compassion. But let me ask – what would be the most loving thing we could do for someone who is about to bite into a wonderful cake which we know to be riddled with poison. Would the most loving act be to allow them the momentary pleasure of the cake? Or would the most loving act be to stop the momentary pleasure to prevent them taking the deadly poison? Let’s get real, Beloved. If God truly died for our sins in the person of Christ – it is folly to think we can reject Him without consequence. And the most loving thing we can do is let people know – judgment is coming. It’s the other half of the gospel.
IV. By the Courage He Demonstrated
John had the courage of his conviction when it came to representing Christ. Lu 3:19-20: “But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, 20 added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.” The Herod mentioned here is Herod Antipas – the evil son of Herod the Great who ruled Galilee. The story really gets convoluted and incestuous at this point. Herod’s beautiful niece, Herodias, had married her half uncle and Herod’s half brother, Herod Philip, a private citizen living in Rome. On a visit there, Herod became infatuated with Herodias and eventually the two left their respective spouses and married each other. It was a wild tale of lust and adultery and betrayal. And John condemned it, along with other actions of Herod. Mark 6:20 tells us that Herod feared John because of his righteousness and actually enjoyed hearing him. But Herodias hated John and got Herod to lock him up and to eventually behead him. John’s message cost him his life. Just like Jesus’ message cost Him His life. But some things are worth dying for. The message of the gospel is one of those things. So whether it is actual death, or just a few mocking remarks we must ask ourselves, are we getting Him up?
Conclusion – Are we making the most of Christ? Does our life reflect His holiness and humility? Do we willingly share both sides of His message, even at some cost to our relationships? Do we realize that when people see urgency in us, God can use that to create urgency in them?
Listen – D. L. Moody made the point this way. He said that a blind man in a great city was found sitting at a street corner with a lantern beside him. Someone went up to him and asked him why he had the lantern, since he was blind and the light would make no difference to him. He responded, “I keep the light shining so that no one may stumble over me.” So the question this morning is, do people stumble over you – or are they pointed toward Christ? Are you getting Him up!? “You are writing a gospel a chapter a dayBy deeds that you do, by words that you sayMen read what you write, whether faithless or true/Say, What is the gospel -- according to you?” Let’s pray.