JOHN THE GREATEST
BY PASTOR GLENN PEASE
It takes all kinds to make a world is an old cliché, and like many old clichés there is a lot of truth to it. God so made our physical world that it just won't work without differences. Issac Asimov points out that energy can only be turned into work when you find it in greater concentration in one place, and in lesser concentration in another. If the world was flat and the sun shone on all of it at the same time, all parts of the earth would be at the same temperature, and you could get no work out of it. But if it is round, and so one side is dark when the other is light, and it is the reality of these opposites that makes the sun so powerful a source of energy for work.
God follows the same laws in the building of His kingdom on earth. He does not want everybody to be the same. In fact, He wants people who are opposites: Not just in sex, but in personality, life-style, and in there gifts and goals. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the contrast we see between Jesus and His forerunner John The Baptist. They were as unlike each other as a wedding and a funeral, or joy and solemnity. Do not reject or look down on Christians who are different. The world is full of Christians who are strange to us, but they are just what God wants. We are all strange to someone else, but God loves the variety.
The paradox is Jesus and John were so much alike in their preaching of the kingdom that they were mistaken for each other. People thought John may be the Messiah, and he had to deny it. Jesus was taken to be John the Baptist because He was so powerful. People thought he was John come back to life. In Matt. 14:1-2 we read, "At that time Herod the Tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus; and he said to his servants, this is John the Baptist, he has been raised from the dead, that is why these powers are at work in him." Later on Jesus asked His disciples, "Who do men say that the Son Of Man is?" And in Matt. 16:14 we read this response, "And they said, some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets."
This gives us an insight into the powerful impact John the Baptist had on Israel in the few short years of his ministry. All the other prophets people thought of were Old Testament prophets. John was the only contemporary that was put in that class of people whom Jesus might have been, for He was the only man of God like him who had been seen in Israel for centuries. They could easily imagine that he was the Messiah. So John was taken for Jesus, and Jesus for John, because they were both such powerful personalities for God. But they were still very much opposites in their personal lives.
John was a hermit who spent a good share of his life in the desert living the life of an ascetic. This is the point of Mark 1:6 where his dress and his diet are described. There is not much point in details like this being preserved unless they have some significance. What do we care what John wore and ate? Unless there is something valuable to learn by the contrast with the life-style of the Master, whose way he was preparing, there would be no point in it. His camel hair clothing was the clothing of a wilderness nomad, and his diet of locust and wild honey were the products of the wilderness. If we saw John today, we would no doubt point him to a mission, for he would give us the impression that he was not exactly living high off the hog. He was an uncut diamond, rough and unpolished.
Jesus said, "Why did you go out into the wilderness, to see a man clothed in soft raiment?" Jesus went on the say you would go to king's houses if all you were interested in was soft and expensive clothing. No, he said, you went out to see a prophet, and more than prophet. He is the one who was to prepare the way for Messiah. And then Jesus makes this amazing statement: The greatest compliment he ever paid to anyone in Matt. 11:11, "Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist."
Who was the greatest man in history? It all depends on who you ask. But if you had asked Jesus that question in His day on earth, He would say it was this strange forerunner of his, John the Baptist. Any survey among Christians with this question would bring in votes for Abraham, Moses, David, and other great personalities of the Old Testament. Few would choose this wild looking man, darken from years in the desert sun, and unshaven, for he was a Nazarite. He was too radically different to appeal to us. It is true he had low overhead for his ministry, the locust and wild honey were free. Bees were everywhere making honey in the crevices of the rocks.
Some might even consider it a delicacy to eat honey coated locust. He was getting his protein and carbohydrates with no preservatives added.
But, all kidding aside, John the Baptist was performing a ministry to thousands of people, and he started one of the biggest revivals in all the history of Israel, and he never took an offering of which we have any record. John was not called to be a fund raiser, or to build a church, or a school for prophets. He was called to prepare the way for the Messiah, and he did it without money. He had the lowest overhead of any ministry on record. Can you imagine what it would cost to get John's results today? The point is, there was no credibility gap when he preached to others to live the simple life style, and to give to the poor. Many who preach this live like kings and drive the most expensive cars, but John lived what he preached.
John is one of the few people in history, in or out of the Bible, who demonstrated you can live a life sold out to God, and give up all that the world treasures, and still be successful. When John's birth was announced to his father the angel said in Luke 1:15, "He will be great before the Lord." He was destined to be great. His birth is the only one described in detail in the New Testament, except that of Jesus. Most of the world, in most cultures, at most times, would not consider John as being very successful, let alone great. He had nothing of the status symbols of materialism. Yet he was powerful in his poverty, and we learn from John that the only resource one really needs to be great, as far as God is concerned, is the Holy Spirit. John is the only person in the Bible who was surrounded by the Holy Spirit from his conception. We know this was true of Jesus also, but it is only recorded of John. In Luke 1:15 we read of John, "..he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mothers womb." This is never said of any other person. In Luke 1:41 we read of his mother, "And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit." Here is the most unique family in all of history. No wonder John was in the eyes of Jesus the greatest man in history.
It is of interest to note that John was the first person to recognize that Jesus came into the world to give His life as a sacrifice. He saw Jesus coming toward him and he said, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." Some of his disciples followed Jesus because of this, but it was a long time before they saw in Jesus what John did. John was so special and unique, but there are few sermons about him, and this may be legitimate because he said, "I must decrease and He must increase." His job was to point the way to Jesus, and not focus on himself, but we can't escape the facts. There are more words in the New Testament about John the Baptist than there are in 33 of the 66 books of the Bible. He is the first preacher of the New Testament. He did not preach the law, but the New Testament kingdom coming with the Messiah.
He was the first man in history called the Baptist. For decades it was thought that John picked up the idea of baptism from the Jewish practice of baptizing Gentiles. It was supposed that the Jews baptized them when the came into the Jewish faith. Modern studies, however, reveal that this came after John and not before. There is no reference to this practice in the Old Testament, the Apocrypha, Philo, or Josephus, or any record that would indicate that it came before John. Even the liberal scholar Rudolf Bultmann writes, "No certain testimony to the practice of proselyte baptism is found before the end of the first century." What this means is that all the evidence points to John as the first Baptist in history, and the founder of the very idea of Baptism. He also baptized more people than anyone we know of in history. Note verse 5 of our text: "And there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan."
The use of "all" is hyperbole. It is deliberate exaggeration to convey the point that it was a major movement touching everybody from both the city and the country. People of all walks of life were caught up in the revival, and were being baptized. A quarter of a century later Paul, in Acts 19, found a group of John's disciples way off in Ephesus. Jesus even tells us the Jewish leaders were positively excited about the John's ministry for awhile. He says in John 5:35, "He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for awhile in his light." Even some of the Scribes and Pharisees were baptized by John. There was no revival like this before in history. It was the preparation for the Messiah, and John was doing the job well.
John had the privilege of baptizing not only the most people in history, but he got to baptize the Messiah Himself. He resisted because he felt unworthy, but Jesus did not resist, but gladly let his body be immersed by John, who in his eyes was the greatest. John was a man that Jesus looked up to and admired. The other two persons of the trinity concurred, for it was at that point where John baptized Jesus that the trinity, for the first time in history, was manifested in all three persons at the same time: Jesus in the flesh, the Holy Spirit coming down as a dove, and the Father speaking, "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased." John was the only man in history permitted to witness such a marvel and mystery revealed. Many of the Old Testament saints had visions, but none were ever let in on the full reality of the trinity.
John was very special in God's plan for sending His Son into the world. We think of him as sort of a minor character. So what if he opened the door for Christ. Anyone could have done that, we think. But we are wrong to so think. It took a very special and unusual man to fill this role. If we go back to the last two verses of the Old Testament, we read these words, which were the last official words God spoke to Israel: "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. And He will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse." The Old Testament ends with this promise of the coming of the prophet Elijah. Elijah was caught up into heaven without dying. His history was not completed on earth, for God intended to send him back into history. Can you come back into history after you have gone to heaven? It is highly improbable, but not impossible if God chooses to use you in this way. Elijah was one God so chose to use.
Now, how serious did the Jews take their hope of seeing the prophet Elijah? Very serious, for the Rabbis taught that Elijah would appear if Israel would repent for one day. This expectation of the coming of Elijah was an important part of the Jewish hope. We already read of how some people thought Jesus was the prophet Elijah. Now we come to the beginning of the New Testament, and what do we discover? A prophet called John the Baptist who is so much like Elijah. In fact, the angel that announced the birth of John said to his father in Luke 1:17, "He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children....." This sounds like John was the fulfillment of the Old Testament hope of the coming of Elijah.
They wore the same hairy wilderness clothing. They both spoke out against wickedness in high places. They both drew great crowds and spoke the word of God. One begins to wonder if John was the fulfillment of the last promise of the Old Testament. Well, we do not need to depend upon circumstantial evidence for we have a clear word from Jesus. In the very context where Jesus calls him the greatest man born of woman Jesus says in Matt. 11:13-14, "And all the prophets and the law prophesied until John and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come." The one who is to come to prepare the way for Messiah has come, and he is none other than John the Baptist.
No wonder there was a great revival. He was the great hope of Israel, and next to the Messiah the most important man in Jewish hopes. He was second only to Jesus himself, and that is what Jesus said, and this makes John all the more amazing. He was a man of great power and influence, and he could have resented being pushed into the background when Jesus came onto the scene. But John did not have any personal ambitions. He lived only to do the will of God, and said he must increase and I must decrease. It takes a great man to do this and nobody did it better than John.
It is of no small interest for singles to take note that the Messiah and his great forerunner were both single. This eliminates forever the idea that the single life can never be as great as the married life. Here was a single at the top, greater than all the famous married men of the Old Testament. John never married, never had children, never lived what most of us would call a normal life. Without having all the facts about this man we have a tendency to feel sorry for him. He died young leaving no heirs, and he missed out on most of the pleasures we take for granted as part of the good life. Yet Jesus says he was the greatest. If we are going to evaluate life as Jesus did we will have to resist all of our cultural conditioning as to what success is, and see that it does not consist in the abundance of possessions, but in the commitment we have to be obedient to God's call.
Most of us would have no interest in living the life of John the Baptist. It has little that is appealing, and much that is appalling. Fortunately, God does not call many to live such a life. Even his own Son the Lord Jesus was not called to live like John. Jesus was not anti-social like John. He was seen at weddings and banquets, and He enjoyed the life and laughter of social life. He wore better clothes, and ate better food, and grew up in a society where He interacted with people. He was not a loner like John.
God does not call all of us to be alike. Some have a radical different role to play in God's plan. But the beauty is we do not hear John even once trying to get a single follower to join him in his wilderness nomad life-style. He never condemned another for not giving up lamb and bread, and joining him in his locust and honey lunch. John was different, and he knew it, and he accepted it without trying to impose it on others as if God called all people to be like him.
John took up the moral issue of Herod's immoral marriage to Herodius, and paid the price of his life for this courageous stand. You will observe, however, that neither Jesus nor any of His followers took up the same cause. When John was beheaded the issue was dropped, and Jesus never spoke a word about it. Why? Because this was not his calling. Nor was it the calling of other Christian leaders. Not once do we hear John from his prison cell, where he spent possibly up to a year, crying out and cursing the people of God for not joining and standing with him against Herod's evil. This was his calling to take such a stand, and not even Jesus felt that same call.
This same thing is true today. I get mail constantly urging to take stands on all sorts of issues. Nobody can get involved in fighting all the evils of the world. You have to select what is relevant to you, and let others response to what is relevant to them. This is not only how it has to be, it is how it is meant to be, and we see it in John and Jesus. On some issues they were as one, but on others they had a different perspective. Not only about Herod, but about fasting and other issues of the law as well as life-style issues.
Jesus said John is the greatest, but He did not conform to who John was and what he did. He did His own thing and what He was called to do. John was John and Jesus was Jesus, and their differences were not bad for the kingdom of God, but were a part of the plan for the kingdom of God. We are not necessarily called to be like this greatest man ever born of woman. We are not necessarily called to do what he did nor live like him. We are called to be obedient like him. Jesus did not think of John as the greatest because of his life-style or his approach to people, but because he was a man sold out to do God's will regardless of any loss or gain to himself. There not many of us like that, and nobody was like that in the Old Testament to the same degree as John.
We all have mixed motives and self-centeredness, and few if any can match the commitment of John. He will always be next to Jesus as the greatest of men. Paul and Peter were used to do great things too, but John was never a persecutor or blasphemer like Paul, and never denied his Lord like Peter. There is no escaping the facts: John with all of his differences was the closest to being the perfect man because of his ideal spirit. John was filled with the spirit from his birth.
The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ was this man and his ministry. It is of interest to go to the book of Acts where they are selecting a disciple to take the place of Judas. Listen to the requirements this man had to fulfill. Acts 1:21-22 says, "So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when He was taken up from us." Notice that the beginning point for a Christian disciple was not the public ministry of Jesus, but the baptism of John. This is where the New Testament begins. Everything else before this was Old Testament. The Old Testament ends with the promise of the prophet Elijah, and the New Testament begins with Johns fulfillment of that promise. The disciples of Jesus were first of all disciples of John.
Calvin in his Institutes writes, "It is very certain that the ministry of John was precisely the same as that which afterwards was committed to the apostles......the sameness of their doctrine shows their baptism to have been the same....If any difference be sought for in the Word of God, the only difference that will be found is, that John baptized in the name of Him who was to come, the apostles in the name of Him who had already manifested Himself."
John did not just baptize Jesus, and that was the end of their relationship. On the contrary Jesus began His ministry and became quite popular, and the source, not only of His select 12, but of many others of His disciples was from John the Baptist. In John 10:40-42 we read of how Jesus had to flee from the wrath of Jews in Jerusalem, and it says, "He went away again across the Jordan to the place where John at first baptized, and there He remained. And many came to Him and they said, John did no sign, but everything that John said about this man was true. And many believed in Him there." When the leaders and the masses were turning on Jesus he was still gaining crowds of followers from the ministry of John the Baptist.
They were partners in the work of the kingdom, and not in two different camps, as some give the impression. Jesus made it clear that though He and John had different approaches, they were on the same team. He said to the rebellious Jews who would not repent in Matt. 11:18-19, "For John came neither eating nor drinking and they say, he has a demon; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say behold a wine bibber and a glutton." Jesus is saying they could have been a part of the kingdom of God had they responded to either approach, for both preached repentance for the kingdom of God is at hand. They rejected both because they did not want to repent, and when that is the case, people find fault with the messenger regardless of his method. John and Jesus were baptizing people at the same time, and they were not two different kinds of baptism. Jesus did not baptize, but His disciples did, and they were doing just what John was doing: Bringing Jews back to God in repentance. They were not in competition with their old master, but were following him who prepared the way.
Dr. Merrill C. Tenny wrote that John's preaching, "Laid the foundation of all practical Christian theology." Augustus Strong, one of the greatest theologians of this century wrote, "John's baptism was essentially Christian baptism, although the full significance of it was not understood until after Jesus' death and resurrection."
George E. Hicks writes, "It is to the Baptist we are indebted for practically all the major articles of the Christian faith. Not only so, but the actual terms used by him have constituted the seed bed of all subsequent thought."
John was the first to teach the deity of Christ; the first to teach of the baptism of the Spirit; the first to teach baptism by immersion. John taught a host of doctrines that are vital to the Christian faith such as, the sovereignty of God, the kingdom of heaven, the need for repentance and confession, the inevitability of judgment and individual responsibility. He taught by example, loyalty unto death, and a humility that is unsurpassed. We can't begin to look at all that he taught, but Jesus taught us to look at him as a hero, and a great example to follow. We can learn a lot from a focus on this man that Jesus called the greatest.