A Man Sent from God
August 4, 2021
“There was a man sent from God whose name was John” (John 1:6).
With this message I am beginning a new series on the life of John the Baptist.
This has been something of a personal journey for me. Three years ago I began to research John the Baptist. I ended up with many pages of notes, including 15 pages of nothing but Bible passages about him. Two facts stood out to me:
I ended up with 15 pages of notes.
How much the Bible says about him.
How little has been written about him.
We have books galore on Moses, David, Daniel, and Elijah. You can find a shelf of books on Abraham. But try finding a book on John the Baptist. There aren’t many out there. My personal favorites were written over a century ago, John the Baptist by F. B. Meyer and John the Loyal by A. T. Robertson.
I intended to preach this series in 2018, but it never happened. Then in February, I felt compelled by God to return to this study.
So here we are.
Let’s begin this way. When the Old Testament closed with the prophet Malachi, the Jews waited for not one but two people to come. Their great hope focused on the coming of the Messiah. But they also looked for his forerunner, the one mentioned in Isaiah 40 who would “prepare the way of the Lord.”
John is the hinge of divine history
The next to the last verse of the Old Testament contains a clear reference to the coming of John the Baptist: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord” (Malachi 4:5). In Matthew 11:14, Jesus applied those words to John the Baptist.
John provides the link between the Old and New Testaments.
He is the hinge of divine history.
Jesus said it himself in Luke 16:16: “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John; since that time the gospel of the kingdom of God has been preached.” You can divide biblical history this way:
“Since that time.”
Jesus called him a prophet and more than a prophet. In fact, he declared that “among those born of women, there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11).
Yet consider this. He worked no miracles, wrote no books, and lived in the wilderness. His ministry lasted less than a year because he ran into trouble with powerful people. Then he went to jail where he struggled with doubt. Finally, he ended up with his head on a platter.
He steps onto the stage of biblical history for one shining moment, then he disappears. During those exciting days, he led a revival on the banks of the Jordan River. He was the Billy Graham of his day.
He was the Billy Graham of his day
This stern, strong, simple, Spirit-filled man changed the world.
Perhaps an illustration will help. Every year the president delivers a State of the Union message to a joint session of congress. The event begins when the Sargent at Arms announces the president’s arrival with these eight words: “Madam Speaker, the president of the United States” For one brief moment, the eyes of the world are upon the Sargent at Arms. After that, he is forgotten.
That’s John the Baptist. At a crucial moment, he cries out, “Behold, the Lamb of God.” Then he disappears from history.
But here we are, at the start of his story. This is how John the Apostle describes John the Baptist: “There was a man sent from God.” The apostle doesn’t speak of his education, his pedigree, or his gifts. It was enough to know he was sent from God.
God’s way is always through sent men. To the world that perished, he sent Noah. When he wanted to raise up a new nation, he sent Abraham. When he wanted to deliver that nation from Egypt, he sent Moses. He then sent Joshua to lead the nation into the Promised Land. Much later, he sent David to be their greatest king. When he wanted a man in Babylon, he sent Daniel. When the Lord wanted the walls rebuilt in Jerusalem, he sent Nehemiah.
So it has always been throughout history:
There was a man sent from God named Martin Luther.
There was a man sent from God named George Whitefield.
There was a man sent from God named John Wesley.
There was a man sent from God named D. L. Moody.
In a day of man-called preachers, John the Baptist stands out in bold relief.
Here are five key words that flesh out what it meant for John to be sent from God.
John was a desert man! Luke tells us he went into the desert until God called him to begin his ministry (Luke 1:80; 3:2).
He was born in unusual circumstances. His parents were an older couple—Elizabeth and Zechariah. Though they were far past childbearing years, God gave them a son (and Zechariah temporarily lost the ability to speak). You can read the story in Luke 1.
When John came of age, he left home for the wilderness of Judea. If you ever take a trip to the Holy Land, you will see some of that wilderness down near the Dead Sea. If you get out of your bus and walk over a hill, you will see a region as vast and wild and untamed as John saw 2000 years ago. Let’s put it this way. Before you go exploring in the Judean wilderness, you’d better have water with you, and you’d better know how to survive on your own. Otherwise, you won’t last very long.
John was a desert man!
The wilderness will break a man who isn’t ready for it. John must have been ready because he survived in the wild on his own for many years. He learned to live off whatever water he could find plus locusts and wild honey. No bread, no candy, no soft beds, and no fancy home. A man in that situation learns a lot about himself. You must adapt and improvise to stay alive.
I am sure people thought he was a bit “odd.” After all, who lives in the wilderness with that strange diet and dresses in a rough camel’s hair jacket? I wonder what his mother and father thought about the choices he made. I’m sure Zechariah dreamed his son would follow him by serving in the temple. That was a good job and a noble occupation. But if John ever thought about that, the call of the outdoors was too much to overcome.
He didn’t fit in, and that didn’t bother him. John was a non-conformist from the get-go.
There’s one other point to consider. No one can survive in solitude who isn’t comfortable being alone. John evidently wasn’t bothered by going for days with little to no contact with other people.
In that sense, I think the pandemic has been a gift from God because it forced us to stay home. We couldn’t go out and see people and interact. We had to slow down whether we liked it or not. The other day I saw this on Twitter:
Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know that I am.
Be still and know.
That’s hard to do, isn’t it?
We all want to feel important, and we feel the need to justify our place in the world. Do we understand that God was doing fine before we showed up? He’ll do fine after we’re gone. If you want a sense of your importance, stick your hand in a bucket of water and then pull it out. The hole you leave in the water is the hole left after you are gone. We all want to be indispensable. But as Charles De Gaulle said, “The graveyard is full of indispensable men.”
So here’s John, a man living in the wilderness for perhaps ten years. Little does he know he is being prepared by God for his work. He attended no seminary, got no degrees, had no contacts, and had no network backing him up.
He didn’t even have social media!
The years of solitude prepared John the Baptist for his ministry. His time alone with God gave him the strength to preach without fear or favor.
When Chuck Swindoll preached on John the Baptist, he titled his sermon “Strange Man, Strong Proclamation.” That’s a good description of John.
He was definitely a bit strange.
He didn’t fit any normal mold.
He was a category of one.
He was a category of one
So why did the common people love him? Why did the nation rally to this odd man wearing a garment made of camel’s hair, preaching by the Jordan River, and eating locusts and wild honey?
We might answer this way. He was comfortable in his own skin because he knew who he was, and he didn’t try to be anyone else. In a world of fakes and phonies, John stood out from the crowd.
Suppose we turn the question around and ask why the common people didn’t trust the Pharisees. Jesus gave us a detailed answer in Matthew 23. Here is his first indictment (vv. 2-3):
The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.
All of us have been troubled by recent revelations regarding spiritual leaders we trusted. Unfortunately, it seems we get a new one every week.
Some have involved people we loved and respected.
People we trusted.
People we followed.
People who let us down—badly.
We bought their books, we listened to their sermons, we attended their conferences. We said to our friends, “Listen to this man. He has the answers!”
I confess to being shaken by some of the things that have come to light.
“Pastor Ray, how do you explain this?”
I don’t know. Only the Lord knows.
“Pastor Ray, how do you explain this?”
But a study of John the Baptist reminds us that things aren’t always what they seem to be. The outward reputation and the inward reality often don’t match.
One man surveyed the evangelical landscape and said, “I’m not surprised by vice. I’m surprised by virtue.” That’s helpful because it reminds us that humans have an almost infinite capacity for self-deception. The worst lies are the ones we tell ourselves.
It’s a beautiful thing when we encounter a man or a woman whose walk matches their word. Such a person is a surprise because they are not surprising. What you see is what you get.
In many ways, John the Baptist was a surprise. He came out of nowhere. He wore odd clothes and stayed down by the Jordan River. He was not a “big city” man. We have no record that he ever preached in Jerusalem.
His message was more than surprising. It was shocking!
He told people if they didn’t repent, they would go to hell. He reserved his harshest words for the professional religionists of his day.
No wonder the common people flocked to him.
He also did something no one expected. He dunked people in water. Folks came to hear him preach and ended up soaking wet! And they loved it.
They went home and told their friends, “You gotta hear this guy!”
Folks ended up soaking wet!
No wonder thousands came to hear him. There had not been a prophet like John since Elijah.
Part of our problem is that we know what comes next.
John baptizes him.
He gains a larger following.
John fades into the background.
Soon he is dead and gone.
But for a few brief moments, he was the most important person with the most important message in the world.
When Herod threw John in prison, Jesus spoke of him this way:
What did you go out into the wilderness to see?
A reed swayed by the wind?
If not, what did you go out to see?
A man dressed in fine clothes?
No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. (Matthew 11:7-8).
John was not like a reed in the wind—blowing this way and that way. He didn’t wear soft clothing like those in a palace. Everything about him stood in contrast to the power brokers in Jerusalem.
John had integrity. You never had to ask, “What did he mean by that?” because he said what he meant and meant what he said.
Today we talk about self-image. John did just fine in that area. That’s why Herod didn’t intimidate him
He knew who he was.
He knew his message: Repent!
He knew his purpose: Prepare the way for the Lord.
John was an uncluttered man. He understood that Israel stood in need of a major spiritual reformation. Some people (the leaders especially) didn’t want to hear that, which is why they opposed his ministry. But great crowds gathered to hear him preach.
Unlike many modern preachers who want to know which way the wind is blowing, John didn’t care about fitting in with public opinion.
He called the Pharisees a “generation of vipers” (Luke 3:7). If you preach like that, you might lose your job. People will try to “cancel” you on social media. You’ll be warned about risking your career.
Evidently no one warned John about his “excessive” language, or if they did, he paid no attention. Here was a man who didn’t worry about what others thought about him. He was rough and blunt.
No wonder Herod feared him.
No wonder the nation flocked to him.
No wonder the Pharisees tried to control him.
We all want to fit in
It takes courage to go against the flow. We’re afraid of being different. We fear losing our job, our friends, our income. That fear is not misplaced. These days you risk everything if you dare to express an opinion not approved by the Powers That Be.
We all want to fit in. We want to feel like we belong in “polite society.” But John the Baptist lived for years in the wilderness. Not too much “polite society” in those wild regions. He spoke the truth without compromise, and people loved him for it.
Someone has said that “even bad men admire those who tell them the truth.” That explains why Herod listened to John even when John rebuked his sin.
We need a generation of preachers with the courage of John the Baptist. W. A. Criswell said it this way:
When a man goes to church he often hears a preacher in the pulpit rehash everything that he has read in the editorials, the newspapers, and the magazines.
On the TV commentaries he hears that same stuff over again, yawns, and goes out and plays golf on Sunday.
When a man comes to church, what he is saying to you is this,
‘Preacher, I know what the TV commentator has to say; I hear him every day. I know what the editorial writer has to say; I read it every day. I know what the magazines have to say; I read them every week.
Preacher, what I want to know is, does God have anything to say? If God has anything to say, tell us what it is.'”
Our text makes this very clear:
He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light (John 1:7-8).
Elsewhere he is called “a voice crying in the wilderness.” Take those two things together, and you have John the Baptist.
A witness to the light.
A voice in the wilderness.
“Preacher, does God have anything to say? If so, tell us what it is.”
He had one job—to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. His job came with an expiration date. When the time came, he willingly said, “He must increase, and I must decrease” (John 3:30).
That’s not how we do things. We want fame, we love the bright lights, we crave the roar of the crowd. We can’t let go. We fight for our rights.
It’s not easy being the “warm-up” act. Who wants to do that? We want to be the main event.
Not John. He did his job, and then he stepped away from the bright lights.
If you want to be sent, be humble.
The proud send themselves.
The rich finance themselves.
The famous advertise themselves.
The gifted promote themselves.
The powerful recommend themselves.
John could be humble because he knew who he was. He called himself the friend of the bridegroom (John 3:29). He knew his star would rise and then fall as Jesus took center stage. After his death, the people who knew John best summarized his impact this way: “John didn’t perform any miracles, but everything John said about this man (Jesus) was true” (John 10:41 GW). It would be hard to find a finer compliment than that.
Wanted: Radical Saints!
When God sent him, he stepped on the stage, and delivered God’s message. He changed the world, and then he disappeared. We need his spirit in the 21st century now more than ever.
John was a radical man. The word radical comes from the Latin word radix, meaning root. So many of us live in the clouds and we wonder why we have no courage. John got down to the root of things. You know what a radical Christian is? A radical Christian is nothing more than somebody who’s gotten down to the root issues of life and figured out what matters and what doesn’t matter. John had figured it out.
People want to know who they can trust
At the end of this pandemic year, people are desperate for answers. They are hungry for the truth, tired of being misled, and don’t know who to trust. We need a generation of truth-tellers who will point people to Jesus.
You know who has this figured out? Our young people. The up-and-coming generation is much more radically oriented for Jesus than we are. They have figured out that if you follow the ways of this world, you are going to be empty at the end. God bless those radical young Christians who have gotten down to the root issues of life.
John the Baptist was a radical man. We could use a few more like him today.
That’s why I’m preaching this series.
O God, we live in such amazing, frightening, exciting, unsettling days. Lord, we pray you will raise up a host of men and women in the spirit and power of John the Baptist. Start it this week. Do it among those who read these words. Do it in my own heart. In Jesus’ name. Amen.