Four Portraits of Faithful Ministry

Luke 3:7-20

September 22, 2021

The question seemed simple enough.

“Do you have any wisdom you could share with us?”

I was eating with some students at Word of Life Bible Institute in Pottersville, New York. We had already discussed the merits of corn dogs (I prefer the kind you buy at the state fair) and our favorite desserts (anything with chocolate). We somehow got into a lengthy discussion about the value of a daily Quiet Time with the Lord.

That’s when one of the students asked me if I had any advice to share with them. It’s a fun question because you can go any direction you like. But to narrow it down a bit, we talked about what you need for a lifetime of serving the Lord. I told them how I was asked a similar question on my way to the Tampa airport.

Here’s an important part of the answer. Among many other things, you need good role models. That usually means finding someone older than you who can help you navigate the many challenges we face in the modern world.

We all need good role models

Where do you find a good role model?

How about John the Baptist? What if we took this rough-hewn wilderness preacher as our mentor? What would we discover?

In this series we’re focusing on the key lessons we can learn from a man who lived and died 2000 years ago. It may seem like John would have very little to teach us. His world and ours look very different. John didn’t have to navigate social media, the internet, or any of the other complexities of modern life. Most of us don’t live in the wilderness, and no one I know lives on locusts and wild honey.

But for all the obvious differences, we can learn a great deal from someone like John the Baptist because the human heart has not changed at all. That’s why reading the Bible is endlessly fascinating. Whether we’re talking about an ancient queen in a hot spot (Esther), or a prisoner of war who counseled pagan kings (Daniel), or even a good man who denied Christ and was later restored (Peter), we can learn a great deal from the men and women of the Bible.

They still speak to us today.

Love him or hate him, he was the real deal

That brings us to John the Baptist. Let’s look at the impact he made during those few brief moments when all eyes were on him. In these tumultuous times, when everything seems unsettled, we need John the Baptist more than ever.

Love him or hate him, he was the real deal.
At least he wasn’t a fake.

Luke 3:7-20 offers us four portraits of faithful ministry. What God did through John the Baptist, he can do through us today.

Portrait #1: John the Farmer (Luke 3:7-9)

He then said to the crowds who came out
           to be baptized by him,

“Brood of vipers! Who warned you
          to flee from the coming wrath? 

Therefore produce fruit
         consistent with repentance.

And don’t start saying to yourselves,
         ‘We have Abraham as our father,’
         for I tell you that God is able to raise up
         children for Abraham from these stones. 

The ax is already at the root of the trees.

Therefore, every tree that doesn’t
         produce good fruit
         will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

If you’re going to preach like that, you should take the offering before the sermon! But strong as those words are, the people loved John all the more. They respected him because they knew he was telling the truth. More than that, they flocked to him because he dared to say out loud what many were thinking in private.

What does a farmer do? He prepares the soil, plants the seed, pulls out the weeds, and waters the ground.

Then he waits.

If there is fruit, he harvests it. If there is no fruit, he cuts down the tree and burns it.

What do you call a farmer who doesn’t care about the harvest? You call him broke! Soon you call him bankrupt. A farmer feeds his family from the fruit of the trees he plants.

No fruit, no food!

No fruit, no harvest, no crop, no money, no food.

Israel was like a barren harvest. There were trees galore–big ones, small ones, fancy ones, wild ones. There were trees with limbs and leaves.

But there was no fruit!

That was John’s judgment on the nation. They had ritual without reality and law without life. John reminded the people that God doesn’t accept our flimsy excuses. You can’t brandish your birth certificate and expect to go to heaven.

God doesn’t judge according to racial ID. Many of the Pharisees thought going through the motions was enough. They assumed they had a “favored nation clause” with the Almighty that guaranteed them entrance into heaven.

But God doesn’t “need” us. He can turn the stones into Abraham’s children. If we will not serve the Lord, he will find someone else who will.

When John called the religious leaders a “den of vipers,” he used an image of baby snakes fleeing a vast fire sweeping across the land.

Of course, the snakes will flee.
That’s what snakes do.

God doesn’t “need” us

What a solemn warning to all of us. We may think our church membership protects us from God’s judgment. As if being Catholic or Baptist or Lutheran will appease the Almighty. As if our baptismal certificate was a “Get out of jail free” card.

Instead of fleeing the judgment (which they could not escape), John called God’s people to repent. You might call it the forgotten doctrine because we don’t hear much about repentance. Oh, we’re in favor of it, meaning we’re totally in favor of someone else repenting. Yes, indeed, those wicked sinners all around us—they need to repent.

But us? Why pick on us? We’re religious, we go to church, we give our money, we sing the songs and pray the prayers.

Do we need to repent?

The answer, of course, is yes.
We badly need to repent.

But it won’t be easy. In the words of R. C. Sproul, “The price of repentance is very, very painful. True repentance is honest before God.”

We need to “repent of our repentance.” That’s how messed up we are. Even our repentance, sincere as it may be, has tinges of self-righteousness about it: “Look at me. I’ve repented.”

As if that’s all God demands.

This doctrine is not popular nowadays. Preach repentance, and someone will call you narrow-minded, a bigot, and possibly even a “fundamentalist.”

Some pastors apologize for preaching repentance, but we can’t, and we won’t apologize for preaching the way John the Baptist preached.

Never apologize for preaching repentance

J. I. Packer says, “The subject of divine wrath has become taboo in modern society, and Christians by and large have accepted the taboo and conditioned themselves never to raise the matter.”

I ran across a comment Francis Schaeffer made about how he does evangelism. He imagined himself on a train in Europe speaking to a passenger seated next to him. What if he had only one hour to talk to the man? How would he spend that hour? Schaeffer said he would spend 45 minutes talking about sin and the certainty of coming judgment, and he wouldn’t get to the gospel until the last 15 minutes.

Until we get the Bad News of our true condition before the Lord, we will never appreciate the Good News of the gospel.

Portrait #2: John the Counselor (Luke 3:10-14)

10 “What then should we do?”
          the crowds were asking him.

11 He replied to them,
          “The one who has two shirts
          must share with someone who has none,
          and the one who has food must do the same.”

12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized,
         and they asked him,
         “Teacher, what should we do?”

13 He told them, “Don’t collect any more than
         what you have been authorized.”

14 Some soldiers also questioned him,
         “What should we do?”

He said to them,
         “Don’t take money from anyone
         by force or false accusation,
         and be satisfied with your wages.”

Three times the people asked, “What should we do?” That’s a mark of sincerity. It’s one thing to hear a message and walk away unchanged. It’s far better to hear the message and then ask the Lord, “What should we do?”

The answers John gives are very straightforward:

To the crowds, he said, “Be generous.”
To the tax collectors, he said, “Be honest.”
To the soldiers, he said, “Be content.”

“What should we do?”

Note that he doesn’t say, “Become like me” or “Move to the desert” or even, “You need to start eating locusts and wild honey.”

You can follow Christ right where you are! Be honest and honorable in how you treat other people. Don’t hold on to your earthly possessions. Use them to help others. Don’t cheat people to gain a personal advantage. Be content with what you have.

Profound things are almost always simple. Sometimes we make the Christian life harder than it ought to be. We have heard for years that we are called to love God and love others. You can’t separate those two things. When we love God, it will change the way we treat our spouse, our family, our friends, our neighbors, our coworkers, and ultimately it will change the way we treat our enemies.

When we ask, “Lord, what should we do?” the answer is, “Start with the man in the mirror.” Use what you have to help others. It’s as simple as that.

Has God been kind to you? Be kind to others.
Has God shown mercy to you? Show mercy to others.
Has God forgiven you? Forgive others.

We repent because God has been good to us!

We do not repent to prove how good we are. We repent because God has been so good to us. God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance” (Romans 2:4).

Once we taste God’s mercy in Christ, it changes how we handle our money and our possessions. God has given us so much in Christ that we don’t have to hold tightly to our clothes and our food. We give it away because God has given so much to us.

As the song says, “Mercy there was great and grace was free.” Free grace transforms misers into givers.

Freely you have received, freely you give. This is the heart of the gospel.,

Portrait #3: John the Baptizer (Luke 3:15-18)

15 Now the people were waiting expectantly,
         and all of them were
         questioning in their hearts
         whether John might be the Messiah. 

16 John answered them all,
         “I baptize you with water,
         but one who is more powerful
         than I am is coming.

I am not worthy to untie
         the strap of his sandals.
He will baptize you
         with the Holy Spirit and fire. 

17 His winnowing shovel is in his hand to clear
         his threshing floor and
         gather the wheat into his barn,
         but the chaff he will burn
         with fire that never goes out.” 

18 Then, along with many other exhortations,
         he proclaimed good news to the people. 

Let’s start with that last verse. This doesn’t sound like good news to me. John started off talking about a nest of vipers, and he ends up talking about a fire that never goes out. How is that good news? Suppose you are asleep in a hotel when a fire breaks out. Suddenly a man pounds on your door and shouts, “Get up! The hotel is on fire. You’ve got to get out now.” He is your friend, not your enemy. He loves you enough to risk your anger at being awakened.

Friends don’t let friends go to hell

Friends don’t let friends go to hell if they can help it. You warn others to flee from the wrath to come.

John would not be popular today. People would say he is narrow-minded, too negative, mean-spirited, and angry all the time. If you preach like that, you will turn people off. People will call you an extremist. You might even be called a hater.

None of that would bother him.
John didn’t live for the praise of men.

So I’ve got a question. How could this kind of preaching be good news? The answer is simple. Before the truth can heal you, it will hurt you first. The chemo that kills the cancer first brings you to death’s door.

Not everyone can handle the truth.

Not everyone can handle the truth

2 Timothy 4:3 warns us about this:

For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.

Three notes about that verse:

  1. That time has come.
  2. There are always teachers who will tell people what they want to hear, not what they need to hear.
  3. It’s ultimately an ear problem.

Itching ears!

Many teachers water down the message, shave off the hard edges of Bible doctrine, and follow fads instead of preaching the truth.

If you look hard enough, you can always find someone who will tell you what you want to hear.

Men like John the Baptist are in short supply. But it is better to be disliked and faithful than popular and unfaithful.

Here is the highest possible praise: the people thought John was the Messiah. But John sets the people straight:

  1. He is coming.
  2. He is much greater than me.
  3. His baptism will be much greater.

He will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The baptism of the Holy Spirit happened on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2 when Peter preached and 3000 people were saved.

Men like John are in short supply

God sent “tongues of fire” on the Day of Pentecost as a sign he was about to pour out the Holy Spirit in a new and powerful way. In the Old Testament, the fiery pillar represented God’s personal presence with his people. But now the Holy Spirit takes up residence in all believers. That’s why “tongues of fire” rested on each person individually.

This represents a tremendous advance in God’s program for his people. Where once he worked primarily in and through a nation, now he works in and through individuals.

What exactly is the “winnowing shovel”? After the harvest, the farmer would lift a shovel full of wheat, toss it in the air, and the wind would blow away the lighter chaff while the heavier wheat kernels fell to the ground.

The wind blew the chaff away.

So it will be at the final judgment. The wheat remains, but the chaff is blown away. This is the final separation of the saved and the lost. If you are lost on that day, the wind of God’s judgment will blow you straight into hell.

Make sure you are part of the wheat and not the chaff. It will be too late if you wait until the final judgment to be sure.

Portrait #4: John the Prisoner (Luke 3:19-20)

19 But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch
         because of Herodias, his brother’s wife,
         and all the evil things he had done, 

20 Herod added this to everything else—
         he locked up John in prison.

If you preach like John the Baptist, this may happen to you too. When Herod married his brother’s wife, John rebuked Herod for his sin. We know that Herod liked and feared John. Somehow the two met and seem to have become friends or at least respected adversaries. John’s preaching troubled Herod, yet he continued to listen to him and to ponder the things he said.

When John condemned Herod’s sin, Herodias, his new wife, got angry. She wanted this troublesome preacher out of the way once and for all. Under pressure from his wife, Herod had John thrown into prison. He was held in a gloomy dungeon at Macherus, a remote prison in the wilderness east of the Dead Sea, in modern-day Jordan. There John languished for weeks and perhaps for months.

John went to prison for doing right!

He could not appeal his imprisonment.
He could not escape.
He did not know how long he would be there.

By imprisoning John, Herod added to all his other sins. He may have thought he had gotten rid of the problem, but he hadn’t.

This is what happens to faithful preachers of truth. If you speak like this, don’t expect the world to pat you on the back and give you a merit badge for courage.

Here’s a fascinating thought. Jesus could free him, but he doesn’t. He could have spoken the word, and the gates would swing open. He could have sent a brigade of angels to disarm the guards and set John free.

But he doesn’t do that.

John served God in prison just as much as when he preached by the Jordan. He’s in jail, not for doing wrong, but for doing right.

It’s always dangerous to preach the truth. So we see opposition rising in our own day. John had to have known what would happen to him. He’s not naïve enough to think the powers that be would leave him alone.

He knew what would happen.
He spoke the truth anyway.

Would you rather be Herod or John on Judgment Day?

God’s Alarm Clock

John was God’s man. Alfred Plummer said, “The whole man was a sermon.” But that’s true of all of us. Our life preaches just as much as our words do. It’s a beautiful thing—and very powerful—when our life backs up our lips and our deeds match our words.

Our text reveals four portraits of faithful ministry. What do we learn from them?

From John the Farmer: Plant seeds of truth and trust God to bring in the harvest.

From John the Counselor: Be generous, be kind, be content.

From John the Baptizer: Take your stand for Christ.

Take your stand for Christ

From John the Prisoner: If you know who you are, you can serve Christ anywhere, even in prison.

John’s preaching winnowed the nation before the first coming of Christ. Perhaps God is using this pandemic to winnow the world before the second coming.

John was God’s alarm clock to rouse a sleeping nation. Perhaps this invisible virus is part of God’s plan to wake up a sleeping church.

If we believe what this passage teaches, then we will repent daily, and our repentance will show up in the way we treat others.

God’s kindness will make us kind.
God’s grace will make us gracious.
God’s truth will make us truthful.
God’s holiness will make us holy.
God’s mercy will make us merciful.

Let’s end by going back to where we began. In these confusing times, we all need good role models. I’m asking God to raise up an army of men and women in the spirit and power of John the Baptist.

May the Lord help us to live so that he is pleased, and we have no regrets.

May all who come behind us find us faithful!

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?