The Positive Power of a Plainspoken Preacher
Matthew 3; Mark 1; Luke 3
September 3, 2021
So what can we say about the American church eighteen months into this pandemic? What is the real state of affairs?
One fact is obvious. As churches reopen, not everyone has come back.
As churches reopen, not everyone has come back.
I heard about a study that suggested churches should think in thirds:
1/3 of the people have come back to church.
1/3 have left and aren’t coming back.
1/3 have left but are waiting to come back.
That’s obviously a generalization, but it helps.
Here’s what we know. Some people prefer going to church on the sofa. They like drinking coffee and wearing sweatpants while they watch the service on Facebook or YouTube. Others simply drifted away and evidently don’t miss church very much at all.
In that sense, the pandemic has been a kind of severe mercy from the Lord because it taught us that not everyone in the church really belongs there.
Some people are gone and aren’t coming back.
Some people prefer going to church on the sofa.
That’s good to know, even if it hurts.
I’d rather have a smaller church of people who want to be there than a church filled with people who don’t care.
If this pandemic leads to a winnowing of the church, it will not be a bad thing. We need to know who’s in and who’s out.
A weak, worldly church has no message to share.
In the parable of the Wheat and Tares (Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43), Jesus predicted a vast separation in the last days. Evil will grow more pronounced, more open, more brazen as the benign face of humanism is ripped off to reveal the pure evil underneath.
If someone says, “We’ve hit bottom,” I want to say, “We’re not even close to the bottom.” That’s why Paul said, “Evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Timothy 3:13).
But the good news is, the church of Jesus will do its best work in the last days.
The church of Jesus will do its best work in the last days.
As two harvests come in side by side, one evil and one good, it will be the best of times and the worst of times, all at the same time.
That’s where we’re going.
Buckle up, friends!
A Time to Decide
That brings me to the story of John the Baptist. He was made for times like these.
He saw clearly that God’s winnowing shovel was about to divide the nation. In the words of James Russell Lowell,
Once to every man and nation,
comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood,
for the good or evil side;
That moment had come for the nation of Israel.
Let me give you something to ponder. If we do not move toward Jesus, we must inevitably move away from him. No one can stay neutral forever.
If we do not move toward Jesus, we must inevitably move away from him
That’s where we are today.
You can’t sit on the fence forever.
With that as background, we turn to consider “The Positive Power of a Plainspoken Preacher.” The beginning of John’s ministry is told in three places:
Matthew emphasizes his powerful message.
Mark emphasizes his prophetic calling.
Luke emphasizes his place in history.
400 Silent Years
That’s where we should start. When John the Baptist began his ministry, he ended the “400 silent years” that cover the period between the Old and New Testaments. After Malachi finished his ministry, there had been silence from heaven. No prophet had spoken; no words of Scripture had been written down.
It was a time of prophetic silence, religious decline, and a time of increasing confusion. Empires rose and fell across the Middle East, armies marched, battles were fought, kings came and went, and the Jews spread across the Mediterranean world. They followed the famous road system built by the Romans. Greek became the established language. Mystery religions flourished.
In Israel, generations of priests came and went. Antiochus Epiphanes IV, the “antichrist of the Old Testament” came to power and tried to pollute the Jewish religion with pagan practices. The great rebellion led by Judas Maccabeus forced the Greeks from Jerusalem and led to the cleansing of the temple.
Caesars came and went. A vile man named Herod the Great ruled over the Holy Land. The spiritual state of the Jewish people declined over the generations. Godly saints prayed for the coming of the Messiah.
It was as if a spark had fallen on dry tinder.
Suddenly, an extraordinary man appeared on the scene. John the Baptist seemed to come out of nowhere, like a meteor streaking across the sky.
He was a category of one.
F. B. Meyer said it was as if a spark had fallen on dry tinder. Soon his ministry blazed across the Judean countryside.
What was the secret of his amazing ministry?
How did he grab the attention of the nation?
What made him different?
Let’s consider five answers to those questions.
#1: He Felt the Call From God.
Luke 3:1 mentions the exact moment when John began to preach:
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar,
while Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea,
Herod was tetrarch of Galilee,
his brother Philip tetrarch
of the region of Iturea and Trachonitis,
and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene.”
Why mention all these first-century rulers? Luke wants us to know John didn’t just drop out of heaven. He was God’s man for that moment. God sent him to Israel after generations of political ferment, religious curiosity, and prophetic expectancy. John stepped on the stage of history at a moment ordained by God.
Where is the real news being made?
Where is the real news being made? Ask Fox or CNN or ABC or NBC or CBS. Read the New York Times or the Washington Post. They will give you answers like this:
The White House.
10 Downing Street.
Those are the answers of secular man. But God measures history by his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
What God was doing through John the Baptist was the most important thing in the world at that moment. But what about Caesar Tiberius, Herod Antipas, and Pontius Pilate? They were placeholders, cardboard cutouts, pretenders to power. Across Asia, Africa, and Europe, the greatest thing was the preaching of John the Baptist. All the decrees of all the despots could not match the importance of one man in camel’s hair clothing preaching in the wilderness.
He trumped them all.
That’s why Luke 3:2 emphasizes that “the Word of God came to John in the wilderness.” The world didn’t notice John because he didn’t matter to them. But God does not measure a man by his outward position.
No Caesar that spoke,
No army that marched,
No senate that met,
Rivaled this unlikely man preaching down by the Jordan River.
God’s work is rarely seen at the time. If you had been traveling in early February 1809 through rural Kentucky, near the tiny outpost of Hodgenville, you would never have imagined anything important was going on. If you had inquired at the local store, “What’s the news?” the answer would have been, “Nothing new around there. There was a baby born at the Lincoln cabin a few days ago. That’s about it.”
A baby born at the Lincoln cabin.
God’s work is rarely seen at the time
One day he would become the 16th president of the United States.
But no one knew it then!
When Luke says the Word of God “came” to John, he uses a verb that means to “come upon.” It’s similar to the Old Testament prophets who talked about the “burden of the word of the Lord.” When God called John, he felt the call. It came upon him like a burden from heaven.
Here is the preeminent mark of a God-called preacher: He can’t do anything else. He preaches because he has a burden from God. It reminds me of Jeremiah, who said, “His word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones” (Jeremiah 29:10). In the same way, when warned by the Sanhedrin to stop preaching about Jesus, Peter and John replied, “For we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).
Something like that happened to me over fifty years ago. In the summer after I graduated from high school, God began to speak to me about my future plans. I felt a heaviness in my heart because I had come to a moment of decision. I wanted to become a journalist. My hero back then was Walter Cronkite of CBS News. But God was calling me in a different direction. One night in June 1970, I went to bed wrestling with my own future, not knowing how to resolve things. Several hours later, I awoke with the certainty God was speaking to me. If you ask, “Was it an audible voice?” I reply, “No, it was much louder than that.” I knew God was calling me to preach. I said, “Lord, if you want me, I’ll be a preacher.” With the matter settled, I went back to sleep. From that time until this, I have always known God’s call on my life.
In a much deeper way, that’s what happened to John the Baptist. Living in the wilderness will make you or break you. In the desert a man finds out a lot about himself. A man in that harsh environment learns to live by his wits. He’s not dependent on the approval of others. John developed a blunt style that matched his surroundings. When God said, “Your time has come,” his preaching gripped the nation.
He was not the easiest man to be around. Feared by kings and hated by hypocrites, he was loved by the common man.
In seminary preaching classes, young men are taught to “grab ‘em by the throat and never let go.” That’s John all the way. From the moment he opened his mouth, he stood at center stage. He was a God-called man from the wilderness.
And we’re still talking about him today.
#2: He Preached a Simple Message.
This is how Matthew introduces John’s ministry:
“In those days John the Baptist came, preaching
in the wilderness of Judea
and saying, ‘Repent.’” (Matthew 3:1-2).
You can sum up his ministry in one word: Repent!
The word means to “change the mind.” It has to do with the way you think about something. You’ve been thinking one way, but now you think differently. That’s repentance—the changing of the mind.
The wilderness will make you or break you
Let’s suppose a man wants to learn how to parachute. So he goes to a skydiving school where they show him how to rig up his gear, how to pull the ripcord, and how to land safely. Finally, the day comes when they take him up in an airplane. He’s scared to death, but he’s afraid to back out. The moment comes when he is to jump. He goes to the door of the airplane and sees the ground twelve thousand feet below. His legs grow weak, he’s getting sick, and somebody behind him is trying to push him out of the airplane. At the last second, he says, “I’m not going to do it.” “Go ahead, you can do it,” his instructor shouts. “I’ve changed my mind,” he replies. “I’m not going to jump.”
That man has repented. He’s changed his mind in a decisive way.
Repentance changes the way you think. When you change your mind about something, it’s going to change the way you think about it, talk about it, feel about it, and what you do about it.
We tend to think of repentance as something we do once—when we trust Christ. But Martin Luther showed us a better way when he nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany, sparking the Protestant Reformation. Thesis #1 states the matter clearly:
Repentance means God was right all along
When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Matthew 4:17), he intended the entire life of believers to be repentance.
Luther is right. Repentance ought to be a way of life for the Christian. We repent every day because we sin every day. Repentance means God was right, and we were wrong.
John the Baptist understood this principle. That’s why he preached repentance as the center of his message.
#3: He Knew His Job Description.
Luke explains John’s call by quoting from Isaiah 40:
A voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
Prepare the way for the Lord;
make his paths straight!
Every valley will be filled,
and every mountain and hill will be made low;
the crooked will become straight,
the rough ways smooth (Luke 3:4-5).
John was a construction engineer who built roads for the Son of God. He cleared the way for Jesus to begin his ministry. That meant filling in valleys, leveling mountains, and making crooked roads straight.
The first step is always demolition.
If you watch any of those renovation shows on TV, you know what I mean. Marlene and I like to watch “Flip or Flop,” “Home Town,” and most of all, we like to watch Chip and Joanna Gaines on “Fixer Upper.” All those shows follow the same plan. You find a distressed property, and then you start renovating it. If all goes well, you end up selling it for a profit.
But things never go well.
The first step is demolition
Usually they get started with a bang. They begin ripping out the old walls, tearing out the wires, digging into the foundation, and knocking out the windows so they can replace them with French doors. But then trouble hits. Chip calls Joanna with the bad news: “You won’t believe this, but the foundation is cracked,” or “The roof has to be replaced,” or “We’ve got mold in the bathroom.” It looks like the renovation project has turned into a disaster.
The producers always put the trouble just before a commercial break, so you’ll stay tuned to see the outcome. Once the crisis is past, they can finish the renovation.
If you’ve ever done any construction, you understand those shows. You can’t rehab without doing demolition first. You have to strip it down to the studs so you can find and fix every problem. If you build without doing demo first, you end up making things worse.
John was God’s demo man. He cleared the way for Christ to come.
#4: He Stood Out From the Crowd.
Mark 1:6 offers us a vivid picture of John’s wardrobe and his diet:
John wore a camel-hair garment with a leather belt around his waist
and ate locusts and wild honey.
Have you ever ridden on a camel? If so, then you know it can be an uncomfortable ride. Camel’s hair is stiff and prickly on the outside and soft and pliable on the inside. John’s garment was made of the outer layer of prickly hair. It was like wearing a burlap shirt in 100-degree weather.
John was God’s demo man
John’s appearance said, “I’m a man of the people.” He didn’t look or act or talk like the big guns in Jerusalem. Anyone listening to him knew he was a prophet of God.
A few years ago, I read a book called “Dress for Success.” It was a huge bestseller that told men to wear a dark suit, a white shirt, and a tie with small blue or red checks.
If they had a book like that 2000 years ago, John didn’t read it.
His diet was simple—sort of a “Desert Keto.” Locusts and wild honey. You would stay in shape eating bugs and honey you wrangled from beehives nestled into the rocky crags or on the desert trees.
He wasn’t afraid to be different because he knew who he was.
He wasn’t trying to win a popularity contest.
#5: He Called for a Public Response.
Now we come to the part of John’s ministry that we know best:
He went into all the vicinity of the Jordan,
proclaiming a baptism of repentance
for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:3).
Matthew 3:5 adds that people came to John from Jerusalem (the city), all Judea (the suburbs), and all the vicinity of the Jordan (the rural areas).
John was the first Baptist preacher! He baptized in “Bethany beyond the Jordan,” meaning somewhere on the east side of the river. That’s probably near Jericho, in modern-day Jordan.
He was the first Baptist preacher!
What exactly did John’s baptism mean? When the Jews were baptized, they were saying, “I’m a sinner, and I deserve to die.” It was a way of identifying with John’s message by saying, “Yes, I am ready to repent, and I want a new life from the Lord.” John’s baptism was a sign the Jews knew they needed forgiveness, which could only come from God.
Was John’s baptism “real”? The answer must be yes because it’s the only baptism Jesus ever knew.
The Bottom Line
Was John a success? It depends on your point of view. After all, he came from obscurity, had few close friends, and had no public mentor. After living for years in the wilderness, he had a short ministry that ended when he was thrown in prison.
The only person he counseled extensively had him beheaded.
But he shook the nation, confronted the Pharisees, and challenged Herod. When he died, multitudes mourned his passing.
He never wrote a book. He was eclipsed by Jesus. And yet, among those born of women, there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. That’s what Jesus said.
He was a voice, not an echo.
John was God’s alarm clock to rouse a sleeping nation.
A man like John is a gift from God. He was a gift and a judgment. He was a gift in that he heralded the coming of Christ. His ministry was a judgment on the barrenness of the Jewish religion of his day.
He was “a man sent from God!”
This is our great need today.
We have self-called pastors.
We have charismatic leaders.
Where are the men sent from God?
“Make me a crisis man!”
In his journals, Jim Elliot penned this prayer:
“Lord, make me a crisis man.
Make me a fork, that men must turn
one way or another
on facing Christ in me.”
We are living in a crisis.
There is more to come.
May God give us a generation of crisis men and women in the spirit and power of John the Baptist.
Lord, we thank you for the example of a man
who could not be bought or sold.
Grant us that same kind of gritty faith
to obey you no matter what.
Deliver us from the fear of man.
Give us the courage to be different
so that we can make a difference for you.
Help us to be faithful until the day
you call us home.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.