Preacher John the Baptist

John the Baptist had an important ministry, in the footsteps of the great prophet Elijah, preparing his generation to receive Christ.

John impacted the nation of Israel and far beyond.  Decades after John’s death Paul met a group of devout followers of God at Ephesus who had been baptised with “John’s baptism” of repentance.  At the same time an orator named Apollos travelled through many nations preaching John’s messages.

Both the Ephesian believers and Apollos had to be brought up to date with the revelation of Jesus Christ as the fulfilment of John’s preaching.  Yet for John’s message to have gone so far and wide we see that the impact of his preaching is quite impressive.

What John Preached

The Bible gives several insights into John’s preaching.  First mention is in Matthew’s history of the life of Christ.

“In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, And saying, Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Matthew 3:1-3

Matthew tells us that John preached in the wilderness and the summary of his message is “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is close at hand”.  Matthew also tells us John came in fulfilment of a prophecy from Isaiah.

Matthew’s assertion that John fulfilled a prophecy from Isaiah is confirmed by Dr Luke, who did his own research into the life and Christ and recorded his findings in the gospel of Luke.  Luke discovered that John’s father saw an angel which foretold John’s birth and said John would fulfil the very same prophecy Matthew records, see Luke 1:13-17 and also Luke 3:2-6.

Dr Luke summarised John’s preaching as Matthew did, with a simple sentence, but adding detail Matthew did not mention.

“Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness. And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” Luke 3:2,3

Isaiah Summary

Six hundred years before John the Baptist the prophet Isaiah spoke about him and what he would say.  Matthew declares that John is the fulfilment of a prophecy by Isaiah found at Isaiah 40:3-8.

“The voice of him that cries in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley will be exalted, and every mountain and hill will be made low: and the crooked will be made straight, and the rough places plain: And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all flesh will see it together: for the mouth of the LORD has spoken it.  The voice said, Cry. And he said, What will I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: The grass withers, the flower fades: because the spirit of the LORD blows on it: surely the people are grass.  The grass withers, the flower fades: but the word of our God will stand for ever.” Isaiah 40:3-8

Isaiah gives a rich insight into John’s message, summarised by Matthew’s simple account.  We see that John was to preach in the wilderness, which Matthew recorded happening.  John would also “prepare the way of the Lord”, by getting the people ready to receive Christ, which the gospels record taking place.

The preparation for Christ was to involve making a straight path, lifting up the lowly, humbling the proud, removing the deviations and the bumps.  John’s simple and direct message levelled the field, directing all the people, great and small to take the same step of repentance.

All Flesh Is Grass

I love the prophetic account given by Isaiah about John the Baptist’s ministry.  The New Testament historians don’t give any insight into how this prophecy was fulfilled, so let me bring it to life for you as I see it.

“The voice of the Holy Spirit directing John said ‘Cry’! And John the Baptist said, ‘What will I cry?’ The Spirit told John to cry out ‘All flesh is grass and will wither, no matter how beautiful it looks, but God’s Word will never wither or fail.’”

At this point I see John standing in the wilderness, alone.  How many other people are going to be in the wilderness?  None.  Only lost shepherds and crazy people are hanging out in the wilderness, unless maybe someone is on their way to the Qumran community at the top end of the Dead Sea.

So John shouts at the top of his voice, into the barren hills, “All flesh is grass. Whatever you are doing it is a waste of time.  You need to be listening to God, because He is real and what He does lasts.”

John’s voice echoes across the scrubby landscape.  And off in the distance one or two lonely souls hear him preach and are immediately gripped by the Holy Spirit.  They are cut to the depths of their heart and hurry home to get their friends and family to come and hear this voice.

So powerful was the message, given in obedience to the Holy Spirit, that an audience quickly grows as people hungry for God are gripped by this simple, humbling message.

Malachi Prophecy

Isaiah was not the only one to prophesy about John the Baptist.  Four hundred years before John the prophet Malachi spoke of one coming in the spirit of Elijah to impact the hearts of the people.

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: And he will turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, otherwise I will come and smite the earth with a curse.” Malachi 4:5,6

We know that John is connected to this prophecy because of the angel that spoke with John’s father.

“But the angel said to him, Fear not, Zacharias: for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elisabeth will bear you a son, and you will call his name John. ….. And he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Luke 1:13-17

You will note in that angelic message that John fulfilled the prophecy given by Malachi.

Putting it Together

Recognising that each description of John’s preaching and ministry is in itself a summary, but that each should be complimentary, we can now put them together to create a picture of John’s preaching.

John was a voice crying in the wilderness, so he did not start with a big city crowd.  He had to build an audience in a place where an audience was hard to come by.  And he did.

He did it by preaching what the Holy Spirit told him to preach.  The message humbled man, exposing man’s temporary and meaningless existence.  The message also exalted God, by showing that God’s Word endures and cannot be changed.

John’s message called for repentance by levelling all humanity before God, all with the same need to repent before God.  John introduced a new expression of humility, that of baptism by immersion to testify to a change of heart.

John’s message focused people on the Kingdom of God, which has two points of significance.  The presence of God challenges our sinfulness before Him, calling us to repent and seek forgiveness for our sins.  For those who have found that forgiveness, the presence of God promises God’s blessing and grace in their lives.

The depth of repentance called for by John prepared people to accept Christ.  It also changed their heart, not just to God, but toward those in authority and those they are responsible for.

Modern Day Equivalent

A modern day John the Baptist would still preach the same message.

“Repent before God, because God is at hand.  God will judge your sin and is also ready to bless your obedience.  Stop living for personal agendas and recognise the temporariness of your life.  God’s purposes are profoundly more wonderful than all those other things that consume you.  Turn around and start living for God, in the fear of God.”

A modern day John would not start out with a big audience, but with a Spirit anointed message.  He would speak with such destiny that the message would do the job.  He would not buy and audience or rely on marketing hype to get heard.

And a modern day John would expose in people’s hearts their pride, rebellion, selfishness and independence.  He would call them back to living the way God wants them to, rather than for their selfish, secular agendas.

John Baptist’s preaching moved a nation. His message was “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand”. Today that would be “Repent, for God is right here, so fear God and expect God’s blessings”.

Jesus Preached the Same Sermon

The significance of John’s sermon is endorsed by the fact that Jesus Christ took up that same message when He began to preach.

“From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew 4:17

This is the message destined to prepare hearts for Christ.  This is the message that Jesus preached.  And this is the message that the early church preached as well.  Paul the Apostle reminded the church leaders in Ephesus about his preaching that had built that church years before.

Acts 20:21 “Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Just as John called people to repent, so did Paul.  The Kingdom of God being at hand was the basis for repentance.  Because God is real and is present to deal with us, we must have repentance toward God, but we also have great reward in our faith in Jesus Christ.

As I summarised it above, the message is, “Repent, for God is right here, so fear God and expect God’s blessings”.

Power Preaching

With so many preachers with their “hot” sermons all trying to make an impression across the western world one could get quite confused about what makes a powerful message.

In view of that, let me take you back to basics and get you looking at what the Apostle Paul declared was pretty powerful preaching.

The Right to Speak

Paul has the right to tell us what works, since his own preaching was claimed to have “turned the world upside down”.  Paul was hunted from city to city through sheer hatred from those who knew the power of his preaching and who didn’t like what he was achieving.

Paul seemed to have a way of getting his message through in city after city and culture after culture. He was able to birth church after church in places where he simply preached his basic message.

In view of the power of Paul’s preaching we ought to pay attention to what Paul instructs.  And it is worth noting that Paul instructed the early church to imitate him.  I suggest we are well advised to do that in this day, almost two thousand years later.

Paul’s Power Preaching

Paul tells us quite directly that the “Gospel of Christ” is his power message.

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believes; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” Romans 1:16

Paul then explains the two basic truths of his gospel message as he continues his letter to the church in Rome.  Those two basic truths are simply that man is a sinner facing judgment and that faith in Christ saves us.  Paul was not ashamed to declare those truths.

Sinners Facing Judgment

Paul states the first basic principle of the gospel of Christ just two verses after declaring that the gospel is powerful.

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness” Romans 1:18

Paul uses the rest of chapter 1 and all of chapter 2 to expand on the fact that man is sinful and thus God’s judgment rests on him.  Several verses that state that truth are well known among Christians.

“As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understands, there is none that seeks after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that does good, no, not one.” Romans 3:10-12

“For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” Romans 3:23

We later have Paul advising that the penalty for our sin is a death sentence from God.

“For the wages of sin is death” Romans 6:23a

Paul did not shrink from revealing to people that they had a sin problem and that sin brought God’s judgment on them.  This is the starting point of Paul’s gospel message.  The good news of Christ (the gospel of Christ) is not good news if you don’t first understand the “bad news” of our sin.

Faith in Christ Saves Us

Having established that all mankind is ruined by sin and that God’s wrath rests on the whole human race because no-one can reach God’s holy standard, Paul then testifies to the wonder of forgiveness and salvation we have through faith in Christ.

“But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference” Romans 3:21,22

“Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” Romans 3:24

“Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” Romans 5:1,2

It’s a pretty simple message.  Our sin separates us from God and brings God’s judgment upon us.  Our faith in Christ saves us and brings God’s grace upon us.

Ashamed of the Gospel

The way some preachers preach you could think they are “ashamed” of the gospel Paul preached.  Many preachers avoid giving the simple, clear gospel message Paul found so effective.

I talked about this with a Chinese Christian today who admitted that in his youth he heard people preach the simple gospel Paul preached.  But today, he said, he does not hear people preach so directly.

He asked me why I thought that was so, and I suggested that many modern preachers are more interested in pleasing their audience than in pleasing God.  They preach what they think people want to hear, rather than what Paul says will transform the hearers.

Maybe, too, modern preachers don’t want to risk the opposition and challenge Paul received when he preached that simple gospel.

Fear God of Man

The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom but the fear of man brings a snare.

So who you give respect to impacts who and what you are.

This is important for preachers.  If you fear God you will preach God’s truth, no matter whether the audience likes it or not.  Some will reject what you say and others will be transformed by the message.  The gospel of Christ will release the power of God into their lives to save and transform them.

If you fear man, you will preach what people want to hear, but you will have no impact on their lives.  You will also offend God and have none of His blessing and fruit in your ministry.  In fact, you will get trapped (a snare is a trap) and maybe mess up the rest of your life.  That’s what the fear of man does to you.

“The fear of man brings a snare: but whoever puts his trust in the LORD will be safe.” Proverbs 29:25

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding.” Proverbs 9:10

Let us hear again the simple gospel that transforms lives.

Sneering

I met someone today who I haven’t seen for a few years. We chatted briefly in a carpark and I had to be careful not to mention several topics. There are some issues this chap won’t deal with and if you bring them up he sneers, curls his lip and the whole meeting goes sour.

I have met many people like that. They just can’t get past some issue of other that upset them. They may be upset at a minister who pushed through his plans for a new building, without the support of the congregation. They may be upset that their child wasn’t given an opportunity the parent thought the child deserved. They may be resentful of how something worked out to their disadvantage. The possibilities are endless.

Dead End

The problem for this chap and people like him is that the upset becomes a Dead End for them. It is a road-block to their progress and to getting on with life. Instead of letting the matter go, or forgiving the offender, or humbling themselves, or other productive responses, these people dig in and take offence.

From that moment on the issue is toxic to them. They can’t put it aside or resolve it, so it is like an open sore in their thinking. If someone is insensitive enough to bring up the offensive situation, person or issue the offence is immediately on the surface. The person curls their lip, adopts a sneering tone and reels off the little speech they reserve specially for the matter.

Very Important People

I like what someone once said in response to this sneering attitude that is adopted by some. They pointed out that those who sneer must be very important people. They must be incredibly privileged people indeed.

They are obviously important because they have the right to do what only God can do! They have the right to sit in judgement of others and to refuse to forgive or let the person have grace. That makes those people incredibly important people.

All the rest of us are under the fear of God and will be judged if we judge. We will have God deal with us the same way we deal with others. We will end up in a prison of our own making if we do not forgive.

But these VIP’s can get away with doing all the things we are forbidden to do.

Or Very Foolish People

The truth is that these sneerers are very foolish people. They are elevating their own pride to the point they reject God’s instructions and put themselves into a place of superiority and judgement.

Now we all have opinions about things. I am as inclined to think someone else has it wrong as anyone else. But it’s what we do with those ideas that is important. If we elevate our ideas and ourselves over others we err.

Very foolish people make room for their own importance, their own opinions, and their own self-will. Very foolish people forget that they too are made of mud. They forget that they too have had to be forgiven. They forget that they have done stupid, selfish, irresponsible things in their time.

Very foolish people have closed themselves off from God’s grace, by not offering it to others who need it too.

Change My Heart O God

I wonder if my heart is clean enough for God to use me to reach those who the world holds in contempt. Someone has to be able to get past the sneering, accusing, unforgiving attitudes that we all feel toward those who we deem worthy of contempt. What would God have to do in my heart to get me to the place where I could serve Him, meeting the needs of people I would otherwise despise?

I need God to change my heart and to deliver me from the fleshly urge to judge, sneer, punish, condemn and reject others. Maybe you need something like that in your heart too. But that’s none of my business (is it?).

Making Marriage Better

Since marriage is a dynamic interpersonal relationship some people struggle with the growth and change process that it brings. Here are some key issues to keep in mind as you make your marriage better.

Change and Comfort Zones

In order for your marriage to get better things are going to have to change. Did you see that word? I said “Change!” And change involves you being moved out of your comfort zone.

It’s all well and good to say you want things to be “better”, but better also means “different“. When things become different, even if the different is “better”, there will be a process of “change”. That will mean your comfort zone will be disrupted.

So, are you really ready for the change process?

The Demanding Wife

I have helped a number of couples whose relationship has been strained by the demands of the wife. A demanding wife often sees the weaknesses and failings in her husband and wants him to change. What happens at times, however, is that the changes upset the wife who is demanding them!

What some wives fail to understand is that if their husband was to become more responsible, more involved in things, more proactive, and all that, then he will displace the position which she currently occupies. That means her own responsibilities, behaviours, thought processes and personal meaning will all be challenged.

I have had to deal with situations where the wife has been upset about her husband changing, even when he became the person she wanted him to be.

The Unsettled Husband

Similarly I have seen husbands become unsettled when their wife changes her attitudes and behaviours. Even though those changes may be for the better, they can upset the husband’s comfort zone. Some men resent their wife changing in ways that put added responsibility onto them.

The change process impacts both husbands and wives and so I need to share with you two key principles which will guide you through that process of making your marriage better.

You Will Be Uncomfortable

Face this fact – You will be Uncomfortable! Change brings challenge. Change your job, your home or your lifestyle and see if you don’t find yourself challenged in the process.

So, uncomfortable is not bad. It is a sign that you are undergoing change. Don’t fight it or resent it. Recognise it and deal with it. Face up to it. This is a necessary part of the readjustment process.

In order for a man to rise to the levels of responsibility and authority which his wife wants him to attain the existing relationship will be left behind and new ways of relating will replace it. But even the new will be temporary, as the couple moves toward an even better balance.

Both husband and wife will face moments of discomfort, uncertainty and unfamiliarity as your marriage moves through change. But change is your necessary pathway to “better”, so don’t fight it or resent it.

Two Keys

As you navigate through the uncertainties and discomfort of the change process there are two keys which will support you on the way through. Remember that change can take time and you may be in various stages of uncertainty for many months or even over several years.

Key number one is to Fear God. Key number two is to Trust God.

The Fear of God

When you feel uncomfortable the worst thing you can do is to be out of order. If you react with anger, resentment, bitterness or the like you will damage your marriage. But when people feel challenged by change they can instinctively fall into such things.

I have seen husbands and wives argue, fight and damage each other, as they throw accusations, make justifications, and struggle with the uncertainties of the change process.

That’s why I so strongly advocate that you fear God. If you fear God you will bring your own actions into check, even if your spouse is out of order. You will think and do the right things, rather than giving in to your baser instincts. Instead of jealousy, anger, frustration, accusation or the like, you can respond by being the husband or wife the Bible instructs you to be.

And you will not justify your wrong behaviour on the basis of your spouse doing or saying the wrong thing. You will know that you do not have an excuse for any wrong behaviour, words or attitudes on your part, even though your spouse is out of order.

Faith in God

Faith in God, or trusting God is also needed. This is where you realise that God has everything under control, even though you don’t. It is the confidence that God is going to bring you through to a glorious outcome, even though things don’t look too good at the moment.

Faith keeps you moving forward, instead of pulling back and giving up on the marriage. Faith keeps you hopeful and prompts you to make new investments in your relationship, confident in a good harvest in the future.

Make Your Marriage Better

Armed with Fear of God and Faith in God you have nothing to worry about in moving out of your comfort zone and into the better place that your marriage is meant to move to. Don’t be afraid of change, and don’t be afraid of the future.

Put your trust in God. Ask Him to work on you and your spouse, so you can build a new and better level of relationship. Learn what a godly marriage looks like and determine to achieve that in your own life.

With God on your side, and with you determined to fear God and to trust Him, you are now ready to Make your Marriage Better than it has ever been.

For a good description of what a godly marriage is meant to be, I recommend “Marriage Horizons“. Check it out at the Family Horizons website: http://familyhorizons.net/html/marriage_books.html

The Marriage University

I spoke recently with a husband who was struggling to come to terms with his own responsibility in his home. To help him grasp one of the concepts I came up with a new analogy which I had not used before. I share it here to give you additional focus on the journey couples make in graduating into glory.

Different Roles in the Marriage

Husbands and wives have unique roles in the marriage. There are specific things husbands must do, that their wives are not asked to do. There are specific things wives are asked to do, that their husbands are not asked to do. Both husband and wife must make personal progress in their own assignment, irrespective of how the spouse is getting on with their challenges.

Different Places of Responsibility

According to the Bible, God has established human society by way of a hierarchy of responsibility. That hierarchy starts with God. Almighty God has the ultimate authority and the greatest responsibility, overseeing all else. Directly under God’s authority, and next in the hierarchy of responsibility is Jesus Christ, God’s Son. Then, directly under Jesus Christ is the husband. In the marriage and family, the husband carries the next level of authority and responsibility. The wife, is then under the husband’s authority, just as the husband is under Christ’s authority and Christ is under God.

“But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.” 1Corinthians 11:3

Different Lessons to Learn

Many specific responsibilities spring from this hierarchical structure. The Husband must shoulder responsibility for the wife, children and home. He is directly answerable to God for his management and handling of the relationships, standards, training and spiritual blessing of the home. This includes morality, godliness, the fear of God, holiness, discipline, direction, spiritual and natural protection, and more.

The Wife must bring herself under the headship of the husband. This will be hard for her if she looks only at her husband. She must recognise and place her trust in God and Christ, as the husband’s heads. If she fails to do that she will end up taking matters into her own hands, making demands of her husband, manipulating, contending and otherwise failing to submit to his headship.

The husband must be able to nurture his wife and children, while being sure that he is answerable to Jesus and God, not others who will seek to direct his life. He must ensure that he does not abdicate to his wife, and allow her to replace Christ as the head of the home. If he allows her to do that he brings spiritual problems into the whole family.

Marriage University

Both husband and wife are attending the same university of life. They attend classes together, but both must learn different lessons from the life situations which they confront. It is as if they are both sitting side by side in the lecture hall, listening to the lessons. Yet the husband is enrolled in a different course to his wife. He will be set different assignments and tested on different questions to his wife, even from the same professor.

The husband is studying headship of his wife and submission to Christ. The wife is studying submission to her husband and faith in Christ and God.

The Curriculum

The Marriage University is an open book, mastery learning, life-experience oriented environment. The curriculum covers the same scope for all who attend, but the individual differences of each student are taken into account by the teachers. Some will study longer and be challenged with more difficult lab tests. Some will find that the open learning environment continues with extension courses for the rest of their lives.

Honours Courses

Each couple should make it their determination to graduate with Honours. High Distinctions are the best objective for each elective and every test. When a person graduates with that standard they are guaranteed many graces and much blessing from their diligent and faithful application.

The fruit of the course begins to be enjoyed long before graduation. Each lesson learned opens the couple to new joys and new privileges in their relationship. In time they will be expected to tutor other students and may well become emeritus professors themselves, as they make the grade and master the curriculum.

Here’s to Your Studies

I wish you every success in your studies. Please don’t drop out of the course. There’s nowhere to go if you can’t stay in the lessons.

And may the Living Lord God bless your relationship as you study and master the material together.