A sermon by Dr Donald T. Williams - donaldtwilliams.com
Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 09/25/94
Last week we left John the Baptist languishing in prison, hearing exciting things about Jesus' ministry, maybe feeling a bit left out, and not hearing the things he thought he should have been hearing. We left him thinking, "O. K., this is great, but where is the Kingdom? Let's get organized, let's get moving! Rome is still in control!" And therefore he had sent his disciples to ask the Lord, "Are you the One who is coming, or do we look for another?" We saw the way John's question flowed from his preconceived notions. In that we saw the problem and the power of preconceived notions. And in Jesus' answer to John's question we saw a prescription for preconceived notions: to go back to the facts ("Tell John what you see and hear") and to go back to your relationship with Christ ("Blessed is the one who does not stumble over me"). Now John's disciples have been dispatched to bring Jesus' answer back to him, but we do not have long to wonder how he is going to respond to it. For as John's disciples leave, Jesus turns to the crowd, to the people who have been overhearing this little exchange. And he has something to say to them--and therefore to us.I. JESUS' CONCERN
In the midst of what must have been a rather tense (and disappointing) encounter, Jesus shows a touching concern for his cousin's reputation. John had been out of line, and Jesus' answer to his disciples necessarily contained what could only be heard as a rebuke: "Blessed is the one who does not stumble over me," which of course implied that John was in danger of stumbling. It also sounds very much like Jesus telling John to remember his place. Well, the people had unavoidable overheard this conversation, even though it should have been conducted privately. But so what? John had asked for it, hadn't he? Besides, he was being phased out anyway. His ministry was basically over, so what difference did it make? Well, it made a lot of difference to our Lord. The crowd had overheard a message intended for John's ears only, and one that did not exactly put him in a complimentary light. So Jesus moves quickly to put this situation right, to make sure that they do not misunderstand or leave with a lower estimation of John's character or his importance.
There is surely a lesson for us in our Lord's example here. John had just gone from being the most exciting and popular religious figure of his day to being a prisoner, on the sidelines and eclipsed by the rising popularity of Christ himself. John's star was on the wane, his life at risk, and it was dangerous now to be known as his friend. When he had said in one of his better and more theologically profound moments that "He must increase, and I must decrease," I doubt that this was what he had in mind! But despite the potential political ramifications, the Lord serves notice that there is one friend who is not going to desert John, even at this moment when he least deserves that loyalty--for John's own loyalty to Christ had been wavering. Does the Lord's response here not bring your heart up into your throat? For he is our Lord too! As Paul put it to Timothy, even "If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself" (2 Tim. 2:13). Oh, let us trust in Him and let us follow Him! For he said, "You are my friends if you do whatever I command you." The favor of the crowd is fickle; but the friendship of Christ is forever!
There is here perhaps a faint echo of Jesus' word in the Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are you when men say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake." Why blessed? Because that's how their fathers treated the prophets. But also because whatever men may say about us can be weighed against the Lord's word, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant!" And, put into that balance, the words of men fall to the ground as less than empty air. Look what he says about John even when John had not been exactly faithful! But, John's doubts aside--they had earned him a rebuke that should have been private--look what Jesus said about John publicly. How would you respond to an earthly boss who went out of his way to affirm you publicly when people thought they had a reason to doubt where you stood? Would this win your gratitude? Inspire your loyalty? Motivate you to service that would make his good words about you true? You know it would. And this is our Lord! The favor of the crowd is fickle; but the friendship of Christ is forever.
Satan understands how much our reputations matter to us. He twists that good and honorable motive into one of his chief ploys. If you do this--or do not do that--you are a sissy, a wimp. When Satan says such things to you, remember Jesus' turning to the crowd to speak about John at this moment. For then you may know that Christ says to you also, "I understand. I care. Do not faint, because I know differently. And the day is coming when you will be vindicated by me before the whole universe." At the day of judgment when all the nations are gathered--including the ones who called you names--when Jesus is revealed as the king of kings and lord of lords and every knee is bowed, he will put his arm around your shoulder and say in front of them all, "This is my good and faithful servant __________. I am pleased with him! John the Baptist was great, the greatest prophet who ever lived. But in the gracious accounting of the Kingdom, this servant of mine is greater than that!" Ah, my friends, do not live for the fickle praises of men. Live for that day! For the favor of the crowd is fickle; but the friendship of Christ is forever.II. JOHN'S CHARACTER
As we try to understand fully what Jesus said about John here, I want you to appreciate our Master's consummate skill with words in this speech. You must picture this as an interactive exchange. It was probably a lot like the "call-and-response" style of black preaching. Jesus begins where the people are and uses rhetorical questions to get them with him, and then suddenly takes them to a surprising and paradoxical place they had not expected to go. "What did y'all go out into the wilderness to see?" he asks them. "A reed shaken by the wind?" Well, that is just about the silliest description of John the Baptist you can imagine. That scruffy-looking, leather-wearing, locust-eating, desert-living, sin-denouncing, repentance-calling prophet, who challenged Herod's illegal marriage and was so politically incorrect that he got himself arrested and thrown into prison? Yeah, right! You have to imagine the crowd laughing and responding, "No way!" Just as Jesus wanted them too. "Well, what did you go to see? A man dressed in soft clothing?" More laughter; more raucous denials. The very idea! "People who dress like that are in the king's palace!" And now the heads are nodding in the affirmative. Jesus has these people in the palm of his hand. "O.K., what did you go out to see? A Prophet?" "That's right! Yes, sir! Amen! Preach it, brother!" And so now comes the perfect time to hit them with the punch line. Oh, yes, he was a prophet, all right, but not just any prophet. He was the voice crying in the wilderness, "Prepare ye the way of the Lord!" He was the greatest prophet who ever lived. And you know what? The very least member of the Kingdom of God is greater than that!
I guess if you want people to swallow a paradox like that, you had better build them up to it! You and I are greater than John? Everyone in the Kingdom is greater than he was? Does that mean he is not in the Kingdom? No, that is the wrong question to ask; it misses the point entirely. John himself, as a member of the Kingdom, is a greater thing than John considered as the greatest prophet who ever lived. Two kinds of greatness are in view here, and John had both. In the first sense, he was great because he had a very important job to do and he did it supremely well, achieving fame even in the eyes of men thereby. This is greatness of accomplishment, and by that standard there is no prophet, indeed no person, who has ever risen higher. But the greatness conveyed by Grace is infinitely higher than that. By the gracious accounting of the Kingdom, the very least person who knows Christ as his savior has a higher status than that of prophet, even the greatest prophet. We are children of God! Friends of Christ! Joint-heirs with Christ! In the person of Christ, our Head, we sit at the right hand of the Throne on high! By his Grace, and by his Grace alone, we (and John) will be enabled to hear him say without untruth, "This is my good and faithful servant, in whom I am well pleased." He will share his glory with us. "I say to you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he."III. A GENERATION AT THE CROSSROADS (vs.. 29-35)
By this time, everyone has forgotten all about the fact that John was rebuked, just as Jesus intended. And those whose hearts were enlightened by the Spirit could contemplate the potential meaning of God's grace for their own lives. This of course presents you with a choice; it places you at a spiritual crossroads--as Jesus also intended. You have two and only two options: you can "justify" God, or you can attempt to "justify" yourself. "Justify" is the same word we use in soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. Its noun form is "justification." It means "to declare righteous." So we can declare that God is righteous and accept his purpose for us, the blessing of the "greatness" of the Kingdom that comes only by grace, unmerited favor. Or we can try to justify ourselves like the Pharisees did. If we insist on that, we refuse God's purpose for us, but we do not escape his righteousness, which now has no choice but to condemn us.
The only reason for justifying oneself and rejecting God's gracious purpose for us could be a most appalling perverseness of heart--unfortunately one typical of fallen human beings. That is the point of the children calling out: their friends illustrate the attitude required in those who justify themselves. The children's friends are very hard to please! We played the flutes and you wouldn't dance; we sang a dirge and you wouldn't mourn. What do you want? John was ascetic and you said he had a demon; Jesus ate and drank and you accused him of gluttony and drunkenness. What do you want? If you will not be pleased, then you must remain unblessed. In this case, to remain unblessed is to remain in the curse of your sins. What other alternative is there?
I'm afraid we meet an awful lot of this attitude still, and it shows up very often in relation to the Church. If the people aren't too friendly and hence "pushy," they're too stand-offish; the preaching is either too shallow or too deep; the service is too formal or too informal; the congregation is too big or too small; etc, etc., etc. Do we realize what a spiritually dangerous condition this attitude is? We see it in the world of course, but we also see it in people who are saved, or who think they are. We must understand how closely allied this attitude is to the one that causes us to reject God's purpose for ourselves. For even if we are saved yet so as by fire, this attitude cannot help but deprive us of the full experience of the blessings of the Kingdom. In its fullness, it will deprive us of them altogether.
The bottom line is that "wisdom is vindicated by all her children." The "children" of wisdom would be the deeds, the responses, the lives that she gives birth to. The modern equivalent to this proverb would be something like, "The proof is in the pudding." Which is the right choice? Well, just look at the joy of those who justify God and have received the blessings of God's grace that elevate them to a position of favor with the Father that John as a prophet could never have reached. And compare it with the self-involvement and the performance-driven bondage of those who try to justify themselves. The proof is in the pudding. Wisdom is vindicated by all her children.CONCLUSION
Jesus has brought us to a spiritual crossroads. One path justifies God, the other ourselves. He has given us every reason to follow him down the Calvary Road. He has shown us how he treats his friends. The favor of the crowd is fickle; but the friendship of Christ is forever. He has shown us the greatness that awaits the small and the humble in his Kingdom, with its accounting of grace. "I say to you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he." He has analyzed profoundly the self-involved and self-refuting and self-defeating attitude that leads us to reject his gracious offer. " And they say, 'We played the flute for you and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not weep.'" And now we must choose. Wisdom is vindicated by all her children. Choose wisely.
Here endeth the lesson. Dr. Donald T. Williams