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Pastor Scott L. Harris
July 18, 1993
What makes a person truly great? Our society seems to have laid aside the old virtues and now judges greatness by fame, prestige, power, and wealth. Think for a moment about those that are presented before us as the great people of our time – Madonna, Michael Jackson, Magic Johnson, Donald Trump, Ted Turner, Dan Rather, President and Mrs. Clinton, and various TV and Movie stars. These are people thought to be great by many because they have fame, prestige, power or wealth. Is the ability to impersonate someone else in front of a camera a basis for greatness? Is a person’s skill at amassing money a grounds for greatness? Is it one’s vocal quality and ability to entertain and amuse that makes a person great? What about being at the center of power, whether that be in a business or in politics? Is a person great because they achieve a position of power?
Popular acclaim certainly is not a test for greatness, for it is as William Hazlitt said, the true test of greatness is the page of history. Fame comes and goes very quickly and a person famous in one generation is unknown in the next. Money is not a good text either for not only does it come and go quickly, but history reveals that most of the great men were poor, not wealthy. Special abilities may give a person a day in the sun of popular acclaim and a sense of greatness in that specialized field, but just because a person is a great basketball player, actor, actress, singer, politician, or whatever else does not mean that the person is great.
Daniel Webster understood the true foundation for greatness when he said, A solemn and religious regard to spiritual and eternal things is an indispensable element of all true greatness. Men may claim themselves to be great, as did Mohammed Ali, and people may say that someone else is great, but the only real judge for greatness is God Himself. This morning we are going to examine the life of a man whom God said was great and seek to learn from what elements need to be in our lives. Turn to Matthew 11.
Last week we examined the difficult situation that John the Baptist found himself in, the doubts that were beginning to rise in his mind, and how he overcame those doubts. John was in jail because he had rebuked King Herod for his incestuous relationship with his sister-in-law Herodias. John had been in jail for sometime and was becoming confused about the identity of Jesus. If Jesus was the Messiah, and the Messiah was to come as the conquering king who would judge the wicked, then why was he, a righteous man and the servant of the Lord being held in jail by a wicked man? John sent two of his disciples to Jesus to ask Him directly if He was the Expected One. Was Jesus the Messiah that John had been proclaiming Him to be, or was John mistaken and he should look for someone else?
John had doubt rising and he dealt with it the proper way. he went to the source of truth to get his questions answered. John sent for an answer from Jesus and John received assurance that Jesus was the Messiah for He was doing the work of the Messiah. John did not understand how everything fit together, but it was enough for him to have that truth confirmed. (See: Overcoming Doubt).
In our study this morning we find that Jesus is now giving confirmation of the character of John. Look at Matthew 11:7, And as these were going away (John’s disciples with Jesus’ answer to John’s question) Jesus began to speak to the multitudes about John. ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind?’
John at one time had gained popular acclaim as a prophet. Back in Matthew 3:5 we are told that Jerusalem was going out to him and all Judea, and all the district around the Jordan. Though Herod had long been prodded by Herodias to have John killed, Herod was hesitant because he feared the multitude, because they regarded him (John) as a prophet (Matthew 14:5). But something has gone awry. John had been preaching that the Kingdom of heaven was at hand, and if that was true, then why was he in jail at the hands of this puppet king? People had begun to question John and his message. In addition, now we find that two of John’s disciples come to Jesus publicly and ask on John’s behalf if Jesus was really the Messiah. John was having doubts! What sort of prophet was this? Yet it is those very doubts that tell us of the first characteristic of his greatness.
A Truth Seeker
John was not concerned what people thought of him. John could have kept his image by keeping his doubts to himself, but he was more concerned about what God wanted than his image, and in order to do what God wanted he had to know and do what was true. How different that is from leaders of our time whose definition of a leader is find out where the people are going and get out in front of them. Too many of our politicians deserve the disdain they receive. Current surveys show that people trust the congress only slightly more than a used car salesman, and a major reason for that ridicule that those are supposed to be our leaders try to lead by watching the public opinion polls. Henry Luce said, The most dangerous fault in American life today is the lack of interest in the truth and that is because, as W. F. Lown put it, Modern man’s pattern for determining what is true goes something like this, ‘How do you feel about it.’ Leaders who are worth following care more about where they are leading than about how those that are following them feel about them. Great leaders march under the banner that says, Truth before friendship; truth before unity; truth before success.
If you want to be great, then you need to be a truth seeker. John was that though it made some people think that he was unsteady and vacillating. Jesus questioned the multitudes in verse 7, What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? The answer was no. Jesus assures the multitudes that to form a true opinion of a person you have to look at their entire life, past and present. John was no reed shaken by the wind. He was not a person bending before the pressures put against him. Jesus reminded them that they went out to see a man of strong conviction, and that is the second characteristic of John that made him great.
We live in a day and age, when those who have and hold to strong moral convictions are called ignorant, prejudice, narrow minded, bigoted. Now to be sure, strong convictions that are not based on the truth can be and often are all those things, but John was a truth seeker and his strong convictions were all based on truth. He was currently in jail because of his strong conviction, based on the Word of God, that Herod’s relationship with Herodias was incestuous and contrary to God’s will.
John had demonstrated throughout his public ministry these same strong convictions based on God’s word. John could have easily played the crowds and gained the favor of everyone including the Scribes and Pharisees if he would have compromised his message here and there. We certainly have enough preachers in our time that have given themselves over to tickling the ears of people in order to gain a large audience. John spoke the truth with conviction. He called the people to repent and bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance. He rebuked the Scribes and Pharisees for their religious hypocrisy and called on them to repent as well. (See: The Herald’s Message). That was not the way to win friends and influence people according to modern thought, but it was what God demanded of him and it is what He demands of us. Those who are great have strong convictions based on truth. That may not make us popular, but we are not here to be popular. We are here to live by and proclaim the truth. All truth is God’s, but only the free mind sees it, only the honest mind reverences it, and only the courageous mind holds it firmly and follows it fearlessly. That is what strong conviction is all about. Are we narrow-minded for proclaiming salvation in Jesus Christ alone? For preaching that repentance from sin, i.e. recognizing it, turning from it, asking forgiveness for it, is part of salvation? For telling the world that abortion is murder? that sex outside of marriage is immoral? and that homosexuality is an abomination? Maybe that is narrow-minded, but the truth is always narrow while broad-minded errors, actually lies, go off in every direction.
Greatness demands strong convictions.
John was a man of truth and strong conviction, but another mark of his greatness was that he was a humble man. That is a natural outgrowth of seeking the truth. When you genuinely seek the truth, you see your own weakness, failings, and position. John understood his weakness, that is why he sent his disciples to Jesus so that his doubts could be alleviated. John also understood his position and that he must decrease and Jesus must increase (John 3:30). He saw himself as unworthy to even untie Jesus’ sandals (Matthew 3:11). Pride is a curse against true greatness. John was humble and gained greatness.
Matthew 11:8 tells us of the next characteristic that made John great. But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in king’s palaces.
I like what John MacArthur said about this, Great generals put their lives on the line with their troops. Great athletes train their bodies mercilessly, denying themselves pleasures most people take for granted. Great scientists often risk their health to make an important discovery. Great inventors sacrifice social life in order to develop and perfect an invention. Great medical researchers risk exposure to deadly disease in order to save thousands of lives. The easy way is never the way of success.
The man who dressed in soft clothing was the self- indulgent man, those desiring the easy road and the good life. The reference to the king’s palace here is not just because those in the king’s palace were able to enjoy his luxuries, it is a reference to those Scribes who gave up their rather drab garments and put on those of the king’s court in order to seek the king’s favor. This practice diminished the criticism of the king’s exploitation of the people because it is hard to point a finger at the king’s life style when you are living the same way.
John the Baptist willingly sacrificed and denied himself in order to set himself apart, both physically and symbolically, from the corrupt religious and political system of his day. He is one of only three people recorded in scripture that lived their entire lives as a Nazirite. Samson and Samuel are the other two. They willingly and purposefully denied themselves certain things as an act of devotion to God and as a symbol that their ministry was to supersede any personal interests and comforts. Among other things, John lived in the wilderness, ate locusts and honey for his meals, and wore rough clothing made of camel’s hair. John in no way thought this self-denial had any meritorious blessing in itself, as have ascetics throughout history who not only deny themselves the comforts of life, but even do strange things such as never bathing, sleeping only in chairs, living on starvation diets, living on top of pillars, crawling instead of walking, etc., etc. all in an effort to try and gain favor with God. John’s self- denial was for the sake of his ministry and aiding his own physical and spiritual discipline. He knew nothing of the misguided piety of the ascetics.
A person who will be great will deny himself in order to be more effective in what God calls him to do. They are not ruled by the appetites of their bodies, the desires of their eyes, or the cravings of their egos. They have their priorities straight and practice self-discipline.
Matthew 11:9-11 tells the next element that made John the Baptist great. John the Baptist was called to serve God. But why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I say to you, and one who is more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘Behold, I sent My messenger before Your face, Who will prepare Your way before You.’ Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
Jesus reminds the multitudes that they went out to see a prophet, yet a man that was more than a prophet. They went out to see a man that was himself the fulfillment of prophecy. In verse 10, Jesus quotes from Malachi 3:1 which foretells that prior to the coming of the Messiah that a forerunner would prepare the way by proclaiming to the people that the Messiah, the expected one would soon be present. This messenger would not only announce the wonderful news that the Messiah was near, but he would also give warning to the people that they needed to be prepared for Him. That is exactly what John the Baptist did proclaiming, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
John had been given the unique privilege of being Jesus’ personal herald. John had been called by God for a particular ministry. That was the prophecy concerning him given to his father Zacharias in Luke 1:15-17, For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and he will drink no wine or liquor; and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, while yet in his mother’s womb. And he will turn back many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God. And it is he who will go as a forerunner before Him [Messiah] in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous; so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
Jesus’ commendation of John in Matthew 11:11 is that no one born of a woman, an ancient expression that simply meant a human, no one else as far as mankind was concerned had been greater than John. That is a very strong statement of praise. No one prior to John had been greater including Abraham, Moses, Samuel, and David who were the great ones of Israel.
Now you say to me, well that is wonderful, I am happy for John, but what does that have to do with me. I could not be great if it means matching John the Baptist. His call was unique for a unique time, of course he was great. But I’m just an ordinary person. There is nothing great about me. John’s greatness is related to his calling from God and Jesus tells us here that the same is true for us. Notice the last phrase of verse 11, yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
John was certainly a spiritual giant among men and he was great in his role in human history, but as far as his spiritual inheritance, every person who is a true believer in Jesus Christ, a person who has placed their faith and trust in Jesus alone for salvation from sin, and is therefore part of the kingdom of God, is greater than John. John’s calling was great, but in a real sense our calling is greater for we are to proclaim not the coming of Messiah, but that Messiah has come, what Jesus did, and that He will return for us.
John was great because of his calling, but God has a calling for each believer. Every true Christian is called of God to serve Him in some unique way in the body of Christ. Romans 12, Ephesians 4, 1 Corinthians 12 all speak of the body of Christ and how God equips His people with spiritual gifts to serve Him and make the body complete. If you have a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, then you have a calling from God to serve Him. The potential is there for you to be great if you fulfill your calling. In Matthew 11:12-15 we find that John was faithful to his calling which is another reason he was great.
And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence and violent men take it by force. For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you care to accept it, he himself is Elijah, who was to come. He who has ears to hear let him hear. John was called to be the forerunner of Messiah. Here we find Jesus’ commendation of him because he was faithful to fulfill his calling.
Matthew 11:12 is often confusing to us, but that is mostly because of our English translations. The King James Version translates it the same way as the New American Standard which makes it sound like the kingdom of heaven is being violated by violent men. There are two difficulties in translating this verse. One is that the word translated as violent in the King James Version and the New American Standard can also be translated as forceful or vigorous depending on the context. The second difficulty is that the verb here can be translated as a passive, as it is in the King James Version and the New American Standard, or as a middle tense which changes the meaning. This is the better translation as done by Hendrikson, Ridderbos, Lenski and the New International Version which reads, From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it, – or as by Hendrikson, From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom is pressing forward vigorously, and vigorous men are eagerly taking possession of it.
That translation fits the context. From the time John began proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven was at hand, that kingdom had been expanding vigorously as the people recognized their sins and repented of them. That was something only those who had courage, fortitude, and determination could do for repentance is the more difficult road for the human spirit. It is much easier for us to find some sort of excuse to try and justify our sins than acknowledge them, ask for forgiveness, and strive against them. Yet, as we saw in the Beatitudes, it is only those willing to come according to the Lord’s plan that enter the kingdom. It those who are poor in spirit, mourning over their sin, meek, hungering and thirsting after righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, and true peacemakers that are part of God’s kingdom. All of that is done in the power of the Holy Spirit as the person yields themselves to Him.
The prophets and the Law prophesied of the coming of the Messiah, but John proclaimed His arrival, and with John’s announcement the kingdom moved forward even though the circumstances in both the political and religious communities were against it.
John was faithful to his calling. He was sent to be the forerunner of the Messiah and he fulfilled God’s will for his life. Jesus says in Matthew 11:14 that If you care to accept it, he himself is Elijah, who was to come. Jesus is telling the people that if they will accept John’s message, then they understand that Jesus is the Messiah and that John was indeed the fulfillment of Malachi 4:5, 6 that said that Elijah would precede the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD. John was not a resurrected or returned Elijah, for John himself said he was not the prophet Elijah (John 1:21), and he certainly was not a reincarnated Elijah (reincarnation is one of the lies in eastern mysticism and promoted in our country through the New Age movement). John was according the prophecy made in Luke 1:17 about him. He was the forerunner of Messiah who comes in the spirit and power of Elijah. Those who accepted John in that capacity accepted his message and Jesus. Those who rejected John rejected his message and Jesus as the Messiah.
Jesus’ call in Matthew 11:15 was for the people to make their decision, He who has ears to hear, let him hear. Jesus is saying, I have told you the truth. This is who John is. His message is true. I am the Messiah, now you must make your decision.
And that is where we are left. What is your decision? Are you still hesitating about Jesus Christ? John the Baptist had doubts, but he sought out the truth and was reassured that Jesus is the Messiah. The same assurance can be yours. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
Jesus said that there were none greater than John the Baptist. The reason? He was a truth seeker. He had strong convictions based on the truth. He was humble. He was self-disciplined to deny himself in order to serve the Lord. He was called of God for a particular service and he was faithful to that call. If you want to be great, truly great in the estimation of the only one that really counts, God, then those are the characteristics you need to demonstrate. Are you a truth seeker? Are your convictions based on the truth? Are you humble? Are you self-disciplined? Are you faithful to the call that God has made upon you to serve Him within the body of Christ?
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