This sermon is number 11 in a series of 12
As Sparks Flying Upwards - Part 11
"John The Baptist's Suffering Service"
by David Legge | Copyright © 2002 | All Rights Reserved | www.preachtheword.com
I want you to turn with me to Matthew's gospel chapter 11. We're embarking upon our eleventh study tonight in the series 'As Sparks Flying Upward' - looking at characters in the Old Testament and indeed in the New (and we're entering into the New Testament for the first time tonight), characters who are recorded for us in biblical biography as going through very difficult times in their life's experience, and also how God brought them through. Those whom we've looked at so far, we've seen that it wasn't an easy road, and their life was certainly not a bed of roses, even though they were servants of God. God led them in His sovereign purposes through difficult times, and we've seen and travelled with many of them - and we're looking at John the Baptist, specifically 'John the Baptist's Suffering Service'.
Now there are many texts throughout the gospel narratives that we could look at tonight, and we indeed will be flicking through most of them this evening - but we'll take as our main reading Matthew's gospel chapter 11, beginning to read at verse 1. "And it came to pass, when Jesus had made an end of commanding his twelve disciples, he departed thence to teach and to preach in their cities. Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples, And said unto him, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another? Jesus answered and said unto them, Go and show John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me. And as they departed, Jesus began to say unto the multitudes concerning John, What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind? But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings' houses. But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? Yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet. For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if ye will receive it, this is Elijah, which was for to come. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear".
I don't know whether you've ever heard the story about the fellow who, on a Sunday morning, couldn't get out of bed. His mother tried to get him out of bed, but of little avail. She shouted up the stairs: 'Get up!', and he shouted down the stairs: 'No!'. She shouted up the stairs again: 'Get up!', and he shouted down again: 'No!'. Then she shouted again: 'Get up!', and he shouted down: 'Why should I?'. She said: 'Well, first of all your breakfast is ready, secondly you've got to get out to church, and thirdly you're the Pastor!'. Often Christian service and Christian ministry can be as daunting as that, believe it or not. Anyone who is involved in Christian service, not just full-time ministry if you like to call it that, finds it difficult at times serving the Lord, and indeed serving God's people. One thing that has been characteristic of all the character studies that we have done so far - Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, Jonah, Job and so on - is that they went through trials, yes, but they went through trials specifically as the servants of Jehovah. It wasn't just ordinary illness that they went through, it wasn't just sickness or bereavement or trial, but specifically - yes, those things were involved - but they were tried and tested as God's servants. It was primarily due to their faithfulness to God, their obedience to the call of God, and the ministry and service that they were in for God, that they suffered the way they did.
I hope up until now you've seen this pattern right throughout our studies - that we could say tonight, especially looking at the sufferings of John the Baptist, that service for God often brings suffering. Service brings suffering. A quick survey of the characters that we have studied already, and the books that they are found in, will testify to that right away. Job 19:22 says, Job is turning to his accusers that we studied last week, and says: 'Why do ye persecute me as God, and are not satisfied with my flesh?'. In Psalm 119:84, David who we haven't studied in these studies but we could easily do - and the only problem would be picking out one individual Psalm that we could use, because so many of the Psalms are talking about his persecution and his suffering at the hand of his enemies. But taking one, Psalm 119 verse 84: 'How many are the days of thy servant? When wilt thou execute judgment on them that persecute me?'. 'I'm your servant Lord, and when are You going to deal with these people that are causing me so much trial and tribulation?'.
We looked at 'Jeremiah the Dejected', and in chapter 17 of his great book and prophecy, verses 16 to 18, he says: 'As for me, I have not hastened from being a pastor', or a shepherd, 'to follow thee'. 'Lord, I haven't shunned Your call, I've been obedient to be a Pastor and a shepherd of the children of Israel'. He goes on: 'Let them be confounded that persecute me, but let not me be confounded: let them be dismayed, but let not me be dismayed: bring upon them the day of evil, and destroy them with double destruction'. Of course we know, as we have studied the Sermon on the Mount, all too well on these Sunday mornings, that the Lord has told us: 'In the world, ye shall have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world - but don't forget, in the world ye shall have tribulation'. He goes on: 'The servant is not greater than his Lord; and if they have persecuted Me, they will also persecute you'. The great Beatitude that we all know and experience, I hope, is: 'Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake' - He's saying, 'Happy, satisfied, contented and blessed is the man that serves Me, and in serving Me finds persecution and trial'.
So in our studies so far, and even in these few texts that we have quoted from these studies of characters, I hope that you see very clearly that we're finding a principle here. Perhaps the principle could be stated more than simply that when you serve God you will suffer, but I think as we look at John the Baptist tonight we will find that the greater the service, the greater the ministry, the greater the suffering and the greater the trial will be'. Of course, the Suffering Servant that we find specifically in the book of Isaiah is the Servant of Jehovah. The most famous texts are Isaiah 52 and Isaiah 53, where we read of the Lord Jesus Christ prophesied of coming as God's Messiah, as God's Anointed One and Chosen One. He is the categoric, primary, pre-eminent Servant of Jehovah - but what is He called in Isaiah 53? 'A man of sorrows and antiquated with grief'.
Here in the character of John the Baptist we find another man of sorrows, but we can't just go past our Lord too soon because I want you to see that here in our Lord Jesus Christ is this principle: the greater the ministry, the greater the suffering. You have in our Saviour the greatest suffering of all, and can we not say tonight categorically that He as the greatest sufferer of all is the Servant that accomplished the greatest ministry of all? The salvation of His believing blood-bought people. We read exemplified all through the writing to the Hebrews in our New Testament the great ministry of our Saviour, but also mirrored in Hebrews is the great suffering of our Saviour: 'For it became him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings'.
Therefore it is no mean thing that the greatest sufferer of all, the Lord Jesus Christ, said of John the Baptist in Matthew 11 verse 11, and also in Luke 7:28: 'Among those who are born of women there is not a greater prophet the John the Baptist'. So we should not be surprised that in the fact that he is the greatest prophet, we find also in him the character of a great sufferer for God - because he had a great ministry, a great service, a great prophet-hood, he suffered greatly. We shall see above all things, perhaps tonight, that what characterises John the Baptist's ministry is his suffering service. If I can apply it right away at the very beginning of our study tonight, what this really is saying to us, the whole of our message tonight is this: if you as a child of God today in this age want to serve God effectively, want to see results for the glory of God, want to have a significant ministry for God and His testimony - like all the great characters we've studied, and like John the Baptist - you have to be prepared to suffer.
Let's look and learn from the sufferings of this great man tonight. The first thing we see is that a man who suffers for God will need to be sure that he is called of God, for only those who are called of God will sustain the suffering that they undergo in service for God. We find very early in John the Baptist's biography that he had a divine appointment in his ministry. In fact, before he's even born we find that divine appointment in Isaiah chapter 40 verses 3 to 5. If you care to look at it, you don't have to turn to it, I'll read it to you if you wish - Isaiah prophesies: 'The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it'. Malachi, in chapter 3 of his prophecy and verse 1, talks prophetically about John the Baptist as being 'His messenger, preparing the way of the Lord', for the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.
As we go through the early life of John the Baptist we find some remarkable things about him. We find that the gospel biography of Luke tells us that he was filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother's womb. Before he was even born he had that in-filling, that enduement of power from on high in his mother's womb. We find also that his mother subsequently was filled with the Holy Spirit, we find his father was also filled with the Holy Spirit, and in fact was given a gift of the Holy Spirit when he prophesied. We see that John the Baptist had a unique, a tremendous start in life - imagine having that kind of a start! You're filled with the Holy Spirit from your mother's womb, your father and your mother are filled, and your father prophecies at the event of your birth. The fact is, as we begin our study tonight, and we look specifically at the suffering of this servant John the Baptist, we've got to recognise that in many senses John the Baptist is no different to you and to me. Of course he's unique, there's no prophecies about us specifically in the Old Testament, and we are not the forerunner of Messiah; but there's one thing that we can claim tonight, each as a child of God, if we're saved by the grace of God, and that is that all of us have a divine appointment for service. All of us have the call of God.
I know that there are different calls of God, and I don't have time to look into them all tonight. But in this sense of divine appointment upon our lives, we don't need to sit around with an open Bible praying and waiting for God's call, waiting for a strike of lightning from heaven, until we go out - for the Lord Jesus gave us all the great commission: 'Go ye unto all the world and preach the gospel to every creature; baptising in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit'. That is given to us all, that is His divine appointment to all of us.
If you turn to Ephesians 2 and verse 10, we find that Paul says of all of us who believe in Christ: 'We are all his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them'. Now grasp what this means tonight, Paul is saying that before the foundation of the world - we know all about predestination and the foreknowledge of God; that in some mysterious sense God knew, and indeed God ordained that we should at this moment be serving Christ, in Christ, covered in the righteousness of Christ and with the power of Christ - but even way back then, before the foundation of the world, God ordained the specific works that we ought to do for Him. Isn't that marvellous? He has actually ordained and chosen and planned the things that we should do, that we should walk in them. He has prepared our good works for us before the foundation of the world. It's not just a matter of willy-nilly going into the harvest field and doing what we like, and doing what pleases us - but God has a plan for us. What a thought! To think that up in heaven at this very moment the great possibility is that there's a pile of undone works with our name on it, that we have not accomplished because we haven't realised that God has a divine appointment for each of us.
The call of God is not the pastorate, the call of God is not an evangelistic call to go and take missions, or to go onto the mission field as a missionary - it is none of these things in one sense, because all of us have been commissioned to go with the gospel. What a tragedy that heaven has prepared for us many works that we have never executed. The question that I ask right at the outset of our meeting tonight is: are you in the plan? Are you in God's plan for you? Do you recognise God's divine appointment on your life? And what are you doing in that plan? What are you engaged in? How are you executing those works that have been prepared for you before the world began? I happen to believe that on the Judgement Day, when we stand before our Lord Jesus Christ, that we will be judged according to whether we have fulfilled those works.
As we look on further we find that his ordination divinely, and his appointment of God, was not enough just to take on this ministry. If you turn to Luke's gospel chapter 1 for a moment you will see this - it would do you well to read through Luke's gospel chapter 1 to get a more detailed biography of John the Baptist - but we find at the end of all this writing, in verse 80, it says of John that: 'The child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel'. So not only had he a divine appointment in his ministry, but we find secondly that he underwent intense preparation for his ministry. You've got to remember that biblically speaking 30 years has passed from his miraculous birth to the barren womb of Elizabeth. Thirty years have gone by and, if you like, if I can use my sanctified - I hope - imagination, the excitement of all of his birth must have passed, and I'm sure people in the Jewish community had maybe forgotten all about the excitement of this great birth of this prophet. John himself, as an individual, may well have been forgotten - because probably, some scholars believe, from the age of 12 John was in the desert, in the wilderness, living in the caves and the indents of the limestone rocks of the desolate wilderness that geography tells us extends from Mount Hebron to the western shores of the Dead Sea.
There in the wilderness God was preparing His man, and there are you can see his solitary figure - a man who's alone in the desert, wearing strange basic clothing, wearing a leather girdle and camel hair, eating very strange odd food, locusts and wild honey the Bible tells us. In this environment, with strange clothing and with strange food, with strange habits, God is honing and working and moulding His man - God is teaching this young man to bring his whole body, soul, and spirit into complete obedience and lordship to God. Do you see it? It wasn't enough for this young man to be called of God, this young man had to undergo intense preparation for his ministry for God. F.B. Meyer puts it well when he says of this great preparation: 'By use of the scantiest fare and the roughest garb he had brought his body under complete mastery. From nature, from the inspired page, and from the direct fellowship with God he had received revelations that are bestowed on only those who can stand the strain of discipline in the school of solitude and privation'. He was in the school of God.
Paul testifies of that school, of course he went through it himself, but he tells us that every child of God that is truly following Christ will go through that school also - and that it is an essential for the servant of God. First Corinthians 9 verse 27, and I prefer the New American Standard Bible translation of it is this: 'But I buffet, or bruise my body', Paul says, 'to make it my slave, to bring it into discipline; lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified'. It's not just a matter of being called of God, it's a matter of entering wilfully - wilfully by the guidance of God's Holy Spirit - but definitely, and every day of your life, into God's school of solitude and discipline, buffeting your body, beating it into subjection, making it a slave, disciplining it - lest, when you stand to others and tell them what to do, you will become disqualified because you're not doing it yourself.
So we see two things here in the preparation of this young man. Now mark these two things: one, solitude; two, discipline. Solitude and discipline were necessary in the preparation of the greatest prophet that ever lived. Do you know what that simply means in everyman terms? Listen now: you have to get alone with God if you're going to serve God; and not only do you have to get alone with God to serve God, but you need to get your body under the control of God too! Solitude and discipline. Now, needless to say if you've been on the road with God for any length of time, or even have just started, you will know that that is not an easy road. Being alone with God is not easy, and disciplining your body is not easy - the reason being, and I do not tire of saying it in an age of easy-believism, that the Christian road and the Christian life is not easy! And if we make it easy there is something wrong with our gospel! Yes, He said that His yoke was easy and His burden was light, He does say that His commands are not grievous or burdensome - and of course, in comparison with the hardships of the transgressor whose way is hard, this is an easy yoke. In comparison with legalism, the law where men are trying to live holiness and spirituality in the flesh, His yoke is easy and His burden is light, and His commands are not grievous.
We have been given the power of the Holy Spirit, and you and I both know that we couldn't do anything without His power - but still we've got to remember that we have entered, in fact the literal Greek is that we have 'squeezed through the narrow gate, and we are squeezing through the constricted way' - and it's not easy. God takes men into the University of His discipline and His silence. We studied Moses, and you remember Moses was there 40 years, learning in all the wisdom and skill of Egypt. He was a cultured young man, and by forty years of age he had used all the intellectual powers that God had given him and learned as much as he could. He was a great statesman and a great soldier, and he was as fully accomplished as you could expect a young man to be at the age of 40 years of age - but he still had not yet entered into God's school of solitude. For the next 40 years he went through the Midianite desert, and he was there being stripped - not learning, but unlearning; not realising how great he was, but humbling himself before God; not training self, but starving self! When God's work was done, God's man was ready.
Can I ask you tonight: do you want to accomplish something for God? Well, the other question that inevitably will answer that is: how is your time alone with God? How do you spend, or do you spend at all, any time with God? That is what your service, your witness, your ministry, your life will fall on. Imagine if the situation - and it could well come - in Ulster was that we would be sent to prison for our faith. Could we stick it? Being in a prison cell - just you and God alone? What if God called you to the back of beyond as a missionary, and you're there the long nights of the summer and the winter, in the cold and in the heat, with no family, with no friends - and you're just sitting there, you and God, could you stick it? Just yourself and God as company? Listen, don't think I'm advocating some kind of asceticism tonight, that we all go into monasteries and become monks and just pray all day - that's not what I'm talking about. But listen, friends tonight, if you want to do anything for God, you've got to learn to become a man or a woman of prayer - and that can only happen, not at the prayer meeting, but getting alone with God! Do we indulge our bodies so much in luxury and comfort and affluence, that if we were asked to sacrifice something for Christ, or forced to sacrifice something for Christ, would our metabolic system go into absolute chaos and recoil at the thought of losing something we're so used to, and would we break down under it? I put to you that John the Baptist was trained for his later stay in prison in the wilderness, where he ate locusts and wild honey, where he spent time alone with God - he was being prepared for what God has ahead of him, and he didn't pamper himself even though he could. What we learn from John the Baptist is that the training of our body, the training of our soul, and the training of our spirit for service is hard - but it is necessary.
When he had learned these wilderness disciplines, we read in Luke chapter 3 - turn to it - and verses 1 and 2, these words: 'Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene, Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness'. Now there's so much in verses 1 and 2 that you probably don't understand, and you don't know why it all has to be down there. Well, of course the word of God is also an historical record, but you will notice in verse 2 that there are two high priests, and it was against the law of God for there ever to be two high priests. That shows us the state of the nation, religiously and politically, at that time. It shows us that there was a need for a deliverer, and here comes a man, John the Baptist, and he spends 20-odd years in the wilderness. There he is, and he comes forth and God gives him a message - that's what it was all about. That discipline, that intense preparation, that solitude was just for God to give him something to say to a people that were barren and lost - and what do you think it took all that time for God to tell him? One word: 'Repent'.
Remember now that there have been 400 years of darkness between the book of Malachi and the book of Matthew - that inter-testamental period were God never spoke by vision or by a prophet or by a man of God. It was a darkness without a ray of prophetic light. Gallons upon gallons of animal blood had been sacrificed and shed, hundreds of priests had administered their duty, and the nation was lost in ceremony, sacrifice and circumcision. But what an army of priests couldn't do in 400 years, one man sent of God did in six months! Why? Because he was God-fashioned, God-filled, and God-fired! His ministry started with a blaze of popularity and glory, to the people it was reminiscent of the good old days, the great days of the prophets like Elijah and Ezekiel. The jungle drums went around the cities and the towns, and spread the tidings of a new great prophet and preacher that was in the land.
Our first glimpse that we're given of his ministry is John the Baptist standing on the banks of Jordan, and men of every tribe and class and profession gather unto him there, and he preaches to them: 'Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand'. He attracts people like fire attracts moths. I hope you know that you never have to advertise a fire. Old John Wesley said: 'If you're on fire in the pulpit, people will come to watch you burn'. They did exactly that with not only John Wesley, but John the Baptist. We find, if you look at Luke chapter 3 and verse 9, that as he preached this message, a message of judgement, a message of repentance that the axe is laid at the root of the trees. In verse 10 the people asked him, the ordinary people said: 'What'll we do?'. If you go to verse 12 you find that there were tax collectors also, the publicans came to be baptised, and they said after his preaching: 'What'll we do?'. You find in verse 14 that paganistic, polytheistic men that worshipped many gods - Roman gods - the Roman soldiers who had nothing to do with the Jews came down to the Jordan. They must have heard that there was a man on fire for God at the Jordan River, and they came down and they even listened - godless pagans - to this message of God, and they said: 'What'll we do?'. There's the mark of a Spirit-anointed man, for he preaches repentance, and the people repent!
At first people could see that this man was a prophet, for at the time the prophetic office had been obsolete - and he was a real man in the midst of a hypocritical religious society, hypocrisy was the religious norm. But above all this the one thing that commended him to people was the fact that he faced the sin question in his preaching, he didn't dance around sin, but he nailed it! He faced it in Herod, his adultery, his incest, his fornication. He faced the hypocrisy in the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and individually to each society and class he preached the one message: 'Repent! Repent! Repent!'. He had the truth of God, and he simply brought the truth of God to the people and brought them to the knowledge of their need.
He was a man baptised with fire and the Holy Ghost, and he preached that the coming of the kingdom of heaven is at hand - the theocracy promised in the Old Testament. But if you don't accept the kingdom of heaven that is at hand, you must flee from the wrath to come. This was God's message, this was God's man, and they came to him one day and said: 'Who are you? We recognise that there's something special about you, are you Elijah?'. 'No, I'm not Elijah'. 'Are you that prophet?'. 'No, I'm not that prophet, but I am a voice crying in the wilderness'. He was a voice because he was only a voice preaching the word of God, he was not an echo of another man's message from God, he was not a puppet whose strings were being pulled by a denomination or a religious organisation - but he preached the word of God, and he had no fear in him. He preached against the ritualists and the legalists of the Pharisees who followed all of their 600-plus rules added to Genesis to Deuteronomy. He preached against the materialists and the liberalists and the sceptics of the Sadducees, who didn't believe in the supernatural, who didn't believe in eternity, heaven, hell, or the resurrection. He preached to them all no matter who they were! He didn't negotiate with them, he didn't sit down and reason with them! He looked them eye to eye and said: 'O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?'. What a man!
This was a man who had the spiritual discernment to perceive that things were bad, and that things needed to be changed - and there was hope in him. I believe that there in that wilderness, all those years as God was preparing him and honing him, the prayer of Isaiah was burning in his heart: 'Oh that thou wouldest rend the heavens, that thou wouldest come down, that the mountains might flow down at thy presence'. Sure his very dress spoke of the barrenness of the people of Israel and the judgement of God upon them, and God taught him all these things in the wilderness. He came, the Bible says, not as that light, he came as a shining lamp, he came as a witness to that light. John 1 verses 6 to 18 tell us that, but the main point that is given there is that, as he comes with the message of 'Repent', the message of conviction of sin, the message of judgement to come, that he faced ultimate rejection of that ministry.
At first everyone was titillated and tantalised by the new prophet, they'd never seen one for 400 years - but as soon as he pinpointed their sin, told of the judgement of God, and told them to repent, he was rejected. In fact, John 1 tells us that the very crux and central character of his message, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Light of the world, when He came to the Lord's people who He'd created Himself, He came unto a world that He had created and they rejected Him. When He came to the nation who He had called out of the whole world to be a people, and a shining light, unto the whole world - it says that He came unto His own, and His own received Him not. Ultimately every single point of John the Baptist's message was rejected by these people. I say to you tonight that any man whose simple sermon is one word: 'Repent', will be rejected today - and I tell you also that anybody who dares to preach repentance to the children of God will be rejected twofold.
If you think we live in a day of small things, where sinners will not heed the word 'repent' and change their ways, listen my friend, the reason for that is because God's people won't hear the word 'repent' and change their ways. We live in a day when repentance is unheard of, we live in a day where few people are being converted - and as Paris Reidhead said to Leonard Ravenhill on one occasion: "Evangelists say today, 'Come here and say a prayer like this: 'God be merciful to me, a sinner', and this is what you'll get: eternal life, a mansion on the main street of heaven, a free ticket to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, rule over five cities and immunity from judgement - you couldn't get much more for five minutes at an altar, except it's all rubbish - it's not true!". Repentance is still a fundamental of the Gospel, people still need to feel the exceeding sinfulness of sin. Charles Finney, who was used in a great revival in the United States, he would preach 28 nights and never make an altar call, but just preach the law of God and the wrath of God, because people needed to feel their sin! Because if you don't feel your sin, you'll never repent of your sin!
That's why John preached it, before the Light of the world came he had to preach sin and judgement. But a greater tip on preaching from John is not only that, but he eclipsed himself from his ministry. I'm sure that as we look at this man John, we're all saying: 'Well, I would love to be like him. I would love to have a ministry like him' - we all desire an effective ministry just like John's. But I feel that one of the greatest attributes about this man is that he was willing to let one of the most successful things in his life - in fact the most successful ministry, perhaps, of all time - to be taken over by the Lord. That strikes me as absolutely astounding, that he allowed his ministry that was blossoming an absolute fire across Palestine at that moment, he allowed it to dwindle, and he allowed himself to be eclipsed from his own ministry. That might seem a silly question for me to ask tonight, that a Christian minister or preacher or pastor would not let his service be taken over by the Lord - but believe you me, take it from the horse's mouth, it's a hard thing to let anybody eclipse your ministry. Sometimes us men can't even let the Lord do it.
He is the greatest prophet, and what is he doing? He's pointing to Christ, and I'll tell you: that's why he's the greatest prophet, he's pointing to Him, and he was allowing Christ to eclipse himself. In John chapter 1 and verse 29 we hear that wonderful cry: 'I must decrease, but He must increase!'. Some of the Jews came to him, and said: 'You know, your crowd's dwindling, and this other Man is taking away your disciples. They're all following Him!'. Basically John's answer was: 'That's my message! That's the whole point of why I'm preaching: to eclipse myself, and to reveal Christ'. Imagine being called and being equipped, and knowing that your ministry would last only six months, and you would go from converting multitudes to absolutely no-one - and you would end up in exile, and eventually in prison. One of the hardest things for preachers and Christians today is to get out of the way, and let the Light of the world shine forth and be seen alone.
Yet, although he was the greatest servant ever perhaps, although he was a great preacher, and although he allowed himself to be eclipsed by the Son of God, he was not exempt from doubts and problems in his ministry - even about the central character of his ministry, the Lord Jesus Christ. We see that he experienced doubts in his ministry. Now remember this, this is a man who saw the Holy Spirit as a dove descend from heaven, he saw the heavens cleft and God's own voice speak: 'This is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased'. Yet from prison, in our reading tonight from Matthew chapter 11, we read that he sends his own disciples to the Lord Jesus and asks Him the question: 'Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?'. Now listen, I believe this was a genuine doubt of John Baptist, and I analysed this when we looked at Elijah. Elijah was his forefather, and John the Baptist comes as the anti-type, if you like, of Elijah - and you know that there Elijah sat underneath a juniper tree, despondent and depressed, and I think that that's why we find John the Baptist doing the same thing. A genuine doubt - he may have been the greatest of men, but he was a man at best we need to remember, a man of like passions such as we are.
There in the prison of his depression, in his disappointment; all his human expectations, perhaps, that Christ would come and bring the kingdom and avenge the nation there and then in physical form - he doubts Christ! The Lord's reply to him, if you look at chapter 11 of Matthew and verses 4 to 6 is: 'Go and show John again those things which ye do hear and see'. And they departed, and the Lord said in verse 11 - notice that He said after the disciples of John departed - He let His heart outpour in admiration of this greatest prophet of all, and He said that he was the greatest prophet born of women - but blessed is he who is not offended in Me!
I'm sure there is not one here that has never doubted, there's not one here who hasn't stumbled at the way God's plans in your life seem to have taken. You've questioned His leadings and His dealings in your life, and there are times when our lives are filled with mystery, and we may think and feel that the Lord has let us down, or that He hasn't worked things out the way that He should have. Especially those, at times, who serve God are wrecked with doubt. They feel like the three Hebrew children in the fiery furnace, and the fire has been heated seven times over again and again - and in days of weariness and nights of sorrow and anguish we feel that God has forgotten us, God has hidden His face away from us. At times the hand of man is against us, and at times we even doubt whether or not the hand of God Himself is against us. Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has He shut up His mercy, and is He angry? We feel like Job's wife: why don't we just get it all over with, and curse God? It would be easier than this - but the Lord says, listen: 'Blessed is he who is not offended, who does not stumble at me or the way that I lead'.
Well, John Baptist did die, but he didn't die through cursing God, he died as a martyr for God. We find, sixthly, that he paid the highest price for his ministry - and who of us, I ask you tonight, could or would do this? How many unknown souls in our world even today have paid the ultimate price for service? I know we have our problems in Ulster, and even in the church, but I doubt that none of us have ever run the gauntlet for our life every day because we kneel in prayer, because we read the Bible, because we name the name of Christ and sing His hymns. How would we fare? What would we do if we stood before the executioner's rifle, or we were led to the electric chair for our faith? The day may come, sooner or later, when it will happen - but the point is this: like John the Baptist, listen, when you've given everything up for Christ on earth, all your privileges, all your comforts, all your rights, you've nothing to lose in death! Death is a sweet release - how many of us think of death like that? John was set at liberty.
I read a story recently, you may have heard on news bulletins in recent years about Rwanda that has been filled with civil war between the Hutus and the Tutsis. The conflict has been going on for many years, it's not just a recent thing - and in the 1970s many Hutu Christians went to their death expressing peace and asking forgiveness for their executioners. One man called Abel Beniona (sp?), the principal of a Quaker mission school, and also a lay-leader of a local church, stood before his executioners. Before the missionary friends left Burundi he wrote this letter to them, a farewell and thanks and appreciation: 'We have nothing that we could return to you for all that you have done to help us, but we know well that our Lord, who is also your Lord Jesus, will not fail to repay you abundantly over and above what you have done for us'. Well, Abel Beniona one day, 1972, was martyred. A Christian soldier reported the details of his death. He says that after he stood up to be shot he asked if he could sing, permission was granted. He sang one verse:
'Out of my bondage, sorrow and night,
Jesus I come, Jesus I come.
Into Thy freedom, gladness and light,
Jesus I come to Thee'.
The firing squad hesitated for a while, absolutely astounded, and then they fired. Paul said, did he not: 'For me to live is Christ, to die is gain'? Did he not say: 'For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us'. What kept John going, what kept all of these suffering saints going was that when the axe was falling down upon their heads, they kept the faith! Like John, all of them received divine commendation for their ministry - none greater than John the Baptist. Even in his moment of failure, in his moment of doubt in prison, the Lord Jesus waited till those disciples of John had gone, and He said to the multitude: 'There's no greater than John the Baptist'. One writer has said well: 'Heaven judges not by passing mood, but by the general tenor and trend of a man's life; not by the expressions of a doubt, but by the soul of a man within him which is much deeper than emotion'.
John did no miracle, but John throughout his life trod faithfully the path of God had chosen and ordained for him, and God commended him in the end! What more could we ask? I ask you, as we conclude tonight, in a day of small things are you discouraged in your service for the Lord? Are you downhearted? Can I ask you and exhort you: lift up your head! You may face ultimate rejection of your ministry, you may even experience doubts, you may be asked to pay a very high price - maybe even some day the highest price - but rejoice! You have divine appointment, God has called you, and if you eclipse yourself in the Light of the world, the glory of Christ, do you know what the word of God says? Do you know what Christ says? You will have a ministry and a blessing that is even greater than John's! Look at verse 11: 'Notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John'.
The kingdom that John preached, the kingdom that he ushered in, he never was part of it. John could never preach the cross of Christ and the glorious resurrection and ascension, and the mediatorial ministry that He has now, but we can - and we can be greater even than John! But here is the challenge tonight: if we are to be greater than John in our ministry, how great ought our suffering to be?
Our Father, we thank Thee this evening for the character that we know in scripture as the friend of the Bridegroom, the one who find it all his joy to present Christ to the world: 'Behold, the Lamb of God', he cried, 'that taketh away the sin of the world'. But what a ministry, Father, one that started out in a blaze of glory and ended when he lost his head for Christ. But what a lesson there is in it for us, our Father, that we must decrease - all of us - and Christ must increase. We pray that that will be our testimony and motto here in the Iron Hall, individually and corporately, that we may glorify God in our ministry and in our suffering, that Christ may eclipse us and this world may see the Light. Amen.
Preach The Word
This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Assembly in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the eleventh tape in his 'As Sparks Flying Upwards' series, titled "John The Baptist's Suffering Service" - Transcribed by Andrew Watkins, Preach The Word.
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