The Preacher: John the Baptist
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The Preacher: John the Baptist

Luke 3:1–9  (ID: 2154)

While John the Baptist was not a refined or distinguished preacher, Scripture tells us that he had received the word of the Lord. His character and preaching were marked by integrity and humility: He pointed people away from himself and toward Christ. As Alistair Begg explains, this is what made him so significant in preparing the way for Jesus. Like John, those who preach the Gospel on a regular basis must remember that they too are only servants through whom God brings people to belief.

Series Containing This Sermon

The Pastor’s Study, Volume 2

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 23002

Sermon Transcript: Print

Our gracious God and Father, it is to you we look now for strength and for wisdom, for grace and for insight. We recognize that it is an awesome thing to take your Word in our hands and upon our lips. And we pray that you will introduce us afresh to your Son and to the wonder of your Word, not only in this time but throughout our conversations together and in the hours that you will bless to us as a result of having convened in this way. We give into your care the burdens of our lives, the things that press for our attention—necessary things, understandable things—and we take you at your Word, believing that you will sustain us. Be, then, with those we’ve left behind. In whatever circumstances they find themselves in, grant to them grace, mercy, and peace. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen. Amen.

I invite you to turn with me to the third chapter of the Gospel of Luke. Since much of what we’ll do through these days has to do with discussion and talking—not quite giving lectures, but certainly not preaching on each occasion—I certainly wouldn’t want the standards of expository preaching that we will seek to discover and then hold up applied to the things that I’m trying to do, because half the time we won’t actually be endeavoring to expound the Scriptures together. But lest we fail to do that, I thought it would be important for us both to begin and end in that way. And so, what I’d like to do is to read in your hearing and then trace a line through these opening verses of Luke chapter 3:

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene—during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the … words of Isaiah the prophet: ‘A voice of one calling in the desert, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all mankind will see God’s salvation.”’

“John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers!’” (Incidentally, not necessarily a pattern for the introduction of expository preaching. And most of the time when we feel like beginning that way, we probably shouldn’t, okay?) “‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.’”

Well, we’ll leave it there.

The wonderful thing about speaking to a group such as this is that you can assume so much knowledge, that you know all of the background to everything. And that gives me a great out when you say, “Well, he didn’t really do much on the background at all.” You say, “Well, that was because he assumed that you knew it all.”

John the Baptist’s Background

First of all, we know that this man John the Baptist is a remarkable individual. His birth was remarkable. The whole event was marked by drama. Back in 1:57, when the time was there “for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son,” and “her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy.” And then, all of a sudden it hits a whole new level when in the naming of the child we go into a quite dramatic time. And the birth of John the Baptist is marked by drama; the people are saying, “What then is this child going to be?”[1] Now, there’s a sense in which that always happens at the birth of a child. Aunties and grandmothers come around and hold them in their arms and say, “Oh my, my, isn’t this a lovely baby. I wonder what he’s going to be?” But there was about the arrival of John the Baptist so much that made this question even more striking. And by the time you get to the sixty-sixth verse of that same chapter, we read that “the Lord’s hand was with him.” “‘What then is this child going to be?’ For the Lord’s hand was with him.”

By the time we see him in his grown-up years, he has developed a lifestyle which is equally remarkable. The eightieth verse of chapter 1 tells us that he has chosen an interesting place to live; he’s determined that he’s going to live in the desert. He had a peculiar dress sense as well—certainly, striking enough for Luke to identify it and point it out as being distinct from what others were doing. His clothing as well as his eating were distinctive—at least they were to the city dwellers. His clothing, we’re told, was “made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist,” and “his food was locusts and wild honey.”[2] So not your run-of-the-mill kind of chap, really, in his day. He probably wouldn’t have been here wearing a navy blazer and a striped tie. He would have looked like some of the rest of you. No, he would have stood out from all on account of both his dress and his eating.

But that’s not really what makes him as remarkable. What is so remarkable about him is that Jesus said of him—in Matthew 11 it is recorded for us—“Among those born of women there has not [a]risen anyone greater than John the Baptist.”[3] Apart from the Lord Jesus Christ himself, “there was no one,” said Jesus, “who is of greater significance than John the Baptist, the one who is my forerunner.”

So his birth is remarkable, his lifestyle is remarkable, the commendations he receives are remarkable. But the thing that I want to notice with you for the purposes of this introductory session is that he was remarkable as a preacher. The thing about John the Baptist is that he was extremely popular as a preacher. When in verse 7 there, you will notice, we’re told, “the crowds [were] coming out to be baptized” by John—that is not a unique emphasis in the Gospel of Luke. In Matthew chapter 3, we read that all the people went out to meet him.[4] Mark says, “The whole Judean countryside … went out to [meet] him.”[5] And John in chapter 3 says, “People were constantly coming”[6] to John the Baptist. So you don’t have this idea of an individual who is preaching, and there’s a sort of trickle of individuals showing up and one or two people saying, “You know, perhaps we should go and hear John the Baptist preach.” No, the whole countryside is going out, almost en masse. People are saying to their neighbors, “I want you to come with me and hear this remarkable preacher. Why don’t we make a date and go out into the Judean wilderness together? I want you to hear John the Baptist preach.”

Now, it is really remarkable, when we step back and think about it for a moment or two—especially in light of the kind of things that are offered to us today as the keys to developing and building a successful and effective and numerically strong preaching ministry.

First of all, he was not in a prime location. Indeed, he was in the very reverse of a prime location. He did not have a city-center church with terrific amenities. His setting was not ideal. He was not in a lovely suburban corner with plenty of parking, with freeway visibility, and tremendous freeway access. No, he was ministering in the Jordan wilderness. And what was the Jordan wilderness at that point? It was a deep depression through which the river Jordan flows to the Dead Sea. Some of you will have been there. You will know that it starts at six hundred feet below sea level and it ends up at thirteen hundred feet below sea level. Lenski, in his commentary, describes the location as “this hot, uninhabited depression which is wild in every way and removed from all civilization.”[7] So here we have the most remarkable preacher in a “hot, uninhabited depression … wild in every way and removed from all civilization.”

Now, let’s just pause and confess to God that it was wrong for us to think badly, as we drove away from our context, about what a dreadful place it was we were ministering in. We haven’t even come close to this. Some of you may think your circumstances are pretty poor, but I’m sure you’re not in a hot, uninhabited depression, and I know that none of you are thirteen hundred feet below sea level—at least geographically. Now, it’s a reminder to us of an essential principle that we’ve often stated before, isn’t it? There is no ideal place to serve God except the place in which he sets you down. So let’s be done with all of that foolishness and all of this silly stuff about finding the ideal place in America so that the ideal person in the ideal place can do the ideal job. There’s no such place, there’s no such person, there’s no such job. Indeed, the message here is, “What a strange man, and what a strange place, and what a strange ministry!”

Now, when you put that in, you have, then, to say to yourself, if you’re thinking at all—and I presume that one or two of us are—how, then, do you account for the popularity of John the Baptist, if he is such a strange man and he is in such a strange place?

A Context of Silence and Darkness

Now, we’ll come to that in a moment or two, but first I want you to notice the detail that Luke has provided for us in establishing a historical context. And that is essentially what he’s doing here. I don’t think it’s so much that he’s telling us exactly when John the Baptist was ministering as it is that he’s framing the emerging ministry of the Lord Jesus. And he’s making it clear, with an eye for detail, that his readers will understand that this Jesus lived in a geographical place and ministered at a chronological point in time, and that he has sifted carefully all of these things, as he says in his introduction,[8] and so he wants these people to understand. He establishes for us the preparatory role of John the Baptist and gives us a timeline for the commencement of the public ministry of Jesus.

Now, I don’t want to delve deeply into this. I think it’s sufficient for our purposes to recognize that what Luke does for us here is he sets the context by referencing it in terms of both the secular rulers and the high priests. So he gives to us, if you like, a point on the compass that is both secular and religious: these are the men who, if you want to read history, were there at the time, and these are the men who, if you want to go through the lineage of Levi, were ministering at that time. And by depicting both the political and religious circumstances, he is informing his readers of the kind of climate—social climate, if you like—in which the ministry of John the Baptist took place.

How, then, could we summarize this? I think by means of simply two words—and you may choose to agree or disagree, but let me suggest this at least. The context is marked by silence and by darkness. By silence and by darkness. In the first case, a silence that was still apparent and had lingered through the intertestamental period. We need to realize that generations had come and gone since the end of Malachi’s prophecy, and they were saying to one another, “Where is he? And when will he come? And do you think this might be him?” And children would grow up, and they would ask their parents, and their parents would send them, as we do, to the grandparents and say, “Why don’t you ask your grandma about that? She knows a lot about those things.” And the child would say, “Grandma, when is the one going to come that we read about in the Prophets the other day when you and I were doing our Bible reading before I went to bed?”

And actually, in a far more immediate sense, there would have been those who remembered the arrival of John the Baptist and would have been able to say, “You know, a few years ago there was a whole dramatic series of events when Zechariah’s son was born. I wonder whatever happened to Zechariah’s son? I haven’t heard much about him recently.”

And then somebody said, “Well, you know, strangely enough, someone said to me just the other day that they think it’s Zechariah’s son who’s out there. He’s wearing camel clothes and a big belt, he’s eating locusts and honey, and he’s shouting for all he’s worth down in that hot depression there in the Jordan Valley.”

“Oh, well that’s a strange place for him to go, is it not, if he wanted to shout out? What’s he shouting out?”

“Well, he’s shouting, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord!’”

“Oh, he is? Mm. Well, why would he go down there and do that?”

So out of the silence, “the word of God,” notice in verse 2, “came to John.” “During the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John … in the desert.” He who described himself as “the voice … crying in the wilderness”[9] becomes the recipient of the word, which in turn gave meaning and purpose to the voice.

Now, in one sense, we have all been given a voice, and we use our voice, and people expect to hear from our tongues and out of our mouths. What is it that gives our voice significance? It is that the Word of God has come to us. It is that we are the mouthpieces of the very Word of God. John the Baptist would have been unheard of in the scheme of biblical history were it not for the fact that the word of God came to John, and that the word of God having come to John, John then went with the word.

One of the reasons for the ineffectiveness of much preaching is because individuals are going, as it were, without ever having received the word, without ever having had a sense of call and an accompanying sense of the provision of God’s Word applied to their hearts and minds, through them to others, as a result having received God’s truth. There’s all the difference in the world, is there not—I’m sure we all recognize this—between saying something and having something to say? And we go away, and we have the responsibility to speak in different places, and we know after a relatively short period of time that there’s no difficulty in saying something. We can all say something. The question is, do we have something to say?

I think it’s Phillip Brooks in Preaching when he says the time to become alarmed is when you find that you can speak quite easily without having anything to say. Better we dried up and couldn’t speak at all, right? Better that our tongues stuck to the roof of our mouths than that we became adept with the use of language, and we could impress people, and we could win them and woo them and move them and stir them, but when you squeezed it all down to its essence, there was nothing being said at all. You can’t explain John the Baptist’s impact as a preacher simply because of his clothes or because of his place. It was because of his message.

We can all say something. The question is, do we have something to say?

So into the silence God brings his voice. And into the darkness he brings his light. The context was a dark context. The reign of Tiberius was marked be treachery and by cruelty. What we have here is a period of moral degeneration and political chaos. Those who were looking for the coming of the Messiah were living under the domination of a pagan power. The Holy Land was divided up under the administration of a bunch of moral degenerates and maladministrators. And in the midst of it all, the religious life of the people of God was marked by confusion.

Now, let me just rehearse that, and see if you find any immediate point of application. He was going to bring the Word of God to bear in a time of moral degeneration and political chaos. Those who loved the Word were living under the domination of a pagan power and under the rule of administrators who were moral degenerates and hopeless at their job. And to add to the burden, the religious life of the people of God was marked by confusion.

Now, we don’t want to be the wailing prophets here; we don’t want to be Jeremiah. We don’t want to take that role to ourselves immediately. But if we are going to try and read our Bibles and read the New York Times, or whatever paper it is you read every day, it’s not too difficult to see that there is an immediate point of application, at least in terms of the state of the people’s hearts and minds and the context in which we’ve been called today. So out of the darkness, God calls one as a witness to the light; and out of the silence, God raises up as a voice, and to that voice he gives his Word.

Now, it’s very important, is it not—and I want to make much of this, and so I rehearse it again—that when John steps out on the stage of human history to prepare the way of the Lord, it was not at his own discretion? It was as a result of divine initiative. In the same way that the word of God had come to the Old Testament prophets, now his word had come to this one who stood as the last of the Old Testament prophets as the bridge into this new era. And God commissions him in a clear and personal manner. He provides him with the necessary equipment for the task, and it was on the basis of the strength that God provides that then, we’re told in verse 3, he then “went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

Okay, well then, that helps us to understand how we might begin to answer the question that we left hanging—namely, how was it that John attracted the attention of the whole Jewish nation? Why was John such a remarkable preacher? Well, let me give you four answers to that, and then that’s going to be our time over for this first session. I figure I can encourage you in the opening session by brevity.

Divine Authority

Why was it that he was such a remarkable preacher? Number one, on account of divine authority. On account of divine authority.

Now, this is simply to rehearse what we’ve said: “There was a man sent from God.”[10] When Jesus is asked about John the Baptist—and this is recorded in Matthew chapter 11—Jesus says, “This is the one about whom it is written.”[11] In other words, “If you’re wondering who this is, just go back and read your Old Testament Scriptures, and you will discover there that there was one to step on the stage of human history, and he was to prepare the way of the Lord. If you’re wondering who he is, read your Bible, and you will discover that he possesses divine authority.”

And so, when the crowds began to gather, and when people took their friends out into the wilderness… And you can imagine Levi, when his friend is closing down his shop for the evening, saying to him, “You know, we were going to get a few sandwiches together and go out into the hot depression of the Jordan wilderness.”

And his friend said, “Why do you want to go there for a picnic?”

“Well,” he said, “it’s not so much the picnic, but we want to go and hear a preacher, and I was wondering if you would like to come and hear him too.” And he prevails upon his friend, and his friend brings another friend, and so they go out, a group of them, to a little men’s conference out in this deep depression in the desert.

“What’s it going to be like?”

“Oh, just wait and see. I’m sure you’ll love it.”

And so they eventually get out and get seated in the grass, begin to eat some of their sandwiches, and they’re ready to go. And eventually John stands up and says, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” And Levi says to his friend, “What in the world is this about? How’d you bring me out here to listen to this? Who does this fellow think he is?” Isn’t that what people say when they encounter boldness in the proclamation of the Word? “Who is this arrogant rascal? Who does this person think he is?”

Now, frankly, he had no basis upon which to say these things, apart from divine authority. He was God’s man, in God’s place, with God’s word. And that is the only basis for our authority. And any attempt to create authority by means of our personality or the context out of which we minister is destined to crumble to dust.

How do you explain all of these people making their way out into such a strange place to listen to such a strange man? When the crowds gathered, they would have said to one another—at least the religious ones—“We haven’t heard preaching like this in the synagogue! Why have we never heard this kind of thing? I’ve been going to the synagogue for years, and I never heard anybody… I certainly never heard an introduction like this: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?’ I wonder what else he’s going to say.”

“Well, hang on, it gets better! And eventually he’s going to throw you in a tub if you stay with him right to the end.”

Preaching exists not for the propagating of views and opinions and ideas; preaching exists for the proclamation of the mighty acts of God. That’s why preaching is worship. You don’t have worship and the Word; you just have worship. The Word is worship. True preaching is worship. Because true preaching is declaring the mighty acts of God, which is to worship God. And we want to encourage our people to be those who worship in spirit and in truth.[12]

Personal Integrity

Well, why then is this strange man in such a strange place such a fantastic and popular preacher? Number one, because of divine authority. Number two, on account of personal integrity. Personal integrity.

A simple contrast, I think, will help to make the point. You remember in Acts chapter 20, when Paul takes his leave of the Ephesian elders, and he meets them on the beach, and they pray together, and they all begin to cry because they’re not going to see his face anymore, and Paul is overcome with that. And then he issues them with this great word of instruction: “I want you to tend yourselves and take care of the flock of God that is in your charge, because,” he says, “there will arise even from your own number teachers who will draw away people after themselves—individuals who will take people and make them their disciples.”[13]

Now, that was the warning to the Ephesian elders. You look at the ministry of John the Baptist, and you say, “Did he do that?” No. His disciples were tempted to encourage him to do that. You have at least the inference: “Hey, John. Jesus is over on the other side. He seems to be picking up numbers, you know. The crowds seem to be going in that direction. I don’t know whether you want to just maybe spin it in a different way, or maybe just tighten your belt a little, or change your jacket or something, but we’re gonna have to lay hold on market share here, John, because this is going down.” John says, “Oh, don’t be so stupid. Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is not about me; this about him!”[14] And the reason that many of us are less effective than we might be is because too much of what we do is about “me,” and not enough of it is about him. See, I cannot say “he is, he is, he is” when people are so familiar with me saying “I am, I am, I am.” And when I trace the roots of disintegration in my own ministry, I trace it to far too much of the “I am” and far too little of the “he is.”

The reason that many of us are less effective than we might be is because too much of what we do is about ‘me,’ and not enough of it is about God.

Personal integrity. His integrity comes out not only in that, but his integrity comes out in the fact—and maybe you just need to refresh your memory of this by turning to Matthew 11—but you remember in Matthew 11, when John was in prison and he heard what Jesus was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”[15] In other words, he had doubts, he had uncertainties, and he had misgivings. The same fellow who is able to stand up and say, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” now finds himself in the jail. The word is out that Jesus is apparently not ushering in the kingdom in the way in which John the Baptist thought it was going to happen, at least with the speed and forcefulness that John may have anticipated. “I stood up on the stage of history, I said, ‘Here’s Jesus. Jesus is going to come and usher in the kingdom.’ But what do I hear he’s doing? He’s doing all of these things, and they don’t seem to be the plan and the expectation that I had.” And so he sends word out, and he says, “Could you just go back out and ask him? Just go quietly. I mean, don’t make a big fuss about it. But just go to him and say, ‘Excuse me, John the Baptist had a question for you. Just wanted to know, “Are you the one who was to come … or should we expect somebody else?”’”

Don’t you get fed up with people that know the answers to every question? John the Baptist needed this reply:

“Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive [their] sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, … the good news is preached to the poor. [And] blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”

[And then] as John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John.[16]

“What did you go into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? That wouldn’t be very much, would it? What’d you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? There’s no chance of that; they all live in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.”[17] Isn’t it amazing, the grace of the Lord Jesus? That just having received such a question from this guy John the Baptist, he supplies the reply, says, “Go back and tell John this,” and then he turns around and seizes it as an opportunity to extol John the Baptist as a prophet sent from God.[18]

So his integrity is seen in the fact that he doesn’t draw people after himself but points them away to Christ. His integrity is seen in the fact that he’s prepared to ask an honest question on the basis of the context in which he finds himself. And his integrity is seen in the fact that he’s prepared to call sin, sin. In Mark chapter 6, in the encounter with Herod, he is pretty straightforward: “For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. For John had been saying to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’”[19] There goes any possibility of a nice big church somewhere close to the palace. He’s not about to become the chaplain to Herod’s senate with this kind of talk. “It’s not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” Don’t you think that’s personal integrity? He has to say what he has to say. He’s not sugarcoating it, and he’s not looking for issues; he’s simply calling it as it is.

Genuine Humility

Why is it, then, that such a strange man in such a strange place would have such a vast following? One, because of divine authority. Two, because of personal integrity. Three, because of genuine humility. Genuine humility.

John the Baptist was self-effacing. He wasn’t a mouse. You could never say that John the Baptist was a wimp. And John the Baptist is not a weenie. He’s a lionheart. But he wasn’t preaching himself, nor was he trying, as we said, to create a personal following. “Now,” you say, “but he did create a personal following.” Yes he did. So is he to be condemned for the fact that God used him as an effective preacher? What was he supposed to stand up and say? “Oh, I’m a lousy preacher. Go down the street; there are better preachers down there.” That would have just been self-deprecating nonsense. He was God’s man with God’s word for God’s time. And so he stood up, and he exercised his ministry with a boldness that was divine, with an integrity that was real, and with a humility that was tangible.

I think if we’d been around John the Baptist, you could have almost tasted his humility. A genuine sense of setting himself back, clearly in relationship to Jesus. And indeed, when he builds a significant following, as we said, he directs them to the Lord Jesus himself. And indeed, I love the little search committee that comes to him in John 1:19. “Now this was John’s testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was.” “We’re thinking about having you for a conference, and we don’t really know you, and we want to know just a little bit about you; we want to get a CV, a little bit of background, something we can put in the brochure, throw up on the screen, something we can make a fuss about you in the town, and everyone will come because of how remarkable you are.”

So, “He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, ‘I am not the Christ.’” And so “they asked him, ‘Then who are you? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the Prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’”[20] Things are not going particularly well, are they? “We’ve come here in order that we might get something to say about you, and so far you’ve given us, ‘I am not, I am not, no.’” “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us.”

Now, here’s the question that we all love: “What do you say about yourself?”[21] “Oh, well, why don’t we get a coffee and a muffin and sit down? Let me just… in fact, do you have time for dinner? Oh, what a wonderful question! Let me just get to that immediately. Honey, could you bring me those pamphlets and books and videos and things? He wants to know about me.”

“John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet.” There’s a good lesson for us, isn’t it? You don’t know what to say, quote the Bible: “I am the voice of one calling in the [wilderness], ‘Make straight the way [of] the Lord.’ … I baptize [you] with water … but among you stands one you do not know,” and “he is the one who comes after me,” and “the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”[22] John understood his role: prepare the way and get out of the way. Self-forgetfulness, I think, is probably one of the keys to effective pulpit ministry. Prepare yourself and forget yourself.

Helpful Simplicity

Why then would the crowds go out to such a strange man in such a strange place? Well, on account of divine authority, personal integrity, genuine humility, and finally, on account of his helpful simplicity. His helpful simplicity. No one was in any doubt when they heard John the Baptist preach. What is he essentially saying to these people? “Jesus is coming, and I want you to give him a great welcome.”

“Is that your message?”

“That’s my message.”

“What should we do in light of the fact that Jesus is coming?”

“Well, I think that you ought to turn from your sins and get straight in the bath.” The same thing that a mother says to her son when he comes home all covered in mud: “Now, you, go straight to the tub.” And that’s essentially what he’s saying: “Jesus is coming, you’re about to meet him, and I want you to turn from your sins, go straight to the tub, and get ready to meet him.”

John understood his role: prepare the way and get out of the way. Self-forgetfulness is one of the keys to effective pulpit ministry.

So Mr. Levi, who took his friend, and they went down, when they went home, they made their journey back up to sea level, or wherever it was they were going—whatever else he knew, he knew this: that his friend had not misunderstood the message of John the Baptist, because he was marked by total simplicity. Even when he addresses the issue of sin in the life of Herod, he doesn’t couch it down, does he? He doesn’t give him some great book or diatribe on the psychological analysis of the impact of marital infidelity on the psyche of a king, you know, or something like that, where you gotta read… “Don’t do that! You’re wrong. This is right. Here he is. Go there. Believe this. Follow him.” It’s total simplicity. I’ve come off the pulpit many times on a Sunday, I can’t even understand what I just said, and I know the people, they’re, “I don’t know what that was about at all!” First of all, their eyes are staring straight ahead, then they’re blurred, then they’re crossed, then they’re closed. It’s a lesson for us, and we’ll come back to this throughout the course of these days. ’Cause it’s easy to identify it in John; it’s hard to implement it ourselves, I find.

Well, let me just wrap it up. Once again, my brothers, we are confronted by silence and by darkness. There’s a famine in the land, there’s a great absence for the voice of the Word of God being proclaimed.[23] There is a darkness that seems to be almost all-pervading. And we’re asking God to prepare the way and to provide those who will point to Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

I just came from The Cove in North Carolina, Billy Graham’s training center. I’d never been there before. And on Saturday afternoon, I went down into the lower hallway—and some of you will have visited there. And I looked at these dramatic pictures of stadiums throughout the world. An amazing picture of the Twin Towers of Wembley Stadium, which was my favorite, in London. Rio de Janeiro. Moscow. Just, literally, around the whole world. And I stood in awe and looked at all of those crowds. And I said, “How, honestly, do you account for this?” Here’s a farm boy; his dad’s a dairy farmer. He has one earned theological qualification—and kind of not quite, by his own testimony. And yet God has picked him up in the darkness and in the silence and has used him uniquely and profoundly throughout all of the days of each of our lives. And whatever we might have to say about the various intricacies of theological formulation and everything else, I think that I would want to say that the only explanation I have for the way in which God has done that is because he is a man who has understood the Bible’s authority and has always said that “the Bible says this, and the Bible says that, and the Bible says the next thing.” I’ve never, ever heard him except that he’s been marked by total simplicity. He’s about to turn eighty-two years old, and no one can find a thing on him—moral, financial, anything on him—that would blot his copybook in eighty-two years of life and sixty-plus years of teaching ministry. He’s a man of complete integrity, and he is possessed of a palpable humility.

And then you know what I thought next? Then the devil came to me and said—not literally, of course, ’cause my wife was with me. I said, “Oh! Oh,” I said, “it’s you!” No. I’ll introduce my wife to you tomorrow, and you’ll know that she does not have horns. But then the insinuation was this: “You’re doing nothing. You’re doing nothing. How many people have you preached to? What are you doing? Who do you think you are? This is where it’s really happening, you know. You might as well chuck what you’re doing; it’s nothing.” See? Then we have to remind ourselves, “What, after all, is Paul or Apollos or Cephas? Only servants through whom you came to believe. It is God who gives the work, and it is God who gives the increase.”[24]

So then we can together say, “Lord Jesus Christ, will you make us, at least in this sense, like John the Baptist? We’re not interested in his diet; we’re looking forward to the barbecue. We’re not interested in his clothes; frankly, the Gap will do us fine. But we are tremendously interested in his authority, his integrity, his humility, and his simplicity.”

Father, I pray that right at the outset of our time together, you will drive these things and other necessary truths home to our hearts—that we may not be dispirited but, rather, energized by remarking on the way in which you choose to use strange people in strange places to do remarkable things. To this end we commit ourselves to you, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

[1] Luke 1:66 (NIV 1984).

[2] Matthew 3:4 (NIV 1984). See also Mark 1:6.

[3] Matthew 11:11 (NIV 1984).

[4] See Matthew 3:5.

[5] Mark 1:5 (NIV 1984).

[6] John 3:23 (NIV 1984).

[7] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Luke’s Gospel: 1–11, Commentary on the New Testament (1946; repr., Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2008), 176.

[8] See Luke 1:1–4.

[9] John 1:23 (KJV).

[10] John 1:6 (KJV).

[11] Matthew 11:10 (NIV 1984).

[12] See John 4:24.

[13] Acts 20:28–30 (paraphrased).

[14] John 3:27–30; 1:29 (paraphrased).

[15] Matthew 11:3 (NIV 1984).

[16] Matthew 11:4–7 (NIV 1984).

[17] Matthew 11:7–9 (paraphrased).

[18] See Matthew 11:10.

[19] Mark 6:17–18 (NIV 1984).

[20] John 1:20–21 (NIV 1984).

[21] John 1:22 (NIV 1984).

[22] John 1:23, 26–27 (NIV 1984).

[23] See Amos 8:11.

[24] 1 Corinthians 3:5–6 (paraphrased).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.