John The Baptist

I once was talking with a middle aged woman about Christian things. I discovered that she'd been the missionary secretary of her university CU; and indeed had planned to go out as a CMS missionary. After a bit I asked, "where do you go to church now?" She paused, and said, "Oh! I don't go to church any more." Perhaps you know people like that. They had, apparently, a great Christian past, but spiritually they are nowhere today. They have drifted. Some seem to reject everything and believe nothing. Others seem to have gone "theologically liberal" and believe very little. There is something very sad when a person loses their way in the Christian life. That is why the bible warns us all against spiritual drift. It seems that John the Baptist was in danger of drifting. You say that's impossible. Doesn't Jesus say that John was a remarkable and fearless prophet, "a prophet ... and more than a prophet" (Matt 11.9); the one who was to prepare the way for the Messiah (Matt 11.10); and "among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist" (Matt 11.11)? Yes, but even great men and women of God can be in danger of spiritual drift. That is why everyone needs to be warned. This morning we start of new series of sermons on the Teaching of Jesus. We are carrying on in Matthew's Gospel where we left off last Autumn. So we've come to Matthew 11.1-15. Our subject is JOHN THE BAPTIST and he will act as a "warning" as we think about his doubt and how his faith was going through a difficult patch. And my headings are first, ITS CAUSE (the cause of John's doubt); secondly, ITS NATURE; and thirdly, THE SOLUTION. I want to be brief on the first two sections to have more time for the third. So first, ITS CAUSE. Here is John at the end of his life. He is in prison and a disillusioned man. He wonders if he has been fundamentally mistaken about Jesus. The cause is clear enough. Look at verse 2:

John heard in prison what Christ was doing.

You must underline those words "in prison". John was in prison at Machaerus near the north east end of the Dead Sea, because Herod Antipas had put him there. John was an embarrassment to him. He was causing a stir among the people as he exposed the sex scandal in Herod's private life. He was the ancient equivalent of Kenneth Starr. And Herod didn't like him. So there is John in prison; and he now begins to wonder: "was Jesus really the Messiah? Was he really the one he had made him out to be?" John, of course, was steeped in the Old Testament. He probably knew by heart that Messianic prophecy - Isaiah 61 verse 1:

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners,

But that was the rub. Here was John without freedom and still captive in prison. That was the cause of his problems - Christ did not seem to be helping him. How many this morning have been in a situation like that? You have trusted God. Perhaps you have just become a Christian, and nothing happens. In fact things seem to get worse. Or perhaps you have trusted God for some specific promise of the bible or you have been obedient to some specific call that you believe God has given you, and it all goes wrong. A year after I had taken steps towards ordination - indeed, staking quite a lot - everything seemed to go wrong. And when this happens, it is disturbing and you begin to wonder whether you've been fooled all along the line. Well, that is the immediate cause of John's problem. But what was the precise nature of his doubt? That brings us to our second heading this morning. Secondly, ITS NATURE. Look at verse 3. This is the question John wanted Jesus to answer:

"Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?"

Oh! Yes. John still believed something. He still believed there was "one who was to come". The problem was over whether this "one" was Jesus of Nazareth, or whether it was going to be someone else: "are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?" And that is still the number one question. John had a religious framework. Millions today the world over have religious frameworks. The late 20th century is getting very "religious". The problem is that people are ignorant about Jesus. And John was beginning to doubt whether Jesus was the one who would fit his framework. This is the devil's major strategy, to make men and women lose sight of Jesus Christ and of the fact that he and he alone, the man of Nazareth who came, died on the cross and was raised again, is the hope, the light, and the salvation of the world. Last week - at West Jesmond School there was a discussion for parents about reducing Christian Assemblies and having other-faith assemblies. Some even wanted to take Christ out of Christmas (which ultimately means getting back to a pre-Christian bacchanalian orgy of drunkenness and sex). Forget the fact that there are only 4 percent of the population of the UK of other faiths. Forget, also, the intention of the Law and the right of any parent to withdraw a child. Forget that multiculturalism is not multifaithism - many non-Western people in this country are more Christian than Europeans by far. Forget all that. You can be sure that there will be moves against Jesus Christ. You see, the devil doesn't mind people believing in God - John still believed in God. He doesn't even mind people believing in the Bible - John and the Jews believed the Old Testament all right. What he minds about is the Bible leading you to Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world - God the son, incarnate. Resistance to the person of Jesus is the Devil's major work. And the reason why Jesus has to be so central is the reason John the Baptist himself had given. Earlier his witness to Jesus was twofold. On the one hand he announced that Jesus was "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1.29). And on the other hand he announced that Jesus was the one "who will baptize with the Holy Spirit" (John 1.33). Men and women negatively need past sins dealt with, and positively they need the power of the Holy Spirit for a new life. On the cross Jesus dealt with sin. He died in your place, bearing your guilt. And after he was risen and ascended he sent his Holy Spirit to give you new life. So the temptation with John (and now with us) is to loose the centrality of Jesus Christ. What, then, is the solution? That brings us to our third heading. And I want to spend some time on this. Thirdly, THE SOLUTION Look at verse 4:

Go back and report to John what you hear and see: {5} The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.

John actually had two problems - and the two problems merged. He had a problem of faith and a problem of patience. Many problems of faith are not problems of faith at all. They are problems of patience - of the lack of it. New Testament patience means the ability to stay firm and true under hardship or suffering. And patience is what John needed at this time. There is a verse in Hebrews - Hebrews 6.12 - where you are told ...

to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.

And Jesus encourages both John's faith and his patience. First, he gives John information. He knows that the problem John has will not be solved in the first instance through some religious "experience" but through knowledge. How important to remember that these days. Your mind does matter. In a world where there is a denial of absolute truth, where people invent "truth" for themselves and work out "values" for themselves; and in a world where seeking is more important than finding, the first thing in evangelism and dealing with problems of faith is to give people the facts about Jesus. That is why Food for Thought is important this Thursday and The Tavern (for students) later this month. And the information given to John was about what marked Jesus off as special. It was information about compassionate miracles and compassionate ministry. It was pointing John Jesus as the fulfilment of the biblical prophecy - in Isaiah - about the Messiah who would preach good news to the poor. So this is how Jesus confirmed John's faith - by taking him back to the bible and helping him to understand it. And that is still the pathway to faith - through the bible. Romans 10.17:

faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.

But how did Jesus then deal with John's lack of patience? There are two things to notice. First, Jesus made it clear to John that while he wasn't experiencing any direct answers to prayer himself, other people were - elsewhere - and in quite miraculous ways. Have you been in the situation when you have prayed for God to act to solve your problem, and nothing happens? Well, John was like that - he was still in prison. But Jesus reminds him that other people were having their prayers answered. And that should encourage John. You see, God answers prayers in his time and in his way - not in ours. And when you have to wait patiently - that can be so hard. But when you hear what God is doing in someone else's life, that encourages you to be patient. That is why Christian fellowship is so important. For example, in a Home Group or other small group you can hear good news from others. That should encourage you. It reminds you that God is still in control and working in other people's lives however dark your situation may be. That is why knowing about the overseas church is important. I often find things in this country spiritually depressing. But I was greatly encouraged by those African bishops at Lambeth this summer. So John would have realised that Jesus was who he claimed to be, because elsewhere prayers were being answered ...

The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.

But Jesus didn't only encourage John with good news from elsewhere. Secondly, Jesus warned John of the temptation of false expectations. Look at verse 6:

Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.

This is another "beatitude" over and above the ones in Matthew 5 in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus knew people would be offended and disappointed and fall away because they had wrong expectations. John the Baptist may have wrongly been expecting Jesus to bring in his reign of judgment straightaway. "Why didn't Jesus immediately exercise his Messianic rights and strike down Herod - a weak, brutal and dissolute king? Where was Messianic justice?" You can almost here John say that. And many say that sort of thing today: "Why does God allow people in Kosovo and the Southern Sudan and all sorts of places to murder, rape and loot without punishment?" Here was John preaching, as recorded earlier in Matt 3.11:

I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. {12} His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire."

So "where is this winnowing fork? Where is the unquenchable fire? Where is 'the day of vengeance' of Isaiah 61?" John may have asked. But "where," suggests Jesus in reply, "is your 'patience'?" John, and all of us, have to understand God's time-frame. Today is the day of grace. Today is the day for compassionate evangelism. Oh! Yes. Christ will return one day for judgment. Make no mistake. But an expectation of immediate judgment is wrong. Then there were other wrong expectations people were having at this time. They expected that the Messiah would bring not moral purging but political victory. Look at verse 12:

From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.

This is probably a reference to those people who wanted military action to free the Jews from their Roman overlords. There were a lot of hot-heads around in Jesus time. But Jesus says, "No! - [this is the message of his entire ministry] - (verse 13) all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John". That is to say, God was establishing principles of right and wrong through the Law and through the teaching of the Prophets in the Old Testament period. And sometimes that needed military action. But now, with Jesus, there is a dramatically new age. The old age was so necessary. The lessons then learnt through the Law and the Prophets still remain, but verse 11:

I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

This new age of the kingdom is the beginning of something radically different. Yes, one day there will be a new social order - but that will come with the new heavens and the new earth, not politics. Politics are still necessary. But the fundamental need is not political rebellion but a cessation of rebellion against God and the need to have the Prophets and the Law written not externally but by the Holy Spirit in the heart of man. So, to recap, to encourage faith Jesus steered John back to the bible and those bible prophecies. To encourage patience Jesus reminded John that others were experiencing good things from God (even if he wasn't) and he then warned him of false expectations. I must conclude. And I do so with verses 14-15:

And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. {15} He who has ears, let him hear.

That is a challenge that comes across the centuries to us today. Jesus is saying that John is the Elijah figure, predicted in the Old Testament, who would herald the coming of the Lord himself. Jesus had quoted Malachi 3.1 in verse 10. Malachi had said:

"See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple ..." says the LORD Almighty.

For Jesus to quote Malachi is a staggering indirect claim to deity - to his being "the Lord". But Jesus sees that the problem in accepting who John is, and then, who he is, is not primarily intellectual or conceptual. It is a problem, primarily, of the will - "if you are willing". Perhaps there is someone here this morning, and the question for you is very simple: it is not "can you accept Christ as your Saviour and Lord?" but "will you accept him?" Why not do so this morning?

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