I want to begin reading this morning in the text we’re going to study, and that’s Luke 1:13 to 17. Follow along as I read.
“The angel said to Zechariah, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and the power of Elijah to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.’”
What the angel told Zechariah there is absolutely astounding, staggering. In it not only does Zechariah learn that his wife, his barren wife, will bear him a son in his old age when they’re beyond hope, not only is all their longing for a child going to be fulfilled and Elizabeth’s reproach removed, not only will joy overwhelm them completely erasing a lifetime of sorrow, but this child would at the same time be the dawn of hope fulfillment for the entire nation of Israel. This is really a message, an answer to prayer that Zechariah had. It’s a message that’s almost too much to bear. It’s way too much to process. You can see that in the way that Zechariah responds in verse 18 with a question there that springs from the temporary insanity of unbelief. Have you ever had moments like that? He had one. “How shall I know this? For I’m an old man and my wife is advanced in years.” (Luke 1:18) Look, an angel just materialized right in front of you in the sanctuary. He can probably pull this off. God can probably pull this off, and in a way you’re not entirely going to understand. Zechariah just wasn’t thinking clearly. It’s understandable. This is big. This is really, really big. God would use this promised son John like a lever placed on the fulcrum of the Old Testament promise to move the entire world. This is a huge, huge thing. The answer to this intimate prayer request was really a union of the consummation of hope, a righteous couple and a righteous remnant. Both of them would receive their answer to prayer in John the Baptist and as verse 14 says, “Many would rejoice at the occasion of his birth,” many, many would. Not all. That’s because as you can see from verses 15 to 17, that’s the climax of Gabriel’s announcement, it’s set in the place of emphasis in this passage in the text as we mentioned that last time.
Not everyone would rejoice because John would be a preacher of repentance, repentance. Repentance is not always a welcomed message. It’s not always a welcomed call. Those who sit in judgment on the preached word rather than humbling themselves before it, they don’t rejoice when a preacher of repentance arrives on the scene. That’s why the Jewish leaders were hostile to John from the very beginning. The Gospel of John records in John 1:19 to 27, it records that the Sanhedrin sent priests and Levites to demand John’s credentials. “Who do you think you are?” Both the religious parties—the Pharisees and the Sadducees, which included the scribes who were the lawyers, the scholars of Israel—even the entire crowd, the crowds Luke 3:7, it says they didn’t rejoice in John’s ministry either. In fact, John called them a ‘brood of vipers.” He called them to bear fruit in keeping with repentance, Matthew 3:7. The proud and unrepentant didn’t like John one bit. In their estimation, they were doing just fine. They were children of Abraham after all. They were born into the right family, born into the right nation, raised in the traditions of their fathers. They attended synagogue regularly. You could always see them in church. They even knew their Bibles. What need had they of repentance. Who do you think you are, John? So the proud, the self-assured—they resisted John’s message ,and they later opposed Christ as well. They eventually crucified him because they were offended at his message of repentance. “Get rid of him.” That, folks, is hard-hearted unbelief. But, for those with soft hearts, for those who longed for deliverance from the sins, for those who longed for the visitation of righteousness and grace from on high, the birth of John the Baptist was an occasion for great rejoicing. They were the people that John came to make ready for the Lord. They were verse 17—a people prepared.
Now, take a look at the text. Notice how verse 15 begins with that little conjunction, “for.” “For he will be great before the Lord.” The word for introduces the reason that the many in verse 14 would rejoice in John’s birth. And, this is going to bring up a question here that will drive our investigation for this morning, okay? Here’s the question: What does it mean to be great before the Lord? A great student is someone who performs well scholastically, makes high grades, gives their mom a bumper sticker they stick on the back of a car that says “Honor Student.” Great athlete: Someone who dominates their opponents at the top of their game in their sport. Great politician: one who’s shrewd, pragmatic, compromising, limited only by their ambitions—they can make anything work. Great businessmen: they provide great products, great services, they make a lot of money. That’s “great” in the world, right? Greatness in that sense, though, may or may not involve godly character. People of deplorable character achieve great things all the time, don’t they? Conquer great things, accomplish great things, achieve great things; in fact, sometimes the great achievement in the world’s estimation means the temporary suspension of integrity to achieve a desired result, to achieve the greater goal. That’s situation ethics, not grounded on a fixed standard—it shifts with the wind, with whatever compromises, with whatever the goal is. That is not what the Lord counts as great. Greatness before the Lord, greatness before God always involves character. It involves remaining firm, steadfastness and immovable in the truth. “This is the one to whom I will look,” Isaiah 66:2, “he who is humble and contrite in spirit and”—get this—“trembles at my word.” As God said in Jeremiah 9:23-24, “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boast, boast in this, that he understands and knows me that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight.”
Greatness is knowing the Lord, which causes humility and contrition and a trembling before his holy word, and that was the nature of John’s ministry—to turn Israel back to God. And, apart from the uniqueness of his role as forerunner to the Messiah, that is what made John great. Again, verse 15 says John will be “great before the Lord.” That’s not just talking about his arrival, like a herald preceding a coming king, though John was that. “Great before the Lord” means great in the Lord’s estimation. And you can read what Jesus thought of his cousin, John the Baptist, in Luke 7:24 to 35, when Jesus is talking to the crowds about John the , and he says that John is a prophet, yes, but more than a prophet, and in verse 28 he says, “I tell you among those born of women, none is greater that John.” So, that’s what we’re going to consider today, okay?
“Greatness is knowing the Lord, which causes humility and contrition and a trembling before his holy word, and that was the nature of John’s ministry—to turn Israel back to God.”Travis Allen
As we think about applying this to our own lives, what does it mean to be great before the Lord? What does the Lord count as greatness? And, what do Gabriel’s words teach us about greatness as he maps out John’s life in ministry for us? Well, three aspects to John’s greatness we’re going to see this morning. Three aspects, but it’s important to give this caveat right here at the beginning. It’s important to acknowledge before we start that John was absolutely unique. Okay? None of us is called to be John the Baptist. We’re not trying to do exactly as he did, are we? A diet of locusts and wild honey, running around in camel skins and all the rest, living in the desert, asceticism and the like—that’s not what we’re called to do. God selected John from his mother’s womb for a very, very unique role in the history of redemption. That’s not us.
Still, I think there are some principals at the core of what made John great before the Lord that we can imitate—patterns that we can apply to our own lives—and here’s the first. First, true greatness comes from sober-minded living. True greatness comes from sober-minded living. Verse 15, “For he will be great before the Lord and he must not drink wine or strong drink.” Now, I realize it probably isn’t divided this way in your Bibles, but verses 15 and 16 are actually one long sentence. All four of those points in verses 15 and 16 are joined together by conjunctions. That is to say, John will be great and he won’t drink alcohol and he’ll be filled with the Spirit and he’ll turn Israel to God. Okay, you see that? So, all that is just one long sentence with conjunctions joining each one of those things. But the first mark of his greatness here is his sobriety, no alcohol, no alcohol. Wine refers to the alcoholic drink that comes from fermenting the fruit of the grapevine, and the next word, “strong drink,” comes from an ancient Akkadian word that is a lone word, “sikaru,” which was like a barleybeer, but it came to refer to any of the fermented or distilled beverages—beers ciders, liquors, whatever. John was not to imbibe any of it, period. And the angel makes that point clear in the strongest terms possible; literally, it says there “wine and alcohol by no means shall he drink”—a very strong statement there. He’d live a life of total abstinence.
Now, the point here is not that all godly people must abstain from alcohol. It was normal, actually, for people to drink wine or other fermented beverage; it’s just a normal course of life, and especially in that day. Often times, fermented beverages were safer to drink than water, which had bacteria and things like that in it, so they drank. They had fermented drinks. Drunkenness was always shameful, and people who were unable to exercise personal restraint and self-control were to be avoided as profligate and dissolute people. People stayed away from drunkards. Drunkards were fools; they were unable to restrain their appetites. And, therefore, they were a mark of social corruption, so you did not want to associate with a drunkard. Still, even though drinking fermented drinks was fairly routine and normal for most people, there was always the ever-present risk of intoxication that would impair judgment and make somebody vulnerable to sin, and that’s why, for those who were consecrated to God for special service, God required at least temporary abstinence from consuming alcoholic beverages. God told Aaron, Leviticus 10:9, “Drink no wine or strong drink, you or your sons with you when you go into the Tent of Meeting lest you die. It shall be a statute forever throughout your generations.” Why? What was God’s concern? Next verse, “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common and between the unclean and the clean, and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the Lord has spoken to them by Moses.”
So, listen—for those who enter the Tent of Meeting, whenever they enter the Tent of Meeting, that means the High Priest who entered into the Holy of Holiness once a year, or the regular priests, like Zechariah, who entered the sanctuary to burn incense daily, they were to abstain from drinking when they performed their service. That example kept themselves from committing something foolish like Nadab and Abihu had committed—and who died before the Lord. Now, that prohibition about alcohol in Leviticus 10 follows immediately after those two—Nadab and Abihu—were struck dead. So, some people think those two weren’t too careful about the incense of the offering before the Lord. They brought strange fire because their judgment was impaired by alcohol. Some people think that. I think there is good reason to suspect that, but the point is that the priests had to keep their wits about them—and not just for their own safety, but because of the high calling to handle God’s word accurately. They were to teach it to others; they were to live it out as an example, adjudicating important matters involving practical application of the law. They couldn’t be sloppy about it.
Israel—or I should say Isaiah—condemned the spiritual leaders in Israel on exactly this point, for imbibing in alcohol and compromising their ministry. Isaiah 28:7 says, they “reel with wine and stagger with strong drink; the priest and the prophet reel with strong drink, they are swallowed by wine, they stagger with strong drink, they reel in vision, they stumble in giving judgement.” Very dangerous stuff, very dangerous! So, the priests had to fear the Lord enough to make sure they were clear-headed. They were always protecting their faculties; they were always concerned about the mental ability to exercise discernment, to distinguish between the holy and the profane, the clean and the unclean, to ensure an accurate and thorough teaching ministry. And that was certainly true of John the Baptist’s ministry as the forerunner and the herald of the coming Messiah. The priestly concern for sobriety, clarity of mind, nothing dulling his senses marked the character of John’s life and ministry, no doubt.
But there’s more here. People rightly recognize, notice, the presence of a Nazarite-like lifestyle in this call to abstinence from alcohol, and that is true. Gabriel didn’t use the word Nazarite here, but he did cite the main symbol of the Nazarite vow in the absence from alcohol. And perhaps abstinence was more in line with priestly sobriety because, after all, Gabriel didn’t call John to abstain from all products of the grapevine, including the skins and the leaves and everything, which was the case for a Nazarite vow. He didn’t call him here to keep away from razors so he had to grow his hair out, or call him to keep away from dead bodies. All of that was true of Nazarites—Numbers chapter 6, verses 1 to 21—that whole section there. But it’s possible, and I think even likely in view of Biblical precedent, that what was recorded about Samson the Judge or Samuel the Prophet—I think also in view is that Zechariah was a faithful priest; he was able to connect the dots in what Gabriel said—that Gabriel was just simply saying in a shorthand way, “He’s going to be a devoted Nazarite all his life.” Since John the Baptist lived such an austere existence—he was living in the wilderness, eating a strange diet, wearing rough clothing—it’s as if John was set apart, not just as a lifelong Nazarite, but as a lifelong priest, who stood continually before the Lord. Also, as a prophet, as verse 17 says, “who came in the spirit and power of Elijah.” John was set apart, he was unique. He was set apart specifically to live a life of utter and total devotion. He was living out the requirements of priestly service and of the Nazarite vow as a perpetual way of life.
So, John was like a priest, a Nazarite, a prophet all wrapped up into one. God wanted John to consider himself as perpetually serving like he was serving as a priest in the sanctuary all of the time—anywhere he was at any given moment of time. God wanted John to think of himself as continually set apart like a Nazarite, who is an alien and a stranger in the world—an utterly unique, unprecedented calling. And, as the forerunner to the coming of the Messiah, remember, that’s a once in the history of the world event. It doesn’t happen twice. John couldn’t take even the slightest risk of compromising his role. He needed to be completely sober-minded, totally clear-headed in his ministry, so no alcohol. This would have been a massive honor for Zechariah. This would’ve been like a reward for faithfulness that was certainly worth waiting a lifetime to receive. Gabriel’s words would have been very helpful for Zechariah and Elizabeth, even necessary in how they raised John and how they parented him. They would no doubt observe the prohibition as they raised him. In view of this unique high, holy calling, they knew how to apply this.
What about us, though? How do we apply the principle here? I mean we’re not priests or Nazarites, and we’re not prophets. Alcohol in moderation isn’t sinful for Christians, is it? No, it’s not sinful. Drunkenness is sinful, now let’s be clear on that, no doubt. It’s not sinful to drink fermented drinks. Paul tells the Colossian believers, “Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath,” Colossians 2:16. To the Romans he said, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit,” Romans 14:17. Still, we have to be on guard as Christians, don’t we? Lest the things we approve and indulge in become a stumbling block, whether to ourselves or to someone else. Paul warned the liberty flaunting Corinthians; whenever they waved their all-things-lawful-for-me motto in his face, he cautioned them. 1 Corinthians 6:12, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful.” All things are lawful for me, sure, but I will not be dominated by anything. Alcohol can turn on you easily. It can dominate you, it can control you, it can lead you into compromise. And not only that, but you need to take care of 1 Corinthians 8:9—that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. To be inconsiderate of the scruples—of the weaknesses of people around you—it’s not only unloving, it’s completely arrogant. In moderation, alcohol consumption isn’t sinful for Christians; it’s not immediately mind-altering like marijuana or other drugs, so it’s not sinful to taste it, drink it, sip it, whatever.
That said, you don’t strive for greatness in the Christian life by finding out wherever the line is and living as close to the worldly edge as possible. True greatness in the Christian life is to seek his kingdom and seek his righteousness and to peruse it with zeal, with gusto, with vigor. So, in some sense, true greatness before the Lord is going to cause us, like John, to pursue a similar kind of sober-minded life. I’m not saying that that says don’t ever taste a drop of alcohol, but I am saying you have to guard your mind. Sober-minded thinking. As pastor and all the elders in the church, we’re concerned for the example we set for you, for the things we affirm, for the judgments and decisions we make, for the lifestyle we live. We want our minds sharp in the service to the Lord in our ministry to all of you. We certainly don’t want our lives, our credibility, our ministry to be compromised by something as stupid as alcohol. We’re not going to do that. As Christians, we encourage all of you to pursue what leads to sober-minded living as well. We’re not Nazarites. We are priests to God, aren’t we, Revelations 1:6. We’re not prophets, but we do speak prophetically whenever we speak the words of God to others, right? We want our minds clear for Gospel witness, for discipleship, for counseling our brothers and sisters toward Christlikeness. Life is way too short to dull it with personal indulgence, to be dominated by our so-called liberties. We need to live like iron sharpening iron, nothing dulling our senses or our effectiveness—everything pointed toward biblical precision so the Spirit can do his work using the word in us. Amen.
That said, you don’t strive for greatness in the Christian life by finding out wherever the line is and living as close to the worldly edge as possible.Travis Allen
As we see in John’s calling, greatness before God involves sobriety. It involves sober-minded living, the subjection of the flesh for spiritual goals, but that’s the negative side—what John had to exclude. Look at the positive side, point two: True greatness comes from Spirit-filled living. Verse 15, “For he will be great before the Lord and he must not drink wine or strong drink,” that’s the negative side of it, what to exclude. Here’s the positive side: “And he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb.” That reminds us of Ephesians 5:18, doesn’t it? Turn there just quickly—Ephesians 5:18—just a couple books over—Genesis, Exodus….Matthew, Mark— eventually you get to Ephesians. Ephesians, chapter 5, verse 18, Paul says, “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery [or dissipation], but be filled with the Spirit.” This is a passage about influence, control. Not the influence of alcohol, but the influence and the control of the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit is at work in us, whether as individuals or as a congregation, notice the effects in verses 19 to 21, “We address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” That is to say the Holy Spirit has an uplifting, exalting effect on the way that we speak with one another. Our thoughts are filled with divine revelation. That means we’re singing and making melody to the Lord with our heart. Notice also there, it says, it talks about profound gratitude. We are, in verse 20, “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And we’re also humble people, meek people who, in verse 21, “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
Listen, you can go back to Luke. In John’s life and ministry, the fact that he would be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb—that was an unprecedented act in all of human history. See, up to John’s time, all through the Old Testament, the filling of the Holy Spirit meant the ability to accomplish superhuman tasks, to fulfill roles that required superhuman wisdom, superhuman learning or understanding and the Spirit-filling during those days was temporary. It was for a specific time, for a specific purpose. For example, Bezallel was filled with the Spirit as an artisan, a craftsman to oversee the tabernacle construction. You can see that in Exodus 31 and 35. The judges were filled with the Spirit to deliver Israel from oppressors. Sometimes that meant mighty strength, mighty leadership ability, domination in battle. They needed the Spirit for that, Judges 11, Judges 14. Two of Israel’s kings— remember Saul and David—both of them were filled with the Spirit to reign over Israel as king. But the filling of the Spirit in those cases was temporary. The Spirit could leave an individual, as we see when in Saul’s case, the Spirit did depart from him, and God sent actually an evil spirit to torment Saul. That’s why David prayed in his prayer of confession, Psalm 51, “Take not thy Holy Spirit from me.” That is not a new covenant prayer. That’s not a prayer that Christians pray. Why? Because the Holy Spirit never leaves the true believer. He indwells us permanently from the moment of salvation, throughout the rest of our lives, throughout all of eternity. We never need to worry about that.
Now, for John the Baptist, just as his abstinence from alcohol was life-long, so also was the filling of the Holy Spirit. It started with a prenatal sanctification, a prenatal calling, and the Holy Spirit remained with him, empowering him throughout his entire life. This is evidence of divine calling. It’s evidence of divine preparation for this special prophetic office, the unique office of the forerunner. And, as such, the filling of the Spirit throughout John’s life and ministry—though it’s not exactly the same as Ephesians 5:18—does foreshadow the coming of the Holy Spirit in the Church Age, his ministry of indwelling in believers. Just a footnote here: God didn’t need John’s permission to use his life this way. You see that? He didn’t ask to be conceived, to be born, to be filled with the Spirit from his mother’s womb. The Holy Spirit needed no permission from John to do that. God just filled him. He just did it from the womb. And he kept him in that condition for the rest of his life. Is that fair? What about his free will? Listen, the triune God of the universe is the only being with absolute free will. He is sovereign, and that’s all I’ll say about it for now, okay?
Listen, like John, but in a greater way than John, you and I have the privilege of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence and influence throughout the rest of our Christian lives. True greatness before God means being under the Spirit’s constant influence and control. Keep in step with the Spirit. Isn’t that the command? John the Baptist was known throughout his life, after his life, throughout the Roman Empire, in fact. In fact, Paul in Ephesians chapter 19, they meet disciples of John. What are they doing out there in Asia Minor? John was known. He was known, if anything, he was known for his Holy boldness, his fearless confrontation, his single-minded dedication to the purpose of his existence. And even his opponents, though they hated him for his confrontation, they feared him. Mark 6:20 says that Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man. Do you know what people do with what they fear? They kill it? That’s what the Holy Spirit will develop in us, beloved, a holy boldness. The Spirit will empower us to stand firm without compromise against ungodliness, and he will embolden us to proclaim Jesus Christ without fear. As Paul told Timothy, “For God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power and love and self-control,” (2 Timothy 1:7).
So, greatness comes from sober-minded, Spirit-filled living, but all of that is merely preparatory for what God intents, not only in John the Baptist, but also in us. Sober-minded living, Spirit-filled living—that enables us to live out point three: God-centered lives of repentance. Here’s the third point: True greatness comes from God-centered living. True greatness comes from God-centered living. By God-centered living, I mean a life of repentance. Whether it’s living out our own repentance in our lives, or preaching the message of repentance to other people. Notice the connection between sober-mindedness and Spirit-filled living in verse 15, and then John’s mission in verses 16 to 17. It says, “And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” Notice how verse 16 summarizes the ministry of John the Baptist—to turn many in Israel to God. And then verse 17 just expands on it, okay? So, the summary statement is that he’ll turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and the expansion, the elaboration, is there in verse 17.
Notice also how each verse uses the verb “to turn.” Once in verse 16, once in verse 17—that is the verb epistrepho and it’s a word that signifies in the Bible true conversion. John wasn’t just turning people to face God as in a physical turning. He wasn’t simply turning the hearts of the fathers to show consideration toward their children. The verb refers to true conversion. It’s used that way in 2 Corinthians 3:16 to describe those who turn to the Lord; it’s talking about conversion. Or in 1 Thessalonians 1:9, those who “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.” There’s a turning from and turning to—that is true conversion. That is what’s being talked about here. John’s ministry promoted true conversion because he preached repentance—a total paradigm shift in thinking. Repentance means that you’re heading in one direction, but then you repent, you think differently, you make an about-face with your will, and your life takes a 180 degree turnaround. You’re going in one direction, but then you turn around to head in an entirely new direction. That’s repentance. Repentance starts in the thought life, the intellect, the understanding. It moves into the affections, what you love and what you hate. It moves into the will, but then it quickly, from there, springs outward to the decisions, the speech, the behavior. That’s repentance, and that’s what John demanded in his preaching. The text says John would “go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah.” Now, we’re going to—for the sake of time—save the discussion about the identity of John the Baptist with Elijah the prophet, the eschatological implications of that whole concept for Israel. But, it is absolutely fascinating to see how John the Baptist’s ministry ushered in the ministry of Christ, how Israel’s rejection of John the Baptist/Elijah, how that rejection of him, of Christ, how it opened the door of salvation for us Gentiles, and how there will be another Elijah coming one day to restore Israel. But we’ll save that for another time.
For now, it’s important to understand that all three synoptic gospels identity John with Elijah. All three gospels record his preaching of repentance. All three gospels demonstrate his boldness, how he came in the spirit and power of Elijah. Remember, Elijah preached during the reign of Ahab and that wicked queen, Jezebel during the time of great, great apostasy in Israel. He was zealous for God, and he was bold and courageous. In confronting Baal worship in Israel, it was Elijah, 1 Kings 18, you may remember, who confronted Ahab’s apostasy face to face. Elijah, in that same chapter, records how he stood on Mount Carmel alone with Israel watching, with 450 prophets of Baal on one side, and he said, “Hey, if your god is God, let him call down fire on the sacrifice. Go ahead take your time.” They danced around, they did the whole pagan thing, they cut themselves with knives, blood flowed. He insulted them, he teased them, he mocked them. “What, is your god busy? Is he taking a nap over there? What’s going on? Maybe he’s in the restroom. Don’t knock too loudly.” Elijah’s teasing. And then Elijah soaked the sacrifice over and over again until water was running in the trenches, and he prayed a simply prayer. “God, if you be God, call down fire.” Fire consumed everything. God responded. He slaughtered the 450 prophets of Baal there before the Lord. Amazing boldness.
Even though John the Baptist didn’t work miracles like Elijah did, he had that same power, same boldness, same courage, same power in his preaching. Listen, turn ahead a few pages to Luke 3:3, just a couple pages there and notice how Luke records his boldness. John went, you can see Luke 3:3, “He went into all the region around Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” And this was no easy-believism thing. Notice the nature of his preaching there in verse 7: “He therefore said to the crowds at that time coming out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as out Father.” For I tell you, God is able to raise up from these very stones children from Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees and every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’” Wow! That is strong stuff. You won’t see John the Baptist invited to speak at a church growth conference. Okay, when these people come visiting your church, walk through the door, and especially when they come to be baptized, here’s what you tell them, “You brood of vipers.” Get the next speaker. Get that guy off the stage. He’s going to kill a church. But as they say, soft preaching creates hard hearts; hard preaching creates soft hearts.
Notice what the Lord said about John’s hard preaching. Go back to Luke 1:17. This is what God records about John’s preaching. He said it would soften people; it would turn the hearts of the fathers to children, to their children. And, it would turn the disobedient to the wisdom of the just. Those two phrases there in Luke 1:17 are parallel. The parallel phrases point to the ministry John had—to restore true religion in Israel, to turn the hearts of many of the children in Israel, verse 16, to the Lord their God. Now, although Gabriel isn’t quoting the whole the passage here, what he says points to a fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy in Malachi 4:5 and 6. Malachi said, “Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers.” Gabriel only quotes half that passage, but by alluding to the first half of the prophecy, turning the hearts of the fathers to their children, he implies the second as well. It’s shorthand again. And, basically, he’s describing John’s ministry of preaching repentance and true conversion—one that results in domestic harmony.
Listen, you will never find a truly converted person who does not love his family, who does not pursue Gospel-centered reconciliation with his family. True conversion, true repentance always results in the pursuit of family unity, of family harmony and the parental attitude of self-sacrifice for the good of the coming generation. The Ten Commandments, you may remember, were divided into two tables. The first table was about love for God, the first four commandments. The second table, the next six, were about love for neighbor, and they promoted love for neighbor beginning with this commandment, Exodus 20:12: “Honor your father and your mother.” The most fundamental, the most primary relationship in human society is the relationship between parents and children, and the family is the context of socialization for the next generation. When sin invades the family, family relationships become corrupt. Parents ignore responsibilities to their children. Children dishonor their parents, and all manner of social chaos ensues. That kind of domestic and social degradation had scarred Israel deeply ever since the time of Malachi, and it was certainly true when John the Baptist came on the scene. Malachi described the post-exilic community, the people who had come back from the exile of Babylon, as marked by marital and family disharmony. They had married foreign wives; doing that is to introduce false religion into the home. They had been faithless toward their wives, even divorcing their wives, Malachi 2:11 to 16. All of that destroys the family. It divides and separates parents and children, embittering the generations against one another.
“Listen, you will never find a truly converted person who does not love his family, who does not pursue Gospel-centered reconciliation with his family. True conversion, true repentance always results in the pursuit of family unity, of family harmony and the parental attitude of self-sacrifice for the good of the coming generation.”Travis Allen
So, John’s role and the effect of his preaching repentance was to turn fathers to their children and children to parents, to promote relational reconciliation in Israel. He wanted to promote what we might call generational harmony. One evidence of true conversion, you have to understand, is the pursuit of marital harmony, family harmony, generational harmony. Conversely, the failure to pursue that, the refusal to do that, even the promotion of not doing that, could be evidence that conversion hasn’t taken place at all. As Alfred Plummer wrote, “Genuine reform strengthens family ties. Whatever weakens them is no true reform.” That’s true—and that’s why we know that any ministry, any ministry model that has the interest of being relevant to youth-oriented culture, when it ignores the concerns of the elderly in our midst, that is not a God-honoring ministry. To be fair, we should also note that any ministry that ignores the young, that dismisses the young, that suppresses them, that holds them down, that tries to even force them into the mold of the older generation’s own preferences and traditions—that isn’t honoring to God either. Where God is at work to bring about true repentance—true conversion—you’re going to see harmony between the two generations—the young honoring those who are older, the older taking sacrificial interest to teach and disciple the younger: that is true conversion.
The other aspect of John’s ministry—the result of his preaching repentance marking a true conversion—notice it there in verse 17: “to turn the disobedient to the wisdom of the just.” That’s parallel with the verb phrase, and it’s so vital. If we could see the result of true conversion in domestic harmony, which is a concern for obedience to the second table of the Ten Commandments, then get this, turning the “disobedient to the wisdom of the just,” that’s a restoration of the first table of the Ten Commandments, which is about love for God. The word “disobedient” is a shorthand way to refer to unconverted people. They don’t obey God, they don’t obey authority—they’re the disobedient. And in order for the disobedient to turn to the wisdom of the just, something has to happen. They have to learn the fear of the Lord. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and those who are wise demonstrate wisdom in obedience to the Lord’s commands. Wisdom promotes justice, righteousness, and love for the Lord, and all of that is manifest in obedience to his commandments. Wisdom of the just is manifest in love and obedience to the Lord. Someone who is truly converted is going to appreciate, is going to submit to, is going to learn from the “wisdom of the just.” Converted people humble themselves to pursue relational reconciliation and to learn from godly teaching. They want to follow in the footsteps of faith. They want to imitate those who have gone before them. Like Paul said, “Imitate me, follow me, imitate my life.” Why? Because they’ve learned to fear the Lord. Because they’ve learned they want to love him, they want to obey all his words, and so they want to learn from those who’ve gone before them, from those who know more than they do.
So, John’s ministry was to call people back to the historic faith of Israel. That’s what this is: calling them back to this historic faith in Israel—love for God, love for neighbor. God had already revealed himself through Moses. He revealed himself through the prophets who pointed everybody back to Moses. Israel needed to return to that revelation. They needed to repent, they needed to be converted, to fear the Lord, to love one another.
So, by the instrumentality of John, as John Calvin said, God would again unite in holy harmony those who had previously been disunited. And for what purpose? Look at the end of verse 17: “to make ready for the Lord, a people prepared.” To make ready for the Lord a people prepared. The entire verse is a fulfillment of Malachi 3:1: “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me.” John’s calling had one purpose: to prepare people to listen to Jesus Christ. John was the lesser, sent to serve the purpose of the greater. He prepared people to receive Christ’s ministry. That’s it. Listen, isn’t that what we do, too? Don’t we call people to repentance and then point them to Christ for salvation? We need to see ourselves in the same light, don’t we? We need to confront sin, call people to repent, and then point them to Christ. Get out of the way because we have no power to save. We have no power to turn the lights on. We have no power to renew the mind, change the life. That’s God’s job. We just need to be faithful to proclaim—proclaim the message of repentance from sin, faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sin, right? And then what do we say to people? “Check him out for yourself. Read in the Scripture, come and see.”
This is why Jesus, in highlighting what made John great, said this in Luke 7:28, “I tell you among those born of women, none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” Wow. In verse 29, “When all the people heard this and the tax collectors too, they declared God just, having been baptized with the baptism of John, but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.” An astounding statement, isn’t it? So true. Greatness before the Lord is known by all who go through the baptism of repentance and put their faith in Jesus Christ. And, listen folks, even the least of us in the kingdom of God, we can say that to people. We can declare that, and we’re greater than John the Baptist. Why? Because that is reality for us. Our entire life is in the knowledge of this Messiah who has come. Not the one coming, but the one who’s come. And we can look back and read, study, understand, and love our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our entire life now can be dedicated to sober-minded living, Spirit-filled living, God-centered living that promotes repentance and calls others to do the same. Amen.
Let’s pray. Heavenly Father, we’re just amazed yet again as we consider your wisdom in designing things this way. You could have—out of the darkness of 400 years of silence—you could have sent Jesus Christ immediately on the scene, but you didn’t do that. You gave him a forerunner. You sent a herald before him to proclaim the way, to make straight the paths of the Lord, to level places out, to really level human hearts. You sent John the Baptist like a rock to be a hammer and tongs to preach repentance to the people and prepare their hearts to receive Christ’s ministry.
We thank you that you did that in your wisdom, to send him before Christ, to soften hearts. And we pray that ours will be soft as well. We don’t want to be hard. We want your mercy, your grace. We want to be prepared and ready for the ministry of Jesus Christ.