The Man who grew Downward
Preachers need grace, not ‘groupies’ . Chris Hill takes another look at the preacher who was not for sale…
John the Baptist was an extraordinary man. It seems likely that he was prepared at two levels to be the voice that would declare the glories of Jesus as the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world.
At the divine level he was prepared through the operations of the Holy Spirit within him. Those operations had commenced at his conception when the Holy Spirit filled him in his mother's womb (Luke 1:15). Throughout his years of growing into manhood the Lord fed John by the Spirit with a profound level of understanding as to who Jesus really was. It passed natural understanding. This is made clear by John 1:33 which records the exact words of the Baptist: “I would not have known Him, except that the one who sent me to baptise in water told me, 'The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptise in the Holy Spirit. '” Divine revelation had prepared John for the moment when Jesus approached him at the Jordan. John was divinely prepared to be “The Voice” .
At the human level, it would appear that John was prepared for his ministry through his priestly pedigree (Luke 1:5) and his involvement with the Essenes at Qumran. At the start of his ministry John came out of the Wilderness of Judea (Matt 3:1-3; Luke 3:2), “A voice of one calling in the Wilderness, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'” John came from the Judean Desert and this is where the Essenes had their monastery by the Dead Sea. John dressed like an Essene and ate the kind of simple fare associated with ascetics (Matt 3:4). His preaching on the need for repentance and holiness drew enormous crowds from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan.
Distance called for...
However, John's preaching took on a completely new level of authority and revelation once Jesus appeared and the Holy Spirit revealed to him who Jesus really was. While the Essenes may well have encouraged John's personal holiness and taught him a great deal from the Hebrew Scriptures concerning God's coming Kingdom, nothing other than the Holy Spirit could have prepared John for the shattering truth that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29-31). Such an idea would have given Essenes gross offence and it would have been treated as exceedingly blasphemous. Once he began to proclaim Jesus, John distanced himself from Essene theology and acceptance.
One of John the Baptist's famous statements about himself and Jesus is recorded in John 3:30, “He must become greater, I must become less.” To my mind, that is one of John's truly sensational statements. He understood that the secret of true and godly ministry is precisely that: more of Jesus and less of me. Holiness and humility dwell so closely together that the absence of one means the absence of both. One of the deep challenges that comes with the calling to be “a voice” for the Lord is that in recognising the ministry certain enthusiasts tend to settle for the preacher's voice instead of listening for the true Voice of the Lord. And this is not limited to those modern bands of 'groupies' who travel over hill and dale in order to support their preacher-hero, comparing him favourably with other preachers whom they view as competitors! It's amazing to see this sad trend emerging even in the context of John's ministry, 2000 years ago!
There was an occasion shortly after our Lord's encounter with Nicodemus that demonstrates this. Here is John 3:23- 24: “Now John also was baptising at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and people were constantly coming to be baptised. This was before John was put into prison.” We cannot be certain where Aenon or Salim are located, but the point of the verse is to mention the quantity of water, suggesting that John was supervising the immersionof people.
John’s new baptism
Was this still the “baptism of repentance” referred to in Mk 4:1? Personally, I do not think so. Surely the emergence of Jesus as the Lamb of God and John's utter conviction that He was the One to take away the sin of the world (Jn 1:29) altered John's approach. As soon as Jesus appeared by the Jordan, John urged his personal disciples to transfer allegiance to Him (Jn 1:35-37) and so baptism now involved more than just repentance: it meant a positive turning to Jesus,having buried the old life for good.
If this is so, it is fitting to ask if the baptism being practised by our Lord's disciples was any different? The evidence seems to point to the fact that John the Baptist and the disciples of Jesus were all baptising the people in the Name of Jesus. A new day had dawned.
All this happened before John was incarcerated by Herod Antipas (John 3:24), so John was aware that his own ministry of preparing the way for the Lord and proclaiming Him as the Lamb of God was now reaching its climax and completion. However, the stark realism of the Bible writers means they cannot overlook certain developments that could be viewed as discouraging. Such things serve only to confirm the absolute integrity of the Scriptures. Although John had such a wonderful understanding from Heaven concerning Jesus that he went to prison content, he was not immune from the devil's suggestion that he had got it all wrong. The devil wanted to discredit not only John but supremely the Lord Jesus Himself. So he sowed doubt in John's mind. It must have led to torment that must be dealt with. So John sent some of his remaining disciples – those who had not switched to following Jesus – to confirm his earlier certainty (Lk 7:18-28).
This is so typical of the devil's work: to cast doubt on certainty as far as our faith is concerned. When we are low we are vulnerable to the devil's lies. Being in Herod's grim prison fortress of Machaerus was almost as bad as it gets. But John's messengers brought back glorious news (Luke 7:21-23). Luke does not tell us how John responded to the report of his messengers, but did he need to? It must have been delirious joy! True to the Gospel writers' integrity, John goes on to describe a tragedy. Here is John 3:25-26: An argument developed between some of John's disciples and certain Jews over the matter of ceremonial washing. They came to John (he was still preaching freely at the time) and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan – the one you testified about – well, he is baptising and everyone is going to him.”
It seems that these were unbelieving and mischievous Jews who were insinuating that John's baptism had been second-rate and the fact that so many were flocking to Jesus confirmed it. The issue appears to have been effectiveness: which baptism conferred greater purity, John's or Jesus'? These Jews were goading John's disciples into denouncing Jesus as being a threat to John. The language of the passage seems intended to show that John's disciples were jealous for their master's ministry and reputation and that its declining popularity in favour of Jesus was a cause of great annoyance to them! Here is a clear instance of 'party spirit', a common enough phenomenon in churches today, when one minister's or preacher's popularity is interfered with by the appearance and advancement of another!
What is so revealing is that in spite of John's powerful declarations as to who Jesus was, his words had not penetrated the minds of his own disciples. John was still their man! Had it been otherwise they would surely have been thrilled to see Jesus advancing in popularity. It is a sad fact that many Christians are devoted to their ministers who preach the truth week in and week out, but they do not truly listen to what is being told them and so they never change. The power of the Word is a thing admired but not acknowledged and certainly not applied. They are not becoming disciples of Jesus! It is perhaps revealing to compare John 1:29 with 1:37. There is no mention of a positive response from the bulk of John's disciples, but only from Peter and Andrew. The language used by John's disciples is also interesting. They said, “Jesus is baptising and everyone is going to him.” That was not true, but exaggeration and twisting of facts is common amongst people whose 'heroes' are perceived as threatened by the ministry of others!
A fair-minded observer will note a great deal of disgraceful behaviour among certain members of churches who delight in tearing down teachers and preachers who they think are a threat to the reputation of their own 'hero'. It often goes beyond the threat from other preachers and affects attitudes to other churches. There are some ministers who are so resentful of the perceived success of certain churches that they turn a cold shoulder to them and even if that successful church had the angel Gabriel as a visiting preacher they would simply not attend themselves or even mention it to their people. The proper response is for a preacher to rejoice when deeper levels of understanding are given through other preachers. We can all learn from others and must do so. After all, we are supposed to be the Body of Christ
in which we are all to pull together, not pull each other apart! This sad state of affairs is partly responsible for there being 42,000 different Christian denominations in the world today.
I was preaching in Scotland recently when the Pastor felt a need to reassure me that I was no threat to him. He said, “We are looking for the Lord to give you a level of teaching that we simply do not have among the gifts in our fellowship. But we are so happy that you come as a Bible expositor and this means we can hear at a new depth what the Lord wants to say and to go with it and rejoice in it.” It was a moving moment for me and so very reassuring. It showed a wonderful degree of honesty and humility. That minister will be blessed because of it and his people, if they have any discernment at all, will love him all the more.
Bishop J C Ryle wrote, “I cannot command continued success in my ministry. I can receive only what God gives me. If He thinks fit to give more acceptance with men other than myself, I cannot prevent it and have no right to complain. All success is of God. All that I have had, at any period of my ministry, has been received and not deserved.” Well said, Bishop!
When Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19), He meant “Go and make disciples for ME, and not for yourselves.”
Here is the heart of John the Baptist's ministry. He pointed everyone to Jesus. If my preaching does not have Jesus at its heart and if my every word is not intended to lead my hearers away from me to the Master Himself, I demonstrate that I am a mere hireling and not worthy of God's call. Holiness is demonstrated in pointing to Jesus.
As Charles Wesley so famously put it, “O let me commend my Saviour to you.”