Restoring a Great Man’s Reputation

Title: Restoring a Great Man’s Reputation

Text: Matthew 11:7-19

Date: August 16th, 2009

 

If you remember last week I talked about John the Baptist and his doubts or questions whether Jesus really was the long-awaited Messiah. I shared how when I first encountered the account of John the Baptist doubting Jesus or questioning his identity as Messiah, I was a little disappointed. Why couldn’t this great prophet of God clearly see this spiritual truth, like the Apostle Peter did, for example in his statement to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of Living God,” Matthew 16:16. After all, wasn’t it John the Baptist who first introduced Jesus as the Messiah to the people of Israel and baptized him? Hadn’t he seen the sign from God of the dove descending upon Jesus indicating that he was indeed the Christ? And didn’t he point out Jesus as the Messiah to his disciples? So why now was he doubting all of this and needing further assurances and confirmation? But then I shared how John the Baptist had been thrown into prison by Herod and was facing execution for confronting the king of his sin of adultery. John must have felt alone and abandoned and discouraged. But the big problem John had was that Jesus wasn’t acting fully like the Messiah he and all of the Jews were expecting. In all the miracles of Jesus, he hadn’t performed the most important miracle as far as the Jews were concerned – liberating God’s Chosen People from the pagan Roman oppressors. Isn’t that what the Messiah is supposed to do? Wasn’t that the hope of Israel? Wasn’t that part of the prayer for the coming of the Messiah in the first place? But Jesus wasn’t fulfilling that part — at least not yet. John and the Jews were counting on the Messiah coming and doing his full work in their lifetime, but what they didn’t count on was the Messiah accomplishing his work in two stages. The first coming was for the purpose of dealing with the real problem of all men and women, both Jews and Gentiles, and that was the problem of sin. Jesus came to make atonement for sin, according to the prophecy found in Isaiah 53, the suffering servant. The second coming of Jesus would accomplish the liberation of God’s people and judgment upon earth of their enemies. But the Jews weren’t looking for the Messiah to work in two stages, and neither was John. That’s why the Baptist was having his second thoughts and doubts about Jesus. Jesus reassured John that yes indeed he was in fact the Messiah by pointing out the many supernatural signs and wonders he performed which had been prophesied in the Old Testament the true Messiah would do. But now in the passage for today, Matthew 11:7-19, Jesus attempts to restore the reputation of John the Baptist as a great man even though he questioned and doubted. We are not to think any less of John the Baptist because of his questions concerning the identity of Jesus as Messiah. What Jesus says next about John increases our respect for him, not diminishes it. Matthew 11:7-19 (read). Jesus’ attitude towards doubt is also revealing. It shows that from God’s standpoint, doubting isn’t the worst thing one can do, stubborn unbelief is. That should give us comfort today, especially in our skeptical and doubting age. Better to deal with doubters than outright unbelievers. Better to work through our own doubts than to fake belief yet really be unbelievers. Doubting can actually be the prelude to greater faith – if we process out doubts in a godly way. Let’s look at what Jesus says about John and see what we can learn.

 

First, John was a great man sent to do a great work. Matthew 11:7-10, “As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: ‘what did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’” So in order to restore the reputation of a great man, a great prophet, Jesus begins to reveal to the people just who this man John really is. No doubt many or most of the people listening to Jesus had also followed John the Baptist down to the muddy waters of the Jordan River to be baptized unto repentance of sins. We know that a great many of them would have followed John because the accounts of John’s baptisms say, “all of Jerusalem came down to be baptized.” So John had definitely left his spiritual mark on many or even most of the Jews of that day. In fact, he had probably pointed many or most of the people to Jesus as the Messiah by identifying him as such down by the river. But now he had his doubts and the people were probably a little confused and just as I was, a little disappointed in John. So Jesus wants to restore John’s reputation as a man of God and reveal a little more about him than was already known, information that would give everyone a bigger appreciation for him. Jesus tells the people that John was in fact more than just a prophet; he was the prophet sent to reveal the coming of the Messiah. Now other Old Testament prophets had been sent by God to prophesy concerning the coming of the Messiah, but for them, that was future prophecy. For example, the prophet Malachi prophesied, “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: the messenger, of the covenant who you desire, will come, says the Lord Almighty,” Malachi 3:1. And there were other such prophets who prophesied about the coming of the Messiah. But with John the Baptist, not only did he prophesy the coming of the Messiah, but he himself was prophesied by the prophets too. For example, in the Malachi prophecy I just cited, it speaks of a messenger who will prepare the way of the Lord. That’s John the Baptist! We see here how great John was. Not only was he prophesying but he had been prophesied about as well by other prophets. He was the forerunner of the Messiah who would be visible at his appearing. His role was to spiritually prepare the people for the Messiah through repentance and baptism. So there is no question that John the Baptist is special. Jesus didn’t want anyone walking away thinking any less of John the Baptist just because he entertained some doubts and asked questions concerning the identity of Messiah. It’s ok to doubt, even the great men of faith have done it, just as long as you keep on asking questions. God rewards those who continually ask questions and grow in knowledge and faith. But beware of the day when you stop asking questions or settle into a perpetual state of doubt, or worse, unbelief. But there’s more.

 

Second, John was the greatest man sent to do the greatest work. Matthew 11:11-15, “’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. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. He who has ears, let him hear.’” Jesus goes one further in promoting John’s reputation and status – not only was John a great man, he was the greatest of all the Old Testament figures. Under the Old Covenant system, John was the epitome of a godly man. Think about it. John was marked out from birth. Zechariah, his father, had an angelic vision which said, “Do not be afraid Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the father to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord,” Luke 1:13-17. When John matured and began his public ministry it was thought that he might even be the Messiah himself – so clearly did God speak through this prophet. We must also remember that before John the prophetic voice of God in Israel had been silent for at least 400 years, so when John appeared on the scene, people recognized the voice of God in his words. According to Jesus, John was the greatest Old Testament biblical figure ever, or in other words, he fulfilled the Old Testament ideal of a godly man, a righteous man. I believe the Christian church has traditionally overlooked John the Baptist as a hero and role model. It’s easy to do so because he was such a humble man and never drew attention to himself, but always to Jesus the Messiah. We need to explore and unpack everything about John the Baptist to fully understand what Jesus was saying when he claimed John was the greatest Old Testament saint, but we don’t have time for that today. Nevertheless, as great as John was, according to Jesus, the least New Covenant saint is greater. Now what can that mean? It means, under the Old Testament covenant the most godly person, one who kept the law best both externally and internally even – according to Jesus that was John the Baptist; but even the greatest Old Testament saint is least godly under the New Covenant arrangement. How so? Because it’s the righteousness of Christ that makes us godly under the New as opposed to our own best efforts under the Old. John was the best of the best under the Old covenant, but he’s nothing, he’s no saint even compared with Christ Jesus. And when we repent of sin and believe upon the Lord Jesus for salvation, our sins are placed on Christ and Christ’s righteousness is placed on us in a great exchange. That makes us holier than any Old Testament saint, working under his or her own holiness or godliness. We are made saints through Christ, not by our own personal effort at holiness. Are you today a New Testament saint? That’s right, are you a saint today? If you’ve exchanged your sins for Christ’s righteousness you are, if you haven’t you are still under the Old Covenant; you don’t yet understand the gospel. Why not make the great exchange today? One more thing.

 

Third, doubts are acceptable, stubborn unbelief is not. Matthew 11:16-19, “To what can we compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the market places and calling out to others: ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her actions.” We’ve already seen that Jesus can deal with doubters and those who have questions, but what we also see here is that he doesn’t have patience with those who refuse to believe, those who stubbornly cling to unbelief no matter what. What I’ve been teaching last week and now this week is that God wants us all to have faith, to believe strongly and obey with conviction, faith is better than doubt, but if we do have questions, if we do have doubts, he wants us to ask our questions and seek out answers; he’ll honor that process. As long as we are actively seeking out answers so that we might believe and obey with more conviction, God will assist us, but we are not to simply resign ourselves in doubt because that will eventually turn into outright unbelief if we stay there too long. Sadly, there is a growing movement within Protestant Evangelicalism called the Emerging Church that seems to linger and lounge around in doubt. Because the general culture is skeptical of all absolute truth, because the so-called post-modern culture is resigned to moral relativism, this segment of evangelicalism has decided that in order to relate with and reach post-moderns it too must assume a posture of doubt and skepticism towards truth, even biblical Christian truth. For example, some of the Emerging Church spokesmen say things like, “Jesus never really taught on the rightness or wrong of homosexuality, and the rest of the Bible is pretty unclear about the whole topic, so it’s hard to say absolutely how we should think about it, so we’d better just leave it open ended and not be too dogmatic one way or another. Maybe gay marriage is ok? Maybe openly gay ordained ministers are acceptable?” This is not the legitimate questioning and doubting that Jesus tolerated in his ministry, but instead, this is really unbelief hiding behind questions. The Bible is very clear for those who are seeking answers to questions of faith. For example, it’s very clear how God views homosexuality; it’s sin, it’s wrong. But stubborn unbelief, like the Pharisees displayed, is not acceptable. There is just no convincing stubborn unbelief. Jesus uses the illustration of children trying to please an audience – they tried to play a joyful song on the flute but nobody danced, then they tried to play a sad song but nobody mourned. There was just no pleasing the crowd. John the Baptist came emphasizing the Law of God, repentance and reformation of life – and the Pharisees didn’t follow that. Then Jesus came along and emphasized grace, love and joy – and the Pharisees in stubborn unbelief didn’t follow that either. They just weren’t about to believe anything other than what they had already believed; they weren’t about to change. That’s stubborn unbelief.

 

Now when we look out at society today what do we see in respect to spiritual openness? On the surface we see a lot of people claiming to be seekers of truth. There are now thousands and thousands of churches designed to attract so-called spiritual seekers. If you look at the numbers of people who attend church and who claim to be Christians you’d think our nation was undergoing spiritual revival or something close to it, based on the apparent spiritual movement among people in culture today. But if you look below the surface what you find is that there is a lot of stubborn unbelief in society today. Oprah Winfrey has a large spiritual network which teaches people New Age spirituality, but if you try to teach these same people biblical truths, most of them will reject it outright. Why? Because it involves God’s absolute truths and God’s authority and God’s accountability. People today mostly want to be spiritual but also want to be in charge of their own spiritual lives and destiny. They aren’t interested in submitting to God or repenting of their sins or trusting in Jesus Christ alone for salvation; they’d rather trust in themselves and find their own way of salvation using bits and pieces from all religions and philosophies. That’s a form of stubborn unbelief also. But God does honor and reward sincere spiritual seekers after truth. That’s why we shouldn’t judge people who have questions about God or question the Bible or have doubts about the Christian faith. We should encourage them to ask their questions and seek out answers. I’ve found in my own life that the first place I want to go when I find myself doubting or entertaining serious questions about Christianity is to some good, solid conservative Christian resource. When I attended Wheaton College I took advantage of being in a solidly conservative Christian environment and asked lots of questions and found lots of answers. This really helped me and has probably saved me from spending all kinds of time wasting away in doubt about my faith. I’ve also been able to get a hold of good, solid Christian books that deal with the questions and doubts I’ve had. That’s very important also. But the point is that it takes some time and it takes some effort to work through doubts and questions and get helpful answers. It requires hitting the books and doing your homework and digging to get answers that help. The Devil would have us put off doing the homework in dealing with doubts. He’d rather have us deny our doubts or perpetually come up with excuses why we can’t seek out answers because he knows that the longer we dwell in doubt the better the chances we’ll end up in unbelief. So it is to his advantage to get us distracted from any serious study. But we should never let that happen. Perhaps the best resource in dealing with doubts is a good, solid conservative Christian church – one that respects the Bible and teaches from it and encourages obedience to it. Having teaching and preaching that covers the major topics of the Christian faith and explains them thoroughly is important. Not everyone can go to Bible College and Seminary, but everyone can attend a good Christian church, or at least the best church around. There we can also meet other Christians who have or are dealing with the same questions we are, and can help us. The lesson is this: even great saints, like John the Baptist, have doubts occasionally, but the greats also work through their doubts to solid faith by asking questions and then getting answers that help them obtain full conviction of faith. Let’s make that our pattern too.

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