We’d like to think we are men and women of character, not influenced by opinions, trends and styles. We’d like to class ourselves as people of principle, unaffected by what others think of us. Why then do we cut our hair in the latest style? Why do we wear the latest fashion? Why do we have large mirrors? Of course we’d like our neighbors to consider us a “normal” family. Of course we’d like those at work to think we have “good taste” in clothing. Of course we’re deeply concerned of what other Christians think of us, especially those we regularly fellowship with! We’d welcome expressions such as a “spiritual” brother, a “godly” sister, a “warm-hearted” believer, a “pillar” of the church, an example of a “disciplined” life, a “virtuous” woman. But what does the Lord think? What we are in His eyes is what we really are. Nothing else counts for eternity.
So Far, The Greatest Man
What then makes someone great in God’s book? Are we sure we’re fighting the right battle? Are we looking at life through God’s eyes? Sooner or later we’ll all give an account to the Lord for how we have invested our life. How are we doing so far? A few years ago I was struck by the way Jesus rated the life of John the Baptist: “I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist” (Mt. 11:11). Why such an elevated view? Greater than Abraham? Moses? King David? Solomon? Greater than the prophet Isaiah who also predicted Christ’s arrival? What did Christ see in John the Baptist to give him such a glowing reference? John’s life is clearly worth exploring.
A Short And Unusual Life
What do we know about John the Baptist? He was a relative of Jesus, just six months older (Lk. 1:36). He was the only son of an elderly couple, Elizabeth and Zechariah the priest, both descendants of Aaron, and described as “upright in the sight of God” (Lk. 1:5-7). Some miracles surrounded his birth, but he himself never performed a miraculous sign (Jn. 10:41). He was beheaded in his early 30s while in prison (Mt. 14:10). What made this short life so special?
You Can’t Please Everybody!
Scriptures do not attempt to hide the fact that John the Baptist was an odd character. In contrast with the priestly “social status” of his father, John displayed an eccentric diet and rough dress code (Mt. 3:4). How did his parents and neighbors view this young non-conformist? Due to the well-known miracles surrounding his birth, many locals had been asking, “What is this child going to be?” (Lk. 1:66). His style was not orthodox. His message was not popular with the religious establishment. In fact, he drew people away from the temple and the God-ordained sacrifices. The people, however, considered John a prophet (Mt. 14:5). As to the local authorities, he was an enigma to king Herod. On the one hand he tried to protect John because it was evident that he was a “righteous and holy man” (Mk. 6:20). But it was not politically convenient to let John speak his mind in public. Herodias saw in John a threat to her sensual free-life style. She hated him, and had him beheaded (Mt. 14:1-12). Evidently John would not fit comfortably in any form of organized religion. Yet, Christ’s words still stand: “Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist.”
Seeking the Lord’s approval may sometimes conflict with the approval of society. Seeking the “well done” from fellow believers may blind us to the necessary conditions for a “well done” from the Lord. Let’s be clear on one thing: a real Godly life will not please everybody. It never has. If we sincerely seek the Lord’s commendation, we must be prepared to face criticism. We are not to use this as an excuse to be anti-social or unnecessarily confrontational. Paul wrote this: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18). What then did the Lord see in John? Four qualities are strongly evident.
1. John was obedient to his divine mission. Unlike the calling of Moses, John’s calling would never lead him to a prominent position. His divine mission was to prepare the way for another who would follow. John was happy with this secondary role and arranged his life to complete this mission. Each one of us is created with a purpose. Each of us has a divine mission. We shine best doing what we are called to do. But John’s obedience wasn’t easy. It is painful not to fulfill the expectations of those we love. Unlike Moses, John had no miracles to increase his popularity rating or establish his ministry. Christ values the enthusiastic and faithful plodding on to complete our task. If we are sure ours is a God-given mission, let’s keep at it.
2. John wanted Christ to increase. “After me,” John preached, “will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie” (Mk. 1:7). The day came when these words of humility were tested. Some of John’s faithful disciples were leaving him to follow Christ (Jn. 1:35-36). Others felt uncomfortable and insecure with this trend. They tried to protect John’s ministry (Jn. 3:23-28). But John himself was delighted. His ambition wasn’t to create a religious institution. His goal wasn’t to replace the failing Jewish priesthood. His satisfaction didn’t come from numbers or popularity. He likened his feelings of happiness with those of a young man whose best friend is about to get married: “That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less” (Jn. 3: 29-30). Is Christ becoming more central in our life? Is the presence of Christ more evident in our ministry and service? Are we happy when friends leave us to follow Christ more closely? Sooner or later the day will come when we should “let go” and “step off” stage. Not to do so would hinder the work of Christ. Let’s do so joyfully!
3. John actively rejected sin. When friends from the home land visit missionaries, they usually react strongly to the dirt, noise and poverty all around them. But after a few weeks or months it feels normal. The dirt, noise and poverty are still around, but we’ve adjusted. In a similar way, we can get used to sin. The first time we sinned, we felt guilty. We knew it was wrong. But now, we don’t think twice about it. The first time we noticed some strange unscriptural practice in our church we couldn’t sleep. But we’ve gotten used to it. In fact, we now cooperate with it. John the Baptist was different. Personally he was known to be “a righteous and holy man” (Mk. 6:20). He hated that which was wrong, unjust, perverse. He was not one for cover-ups. He lived convicted that sin was sin regardless of how common it was or who did it. He devoted himself to promoting repentance which would show itself in changed behavior. It was this denouncing of the evil practice of influential people that cost him his life. If we are seeking the approval of secular or religious leaders, we are prone to turn a blind eye to their sin. Do we remain passive in the face of sin? Do we react when we become conscious of sin in our life, our family or our church? Christ valued John’s radical rejection of sin. He still does.
4. John burned with passion for Christ. Conversations can be somewhat calm until you hit a theme of mutual interest. Have you noticed how some people wake up at the topics of football, cricket, education, human rights, plants, cooking, computers, the latest electronic gadget? I find it surprising and sad, that even among Christians, the person of Christ seems to evoke little passion. We struggle to know what to say as we come together to worship Him. But this is not the case when it comes to our pet doctrines or religious distinctives. Over these we can discourse for hours. We can even get emotional! Paul wrote, “For to me, to live is Christ” (Phil. 1:21). Christ was also the passion of John’s life. Jesus explained to some Jews, “John was a lamp that burned and gave light, and you chose for a time to enjoy his light” (Jn. 5:35). Picture in your mind a burning Roman lamp. John’s passion for Christ consumed him, and in the process he gave off light and warmth. A passionate, Spirit-filled Christian life is very attractive. It is contagious. Would those who know us use the word “passionate” to describe our Christian life? Does our talk and life-style set others “on fire” for our Lord? Those privileged men who walked with Jesus to Emmaus exclaimed. “Were not our hearts burning within us while He talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Lk. 24:32). It is only communion with Christ that sets our hearts on fire. May He be the burning passion of our life.
Are you well thought of?
Who thinks well of us? We tend to place too much value on that which is temporal. We prize the applause and good wishes of fellow mortals. The approval of men cannot be worth more than the men themselves. And what are we worth? “You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (Jas. 4:14). “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). Those we work with may consider us exemplary workers. Our neighbors may call us responsible citizens. Those we worship with may describe us as doctrinally sound and very spiritual. But how does Christ see us? What we are in His eyes is what we are. Nothing more.
By Philip Nunn
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org