John Bradshaw - John the Baptist
This is It Is Written. I'm John Bradshaw. Thanks for joining me. Less than 20 miles from Leicester and a little less from Coventry is the English town of Lutterworth, which is in the county of Leicestershire. It's the town where Frank Whittle carried out much of the development of the very first turbojet engine ever created, basically singlehandedly invented by Whittle. In Lutterworth there's a prominent memorial to Frank Whittle, and there's a road named after him. Whittle even made the list of the 100 greatest Britons of all time, at number 42, way ahead of Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented the internet, and far ahead of David Livingston, the famous missionary. But there's another notable Lutterworth resident who didn't make the list, and you might think he should have.
John Wycliffe was the minister at St. Mary's Church in Lutterworth, and it was there in Lutterworth that Wycliffe, and likely some assistants, completed the first translation of the Bible into English. His work was absolutely groundbreaking. And although the printing press hadn't been invented and just few people could access the Bible, Wycliffe was a reformer before the Reformation began in the 1500s. He died in 1384, and he inspired the Lollard movement, which was a reform movement in England. Wycliffe has been called the Morning Star of the Reformation. He heralded the Reformation, really. He was a massive influence on John Hus, the Czech or the Bohemian reformer. Wycliffe campaigned against abuses and false teachings in the church, and he was a precursor of what was to come when Martin Luther stood up for the teachings of the Bible two and a half centuries or so later.
We're continuing our series, "Great Characters of the Bible," and we're looking at one of the great influential personalities of the Bible, someone who, like Wycliffe from Lutterworth, was a forerunner. This man was the herald of the Messiah Himself. John the Baptist came into the world via a miracle birth. He met with a tragic death. In between times, he lit up the world as he prepared the way for Jesus' ministry. His life was a life of faithfulness and an example of faithfulness to God. John the Baptist was the son of a priest, Zachariah, and his mother, Elizabeth, was related to Mary, the mother of Jesus. The Bible says that Zachariah and Elizabeth "were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. ...they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years".
While Zachariah was ministering in the temple, an angel appeared to him. The angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John". The angel said, "He will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also 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". This child was set apart by God for a special mission. Zachariah and Elizabeth took that seriously. They raised him a certain way. They raised him to avoid some of the destructive lifestyle practices that are so common today.
One of the lessons is, if you want your child to do something great for God, raise them as though you intend for them to do something great for God. Raise them as though the service of God is paramount, as though nothing could be more important. Raise them knowing that God has called them, that they're set apart for something special. Few people just stumble into greatness. Now, the other thing I want you to notice is the prophetic fulfillment in John the Baptist's ministry. Notice Luke 1, verse 17: "He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, 'to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,' and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord".
This is a fulfillment of Malachi 4, verse 5, the last prophecy of the Old Testament: "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to [the] fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse". Just as the prophet Elijah turned the hearts of the people of Israel back towards God, remember? How long are you gonna flip-flop back and forth "between two opinions? If [God] is God, follow Him," Elijah said. John the Baptist would turn the hearts of the people towards the heart of the God of heaven. John the Baptist was a modern Elijah, coming in the spirit and power of Elijah, bearing Elijah's message of faithfulness to God. Jesus even referred to him as such, telling His disciples, "Elijah [is] already come".
Now, that was John that He was talking about. A special child raised for a special purpose. Mary spent three months staying with Elizabeth and Zachariah. "And it happened, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit". Elizabeth said that the baby "leaped...for joy". She then said those now famous but often misused words. To Mary she said, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb"! The Messiah and the forerunner of the Messiah were together those three months in that Judean town before Mary went home again. When John's father named the boy, "fear came on all who dwelt around them; and all these sayings were discussed throughout all the hill country of Judea. And all those who heard them kept them in their hearts, saying, 'What kind of child will this be?' And the hand of the Lord was with him".
Luke 1 is the longest chapter in the New Testament, and it deals almost entirely with John the Baptist. It concludes with Zachariah saying these words: "'And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest; for you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God, with which the Dayspring from on high has visited us; to give light to those who sit in darkness and [in] the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.' So the child grew and became strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his manifestation to Israel". And what a manifestation it was. This is the one who would say, "Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world"! We'll look at the ministry of this remarkable Bible character when I return.
Thanks for joining me on It Is Written. We're continuing our series, "Great Characters of the Bible," and we're looking at the life and ministry of John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Messiah. His was a miracle birth, born to a woman the Bible describes as barren, with both parents being well advanced in years. He was born to call the attention of the people to the advent of the Messiah. Starting in Matthew 3, verse 1, we read, "In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!' For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying: 'The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.'" John announced the Messiah would soon be revealed, and he made an impression. "Now John himself was clothed in camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey".
Now, what about these locusts? Locusts, the insect, weren't unclean. So it wouldn't have been a problem for John as a Jew to eat locusts. But looking at the Greek word used there, this could have been carob pods; that's pods from the carob tree. Whatever it was exactly, probably wasn't insects, we know that John ate simply. His lifestyle was not extravagant. And we also know that we are glad that he didn't ask us over for dinner. But his message is more vital than his lifestyle, although without one he probably wouldn't have had the other. The Bible says, "Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, 'Brood of vipers! 'Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance.'"
And this is where the ministry and message of John the Baptist starts to get a little pointed and very relevant for us today. John the Baptist was a reformer leading a revival in Israel. Crowds flocked to the river to be baptized. People came from near and far, and John called the people to repentance. The religious leaders had come to John, but it was clear to John that they were there for appearances, and that repentance wasn't their prime objective. John makes something clear here that a lot of modern revivals seem to almost ignore. When a person comes to Christ, that person comes in a spirit of repentance, not merely to be filled with the Holy Spirit, not just to shout and celebrate, not only for the healing, not only to sing or praise or to enjoy the praise team. God calls a person to repentance. This was Jesus' message. He started his ministry by saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand"!
And John was saying it isn't enough to just look the part; it isn't enough to just go through the motions. You know, the privilege of a believer is to repent, to experience sorrow for sin, and to turn away from sin. Back in Luke, John got specific. He told them not to say, "'We have Abraham as our father.' For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones," he said. Many people there, especially among the leadership, felt that their Jewishness somehow qualified them as holy. Their genealogy, their birth certificate, that somehow that was enough. And it was proof in and of itself that they were God's true people. That's just like saying today, "I'm a church member, and so, therefore, I'm a genuine Christian".
John said that "every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire". It's important that the life of a believer manifests the fruit of faith. "So the people asked him, saying, 'What shall we do then?' [And John] answered..., 'He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.'" To the tax collectors, he said, "Collect no more than what is appointed for you". He told the soldiers, "Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages". This is what revival looks like. John the Baptist was flipping the script on these folks. Tax collectors were cheats. Soldiers were rough. John was calling people to reorder their lives in a way that measured with the will of Almighty God.
Now, it's true: God accepts you as you are. Amen! He accepts the worst sinner. He welcomes all the prodigal sons and all the prodigal daughters. In the Bible, Jesus accepted the immoral, the demon-possessed, the wasteful, the irresponsible. He accepted people of His race and people of other races. But what happened next was that Jesus shone light on the pathway they were walking, and did two things. He urged them to live new lives, and He empowered them to live new lives. The first chapter of the New Testament says that Jesus came into the world to "save His people from their sins". Not just from the penalty of those sins, but also from the power of those sins. Jesus came into the world so that sin does not have to rule you.
That message is all the way through the New Testament. "Sin shall not have dominion over you". Romans 6:14. "Put off...the old man...and... put on...the new man... in true righteousness and holiness". Ephesians, chapter 4. "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new". That's 2 Corinthians 5 and verse 17. We can't forgot this: "The wages of sin is death". Sin separates a person from God. Christianity isn't a cover for your sinful heart. It's the remedy for your sinful heart. And that's liberating. Most people really don't want to live in sin. Most people don't want to go on acting the fool in their lives, letting other people down, embarrassing themselves and their family, hurting other people. Yet anyone with any experience at all in church realizes there's a lot of sin hidden away even in church. There's a lot that's not hidden.
Now, there's a balance. God welcomes the sinner, but once you come to Christ, there's some growing to do. The religious leaders John was addressing weren't inexperienced baby Christians; they were hypocrites who knew better, but they were using their religion to enrich themselves and to lift themselves up at the expense of others. John the Baptist was a reformer, and inherent in his call to be made new by God is the promise that God can make any person new. He's one of the great characters of the Bible, John the Baptist. Unfortunately, he had one of the most unfortunate ends. More on John the Baptist in just a moment.
Jesus said that John the Baptist was more than a prophet. He asked one day, "What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind"? The tall reeds that grew on the banks of the Jordan River would bend in the direction of the wind. John the Baptist wasn't like that. He wasn't like the politician who finds the will of the people and yields to that, even if it isn't the right course. John the Baptist was true to principle, and that conviction was what ultimately cost him his life. Herod Antipas was familiar with John. Herod ruled over Galilee for Rome. He'd likely heard John preach. John had said to him, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife".
Herod seemed to have been able to tolerate John's directness, but his wife, actually his brother Philip's wife, at least in the first place, was livid. Both of them, that's Herod and Herodias, had divorced their spouses. Their living arrangement was well and truly against Jewish law. John rebuked the king, but the king's wife was furious. While "Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just and holy man, and he protected him. And when he heard him, he did many things, and heard his gladly. Herodias held it against him and wanted to kill him". John the Baptist was imprisoned. And it's interesting to see that doubt even crept into the experience of John the Baptist. Luke 7:19. "And John, calling two of his disciples to him, sent them to Jesus, saying, 'Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?'"
But instead of sitting them down and helping them to see how Jesus was the fulfillment of prophecy, Jesus simply let His actions speak. "He cured many of infirmities, afflictions, and evil spirits; and to many blind He gave sight". And then Jesus told them to go and tell John what they had seen and heard. And that was enough for John. One day Herod threw himself a big birthday party and invited a who's who of Galilee to attend. Herodias' daughter was brought in to dance for the gathering, and Herod made the first of a series of colossal mistakes. He promised to give her whatever she wanted, "up to half [of] my kingdom," he said. Now, that was a seriously rash promise. Herod the big talker, showing off in front of his friends.
Now, the young lady did what any young woman would do. When given the opportunity to acquire a fortune, she asked her mother. College tuition, Mother? A nice new car? Land? A home? Homes? What should I ask for? This was her big opportunity. She could set herself up for life. She was shocked to hear her mother's reply, but not as shocked as Herod. And here's where he made another mistake. When the girl said, "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter," Herod should have said, "Oh, no, I didn't mean that". Everyone at the party would have understood. They'd have said, "Oh, for sure, you can't go asking for something like that, no way". But Herod was a coward. The Bible says he "was exceedingly sorry," but he dispatched an executioner just the same, and John's head was brought on a plate.
Do you think silencing the voice of John settled Herod's heart any? Guilt would have eaten away at him. That's what guilt does. That's why you need to make your peace with God. A man in California who was involved in the death of a 19-year-old man, 25 years before, went to a television station and confessed what he had done. He said that since that time he felt absolutely horrible every day. "Every minute of every day has been a nightmare". He said that the 19-year-old who died "never even got to have a life, and neither did I". That's what guilt will do. Do you think you get away with it? It'll eat you up. In 2016, a 91-year-old man in Canada confessed to murdering a young woman in London, England, 70 years before, in 1946. He didn't even know the young woman's name. But a newspaper reported that he wrestled with his conscience and wanted to clear his conscience before he died. No confession had ever come so long after a crime in British legal history. That's what guilt does. It's hard to live with. It's important to settle things with God.
And you know what God says: "Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon". Isaiah 55 and verse 7. Now, you might wonder why Jesus didn't intervene to deliver John. Jesus knew that John would come through, and He knew that John's example would be an encouragement for thousands upon thousands who would walk the same road in later years. It had to be a comfort to John Hus as he languished in a prison cell in Constance, in what's now Germany; to William Tyndale, the great Bible translator, who was executed for his faith just outside of Brussels in Belgium in 1536.
John's example was a, a comfort to Ridley and Latimer, who were martyred in Oxford, England. It's said that Latimer said to Ridley, "Play the man, Master Ridley: we shall this day light such a candle by God's grace in England, as, I trust, shall never be put out". They were going where John had already been. Patrick Hamilton, who was burned at the stake in St. Andrews, Scotland. The martyrs' memorials you see around the world, they commemorate that people really gave their lives for their faithfulness to Jesus, and the experience of John the Baptist would have encouraged every one of them. John the Baptist's experience shows us that sometimes, well, sometimes it just doesn't work out in this world as we would like it to work out, or as we think it should.
John the Baptist accepted the call to herald the Messiah. He did just that. Was it a disappointment that he died? Of course. But God never leads you anywhere that you wouldn't choose to go if you could see the end from the beginning. His was a lonely life. His was "the voice of one crying in the wilderness". He never filled a hall or a stadium, didn't write a best-selling book. He didn't see the blind receive their sight. He didn't see the, the dead raised to life. But he was an example of what a life of faithfulness looks like. John the Baptist was committed to God. God was honored by his life. And if you embrace God's special call for your life, whatever that is, wherever you are, your life can be a life of faithfulness, carrying out God's purposes for you.
John approached life with a certain attitude. You might remember that John once said, speaking of Jesus, "He must increase, but I must decrease". John the Baptist came to lift Jesus up, to direct people to Jesus. Now, how is it with you? Have you reached out to that same Jesus? Have you surrendered your life to Him? Oh, no, don't think that Jesus wants to take anything away from you. He wants to add: peace, real happiness, confidence, eternity. He wants to forgive you and give you everlasting life. Jesus said that there was none "greater than John the Baptist". One day you'll get to meet him for yourself, if you'll take hold of Jesus and believe that God's grace is for you today.
Our Father in heaven, the life of John the Baptist stands as an example, a life cut short, tragically, but a life dedicated to You. We learn from John the Baptist. We learn from his doubt; we learn from Your patience with him that God knows that sometimes our faith gets shaken. But as long as we trust in the living Christ, things will be okay. We learn from the message of John the Baptist, who called people to repent of their sin and to live lives of faithfulness.
Friend, let me ask you today, how is it with you and the Lord? How are things between you and God? If they're not great, why don't you pray a prayer right now that says, "Lord, let's fix things". If you aren't standing in the right relationship with God, how about we say to God right now, "Lord, save me, change me, pick me up, transform me, give me a repentant spirit".
Lord, we pray for those things now. And we can go from this place, from this moment, knowing that You hear us, that You would change us, that eternity is ours through faith in Jesus Christ. In Jesus' name we pray, amen.