A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on February 24, 2019.
When Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities. Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written,
“‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one 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 suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear. “But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates, “‘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, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.” Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you” (Matthew 11:1–24).
Even the most faithful of Christians can become discouraged from time to time. Sometimes the conditions of your life differ significantly from your expectations. Perhaps you trained up a child in the way he should go (Prov. 22:6), but the older he got the more he departed from it. Perhaps you committed your work to the Lord (Prov. 16:3) only to watch your plans demolished. Perhaps you brought a full tithe to the Lord (Mal. 3:10), but nothing poured down from heaven. Perhaps you turned away from evil (Prov. 3:7-8) and were rewarded with sickness and sorrow. When Job prayed and offered sacrifices to God, as he walked faithfully before God in thought, word, and deed, I doubt he expected the sudden death of all his children, the devastation of his wealth, the loss of his health, and the condemnation of his friends. The dark providences of life can lead to discouragement and even doubt.
Such was the case of the man of whom Jesus said, “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater.” From conception, John the Baptist was called by God, blessed by God, and faithfully served God. He feared nothing or no one but God. He called the religious elite of his day hypocrites and serpents. He called out the sins of his people by name. He even confronted the adultery of the king, and for this he received the reward of prison. What did John receive for his faithful ministry? Health? Wealth? Personal prosperity? How about prison?
Was John doing what he was born to do? Was he faithfully serving God, confronting sin, preparing the way? Was he serving in the esteemed spirit of Elijah as prophesied? Was he not chosen to baptize, baptizing even Jesus? Yes, he was faithfully obeying his calling, and in the providence of God he was imprisoned. You might say that He suffered for doing exactly what God told him to do. And, it was in prison that John perhaps became discouraged. It was in this moment that he, who so boldly testified of Christ, witnessed the Spirit’s descent like a dove, heard the voice from heaven, began to doubt. Why? Because the circumstances of this life can lead us to become discouraged and even doubt, perhaps thinking this is not the way life is “supposed” to go. And then, it does. How easy it is to look at difficult circumstances and think: This can’t be right. The dark providences of life can indeed be as dark as John’s prison cell.
In a moment of discouragement and doubt, John sends his disciples to Jesus with this question: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” It is as if John is saying, I preached of the judgment to come and the imminent coming of the King to judge (Matt. 3:10,12), but justice had not been served. Jesus was preaching, healing, and blessing, while John was wasting away in prison. Where is the justice in that? I don’t know what response John anticipated, perhaps a simple yes would do, but what he received was exactly what he needed, encouragement for the discouraged.
Encouragement for the Discouraged
Jesus told John, “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” Upon hearing the report, I would imagine, just as he had in his mother’s womb, John leapt with joy (Luke 1:41), because Jesus’ words reveal the fulfillment of what was prophesied of the Christ to come. God said through the prophet Isaiah, “Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save’” (Isa. 35:4). And what would be the identifying characteristics of this salvation? What would encourage those with an “anxious heart”? It was prophesied, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy” (Isa. 35:5-6a). John asked, “Are you the One who is to come, or shall we look for another? And, in Jesus’s answer John heard this simple truth: He is the One; there is no other. Encouragement for the Christian is found in Christ alone!
John had come, as Malachi had prophesied, preparing the way of the Lord. As God’s mighty messenger, the people of Israel had flocked to him simply for his message. He preached not in the convenience of the city but in the inconvenient wilderness. He clothed himself not in the attire of his day but in the strange attire of a reclusive prophet, like Elijah before him. He spoke the prophetic Word of God not to get “followed” or “liked,” nor to build his brand or gain celebrity status. His entire ministry existed for one purpose: to point others to Christ.
Rightly did he teach his disciples, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30), because as great as John was, “the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater.” Redemptive history points not to prophets, priests, and kings of old but exclusively to our Prophet, Priest, and King, Jesus Christ, who saves even the least like me. While we may be discouraged in our circumstances wondering if we have missed something, the Scriptures direct us to find our encouragement exclusively in Christ. As the Apostle Paul confessed, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:11-13). What did John need to hear from Jesus? What did Paul understand in all circumstances? What do you and I need to hear every day?
The gospel that saves us is also the gospel that sustains us. The Good News that a sinner like me may be saved not by my works but by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ is not a once and done gospel message. I need to hear repeatedly, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). Daily I must remember that He who began a good work in me will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6). Because regardless of the circumstances of life, “those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29). Being conformed to Christ is a refining process for sinners like you and me and includes all of the unexpected circumstances of this life.
So the Christian cliché goes: God has a plan for your life. It’s a true statement but rarely interpreted rightly. God’s plan for John included Herod’s prison and eventual execution. I doubt John would have chosen such a conclusion to so great a life. But, God’s plan for John’s life had purpose, and it wasn’t personal fulfillment. John’s life stands not as a lone reed shaken by the wind but as a tree among a forest of saints whom God has saved by His grace to be conformed to Christ for His glory.
The circumstances of our lives may change like the wind, but “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8). And, in the midst of discouragement and doubt, in the midst of trials and tribulations, in sickness or in health, we can say with Job, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth” (Job 19:25). If you believe on the Lord Jesus Christ for your salvation, be not discouraged: He is the one; there is no other. But apart from Christ, there is only discouragement for the unbelieving.
Discouragement for the Unbelieving
That John the Baptist was the great prophetic forerunner of Christ, that Jesus is the Christ of whom John prophesied is the testimony of Scripture. This does not mean, however, that all who hear the truth believe it. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” but few are willing to listen. Like the Pied Piper, the devil has deceived the world into believing that God must dance to its happy tune or cry with its lamentation. John the Baptist, the prophet of God, solemnly preached and religiously fasted, and his piety was rendered demonic by the world. Jesus, the Son of God, preached Good News, feasted with sinners, and showered the people with blessings, and His grace was rendered indulgence by the world. The problem lies not with the Old Covenant prophet nor our New Covenant Lord but with unbelief. “Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”
This should be heard as a warning by everyone with ears to hear. If you are trying to make Christ and His Word more palatable to the world, you are on a fool’s errand. As the ministry of John and Jesus demonstrate, the world will twist revealed truth into a lie rather than submit to the Word of God. Playing the world’s tune might keep you out of Herod’s prison, but it will not keep the world from destruction.
The prophets preached to the pagan strongholds of Tyre and Sidon, but unbelief continued. Jesus worked miracles throughout the villages of Galilee, where the works of mercy were received, but the gospel was not believed. So powerful is unbelief that you could receive your sight yet be spiritually blind; be enabled to walk yet standing in wickedness; be cleansed from leprosy yet unclean within; enabled to hear yet without ears to listen; resurrected from the dead yet spiritually dead. You could even hear the gospel of Jesus Christ yet find Him all the more offensive.
Belief is not circumstantial but is a gift of God’s grace and must be received as such. You cannot will it to be, and it will never be on your terms. Try harder and do better, exhaust your efforts on the treadmill of works, if you please, but the gift of grace is just that, a gift so that no one may boast. “If I must boast,” the Apostle Paul said, “I will boast of the things that show my weakness . . . so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:9–10).
John finished his charge not with prestige but in prison, not in comfort but continuing in Christ-like conformity. By worldly standards, he is remembered more for his eccentricities than his prophecies. But in the kingdom of heaven, he rejoiced to be less and Christ more, resting in the truth of the gospel. Borrowing from Hebrews, we could also say of John, “Through his faith, though he died, he still speaks” (Heb. 11:4). For a provocative juvenile dance and a petty party pledge, John the Baptist lost his head. Do not mourn his death. He did not die in vain but in Christ, knowing He is the One; there is no other.