I take it that all genuine Christians will want to effectively serve their Lord and fully do his will. There would be many ways that we can help ourselves along the way in doing this, but one would be to see what the first believers said and did.
And one of the very first New Testament believers we read about is John the Baptist. His life is quite important, and we can learn much about Christian ministry when we examine how he served the Lord. The main places we can read about the life and times of John the Baptist are in these chapters:
Matthew 3, 11, 14
Mark 1, 6
Luke 1, 3, 7
Since I have been reading in Luke today, let me run with some of what we find there. One thing we discover early on is of course his divine calling. Luke 1 speaks to this in some detail, and there we are informed about this heavenly calling while he was still in his mother Elizabeth’s womb.
All Christians today need to know that they too have a divine call on their lives, and it is knowledge of this that will help sustain them through the dark and difficult times. A whole article could be written just on this one aspect, but I want to move on to some other important matters as found in John’s life.
One very crucial element of the ministry of John the Baptist was the sort of gospel he preached. We are told in no uncertain terms in all three Synoptic gospels that the message of John was quite clear: it was a gospel of repentance. Luke 3:3 puts it this way: “He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
Repentance was a foundational, core component of his preaching. Yet many Christians today downplay or reject altogether the notion that our message should focus on repentance. Many claim that this might have been something John was to do, but not us.
They could not be more wrong. Repentance is the core message found throughout the entire New Testament. There is no gospel if we leave out repentance. Consider just a few passages on this:
Matthew 3:1-2 – John preached repentance
Mark 1:14-15 – Jesus preached repentance
Mark 6:12 – The disciples preached repentance
Acts 2:37-38- Peter preached repentance
Acts 17:30 – Paul preached repentance
2 Peter 3:9 – God demands repentance
Another ministry tip that emerges from the life of John is how we present the gospel. Today we live in an age where everyone is offended at the slightest thing. So most preachers, teachers, pastors and evangelists walk around on tiptoes, hoping not to upset anybody or offend anyone.
They have watered down the gospel into a sickly, sweet syrup that everyone will like. All the hard bits of the gospel are omitted or weakened so that people will come to “seeker-sensitive” services and have their ears tickled. There they will be entertained, amused and kept happy, but most of the gospel will be nowhere to be found.
John would have none of that men-pleasing, and none of that sugar-coating of the gospel. Indeed, simply read what appears to be his first words uttered to the crowds (at least as found in Luke’s version of events). Consider the very stark and harsh preaching of John as found in Luke 3:7-14
John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
“What should we do then?” the crowd asked. John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
Wow, if a modern pastor would have been ministering to these crowds, he likely would have said something like this: “It is terrific to see all of you. Thank you so much for coming out today. I hope you all will have a really great time. We have a lot of entertainment and celebrities for you, and don’t forget to get your free coffee and cakes at the café afterwards.”
Um, how did John begin? “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” Hmm, that is quite a different message, and quite a different delivery style. Why do I suspect that the great majority of Christian leaders today would condemn John as being far too unloving, ungracious, and un-Christlike?
They would never invite this guy into their churches or to their Bible conferences. They would condemn him for being negative and harsh and turning people off. Well, if I have to choose between the two, I will run with John any day of the week.
Sure, there is a place for tact, for prudence, and for not unnecessarily turning people off. But most Christian leaders today have gone way too far in the other direction of never saying anything controversial or of never rocking the boat. They above all want their congregations to be happy and to keep coming back.
I wonder how many of John’s listeners kept coming back? How many of his listeners were so repulsed and offended by what John was saying that they got up and left, never to return? Today most Christian leaders would call that a failure! I like how Ravenhill once put it: “Finney preached and sometimes the whole congregation would get up and leave! That’s good preaching.”
Let me offer one final ministry tip from the life and work of John the Baptist. What we find in Luke 3:19-20 is especially shocking to so many of today’s trendy, don’t-rock-the-boat Christians: “But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison.”
And as we read more fully in the accounts found in Matthew and Mark, because of all this, John was beheaded. Umm, how might so many believers today respond to this? “But Christians are not supposed to waste time talking about sexual sin. That is not our calling. We are just supposed to love people into the Kingdom. We cannot turn people off by focusing on their private sex lives. We are not to judge anyone!”
Many of these men-pleasers would be gobsmacked that John actually did this. However, the forerunner to Jesus knew it was his responsibility before God to do this very thing. It was what he was called to do. It was a core part of the gospel message: preaching on sin and repentance. Too bad so few leaders today refuse to do this.
Indeed, the majority of even our evangelical pastors have likely not said one word about the current homosexual marriage debate. They are compromising cowards who have sold out the gospel to keep the masses happy. Of interest, I just read about this yesterday as well. As we find with Pilate and Jesus in Mark 15;12-15:
“What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked them. “Crucify him!” they shouted. “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!” Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.
Hmm, how many church leaders today have the same set of priorities: to satisfy the crowd? They care far more what the masses say than what God says. They will do all they can to keep the crowds happy, entertained, and keep them coming back.
They will never be in a position to get arrested, let alone beheaded, for the way they act or for what they preach. They will always be “safe”. But they will not be safe in the eyes of our Lord. They will be rebuked and spat out of his mouth. These lukewarm leaders are an abomination to him. I stand with John.
Oh, and by the way, if some folks are still not convinced that John serves as any sort of model for Christian ministry today, perhaps they need to read what Jesus said about the Baptist. He gave him a very big rap indeed, as Matthew 11:11 informs us: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
True, you and I are not forerunners to Jesus as John was. But I think that his life and his teaching are not irrelevant to us either. What he did and what he said are well worth running with, even by believers today. They are such a welcome contrast to so much of what passes for Christianity today.
In sum, I am sure that John the Baptist would fully concur with the words of Tozer: “The desire to please may be commendable enough under certain circumstances, but when pleasing men means displeasing God it is an unqualified evil and should have no place in the Christian’s heart. To be right with God has often meant to be in trouble with men.”