The Ministry of John the Baptist

Notes on message brought 21 March 2010: “The Ministry of John the Baptist”

Today we look at Luke’s account  of  the ministry of John the Baptist, which we can find in Luke 3 v 1-18.

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We will look at this passage under five headings:

  • 1.   The Context

What is the context in which Luke tells us about the ministry of this remarkable prophet?

  • Historical length– Luke goes to great lengths, here as elsewhere, to   set these events in their correct historical setting. The reason? These events really happened. They are not part of a fantasy: they are true historical events. Luke is a meticulous historian.
  • Political – John arrives onto a scene torn apart by a mixture of the spiritual authority, ( High Priests)  secular kingshop (Herod) and Roman tyranny (Pilate). In a world torn apart by factions, politics and political manoeuvring,  all are completely upstaged by this wild man from the desert with a message from God.
  • Cultural – the vast majority of those hearing  John were Jews, with an overwhelming sense of their spiritual superiority. John cuts right across this by insisting that whoever we are, whatever privileges we may have had in our upbringing,  only by repentance can we approach God.

Spiritual –Luke, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, applies Isaiah 40 to John the Baptist. John’s ministry is effectively one of preparation for those who wish to see the salvation of God. He spoke to people to help them get ready for God to work in their lives, and challenged them to clear the decks for the arrival of the Messiah.

  • 2.   The Content

What was the content of what John had to bring to the world?

  • Baptism – John came baptising people. It was not a Christian baptism in the sense that it did not include an element of believing in Jesus. It was consistent with the practice at the time of ceremonial washing. But the baptism of John is important none the less, because it symbolises the repentance which was at the heart of John’s message.
  • Flee from judgement – those who came to John were described by him as fleeing from the coming  judgement. In a world full of religious complacency, how important it is for us to realise that we are speaking to people who are under the judgement of God, and who are in desparate need of a way  out. John’s greeting  to the crowd, describing them as a “brood of vipers” is hardly  a welcoming message – but sometimes  people need to be shocked out of their complacency
  • Repentance– if there is one word you would associate with the ministry of John the Baptist, it is the word “repent”. The word means to turn round, to re-think, to radically re-evaluate our lives. Who ever we are, whatever background we come from, we are required to turn our backs on past sin and to turn to God. Unless the foundation stone of repentance is firmly in  place in our lives there is no way into God’s presence.
  • Forgiveness of sins –  this is the greatest news of all, and the greatest need that we have. The difficulty we have is that we do not access god’s forgiveness, because we do not want to think of ourselves as sinners.
  • A  Changed Life – John spells out what is required for us to repent. It onvovles a changed life. For each category of people present john spells out what is required. And where there is no change of life, we are quite entitled to question whether there is any real evidence of salvation. Has our conversion   resulted in a change of lifestyle? John’s message to us is “produce fruit in accordance with repentance”
  • 3.   The  Constraints

Every one who is merely a human being has some limitations on his or her influence and ministry John the Baptist, like David before, reached the point where god said, in effect, “this far  and no further”.

  • Just the opening act… John    was only a support act in the great drama that was about to engulf Palestine. He did  not preach the whole gospel – just the element of repentance.
  • Points to the Messiah – John’s ministry points to the Messiah. It has always been true that all legitimate ministry points only to the Christ. As Paul was to say years later “we do not preach ourselves…but Christ as Lord”
  • Predicts the ministry of the Holy Spirit – John accurately predicts the coming of the Messiah and says that  his ministry will be characterised by an outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit. However, the aspect of the ministry of the Holy Spirit that John chooses to highlight is the cleansing, purifying, sanctifying work of cleansing carried out by the Spirit of Jesus. Are we reckoning with this when we turn to Christ?
  • 4.   The Cost

One of the great examples to us is the cost paid by John the Baptist to fulfil his calling. What cost are we prepared to pay to see the kingdom of God come?

  • The cost of preparation – after an extraordinary start to his life, this man has spent 30 years in preparation, in circumstances that he would not have chosen, an inhospitable wilderness.
  • The cost of obscurity – even when you have a major ministry promised to you, it can be hard spending time in obscurity. John had to endure a period of obscurity observing the spiritual  malaise around him, until the time came for God to fire the starting- pistol.
  • The cost of ministry – when finally the ministry of John the Baptist starts he has to  handle the pressures of controversy ,busy-ness and challenge
  • The cost of standing down  – when Jesus arrived, John has to willingly and happily take back seat. Only those who have been there know how hard that can be.
  • The cost of martyrdom – John’s ministry ends in his arrest for speaking the truth, imprisonment in foul surrounding, and finally beheading, What an inauspicious end to a life of serving God. However, the fact is that this is ultimate privilege that an individual can have – to suffer and to be martyred for our Lord. What price are we prepared to pay?

The endorsement of Jesus – all the cost associated with John the Baptist fade into the background as we realise that he was commended and endorsed by Jesus in the most ringing of terms. Are we prepared to pay any price, go to any length for the endorsement of our master, in order to receive his “well done”?

5.   The Challenge

So, as we draw to a close, in what ways does Luke’s account of John the Baptist challenge us?

  • The challenge of the person – John the Baptist put popularity and self-interest to death in order to serve his master. Do we?.
  • The challenge of repentance –John called people to repentance: do we live our lives in repentance and brokenness?
  • The challenge of the message – John made repentance the centre-piece of his message. Do we ?
  • The challenge to surrender – John lived a life of surrender to God and challenges us to do the same.
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