December 15, 2019
Who is John the Baptist? Well, two prophets in the Old Testament prophesied of him hundreds of years before he was born! Isaiah the prophet calls him a voice crying in the wilderness, making straight the way of the Lord (Isaiah 40). Malachi calls John, Elijah the prophet, who will prepare for the day of the Lord by turning hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers (Malachi 4:5-6). The angel Gabriel, the very same angel, who announced the birth of Jesus Christ to the Virgin Mary, also announced the birth of John the Baptist to his father Zechariah. The angel said that John will be great before the Lord; that he will be filled with the Holy Spirit from the womb; that he would turn the hearts of fathers to their children and make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” (Luke 1:14-16)
And then, John’s father Zechariah, being filled with the Holy Spirit, prophesies to his son John at his circumcision saying, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sun shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:67, 76-79). And Jesus Christ himself calls John more than a prophet (Matthew 11:9) and even the greatest of those born of women. This is how the Holy Spirit, prophets, angels, priests, and our Lord Jesus himself speak of John, the greatest of all prophets and men!
And what about John? Did he do these great things which God, angels, and the greatest of men proclaimed him to do? He certainly did. The Spirit of God drove John into the wilderness and the Word of God came out of John’s mouth. John spoke with fire and brimstone without fear. He told everyone, whether they were hated tax-collectors and sinners or feared and honored Pharisees and scribes to repent for the kingdom of God was coming. He called them brood of vipers and told them to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. Yet, John also preached the Gospel. In full confidence, he proclaimed that Jesus who came after him was before him. He confessed him to be his God and Redeemer. John willingly lost disciples by pointing to Jesus and proclaiming, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” (John 1:29) And his disciples left him for Jesus (John 1:35-37).
John was the greatest preacher who ever lived. He was the greatest prophet too! While Isaiah and Malachi announced the coming of the Christ and longed to see it, John saw Jesus with his own eyes and correctly identified him as the Christ and Savior of the world! John was the greatest man ever born. Jesus himself says so. John had a stronger faith and more confidence in Christ than anyone. He is the best. He is better than you and me; don’t try to deny it. Yet, John sits in prison. And hearing of the wonderful works of Christ, he sends a couple disciples to ask Jesus an important question. “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
How can this be? How can such a question come from John’s mouth? Prophets proclaimed that John would be the one to identify Christ. An angel of the Lord declared that John would prepare the way for Christ. John spoke by the Holy Spirit. He had already many times proclaimed Jesus to be the one to come, without wavering, without fear, without doubt. John is not reed shaking in the wind. He’s the greatest prophet of all time. The strongest Christian. How could he ask such a question!
This is indeed a controversy among those who study the Bible. Some say, that although John is the greatest, he was still only a man, and every man doubts. No faith is perfect. No faith never wavers. And John, in his final hour, as his faith was put through its greatest test, as he saw death itself close in on him, needed to hear from Christ’s own mouth whether what he had been preaching was true. Is Jesus really the Christ?
The other side, which includes some of the greatest teachers of the Bible, say that John did not doubt. Martin Luther preached that John did nothing else than what he had done his entire ministry. He pointed the way to Jesus. As John sat in prison, he said to his disciples, “Why are you still following me. I’ve pointed the way to Christ. Go and ask him yourself if he is the Christ. Hear with your own ears, and follow him!”
Now, it certainly is true that John is pointing his disciples to Christ Jesus, as he had done his entire ministry. He wants his disciples to follow Jesus. And soon they will. Soon they will bury John’s decapitated body in a tomb, and follow the one to whom John pointed, Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
Yet, it is also important to note, that Jesus doesn’t just preach to John’s disciples. Rather, he says to them, “Go, tell John.” Go, tell John. Go, preach to John this message, Jesus is saying. Jesus wants John, the greatest preacher, the greatest prophet, the greatest man, to hear a sermon from his own disciples. A sermon about Jesus.
And this goes to show, that there is no Christian, no preacher, not even a prophet or one greater, who does not need to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ. John, who is better than you or I, whose faith was stronger than ours, needed to hear the message of Jesus. Yes, indeed, John sent his disciples for their own sake; so that they would hear Jesus and follow him. Yet, John too needed to hear Jesus. He needed to be comforted in his darkest hour.
And listen to the sermon Jesus sends these disciples of John to preach. Jesus doesn’t say, “Yes, I am the Christ.” although, he certainly could have said that! Instead, he says, “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.” What is the meaning of this sermon? Jesus is telling John to look and see how he has fulfilled the scriptures. In Isaiah 61, the prophet prophesies of Christ, saying, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives,” and again in chapter 35, “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.”
Jesus doesn’t simply tell John that he is the Christ. He points to what he is doing, and says, “What do the Scriptures say? What did the prophets prophesy? How did they say you would know that the Christ had arrived? The blind will see. The mute will speak. The crippled will walk. Look at what I am doing. Look at what Scripture promises. See that I am fulfilling it!”
Here, Jesus teaches us that the household of God is built on the foundation of the prophets and apostles, Christ Jesus being the cornerstone, as Ephesians 4 declares. The holy Scriptures, teach us who Christ is. This gives us Christians assurance even today. Read the Old Testament and read the New Testament. See how everything prophesied in the Old is fulfilled by Jesus Christ in the New. See how everything Jesus does in the New was prophesied in the Old. The scriptures remain the guide to all preachers and all Christians. If we reject the authority and certainty of the Scriptures, then we lose our confidence in Christ. But Jesus uses the authority and reliability of the Scripture to comfort John in his darkest hour.
Why did Jesus tell John’s disciples to go tell John this message? Because John needed it. Yes, John preached the gospel without wavering. Yes, John’s faith was strong. But John still needed to hear the Gospel. He still needed to be comforted by him, who comforts the world. And this teaches us an important message about pastors. The message pastors preach to their people is also meant for them. When a pastor preaches the law and calls sinners to repentance, he preaches the law to himself. Pastors need to repent of their sins and try to love others as they do themselves. And when a pastor preaches the Gospel, the free forgiveness of sins won by Christ Jesus and given to all through faith, the pastor preaches to himself. He needs to hear this message. He needs to believe that Jesus forgives him, that God will not remember his sins, but declares him righteous for Christ’s sake.
This also teaches us that every one of us needs to continue to be instructed in the word of God. We all have a lot to learn. John the Baptist knew more than any of you or me. He was the greatest, the best preacher, the best theologian. Yet, he needed to be instructed in the words of Scripture. He needed to be taught that Jesus fulfills the Scripture and comes to save. Even after he baptized his hundreds and thousands and preached so confidently the coming of Christ, John still needed to sit at Jesus’ knee, so to say, and listen to Jesus’ words even from the mouths of those whom he taught.
You are not better than John the Baptist. Neither am I. John had a stronger faith than any of us. He preached better than me. He understood who Christ was. Yet, he needed Christ to preach to him. And so do you. John sat in prison waiting for his death. He had faith in Jesus, as is evident by him sending his disciples to Jesus. Yet, he also needed his faith strengthened. He needed to be comforted. Do you need your faith to be strengthened? Do you need to be comforted? You certainly do. Do you not have trials you must face? Do you not have sins for which you are ashamed? Does life not drag you down? Is your body not failing? Do doubts not arise in your mind? Have you not suffered loss? Are you better than John that you don’t need this comfort, this teaching?
No. We all need to be taught. We all need to be comforted. We need to hear what Jesus has done. That he caused the blind to see and the deaf to hear; the mute to speak and the lame to walk; that he speaks good news to us; news of forgiveness; news of salvation. We need to hear again how Jesus died for us and has risen to the Father to plead for our salvation. We need to hear that the Father accepts Jesus’ sacrifice and that he has covered our sins in his blood.
And this is the most comforting message of all. This is the message that brought St. Paul to declare, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say rejoice.” even as he sat in prison. And so, this message can give you comfort no matter what temporary trial you must endure on this earth.
John is the greatest of those born of women. Don’t call Jesus a liar. Yet, the least in the kingdom is greater than he. The least in the kingdom of heaven is Jesus, who made himself a servant, so that he could save us from slavery to sin, death, and the devil. And John, the greatest born of women, needed the Least in the Kingdom of Heaven. And so do we. We need to be comforted by the same Christ who comforted John. We need to be taught by him, who strengthened John to die in the faith. There is no such thing as a faith too strong. There is no one, who doesn’t need to hear what Jesus has done. You don’t know enough. Rather, like John, the greatest preacher ever, we need to continue to hear Jesus preached. Only Jesus could comfort John in his death. And only Jesus can give us comfort today and forever. Amen.