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Greater Than The Greatest

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Introduction: So far in our study in the book of Matthew we have seen that Jesus is the King over all kings as the very chosen and anointed King of God. As foretold in the Old Testament the Messiah would be from the lineage of David, He would be born of a virgin, He would come out of Bethlehem, He would also come out of Egypt, at the time of His coming there would be great mourning in Israel, and He would be called a Nazarene.
As Matthew picks up his narrative in he transports us nearly thirty years into the future from the time that Joseph relocated his young family from Egypt to Nazareth, and as he does so, after thirty years of silence (except for Luke’s brief account in ), he focuses us in on the ministry of John.
We know of John’s background from Luke’s gospel account. John’s origin story begins with a mother and father who were both righteous in the sight of God who walked blamelessly in the commandments of the Lord, but, like Sarah before the conception of Isaac, Elizabeth was past the normal child bearing years. Being past normal child bearing years Elizabeth and Zacharias had resigned themselves to childlessness - until one day. One day as Zacharias was performing his duties as a priest in the temple an angel of the Lord appeared to him and said
Luke 1:11 NKJV
Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense.
Luke 1:13–14 NKJV
But 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. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth.
Luke 1:13–15 NKJV
But 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. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. For 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.
In disbelief Zacharias questioned whether these things could be true since he was well as his wife were advanced in years. As a result of his unbelief, Gabriel informs him that he would be mute until the day when these things took place. After the days of his service in the temple Zacharias went home to his wife and she conceived. Fast forward nine months and their child has been born, and when Elizabeth and Zacharias took him to be circumcised those at the temple would have called hm Zacharias were it not for for Elizabeth who said, “No, he shall be called John.” Zacharias then asked for a writing tablet so that he could agree and immediately his mouth was opened and he declared, “His name is John.”
What an extraordinary birth! John’s birth was so out of the ordinary that these things were discussed all throughout Judea and many asked the question, “What kind of child will this be?”
Now that was a very good question. Who was this child who was miraculously conceived when his parents were of old age? Who was this child who was named by God? Who was this child that, even before his conception, Gabriel declared will be great in the sight of the Lord?
Zacharias rightly declared that John would be called the prophet of the Most High and that his greatness would be found in his role of going on before the Lord in order to prepare the way for Him.
Luke then records this statement, “And the child continued to grow, and to become strong in spirit, and he lived in the deserts until the day of his public appearance to Israel.”

The Voice

Nearly thirty years later, almost out of nowhere, he appeared as the prophet of God with the message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” And so John began his ministry preaching (heralding) the coming of the true King. To be sure Elizabeth and Zacharias told John many times of the angel’s message surrounding his birth. John was given a purpose directly form God and by all indications he never wavered from that purpose.
He never wavered from that purpose despite the fact that surely there were many who thought he was odd. I mean, here he was heralding the coming of the King and His kingdom and he was doing it in the wilderness. They might have said, “John, if the king you speak of is so important why are you heralding in the wilderness wearing camel skins? Shouldn’t you be wearing the best clothes, eating the best foods, and networking with Jerusalem’s finest?”
John, however, knew his purpose - he was the voice of one crying in the wilderness, and he was calling true seekers of God away from the calloused religiosity of Jerusalem and all of its hypocrisy, all of its ritualism, all of its shallowness, and all of its worldliness into the wilderness where they could, without distraction, learn from this great man and learn of the surpassing greatness of the King he was heralding.
John knew the source of his greatness. John was great, not because of who he was, but because he was the voice of the message. What was that message? Repent! His message was, “Turn from sin and turn to righteousness!” I am sure this message was a shock to the Jews. They might have thought, “Jews do not need to repent do they? Aren’t all Jews the children of Abraham, and being the children of Abraham aren’t all Jews promised a part in the kingdom of the coming King?” In short, John’s response was, “No!” John’s message was one of absolute change. In order to have a part in this great King’s kingdom, these Jews needed to be totally changed. John was not preaching a gospel of religion or rituals, but instead he was preaching the good news that with the coming of this true King members of His kingdom would be given the power to live a repentant (totally changed) life. Anticipating the Jews response John said
Matthew 3:8–9 NKJV
Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.
Now this was good news. The power to live a changed life. John was offering a message of relief. It is possible to live a life that produces fruit worthy of repentance. John’s message meant that it was no longer necessary to live under the pressure of the Pharisaical law, no longer was it necessary to be weighed down with those unbearable burdens, but there was a coming King who offered the hope of living a changed life. Paul put it this way
Acts 26:20 NKJV
but declared first to those in Damascus and in Jerusalem, and throughout all the region of Judea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent, turn to God, and do works befitting repentance.

The Kingdom

The message of hope, however, was not directed at everyone. After four hundred years of silence from God, John breaks onto the scene declaring that Israel’s long awaited King is so very close, but most of Israel was not ready for Him. Despite the words of the Old Testament prophets, Israel had not prepared themselves for their King. The Jews felt that the coming kingdom was theirs, it was their Messiah, it was their King, it was their promises, it was their Savior. It was the popular belief that every Jew was destined for the kingdom, and so they forgot to make room in order to love the God they claimed to value.

The Mission

Here again, as John heralds repentance in preparation for the coming kingdom, Matthew emphasizes the fact that John was also the fulfillment of prophecy. Before the coming of the Messiah Isaiah foretold that there would be the voice crying in the wilderness - calling people to clear the road into their hearts of obstacles for the coming of the King. Unlike most heralds, it was not John’s job to clear the roads throughout Israel for the coming of the king; it was his job to draw attention to the crooked paths of the heart and call for repentance so that the king could enter in.
John himself was an example of what he preached. In a world where the religious leaders in Jerusalem lived in luxury, John comes in camel’s skin, eating locusts and honey. He was the epitome of removing from his life that which might distract him from the mission of his life.

The Ministry

Almost immediately it was obvious that John was a powerful presence. People were coming from Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around Jordan to hear him, and many submitted themselves to baptism (washing). The washings that happened as a result of John’s ministry were totally different from the baptisms of the Levitical washings. The ceremonial washings were repeated in order to emphasize repeated washings for repeated sinning. John’s baptism was a one time thing. The only times Jews would perform one time washings was for Gentiles. The one time washing of Gentiles signified their transition from being an outsider into the truth of Judaism. A Jew who submitted to a one time washing was unheard of, for a Jew to submit to a one time washing was to signify that he recognized his condition as being an outsider of the one true faith and that he was now seeking entrance into the kingdom of God. This act displayed to all the world that they knew that their racial descent from Abraham could not save them. Like Gentiles they saw the need to repent and trust in the Lord. So, as these Jews were washed with a one time washing, they confessed their sins. They confessed that Jews too were unclean.

The Congregation

As John became popular the Pharisees and Sadduccees began coming to his baptism. We do not really know why. Perhaps they were curious about this man that the people thought of as a prophet.
Herod the tetrarch
Matthew 14:4–5 NKJV
Because John had said to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” And although he wanted to put him to death, he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet.
Matthew 14:15 NKJV
When it was evening, His disciples came to Him, saying, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is already late. Send the multitudes away, that they may go into the villages and buy themselves food.”
Matthew 14:5 NKJV
And although he wanted to put him to death, he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet.
It could also be that the Pharisees and Sadduccees, being ever obsessed with their own power and popularity, sought for a way to leverage John’s popularity for their own benefit. Either way, John called them out
Matthew 3:7 NKJV
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?
They were of the brood of the serpent, not true children of Abraham. Their father was the devil, not the God of Abraham. Jesus said of them
Matthew 23:13 NKJV
“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.
Their brand of godliness was poisonous and deadly and it kept many from true spiritual life. They were Satan’s children doing Satan’s work.
John’s allusion to fleeing from wrath is a picture of a farmer who, after the harvest, sets his field on fire in order to rid it of vipers and other harmful animals. John implies that their seeking to identify themselves with his ministry as a form of fire insurance would not work. True repentance does protect from God’s wrath but superficial acts and identifications does nothing more than harden one’s heart to the point of further condemnation.

The Condemnation

Since neither the Pharisees nor the Sadduccees bore fruit that indicated repentance, the axe was already laid at the root of the trees. At the end of every harvest, farmers would go through their fields and take note of those trees that did not bare any good fruit. These trees would then be cut down in order to make room for productive trees. A fruitless tree is a useless tree. What do you do with a useless tree? You cut it down and use it for firewood. Repentance that is not effective to produce fruit is not a worthy repentance.
Throughout the Bible, fire is a frequent picture of God’s wrath against wickedness. Just like John preached the benefits of repentance he also preached the consequences of unrepentance.

The Consolation

The good news is that John also gave hope. John’s baptism was a mark of an outsider becoming an insider. In John’s ministry it was a picture of believers making the paths of their heart straight for the entrance of the King. John also mentions another baptism. A baptism by the One who came after John and who is greater than John. Now that is a statement! John, who is declared by angels to be great, and who is declared by Jesus Himself to be the greatest of all time, now says that the One who comes after him is so great that he is not even worthy to approach him as a lowly slave by removing his sandals. This is another mark of greatness, John’s humility.
John is a fascinating character. He is miraculously born of parents past child bearing years and declared to be great by God Himself. He then emerges as the voice. Even before his birth John’s identity was that he was the voice. Now he says that there is a greater voice coming, and when Jesus came John encouraged his most faithful followers to follow that greater voice. John’s greatest dream and greatest desire was that he would decrease as the greater voice of Jesus increased.
The One who came after John truly is greater. John baptized with water but Jesus baptized with the outpouring of God’s Spirit on all mankind and gave them a new heart and a new spirit. John baptized with water but Jesus baptized with the very power and person of God Himself.

One Final Warning

As Matthew closes his account of John’s message that day we are left with one final warning. In the end the Messiah, the one true King will separate out everyone who belongs to Him and, like a farmer, He will gather His wheat into His barn where they can be protected and safe. In the end the Messiah, the one true King, like a farmer does, will also burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.

The Message For Us

So, tonight, what is the message for us? In this passage we are left with both a challenge and a warning. First, let’s consider the challenge. In the Old Testament the prophets proclaimed the word of God, in a sense, they were His voice. Just as the Old Testament prophets preached a gospel of turning from sin and to God, so did John. John was great, not because of himself, but because of the way he proclaimed the great message. Then Jesus began His ministry and was the greater voice. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, at His ascension, Jesus turned to the disciples of this age and gave us the command that we are now to be the voice. It is now our one job and mission to preach the good news that it is possible to turn from valuing sin to valuing God and to live a totally changed life. Therefore, let us live a life that bears fruit that is worthy of a true repentance.
Second, let’s consider the warning. John warns the Pharisees and the Sadduccees that the repentance that he preached was not a repentance of rituals or words or a head knowledge or any other kind of work. He preached a repentance that results in good works. The Bible repeatedly places before us the language of value. Whoever claims to turn from valuing sin to valuing and treasuring God, but still indulges in sin has not truly changed his allegiance. Tonight, examine your life. Ask yourself this question: do I live a life that displays to the world that Jesus is more valuable to me than anything else?
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