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2006-01-15_Greatness in Camel’s Hair_Matthew 3.1-12

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Greatness in Camel’s Hair

Matthew 3:1-12   |   Shaun LePage   |   January 15, 2006

I. Introduction

A.   William Shakespeare, in Twelfth Night, wrote, “Be not afraid of greatness: some men are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

B.    I agree—in part—with Shakespeare, but the problem is, we have to define “greatness.” Is “greatness” something you can be born with? Can anyone achieve “greatness”? What about examples—who are the greatest men and women of all time? You’ll get different answers from different people, right? Why? Because we all have different definitions of “greatness.”

C.   Last year, The Discovery Channel conducted a poll. “Who is the greatest American?” was their question. The American public showed its incredible diversity once again—obviously displaying a wide range of opinions regarding what makes a person “great.” Making the top 100 were Tom Cruise, Bill Clinton (#7), Michael Jackson and Hugh Hefner. Ronald Reagan came out on top, and a lot of people were happy with that. A lot of people disagreed. Why? Because we all have different definitions of “greatness.”

D.   What about you? Do you desire to be “great”? Should you desire to be “great”? It is my belief that each of us is called to greatness, but we must define “greatness” as our God defines it in His Scriptures. If we are to be truly great, we must seek to be great in the eyes of our Lord.

E.    In Matthew 11:11, Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist…” John the Baptist was a great man. Jesus said there was none greater—other than Himself, of course. Here we have something—an example. A man Jesus said was “great”—greater than any other before him! We have the mind of Christ on what “greatness” really is. So, we need to look at this man—John—and examine his life to answer our questions of greatness—if for no other reason than Jesus called him great.

F.    We’re studying through the Gospel of Matthew—an excellent section of the Bible because I believe it speaks to the people of our time. Matthew was writing to correct misconceptions about Jesus. He was answering the question, “Who is this Jesus?” Our culture knows the name, “Jesus,” but most people have misconceptions about Him.

G.   Last week we looked at the end of Matthew chapter 2. Joseph, Mary and a young—perhaps infant—Jesus were called “out of Egypt” by God and sent to live in Nazareth.

H.   In chapter 3, Matthew jumps ahead in time almost 30 years. What happened to that time between the infancy of Jesus and the start of His ministry? Do we know nothing of what Jesus was doing during this time?

1.     There’s been a lot of foolish speculation about what Jesus was doing as a child and young man. Beth and I once knew a man who was a student of Eastern religions and he gave me a book from an author known simply as “Levi”. Levi claims that Jesus journeyed to India where He learned from the great Hindu masters. Never mind that everything Jesus taught contradicted the great Hindu masters. And never mind that there is not one shred of evidence that Jesus ever left Israel.

2.     Luke’s version fills in some of the details for us. At the end of chapter 2, Jesus—at twelve years of age—had gone to the temple with his parents—which was customary. There, He communicated that He understood that Joseph was not His Father and that He had come for the purpose of being about His “father’s business.”

a)    Then, Luke closes with these verses—51 & 52: “And He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and He continued in subjection to them; and His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.

(i)   He wasn’t in India. He wasn’t in Egypt learning Egyptian magic as some others have claimed. He was in Nazareth, growing up. No mystery. No secret trips. Just growing up in a small town.

(ii) That’s not a bad way to pray for your kids, by the way. Jesus grew in a balanced, healthy way. He grew in wisdom (mentally). He grew in stature (physically). He grew in favor with God (spiritually). He grew in favor with men (socially). I pray for my kids that God would watch over them and cause them to grow “in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.”

(iii)    And kids—a little bonus for you. Jesus was—even in His childhood—a great example. A great example for you. Did you notice in v.51 that He—the perfect, sinless One—“continued in subjection to” Joseph and Mary—the imperfect, sinful ones. We aren’t supposed to “continue in subjection to” or submit to only those who are perfect. Or only when we think they’re right. You and I both know your parents are imperfect. Get over it and follow the example of Jesus—honor and obey your imperfect parents.

3.     So, between Matthew chapter 2 and Matthew chapter 3, Jesus grew up in a little town in the middle of no where. He lived a normal, human life. Sinless, but normal. Just growing and living and preparing for the time when He would begin His ministry.

I. In chapter 3, we are introduced to John the Baptist, who played an important role here at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. The King is being presented to the nation of Israel and John—like a herald who announces the arrival of a king—announced the arrival of the King of kings.

1.     “John”. In Matthew, John the Baptist just appears out of nowhere with no explanation of where he came from. Matthew assumes his readers know John. Luke did not make that assumption since he was writing primarily to Gentiles. In chapter 1, Luke tells the story of John’s birth and how he got his name. His father, Zechariah, received a visit from the angel Gabriel who told him his old wife, Elizabeth, was going to have a baby and Zechariah was to name the baby John. Zechariah didn’t believe Gabriel, and he was disciplined for that unbelief. He was unable to speak until the child was born. When the baby was born, Elizabeth told everyone the baby’s name was John. They didn’t believe it because no one in their family was named John. So, they went to Zechariah and he wrote down, “His name is John.” At that moment, Zechariah’s mouth was opened and he began praising God. Let’s read the end of Luke 1:76-80. So, John the Baptist is “the son of Zechariah.”

2.     “Baptist” was obviously a name given to him later since his ministry became so closely connected with the ritual of baptism.

II.   Body—Read Matthew 3:1-12. John the Baptist is “Greatness in Camel’s Hair” and a great example for us today. How? Let’s take a look.

A.   John the Baptist was great because he pointed people to spiritual transformation, not physical impressiveness (1-10).

1.    His message—repent. (1-2)

a)    1-2 Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

b)    John “came preaching”. He was the first prophet in Israel in over 400 years and he was the last Old Testament prophet. He preached in the Judean wilderness (powerpoint image). A rugged place, far away from the religious establishment and temple.

c)    His message was “Repent!” The Greek word is metanoia, “change of mind.” It’s more than just a change in the way a person thinks, though. It’s a life change. It means to change your mind about what you’re doing wrong (i.e., sin) and then act on that new thought or belief. It’s not good enough to just feel bad or regret the things you’ve done. You’ve got to take some action, because if you don’t take action to change your behavior, you will continue in that sin and you’ll continue to feel bad and regret the things you’re doing. But, if you take action to change, and you stop the sin, the bad feelings and regret stop, too. Very simple. Not easy, but simple.

d)    But think about this—God had been “silent” (so to speak) for 400 years. No prophets in all that time. Now, when He finally sends another prophet, the message is: Stop sinning! Turn from your sin and get ready. What was this sin that required repentance? The Jews had become indifferent. They had become proud. They were Jews. When the Messiah came, all Jews would be taken into the kingdom because they were Jewish. They were the “sons of Abraham” that were supposedly right with God because of the families into which they had been born. The Jews didn’t think they needed to do anything but be Jewish. John says that’s not right!

e)    Why repent now? Why did God suddenly send this prophet to tell the nation that they needed to repent of their indifference and unbelief? John said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Two things about the “kingdom of heaven.”

(i)   The Old Testament prophets predicted that Jesus would one day set up His kingdom on earth—the throne of David. The Jews believed that when Messiah came, He would set up that kingdom immediately. But, they did not understand God’s plan. The Messiah did come and did offer that kingdom to His people, but they rejected Him. God’s plan was to then turn to the Gentiles and offer them the kingdom of heaven during this current Church Age. When the Church Age is over, Jesus will then establish His earthly kingdom on earth for 1,000 years.

(ii)  But, John said this kingdom was “at hand” meaning it was close at that time. It was close at that time because the King Himself was coming. The King was coming and wherever this King is, there is His kingdom also. This is a major theme of the Gospel of Matthew and we’ll talk about it more later. But, John’s message was that the King was coming and the people needed to prepare for Him by turning from their sins—the message was one of spiritual transformation. Change of the heart.

2.    His appearance—humble. (3-4)

a)    3-4 For this is the one referred to by Isaiah the prophet when he said, “THE VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, ‘MAKE READY THE WAY OF THE LORD, MAKE HIS PATHS STRAIGHT!’” Now John himself had a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey.

b)    “Isaiah” prophecy. As we have seen in previous passages, Matthew is connecting Jesus with the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah. The Old Testament predicted that before the Messiah came, Elijah would come and prepare the way. Matthew quotes Isaiah 40:3 and tells us John fulfilled this prophecy.

c)    Malachi, in the final verses of the Old Testament, just before the 400 silent years, left the Jews with this prophecy: “Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord.” (Malachi 4:5)

d)    John is this Elijah. Even his clothing and diet mimicked Elijah.

(i)   In Mark 12:38, Jesus told His disciples, “Beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes, and like respectful greetings in the market places, and chief seats in the synagogues, and places of honor at banquets, who devour widows’ houses, and for appearance’s sake offer long prayers; these will receive greater condemnation.” You see, clothing was very telling—it revealed the condition of the heart.

(ii)  Elijah and John dressed in this way to distance themselves from the pompous and self-indulgent religious leaders of their times. Camel’s hair was the opposite of “long robes”. It was the blue collar shirt. The blue jeans. Off the racks at Goodwill.

e)    In addition to this physical, wardrobe link to Elijah, Jesus Himself said in Matthew 11:14, “And if you care to accept it, he himself is Elijah, who was to come.”

f)     John was one of the many proofs that Jesus is Messiah—the King of the Jews. And why did he come? What was his purpose? To “make ready the way of the Lord.” That “way” was the in the hearts of the people. Spiritual transformation.

3.    His baptism—cleansing. (5-6)

a)    5-6 Then Jerusalem was going out to him, and all Judea and all the district around the Jordan; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins.

b)    First of all, why were all these people coming? He was a strange man and today we would think of him as crazy. This shows us that the people understood what was happening here. God was sending a new prophet and that prophet was spoken of in the final verses of the Hebrew Bible and they knew that this meant that Messiah was coming!

c)    Also, we’re told John baptized people “as they confessed their sins.” John’s baptism was a new thing. When a Gentile—a non-Jew—wanted to become a Jew at this time in history, he would be baptized. So, before John, only non-Jews got baptized. Now, John was baptizing Jews! The point of this baptism was cleansing. Not that the water actually cleansed them, but the confession of their sins brought cleansing and the baptism symbolized that.

d)    In other words, the baptism was an outward expression of an inner change. These people were being spiritually transformed. They were turning their hearts away from sin and toward God.

4.    His warning—judgment. (7-10)

a)    7-10 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? “Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. “The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

b)    According to Matthew, the Pharisees and Sadducees were coming to participate in the baptisms. They must have slithered in because John saw through their hypocrisy and called them a “brood of vipers”—an unclean creature that made everything around it unclean.

(i)   Try to put yourself into this situation. The Pharisees and Sadducees were the big shots—the priests and bishops of their day. John steps up and calls them unclean hypocrites—snakes! Everyone must have been shocked. Imagine if I pointed my finger at Scott and said, “You snake. What are you doing here? Don’t you come in here and act all holy until you change your ways, buddy!” Most of you would never come back here. Some of you would say, “You tell him, pastor!” But some of you would think I have completely lost it!

(ii) Such harsh language doesn’t seem to fit the tongue of a righteous man like John. Did John now need to “repent” and “confess his sin” of being mean and unkind? No. John was standing up to the religious, self-righteous bullies that no one else had had the guts to stand up to. Extreme situations call for extreme measures. Now, I’m not saying we should go and find people we think are hypocrites and unrepentant and starting calling them snakes. But, I do want you to see that there is time when it is right and appropriate to confront sin.

(iii)    Flip ahead to Matthew 18:15. Here, Jesus is talking about church discipline. This is the first step toward formal, church discipline. We’ll talk about that later, but for now I want to highlight what I call informal discipline. When someone—a brother—is in sin, Jesus Himself tells us to go to him and “reprove him.” To reprove is to confront or warn. It means we don’t just ignore each other’s sin. We love each other enough to warn them—to plead with them not to continue in sin, but to “repent”. Turn around. Notice also, Jesus said, “in private.” Do you get the picture? It’s a loving, delicate attempt to win your brother back—away from his sin. See, Jesus said, “If he listens to you, you have won your brother.” Please hear what I’m saying to you. I’m not suggesting we try to control each other’s lives. We have to be very balanced and prayerful. But, like John, we must be bold enough to confront sin and call people to repentance. True spiritual transformation is a constant battle against sin and any one of us can get blindsided at any point and we need each other. We need to help each other in this on-going battle against sin. Real community, real fellowship, is a matter of being involved enough in each other’s lives that we will be aware of each other’s struggles and ready to pick each other up when we fall. Close enough to lean on a brother or sister when we’re weak. Formal church discipline should be very rare if we are practicing informal church discipline—one-on-one, private challenging, reproving, tough love.

c)    John tells them to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” In other words, your actions should match your words. Life change is the issue, not just outward, religious actions. Spiritual transformation, not just physical impressiveness. He rebukes them for thinking—as I said earlier—that they were just fine because they were “sons of Abraham”—Jews. John said that means nothing! A physical descendant of Abraham was no better than a rock—God made them both and He can make more if He wants. The family you were born into makes no difference. What’s important is your heart. God wants those who will turn away from their sin and turn to Him.

d)    Then he told them what happens to the “fruitless.” They get axed. A tree that does not bear fruit is useless. In other words, not only is the kingdom of heaven “at hand,” but the King’s judgment is also at hand for all who cling to their sin and refuse to repent.

e)    John’s warning is another example of how John pointed people to spiritual transformation, not just physical impressiveness.

B.   John the Baptist was great because he pointed people to Jesus the King, not John the Baptist (11-12).

1.    Some of John’s most well-known words were recorded in John 3:30: “He (Jesus) must increase, but I must decrease.” John was not about John. John was Christ-centered in his ministry.

2.    11-12 “As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

a)    Notice John’s humility in v.11. “I am not fit to remove His sandals.” He wasn’t focused on himself. He was focused on Christ.

b)    Here was “the Baptist” saying that his baptism was nothing compared to the baptisms Jesus was going to do. Did you notice the two baptisms?

(i)   Baptism with the Holy Spirit provides heaven. He said in v.12 that “He will gather His wheat into the barn.” So, those who are baptized with the Holy Spirit are those who will be saved from this judgment John described. They will be safe in God’s barn. Ever thought of heaven as a big barn?

(ii) Baptism with fire provides judgment. It’s not a pretty picture and fire and brimstone messages are out of vogue in our time, but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen. This baptism with fire is going to happen and that is why John’s ministry was so urgent. This is why he was willing to confront sin with such boldness—because the consequences of clinging to sin and refusing to turn away from sin and receive the King are eternally tragic.

III. Application: It seems to me the applications for us are very obvious. We need to Imitate John!!!.

A.   As individuals and as the Church, we need to point people to spiritual transformation.

1.     Physical impressiveness seems to be the definition of success in our day—the biggest house, the biggest bank account, the nicest clothes, the nicest cars, the best body…Those things aren’t inherently sinful in and of themselves, but when we make them more important than the heart, when we neglect or completely ignore our own spiritual growth and maturity for the sake of material wealth and outward appearances, we become a “brood of vipers” who are unclean, hypocritical and bankrupt.

2.     Physical impressiveness seems to be the definition of a successful church in our day as well—the biggest, most beautiful building, the biggest budget, the most bodies on Sunday morning…There’s nothing inherently wrong with buildings and budgets and great numbers, but if we make those things more important than the hearts of men and women and children, when we neglect or completely ignore the spiritual growth and maturity of people and refuse to enter into each other’s lives for the purpose of helping each other overcome our sin and press on to maturity in Christ, we become a “brood of vipers” who are unclean, hypocritical, bankrupt and failures.

B.    As individuals and as the Church, we need to point people to Jesus the King.

1.     We get stuck with lots of labels that make us the issue. Allen the Christian, David the Homeschool guy, Frank the Republican or Erik the Creationist. But we need to do what we can to help people focus on Jesus the King. When we deal with people at work or school or in the neighborhood who make the issue us, we need to turn their attention back to Christ. Don’t let yourself get sidetracked or off the main subject. Point people to Christ.

2.     The Church gets stuck with lots of labels that make us the issue. The evangelical church. The non-denominational church. The conservative church. But He must be central. We must point people to Christ, proclaim Him, preach Him, teach Him, invite people to trust Him and grow up in Him.

C.   Closing

1.     I have no desire to be a high-profile, Christian celebrity, pastor. If I never sell a book and I never preach on the radio or TV, I will be totally satisfied and content to spend the rest of my days maturing in Christ, being part of a family that seeks to grow up in Christ together and being part of a church family that is pointing people toward spiritual transformation. I believe that is “greatness” in the mind of Christ.

2.     Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 4:5-7: “For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves.”

3.     As Shakespeare said, “Be not afraid of greatness…” John was greatness in camel’s hair. I believe in God’s eyes we are called to be greatness in whatever exteriors we have: blue jeans or a suit and tie; a simple, steel building or an enormous, stone cathedral; a big, muscular body or a small, frail frame. Our greatness is not to be found in that which is seen. It is found in the One who dwells in our hearts and transforms our spirits to be like Him. God has chosen a most unlikely place in which to house the great treasure of Christ. Clay pots, clay jars—worthless in themselves, but “great” because of the treasure within.

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