Since all of the prophets were great men of God holding the highest office in the land, let us consider today in what sense John the Baptist was the greatest of the prophets.
What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, “Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee.” I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John; yet he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.
Luke 7:26-28 RSV
This magnificent tribute Jesus gave to John the Baptist not only singles him out as the greatest of the prophets, but it is also a tribute to all true prophets. The prophet was the most important man in the old dispensation in Israel. He was the man who brought the word of the Lord not only to the people, but also to the rulers of the nation. He stood above the king, and the true kings of Israel recognized this. When David committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband murdered to cover up the adultery, Nathan, the prophet, was sent of the Lord to David to rebuke him for his sin and pronounce God’s judgment upon it. When Eli, the high priest, failed to discipline his sons for their scandalous conduct in the priesthood, God sent a prophet to pronounce judgment upon him with this message,
Therefore the Lord the God of Israel declares: “I promised that your house and the house of your father should go in and out before me for ever”; but now the Lord declares: “Far be it from me; for those who honor me I will honor, and those who despise me shall be lightly esteemed. Behold, the days are coming, when I will cut off your strength and the strength of your father’s house, so that there will not be an old man in your house.”
1 Samuel 2:30-31
When Jesus spoke of John saying, “I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John,” He was speaking of John as a prophet. Since all of the prophets were great men of God holding the highest office in the land, let us consider today in what sense John the Baptist was the greatest of the prophets.
The first measure of the greatness of John the Baptist is in his position. He stood in the succession of the Old Testament prophets. The key to the understanding of Jesus’ statement comes in the second part of the sentence. “He that is least in the kingdom of God is greater than John.” It is obvious from this that Jesus is using a specific measure of greatness when He speaks about John the Baptist. This is the nearness of John to the coming of Jesus Christ.
In the long succession of prophets God sent to His people, John was the last because he actually introduced the Messiah to the nation. There is a progressive revelation of the coming of Christ in the prophecies of the Old Testament. Prophecy began in the garden of Eden. After the first man had fallen in sin and disobedience, God said to the serpent who had beguiled him,
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.
From that first glimmer of the light of the gospel in the Bible, we see that it ever grows brighter through the succession of prophets who speak of the coming of Christ. The last word of the Old Testament is the word of the Lord to Malachi, the prophet, who said:
Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.
All the prophets said, “He is coming”; John said, “He is here.” He introduced Jesus to the nation as the Messiah: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
We must remember that although John saw Christ, spoke to Him, baptized Him, and introduced Him to the people, he did not see Christ crucified and risen from the dead and ascended into heaven. This explains Jesus’ statement in His tribute to John the Baptist. “But he that is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” John the Baptist belongs properly to the Old Testament prophets. He was the forerunner, but he did not see Christ in the fullness of His resurrection and glorification. The difference between the greatness of John and the greatness of the least in the kingdom of God is the difference between anticipation and realization. John was still on the other side of Calvary and the empty tomb. We are on this side of the cross and the resurrection. We have the full and final revelation of God in Jesus Christ.
In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.
The newest believer in the church today knows more about Jesus Christ than John did.
The second measure of the greatness of John the Baptist as a prophet is in his preaching. He had a special mission to perform, and he accomplished it by preaching. The preaching of John the Baptist shook the nation. He drew such enormous crowds to the wilderness where he preached, that the Jewish leaders were disturbed and sent priests to John asking, “Who are you?” He said, “I am not the Christ.” As they continued to press the question, “Who are you? What do you say about yourself?” John answered: “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.'”
From this we can see the importance of preaching. Preaching is downgraded in our day, and in some areas of the church it has been completely abandoned. Even in some evangelical circles the primacy of preaching is questioned. When I talk to college and seminary students who are preparing for the ministry and the subject gets around to preaching, they ask me, “But why is preaching so important? Are there not other things we can do?”
This is the issue today and those of us who hold responsible positions in the church must be able to face it. Why is preaching so important? For one thing, the whole New Testament sets forth the primacy of preaching. I have already indicated that John the Baptist carried out his mission by preaching. The Gospels tell us the same thing about Jesus. When Mark describes the beginning of the public ministry of Christ, he says,
Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel!”
When the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the apostles at Pentecost, Peter preached the gospel to the throngs gathered in Jerusalem. When they cried out, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” Peter answered,
Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
When Paul and the other apostles carried out the great commission of Christ, “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature,” they were obeying Him. The summary of the ministry of Paul found at the end of the Book of Acts indicates that preaching was the foremost apostolic activity. “And he lived there in Rome two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ quite openly and unhindered” (Acts 28:30- 31).
It must be understood that the preaching spoken of in the New Testament is the proclamation of the Word of God and not the opinions of men. This was the great recovery that was made in the Reformation. Hugh Latimer was speaking for all the Reformers when he said, “Take away preaching and you take away salvation.” If you need a text to support that, let me give you Romans 10:17, “So then faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God” (KJV).
The Gospels not only teach us that John carried out his mission primarily by preaching, but they also give us a specimen of his preaching. The theme of his preaching was repentance. The nation had fallen away from God. The religious leaders were corrupt and, except for a tiny minority, the people had forgotten God. John exposed the sin of his age. He did not mince his words. When he saw the corrupt religious leaders coming to hear him preach, he said:
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits that befit repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Sin is the missing note in much of today’s preaching, but one hears echoes of it in very strange places. I talked recently with a veteran missionary to China who had been spending four months in the Far East visiting his old friends, Christians who had been driven from China by the Communist invasion. In the course of the conversation, he quoted a saying of Mao Tse-tung. The Chinese leader said, “The greatest hindrance to the full establishment of the People’s Republic in China is original sin. Most people are motivated by self-interest.” He, of course, had a different solution to the problem. He said the only solution is for the people to completely commit themselves to the state.
At any rate, here is a shrewd old atheist who understands the problem of man better than many contemporary theologians. There is no doctrine of the historic Christian faith so widely denied in the church today as the doctrine of original sin. Until we recognize the fact of the depravity of human nature as it is taught in the Bible, we will never see our desperate need of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Bible teaches us that the heart of man is utterly corrupt, and it is only the Word of God moving through the power of the Holy Spirit that can change it.
The third measure of the greatness of John the Baptist is his unwavering loyalty to the Word of God. After John was put in prison he sent two messengers to Jesus with a question, “Are you he who is to come or shall we look for another?” Jesus answered the messengers in such a way that John would understand that Jesus was really the Messiah. Then He turned to the multitude and delivered a great eulogy on John the Baptist. He said,
What did you go out into the wilderness to behold? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft clothing? Behold, those who are gorgeously appareled and live in luxury are in kings’ courts. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.
John was not a reed shaken by the wind. He was not weak and vacillating. He was not a man who yielded to popular opinion. He was not one who always went with the wind and the tide. He came with a word from God and he delivered it, even at the cost of his life. It was because he dared to stand up before the king Antipas and his wife Herodias and rebuked the adultery in which they lived, that he was imprisoned. He was a prophet, a great prophet, because he came with the word from the Lord and he delivered it exactly as God gave it to him. He not only spoke the word of the Lord to the rulers in their corruption and wickedness; but he also delivered it to the people, saying, “Repent ye, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”
The fourth measure of greatness in the character of John the Baptist is his humility. We have already observed that it was his mission to introduce Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God. He did this preaching to enormous crowds, but when Jesus began to preach He drew the crowds instead of John. This disturbed the disciples of John and they came and complained to their master. They said, “Rabbi, he who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you bore witness, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him” (John 3:26). John’s answer is magnificent.
You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him. He who has the bride is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full. He must increase, but I must decrease.
His humility is set forth, first of all, in the figure of the friend of the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom was roughly equivalent to the best man in a wedding today, only in Biblical days the friend of the bridegroom had more responsibility. He had to make preparation for the entire wedding. We know that the bridegroom is Christ and that John is the friend of the bridegroom, and as such he truly rejoiced with the bridegroom in His marriage. The point is that he was not merely willing that he should decrease and Christ increase, and that he would bear this as his lot in life. The point is that he actually rejoiced in the growth and greatness of Jesus Christ. The popular acceptance of Jesus was John’s great joy; and now that he sees Christ accepted, his joy is full. “He must increase and I must decrease.”
Here we see how far John the Baptist rises above his disciples. They were jealous for their master, but there wasn’t a trace of jealousy in John. He rejoiced to see Christ increase. We find this same jealousy and envy in the disciples of Jesus. Just before the institution of the Lord’s Supper in the Upper Room, they were quarreling as to who would be greatest in the kingdom of God. As we look at the church in our day, we will have to admit that things have changed very little since the days of the disciples of John the Baptist and the disciples of Jesus. Envy and jealousy mar our witness for Christ.
Someone has said,
It takes more grace than I can tell,
To play the second fiddle well.
It is time for all of us to ask ourselves: Where do we put the work of Jesus Christ? Is it self first or Christ first? Are we glad to see the kingdom of God advance even where we have no hand in it? Do we rejoice in the success of other denominations or other groups? Do we thank God for the lay groups that are rising in our day, winning people to Christ by the thousands? These are the questions that we must answer. When John Wesley first began to preach, he was such a prim little churchman exalting the church of England above everything else, that he said he would rather see a sinner lost in the church than saved outside of it. But when Wesley was converted, when his heart was warmed by the gospel of Christ, he made a covenant with God as follows:
I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee; let me be full, let me be empty; let me have all things, let me have nothing; I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it. And the Covenant which I have made on earth let it be ratified in heaven.
Wesley used his covenant among his Methodist societies for many years, and it explains as much as anything else the tremendous power of that movement. It is the power of the humble. The Bible tells us that God resists the proud and gives His grace to the humble. He does not work with the proud; He works against them. When we learn that the cause is bigger than anyone person involved in it, we will again become channels of the power of God.