************ Sermon on Luke 1:15-17 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on December 16, 2018
"The Greatness of John the Baptist"
"He will be great ..." That's what the angel said to Zechariah about John the Baptist. "He will be great ..."
I googled "great people." Let me list some of the names: Jesus, Newton, Mohamed, Buddha, Confucius, Jefferson, Churchill, Gorbachev, Shakespeare, Lincoln, Apostle Paul, Washington, Tesla, Edison, Ford, Beethoven, Franklin, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates. Ask a Canadian, "Who is the Great One?" and they will tell you it is Wayne Gretzky. Ask a boxing fan, and they will say "the greatest" is Mohammed Ali. Baseball fans point to Roberto Clemente.
How do you measure "greatness"? What makes some people great? There are different ways to measure greatness: fame, money, social media presence, admiration of society, celebrity status, entertainment value, achievements, impact on people and society, sports hero.
"He will be great ..." Not because John the Baptist has lots of money. Not because the people said he was great. Not because he had the biggest crowds ever. Not because he did more baptisms than anyone else.
I Great in the Sight of the Lord
A "He will be great ..." I doubt if anyone in Israel saw John's greatness. Look at John. Nothing about him looks great. Look at his family: He had no royal or noble genealogy; rather, he was born to a humble, plain, ordinary couple. Look at where he lived: He lived in a small, unremarkable village; we don't even know its name -- only that it is a town somewhere in the hill country of Judea (Lk 1:39). Look at his accomplishments: He didn't invent anything; he didn't start a new religion. Look at his schooling: We have no record of any formal education. Look at his circle of friends: Verse 80 makes it sound like he grew up in isolation -- that is, he grew and became strong in spirit and lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel. Look at his clothing: John's clothes were made of camel's hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. Look at his diet: His food was locusts -- sometimes dried and sometimes fried -- covered in wild honey. Look at his associations: He wasn't associated with the priesthood, though both parents were part of the priestly line; he wasn't associated with the Pharisees or Sadducees. No, nothing about John makes him look great.
In any way that the world measures greatness, there was nothing great about John. In fact, he ended his life hated and despised and beheaded. There is nothing great about John from a human point-of-view. Yet, the angel states, "he will be great ..."
B "He will be great ..." It is important to ask, how great is John the Baptist? Jesus tells us in Luke 7:
(Lk 7:28) I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John ... The phrase "among those born of women" is a Hebrew expression which includes everyone. According to Jesus, John not only is the greatest, he also is the greatest who has ever lived.
(cf Mt 11:11)
Try to wrap your mind around the greatness of John. There is Enoch who walked with God -- John is greater. There is Noah who built the ark -- John is greater. There is Abraham the friend of God -- John is greater. There is Joseph who interpreted dreams and ruled Egypt -- John is greater. There is David a man after God's own heart -- John is greater. There is Daniel who faced the lions -- John is greater. There are Daniel's three friends who were thrown into the fiery furnace -- John is greater. There is Elijah who declared there would be no dew and no rain in Israel and was later taken into heaven in a chariot of fire -- John is greater. There is Elisha who raised to life a dead son -- John is greater. There are the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel who all spoke the word of the Lord -- John is greater. There are all the Old Testament heroes of faith listed in Hebrews 11 -- John is greater.
C "He will be great ..." In what way? What is the angel talking about? Here is the rest of the sentence: "in the sight of the Lord." "He will be great in the sight of the Lord" (Lk 1:15).
The phrase "in the sight of" is used many times in the Bible: 94 times in 86 verses. Luke uses it 32 times total in his gospel and in the book of Acts. Paul uses it 10 times in his letters. So it was a common expression. And when applied to God, it means divine approval. John may never get the approval of men but he will have the approval of God. In this way he is like his parents who "were upright in the sight of God" (Lk 1:6). They also received God's stamp of approval.
We need to realize something about the approval of God. No one can be approved by God unless their sin is covered and washed and paid for. That is, all those who are approved by God must also be justified by God. All those who are approved by God are saved. Which further means that all those who are approved by God believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. And, we need to add, all those who are approved by God are also sanctified -- because you can never have justification without sanctification. When it comes down to it, John must also be one of God's elect, one of God's chosen ones.
"He will be great in the sight of the Lord." John has God's approval on his life. Before he was born. Before he did anything for good or for evil. Telling us what? Telling us it is all of grace and not of works so John can't boast.
"He will be great in the sight of the Lord." If you believe in Jesus, what is said about John is also said about you. If you are washed in the blood of the Lamb as one of God's elect, you also are great in the sight of the Lord. In fact, because of the Spirit's presence in our life you and I are even greater than John:
(Lk 7:28) I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he. (Cf Mt 11:11)
"He will be great in the sight of the Lord." How will he be great? In what way will he be great? The angel gives four proofs for the greatness of John.
II A Moderate Lifestyle
A John "will be great in the sight of the Lord." How do we know? Here is the first proof: "He is never to take wine or other fermented drink" (Lk 1:15). This says something about John's character, John's lifestyle. Abstinence from alcohol was part of a total package: he wore clothes made of camel's hair, around his waist was a leather belt, he ate locusts and wild honey. John was not a man who participated in the pleasures of the world -- whether it was clothing, food, or drink. He practiced self-denial.
B Why would John live this way? Why such a moderate lifestyle? The Bible gives us at least three reasons.
First, John takes seriously God's warnings against the abuse of alcohol, about being under the influence, about being an addict, about drunkenness.
Second, John was part of a priestly family. His father was a priest. His mother was also a descendant of Aaron and thus the daughter of a priest. If he wanted to, John could have also served in the Temple as priest of God Most High.
What does this have to do with alcohol and being under the influence? Listen to this one verse from Leviticus:
(Lev 10:8-9) Then the LORD said to Aaron, (9) "You and your sons are not to drink wine or other fermented drink whenever you go into the Tent of Meeting, or you will die."
Try to imagine a priest under the influence. If he was chosen to burn incense he might stumble into the Holy of Holies. He might offer unauthorized fire to the Lord. He might mess up the cleansing ceremonies. He might misuse the holy name of God.
Third, more than one commentator say that John was set apart in the service of God as a Nazarite. A Nazirite could not cut his hair. A Nazirite could not go near a dead body. A Nazirite
(Num 6:3) must abstain from wine and other fermented drink and must not drink vinegar made from wine or from other fermented drink. He must not drink grape juice or eat grapes or raisins.
Here, then, is the first proof of John's greatness: By God's design, according to God's plan, John kept away from alcohol and its dangers.
III Filled with the Spirit
A John "will be great in the sight of the Lord." How do we know? Here is the second proof: "he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth ["from his mother's womb" says another translation]" (Lk 1:15). Instead of being filled with wine and strong drink, John was going to be filled with the Spirit of God.
To be filled with the Spirit means to be under the control of the Spirit, to be in step with the Spirit, to be led by the Spirit. And, notice, God's Spirit was in control of his life already while he was still in his mother's womb. We see life that is controlled and dominated by the Spirit can begin at conception already. This tells us that what is in the womb is not just a blob of flesh; it is a person.
B Up to this point in time the Holy Spirit did not have a full-time presence in any believer's life. The Spirit came upon a person for a certain time and for a certain task and then He would leave. John is the first believer to have the Spirit in the same way we have the Spirit -- as a full-time controlling presence in his life.
Here, then, is the second proof of John's greatness: By God's design he was filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother's womb.
IV The Messiah's Forerunner
A John "will be great in the sight of the Lord." How do we know? Here is the third proof:
(Lk 1:17) And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah ... to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.This is the main proof, the most important proof, of John's greatness. The angel says John is the Messiah's forerunner: "he will go on before the Lord."
In the Ancient World, kings always sent people ahead to prepare the way for them and to prepare the people for the royal entry. Today, Presidents and Prime Ministers have advance teams who do the same thing.
John is great because he is the Messiah's forerunner. Because he gets to announce the Messiah is coming. Because he prepares the way for the Messiah's coming. John is great because it is he who announces, "Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (Jn 1:29). John is great because he is the one who baptizes Jesus.
B John will go on before the Lord "in the spirit and power of Elijah." This comes from the prophecy of Malachi (Mal 3:1; 4:5-6). Through Malachi, God promises the coming of Elijah to prepare the way for the Messiah. Telling us John is the Elijah who is to come.
Yet, when John was asked, "Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the Prophet?" He answered, "No" (cf Jn 1:21). How are we to understand this answer when Jesus says John "is the Elijah who was to come" (Mt 11:14)? Look at what the angel actually says: John's ministry is "in the spirit and power of Elijah" (Lk 1:17). Which means Malachi's prophecy is figurative and not literal. So Malachi was talking about an Elijah-type prophet.
What can we say about Elijah? He proclaimed the Word of God boldly, powerfully, faithfully, and without compromise. He confronted kings and priests and people.
When we look at John's ministry, we see an Elijah-type prophet. He confronted the people as a "brood of vipers" (Lk 3:7). He told tax collectors to be fair. He told soldiers not to extort money or to accuse people falsely. He rebuked King Herod because of the evil things he had done.
Here, then, is the third proof of John's greatness: By God's design he was an Elijah-type prophet who prepared the way for the coming of Messiah Jesus.
V Used for Conversion
John "will be great in the sight of the Lord." How do we know? Here is the fourth proof:
(Lk 1:16-17) Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. (17) And he will ... turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous ...
Here we see the impact, the powerful impact, of John's ministry in the spirit and power of Elijah. John is going to cause lots and lots of conversions. He is a first-century Billy Graham who calls people to come to God in repentance and faith. He is going to preach the Gospel. He is going to call the children of Israel to leave their disobedience, to stop their apostasy, to quit their rebellion, and to return to the Lord their God. Aa prophet of God (cf Lk 1:76), he will be telling people about the forgiveness of sin because of the tender mercy of God. He will be telling people about the light of God's presence (cf Lk 1:77-78).
Isn't this the main job of all prophets? To call people back to the Lord? Didn't the Old Testament prophets say: "Return, Return, Return! Go back to the Lord! Stop your sin!"
Here, then, is the fourth proof of John's greatness: By God's design he was an Elijah-type prophet who called people to repent and believe.
So far this sermon has been about the greatness of John the Baptist. But we all know someone greater than John. Remember how John himself put it?
(Lk 3:16) "I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."John is talking about Jesus. Yes, John is great -- great in the sight of the Lord. But don't ever forget, Jesus is greater.
Jesus wrote no books; yet countless books have been written about Him.
Jesus painted no pictures; yet some of the finest paintings of Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci received their inspiration from Him.
Jesus wrote no poetry; but Dante, Milton, and scores of the world's greatest poets were inspired by Him.
Jesus composed no music; still Handel, Beethoven, Bach, and Mendelssohn reached their highest perfection of melody in the hymns, symphonies, and oratorios they composed in His praise.
Jesus did what no one else could do: the salvation of our souls! Philosophy could not accomplish that. Nor art. Nor literature. Nor music. Only Jesus Christ can break the enslaving chains of sin and Satan. He alone can speak peace to the human heart, strengthen the weak, and give life to those who are spiritually dead.
John the Baptist is great. But Jesus is greater.
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