Sunday School Lesson

DEC. 29, 2002

JOHN THE BAPTIST: MESSIAH'S FORERUNNER

Bible Background---MATTHEW 3; 11:2-19, 14:1-12

Focal Verses—MATTHEW 3:1-11; 11:7-10

Devotional Reading—JOHN 1:1-14

 

  

LESSON AIM

1.        We will be able to identify and explore ways in which we might fulfill a supportive role in bringing others to faith in JESUS CHRIST.

 

KEEP IN MIND

“For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee” (Matthew 11:10).

  

 

In this lesson, we examine the life of John the Baptist. We learn from John the meaning of service to the glory of GOD. We should also learn from the courage of John the Baptist; and, from his clear understanding of his role in the scheme of GOD’S redemptive plan. It is important to know what our function is in the work of GOD and not take upon ourselves what GOD hasn’t allotted to us.

The biblical text shows us John fulfilling his prophetic role as a forerunner for the Messiah as he goes into the Judean wilderness, preaching repentance and the nearness of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 3:1-3). John attracted many followers who confessed their sins and were then baptized by him in the Jordan (vv.4-6). John harshly criticized the religious leaders for their hypocrisy and warned them of imminent judgment (vv.7-10). John explained the difference between his mission and that of the ONE for whom he was preparing the way (v.11). JESUS spoke highly of John and his role and praised him as a prophet and a human being (11:7-10).

 

By way of background, there is about a 25-to 30-year lapse of time between the end of Matthew 2 and the beginning of Matthew 3. Near the end of Matthew 2, we leave JESUS as a young child growing up in Nazareth (see Matthew 2:21-23). By the time we reach Matthew 3, John, who was born around the same time as JESUS, is a grown man “preaching in the wilderness of Judea.”

After a long prophetic silence, John bursts on the scene “like the last great prophet of the Hebrew Scriptures and like a walking, breathing law of GOD, full of doom and holiness and ultimacy” (Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: A Historical/Theological Commentary, Waco, Texas: Word Publishers, 1987, p.70).

John’s ministry was a preaching and baptizing ministry that anticipated the ministry of JESUS. While we cannot be certain of the source of John’s practice of baptism, we can be certain that his baptism could not grant forgiveness of sins. As Matthew 3:6-12 shows, John’s ministry simply called people to a confession of sins, to repentance, and to acknowledgment of the coming one who cleanses us from sins and provides the Spirit who enables right living.

John’s ministry was directed to people from all over Judea (v.5). Because his ministry was in touch with the state of affairs in Israel, and because of his passion for and unselfish interest in the people’s social and spiritual welfare, a revival erupted. As a result, people “were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins” (v.6).

It is obvious from the context and manner of John’s ministry that his baptism was offered as a public sign that those being baptized had received and accepted his message. Forgiveness followed their confession of sin and repentance. John’s baptism was a public affirmation that the repentant and now-baptized participants were positioned to receive GOD’S saving grace and presence, thus fulfilling the Scripture: “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy” (Proverbs 28:13).

 

1.       JOHN’S PREACHING (Matthew 3:1-3)

 Matthew introduces John and his preaching and baptizing ministry in terse and quick fashion: “John…came, preaching…(v.1), repent…(v.2), prepare…the way of the LORD” (V.3). These three verses strongly suggest that John was a prominent prophet. He had his own ministry and a significant group of followers. Moreover, John’s ministry continued for some time after his baptizing JESUS in the River Jordan (see Matthew 9:14, 11:2-3).

Before describing the content of John’s ministry, Matthew takes the time to note the location of John’s ministry in “the wilderness of Judaea.”

According to verse 2, John’s ministry had two emphases. First, his ministry called people to repentance. Second, his ministry announced the nearness of the kingdom of heaven. In view of the nearness of GOD’S kingdom, John urged people to repent, to be sorry for their past behavior, to change their mind, and to pursue a future behavior that honored GOD’S standard for right and holy living.

 John was very assertive in his denunciation of evil. Whether rebuking King Herod because of his unlawful marriage, the Sadducees and Pharisees because of their legalism, or the common folk because of their failure to reverence GOD, John was intent upon calling people to repent, to turn from their old sinful ways, and to pursue GOD’S kind of righteousness.

Given the ever-present temptation of sin and evil, the church still has a need for John’s kind of preaching ministry. Moral standards must be set, and people need to be reminded of their potential for growth in the things of GOD. The message of repentance and forgiveness and the call to right living has the capacity to revitalize and bring spiritual renewal to people.

 

2.       JOHN’S  PREACHING ATTRACTS MANY FOLLOWERS (vv.4-6)

 Matthew wants his readers to know that there was nothing particularly attractive about John’s appearance. His was a very simple lifestyle. His garments were made of camel’s hair, and he wore a dried skin belt, reminiscent of Elijah’s attire (see 2 Kings 1:8). Moreover, his diet was locusts (see Leviticus 11:22) and honey produced by bees in the wild.

Matthew’s description of John’s physical appearance begs the question, “What attracted people to him?” People were attracted to John because of the quality and content of his preaching. There is a lesson in this for today’s church. While we should seek to have beautiful worship facilities, ultimately it is not our beautiful buildings or fashionable dress that attracts people to JESUS CHRIST. Real Christian disciples are made as a result of a clear, articulate, and perceptive handling of the GOOD NEWS concerning life in JESUS CHRIST. The faithful teaching and preaching “of the gospel of CHRIST” is still “the power of GOD unto salvation to every one that believeth” (Romans 1:16).

Verse 5 and 6 report the results of John’s ministry. This same result is produced whenever the GOOD NEWS is preached in ways that meet people’s need for GOD.

 

3.       JOHN’S PREACHING QUESTIONS THE INTEGRITY OF HIS CONTEMPORARIES (vv.7-10)

While John’s ministry was successful, it did not go unchallenged. John has his audience of critics. Whatever differences the Pharisees and Sadducees may have had between their parties, they were united in their opposition against John’s ministry.

It is not clear whether the Pharisees and Sadducees were coming to be baptized or as part of a committee seeking to build a case against John’s ministry. John takes the high road and seems to assume that they are coming to be baptized. However, he views their motives with great suspicion and questions the depth of their repentance. This helps to explain the harshness of his statements to them. He calls them “vipers” or snakes and asks them, “Who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John’s question and his demand for evidence of repentance imply that the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ motives were questionable. Rather than to demonstrate a commitment to abandon their evil behavior and lead righteous lives, their aim was to escape the certain “wrath to come”—to escape GOD’S punishment for sin.

While the desire to avoid divine retribution may be a motive for right living, it is not the best motive. We should desire to live right because it is the right thing to do in response to GOD’S love for us. It is far better to pour one’s energies into bringing forth fruits suitable for repentance in order to glorify GOD, than to pour one’s energies into merely avoiding the wrath to come. Fear of hell need not be an overriding issue for those who accept GOD’S way. Moreover, GOD is concerned about right motive as well as right behavior. Repentance that is acceptable to GOD results in right behavior that is sustained, not by a fear of hell, but by AN UNCONDITIONAL LOVE FOR GOD.

 

4.       JOHN’S MINISTRY AND THE MINISTRY OF JESUS (v.11)

 John is both clear and emphatic about the relationship of his ministry to that of JESUS. John’s purpose was to call people to repentance. JESUS’ purpose was to save and empower people for righteous living. Therefore, John’s ministry of baptism was essentially preparatory in that it anticipated and prepared the way for the ministry of JESUS.

John is to be commended for his capacity to see the bigger picture and to content himself with playing second fiddle. John was willing to serve in a supportive role for the benefit of one who was superior to him. John’s baptism was with water for repentance. JESUS’ baptism was with the HOLY SPIRIT for empowerment and with fire for cleansing, purification, and refinement in the things of the SPIRIT. In other words, John’s ministry awakened people’s desire for righteousness. JESUS’ ministry provides the righteous of GOD to those who believe and empowers us to live righteously by giving us the HOLY SPIRIT (Acts 1:8; Romans 3:22).

In the plan of GOD, both ministries were needed to bring us to righteousness. Even today, if the unchurched or the unsaved are to accept CHRIST and live righteously, they have need for someone to awaken within them the desire for righteousness. This awakening can take place when the GOOD NEWS about GOD’S saving grace is shared through the testimony of a Christian friend, the sermon of a faithful preacher, or a good deed performed by those of us who claim to be disciples of JESUS.

Like John the Baptist, every believer can fulfill a supportive role by working with GOD to bring others to faith in JESUS CHRIST. As born again believers, we can share our faith in the hope and confidence that a desire for righteousness might come alive in those who have not yet accepted CHRIST as their LORD and SAVIOR. 

John’s ministry is a model for us all. It is a little wonder that JESUS had such high esteem for John and for his ministry.

 

5.       JOHN’S MINISTRY IS ESTEEMED BY JESUS (11:7-10)

 In these verses of Scripture, JESUS comments about John and his ministry. JESUS begins by asking a number of rhetorical questions aimed at illustrating the greatness of John’s ministry, while leading the people to ask questions about HIS own ministry.

JESUS’ comments are best understood when we remember that the Jews of John and JESUS’ day had never seen a prophet. They had heard about the prophets of 400 years ago, but they had never seen one. When they heard that John was doing ministry in the tradition of the prophets, they were eager to go “out into the wilderness to see him,” because in the Jewish mind there was no higher human status than that of a prophet. Thus, JESUS’ first question was: “When you went out into the wilderness to see the prophet, what did you expect to see?”

JESUS’ line of questioning makes the point that the prophet they saw was more than a prophet. John was the one of whom the prophets prophesied in verse 10: “For this is he, of whom it is written, ‘behold, I send my messenger before thee.’” Therefore, if John is greater than the prophets, and if John is simply preparing the way for a greater one to come, then who is this greater one? HOW GREAT IS HE????

 

Matthew wants his readers to know that the greater one, who is JESUS, is also GOD.

Therefore, they who encounter JESUS encounter GOD. This truth makes the sharing of our faith critically important. Our supportive role in bringing others to faith in JESUS CHRIST helps put them in contact with GOD. We help advance the kingdom by sharing our faith. May GOD give us wisdom and courage to fulfill this supportive role of helping to bring others to faith in JESUS CHRIST!!!!  

 

HAPPY NEW YEAR, IN 2003!

 

Spiritually Yours,

Rev. Chris Lowe, Sr., DD

  Email Dr. Lowe


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