A Faithful Messenger

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Matthew 11:1-19 (John the Baptist)

INTRODUCTION: Our message series is called Mission and Conflict, and we are seeing how these two themes play out together in Matthew 10-12. In Matthew 10 Jesus gave his disciples instructions about mission, warning them about the conflict and opposition they would face going forth with the gospel. Now as we begin Matthew 11, Jesus speaks at length about John the Baptist, using John as an example of a messenger who remained faithful to Christ despite opposition. (Read Matthew 11:11-15 and pray.)

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Are you a faithful messenger for Jesus Christ? Are you faithful in sharing the good news of Jesus with others, even when it’s difficult, even when you face opposition?

John the Baptist was a faithful messenger for Christ despite opposition, and we also should be faithful messengers for Christ. Today’s passage breaks into three sections: 1) lessons from John’s imprisonment, 2) lessons from John’s ministry, and 3) lessons from John’s audience. So, let’s look at John the Baptist together now to learn more of what it means to be a faithful messenger.

I. Lessons from John’s imprisonment (1-6)

First of all, what we can learn about being a faithful messenger from John’s imprisonment? There are two very important lessons we can learn here.

   A. Be prepared to suffer for Christ (1-2)
      – 2 Timothy 3:12-13

And the first is simply this, we should all be prepared to suffer for Christ. We read in Matthew 11:1-2:

After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee. 2 When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples. (Matthew 11:1-2)

Notice that Matthew actually refers to Jesus as “Christ” or “Messiah” here. That’s a little ironic because, as we will see in just a moment, that is precisely the issue that is bothering John. Is Jesus the Christ who was to come, or should we be expecting someone else?

But in the meantime, John is suffering in prison. We first learned that John was imprisoned back in Matthew 4, and we will learn more of the details of that imprisonment when we get to Matthew 14. But the point here is that John was suffering in prison because he had been a faithful messenger for Christ, and we also need to be prepared to suffer for Christ.

Our message series is called “Mission and Conflict,” because any time you go forth on mission for Christ you can expect conflict. The apostle Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3: “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.” (2 Timothy 3:12-13) Paul was no stranger to persecution, and he tells us as Christians, when we choose to live a godly life in Christ Jesus, we can expect the same.

Are you willing to suffer for Christ? Would you be willing to go to prison for Christ? For many people around the world these are not hypothetical questions but real-life questions that they must answer every day. That’s the first lesson we learn from John’s imprisonment. Be prepared to suffer for Christ. When you are a faithful messenger for Christ, you can expect to suffer for it.

   B. Look to God’s word when you experience doubts (3-6)
      – Isaiah 35:5-6, 61:1

A second lesson we learn from John’s imprisonment has to do with doubts. You should look to God’s word when you experience doubts. We find this lesson in Matthew 11:3-5. John was in prison, and when he heard what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him:

“Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” 4 Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” (Matthew 11:3-5)

There are a number of reasons why John might have had questions at this point in his life. For one thing, he was in prison! Here he was faithfully proclaiming Christ, and he ended up in prison as a result. John may also have wondered about Jesus’ mission. Remember, John and Jesus both proclaimed the same message, “The kingdom of God is near!” But John may not have fully understood how Jesus would bring that kingdom. Many expected that Messiah when he came would overthrow the Romans and free the Jewish people. They expected a political deliverance, not a spiritual deliverance. Jesus already confused John earlier when he came to John to be baptized. Even then John didn’t understand that Jesus was identifying with sinful humanity in preparation for the cross.

And so, John has questions about Jesus, and he sends his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” And Jesus responds by pointing him back to Scripture. Jesus refers to several Old Testament prophecies which spoke of what Messiah would do when he came – specifically, Isaiah 35:5-6 and Isaiah 61:1.

And what did those prophecies say about the Messiah? That the blind would see, the deaf would hear, the lame would walk, the mute would speak, and good news would be preached to the poor. In other words, Jesus was doing exactly what the Scriptures said Messiah would do when he came. John was struggling with doubts, and Jesus pointed him back to God’s word.

We should so the same thing whenever we struggle with doubts. Any Christian can struggle with doubts from time to time, and when we do, we also should look to God’s word.

Back to Matthew 11, Jesus finishes off this section on John’s imprisonment with a word of blessing and warning. Look at verse 6 where Jesus says:

“Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” (Matthew 11:6)

The word translated “fall away” in this verse is a word that literally means to trip over something and fall down. Jesus is saying blessed is the person who does not trip over him and fall down because of him. Jesus is encouraging John and us to continue in our faith even when we suffer for Christ.

What lessons can we learn about being a faithful messenger from John’s imprisonment? Be prepared to suffer for Christ. Look to God’s word when you doubt.

II. Lessons from John’s ministry (7-15)

Next Jesus talks about John’s ministry. And there are some important things we can learn about being a faithful messenger from these verses too.

   A. Be bold and uncompromising in your message (7-10)
      – Malachi 3:1; Acts 4:18-20

First, be bold and uncompromising in your message. Look at Matthew 11:7-10:

As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 8 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. 9 Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’” (Matthew 11:7-10)

Jesus affirms John’s ministry to the people. He reminds them why they went out to the desert to see John in the first place. They didn’t go out to see a swaying reed, in other words, someone who was timid or fearful or swayed by pressure. No, John was bold in his preaching. They didn’t go out to see someone dressed in fancy clothes. No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces, and John did not compromise with power or wealth. So, what did they go out to see? A prophet! A prophet boldly proclaiming the word of God.

Jesus says John was a prophet, and more than a prophet. John was not only a prophet, he was also the subject of prophecy himself. Jesus said, “This is the one about whom it is written: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’” (Matthew 11:10)

Jesus was quoting a prophecy from Malachi 3:1 which said that before God came to his people, he would send a messenger before him to prepare the way. Jesus tells us here that John is that messenger. He was not only a prophet. He was the direct forerunner to Christ, the messenger who pointed him out to the people of Israel.

John was a bold and uncompromising messenger for Christ. And he serves as an example for us that we also need to be bold and uncompromising in our message for Christ.

We read about the apostles in the book of Acts when they were called in before the authorities. “Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John replied, ‘Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. 20 For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.’” (Acts 4:18-20) Now that’s a faithful messenger! That’s boldness! That’s refusing to compromise! We need to arm ourselves with the same attitude as Peter and John and John the Baptist.

That’s the first lesson we learn about being a faithful messenger from John’s ministry. Be bold and uncompromising in your message

   B. Seek God’s kingdom first in your life (11-15)
      – Matthew 6:33; Luke 16:16

And then secondly, seek God’s kingdom first in your life. Jesus goes on to talk about the importance of the kingdom. Look at Matthew 11:11 where Jesus says:

“I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matthew 11:11)

Jesus tells us how great the kingdom is by first telling us how great John the Baptist is. Jesus says John is the greatest of all the Old Testament believers. John is greater than Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He is greater than Moses, David or Elijah. John was a prophet and more than a prophet. All the prophets pointed forward to Christ. John was the greatest of the prophets because he came directly before Christ.

But as great as John the Baptist is, the kingdom is even greater. The kingdom is so important that Jesus says even the least person in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John the Baptist. John the Baptist was the greatest yet who had come, but we who are in the kingdom are even greater than John. John the Baptist was born of a woman, but we have been born again of the Spirit. John pointed to Jesus who was still coming, while we point to Christ who has already come. We live on this side of the cross and Christ’s resurrection. We know the reality of Jesus’ mission in a way that no one could fully know before the cross. Even the least in God’s kingdom is greater than any who came before, including John, whom Jesus says was the greatest of them all. That’s how great the kingdom of God is.

Jesus goes on to talk about the advancement of the kingdom. Look at verse 12 where Jesus says:

“From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.” (Matthew 11:12)

John faithfully proclaimed, “The kingdom of heaven is near.” Then Jesus arrived on the scene and demonstrated the reality of the kingdom. With mission comes conflict, and Jesus pushed back the powers of sickness and darkness and death through his teaching and his miracles.

The kingdom of heaven forcefully advances, and forceful men lay hold of it. Jesus said something similar in Luke 16:16 when he said, “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it.” (Luke 16:16)

Mission brings conflict. When the kingdom of God is pushing against the kingdom of Satan and this world, you better believe Satan and the world are going to push back.

Jesus goes on to say something very interesting about John. Look at verses 13-15:

“For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 14 And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. 15 He who has ears, let him hear.” (Matthew 11:13-15)

The book of Malachi not only spoke about the messenger who would come before Christ. (Malachi 3:1) It also spoke about Elijah who would come before Christ. (Malachi 4:5-6) And here Jesus says, if you are willing to accept it, John is the Elijah who was to come.

Now Jesus is not saying that John is literally the same Elijah we read about in the Old Testament. When the priests and Levites asked John if he was Elijah, John said definitely, “I am not.” (John 1:21)

So, what does Jesus mean by this? He is saying that the prophecy in Malachi about Elijah coming before Christ was meant to be interpreted spiritually. One like Elijah would come, and that one like Elijah was John the Baptist. The angel Gabriel told John’s father that John would go before the Lord “in the spirit and power of Elijah.” (Luke 1:17) And so John was sent to go before the Lord and prepare the way for Christ. He is the messenger of Malachi 3, and the Elijah of Malachi 4.

Here’s the thing. Once you understand who John is, then you’ll understand who Jesus is. John is the greatest of the Old Testament believers – why? Because he points forward to Jesus. The least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John – why? Because we believe in Jesus. But, you see, it all goes back to Jesus, because Jesus is the greatest of all. Jesus is the Messiah. He is the Savior. He is God incarnate.

John came preaching the kingdom of God and preparing the way for Jesus. Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God and told us to put God’s kingdom before anything else. (Matthew 6:33) What are the lessons we learn about being a faithful messenger from John’s ministry? Be bold and uncompromising in your message. Seek God’s kingdom first in your life.

III. Lessons from John’s audience (16-19)

We have learned about being a faithful messenger from John’s imprisonment and from John’s ministry. Finally, let’s look at two more lessons we can learn from John’s audience.

   A. Don’t take your cues from the crowd (16-17)
      – Galatians 1:10

And the first lesson is a very important one when it comes to being a faithful messenger: Don’t take your cues from the crowd. Look at Matthew 11:16-17 where Jesus says:

“To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: 17 ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’” (Matthew 11:16-17)

John’s audience had certain expectations of John and Jesus, and guess what? John and Jesus did not meet their expectations. Jesus says this whole generation was like children calling out the tunes and expecting others to dance to their music.

Someone once said, “I can tell a lot about you by two things: what makes you laugh, and what makes you cry.” The faithful messenger for God does not take their cues from the crowd but from the Lord. We don’t dance to the world’s music; rather, we follow God’s lead. We don’t mourn for the same things the world mourns for; rather, we care for the things God cares for.

When false teachers infiltrated the Galatian churches, Paul had to rebuke them strongly. He then asked the Galatians in Galatians 1:10: “Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Galatians 1:10)

A faithful messenger for Christ doesn’t try to win the approval of men. That’s the first lesson we learn from John’s audience: Don’t take your cues from the crowd.

   B. Expect criticism from the world (18-19)
      – Matthew 5:11-12

And then the second is this. When you are a faithful messenger for Christ, you can expect criticism from the world. Look at Matthew 11:18-19:

“For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and “sinners.” ’ But wisdom is proved right by her actions.” (Matthew 11:18-19)

You know the old saying, “Some people you can never satisfy?” Well, that’s the way it is with the world when you are a faithful messenger for Christ. No matter how lovingly you present the message, no matter how wisely you approach it, no matter how carefully you try to phrase it, you can still expect criticism. When John came fasting, they said he had a demon. When Jesus came feasting, they called him names. Sometimes you just can’t win! No matter what you do, the world will find some way to criticize you for your faith in Christ.

And so, you need to follow God’s way of wisdom, and not the wisdom of the world. As Jesus said, “Wisdom is proved right by her actions.” The wise Christian will be a faithful messenger for Christ despite opposition.

Jesus said in Matthew 5 in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12)

The world will not treat you well when you are a faithful messenger for Christ. But Jesus says you are blessed when you follow him anyways. Don’t take your cues from the crowd. Expect criticism from the world.

CONCLUSION: John the Baptist was a faithful messenger, and we also are called to be faithful messengers for Christ. When you are a faithful messenger, you can expect opposition. And when you face opposition, you may also experience doubts. And that’s why these lessons from John the Baptist are so important for us to learn.

   1) Be prepared to suffer for Christ.
   2) Look to God’s word when you experience doubts.
   3) Be bold and uncompromising in your message.
   4) Seek God’s kingdom first in your life.
   5) Take your cues from God rather than the crowd.
   6) And know that when you follow Jesus, you can expect criticism no matter what you do.

The wisdom of the world says, “Take it easy. Play it safe. Don’t make waves.” But wisdom is proved right by her actions, and those who are faithful messengers for Christ can rejoice – “for great is your reward in heaven.”

© Ray Fowler

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