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Pastor Scott L. Harris
Grace Bible Church, NY
January 4, 2015
Marks of Greatness
Matthew 11:7-15; Luke 7:24-30
What characteristics distinguish someone to be great? Our society tends to evaluate people according to their fame, prestige, power, and wealth, and so it attributes greatness to a host of entertainment figures, sports stars, business tycoons and the politically powerful. Each of you could probably quickly name all sorts of people that are considered to be great by society, but are they really? Does being able to sing, entertain or amuse make a person great? Is the ability to impersonate someone else in front of a camera a basis for greatness? Is a person truly great because they can do something slightly faster, better or with more skill than someone else? Is amassing a lot of money solid ground for greatness? Is a person truly great just because they manage to get themselves into a position of power whether that be in business or politics?
Popular acclaim certainly is not a test for greatness, for it is as William Hazlitt said, “the true test of greatness is the page of history.” Money is not either for not only does it come and go quickly, but history reveals that most of the truly great men were poor, not wealthy. Special abilities may give a person a day in the sun of fame and a sense of greatness in that specialized field, but just because a person is a great basketball player, actor, actress, singer, politician or whatever else does not mean that the person is great.
Daniel Webster understood the true foundation for greatness when he said, “A solemn and religious regard to spiritual and eternal things is an indispensable element of all true greatness.” Men may claim themselves to be great – as did Mohammed Ali before all the trauma of his many boxing matches took away his physical and mental abilities – and people may say that someone else is great, but that does not make it so. The only real judge for greatness is God Himself. This morning we are going to examine the life of a man whom God said was great and seek to learn from that what elements need to be in our own lives. Turn to Matthew 11.
Last week we examined the doubts of John the Baptist which had developed largely due to being in jail. John had rebuked king Herod Antipas for his incestuous relationship with his sister-in-law, Herodias. That made her angry and she convinced Herod to imprison him even though John was a righteous man. John had been preaching “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” and proclaiming that Jesus was the promised Messiah. Being in jail was a difficult situation, but the confusion caused by it was worse. If Jesus was the Messiah, and the Messiah was to come as the conquering king who would judge the wicked, then why was he, a righteous man, being held in jail by a wicked man? This did not match John’s expectations about what the Messiah would do. John did not have complete revelation and had a limited understanding of the many prophecies he did know concerning Messiah. This left John confused.
John began to have doubts, and he dealt with his rising doubt the proper way by getting the answers to his questions from the source of truth. John could not go himself, so he sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus directly if He was indeed the “Expected One? ” Was Jesus the Messiah that John had been proclaiming Him to be, or was John mistaken and he should look for someone else? John received assurance that Jesus was the Messiah for He was doing the work of Messiah. Jesus was fulfilling the specific prophecies about the miracles the Messiah would perform in healing people, casting out demons, giving sight to the blind and raising the dead. John did not understand how everything fit together, but it was enough for him to have that truth confirmed. (See: Dealing with Doubt)
John’s example is an important lesson for each of us to follow. When doubts arise, you need to go to the source of truth, the Bible, to find the answers. The circumstances of your life could be difficult, and your expectations may be unfulfilled, and your limited understanding could be even more limited by the influence of those around you, but in going back to the Scriptures you will find the foundation of truth upon which you can stand and be at peace. What truths? God’s love for you was proven when Jesus died in your place though were still a sinner. Jesus claims were proven when He rose from the dead. Jesus’ promises can be trusted because He is God in human flesh. Doubt is overcome by coming back to the foundational truths about Jesus.
John’s situation did not change, and it would not be all that much longer before Herodias would have him murdered. Yet, John could now be at peace without any further wavering of his faith. John was a remarkable man whom Jesus commends in our text this morning. Turn to Matthew 11:7-15 as we examine what Jesus says about John and learn from it the characteristics of true greatness that marked his life. You can also put a marker in Luke 7:24-30, the parallel passage which I will also be referring to in this sermon.
The Setting – Matthew 11:7; Luke 7:24
We begin in Matthew 11:7, “And as these were going away, Jesus began to speak to the multitudes about John. ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? As John’s disciples leave to take Jesus’ message to him, Jesus begins to commend John to the multitudes. This was important because doubts may have risen among the people about John and Jesus wanted them to understand John’s identity and what God considers to be great.
John had gained popular acclaim among the people as a prophet. Matthew 3:5 states that “Jerusalem was going out to him and all Judea, and all the district around the Jordan.” According to Matthew 14:5, it was because the people considered John to be a prophet that Herod had not given into the prodding by Herodias to have John killed. Herod feared the multitude more than his illicit wife. John was now in jail and he had sent two of his disciples to ask if Jesus really was the Messiah. This could be a cause for people in the multitudes to also have doubts about John and his message. What kind of prophet has doubts? Yet it is that very doubt that tells us of the first characteristic of true greatness.
A Truth Seeker
John was not concerned what people thought of him. John could have kept his image by keeping his doubts to himself, but he was more concerned about what God wanted than his image, and in order to do what God wanted, he had to know and do what was true. How different that is from leaders of our time who define leadership as finding out where the people are going and getting out in front of them. Too many of our politicians deserve the disdain they receive. Surveys show that people trust politicians about the same as used car salesmen. A major reason for the disdain is that so many politicians try to lead by watching the public opinion polls. Henry Luce said, “The most dangerous fault in American life today is the lack of interest in the truth” and that is because, as W.F. Lown put it, “Modern man’s pattern for determining what is true goes something like this, ‘How do you feel about it.’”
Leaders who are worth following care more about where they are leading than about how those that are following them feel about them. Great leaders march under the banner that says, “Truth before friendship; truth before unity; truth before success.” If you want to be great in God’s eyes, then you need to be a truth seeker.
John was a truth seeker regardless of what people might think of him for it. Jesus questioned the multitudes in verse 7, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind?” The answer was no. Jesus assures the multitudes that to form a true opinion of a person you have to look at their entire life both past and present. John was no reed shaken by the wind. John was not unsteady or vacillating. He did not bend to the pressures put upon him. He was not concerned about the opinion of the people. Jesus reminded them that they went out to see a man of strong conviction. That is the second characteristic of John that made him great.
We live in a day and age when those who have and hold to strong moral convictions are called ignorant, prejudice, narrow minded, bigoted, ideological. Now to be sure, strong convictions that are not based on the truth can be and often are all those things, but John was a truth seeker and his strong convictions were all based in truth. It is good to be ideological when your ideology is founded in truth. It is good to be ignorant of the paths of evil (Romans 16:19). It is good to be prejudiced toward righteousness. Being narrow minded in focus on godliness is far superior to a mind open to ungodliness and lies. Intolerance is a synonym of bigotry, and though our society values tolerance as the supreme virtue, God does not, for He will judge those who are evil and rebukes those who are tolerant of it. John was currently in jail because of his strong conviction, based on the Word of God, that Herod’s relationship with Herodias was incestuous and contrary to God’s will.
John had demonstrated strong convictions based in God’s word throughout his public ministry. John could have easily played the crowds and gained the favor of everyone including the Scribes and Pharisees if he would have compromised his message here and there. We certainly have enough preachers in our time that have given themselves over to “tickling the ears” of people in order to gain a larger audience. John spoke the truth with conviction. He called people to repent and bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance. He rebuked the Scribes and Pharisees for their religious hypocrisy and called on them to repent as well. That was not the way to “win friends and influence people” according to modern thought, but it was what God demanded of him and what God still demands of us now.
Those who are great have strong convictions based in truth. That may not make them popular, but God has not placed us here on this earth to be popular. We are here to live by and proclaim the truth. All truth is God’s: but only the mind freed from sin sees it, only the honest mind reverences it, and only the courageous mind holds it firmly and follows it fearlessly. That is what strong conviction is all about.
You will be called narrow minded for proclaiming salvation in Jesus Christ alone and calling people to repent from their sin, but there is no salvation without recognizing sin in your life and turning from it to ask God’s forgiveness. You will be called bigoted for telling the world that abortion is murder, that sex outside of marriage is immoral and that homosexuality is an abomination. But remember that greatness demands strong convictions to know, follow and proclaim God’s word and will regardless how others respond to you.
John was a man of truth and strong conviction, but another mark of his greatness was his humility. That is a natural outgrowth of seeking the truth. When you genuinely seek the truth, you see your own weakness, failings and position. John understood his weakness which is why he sent his disciples to Jesus so that his doubts could be alleviated. John also understood his position and that he must decrease and while Jesus must increase (John 3:30). He saw himself as unworthy to even untie Jesus’ sandals (Matthew 3:11). Pride is a curse against true greatness. John was humble and gained greatness.
John was not a reed shaken by the wind. He was a man of strong convictions, committed to truth, and yet also humble. These virtues are characteristics of greatness. Jesus goes on to point out three more.
Self-denial – Matthew 11:8; Luke 7:23
Jesus declares to the multitudes in Matthew 11:8, “But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in king’s palaces.” Luke adds that it is those in royal palaces that live in luxury.
The man who dressed in soft clothing was the self indulgent man who desired the “good life.” The reference to the king’s place here is not just because those in the king’s palace were able to enjoy his luxuries, it is also a reference to those Scribes who gave up their rather drab garments and put on those of the king’s court in order to court the kings’ favor. The king encouraged this practice because it diminished criticism of the king’s exploitation of the people since it is hard to point a finger at the king’s lifestyle when you are living the same way.
John the Baptist lived the opposite way. He willingly sacrificed and denied himself in order to set himself apart both physically and symbolically from the corrupt religious and political system of his day. He is one of only three people recorded in scripture that lived their entire life as a Nazrite. Samson and Samuel are the other two. They willingly and purposefully denied themselves certain things as an act of devotion to God and as a symbol that their ministry was to supersede any personal interests and comforts. Among other things, John lived in the wilderness, ate locusts and honey for his meals and wore rough clothing made of camel’s hair.
John did this without any thought that it gained him any kind of meritorious blessing. That is an error developed and promoted by the ascetics throughout history. Ascetics commonly deny themselves the comforts available in life in an effort to try and gain favor with God. Some of them would go much farther in this perverted effort and do strange things such as never bathing, sleeping only in chairs, living on starvation diets, living on top of pillars, crawling instead of walking, etc. John’s self denial was for the sake of his ministry and aiding his own physical and spiritual discipline. He knew nothing of the misguided piety of the ascetics.
A person who will be great will deny himself in order to be more effective. John MacArthur made an interesting point about this in commentary. “Great generals put their lives on the line with their troops. Great Athletes train their bodies mercilessly, denying themselves pleasures most people take for granted. Great scientists often risk their health to make an important discovery. Great inventors sacrifice social life in order to develop and perfect an invention. Great medical researchers risk exposure to deadly disease in order to save thousands of lives. The easy way is never the way of success.”
Those who will be great in God’s eyes will not allow themselves to be ruled by the appetites of their bodies, the desires of their eyes or the cravings of their egos. They will have their priorities straight and practice self discipline in order to carry out God’s will. They know that their life is to be about the glory of God and not themselves. The great practice self-denial in the pursuit of serving God.
His Calling – Matthew 11:9-11
The next element that made John the Baptist great was his calling to serve God. Matthew 11:9-11 states, “But why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I say to you, and one who is more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘Behold, I sent My messenger before Your face, Who will prepare Your way before You.’ Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
Jesus reminds the multitude that they went out to see a prophet, yet a man that was more than a prophet. They went out to see a man that was himself the fulfillment of prophecy. In verse 10 Jesus quotes from Malachi 3:1 which foretells that prior to the coming of Messiah that a forerunner would prepare the way by proclaiming to the people that the Messiah, the “Expected One,” would soon be present. This messenger would not only announce the wonderful news that Messiah was near, but he would also give warning to the people that they needed to be prepared for Him. That is exactly what John the Baptist did in proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
John had been given the unique privilege of being Jesus’ personal herald. John had been called by God for a particular ministry. That was the prophecy concerning him given to his father Zacharias in Luke 1:15-17, “For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and he will drink no wine or liquor; and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, while yet in his mother’s womb. And he will turn back many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God. And it is he who will go as a forerunner before Him [Messiah] in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous; so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Jesus’ commendation of John in verse 11 is that no one born of a woman – an ancient expression that simply meant a human – had been greater than John. That is a very strong statement of praise. No human prior to John had been greater including the great men of Israel’s history such as Abraham, Moses, Samuel and David.
Now someone might protest at this point that though that is wonderful for John, it excludes them since they could not match John the Baptist. He was a unique man with a unique call for a unique time, but the rest of us are ordinary. Certainly John’s greatness is related to his calling from God, but Jesus states in verse 11 that the same is true for us, “yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
John was certainly a spiritual giant among men and he was great in his role in human history, but as far as a spiritual inheritance, every person who is a true believer in Jesus Christ – a person who has placed their faith and trust in Jesus alone for salvation from sin and is therefore part of the kingdom of heaven – is greater than John. John’s calling was great, but in a real sense our calling is greater for we are to proclaim not the coming of Messiah, but that Jesus the Messiah has come and offers redemption and forgiveness to men based on His own sacrificial death, burial and resurrection. We have the gospel.
John was great because of his calling, but God has a calling for each believer. Every true Christian is called of God to serve Him in some unique way in the body of Christ. Romans 12, Ephesians 4 and 1 Corinthians 12 all speak of the body of Christ and how God equips His people with spiritual gifts to serve Him and make the body complete. If you have a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, then you have a calling from God to serve Him. You can also be great as you fulfill God’s calling on your life.
Faithful – Matthew 11:12-15
Jesus points out one more additional reason John was great in verses 12-15. “And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence and violent men take it by force. For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you care to accept it, he himself is Elijah, who was to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” John was called to be the forerunner of Messiah. Here we find Jesus’ commendation of him because he was faithful to fulfill his calling.
Matthew 11:12 is confusing, but that is mostly because of our English translations. The NAS, KJV, NKJV and ESV translates this verse in a way that makes it sound like the kingdom of heaven is being violated by violent men. There are two difficulties in translating this verse. One is that the word translated as “violent” in the NAS can also be translated as “forceful” or “vigorous” depending on the context. The second difficulty is that the verb here can be translated as a passive, as it is in the NAS, or as a middle tense which changes the meaning. Using the alternative translations such as done by Ridderbos, Lenski & in the NIV we end up with “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it,” – or as by Hendriksen, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom is pressing forward vigorously, and vigorous men are eagerly taking possession of it.”
This alternative translation fits the context. From the time John began proclaiming that the Kingdom of heaven was at hand, that kingdom had been expanding vigorously as the people recognized their sins and repented of them. That was something only those who had courage, fortitude and determination could do, for repentance is the more difficult road for the human spirit. It is against man’s nature for him to acknowledge his sin, ask for forgiveness and strive against those sins. It is much easier and more common for men to find some sort of excuse to try and justify their sins. Yet, as we saw in the Beatitudes, it is only those willing to come according to the Lord’s plan that can enter the kingdom. It requires being poor in spirit and mourning over sin which in turn results in meekness, hungering and thirsting after righteousness, being merciful, pure in heart and a true peacemaker. All of these characteristics are developed by the power of the Holy Spirit as the person yields himself to the Lord.
The prophets and the Law prophesied of the coming of the Messiah, and John proclaimed His arrival. The kingdom then moved forward even though the circumstances in both the political and religious communities were against it.
John was faithful to his calling. He was sent to be the forerunner of the Messiah and he fulfilled God’s will for his life. Jesus says in verse 14 that “If you care to accept it, he himself is Elijah, who was to come.” Jesus is telling the people that if they will accept John’s message, then they understand that Jesus is the Messiah and that John was indeed the fulfillment of Malachi 4:5-6 which prophesied that Elijah would proceed the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD. John was not a resurrected Elijah for John himself said he was not the prophet Elijah (John 1:21), and he certainly was not a reincarnated Elijah. Reincarnation is one of the lies of eastern mysticism and promoted in our country through the New Age movement. According the prophecy made in Luke 1:17 about John, he was the forerunner of Messiah who comes in the spirit and power of Elijah. Those who accepted John in that capacity accepted his message and therefore also Jesus. Those who rejected John rejected his message and Jesus as the Messiah.
The Call and Response – Matthew 11:15; Luke 7:29-30
Jesus’ call in verse 15 was “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” This was a common idiom used to call people to respond to what has been said. Jesus has laid it out for them. They have been told the truth. John’s identity and message has been explained. Now they needed to make a decision.
Luke 7:29-30 gives the response which follows the same pattern as when John was out preaching to the people. 29 “When all the people and the tax collectors heard this, they acknowledged God’s justice, having been baptized with the baptism of John. 30 But the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves, not having been baptized by John.”
Those who had believed John earlier, the common people and sinners, also believed Jesus and rejoiced at what He said. Those who did not believe John’s earlier message, the Jewish religious leaders, also rejected Jesus’ message. In doing so, they also rejected God’s purpose for what He would have done in and through them if they had repented.
Jesus’ call here is also one you need to heed. What is your decision? Are you still hesitating about Jesus Christ? John the Baptist had doubts, but he sought out the truth and was reassured that Jesus is the Messiah. The same assurance can be yours. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
Jesus said that there were none greater than John the Baptist. The reasons: He was a truth seeker. He had strong convictions based on the truth. He was humble. He was self disciplined to deny himself in order to serve the Lord. He was called of God for a particular service and he was faithful to that call. If you want to be great, truly great in the estimation of the only one that really counts – God – then those are the characteristics you need to develop in your life. Are you a truth seeker? Are your convictions based on the truth? Are you humble? Are you self disciplined? Are you faithful to the call that God has made upon you to serve Him within the body of Christ?
Sermon Notes: Marks of Greatness
Matthew 11:7-15; Luke 7:24-30
Our society evaluates ________________ on the basis of fame, prestige, power and wealth
William Hazlitt – “the true test of greatness is the page of _______________.”
A solemn & religious ________to spiritual & eternal things is an indispensable element of all true greatness
Herod Antipas had ____________John the Baptist for confronting him about his relationship with Herodias
John began to have ______________about Jesus’ identity and sent two disciples to ask Him directly
When doubts arise, you need to go to the source of _____________, the Bible, to find the answers
The Setting – Matthew 11:7; Luke 7:24
As John’s disciples leave, Jesus begins to ______________John to the multitudes
John was considered to be a _______________by the people, but his situation would cause doubts to arise
A Truth Seeker – Matthew 11:7
John was more concerned about knowing the _______________than what people thought of him
A great leader cares more about ____________he is leading than what those following think of him
John was not a man who was unsteady or vacillating – yielding to ______________from others
Strong convictions based on ________________are good and proper
John preached based on his convictions of truth, not on ______________ears to gain an audience
Those who are great have strong convictions based in truth – they are here to serve ____, not gain popularity
Our purpose is to know, follow and proclaim God’s word & will even when ________________by others
Humility is the natural outgrowth of being a ______________seeker
_______________is a curse against true greatness – John was humble and gained greatness
Self-denial – Matthew 7:8; Luke 7:23
Soft-clothing refers to the __________________man and those in the king’s court living in luxury
John willing denied himself in order to be _____________from the corrupt religious and political systems
John’s self-denial was without any thought of gaining ____________blessings because of it – unlike ascetics
Those who will be great in God’s eyes will be self-disciplined to keep the proper __________to glorify God
His Calling – Matthew 11:9-11
John was more than a prophet because he himself was the fulfillment of _____________of Malachi 3:1
John was the ______________preparing the way for the coming of the Messiah
No human _____________to John was greater
The Christian is greater than John because we have the full ______________message
A Christian achieves greatness as he fulfills God’s _______________on his life
Faithful – Matthew 11:12-15
Matthew 11:12 is ________________in most English versions because it is difficult to translate
Alternative: . . .the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and vigorous men lay hold of it . . .
Context: Many people were repenting, but only those with courage, fortitude & determination would ______
Being poor in spirit is _______________to human nature – godliness grows by the power of the Holy Spirit
John was faithful to his calling fulfilling the _______of Elijah, but he was not the prophet Elijah – John 1:21
The Call and Response – Matthew 11:15; Luke 7:29-30
Jesus calls the people to _____________to His message
Luke 7:29-30 – those who had been ____________by John rejoiced, while those who had not rejected Jesus
Are you hesitant about Jesus Christ? Search out the ____________to answer your doubts
The marks of greatness in a Christian:
1) A _______seeker.
2) Holds strong ______________based on truth
5) Recognizes call of God.
6) ____________to God’s call
Parents, you are responsible to apply God’s Word to your children’s lives. Here is some help. Young Children – draw a picture about something you hear during the sermon. Explain your picture(s) to your parents at lunch. Older Children – Do one or more of the following: 1) Write down all the verses mentioned in the sermon and look them up later. 2) Count how many times “great” is mentioned in the sermon. Talk with your parents about the characteristics of true greatness and you can develop them in your life.
THINK ABOUT IT!
Questions to consider in discussing the sermon with others. What are the characteristics of greatness according to American society? What do you think are the marks of true greatness? Why? Why was John the Baptist in jail? Why was he having doubts about Jesus being the Messiah? What did he do about it? What effect might John’s situation have on the multitudes? In what ways did John demonstrate that he was not a “reed shaken by the wind.” What was the importance of truth to John? Why is being a truth seeker a mark of greatness? Why are there so few politicians that are truth seekers? Explain – what is the basis for your voting? When are strong convictions bad? When are they good? What was the basis of John’s convictions? In what ways did he demonstrate his convictions were more important than the opinions of people? In what ways did John demonstrate he was a humble man? In what ways did John deny himself? How did that differ from the purpose and practices of both the ancient and modern ascetics? In what ways was John more than a prophet? Why was he the greatest among those born of women? Why are those in the kingdom greater? How did John show faithfulness to God’s calling upon him? Explain how John fulfilled Malachi 3:1 and is Elijah according to Jesus (Matthew 11:14) and yet was not Elijah by John’s own admission in John 1:21? What is the meaning of Matthew 11:12? Explain the basis for the two opposite responses by the people to Jesus’ statements about John? Have you made a decision about Jesus? If you are hesitant, what questions still need to be answered? Where will you find those answers? When will you pursue those answers? If you are a Christian, evaluate yourself on the six marks of greatness – then have a trusted friend evaluate you: 1) A truth seeker. 2) Holds strong convictions based on truth. 3) Humble. 4) Self-disciplined. 5) Recognizes call of God. 6) Faithful to God’s call
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