Have you noticed how superhero action thriller movies burst onto local theater marquees each and every summer?
Today’s culture cultivates hero worship—if how we spend our time, money, enthusiasm and emotions is any indication of worship, that is. From film stars to sports stars to food network stars and more, it’s easy to fix our attention on celebrities whose super stardom is so appealing, so unlike our ordinary lives.
And yet, God’s heroes are often just the opposite. The heroes of our faith are likely to be misfits, unpopular, or just plain ordinary people who end up accomplishing extraordinary things for God. I have been looking at the life of John the Baptist, one of those unsung heroes of the faith. His example challenges us to live heroic lives for God.
The third chapter of Luke opens by enumerating seven political and religious leaders of the day—these are the famous and powerful folks, the ones whose images appeared on coins and on statues adorning the city buildings. Then, in starkest contrast, we’re introduced to John the Baptist.
The first thing we learn is that John is ministering out of an unconventional place. The Word of God came to John in the wilderness, in the desert. The Dead Sea region was a dry, dusty, barren place. Not only is John’s ministry in an unconventional place, but he is also an unconventional person.
To say that John was eccentric is being polite. He was strange. He was weird. He wore camel’s hair clothing and a leather belt. Not the kind of fashion that you’d see on any runway, or even in a retail catalog.
John purposely tailored his attire to set himself apart from the convenience and comfort of a normal life; his life and demeanor accentuated the message he was proclaiming. So his preaching was (you guessed it) unconventional.
John was teaching that the kingdom of heaven was at hand. Because of that pressing reality, he urged the people to repent of their sins. Jewish culture included ritual bathing, even immersion. But along with commentator F.F. Bruce and others, I see John’s baptism as a new ritual, related to Jewish baptism for Gentile proselytes.
Imagine John telling his Jewish audience to convert just like a Gentile would. This is not only unconventional, it’s no doubt unpopular. It’s not the way to win friends and influence people. John is not practicing friendship evangelism here. He’s delivering an urgent message to whoever will listen.
And look at the results. “Then Jerusalem, and all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to Him, and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins” (Matthew 3:5-6). Despite John’s strong and confrontational tone, people were flocking from Jerusalem to find out what was going on.
If John’s crowd-drawing ministry were occurring today, perhaps reporters and political hacks would be scrambling for tidbits of background about John, the son of Zacharias. Maybe agents would be offering him book or movie contracts. Advertising executives might try promoting a new line of camel’s hair clothing. Locusts and honey would become the latest craze in the hippest nightspots of Jerusalem. What an opportunity! Grab the spotlight, here’s your chance, John.
What does John do? He unselfishly points to Yeshua. “I indeed baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly clean his threshing floor, and gather his wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:11-12).
And that’s what truly heroic ministry is all about, isn’t it? Pointing away from ourselves, and to Jesus. How many ministers began preaching Christ and ended up preaching themselves? Later we see John’s disciples complain to John that all the people who were following him were now following Jesus. John surprises them by responding, “He must increase but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
Oh, if we could just say that and mean it and live it each and every day! “He must increase, but I must decrease.” And John did decrease, didn’t he? In a moment, he was off the scene. At the end of his life we find him imprisoned, discouraged and uncertain. The crowds have left, just a few faithful disciples remain. Then, finally, his head is severed from his neck, at the whim of a drunken despot, a vengeful adulteress, and a shameless adolescent.
How humiliating! Is that what we get for committing to unselfish ministry? Maybe, but remember what Jesus said of John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet. Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:7-9, 11). I find Jesus’ words very challenging.
John’s example inspires me to regularly examine myself, to see if I might be missing something of the power of God and the presence of God, because of the conveniences and the conventions of this world. Will you examine yourself along with me?
Do we spend more time honing our convictions or hanging on to our conveniences?
Do our lifestyle and our location emphasize the authenticity of our message? Do we spend more time honing our convictions or hanging on to our conveniences? Do we surround and protect ourselves with comforts that might take the edge off the urgency, the power of our message?
How and where we choose to live, how much we allow ourselves to indulge our own preferences, can reflect our understanding and our undertaking of life lived to honor the Lord.
It’s great to have a winsome witness and to find tangible ways of extending concern to those we want to reach. Yet, if we want to make a difference, we need to be just as willing to confront, to call people to repentance. As believers we’re meant to be countercultural because our message is counterintuitive to the world around us. And if we are successful, it is God they will see, and we may fade from memory. This was the unconventional approach of John the Baptist.
D.L. Moody once said that one may easily to be too big for God to use, but never too small.
D.L. Moody once said that one may easily to be too big for God to use, but never too small. Haven’t we seen how God sets apart what is ordinary for His use? Don’t we know that He was willing to walk among the most common people so that they might reveal His glory? Isn’t that still true today?
He must increase, I must decrease. What would the church of Jesus Christ be like if we held to this creed? What cooperation would flourish between ministries, churches and individuals, if no one cared who got the credit or the most resources or the best people or the biggest name? He must increase and I must decrease. May God grant us the courage to be that kind of people, to have that kind of ministry. Unconventional, uncompromising, unselfish—all so that He might increase, we might decrease and people might be won to the Savior.
David Brickner is also an author, public speaker and avid hiker. For more about David, his writings, speaking schedule and possible availability to speak at your church, see http://www.jewsforjesus.org/david-brickner.