How does God define greatness? Today on Truth for Life, we'll find out why Jesus described John the Baptist as great. Alistair Begg is teaching from chapter 1 of Luke's Gospel.
We're looking at verses 5 through 25. The one thing people knew about Zechariah, beyond the fact that he was pious, that he was a priest, and that his wife was a nice lady, was that they were an elderly couple. They already could fly for reduced fares, and the fact was they had no kids. And people used to say, there goes old Elizabeth again.
She would have made a lovely mother, but she doesn't have any kids. Your wife Elizabeth will bear your son, and let me give you his name as well, says the angel. You're going to call him John. And he describes his destiny. He says, this child is going to be great in the Lord's sight. Great in the sight of the Lord.
Think about that for a moment. Great in the sight of the Lord. And Jesus says, among those born of women, there's nobody greater than John the Baptist in fulfillment of the angel's word to Zechariah. You're going to have a boy who will make you a joy. He'll be a joy to you.
He will be an amazing kid in relationship to so many others. And in fact, he will be great in the sight of the Lord. What is greatness in the sight of the Lord?
I'll tell you. Humility. Nothingness is everything in the sight of the Lord.
Emptiness is everything in the sight of the Lord. For when they asked him, hey, John the Baptist, what do you have to say about yourself? Who are you? Are you Elijah? No. Are you one of the prophets?
No. Are you the one who is to come? I am not. Well, John, could you give us a little more than this, please?
We're trying to write up something to put in our brochure so that you can speak at the next Palestinian pastors' conference, and you're not really accommodating us very well. You know, we can expect the people to come and listen to you, John, with this, I am not. No, no, I am not. I am not.
What are you? He says, I'm a voice crying. Not, I am the voice of. I'm a voice crying. He says, I am a light shining. Not, I am a significant light. He says, I am a light that shines, and I am a finger that points. Here comes the Lord. That's greatness.
That is greatness. I am nothing. He is everything. I have no voice unless he gives it.
I have no song unless he sings it. I have no destiny, except he supplies it. You see how with our selfish preoccupations and our self-satisfied, corrupted perspective on so much that takes place, we render ourselves at least 70% useless in relationship to what we might be under God if we would let go of ourselves and our own selfishness and allow God to be God. See, the voice of the prophet can never be heard when the prophet is concerned about the sound of his own voice, for you cannot make much of Christ and much of yourself simultaneously. That's why he's great. That's always greatness. Not the production of a big resume, not the big poster and the big picture and the big list and the big accolades.
That's twentieth-century American hype. That's not first-century Palestinian standards. Now the clarity of his message is matched by the humility in his manner. He's going to, he says, derive strength and inspiration not from earthly stimulants like wine and for men to drink, but he's going to derive it from the Holy Spirit, who is going to be upon this child indeed is upon him from indeed his mother's womb. In his lifelong consecration to the Lord's special service, he is going to see many in Israel restored to the Lord. This is going to be marked by the holy prophetic boldness which characterized the ministry of Elijah. The Old Testament had ended with broken marriages as a result of people refusing to marry within the faith, and there were mixed marriages and easy divorces.
And as you read Malachi, you discover that that was the pattern. Then you have the intertestamental period and then onto the stage of human history walks the forerunner of the Messiah, John the Baptist. And one of the things that will be accomplished through his ministry is that he will see the hearts of the fathers turned to the children. In other words, as a result of his proclamation of the gospel, there will be the restoration of harmony within family relationships. Notice the order. His focus is on the preaching of the good news.
It must always be. And as a result of the proclamation of the gospel, the byproducts will affect family life, will affect collegiate life, will affect civil life, will affect the world of the arts and the sciences and government. These are the byproducts of the gospel. And at this point in history, we have put these ahead of the gospel, and that is one of the reasons for the dreadful predicament in which we find ourselves. We want, you see, the ministry of John the Baptist, but we will not say it the way he said it. We want the power of John the Baptist, but we will not live in the humility that God demands.
We want the way in which John was able to bestride the events of time. Because there's plenty of ways you can stick families back together with chewing gum and sealing wax and string and old bits of cardboard. And there are many, many mechanisms around that will make a solid stab at that. And there are cults around that have very good families. And Islam has very good families. And there are all kinds of ways to have good families, but there is only one way to go to heaven. There is only one way to be redeemed. There is only one way to be granted forgiveness. So why would God raise up prophets to do anything other than to proclaim the good news? See, if you make the byproduct the product, the devil has won a great gain.
I put it to you that that's where we are. So his focus was on a call to repentance and faith. And by his preaching, the disobedient would be brought back to godly wisdom, and in verse 17, the people would be made ready for the Lord. Now, can you imagine what it was like after that statement for Zechariah, finally, to wait for the angel to stop? And when the angel stops, what would you have said? Look what Zechariah says. I don't believe you.
How can I be sure of this? Is a statement of unbelief. He says, listen, I'm an old man, and my wife is well on in years. You get the impression that somehow or another, he can't stop mentioning he's an old man. Old men get like that, have you noticed? I find myself saying, I'm an old man.
You say, well, you're not really, but you start to think you are, you become one. And your grandfather says, no, son, I'm an old man. And he's out in the store, and he starts to be, you know, I bet you can't get to my age, because I'm an old man. And so when Zechariah says, I'm an old man, it's kind of like, that's the whole story.
I'm an old man. And in response, hey, I'm an angel. Now let's put, I'm an old man and I'm an angel, and see which you think has got a greater impact. Furthermore, I'm not just an angel, I'm Gabriel.
Furthermore, I came from the presence of God. I stand in the presence of God, and God sent me to tell you this, and you're standing there, Zechariah, and you're saying, you don't know whether this is straight up or not. You want a sign, Zechariah? You got a sign. You're not going to be doing any more speaking.
You're dumb as of right now. You're finished. And that was it.
No response. The most significant moment in Zechariah's life. Now, look at the people.
Where are they? Well, verse 21, they were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. Now, they had been worshiping outside while all this was going on. The fact is that they were engaging in the event by praying on the outside while the process was going on on the incense. Let's assume it was the evening, and they'd been standing outside there. They know the ropes, they know the process, they know when the bell rings, the incense is offered, and the bell rang a long, long time ago, but they're still standing there. And they knew that the priest never, ever stayed there for long, because it might be regarded as presumption, and the priest would not want to be regarded as presuming upon anything in the proximity of the living world. And so he'd be out there as fast as he can, and what he would do was he would come out, he would join the other priests from whom he had been separated, and together they would stand and pronounce the Aaronic blessing, the Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and so on.
That was what they would do. But he doesn't show up. So the one guy standing there, all trying to make sure they're praying and everything, and the guy goes, what do you think happened in there? I don't know the foggiest idea.
I'll tell you, my hands are killing me. Did you hear the bell? Was there a bell? Yeah, there was a bell. The bell rang ages ago. Well, what the… Man, do you think he died in there?
I don't know if he died. And then all of a sudden, he comes. And they assume he's going to team up with the boys.
They're going to do the Aaronic blessing. He comes out. He's like… The guy's going, hey, I don't know why we waited. The guy's gone totally nuts as a result of this.
He's got something to say but no ability to communicate. And when his week ends, he goes home to his wife. Now, when you're on a business trip and you come home, you're supposed to take the initiative when you come in.
Isn't that right? Isn't that what it says in the husband books and everything? Now, when you come home, make sure you say, hello, honey, and kiss the kids, kick the dog, do all that good stuff. So he comes home. She hears the door open. She's in the kitchen. She shouts, hi, Zach! Nothing. She figures he's stricken in years.
He's a little bit deaf. She calls to him again. Are you all right, honey? How did the week go?
Nothing. Puts his bag down, walks into the family room. She comes out of the kitchen drying her hands. She goes, what's wrong, Zach?
Lost your tongue? He turns around. He's like, hmm.
Hmm. Now, the absence of time and propriety must cast now a veil of silence over a scene which, frankly, stirs my imagination to realms that should not be conveyed in public. Because this is unbelievable to me.
This is fantastic. Because, first of all, he has found out that old Elizabeth, who's not worth a bean, is going to get pregnant. Right? Now, there are certain things that happen in relationship to this, as I understand it. But he has no way of communicating this to this lady. He, in turn, is deaf, as we find from verse 62, because the people in the temple are making signs to him. There's no reason they're making signs to him if he could hear. But that sometimes you know, when somebody starts making signs, you make signs back, because you don't know what's going on. But we assume that he was also deaf, so she can't tell him. And then she starts getting isolated. He never has the opportunity of hearing her, when she comes down to breakfast, say, you know, I was at the doctor yesterday, don't you Zachariah? And for him to go, what?
He can't hear, so she can't say that. So can you imagine it? How as time goes by, that the capacity for sign making and the necessity for sign making must have got to gargantuan proportions. And eventually, she's going like this, and he's going like this, and the neighbors are going, what the world's with this couple? And in all of this, God is paving the way for the arrival of the Lord Jesus Christ, showing how incapacitated we are by virtue of ourselves, showing how unable we are to realistically affect anything for the destiny of man, or for the unfolding of history, and certainly for the messianic purpose.
Now I have some concluding observations, four of them. First of all, we have a wonderful example in the lives of Zachariah and Elizabeth. And what I mean by that is we have a wonderful example of a godly marriage. Couples may enjoy many benefits as they go through their lives together. They may enjoy health, prosperity.
They may be able to fill up their days with a whole round of activities. But how sad it is to see the spectacle of a couple who care neither for their own souls nor for the souls of each other. Indeed, there is no earthly joy, there is no provision that can be experienced in all of life that can ever take the place of, fill the enormous gap that exists in a home where Christ is not the foundation and the center of that couple's relationship. And in Christ, couples experience a peculiar joy because they are one in their interests, they are one in their affection, and they are one in the Lord Jesus Christ.
So much so that whether they experience health and youthfulness or whether sickness and increasing years, everything in this kind of relationship will make them more interesting to each other in life, and everything that happens will prepare them for the life to come. And Zachariah and Elizabeth are a wonderful illustration of that kind of union. Also, we observe that in the activity of the people, which is described in verse 10 and returned to in verse 21, we are confronted with the duty of prayer. I don't want to say much more than that, except to observe that it is not enough for these people to be where God is worshiped, but it is essential that in being where God is worshiped, that those who are present in that location are engaged in the worship of God. And some people say, Well, I just like to go where God is worshiped. It makes me feel a little better at the start of the week.
I understand. Or I'm glad of the companionship of people around me, and I concur with that also. But the people who were present, we're told, when the time for the burning of the incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside. In other words, they were engaged in what was happening. They were not simply attending at the place where God was worshiped, but their hearts were engaged in the worship.
And there's all the difference in the world between these two things. Thirdly, we might observe the necessity of conversion amongst those who say they believe. The necessity of conversion amongst those who say they believe. The ministry and responsibility of John the Baptist was in part, we're told in verse 16, to be used of God so that many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. The Jewish people regarded themselves as God's favorites. And they were, of course, chosen by God. He had reached down to this man Abraham and had said that in him all the nations of the earth would be blessed, and he had put together a people who were his very own.
So there is no question that they were chosen by God. But they needed to be converted. The very fact that they were caught up in the milieu of Orthodox Judaism did not mean that they were also in touch with the living God. If it was true of the Jew, it is certainly true of the Gentile, it is true of the nominal Christian. And one of the great challenges of attendance at a church such as Parkside is that those who are nominally Christian may sit for weeks, months, and years resisting the insistent note-call exhortation from the Bible to be converted. If you worship with us regularly here and believe that somehow or another you were converted because you caught it in the air, you were converted because a religious person did something religious to you, you were being converted as a result of some spiritual process through which you went that you largely have no cognizance of, but there was never a crossroads in your life, there was never a day that occurred when you recognized yourself to be a sinner, when you cried out to God for his mercy and for his forgiveness, then you are nominally Christian and you need to be converted. And the ministry of the Bible in the prophetic word of John the Baptist is to call those who believe to be converted, those who give assent to the truth, who are orthodox in their understanding of certain things but could never say that they have come to know the Lord Jesus Christ in a personal and life-changing way. Verily, verily, said Jesus in the King James Version, I say unto you, except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus. And the last observation that I had noted was a warning against an unbelieving heart. A warning against an unbelieving heart.
Which of us did not catch our breaths when the immediate response of the angel to the disbelief of Zechariah was, you'll be struck dumb? How many of us would be able to talk for very long when we recognize our unbelieving hearts? How prone we are to doubt God's Word, how easy it is for us to despair, and how slow we are to hear the Word of God through the writer of the Hebrews? In Hebrews 3, see to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God, but encourage one another daily as long as it is called today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness.
True greatness and true godliness are impossible without humility. John the Baptist pointed people not to himself but to Jesus. You're listening to Truth for Life.
Alistair Begg returns shortly. We need to believe and to repent and to prepare for the Lord's coming. That was John the Baptist's message and that's our prayer for all who listen to Truth for Life.
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Now here's Alistair with a closing prayer. Father, I do pray that you will stamp in our minds the immensity of your word, that you will make us students of the book, that you will help us to come to our Bibles not so much with the mentality that says, oh yes, I understand this, but rather with a spirit of expectation, with a quest for encountering you, discovering truth. Make the book live to me, O Lord. Show me thyself within thy word. Show me myself, and show me my Savior, and make the book live to me. And may grace and mercy and peace from the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit be the abiding portion of each one today and forevermore. Amen.
I'm Bob Lapine. You know, people often challenge the idea that Jesus was born of a virgin. So how do we defend that truth? That's our focus tomorrow. The Bible teaching of Alistair Begg is furnished by Truth for Life, where the Learning is for Living.
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