John the Baptizer was not your average guy. His wardrobe consisted of fur de desert rat. His diet, grasshoppers and unfiltered honey. His domicile, the desert. His message, repent. His career, ended sometime in his 30’s with jail and execution.
And yet, God said of him, “Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist!” (Matt. 11:11). For most of us, that’s probably not the first thing that would pop into our mind if we encountered a guy like him.
Among other things, something which Jesus identifies in John’s life was his unwavering commitment to God and his truth. John was no spineless man-pleaser: unlike river reeds, he stood firm in the midst of fallen, cultural winds (“What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?”, Matt. 11:7).
We do not have record of everything John every preached, but from that which God has given us in Scripture, we have enough to observe a few characteristics of his preaching. What are some themes you would expect to see in the greatest man’s preaching? And what can we learn from him so that our churches avoid becoming First Church of the Reeds?
Here are a few observations about the preaching of the greatest man born of women:
- His preaching was preaching.
In other words, he wasn’t sharing, delivering a sermonette, giving his opinion, having a “what-does-it-mean-to-you” discussion, or storytelling. John came proclaiming and declaring; he preached because he was a preacher (Matt. 3:1-2).
- His preaching was biblical.
Being the fulfillment of prophecy himself (cf. Mal. 3:1), John’s preaching contained exposition of Old Testament law and prophecies. John came preaching God’s word.
- His preaching focused on sin.
Being a biblical preacher, that is no surprise. Whether the religious (Luke 3:7-11), the outwardly immoral (Luke 3:12-13), or pagan Gentiles (Luke 3:14), he called out sin.
- His preaching called people to repent of sin.
Like many of the faithful prophets leading up to John, much of his message consisted of calls for repentance (Matt. 3:1-2, Luke 3:3). Similar to calling out sin, John assumed people from every demographic needed to turn from their sin.
- His preaching warned people of the dangers of hell.
He to whom Jesus referred as the greatest man ever believed and preached that hell was a real place, lasted forever, involved fire, would be inhabited by non-fruit bearers, and could be populated by anyone (including outwardly religious people who grew up with Bible teaching). Further, John preached about hell to all sorts (not only to the flagrantly immoral) while making it clear that Jesus would decide who would and would not end up there.
- His preaching told people how to be saved from God’s judgment.
Armed with a message of repentance, his preaching always pointed people towards God’s merciful way out of the hell which sinners deserve. John believed these wise words from the late expositor, S. Lewis Johnson: “Fear of the judgment of God is a reasonable enough motivation to repent and turn to Christ.”
- His preaching was loving.
Because he preached on sin, hell, God’s judgment on sinners, and the need to repent, his preaching was loving. He loved people enough to make them temporarily uncomfortable through his preaching so that they might repent and be eternally comfortable.
- His preaching challenged people to examine whether or not they were going to heaven.
John assumed that anyone—especially the outwardly moral and religious—could be in danger of conversion deception (“Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father…’” Luke 3:8). He knew that we cannot assume upon things like Bible knowledge, growing up in religious homes, attending religious gatherings, and affiliation with God-fearing people as that which makes us right with God and going to heaven. The greatest man ever believed and preached that a godly life was absolutely necessary to evidence true conversion. Without holiness, John understood that no one would go to heaven (“Bear fruits in keeping with repentance…Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Luke 3:8-9). John’s preaching called people to do a soul-check-up.
- His preaching called people to sincere holiness.
John did not stop at preaching conversion. He understood that living holy lives was the inevitable consequence of salvation (“Bear fruit in keeping with repentance…”, Luke 3:8). So, he called people to personal godliness, even giving specific application for his audience (cf. Luke 3:10-14).
- His preaching focused on Christ.
Called to the exalted task of the Messiah’s forerunner, John’s preaching had a huge view of Christ and his glory. John preached Christ as Judge, Messiah, and Savior (cf. Matt. 3:11-12).
- His preaching aimed at God’s approval, not man’s.
Those who made the long, hot trip into the Judean desert, did not do so to watch a soft, man-centered preacher (Matt. 11:7). John was not a pulpit-panderer, blown around like a reed. You would not have seen him in the pulpit at First Church of the Reeds.
Consequently, John would’ve never been invited to many so-called Christian conferences in our day, nor received popular book deals. Many, including professing believers, would have labeled John things like “inflexible,” “narrow-minded,” “legalistic,” and “harsh.” Even so, it is instructive that our Lord Jesus calls him the greatest guy ever.