JOHN, THE FORERUNNER
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1-25-70 7:30 p.m.
On the radio you are listening to the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the message entitled John, the Forerunner. In our preaching through the Book of Ephesians at the noonday hour, the message was delivered on Christ, the God Man. And tonight in preaching through the Book of John, we have come to the verses in the first chapter that present to us the great Baptist preacher, John, the Forerunner.
Now turn in your Bible to the Gospel of John, the fourth Gospel and the first chapter. "There was a man sent from God, whose name was John" [John 1:6]. Now begin reading with me at verse 19, and we shall read through verse 27. All of us out loud together, and on the radio you get your Bible, if you can, and read it out loud with us. John, chapter 1, verses 19 through 27. Now all of us out loud together:
And this is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who art thou?
And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ.
And they asked him, What then? Art thou Elias? And he saith, I am not. Art thou that Prophet? And he answered, No.
Then said they unto him, Who art thou? that we may give an answer to them that sent us. What sayest thou of thyself?
He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Isaiah.
And they which were sent were of the Pharisees.
And they asked him, and said unto him, Why baptizest thou then, if thou be not that Christ, nor Elias, neither that Prophet?
John answered them, saying, I baptize with water: but there standeth One among you, whom ye know not;
He it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose.
Then, as the synoptic Gospels report the Baptist: "For I baptize you with water, but He shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire" [Luke 3:16]. What an electrifying word! The Messiah is come, and the kingdom of heaven is at hand [Matthew 3:1-3]. For over four hundred years there had been no prophet, no open visions, and no message from God. Then, cleaving the stagnant air stood this grim embodiment of conscience, this prophet from the Lord, and on the banks of the Jordan River lifted up his voice to announce, to herald, that the King had come and that the reign of God was near.
It would take little imagination for us to picture the repercussion and the reaction from one side of that Jewish nation to the other. The great messianic hope for which they had longed and prayed was now to be realized in the person announced by this Baptist preacher.
And what an unusual person John was. His birth and his ministry had been prophesied by Isaiah seven hundred fifty years before [Isaiah 40:3; John 1:23]. And Malachi, the last of the prophets, four hundred years earlier had delineated his ministry [Malachi 4:5-6]. And at last he stands there before the people, a rough, a wilderness, a giant, a fearless man. Dressed in rough camel’s hair, a leathern girdle around him [Matthew 3:4], his locks long and unshorn. He is a Nazarite [Numbers 6:1-5; Judges 13:5; Luke 1:15], dedicated to God from his birth like Samson, and like Samuel, and like his prototype, Elijah.
You know, we can see him so lucidly and dramatically that you’d think we knew all about him. Actually we know very little. Something of his birth, something of his dress, something of his message, a few words, and something of his death, and that is all. But sometimes we can take truncated columns, broken and buried in the sand, sometimes we can take sculptured leaves from the tenement of the temple, sometimes fragments scattered around, and we can recreate those matchless buildings of artistic achievement by those ancient, and classical Greeks. It is so with this great Baptist preacher.
The few words that are said to describe him and to present him, it seems that we’ve known him, and read of him, and followed him all of our lives. His dress, so rough and uncouth; and his meat, his food – wherever there was a locust he had dinner, and wherever there was a honeycomb, he could reach his hand to be satisfied [Matthew 3:4]. He was lifted above and removed from all of the effete, effeminate, luxurious embellishments of life . He was beholden to no one, and least of all to the sham and the veneer of a cheap civilization.
So he stands there, God’s appointed messenger, to deliver God’s message; John the Baptist, and the great hour of his ministry has come [Matthew 3:1-2; John 1:19]. I can imagine – this didn’t happen, of course, possibly as I am about to describe it – but I can imagine from what the Word says that in those days came John the Baptist kērussōn, heralding, trumpeting, preaching, announcing. And there went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judea, and all the regions round about Jordan, to listen to this marvelous, majestic prophet of God [Matthew 3:4]. And I can imagine somewhere, say, in the city of Jerusalem, a group of men gathered together, say, around a table, and one of them says, "Have you been out to hear the great prophet of God?"
And the other one says, "I know of him, for who in Jerusalem has not heard his name and his fame? But I haven’t seen him. What is he like?"
And the man replies, "I never trembled so in my life."
And the other says, "Did you hear what he said? Tell me what he said."
And the man replies, "I stood there and listened to that grim, stern figure as he said ‘The axe is laying at the root of the trees: and every tree that beareth not forth fruit shall be cut down, and shall be cast into the fire’" [Matthew 3:10].
And another one says to a friend, "Have you heard him?"
"Yes," he says. "I stood on the banks of the River Jordan and I heard that grim prophet of God."
"What is he like?"
"Oh," says the replier and the describer, "He is like the judgment day of Almighty God were already here."
"Well, what did he say? What did he say, can you tell me what he said?"
"Oh, I’ll never forget it," says that man. "As I stood there on the banks of the Jordan River and heard that grim prophet announce, he said that we who are unbelieving and unrepentant are like chaff which the Lord shall gather and burn with unquenchable fire" [Matthew 3:12].
"But," said another, "what astonished me was when I stood on the banks of the Jordan river and heard that prophet of God proclaim, he said, ‘You Pharisees and you Sadducees, you are a brood of vipers and a generation of snakes’" [Matthew 3:7].
And the other says, "What? Did he say that to their face? Did he call the Pharisees, and the ruling elders, and the Sadducees, and the officers of the temple serpents and vipers to their face?"
"Yes, he called them that to their face."
"But most of all," chimes in another, "what thrilled our souls was his great announcement that the Messiah and the kingdom has come" [John 1:29].
That never happened, I know, just like that. But the spirit of it did. From one side of the nation to the other he rocked the equilibrium. He upset the time and he announced a new day; God’s forerunner, John the Baptist.
Now, when I think of him like that and speak of him in those words, that’s the way you think of him: as the second Elijah, as the embodiment of conscience, as the grim, stern prophet. Yet when I read of him, and look at him closely as he is presented thus here by one of his first disciples, John the beloved, I am astonished at the inward humility and self-effacement of that grim prophet. Look at it.
And this committee appointed by the Sanhedrin, sent down there to interview him, they asked him, "Who are you? Are you a prophet risen from his rocky tomb?" [John 1:19-21]
"No," said John, "I am not a prophet."
"Well, are you Elijah then, raised from the dead?"
"No", he said, "I am not Elijah."
"Then you must be the Christ, the Son of God, the Messiah Himself."
"No," he says, "I am not the Christ."
"Then at least you must be that Prophet which was spoken of by the great law giver Moses. Art thou that Prophet?"
And John the Baptist answered, "No."
Then they said to him, "Well, then who art thou? Who are you? For we must return some answer to the Sanhedrin who sent us. Who are you? What do you say about yourself?" [John 1:22]
He said, "I am a voice crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord.’ I am a voice" [John 1:23].
I want you to look at that, because in a casual reading you would never see it. I want you to look at that. Did you know human nature is of so fragile and frail a weakness that it is almost impossible for us not to receive and act out the suggestions that are made to us?
If they say we are fine looking and handsome, we may be as ugly as old sin, as the old scratch, but pretty soon we get to believing that we are fine-looking and handsome. Or if people get to talking to you and say, "Oh, how smart you are, and how gifted you are," it’s not long until we begin thinking and acting as though we were brilliant and smart. We scintillate and shine, oh, on and on.
And if somebody comes along and begins to suggest you are infallible, yes, yes, you are infallible! Why, bless your heart, it is no time at all until the man seated there on that throne with a miter on his head presents himself to the world as being infallible. That is human nature. We are just made that way. And if a man in Moscow is told oft enough "You are God of the earth," or if a man in Rome, or a man in New York, or a man in Harlem is told often enough, "You are the viceregent of God Himself," it isn’t long until the man begins to believe it, and to act it, and to present himself as God in the earth.
He met that. "You? The great prophet of God, John the Baptist, you? You must be Elijah, or you must be that Prophet spoken by Moses, or you must be the Messiah Himself" [John 1:19-21]. Ah, what a compliment, and how he must have lifted himself up. "Look what they think about me."
"No." He said, "I am nobody, not even a name. I am just a voice crying in the wilderness, ‘Make ready for the coming of the Lord’" [John 1:23]. A voice. Ah, when you look at that; a voice, just a voice, heralding, trumpeting, calling to repentance in the wilderness. But yet that’s something, isn’t it? There is a roar in the thunder. There is a whisper in the breeze. But they are just sounds. But a voice can be wedded to immortality and is joined to eternity, for a voice conveys the word and the truth of God; and "the flower fades, and the grass withers: but the word of God shall stand forever" [Isaiah 40:8]. Heaven and earth may pass away, but God’s Word, the spoken Word, the incarnate Word, and the written Word shall never pass away. A voice; "I am a voice, speaking the truth and the message and the Word of God."
Ah, I’d say without any fear of contradiction, anywhere in the earth that a man stands, and without favor, and without fear, and without hate, and without recrimination, and without personal aggrandizement or ambition, stands up and voices the Word of God, the mountains on their rock foundations are not more firmly set than that man standing on the Word of Almighty God and delivering the message of the Lord. "A voice crying in the wilderness," as said the prophet Isaiah. "Make ready for the coming of the Lord" [Isaiah 40:3].
Once again, the inward humility and self-effacement of this stern prophet of Jesus. In the third chapter of the Gospel of John there is an incident. You know, people love to egg on an argument, to create jealousy, saying things, doing things. Well, this happened. It went like this, John writes: there arose a question between some of John’s disciples and the Jews about purifying [John 3:25]. I know that was about baptism, because in the next verse it says so:
And they came unto John, and said unto him, Rabbi, teacher, He that was with thee beyond Jordan, –
After Jesus was baptized –
to whom thou barest witness, behold, the same baptizeth, and all men come to Him.
Now that’s got a stinger in it. That’s got a barb in it. That’s got a hook in it that’ll get most any man’s soul. "You are so famous and acknowledged and acclaimed the prophet of God, but did you know that One to whom you gave witness, behold, all of men are following Him? They’ve left you. They’ve forgotten you, and they are seeking Him. And His name is on every lip, it’s in every household. Everybody is looking for Him, Jesus. They’ve forgotten and passed you by."
Ah, dear! Old green-eyed envy, old green-eyed jealousy; everything mortal and natural and carnal in human nature rises up when the other man carries your laurels and walks in your place and takes all of the acclaim that you so once enjoyed. That’s what they did to John the Baptist. But he answered and said, "I am just the bridegroom – I am just the friend of the bridegroom, standing by His side. And my high calling was just to announce His coming. I am a herald blowing the trumpet, but I am not the King. Standing by His side, I rejoice in the bridegroom’s voice. He must increase but I must decrease" [John 3:28-30]. And John bowed himself out of the way. Ah, what a great man that Baptist preacher was! No wonder the Lord said of all the men born of women there is not one greater than John the Baptist [Matthew 11:11].
Ah, that great prophet of God, bowing himself out. Why, I’ve seen this with my own eyes. I’ve seen men who were sent to prepare for another, but they became so enamored with themselves and so engrossed with their own popularity and seizing on their own ambition, when time came for them to bow away, they were rather hindrances; and the cause that came to espouse and to further, finally they fought bitterly against it, refusing to make way for the one who is yet to come.
O Lord, help us to know our assignment as a Christian. What we are to do is the work of the Baptist preacher. We are to announce the Lord. We are to make way for His coming. We are to describe Him and point to Him. We are to witness to Him and then having witnessed to Him, and introduced Him, and made the way for Him, then let’s bow out of the picture and let the glorious Lord Jesus have all of the love, and adoration, and worship, and commitment, and trust of the whole earth.
And if we sink into oblivion before we sink into the tomb, God knows and understands and will not forget. Our place is not to shine. We are not to be consumed by false and earthly ambition. It’s to have no part in this. Our assignment is to herald the Lord, to introduce the blessed Jesus, and then step out of the way and let Christ come in all His beauty and glory.
I have a moment or two left. May I speak of this baptism of this preacher? His baptism. Ah, how he could have said this baptism, I got it from God. And if you are not baptized by me you are damned. Why, it never entered his mind, nor is there any substance or syllable of even a suggestion of such a thing.
What John the Baptist did was to say, this poor water and this narrow river, it is a purification. They were arguing about baptism and called it purification. John the Baptist did not know the ultimate deep significance of that ordinance. To him it was a purification, it was a cleansing, it was a getting ready of the coming of the Lord, and that was all. And how many today are there who say if you are not baptized in my pool, and if you are not baptized by this denomination, you are damned forever? O Lord, what a wrenching and what a turning away from the true faith and doctrine of the Book. The baptizing was a getting ready for Jesus.
Nor did it ever appear to John that in the river he was washing sins away. What John was doing was pointing to Him who could wash our sins away [Matthew 3:11-12; John 1:26-29]. So it is in these holy ordinances [Matthew 28:19-20; Romans 6:3-5; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26]. They point to Jesus. They set forth the Lord Jesus. They magnify the Lord Jesus. They point to Him. This bread, it is His body, this cup it is for the remission of sins [Matthew 26:26-28]. It’s in Him, not in the ordinance, not in the washing of the water [Romans 6:3-5].
The great ordinance was a picture of a people who were given to the messianic hope: God is intervening in history. God is here, and He is in my life, and I am ready. Even as John the Baptist lifted up his voice and cried, saying, "Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world" [John 1:29]. He did not say, "Behold the Lion of the tribe of Judah that will devour the sinners." He was a great, grim prophet and a stalwart giant for God, but when you come to his saving message it’s as gentle as a mother’s love. "The Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world." Not water baptism, not the judgment, not the damnation, but the great forerunner introducing Him who can save us from our sins. Even as the apostle John wrote in the verses above, "He came not to condemn the world; but that the world through Him might be saved" [John 3:17].
He did not come to condemn the world. He did not come to blame. He did not only come to seek, it was to save that He came. And when we call Him Iēsous, Savior, we call Him by His name. "Look, the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world" [John 1:29].
And when the announcement was made and his work was done, the great Baptist preacher bowed out of the way, and the King came forth in all His beauty and glory. That’s our message. Even today and tonight, we are heralds; we are emcees; we are introducers; we are witnesses pointing to Jesus, bidding you come in His faith, in His name, in His goodness, and in His grace. You, come, come, come.
"The Lord has spoken to me. I feel it in my soul, and I am coming tonight." A family you, a couple you, a one somebody you, down one of these stairwells, at the back and the front, and on either side, the throng on this lower floor into the aisle and down to the front, "Here I am, pastor, I choose Jesus. I am making this decision for God, and here I am." Do it now, make it now, on the first note of that first stanza, come. Decide now, and when you stand up, stand up coming. God’s angels will attend you in the way as you come, and as we stand and as we sing.
A. He appeared after
400 years of silence
B. His birth and
ministry prophesied by Isaiah and Malachi
C. Rough exterior;
lifted above embellishments of life
II. Untouched by personal ambition,
A. A voice
1. He is mistaken
for Elijah, Moses, the Messiah
2. His infinite
voice conveys the word and truth of God (Isaiah 40:8, Matthew 24:35)
B. He stepped aside
III. A prophet of highest spiritual
A. His baptism
1. A purification,
getting ready for coming of the Lord
2. Pointing to
B. His introduction of