Pastor Scott Andrews | July 25, 2021
What is it that makes a person great? I mean, truly, because our culture is incredibly confused about greatness. Consider, for example, celebrities. As a culture, we are enamored with celebrities – que the Paparazzi.
Every year since 1999, Forbes magazine has come out with its Celebrity 100 list. To make the list, you’ve got to be a celebrity, which is measured by fame and influence – how many followers you have on Twitter or Instagram, I guess – and you’ve got to make money, lots of money. So it ends up being a list of highest paid celebrities. They have yet to release the list for this year – it usually comes out in July, but the celerity with the highest earning power in 2020 was…Kylie Jenner, who brought in a cool $590 million last year. Kanye West came in a distant second at $170 million. Aren’t they related?
By the way, the top ten on Forbes list last year were, in order: Jenner, West, Roger Federer, Christiano Renaldo, Lionel Messi, Tyler Perry, Neymar, Howard Stern, Lebron James and Dwayne Johnson. The moral to that story is soccer pays more than basketball, and perfume pays more than anything else. Incidentally, the previous year’s number one, Taylor Swift, didn’t even crack 2020’s top ten. Easy come, easy go.
Is celebrity status, star power, what makes a person truly great? Maybe you’re like me and couldn’t pick Kylie out of lineup. Without intending to offend, does the word great and the name Kylie Jenner belong in the same sentence? Why is it, then, they wield such remarkable influence?
What is it that makes a person great? If it isn’t celebrity status, could we measure greatness in what one has? We could go back to Forbes where we would find, again this year, Jeff Bezos is the richest man in the world – four years running. COVID helped with that, but he has a net worth of $177 billion. Remember I said Kylie Jenner brought in $590 million last year. Bezos net worth increased by over $60 billion. No wonder he could fund his flight to space this week.
Think about it – even if he put his money in a savings account at a bank that pays a paltry 1% interest, he’d have almost two billion dollars a year to spend, without ever touching the principal. $1.8 billion dollars a year – to spend that much in one year, you’d have to spend almost five million dollars a day, every day of the year – you couldn’t even take weekends off. But is that greatness? That doesn’t quite do it for us either, does it? Jeff Bezos may belong on some list of greatness, but not because of what he has – maybe what he did to acquire the wealth. You decide. But is he great because of his bank account? Oh, and by the way, 8 of the top 10 on the list are Americans from the US. Number 2 is Elon Musk, number 4 is Bill Gates, and number 5 is Mark Zuckerberg.
Okay, if it isn’t fame, and it isn’t wealth – those things our culture prizes and pursues – maybe greatness could be measured in position or title. So, the highest position, at least office, you can hold in our country, is President of the United States. He used to be considered the most powerful person on the planet. But, does being President make you great? I think we would all agree the position does not necessarily ensure greatness. We’ve had great presidents, and some not-so-great presidents. No, I’m not going to suggest which is which. The title, whether it’s president or king or queen or judge or congress person or even doctor or lawyer doesn’t necessarily make you great. Once again, I think we would all agree that it’s what you do in the position, what you do with the title, that makes you great.
So, we’re narrowing down our understanding of greatness, not who knows you (fame), not what you have (wealth), not what position you possess (power), but rather, what you do. As you think of great people who have done great things, perhaps your mind does go to the political arena, and you think of someone like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill? Maybe you would go to the world of science or medicine and think of Louis Pasteur, Thomas Edison or Albert Einstein. Maybe your mind goes to the sports arena – where we’re always trying to figure out who the GOAT is – the greatest of all time – and you think of Jack Nicholas, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretsky, Tom Brady, Cal Ripken, Roger Federer, Nadal or Djokovic. I’ll let you fight over the best soccer player.
Perhaps some of you would even think of spiritual giants like St. Augustine, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, or Billy Graham.
And then, maybe some of you would go right to the Bible and think of Abraham or Moses, David or Solomon, Deborah or Priscilla, Peter or Paul. With a group this size, we could probably come up with hundreds of names of great men and women of the past and present. But, let me ask the question another way. Who is the greatest person who has ever lived? Outside of Jesus, who is the greatest person who ever lived? In fact, if you asked Jesus that question – who would He say? Did you know He identified that person in the Bible? In Matthew 11:11, He said, “Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist!” Jesus said that the greatest man who ever lived was John the Baptist. Did he make your list?
I find that interesting – given our culture’s understanding of greatness found in fame, wealth or power. Remember, this is the guy who sent a couple of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the Expected One – that is, are you the Messiah, or should we look for someone else?” This is the guy who doubted Jesus – spiritual giant. John only lived to be a little over 30 years old. He spent the last few years of his adult life wearing camel hair clothing and a leather belt. Some think he was a Nazarite because he wasn’t allowed to drink wine, which would also mean he never shaved. So, by the time he entered his public ministry, he was looking pretty shaggy. His diet consisted of locusts and wild honey. His entire ministry lasted maybe 18 months. He actually spent the last year of his life in jail before he was finally beheaded by Herod. That’s his resume. Greatest man who ever lived?
Is all that what made him the greatest – his designer clothes, his shaggy look, his appetizing diet, his stellar political career, his fame, his martyrdom? I don’t think so. Why would Jesus say that about his cousin, John? Oh, that’s it – it was a family thing. I don’t think so. I think he was the greatest man who ever lived because of what he did during that short time of ministry. It wasn’t his position as cousin to Jesus. It wasn’t what he had – he didn’t have anything. It wasn’t fame – his whole career, short as it was, was spent pointing not to himself – not signing up Twitter followers. His whole career was pointing to someone else, but seemingly ended a miserable failure. What made John great was what he did. And what did John do? We find the answer to that question in our text today in Matthew 11:7-15, let’s read that together.
Why this today? Because, we have spent the last several months being reminded to love one another. Yes – let’s do that – let’s love one another. Let’s have special bond for the family. But I want to remind us this morning to love the lost. To love and pursue non-Christians. How easy it is to become so inwardly focused that we forget there are lost people who need the Gospel. We must not become enamored with our culture’s thoughts of greatness – to prize and pursue fleeting things – fame, fortune and power. We can be so distracted. But, we must wo what John which makes him the GOAT, and point people to Jesus.
Here’s the truth. Most of us know evangelism is our responsibility. I struggled this week trying to say it differently than I’ve done before. We know the verses – I’ve taught them. When considering the topic, there were all the normal ones from which to choose:
Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus’ last words to the church in what we call the Great Commission, “18… ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you….’”
In Luke 24:46-48, His last words to His disciples in that gospel, “46 Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, 47 and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things.”
The fact is, God is an evangelistic God – He sent His Son to reach us, and He expects us to reach others – John 20:21, some of His last words to His disciples, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.”
One more for good measure – His very last words to His disciples before the ascension in Acts 1:8, “but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”
We could go to those evangelism verses. Why Matthew 11? It’s a great text – one you don’t normally think of for evangelism. But it’s perfect, especially for today’s world.
Let me share the context. The first ten chapters of Matthew brilliantly demonstrate that Jesus was the Messiah – beyond any doubt, the King. You get to chapters 11 and 12 and find the responses of various people to that claim. If you read those chapters, you’d find those responses include doubt, criticism, indifference, rejection, amazement, blasphemy, and curious fascination. Not a lot of faith. Not unlike what you will find if you share the truth about Jesus today.
Now John, the forerunner who spoke of one who would come after him and baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire; John, the one who baptized Jesus in the Jordan River; John, the one who heard the voice of God say, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” John, the one who saw the Spirit of God descend on Jesus. John, the one who said of Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God what takes away the sin of the world.” John who said “He must increase, I must decrease.” That John, doubted. He sent two disciples to Jesus to ask if He was indeed the Expected One to come.
You see, John had been in prison by this time for a year. He was facing some painfully crushing circumstances, and some unmet expectations. And he began to doubt, just like we do when we face difficult trials, just like we do when things don’t go the way we expect. And John did just what we should do when we face doubts – He went to Jesus and said, I need some reassurance. My head wants to believe, but my heart is struggling. Lord, I believe, help my unbelief. His was a faith-wounded doubt. Have you ever been there? God, how can I be in this prison? I’ve given my life to Jesus – how can I be suffering like this? Come to Jesus.
Well, at the beginning of this chapter, Jesus dealt very gently with John. John had sent two of his disciples – are you the one, or should we look for another? Jesus did a few miracles for those disciples, and said, here, take this back to John as a gift. Tell him, there’s no reason to doubt: “The blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them.” John, I’m doing all the things the Messiah is supposed to do – I’m doing all the things only the Messiah could do. Be encouraged John – I am the Expected One.
We learn from the story, that when we face doubts, there are things we can do. We can go to the Scripture and see the things Jesus did, which prove He was who He said He was. We can go to Jesus ourselves, in the midst of our difficult circumstances and unmet expectations, and express our struggling hearts. And we can expect Jesus to continue to pour out His miraculous grace, all around, if we’re willing to open our eyes, and see Him work.
Well, as those disciples turned to leave, Jesus began to address the ever-present crowd. You see, there was a chance the people, having overheard this discussion, would think less of John for his doubts, just like some people think less of you when you ask questions. So, Jesus has some rather amazing things to say about this man. It culminates in verse 11, “among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist!” That begs some questions. What was it that made John great? Further, was he unique in his greatness? That is, can only John be so great to receive this amazing commendation of the Messiah? No, because Jesus goes on to say, “Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” What does that mean?
Well, let’s begin with what made John great, then we’ll look at how the least in the kingdom – the least in this room, can be greater than John. What made John great? Jesus identifies three qualities which made him great by asking three times, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?”
- The first thing we see about John was his unwavering commitment to truth. We see that in verse 7, “But what did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?” A reed speaks of the whispers of tall cane grass that grew along the banks of the Jordan River. The implied answer to the question is, no, John was not a reed shaken by the wind.
Jesus was making a point. John was a man of strength. He didn’t vacillate. He wasn’t swayed by public opinion. He didn’t preach a popular message – the message of repentance has never been popular. His message wasn’t one designed to entertain people, to draw the masses to hear a feel-good sermon. Jesus is saying, in the midst of this great trial which would end in the loss of his head, literally, this trial which would in fact cause him to doubt, he was not to be considered a weak man. John was strong – he preached what needed to be preached, to whom it needed to be preached, and when it needed to be preached. He wasn’t swayed by popularity or lack of popularity. No paparazzi there. He wouldn’t make the top 100 list.
When the scribes and Pharisees, the religious leaders and influential people of the day came to him, John didn’t change his message – he didn’t cater his message to them. In fact, his message became stronger – you brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? He spoke against religious hypocrisy. He spoke against immorality in society, embodied in governing officials. And they thought him intolerant, insensitive and politically incorrect. But John wasn’t concerned about those things. That’s why he was in the mess he was in. He was a man unwaveringly committed to truth.
I can’t help but think of Paul’s words in Ephesians 4, “As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ,…” If we want to be great people in the kingdom of God, we must be committed to biblical truth – not tossed here and there by every wind of doctrine that sounds good, not be tempted by fame or popularity or power or prestige. We must be unwaveringly committed to truth, no matter how unpopular it is, remembering the cross, Christianity, is foolishness to those who do not believe. And notice, we must speak the truth in love.
- Not only was John committed to truth, he was a man who made sacrifices for the truth. We see that in verse 8, “But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Those who wear soft clothing are in king’s palaces.” Again, the implied answer is no. Remember, I said at the beginning great people are not to be considered great because of their position or possessions. Good thing. John had neither. Jesus made a big deal about that. He sacrificed all this world could offer, for camel’s hair and a leather belt, locusts and wild honey. He had neither position nor possessions – he wasn’t in a king’s palace, he didn’t wear a king’s soft clothing. By the way, soft clothing there refers to effeminate clothing. Get the picture in your mind – John the Baptist, rugged, never shaved, shaggy looking, tough looking. Kind of a caveman look with the camel hair clothing. Hardened by living in the wilderness. He sacrificed all this world could offer for the work God had called him to. He did not pursue this world’s soft, cushy enticements.
- But without doubt, the thing that made John the greatest man ever born is found in the answer the third time Jesus asked the question, “What did you go out to see?” Look at verses 9-11 again, “But what did you go out to see? A prophet? [This time the answer is] Yes, I tell you, and one who is more than a prophet. [You see, there was no higher pedestal for the Jews than that of prophet. And it had been hundreds of years since they had seen one. That’s why they turned out by the thousands to see John. But this was no ordinary prophet.] This is the one about whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger ahead of You, 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!”
Not only did John have an unwavering commitment to the truth, not only did he make sacrifices for the truth, but thirdly, we see John pointed people to the truth. What made John great? Very simply, he pointed people to Jesus Christ.
In the gospel of John, chapter 1, John the Baptist had started his short ministry, and in verses 19 and following, we read some messengers had been sent from the Pharisees in Jerusalem to ask John some questions – namely, who in the world are you? Are you the Christ, to which John answered, no. Are you Elijah, or the Prophet to come? No. Who then are you? John answered, I’m the one prophesied by Isaiah the prophet, the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.” I am the forerunner. Very simply, John said, I am the one to point people to the Christ, the Chosen One, the Anointed One, the Messiah – to declare His coming.
We go on to read the very next day, John saw Jesus coming to him, and he exclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” What made John the greatest man who ever lived? Very simply, he pointed people to Jesus.
In fact, there’s this great story in John chapter 3 when some people came to John and said, hey John, people are starting to follow Jesus – He’s baptizing them, and He’s got more followers than you. Interpreted, John, are your jealous? How did John respond? He said, “You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent ahead of Him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made full. He must increase, but I must decrease.” In other words, John said, Great, my job is to point people to Jesus. He’s the Messiah – if they’re following Him, I’m glad. That means I’m doing my job. John’s greatness was not in promoting himself, it was in promoting Jesus.
I have a grave concern that many church leaders, mega churches and ministries today are not built on Christ, but on the personality and charisma of the leader – the lead pastor, for example. And what happens when that leader begins to believe his own press clippings? Pursuing fame and fortune?
In verses 12-15, Jesus gives a little more information about John being the forerunner, announcing the coming of the Expected One. I don’t want to get bogged down in this, but just let me say this. Verse 10 is a quote of Malachi 3:1. Everyone understood that when the Messiah came, His coming would be announced by a messenger from God. Then, in Malachi 4:5, that messenger is identified as Elijah. That’s why in John 1, the Pharisees asked John, are you Elijah? You see, the Jews were expecting the literal Elijah. But, Luke 1:17 says that John came in the spirit and power of Elijah – a prophet of God preaching repentance, preparing the nation of Israel for the coming of the Messiah. The point is, Jesus identifies John as the one Malachi spoke about. Not only was John a prophet, he was much more. How so? Not only would he be a prophet, but he was a prophet who was prophesied about.
Don’t get bogged down. The point is this. John was great, Jesus says, as more than a prophet, because his job was to point people to Jesus Christ. That’s what made him the greatest man who ever lived. While many prophets spoke of the Messiah to come, John alone was the forerunner appointed to say, the Messiah is here. His greatness was not in possessions or position. It was not in fame, who knew him. Rather, it was Whom he knew. It was what he did with that knowledge – he pointed people to Jesus. He must increase, I must decrease.
As we close this morning, let me ask this question. How can the person who is least in the kingdom, how can the person who is least in this room, be greater than John the Baptist?
I have good news for you this morning – you already are. If you know Jesus as your Savior, if you’re in the kingdom, you’re already greater. Because there is a sense in which your greatness is determined, not by who knows you, but who you know. And if you know Jesus, He says, you’re great. You have a privileged position of grace – that makes you great. John pointed to the kingdom that was coming, that would be inaugurated by the cross and the New Covenant. You’re a child of that kingdom, and that alone makes you great. You participate in what John announced.
But further, I believe our greatness can be seen, like John, by pointing people to Jesus. You see, not only can we point to Jesus as the Messiah, as John did, we can point fully to what He has done. We can declare His death, burial and resurrection. You want your greatness in the kingdom to be seen? Then tell others about the kingdom. That’s what Jesus was saying – I believe that was intended here. Fulfill the commission given to us – go, in the power and authority of the kingdom, and preach the King of the kingdom. Tell people about Jesus. Because position, possessions, fame, fortune – no matter what the world tells us – that’s not what makes us great. You might never make a Forbes list. But that doesn’t matter. You’re already on God’s list of great people. Make your greatness seen – point others to Jesus.
So, here’s my simple encouragement to us as we close today. I want to encourage you to go out those doors today and look for opportunities to speak of Christ. It will cost you like it cost John. But I promise – if you look for opportunities, you’ll find them. Could you imagine for just a moment what more than a thousand could do if we left this building today on fire for the gospel – the good news of Jesus Christ. Build relationships with neighbors and coworkers and then, open your mouth. We eventually have to share who Jesus is and what He has done. Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.