“In the cross of Christ, as in a splendid theater, the incomparable goodness of God is set before the whole world. The glory of God shines, indeed, in all creatures on high and below, but never more brightly than in the cross, in which there was a wonderful change of things—the condemnation of all men was manifested, sin blotted out, salvation restored to men; in short, the whole world was renewed and all things restored to order.”
I read through much of the Gospels in June and July in studying for a four-week preaching series on the four Gospels. While reading, I made some observations about John the Baptist and his ministry:
1. Before his birth, it was foretold that John the Baptist would be great before the Lord, filled with the Holy Spirit, turn the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, and prepare people to meet the Lord (Lk 1:13-17). From this one could concluded that whatever followed in the portrayal of John would have the approval of God, the power of God, the wisdom of God, and would meet the standards of God—whatever standard that would prepare people to meet God.
2. At his birth, it was announced that John the Baptist would be a prophet of the Most High, he would give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and he would be an instrument of “the tender mercy of God” (Lk 1:76-79). Therefore, whatever followed in the portrayal of the speaking ministry of John would be revelation from God, enlightenment from God to those perishing, and mercy from God.
3. At the beginning of his ministry, John the Baptist caught enough attention of the Jewish leaders for them to ask, “Who are you?” (Jn 1:19). The words and actions of John drew people to inquire about John due to suspicions that he might be the promised Messiah. The drawing words and actions are not recorded in John. We are told that John the Baptist was sent from God, and he came to bear witness of the Light so that all might believe in Christ through John’s ministry (Jn 1:5-8).
4. When John was in prison, Jesus’ evaluation of John included these words: “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.” (Mt 11:1). The character, words and deeds of John were thought to be superlative to all people in history. Solomon and Jonah may have received superlatives for their adornment, wisdom, and preaching, but those affirmations were not the ultimate affirmation (cf. Mt 6:29; 12:41-42).
5. Leading up to John’s death, Mark’s comments on Herod’s thoughts about John are interesting: “For Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly” (Mk 6:20). Herod received John with gladness of heart even though John had some very harsh words for him.
Prior to his birth until the event that brought his death, the entire scope of John’s ministry had the approval of God and joy of man written upon it. I suspect some would agree with me that one commended for such a powerful ministry as John might serve as a model of preaching to us. Each of us only can hope to be found to be great in the kingdom of heaven. John the Baptist, however, was given judgment as the best man ever born. I would wish to gain a commendation for my preaching from my Lord, let alone for my entire ministry and life. Therefore I have found it wise to look at John’s example to see what I can gain from him.
Repentance to the People
John the Baptist’s preaching is recorded by all four evangelists. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” is the first word we have of John “preaching a baptism of repentance” (Mt 3:2; Mk 1:4; Lk 3:3). The repentance, coupled with the outward sign of baptism, is offered so that people might experience “the forgiveness of sins” (Mk 1:4; Lk 3:3). As forerunner to the Lord, John prepared people to meet with the Lord by pointing out to the people that they are sinners in need of turning away from sin. The drama associated with the preaching and repentance is the foreshadowing of the Divine Drama—the Drama of Redemption (ref: Michael Horton). This drama is not performed by a second party for the listener. This drama requires that the listener participate.
Brood of Vipers to the Pharisees
Matthew records John the Baptist’s initial encounter with the Pharisees:
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 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. “I 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 fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Mt 3:7-12; par. Lk. 3:7-17).
John the Baptist uses imagery of a poisonous snake in order to depict for the Pharisees and Sadducees how vile they are toward the people. The first thing he says to them is that they are objects of the “wrath to come” from the Lord. Apparently, the wrath is due to their brood-of-viper-like activities.
The Baptizer further tells the Jewish leaders that they have the same need as the people in general: repentance—the need to turn away from their sins. Again, this means that the Pharisees and Sadducees’ personal introduction to John the Baptist was a confrontation with their own vile nature and sinfulness, and their own need for having lives that conform to God’s standards. The Baptizer, I suspect, did not make such a winsome first impression on the Jewish leadership. He certainly could not have won the hearts of the Pharisees with his string of words that tied the need for the Pharisees to “bear fruit” (Mt 3: 8 ) with the judgment of firewood for the trees that did not bear fruit (10) and with the winnowing work of the Lord to throw chaff in the unquenchable fire (12).
It is not Lawful to Herod
The Gospel accounts do not tell us if or how John the Baptist came to have a relationship with Herod. Unlike the accounts of the beginning of John’s ministry and the encounter with the Jewish leadership, we do not have an account of John’s initial conversation with Herod. We do know John confronted Herod on his illegal marriage—that he was breaking the law of God by marrying his brother’s wife. John also spoke of other “evils” practiced by Herod:
But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison (Lk 3:19-20; see also Mt 14:4; Mk 6:18).
The verbs of speech and reception in these accounts indicate that John repeatedly spoke to Herod of his adultery and evil. John did not take a seemingly nice approach to Herodias’ divorce by saying, “we all know that something is not right here, but we do not have to say what it is.” Instead, John made reference to the Law when dealing with Herod: “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” While I might be presuming on John’s established pattern of boldness, I suspect that “it is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” came up in the first conversation between John and Herod since John’s concern was about preparing people to meet the Lord.
John the Baptist the Anti-Pragmatist?
In a day ruled by the two mutated relations known as “relative” and “relevance,” one might find the accolades given by Jesus to John the Baptist to be out of touch with human sensibilities. How could The Baptizer be so insensitive as to warn people to repent, call the Jewish leadership “a brood of vipers,” and tell Herod that he was breaking the law of God? This is completely countercultural to the Pharisees who were known for twisting the law to accommodate the sinfulness of the people (i.e., “you have heard that it was said…” Mt. 5:38-42). This sort of behavior does not seem to be “‘great’ among those born of a woman,” but offensive.
This makes me ask, “Was John the Baptist ‘relevant’? Was John’s ministry ‘practical’? Did his ministry ‘connect with the people’ in such a way that they immediately knew what changes they needed to make in their lives?” Consider the responses of John’s audiences:
1. The people repeatedly replied to the call to repentance with “what shall we do?” In Luke 3 each group in John’s audience asks for specific acts that are keeping with repentance. Not one of the groups says, “How dare you tell us to turn away from sin to God! How dare you tell us to make behavioral changes! We get enough talk about behavioral changes from the Pharisees who are constantly telling us that we are not as righteous as they.” Further, it is important to see that John the Baptist pointed out specific sins to the group who stood to be most offended by his message, for they were Romans and not Jews. He told the soldiers that they were extortionists, they abused their powers, they were liars, and their motives stemmed from discontentment with their wages. In answer to “how is this message of repentance relevant to us,” John said, “Correct your behavior so you will be prepared to meet the Lord.” This was the first word of John to the crowds. He did not preface it by asking, “May I please give you a Greco performance on extortion so that I may present the problem of extortion in an inoffensive manner?” Extortion was a practice from which one needed repentance. John the Baptist said this in direct speech, immediately and without fear.
2. Herod, although rebuked for adultery, received John “gladly.” Gladly? Yes! When John would come to speak to Herod, seemingly he would smile, feel warmth of heart toward John, and in effect say to his guards, “Sure, let John come in, for I enjoy hearing him.” It was a feat in itself for John to point to the one in rule and say, “You are a sinner in need of change.” Yet whatever The Baptizer said and however he said it, Herod was not turned away by John’s rebuke. He did not say, “I hate when John comes to preach.” Instead he was glad to hear John preach. By our common standards, Herod should have been repulsed by John. Definitely his wife was offended. She understood the accusation of John. Do you think if John had taken Drusilla to the coffee shop a few times before he pointed the finger she would have warmed up to his words of correction? I do not think the issue was manner or environs; it was John’s words: “For John had been saying to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife'” (Mk 6:18).
Eventually, John’s approach cost him his life. But I think the bold, direct-speech route taken by John was the best choice, as it gained approval from his Lord, even while ensuring John’s own death. It seems to me that we should follow John’s commended example by preaching “you should not have your brother’s wife” without feeling any need to dress it up in a Nathaniel Hawthorne novel, a retelling of the life of Henry VIII, a production of The Crucible, or a Fatal Attraction movie in order to help people connect or find relevance to the subject. I would like to think that we see the danger of moving God(‘s voice) from being the subject of our preaching to being the complement of another subject—that subject being our theological principles drawn from cultural mediums like movies and TV shows. For it is one thing to move from Scripture to life by means of an analogy that points back to Scripture (and even that not most perfectly). Yet it is quite another thing to move from a fictional movie – which always take an earthly view of life’s issues – create theological principles by drawing them from the significance of the movie in a reader’s eyes (ref: Hirsch, 1967), and then relate those principles to something about the character and working of God in Scripture. Scripture should tell us how to view life, not the other way around (cf. Rom. 12:1-2; I Tim. 3:16; 2 Tim. 3:16-17).
Are we so different from the people who were the objects of John the Baptist’s preaching? As part of their natural desires, are not unregenerate people already connected to a concept like adultery – and all other concepts of sin in the Scriptures – but are unaware that their sinful acts are contrary the holiness of God?
Excursus: Irreverence of Relevance
Sadly, I think that being “relevant” becomes a foursome set of excuses for fearing men, for not reading or studying theology deeply, for jettisoning the history of the church, and for not trusting the Holy Spirit to change hearts. First, one of the motives behind being “relevant” is to keep from making a sinner feel like you are calling him a “sinner” to his face immediately. This is also a way of saying, “I want the sinner to like me first.” Subtly, a desire to be liked rather than rejected drives the need for “relevance.”
Second, while one might think it takes a decent study of people to be relevant, it does not take much study of theology to be relevant – at least not where the emphasis is on connecting with the culture rather than on connecting with the One who is transcendent. However, I would suggest the very opposite is true: It takes little study of people to be “relevant,” because each of us is part of the fallen world, so we understand sin implicitly yet deceitfully. In contrast, it takes great study of theology to be able to know the subject matter so well that one can find an accurate means to explain concepts like imputation and propitiation to a seventeen-year old or thirty seven-year old. One has no means to speak in metaphors if the initial referent is misunderstood. There is a great difference between explaining propitiation as appeasing the anger of a parent or comic hero and explaining it as the Divinely-solved answer to eternally just wrath against completely wretched and lost creatures by a perfectly holy God.
I have yet to see the scene in any movie that could even come close to depicting the glory of propitiation! Even when preaching on the subject I fear using analogies and illustrations that would diminish the beauty of the wrath-satisfying act of God that saved sinners from God himself unto God himself! Most earthly illustrations are trite, like the commonly known illustration of the judge who stepped down from his chair to pay the fine of a guilty criminal. Piper’s parable of the old and young man who agreed to blow up the trestle of an oppressive tyrant comes closest to an accurate analogy (although he is not portraying propitiation specifically, but the divine view of the love of the Father in bruising the Son generally).
Yet that illustration cannot make it clear that those being rescued enslaved themselves and deserved to be enslaved for sinning against the young man and old man. It does not show that the townspeople deserved to be the objects of the demolition and would be such objects if the young man and old man did not joyfully choose to sacrifice the son in spite of the self-deserved, self-imposed, just enslavement of the people in the mines. Even with this clarification I cannot add enough to the parable to magnify what it would have been like for the young man to take on the sin of all of those enslaved and know that his father turned his face away (judicially) as the young man went to the trestle. If Hollywood can study Scripture and theology deeply enough to depict this accurately without remaking The Jesus Film or The Passion of the Christ, I will be most impressed. In the mean time, while recognizing the adequacy of human language in revelation and preaching, I must acknowledge that drawing analogous principles will diminish the glory of the atonement, and that even more so if we start in Hollywood rather than “in the beginning.”
Third, if only the most contemporary ideas, means, and practices are able to help people connect to the Scriptures, then it will be impossible to find relevance in anything historical, including the historical acts and theology of the church. In fact, there will be no need to study them, for they are irrelevant. In saying this, I am trying to avoid a logical fallacy in my argument – that of changing from “relevant analogies” to “the relevance of history.” I know that historical ideas can be communicated through contemporary analogies. But such an argument makes the point I am trying to give: We do not find enough significance in history to find it important to contemporary life without redressing it in the contemporary. “History is so boring” quickly leads to “we must reinvent the faith in this generation” (ref. Carl Trueman; see also his “Reckoning with the Past”). The arguments of Nicea and the process of reforms in Geneva will have no meaning to people who are concerned completely with day to day issues of family, personal mental health, economic woes, idol (Idol or idle) TV, and changing one’s status and picture on a social networking engine. The emphasis on the “relevant” and the silencing of history will lead to a form of practiced Christianity that will ask, “How can we change?” without asking “How can we stand?” As Os Guinness and David Wells have shown, this inevitably leads to a changing of the essence of Christianity, not just a changing of the modes of communication.
Fourth, I simply am convinced that the Gospel has the power to change a life among any people, tongue, tribe, or nation, and in any generation, without needing a new set of clothes (cf. Rom. 1:16-17; Rev. 5:9-10). It is the Spirit of God who must give our hearts a quickening—a new set of eyes for us to understanding the Gospel (cf. Eph. 2:1-7). Unfortunately, much of today’s preaching is parading a form of the Gospel in the streets in undergarments. But in this story, it is not the customer who should be embarrassed, but the tailors, for Jesus purchases men with his blood and redeems them to God in his power, not ours.
If one should not tell people they are sinners without cushioning the blow because it would be otherwise offensive, then we never will be able to share the Gospel with anyone. We cannot wait until people feel comfortable. Sinners will never feel comfortable being called sinners. Before God opens our eyes to the love and mercy of the Son, we are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, corrupt in mind, reprobate, ignorant, without God, without hope, lovers of selves, lovers or darkness, evil, and suppressors of the truth who never seek God no matter how it is dressed up. Seemingly John the Baptist understood this and was commended for preaching courageously to sinners.
As I was making the notes for this article, I ran across these words in “Ugly Has Never Been So Attractive,” an automotive review in The Washington Post, Sunday, August 10, 2008, G1:
There are degrees of ugliness.
There is, for example, what is rudely called “butt-ugly” — essentially dysfunctional styling that is an affront to aesthetics and ergonomics; ugliness bordering on insult.
There is “boring” — ugliness absent imagination and spirit, the kind of styling that tries neither to please nor offend. It is careless design.
And there is Scion xD ugliness, which is ugliness with a purpose. It demands notice. It dares you to object. It has the ambitious audacity of seduction.
In the end, you wind up loving or hating the Scion xD’s styling. But you will neither ignore nor forget it. It makes an impression.
That’s just fine with Toyota, purveyor of Scion automobiles, which are aimed at the putative “youth market.”
Toyota believes young people want products that make a statement, vehicles that draw attention to themselves in much the manner of teenagers wearing purple hair or having physiognomies resembling vampires.
It is ugliness with swagger, in the case of the Scion xD hatchback sedan, manifested by headlamps that are at once bug-eyed and square, by side panels that have the nerve to flirt with muscularity, and by a rear end that squats while strutting its stuff.
It is a body that brings forth derision and appreciation. How dare Scion’s designers present something like this? But they did, and did it so wonderfully well, with every odd-looking part perfectly fitted, every weird line in exact alignment.
Sit inside. Therein is paradise of molded composites, including a dashboard of one continuous piece. It is off-putting in its plainness and appealing in the genius of its execution — nothing wasted and everything accessible.
Let me get this straight. A car described as “ugly” is being pitched to “young people” for it is “ugliness with a purpose” that “demands notice” and “dares you to object?” Once you get past the “ugliness” of the exterior you find “a paradise of molded composites?” The design team (implied) is commended for making the car “off-putting in its plainness and appealing in the genius of its execution?” Conclusion: Something apparently ugly can have an appeal when you can get past the initial ugliness – something known as “the ambitious audacity of seduction” – even when trying to appeal to the contemporary generation.
The Scion xD runs on gas and has a sticker price of $15,870. The Gospel rests on the power of God and it is free.
The Gospel of the Cross of Christ is offensive. Its good news is that sinners can be redeemed freely by the Son of Man who died in place of sinners for the penalty due their sins. Movies do not talk about sin and substitutionary atonement—not in the New Testament sense of the terms. Only the Gospel does. If we follow the example of John the Baptist and simply preach the Gospel, we might see opportunities to say, “There is One who comes after me.”
These four appendixes are added because they have significance to the topic at hand.
Appendix 1: How Chesterson Said Similar in 1908
In 1908 the British writer G. K. Chesterton described the embryo of today’s full-grown immature culture called post-modernism. One mark of its “vulgar relativism” (as Michael Novak calls it) is the hijacking of the word “arrogance” to refer to conviction and “humility” to refer to doubt. Chesterton saw it coming:
What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert – himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt – the Divine Reason. . . . The new skeptic is so humble that he doubts if he can even learn. . . . There is a real humility typical of our time; but it so happens that it’s practically a more poisonous humility than the wildest prostrations of the ascetic. . . . The old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which makes him stop working altogether. . . . We are on the road to producing a race of man too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. (Orthodoxy [Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1957], pp. 31-32)
From John Piper, “What is Humility?”
Appendix 2: How C. S. Lewis Said Similar in 1943
However subjective they may be about some traditional values, Gaius and Titius have shown by the very act of writing The Green Book that there must be some other values about which they are not subjective at all. They write in order to produce certain states of mind in the rising generation, if not because they think those states of mind intrinsically just or good, yet certainly because they think them to be the means to some state of society which they regard as desirable. It would not be difficult to collect from various passages in The Green Book what their ideal is. But we need not. The important point is not the precise nature of their end, but the fact that they have an end at all. They must have, or their book (being purely practical in intention) is written to no purpose. And this end must have real value in their eyes. To abstain from calling it good and to use, instead, such predicates as ‘necessary’ or ‘progressive’ or ‘efficient’ would be a subterfuge. They could be forced by argument to answer the questions ‘necessary for what?’, ‘progressing towards what?’, ‘effecting what?’; in the last resort they would have to admit that some state of affairs was in their opinion good for its own sake. And this time they could not maintain that ‘good’ simply described their own emotion about it. For the whole purpose of their book is so to condition the young reader that he will share their approval, and this would be either a fool’s or a villain’s undertaking unless they held that their approval was in some way valid or correct.
In actual fact Gaius and Titius will be found to hold, with complete uncritical dogmatism, the whole system of values which happened to be in vogue among moderately educated young men of the professional classes during the period between the two wars. Their skepticism about values is on the surface: it is for use on other people’s values; about the values current in their own set they are not nearly skeptical enough. And this phenomenon is very usual. A great many of those who ‘debunk’ traditional or (as they would say) ‘sentimental’ values have in the background values of their own which they believe to be immune from the debunking process. They claim to be cutting away the parasitic growth of emotion, religious sanction, and inherited taboos, in order that ‘real’ or ‘basic’ values may emerge. I will now try to find out what happens if this is seriously attempted. (The Abolition of Man, 1943.)
Appendix 3: More Lewis, 1943
A theorist about language may approach his native tongue, as it were from outside, regarding its genius as a thing that has no claim on him and advocating wholesale alterations of its idiom and spelling in the interests of commercial convenience or scientific accuracy. That is one thing. A great poet, who has ‘loved, and been well nurtured in, his mother tongue’, may also make great alterations in it, but his changes of the language are made in the spirit of the language itself: he works from within. The language which suffers, has also inspired the changes. That is a different thing—as different as the works of Shakespeare are from Basic English. It is the difference between alteration from within and alteration from without: between the organic and the surgical. In the same way, the Tao admits development from within. There is a difference between a real moral advance and a mere innovation. From the Confucian ‘Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you’ to the Christian ‘Do as you would be done by’ is a real advance. The morality of Nietzsche is a mere innovation. The first is an advance because no one who did not admit the validity of the old maxim could see reason for accepting the new one, and anyone who accepted the old would at once recognize the new as an extension of the same principle. If he rejected it, he would have to reject it as a superfluity, something that went too far, not as something simply heterogeneous from his own ideas of value. But the Nietzschean ethic can be accepted only if we are ready to scrap traditional morals as a mere error and then to put ourselves in a position where we can find no ground for any value judgments at all. It is the difference between a man who says to us: ‘You like your vegetables moderately fresh; why not grow your own and have them perfectly fresh?’ and a man who says, ‘Throw away that loaf and try eating bricks and centipedes instead.’ (The Abolition of Man, 1943.)
Appendix 4: Ray Ortlund’s Recent Comments on The Dark Knight: “How I Wasted $6.25.”
Last night, on a whim, Jani and I went to a late-night showing of the new Batman film. Some of my favorite people in all the world liked it. But I left vowing not to go back to the movies for the foreseeable future.
First off, for twenty-five minutes we were subjected to the previews of coming attractions, one subwoofer punch in the stomach after another, sitting there like the Maxell logo guy being blasted with stupid sex and stupid jokes, thinking “This is not some bizarre medical experiment for which they’re paying me. I paid them. Wait a minute.”
(By the way, when sex comes on the screen, which I absolutely do not need in my mind, I just close my eyes. When it’s over, Jani nudges me and I open my eyes again. It works.)
Then the movie itself. Visually stimulating. Technologically impressive. Hollywood has fast-forwarded a gazillion years since my favorite films by Steve McQueen and John Wayne. But peel off the layers of glittering presentation, and what’s actually there? A ripping good yarn. I grant that. But not much else. In fact, it comes down to a lie of human idealization being passed off on the public because they’re supposed to be better off thinking the lie. That violates everything I believe. I learned nothing. I was not enriched in any way.
Immanuel Church cannot compete with Hollywood in terms of raw momentary impact. No church can. But that’s one of the great things about church. It can be real. It can be entry-level discovery, for anyone, of the Lovely One who will amaze us forever.
I’m weary with the world’s disappointing stimulants. I want more of Christ.