For a time, John the Baptist’s influence over the Jewish nation was greater than that of the priests or rabbis. In fact, if he had announced himself as the Messiah, people would have flocked to his standard. But the day came when the tide of popularity began to shift toward Jesus. Day by day the crowds around him lessened. As the disciples of John observed the growing popularity of Jesus, feelings of jealousy and envy set in and they stood ready to criticize Jesus. It was not long before a dispute arose with regard to the words that were used when a person was baptized. (See The Desire of Ages, 178.)
Even though the popularity of John the Baptist was waning, he still might have greatly hindered the work of Christ. Of John, as of his prototype, Elijah, we are told that he “had by nature the faults and weaknesses common to humanity, but the touch of divine love had transformed him. He dwelt in an atmosphere uncontaminated with selfishness and ambition, and far above the miasma of jealousy.” The Desire of Ages, 179. John clearly understood what each of us must come to realize. Any work that we may accomplish is something that comes from God. He said to His disciples, “A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven.” He manifested no sympathy with their dissatisfaction, but said to them, “Ye yourselves bear Me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before Him.” Ibid.
“John had been called to lead out as a reformer. Because of this, his disciples were in danger of fixing their attention upon him, feeling that the success of the work depended upon his labors, and losing sight of the fact that he was only an instrument through which God had wrought. But the work of John was not sufficient to lay the foundation of the Christian church. When he had fulfilled his mission, another work was to be done, which his testimony could not accomplish.” Ibid., 181, 182. This was not because John was a failure or out of tune with heaven, for we are told that God had given him his message. (See Ibid., 102.) We need to consider why, if God had given him his message, the work of John was not sufficient to lay the foundation of the Christian church.
What was the work of John? “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!’ for this is He who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying: ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.”’…But, when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘Brood of vipers! Who has warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham to our father.” For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.’” Matthew 3:1-3, 7-9. The first work of John was to call the people to repentance.
For a number of years there has been a similar call for repentance in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. There has been a crying out against the NLP, the new theology, and the worldliness and sin that has crept in until it has well-nigh overtaken us. If we fail to bring forth fruit worthy of repentance, God will raise up others. He is not dependent upon any person or any group of people. He is looking for righteousness, for a people who will accept the call to repentance that has been going forth.
“The work of John the Baptist represents the work for these times. His work, and the work of those who go forth in the spirit and power of Elijah to arouse the people from their apathy, are the same in many respects. Christ is to come the second time to judge the world in righteousness. The messengers of God who bear the last message of warning to be given to the world are to prepare the way for Christ’s second advent as John prepared the way for His first advent.” Youth’s Instructor, May 17, 1900. Satan is working with all his forces, seeking to counterwork the influence of the work of God through His servants, but God still calls men to repentance.
“‘John was called to do a special work; he was to prepare the way of the Lord, to make straight His paths. The Lord did not send him to the school of the prophets and rabbis. He took him away from the assemblies of men to the desert, that he might learn of nature and nature’s God. God did not desire him to have the mold of the priests and rulers. He was called to do a special work. The Lord gave him his message. Did he go to the priests and rulers and ask if he might proclaim this message?—No, God put him away from them that he might not be influenced by their spirit and teaching….This is the very message that must be given to our people; we are near the end of time, and the message is, Clear the King’s highway; gather out the stones; raise up a standard for the people. The people must be awakened.” Selected Messages, book 1, 410 [All emphasis supplied]
Did you notice that it is not just a message to the world. This is the very message that must be given to our people. John laid the ax at the root of the tree. His work was to tear down the wicked, sinful desires of the human heart.
John the Baptist’s message was a message of warning. What was the warning? “And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto 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 fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly purge His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Matthew 3:10-12. Notice that his message of warning was to God’s church. God is going to gather the wheat into the barn, but He is going to burn the chaff up. Now, John’s message was, “Repent!” Wake up so that you can be the wheat.
“The teaching of John aroused in the hearts of many a great desire to have a part in the blessings that Christ was to bring, and they received the truth. These saw the need of reform.” Youth’s Instructor, May 17, 1900
The message of John awakened in the people a desire for something that they did not have. If people cannot be brought to the place of seeing the need for reform, there is no prospect of change. This is the work we are called to do.
“The multitudes who were gathered about Christ had been witnesses to the work of John. They had heard his fearless, rebuke of sin.” The Desire of Ages, 218. In fearlessly rebuking sin, John was laying the ax at the root of the tree.
This quotation from the Spirit of Prophecy demands thoughtful reflection as we think of how best to meet the Pharisees of today. “The hearts of men around him were filled with every evil, with strife, envy, malice, and wickedness. They would not be impressed by a message of mercy and love. They were represented by John as a generation of vipers, and to them he gave scathing rebukes because of their self-righteousness. His voice rang out as a trumpet, crying, ‘Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” Review and Herald, April 3, 1894
God knew what He was working with in the human heart, and He knew that the best way to save as many as He could was to send a message of “scathing rebukes” because their hearts would not be impressed by “a message of mercy and love.”
“The message of John the Baptist was a new and startling message, and could not be interwoven with the superstitions and traditions of the Pharisees. The disciples of John were not to think that his self-denial, his self-sacrifice, his prayers, his devotions, his fastings, were like those of the Pharisees. The Pharisees fasted in hypocrisy, and there was no vitality in their religious exercises. To seek to blend the pretense of the Pharisees with the devotion of John would be only to make more evident the breach between them. The work of John was to expose the character of the work of the Pharisees, to set their traditions and heresies in their true light before the people.” Ibid.
John did not try to work with the Pharisees. They could not work together because they were led in a different way. They had different goals, different thoughts. It would not work.
Today we hear a lot about criticism but are you sure that you know what the difference is between rebuke and criticism? John was not critical, but he was sent to expose the “character of the works of the Pharisees, to set their traditions and heresies in their true light before the people.” God, in His great love for the Pharisees, knew that the only way He souls save some of them was to come to them with a message of “scathing rebukes.” A message of love, friends, would not have touched them. God does not make a mistake; and if we try to improve upon His work, we are going to find out that it is we who are making the mistake.
“If the minister’s lips are touched with a live coal from off the altar, he will lift up Jesus as the sinner’s only hope. When the heart of the speaker is sanctified through the truth, his words will be living realities to himself and others. Those who hear him know that he has been with God, and has drawn near to Him in effectual, fervent prayer. The Holy Spirit has fallen upon him, his soul has felt the vital, heavenly fire, and he will be able to compare spiritual things with spiritual. Power will be given him to tear down the strongholds of Satan.” Australasian Union Conference Record, December 30, 1907
John was to tear down the stronghold of Satan. He opened to the people the true condition of their hearts. And yet, as great as John was, as strong as his call to repentance was, the Sprit of Prophecy says that the work of John was not sufficient to lay the foundation of the Christian church.
“The message that God had given him to bear was designed to startle them from their lethargy, and cause them to tremble because of their great wickedness. Before the seed of the gospel could find lodgment, the soil of the heart must be broken up. Before they would seek healing from Jesus, they must be awakened to their danger from the wounds of sin.” The Desire of Ages, 103. Here are revealed two different works that always go together. They must be “startled from their lethargy” and the ground of the heart, she says, “must be broken up” so that the seed of the gospel could be planted and flourish. It was a work that must be done before the people could be prepared for a further work.
Would Jesus take someone who had rejected John’s call to repentance and give them the work of laying the foundation of the Christian church? No. None who had rejected John’s message accepted the message Jesus brought. There undoubtedly were many who had not heard John and who later accepted Jesus’ message, but nobody that rejected the work of John accepted the work of Christ. Before anyone can accept the work of Christ in his heart, the work of John has to have done its work. You cannot lay the foundation of the Christian life until you have accepted the reproof and rebuke from the Lord. It is not enough to just want to be loving and kind.
“God does not send messengers to flatter the sinner. He delivers no message of peace, to lull the unsanctified into fatal security. He lays heavy burdens upon the conscience of the wrongdoer, and pierces the soul with arrows of conviction. The ministering angels present to him the fearful judgments of God to deepen the sense of needs, and prompt the cry, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ Then, the hand that has humbled in the dust, lifts up the penitent. The voice that has rebuked sin, and put to shame pride and ambition, inquires with tenderest sympathy, ‘What wilt thou that I shall do unto thee?’” Ibid. 104. Until we fall on the Rock and are broken, we cannot see clearly. We are going to be confused.
“With the spirit and power of Elijah he denounced the national corruption, and rebuked the prevailing sins….He declared that those who claimed to be the chosen people of God were defiled by sin, and that without purification of heart and life they could have no part in the Messiah’s kingdom.” Ibid.
Notice that John did not just expose the character of the Pharisees; he denounced the national corruption. His message addressed the body as a whole. God could not use the Pharisees to give this message because the messengers of God must be saved by the same message that they give to others. God does not use actors. The loud cry is going to be given by a people who know by experience the loud cry message and have been broken on the Rock. That is why the Lord turns to the humble, to the lowliest of the earth.
It is not enough to point out the characters of the priests and Pharisees and the heresies that exist. A new tree needs to be planted in the heart, not just the old one pulled out. We must not only get rid of hatred, we must have love. We must not just get rid of anger, we must have joy. We must not just get rid of impatience, we must speak loving and kind words. We must not only give the message of rebuke; but beyond that, the Lord wants us to experience sanctification, to walk with Him in newness of life. He wants us to experience the power of His resurrection that is given to everyone who believes. He wants our hearts to throb with joy as He communes with us.
“Christ sifted His followers again and again, until at one time there remained only eleven and a few faithful women to lay the foundation of the Christian church. There are those who will stand back when burdens are to be borne; but when the church is all aglow, they catch the enthusiasm, sing and shout, and become rapturous; but watch them. When the fervor is gone, only a few faithful Calebs will come to the front and display unwavering principle. These are salt that retains the savor. It is when the work moves hard that the churches develop the true helpers. These will not be talking of self, vindicating self, but will lose their identity in Jesus Christ. To be great in God’s kingdom is to be a little child in humility, in simplicity of faith, and in the purity of love….All such will find Christ their rock of defense, their strong tower. In Him they may trust implicitly, and He will never fail them.” Testimonies, vol. 5, 130
We, at the very close of earth’s history, have the same work to do to prepare for Christ’s Second Coming as the apostles had in developing the Christian church. If all we have experienced is the work of John the Baptist, we are not ready for the Lord’s coming. In fact, we have more to preach than the message of rebuke against sin. We must show forth the fruits of the Spirit. “We have great reason to praise God that we have the inspired record that is given us in the Book of Acts, a narrative of the works of the apostles. We have the sure word of inspiration respecting the foundation of the Christian church. The Acts of the Apostles is full of instruction, and light, and knowledge. As Christ’s disciples living down in the last days, in the very close of earth’s history, we have the same work to do to prepare for Christ’s Second Coming as they had in developing the Christian church.” Youth’s Instructor, November 18, 1897. We must be led by the Holy Spirit because the teaching of the kingdom of God and the principles of how to live a righteous life must also go forward with power. We not only have the message to give to the world, the third angel’s message of warning, but those people who accept it have to be taught how to be Christians. We have a message of warning to wake people up; but there is much to do after that, and we must catch the vision of what we are called to do.