Originally published in Pulpit Helps, November 2007.
So much ink has been spilt through the years on leading a Christian life that one would think we should have figured it out by now. Perhaps part of the reason we haven’t (and no one would say that we have) is tied to the proliferation of people telling us how. Maybe, just maybe, the Christian life is much simpler than we want to make it. A tremendous example of how we ought to live in relation to our Lord and to the world around us is found in the person of John the Baptist.
As much reverence as most believers have for John (whom Jesus described as the greatest of men in Luke 7:28), I’ve not heard many claim him as a hero or role model. Something about this rough-and-tumble guy, who lived in the desert with little thought to his appearance and sustenance, preached one message over and over, was hated by the leaders of the day, and made every effort to take no credit for his work, just doesn’t sit well with our ideas of “success” or the “victorious Christian life.” Behind John’s quirky behavior and simple message, however, is an attitude that every Christian should strive to imitate to the fullest—an intimate connection with the Father and an unwavering focus on His will.
John’s commitment to God’s objective truth gave him the will to live the message God had called him to, rather than to pander to what those around him wanted to hear. John’s character is revealed in John 1:19-27 in an exchange between himself and some priests and Levites sent by the Pharisees. Perceiving their motive, John responds to their question, “Who are you?” by saying “I am not the Christ.”
When they press further, demanding to know if he is Elijah or the foretold prophet (of Deut. 18:15), he responds progressively shorter denials. John was obviously not eager to talk about himself. Finally forced to describe himself in verse 23, he does so by quoting the words of Isaiah, “I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the Way of the Lord.’” John then proceeds to turn the conversation back to his message in verses 26-27: “I baptize in water, but among you stands One whom you do not know. It is He who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” From this brief passage we can infer volumes about how we as Christians are to live:
First, our priority should always be to do the Lord’s bidding. John knew how to conduct himself because he had spent his life growing in spirit (Luke 1:80), presumably through prayer and studying the Scriptures. If God’s word and will are firmly planted in our hearts, they will be quick to come to us as we go forth into the world.
Second, we should not seek to build ourselves up or take credit for the ways God works through us. John was clear in showing that all glory is for God, describing himself as “a voice.” He knew full well that he was but a conduit for the word of the Lord. What a message for Christians of today! How many pastors have not, at some point, wished that they could be the leader of a megachurch or have a far-reaching media following? Perhaps now more than ever we need to be on guard against the temptation to make ourselves great (or even to simply “get the just reward for our hard work”) under the guise of spreading the Gospel.
John’s concern was never for his reputation (or even his safety) but always for God’s purpose. We would do well to ask ourselves often “Am I preparing the way of the Lord? Am I doing this in order to be recognized or in order that the Lord will shine through?” This has tremendous implications for how we choose to engage the world.
In the culture wars, are we focused on being seen taking a stand (or even on winning arguments) instead of taking care to follow Christ’s lead and endeavoring to let Him shine through, whatever the outcome? When we respond to criticism, do we listen and turn the other cheek so that the love of Christ can confound our accuser or do we seek to defend our position in anger? When we practice evangelism, are we attempting to better our standing among believers by winning souls or do we approach the lost with a genuine compassion for their state and fervor for their salvation, as Christ did, acknowledging that we are only tools to help Him work in their hearts?
The third lesson ties into the first two: we should live life with an awareness of the fact that the work of Christ is far bigger than we or any of our institutions are. John is remembered for saying in John 3:30, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” This submission to God’s plan is surely what Paul had in mind when he called us to be “living sacrifices” in Romans 12:1. Such an attitude of commitment to God, acknowledgement of His sovereignty, and willingness to be used in whatever way He sees fit is all that He requires of us. God is not interested in what we know, what we’ve accomplished, or what others think of us. He only wants us to bow before Him, ready to be used. The truly complete Christian life fades into the glow of His glory.
Virtually every decision we make can be boiled down to either an opportunity to build ourselves up or to follow God’s lead. In every situation we can choose to increase or decrease, to take the glory or to fade into the shadows so that God’s name is made great. As you go about your ministry, which will you choose?
Justin Lonas is editor of Disciple Magazine for AMG International in Chattanooga, Tennessee.