Jean’s Gospel: Make Straight The Way
As we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ, let us prepare our hearts and minds by reflecting on the birth of evangelical preaching. By “evangelical” I am using the word in its original sense as a synonym for Gospel or good news.
John the Baptist was our first evangelical preacher. His preaching is not only the paradigm for all evangelical preaching, but his sermon is timely during this fourth week in Advent.
“And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the Prophet?’ And he answered, ‘No.’ So they said to him, ‘Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,” as the prophet Isaiah said.’
(Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) They asked him, ‘Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?’ John answered them, ‘I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.’ These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.” (John 1:19-28)
The purpose of John’s ministry and preaching was the revelation of the Christ to his people: “I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” (John 1:31) By reveal, John does not mean merely to identify or introduce Jesus to the crowds; but by reveal John means that through his preaching the crowds might believe that Jesus is their Messiah. Thus, John’s preaching is evangelical, because its sole purpose is the revelation of Christ to his listeners through the presentation of the Gospel: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
Evangelical preaching is a voice with an urgent message – a cry: “Clear the way. Listen, your Lord and Savior is coming. Now pay close attention.”
“Make straight the way of the Lord” (John 1:23)
Most people who encounter Jesus, whether in person during the first century or today through preaching, do not receive Him. As we have said before, Jesus did not come after the fashion of an earthly king. While John said of Jesus in comparison to himself, “the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie,” the wise and religious of the world say: “that poor fellow Jesus is scarcely worthy to shine my shoes.” Therefore, John cannot present the Gospel to the crowds until the way of the Lord is made straight.
As long as men hold on to their way, the world’s way, the devil’s way, and not the Lord’s way, they will not receive Christ. To such men, all John’s crying sounds crazy: “He has a demon.” (Matt 11:18) Therefore, before John can preach the Gospel to the crowds, he first must prepare the way for Christ by preaching the Law to them.
“For the Lord will rise up as on Mount Perazim; as in the Valley of Gibeon he will be roused; to do his deed—strange is his deed! and to work his work—alien is his work!” (Isa 28:21)
Evangelical preaching uses the Law to reveal to men precisely where they stand with God: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). The Law accuses, judges and condemns all men. “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.” (Rom 3:10-11)
Whereas the Gospel is Christ’s proper work and office (i.e., to redeem sinners), the Law is His strange and alien work. Its purpose is to convict and humble the world and to proclaim that everyone is a sinner, lost and damned. But although the preaching of the Law is meant to humble and convict, it is done for our benefit. The Law never has the last word in evangelical preaching. The purpose of preaching the Law is to: “Make straight the way of the Lord”; that is, to humble and remove our own way so that we might see and believe Christ’s way as revealed to us in the Gospel. As Christ said: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14) And Peter: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Pet 5:5)
Therefore, John began by preaching repentance to the crowds. In Matthew and Luke’s Gospels, John is recorded as using some very cutting language with the Pharisees and Sadducees. John knew that the Pharisees and Sadducees, a “brood of vipers” (Matt 3:7), required a lot of humbling before the way of the Lord could be made straight for them.
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)
When John finished preaching the Law to the crowds, he began his proper evangelical office as a preacher of the Gospel. John directs the crowd away from himself and to Christ who John says ranks before him (John 1:30). Evangelical preaching always points to Christ alone. John then reveals to the humbled the Lamb of God who takes away their sin and baptizes with the Holy Spirit. If we are able to believe that this voice of John speaks the truth, and if we are able to behold the Lamb of God carrying our sin, then we too have life and salvation. Amen.
“For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.” (Isa 9:6-7) Amen.