There is no doubt that John the Baptist was one of the most successful preachers the world has ever known. Of him Christ testified, "Among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist" (Luke 7:28) . John's evangelistic success is very apparent in the Gospels' account of his ministry. This preacher had no budget for advertising his campaigns. He had no evangelistic equipment whatsoever. He conducted his effort not in the cities but in the wilderness of Judea. Seven hundred years before, the prophet Isaiah had introduced the Baptist merely as "the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness" (Isa. 40:3) . But that voice must have had a wonderful drawing power, because even though it was necessary for John's hearers to trudge over dusty roads under the scorching desert sun in order to reach his retreat, the Bible records, "Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan, and were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins" (Matt. 3:5, 6) .
We are told that John's work was "to make ready a people prepared for the Lord" (Luke 1:17). In The Desire of Ages, page 101, we read: "In preparing the way for Christ's first advent, he was a representative of those who are to prepare a people for our Lord's second coming." God has committed to His ministers today the solemn work of preparing a people for His coming; therefore, do we not long to see the same results attend our preaching as those which followed John's? "Princes and rabbis, soldiers, publicans, and peasants came to hear the prophet. . . Persons of all ranks submitted to the requirement of the Baptist, in order to participate in the kingdom he announced. Many of the scribes and Pharisees came confessing their sins, and asking for baptism."—Ibid., p. 105.
Some may feel that conditions were different in John's day. He did not have to run competition with the theater, television, and numerous other gadgets of this scientific age, which occupy the attention of so many today. On the contrary, John's age was not without the allurements that attract the worldly wise. Listen to this: "In the time of John the Baptist, greed for riches, and the love of luxury and display had become widespread. Sensuous pleasures, feasting and drinking, were causing physical disease and degeneracy, benumbing the spiritual perceptions, and lessening the sensibility to sin."—Ibid., p. 100.
What kind of individual was this man who drew multitudes from the glitter of wicked cities to the barren and isolated wilderness? We who are seeking God for more power in our ministry would do well to reflect upon the life and character of the commanding "voice."
A Modest Voice
John's campaigns were successful because he emphasized the message rather than the messenger. He turned the eyes of the people not to the message-bearer but to the Sin-Bearer. "As John saw the people turning to him, he sought every opportunity of directing their faith to Him who was to come."—Ibid., p. 108. Popularity could not turn this preacher's head, for he had "looked upon the King in His beauty, and self was forgotten."—Ibid., p. 103.
Yes, "self was forgotten." Once John had beheld the Saviour in all His loveliness, his sole desire was to prepare the hearts of the multitude to accept the coming Redeemer. He would do nothing to attract the audience to himself. Even his dress was the simple attire of the ancient prophets. Before he spoke there was no flowery elaboration of his past accomplishments or of his qualifications as a speaker. In fact, few of his listeners knew who he was. This caused the Jews to send representatives to John with the question, "Who art thou? . . . what sayest thou of thyself?" (John 1:22) .
Here was a unique chance for nationwide recognition. What evangelist today wouldn't capitalize on such a chance for some free publicity? These "reporters" were sent by some of the nation's leading religious leaders with the question, "What sayest thou of thyself?"
John's answer reveals his selfless modesty. He did not even give his name. He merely exclaimed, "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord" (John 1:23) .
When I began my public ministry I, like many other fellow evangelists, felt that the speaker must be given a tremendous build-up in order to attract a crowd. There must be large posters, with a picture of the speaker occupying much of the layout space. There must be a eulogizing of the speaker's accomplishments. I often permitted my well-meaning Chinese co-workers to embellish my advertising with such comments as, "The speaker, though an American, speaks perfect Chinese, and understands the Ancient Classics." Such lauding of my qualifications not only bordered on hyperbole but placed me under a heavy nervous strain. I found myself spending hours memorizing each lecture, taking great pains to pronounce correctly, as well as to make sure that each word was tone perfect. This human attempt to live up to the build-up made me very self-conscious on the platform. My sermon presentation became stilted and cold. And at the conclusion of each meeting I felt discouraged and defeated. Such public evangelism was an "effort" indeed.
Then came a change. My wife frequently advised, "Don't work so hard on the mechanics of delivery. Forget yourself. Give yourself to the Lord and let Him speak." I have done this, and the resulting experience certainly has been rewarding.
There is no substitute for the voice of God speaking through the humble human instrument. This kind of preaching is the best advertisement known. That which attracts the masses to our evangelistic centers and keeps the people coming is the magnetic power not of the speaker but of the message! Emphasize the message rather than the messenger. Say with John, "He must increase, but I must decrease," and your ministry will be fruitful.
A Certain Voice
The message of John was made forceful by the element of certainty and the note of urgency. "Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand," he cried. It was a message that pierced the heart of each listener. No one could listen without feeling the convicting power of the Word and the necessity for immediate preparation.
"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."—Ibid., p. 104.
Are we as ministers preaching a message of peace? Are we spending more time polishing our sermons than sharpening our sermons? Are we chiefly interested in clothing our sermons in the modern garb of philosophical reasoning, so they will soothe rather than prick the conscience? Do we use the devious psychological approach more than the straightforward "Thus saith the Word" approach? Do we prefer the after-sermon comment "You presented a fine discourse" to "The Lord spoke today"?
The hour has come for the Advent people to proclaim the message of the gospel with a certain voice. In 1909 Ellen G. White remarked, "If every watchman on the walls of Zion had given the trumpet a certain sound, the world might ere this have heard the message of warning. But the work is years behind. While men have slept, Satan has stolen a march upon us." —Testimonies, vol. 9, p. 29.
A Consistent Voice
John not only preached. He practiced what he preached. No one could associate with the evangelist very long without sensing the fact that John himself was preparing for the advent of his Lord.
Ellen G. White says: "John was to stand as a reformer. By his abstemious life and plain dress he was to rebuke the excesses of his time." —The Desire of Ages, pp. 100, 101. Do we who daily proclaim the imminent reappearing of our Lord give visible evidence that we ourselves are making the necessary preparation to lead the flock into the kingdom? Have we given cause for criticism by our unnecessary extravagance in dress, in the way we furnish our homes, or in the cars we drive? Do we profess to be pilgrims awaiting permanent residence in the heavenly Canaan, yet belie this profession by investing more and more in the perishable, material possessions of this earth?
The Baptist's message was backed up by temperate living. Day by day he gained victory over passion and appetite, and the Lord blessed him with a strong physical constitution and a clear, discerning mind. "All who would perfect holiness in the fear of God must learn the lessons of temperance and self-control. The appetites and passions must be held in subjection to the higher powers of the mind. This self-discipline is essential to that mental strength and spiritual insight which will enable us to understand and to practice the sacred truths of God's word."ibid., p. 101.
A Courageous Voice
This man was a courageous preacher. He rebuked the hypocrisy of the proud scribes and Pharisees who sought baptism as a means to increase their influence among the people. "He could stand erect and fearless in the presence of earthly monarchs, because he had bowed low before the King of Kings--Ibid, p. 103.
It is not easy to point out sin. But this is a work the conscientious minister cannot neglect. In an hour when some in the churches are asleep, it is necessary to call sin by its right name. The alarm to awake must be sounded.
May God grant us an outpouring of His Spirit that will enable us to unite our voices in one great, irresistible call, "Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."