For one young man, things could not have been better. He was a successful new preacher just coming into prominence. Thousands came to hear him. No buildings could hold the massive crowds. His name was in the headlines. His stirring stories were told and retold around the country. His unique way of teaching brought hope for the establishment of a new society. Polls would have placed him as the most popular personage in the nation.
For the other young man, things could not have been worse. Once a great and respected orator, he was now forgotten. Once a national figure, a successful preacher, a prophetic voice on a national level, he was now losing respect and prominence. Aside from the enormous crowds that had flocked to hear him, he had once been visited by presidents, states men, and even the intelligencia. Now nobody seemed to care about him; in fact, he was now languishing in prison where he faced execution. His had been a wild ride of prominence and popularity, but it had abruptly been halt ed. The crowds that had once followed him were now following the new sensation.
A tale of two preachers: Jesus of Nazareth, and John the Baptist.
Looking back over the contrast between their ministries, there is much to learn regarding different approaches to ministry, worship and evangelism, and the way they related to one another.
Jesus and John: Similarities and differences
Despite the obvious differences between these two preachers, Jesus and John did, in fact, share some striking commonalities. Both had miraculous beginnings. Jesus was born of a virgin through the power of the Holy Spirit, John of aged, barren parents, well past childbearing years. Both were proclaimed by angels to be agents of God's grace. Both were given names chosen by the Almighty Himself. And both were filled with the Holy Spirit from birth. The similarities, however, ended there.
John became a recluse of sorts for much of his life. Attracted to the desert, he lived a monastic existence. He was a religious ascetic for most of his adult years. He wore strange clothing a camel's hair robe, a leather belt, and sandals. He ate a strict diet of locusts and wild honey. He lived separate from the world, much like the Essenes. They lived in little self-supporting communities, ate a strict diet, wore simple clothing, and adhered to the law in extreme detail. John the Baptist seems to have resembled this sect of Judaism.
Jesus, on the other hand, appeared more "normal." He spent most of His years in a carpenter shop, working with His father in the family business. He dressed like the common people, attended the local synagogue, and functioned as a basically normal member of society.
Looking at their ministries, the contrast between the two men became even more marked. John was a hard hitting, hellfire-and-brimstone preacher. He called sin by its name. His primary target was the religious people, especially the establishment, whom he called to a higher standard of holiness. To some of the religious leaders he said, "Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance. . . ." (Matt. 3:7-9, NKJV)
Jesus, however, was primarily interested in reaching the "lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matt. 10:6, NKJV). He was considered unconventional, nontraditional. The fact that He neglected many of the traditions of the elders deeply offended the religious authorities. Jesus actually associated and ate with sinners, even having a tax collector as one of His closest companions. Christ's mission statement, "I did not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance" (Matt. 9:9-13, NKJV), didn't fit the mold.
The contrast between Jesus' modus operand! and that of John the Baptist was so stark that the religious community not only was aware of it, but was offended by both. They considered John a fanatic who "has a demon," and Jesus "a gluttonous man and a wine bibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners" (Matt. 11:19, NKJV).
How the two preachers viewed one another
Yet it seems that neither John nor Jesus would have been comfortable with the contrasts that people observed between them. Never once do we hear of John criticizing the ministry of Jesus. He never seems to have allowed himself to foster jealousy. When he heard of Jesus' success, of the crowds coming to hear Him speak, of His unique approach to ministry and evangelism, John was quick to say "He must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30, NKJV).
Surely he could have found reason to criticize. Jesus' methods were so different from his. He could have insinuated that Jesus was watering down the gospel or that He was telling people what they wanted to hear . . .tickling itching ears. But John recognized Jesus' unique ministry as from God. When he had questions, he brought those directly to Jesus (see Matt. 11:2-6). He never resorted to behind-the-back tactics.
At the same time, Jesus never once criticized John's ministry. He could have put down his old methods, fear tactics, extremely conservative lifestyle, offensive hellfire-and-brimstone approach, guilt trips, and his generally unfriendly delivery. But, instead, He gave John the greatest compliment He gave to anyone. "What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? . . . But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet.... Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist ..." (Matt. 11:7-11, NKJV).
Neither John nor Jesus saw the other as a threat or irritant. They saw the success or apparent failure of the other as a part of God's divine plan. They believed they had different missions that complemented one another in ultimate purpose. They were faithful to their own calling and contented themselves to leave the ministry of the other in the hands of God. This is why there was never a dispute between Jesus and John. Though each saw the differences between their own ministry and that of the other, they purposely affirmed the other's ministry, different or not.
Looking back from our vantage point, we can see that the ministries of Jesus and John, however different, were also complementary and ultimately bound up with the same cause. But how easily they could have seen one another as a threat, either professionally or spiritually. Their faith in the One who called them, and their willingness to allow God to lead the other, shows a marked spiritual maturity.
Learning from Jesus and John
What can we learn, especially amid the increased polarization in our churches and personal relationships, over approaches and methods of ministry, worship, and evangelism?
Some approach ministry from the "friend of sinners" perspective; in fact, entire churches have broken the traditional format to go all out to reach lost people. I, in fact, pastor a church that has been targeting the unchurched for seven years now, using contemporary music, drama, multimedia, and other less traditional approaches. The experience has been nothing short of amazing.
God has blessed our ministry in amazing ways. We have seen atheists find Christ, along with agnostics, church dropouts, and other "lost sheep." What's more, they are staying in the church and even getting involved. They are growing in their faith and reaching out to their friends. We praise God every time we see His Grace, extended to another precious soul.
We sometimes feel something like the fresh, young Christian congregations of the first century must have felt when they approached an unconventional audience (Gentiles) in ways that troubled some of their more conservative brothers (not insisting on circumcision, eating questionable foods, visiting in the homes of the "unclean" and simply befriending them).
There is a natural tendency in some to think that because this kind of ministry is reaching the people that we are passionate about, every one should be doing it. The ministry of John and Jesus would not tell us such a thing. It is not true that any one method should be used by every one or that anyone not using a certain form of evangelism should be questioned or criticized. Those involved in contemporary worship shouldn't be critical of churches or ministries using traditional methods, which have in fact worked over the years, especially in some contexts. But this does not mean that these more traditional methods are ideal for every locale or circumstance. Mainstream evangelism continues to fall far short of reaching some groups. The truth is that both approaches are valid, and the practitioners of one should not criticize those who advocate the other.
"Men are needed who pray to God for wisdom, and who, under the guidance of God, can put new life into the old methods of labor..."' "Means will be devised to reach hearts. Some of the methods used in this work will be different from the methods used in the past; but let no one, because of this block the way by criticism." 2
The Great Commission
We do not have time to spend worrying about whether our brothers or sisters are too conservative or too progressive, or whether one worship style is better than another. We have time only to put our energy together and reach the lost. We must accept that the same God who has designed each of us differently has done so for a specific purpose. Some are called to a lifestyle, passion, and ministry for the "down and outers," others for "the lost sheep of the house of Israel," and still others for the "up and outers." All are lost "coins," "sheep," and "sons," and everything must be put aside so that they may be found (Luke 15). It is more an issue of personal calling than one of orthodoxy. We cannot embroil ourselves in the pouting of the older brother in Jesus' parable who refuses to come into the party that his father has thrown at the return of the younger brother because he (the older brother) believed it was not right for his father to do things in such a wrong and undignified way (Luke 15).
Given time, we will see how God makes no mistakes. His purpose is too great to have cut us all out of the same mold. While it may seem that we are going in different directions now, at the end, or in the end, we will look back and see how God designed this diversity for maximum impact. We are all different, but God is One and our ultimate purpose to reach the world for Christ remains the same.
In fact, in light of the biblical precedent set by John and Jesus, here are some suggestions when we're con fronted with another's success or failure, or with a different perspective on another's practice, theological understanding, worship practice, or evangelistic method.
1. Avoid destructive criticism.
2. Seek answers through personal rather than through public means.
3. Ask questions and seek explanations when discussing issues (in a public or private forum). Attacks on character, orthodoxy, or personality should always be avoided.
4. Rejoice over kingdom growth. When fruit is borne let us rejoice together. Another's success should be seen as our success (Luke 15:2, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 20, 22, 23.)
5. Praise God for diversity of gifts, passion, and calling. Let us be grateful that our Creator is a God of variety within the context of the unity of the faith.
John the Baptist and Jesus were worlds apart in personal appearance, style, ministry practice, and evangelistic demographic targetting. But they trusted God to handle their differences and supported one another with confidence.
Let us "Go, and do likewise."
1 Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Hagerstown, Md: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1946), 105. Emphasis mine.
2 Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, September 30, 1902. Emphasis mine.