Following His Footsteps: “Starting Block” – Matthew 3-4; John 1

sprinterI am no sprinter, and I have never won a foot race on any track, anywhere – at least that I can recall. Like most of you, I am a sports fan – but I am no sports man. As such, I watch the athleticism of younger men and women, and feel the absolute right to comment on their technique as I watch – though I couldn’t begin to fathom the sacrifice involved in their preparation, nor would my body be able to do any of my suggested moves were I in their place. As a fan of many sports and a master of exactly none – I offer this amateur observation that I have observed: The race is often determined in the moment after the starting gun. The right positioning on the “starting block” often proves to be a supreme advantage. Getting started with strength and stability seems, at least from the view from my cushioned recliner (watching on television) an essential step toward winning. It seems that beginning well is important. It isn’t everything, but it is significant. Yet, I am not thinking primarily about sports…In our lesson I am thinking about how the earth ministry of Jesus began.

The earthly ministry of our Savior as recorded in the Gospels took place over two thousand years ago, and lasted a mere three to four years long. During that time, Jesus became popular and selected His disciples. I marvel that God’s invasion of His fallen planet was pressed into a few short years and took place in one small area of the globe – on a planet in one corner of one galaxy – yet His work is transforming the whole cosmos. What began as a work of human rescue and salvation, will not see its completion until the final transformation when all things that are made new. Our question to consider is this: “How did Jesus begin His ministry?” What were the very first moments of God’s reclamation of creation like? How did that beginning offer a portent of the whole ministry? In the simplest terms, the early record of Jesus’ ministry emphasized three aspects of ministry that would dominate the whole work…

Key Principle: The work of ministry is about three things: God’s call – selecting us for His work, the enemy’s obstruction – attempting to distract us from the assignment and the prime objective of building disciples in the midst of the battle.

Yes, we are referring to the opening of the ministry of Jesus. At the same time, the ministry we have been given is a continuation of the same priorities. We need not redeem man, but the message of that completed redemption IS in our hands, empowered by His Spirit. The record of the opening of Jesus’ ministry will help us define three issues:

• What is required to begin a work for God?
• What resistance should we expect when we begin to work out our ministry?
• What is the chief focus of ministry?

When I use the term “ministry”, I am not thinking in some professional sense, but in this way: “Ministry is using God’s power to accomplish God’s purpose in God’s way, according to God’s stated priorities.” Ministry is the LIFE of the follower of Jesus. We have the incredible privilege to live in service to Jesus – and to serve Him by serving others. Let’s look into the passages that share how Jesus began the work.

The Presentation of Jesus (Matthew 3:13-17; Mk. 1:9-11 and Lk. 3:21-23)

In the story of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, He was announced as the Deliverer at His baptism in the Jordan by His cousin John. As we look at the scene, ask yourself this question: “What is required to begin a life of service to our Father in Heaven?” In the case of Jesus, His ministry began with a CALL that acted in His case as a public endorsement – so that a handful of those who would follow Jesus had a stunning awakening to His presence. It was a shocking, verbal affirmation from Heaven:

Matthew 3:13 Then Jesus arrived from Galilee at the Jordan [coming] to John, to be baptized by him. 14 But John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?” 15 But Jesus answering said to him, “Permit [it] at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he permitted Him. 16 After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove [and] lighting on Him, 17 and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.”

It is clear in the text that the baptism by John was God the Father’s announcement that Jesus had prepared well for the work to come, and that He was ready to commence His redemptive work. Yet, that was admittedly a unique feature that was designed for Jesus. Should I anticipate that God will open Heaven and make such a display for me as I begin to serve Him? No! Yet, there is an example here we should observe that is instructive for us…

First, notice in Matthew 3:13 that Jesus recognized the work God was already doing, and went to John’s baptism site. He didn’t forge off on His own, but began with a place that God was already moving in hearts, and where God’s Word was already being represented. Ministry and service for God isn’t about you “doing it all right on a path of your own”. Your call to ministry adds you to a team that has already been at work. You are JOINING A TEAM, not establishing the beginning of God’s work on earth. I am concerned about those who view themselves as so self-important they cannot place themselves in a position of “team” at all.

Second, John’s response to Jesus in Matthew 3:14 reminds us of the kind of ministry we should seek out when we want to be a part of God’s work on a team – a ministry that acknowledges the supremacy of Jesus. We need to expect ministry to do more than good works for helpless people. Pagans can fill soup bowls. We need to recognize that real ministry exalts Jesus, and recognizes His unique position as the Eternal Son of God. Good works are important but proper worship at the center of any ministry is essential for those works to have the right meaning.

Third, Matthew 3:15 reminds us that a proper ministry follows the Word of God. John’s thoughts were reverent but Jesus’ commands were Biblical. Jesus called the play, and John executed it as called – because that is what ministry is supposed to do. We go where Jesus points.

Finally, an essential point for our call to ministry is this: God sets us aside to do the work He gives us. It begins with His affirmation. Because Matthew 3:16-17 are so unique to Jesus, it is easy to obscure this point. I am not suggesting that God will open Heaven for us before a host of our friends and exclaim that we are called to do a work for Him. What I am saying is this: God will affirm your careful preparation, and God will call you to accomplish things for Him if you open yourself to His desires. The most frustrated believer is one who has a sense of duty without knowledge of God’s calling. God waits to be asked, and waits to be wanted.

Jesus began by going to where God was already working – a place where the Word of God was being explained and the priority of God was being fleshed out. He stood in the water and God affirmed the beginning of His earth ministry in a formal way. You may not see a light from Heaven, but if you yield the balance of your life to your Heavenly Father – He will acknowledge that in your life. He will show it to others. He will affirm that you are following His call.

The story is told of a time when Henry Ford was riding through the Michigan countryside and happened upon a man who was beside the road trying to get his “Model T” working again. The problem was not severe, but the man had no earthly idea how to get it working properly. Ford pulled over his car and jumped out of the driver’s seat. He asked the man if he could help. The man was very open to assistance, and Ford had the car purring in minutes. “What a miracle worker you are!” exclaimed the man. “Not really”, said Ford. “I am the designer of the automobile, so I know how it works.”

That makes obvious sense to anyone who hears of the story. Yet, think about it: People spend their lives searching for answers to make life work, but won’t take their broken lives to the Designer of life. If you do – expect more than restoration – expect a mission. Expect a call. God starts at the point that we surrender to Him – and then He moves us into things we NEVER could have imagined.

Ministry (“using God’s power to accomplish God’s purpose in God’s way, according to God’s stated priorities”) begins with our surrender and God’s affirming call… but that is just the beginning.

By the way, was God’s affirmation from Heaven recognized as an important event years after? Yes, indeed! Hebrews 1 opened with the argument of Jesus’ position based on that day:

Hebrews 1:1 God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, 2 in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world…5 For to which of the angels did He ever say, “YOU ARE MY SON, TODAY I HAVE BEGOTTEN YOU”? And again, “I WILL BE A FATHER TO HIM AND HE SHALL BE A SON TO ME”?

Jesus went to the right place with the right heart and right preparation – but God exalted Him and marked His life. You are not the Redeemer – but God will do the same for you. If you offer Him your life, He will affirm your choice, empower your work and attract others to you. That is the beginning place for your work to accomplish His purposes. When you do that, however, be warned… the complications of life are about to hit you…

The Problem for Jesus (Matthew 4:1-11; Mk. 1:12-13 and Lk. 4:1-13)

Affirmation and accomplishment are exciting to talk about, but they come at a price. God affirms and Satan attacks. If you have walked with God, I need say little about this to you. Let me address the one who is at the beginning of their road of surrendered heart and accomplished ministry. Look carefully at the words that mark out the work of TEMPTATION in our lives:

Matthew 4:1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 And after He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry. 3 And the tempter came and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” 4 But He answered and said, “It is written, MAN SHALL NOT LIVE ON BREAD ALONE, BUT ON EVERY WORD THAT PROCEEDS OUT OF THE MOUTH OF GOD.'” 5 Then the devil took Him into the holy city and had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down; for it is written, HE WILL COMMAND HIS ANGELS CONCERNING YOU’; and ‘ON [their] HANDS THEY WILL BEAR YOU UP, SO THAT YOU WILL NOT STRIKE YOUR FOOT AGAINST A STONE.'” 7 Jesus said to him, “On the other hand, it is written, YOU SHALL NOT PUT THE LORD YOUR GOD TO THE TEST.'” 8 Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; 9 and he said to Him, “All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Go, Satan! For it is written, YOU SHALL WORSHIP THE LORD YOUR GOD, AND SERVE HIM ONLY.'” 11 Then the devil left Him; and behold, angels came and [began] to minister to Him.

Look at the pattern – because it will become familiar if you follow God:

First, don’t ignore that temptation came while Jesus was led by the Spirit – it cannot be avoided by a walk with God because it is part of the walk (4:1a). We will pass into tempting situations and experiences. God will not forsake us, but He will not block all temptation from coming our way. He will do so at strategic times to protect us – and then expect we will use the armor He provided (Eph. 6:10-20) for the other times. God expects a believer to be wise, prepared and disciplined in areas of temptation.

Second, though not all temptation is directly from the enemy, it all originates with him and can be linked to his person and attitude of rebellion (4:1b). The devil isn’t interested in rebelling alone. He wants a degraded audience, destroying their lives beside him. He is at work in our day, “the prince of the power of the air” warping our world’s sense of justice to defend perversion as a right and convenience killing as a social necessity. He is laughing as we indulge in entertainments that enrich our rebellion while proclaiming Jesus as our Savior. He is very much behind the things tugging you away from a surrendered heart before God.

Third, temptation is most effective when we are at a position of need and in a state of dormancy (4:2). Matthew recorded in some detail the specific instance of the temptation of Jesus by His enemy – so that we would learn the pattern:

• The tempter began by questioning truth (“if you are the Son of God”) and raising Jesus’ attentiveness to His own hungry desires (“turn these stones to bread”). This was a call to self-absorbed thinking – focusing more on a desire or need than on careful obedience to His Father.

Here is the great tragedy of America. When the post mortem is done on how the west fell, it will show, I am confident, that a paganization of education was at the core of the fall. Instead of using God’s Word as the foundation of truth – we have deliberately replaced the truth with unending questions and bold assertions that such truths do not really exist. As we quadruple our social services budgets and clog the system with an unending number of dysfunctional people, we will see the error of that way. People cannot get life together when they don’t have a truth foundation to put it on. When any nation is taught to focus on fulfilling their desires without the balancing truth of taking joy from wholly serving their Creator – they lose their way.

• The second phase of the tempter’s work attempted to draw the Master into “proving” to the enemy His rightful position while using “half-truths” and “partial quotes” of the Word to do so. This was a call to self-reliant thinking – focusing more on one’s position and ability than on the pleasure of our Heavenly Father with our lives.

Here the enemy didn’t want to change WHO Jesus was, but rather try to focus Jesus on Himself rather than on His Father – for Whom the whole mission was conceived. Jesus was here for His Father’s joy – and focus on Who He is was a distraction from that chief end. Satan is a master at pulling our eyes from the MOST IMPORTANT to the LESSER THINGS – and once our eyes are following his prompting, he will pull our attention into rebellion. Jesus would have none of it. Even as the Eternal Son of God – He knew His call was to serve His Father, and keep His attention on that as His chief joy.

I wonder how many believers have been trained to think this way. Have we really instilled in those we disciple that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him in the process? The message of modern Christianity often sounds like the tempter’s voice: “Come to Jesus and YOU will find fulfillment and happiness.” Even though the words are true, can we not see that they beckon us to get Jesus for our own purposes – and not to surrender our lives to HIS? We must be careful about this, for how we motivate people will show up later in the discipleship process.

• The third phase of the temptation was all about exaltation and glory (“cast Yourself down from here”) – the enemy offering promised results. When Satan cannot get us to succumb to some warped version of self-desire, when he cannot delude our thinking with half-truths – he will beckon to a deep desire within us to be important and famous. He will summon us to do something that calls for the obvious recognition of our own importance. This is a call to our self-important thinking – focusing on glory for self and not glory for our Father.

I strongly believe we are living in a day of delusion -even within the community of the Christian faith. Many begin with the flawed foundational idea that God’s chief interest is their happiness (not holiness). Because of that, anything that would curtail their ability to express their inner desires and feelings could not be commanded by this “reshaped” god they now follow. If they feel they were “made with certain desires”, they cannot imagine a god that would tell them to deny their feelings – because their true god is their appetite. We live in a time where even believers have been subtly convinced that the center of the universe is how they feel, not Who they serve – and that separates the modern church from the message of its past.

This can sound harsh, but I truly mean every word of it in love, and it is a pleading question, not to the world, but to my friends who claim to follow Jesus: “What difference does it make “what you feel attracted to” if it conflicts with the Word of God?” Why would I spend my time trying to carefully dissect and discern my feelings instead of simply asking what the Master has said will please Him? Is not greater sacrifice the platform for greater joy in the time of reward? Are we not told to be like Jesus Who surrendered His desires, blessings and comforts to serve His Father’s end? With that in mind…Does not God have the right to call you to celibacy if he chooses? Can He not call you to childlessness – regardless of what you feel you desire? When did God give up being in charge of His own plan? Self-centered Christianity isn’t Christianity at all – it is a religion cloaked immature selfishness – and we need to see it for the bankruptcy it is.

The attempt Satan used has been a successful method against many. While ineffective against Jesus, the record offers us an ability to know in advance the enemy’s way of pulling us off track. It is a model… and we must watch for appeals to self-absorption, self-reliance and self-importance. On each are the fingerprints of a fallen angel.

Jesus answered the tempter’s melody with three responses from God’s revealed Word:

• In Matthew 4:4 Jesus faced the tempter and made the simple point that it is God’s Word – not man’s hunger – that is supreme. What a statement! Jesus literally said that what was more important than what He wanted at that moment (something to eat and drink) was subservient to the Word of God. That is Christian thinking put succinctly and powerfully. His Word moves me to place second my desires. My life here is about sowing; my life to come in Heaven is about reaping. When I get that truth confused I expect people here to be fair, and circumstances here to work out to my benefit. Sometimes they do, and that confuses my focus all the more. Yet, when I live for the eventual applause of Heaven, I gain peace amid the problems on earth. I drop my need for things to please ME, because I want ultimately to please HIM.

• Jesus made clear the issue wasn’t simply what we DO, but for WHOSE GLORY we do it (Mt. 4:7). A man who lives to make himself happy doesn’t live for God’s glory… period. When I live for my Master, I can and WILL enjoy life – but that cannot become the goal or I am changing the essential message and purpose of my faith.

• In the last retort of Jesus to His enemy (Mt. 4:10) the Master made clear that there comes a time when the best we can do is dismiss temptation with the Word and move on – reasoning with deception is often a lost cause.

The attack of the enemy was activated when God acknowledged that Jesus’ work of redemption was underway. We should expect nothing less. When we move ahead, the enemy dispatches those who push us back. They may come in the form of temptation to do wrong, or simply temptation to lose focus on the goal.

Here is the point: If we surrender we will be called. When we are called, we will face attack. Yet, there is more. We must understand the priority of ministry or we will spend our lives on the wrong effort – a great many have over the years!

The Priority of Jesus (John 1:29-51)

John 1:29 The next day he saw Jesus coming to him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! … 35 Again the next day John was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and he looked at Jesus as He walked, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” 37 The two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus. 38 And Jesus turned and saw them following, and said to them, “What do you seek?” They said to Him, “Rabbi (which translated means Teacher), where are You staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come, and you will see.” So they came and saw where He was staying; and they stayed with Him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. 40 One of the two who heard John [speak] and followed Him, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He found first his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which translated means Christ). 42 He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John; you shall be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter)…”

Jesus left the tempter behind and fully fixed his gaze on the mission ahead. It was clear that mission was not simply about the crowds – though it included public ministry. His was a ministry of DISCIPLE MAKING. This was His initial priority, and based on the record of His final hours before the Cross – it was His CENTRAL priority. We must recognize this! The church is not primarily about preserving the culture – it is about replicating disciples that can live truth REGARDLESS of what the culture does.

Disciples came to Jesus because another follower (John) pointed out Jesus to them (John 1:29). If John was concerned with his own fame, he may have hid Jesus from his own followers – and many so called “Christian” leaders do that. They make disciples increasingly dependent upon them – not equipping them and encouraging them to carry the work. They will create ministry based on paid staff, instead of igniting and encouraging the work of the Spirit from the church pew. They will not bring people to MATURITY, but to DEPENDENCE. We must make every effort to do the work of equipping, and keep pointing people to God and His Word – and not to us.

How do you know when disciples are grown? When they are reproducing – when they are calling others to Jesus they are BEGINNING the process. That isn’t the end. Having babies doesn’t make you a parent – just a biologically functioning adult. Raising children is what makes one a parent. Don’t see John 1 as the END, but the beginning of making disciples that make disciples – a subject we will handle more deeply in coming lessons…

Here is the truth of our lesson: The work of ministry is about three things: God’s call – selecting us for His work, the enemy’s obstruction – attempting to distract us from the assignment and the prime objective of building disciples in the midst of the battle.

According to Mike Neifert in his writing called “Light and Life” (February 1997), staff members from the Bridger Wilderness Area in Wyoming reported receiving comment cards from visitors to their rustic wilderness park:

• Trails need to be reconstructed. Please avoid building trails that go uphill.
• Too many bugs and leeches and spiders and spider webs. Please spray the wilderness to rid the areas of these pests.
• Please pave the trails…Chair lifts need to be in some places so that we can get to wonderful views without having to hike to them.
• The coyotes made too much noise last night and kept me awake. Please eradicate these annoying animals.
• A small deer came into my camp and stole my jar of pickles. Is there a way I can get reimbursed? Please call…
• Escalators would help on steep uphill sections.
• A MacDonald’s would be nice at the trailhead.
• Too many rocks in the mountains.

Larry Sarver wrote a sermon that is included in the Sermon Central library on the subject of discipleship and he cited these complaints. I appreciated his insight, so I close with his words:

These comments and complaints indicate that the people who made them do not really understand what it means to stay in a “wilderness area.” They were looking for something convenient and comfortable, but not truly a wilderness experience. In a similar way, many people today do not understand what it means to be a genuine Christian. There are multitudes that often follow Jesus or claim to be a Christian but they do so on their terms and not his. They do not truly comprehend the biblical definition of discipleship. Because of this ignorance there are many who consider themselves to be followers of Jesus who are not, even though in many ways they do look like followers of Jesus. They go to church, have a profession of faith, read their Bibles, pray, even give in the offering, but they are not the real deal or at least are not living and thinking like the real deal. … there is no reason for anybody to be ignorant or self-deceived… To be a disciple of Jesus you must be committed to him above everything else… In our hearts Jesus must come before our loved ones, self-interest, possessions, careers, hobbies, goals in life, and even our very lives. In practice this commitment to Jesus will be tested and sometimes, in a moment of weakness, Jesus will not come first in our choices, but genuine disciples have made a sincere commitment in their hearts and will not continue to put other things before Jesus.” (Sermon Central illustrations).