John 1:6-9, 19-34

John 1:6-9, 19-34

SERIES: The Gospel of John

A Voice in the Desert, or John the Baptist Was No TV Preacher

SPEAKER: Michael P. Andrus

Introduction: On this day of the first Presidential debate of 1992, I am reminded of one of the most electric moments in the 1988 presidential campaign.  It came during the debate between Senators Dan Quayle and Lloyd Benson, the Republican and Democrat nominees for Vice-President.  When Quayle quoted Jack Kennedy approvingly, Benson retorted with the line that has become a classic in American politics:  “I knew Jack Kennedy.  Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine.  And you’re no Jack Kennedy.”  It was a tough moment for Quayle.  Despite Benson’s protest to the contrary, the line seemed obviously prepared beforehand for use whenever an opening was provided.  Quayle had stepped into it and could think of no appropriate way to respond.

But with 20-20 hindsight and four years now to consider the matter, I have decided how I would have responded had I been in his shoes.  I think the best response would have been to say,

“Thank you, Lloyd.  I wasn’t really trying to compare myself to Jack Kennedy; all I was doing is giving him credit on an issue with which I agreed with him.  The fact is there are many more areas of disagreement between us, not the least of which is personal morality and integrity.  While Kennedy had enormous charisma and unquestioned gifts in communication, I happen to believe that character is more important than charisma.  Our society may be able to separate a man’s moral values from his leadership, but I cannot.”

Of course, an answer like that would have been ridiculed in the press as self-righteous and judgmental, but a lot of commonfolk in our country, and certainly a lot of Christian people, would resonate with it.  My point is that true greatness cannot be judged by the categories the secular world uses—not in politics or education or law or business, and certainly not in the church.  

Our subject today is a man whom Jesus identified as great.  In fact, in Luke 7:28, Jesus Himself said of John, “among those born of women (and that covers just about everybody) there is no one greater than John.”  However, when you measure this man by the standards of most of the best-known religious leaders of our day, the contrast is striking.   

Whether one is looking at cult leaders like Jim Jones, Herbert W. Armstrong, L. Ron Hubbard, and Rev. Moon, or leaders who started out from a reasonably evangelical base, like Jim Baker, Jimmy Swaggart, and Billy James Hargis, or leaders who seem to be complete phonies just trying to make a buck from religion, like Robert Tilton and Reverend Ike—one can find certain common characteristics that are deeply disturbing.  

A few of you are probably going to be upset with this message, because you don’t think a pastor should name names or expose organizations.  I agree that one shouldn’t go out of his way to attack everyone who doesn’t dot his i’s or cross his t’s like he does, but when the spiritual health of the church is at stake, we need to be clear about who the enemies are in our midst. When it comes to false teachers and spiritual phonies the Bible blisters them with unmerciful tirades and often calls them by name.

I would like to begin this morning by listing some marks of the phony religious leader, then contrast those with the marks of a godly leader, as illustrated by John the Baptizer, and then make a personal application to our lives.  

By the way, you may know of a pastor or Christian leader who has been guilty of one or two of these characteristics.  I’m not identifying that person as a phony.  It’s when the bulk of these traits are evident in a person’s life that I think we should consider him an enemy rather than a champion of the faith.  One other caveat might be in order.  The subtitle of my sermon is not intended to paint all TV preachers with the same brush (I have a great deal of respect for a man like Charles Stanley).  I’m using “TV preacher” just as a symbol of much that is wrong with Christian leadership today.  

Marks of a phony religious leader

One of the common characteristics one finds among spiritual leaders is …

             Megalomania.  Webster’s definition of this disease is as follows:  “a delusional mental disorder that is marked by infantile feelings of personal omnipotence and grandeur.”  Its symptoms include such actions as:

Running one-man operations where the leader has his fingers in everything.

Accountability to no one.

Naming buildings, colleges or ministries after himself.

Using his picture in all the ministry’s literature and on nearly every page.

Listing degrees after his name.  (I actually got a letter from a Christian leader once which was signed with his name followed by “Ph.D. pending.”)

Demanding total allegiance to himself.

Refusing to tolerate any disagreement.

You look at any modern cult and you will find a megalomaniac at its head, a person who is bigger than life, who travels with an entourage, who jets around the country and dines with bigwigs.  Unfortunately, you can find megalomaniacs in evangelical churches and organizations too.  Consider the case of a man who pastors a huge church, has his own TV program, writes books, starts his own college and serves President of it, builds a retirement center, takes people on tours of the Middle East several times a year, and still has time left over for an itinerant Bible Conference ministry.  How is this possible?  Is this guy superhuman?  No, more than likely he’s a megalomaniac.  He’s failed to recognize his own limitations and focus his energies on his spiritual gifts.  

Generally, the first thing that deteriorates when a man tries to do too much is his preaching.  Listen next time you tune in to a media preacher (with a few notable exceptions) and consider the content.  Is it just 3 points and a poem, perhaps a few stories leading to an evangelistic appeal?  Or has the preacher wrestled with the text of Scripture and brought you closer to the mind of God?  Friends, the Bible warns us against becoming saints with itching ears, by which I think Paul means wanting to be entertained in church.  Some of these guys are great communicators and powerful personalities, but is it possible to grow spiritually on the watery gruel they serve up?  A second common mark is …

             Greed and extravagance.  I will go so far as to say this is virtually a universal mark of a phony religious leader.  Jim Jones, who as the Messiah-guru of the People’s Temple of Guyana led over 900 people to commit suicide in 1978, had amassed a personal fortune of something like $13 million by bleeding his poverty-stricken followers dry.  While they lived in substandard housing and survived on a subsistence diet, he stashed away millions in foreign bank accounts, and kept his wife and girlfriends in furs and jewelry.  

I challenge you to name a single cult leader in the last century who hasn’t amassed a personal fortune.  I don’t care whether you go back to Mary Baker Eddy or Father Divine or A. A. Allen or Herbert W. Armstrong or Garner Ted Armstrong or Rev. Moon—they’re all in it for the money.  Many of them own (or owned) lavish mansions, summer homes, private jets, luxury cars, and they earn salaries many times higher than the President of the United States.  The amazing part of it is that they don’t even try to hide it—they even brag about it to their followers and appeal to it as a sign of God’s approval of their ministry.  

But again, perhaps the saddest thing is that the greed and extravagance of cult leaders is being copied by many within the camp of orthodox Christianity.  Here I won’t name names, but I refer you to Ezek. 34 where the prophet excoriates the shepherds of Israel who instead of feeding and clothing the sheep, fed and clothed themselves.  Thirdly I mention …

             Moral impurity.  I would be hard pressed to stand up here and prove that every cult leader in history has been guilty of moral impurity, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it were so.  Certainly, there’s no question but that a disproportionate number are known to be adulterers or heavy drinkers or rip-off artists or all of the above.  Jim Jones is again a case in point.  While restricting the sexual activity of his followers, he himself indulged in intimate relations with dozens of women followers and almost as many men.  Moses David, the founder of the Children of God—a key organization in the Jesus movement, was worse.  He advocated that his female followers practice sacred prostitution as a means of gaining converts, and his own immorality is so gross that I couldn’t even describe it in polite company.  Garner Ted Armstrong, the chief editor for The Plain Truth and the chief spokesman for The World Tomorrow broadcast was fired by his own father from the ministry because of adultery.  So, he just started a rival cult.

Closer to the mainstream we find a large percentage of well-known religious leaders—Catholic, Episcopal, and even evangelical—who have gone down the tubes in the moral area.  The Catholic church in the U.S. has paid out over $400 million in the past decade to settle lawsuits regarding sexual misconduct by priests.  In the Protestant world Jim Baker and Jimmy Swaggart have received the most press, but there have been dozens of others, some very close to our own roots.  The latest to fall, just announced last Friday, was a close friend of the Free Church—Dr. David Hocking.  The amazing thing is that some of these men continue to have avid followings, and a significant number have demanded that they continue in uninterrupted ministry despite their moral failures.  

I’ve heard some people suggest that the reason a disproportionate number of these media preachers have failed is because Satan targets them for destruction.  I’ve even heard the rumor that the Church of Satan has a list of popular preachers that it prays over.  That is, prays for their moral collapse.  But frankly, I think it’s simplistic to suggest that Satan is the sole cause of these downfalls.  I’m sure the Evil One is rejoicing, and I’m sure he’s contributing, but it’s much more honest in my estimation to suggest that these leaders have destroyed themselves by failing to keep their lives in balance and by reading their own press clippings.  When thousands are telling them how great they are, it’s easy to start believing it, and from there it’s a short step to failure.  Remember the words of 1 Cor. 10:12:  “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall!”   Fourthly, there is a strong tendency toward …

             Elitism and abuse of authority.  By elitism I’m referring to the conviction that one belongs to a choice and superior minority.  “Others” don’t stack up; “our” church or organization is the only one that has the full blessing of God.  Such a perspective is often why very popular preachers want their own college and their own seminary—they can’t trust anyone else to train their young people, as they might become contaminated (which, being interpreted, means they might start to think differently).  

Abuse of authority often accompanies elitism and can take many forms, from brainwashing to rigid dogmatism to the use of fear, guilt, and threats to keep people in line.  Whenever the atmosphere in a religious organization is such that people are afraid to ask questions or read certain authors or listen to certain speakers, there is abuse of authority.  Fifthly, one generally finds in phony religious leaders …

             Unethical methodology and gimmickry.  Shady dealings and bald-faced hucksterism are not hard to find in religious circles, particularly among cult-like groups.  Jim Jones formed his first church in Indianapolis, raising money by importing monkeys and selling them for $29 a piece.  T. L. Osborne regularly promised his followers a piece of bark off a Holy Land fig tree or a vial of water from the Jordan, if they would just send in a certain amount of money for one of his healing campaigns.  The Moonies sell candy in major airports.  

But this kind of thing is found also in more respectable churches.  One of my favorite cartoons is The Wizard of Id.  The wizard’s wife came into his studio one day excitedly announcing, “I won a hundred bucks at the blackjack table, twenty on the wheel and twelve at bingo.”  “I thought you were at church,” responded the wizard, to which his wife answered, “I was.”  

Some time ago I watched a religious TV program on Sunday morning featuring a certain Christian pastor all of you would recognize.  During this hour-long broadcast of his church service, he spent exactly 11 minutes preaching, another 10 on music, and 39 minutes promoting this new building and that new project, offering to send his listening audience this token or that stick-pin if they would only write in with a gift.  Are people expected to grow from that?  

Finally, there is the mark of …

             Self-centeredness.  In a sense this sort of summarizes all the others and identifies the root problem.  Self is at the center of the phony religious leader’s world.  Somehow, he manages to draw attention constantly to himself.  Yes, God is mentioned occasionally, and religious duties are affirmed, but the focus is always on the leader.  Read his literature and his name is prominent; tune into his broadcast and he is always speaking.  I’m reminded of Paul’s words in Col. 2:  “Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions.  He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.”  

Enough from the negative side—perhaps too much.  I want to quickly turn our attention to … 

Marks of a godly leader, as illustrated by John the Baptizer

Before we begin to examine the character traits of John, I want you to note that if there was ever a man with the opportunity to start his own movement and gain a great personal following, it was John.  Listen to Matt. 3:1-6:  

    In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”  This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:  “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'”  John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist.  His food was locusts and wild honey.  People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan.  Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

He had everything going for him—he stood out in a crowd, he was charismatic, he had great popular appeal.  If only he had found himself a good public relations agent, imagine where he could have gone!  But when we turn back to the Gospel of John, we find a man so diametrically opposite to the typical 20th century religious leader that one can hardly compare them.  First, corresponding to megalomania, John the Baptizer’s telltale mark was humility.

             Humility.  This is even more obvious in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) than it is in John, but right here in John 1 we find the mark of humility so clearly:

(v. 15): “He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.” 

(v. 20ff): “I am not the Christ, I am not Elijah, I am not the prophet.”      

(v. 23):  “I am the voice of one crying in the desert.”

(v. 27): “I am not worthy to untie the thongs of his sandals.” (By the way, there was a Rabbinic saying, “Every service which a slave performs for his master shall a disciple do for his teacher except the loosing of his sandal-thong.”  But even this John considered not beneath him but above him).

(v. 30): “After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I.”

(3:30): “He must become greater; I must become less.” 

Friends, you will never hear the megalomaniacs who are leading people astray utter statements like that.  Never!  Secondly, John’s life was marked by self-sacrifice.

             Self-sacrifice.  How did the Baptizer fit in with the greed and extravagance that almost always marks the cult leader?  Well, after telling us of John’s birth, the Bible states in Luke 1 that “the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel.”  The strange clothes he wore were not a costume to get attention; he wore the clothes of the desert because that’s where he lived.  He had no use for materialism, no desire to lay up for himself treasures upon earth.  

Now I’m not suggesting that every true man of God must take a vow of poverty and dress and eat like John—that’s clearly not required in Scripture.  In fact, in several places Paul goes out of his way to urge the churches to meet the material needs of their pastors, and not just barely.  But there’s a big difference between fair remuneration for the work of the ministry and ripping off the ignorant and unsuspecting.  

It’s legitimate to ask of any spiritual leader, “Is he in the ministry to get rich?”  Such a suggestion would have been a joke 30 years ago, but there’s big money in religion today.  Many I fear are compromising their convictions and motivations in order to get a piece of the action.  John, on the other hand, was a man of God, poor materially but rich in rewards from the Heavenly Father.  Thirdly, over against moral impurity John was committed to holy living.

             Holy living.  He stood head and shoulders above his compatriots regarding righteousness. Never was there the suspicion of sexual looseness or filthy speech or dishonesty with this man.  His ethics were the ethics of the kingdom.  To see this most clearly, I refer to Luke 3:11-14, where John is preaching to the crowds and they ask him, “What should we do?”  

    John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.”  Tax collectors also came to be baptized.  “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”  “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.  Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”  He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”  

Holy living is what John preached and what he practiced.  Friends, if you know a religious leader who begins to let down the bars on moral issues and compromises in honesty, or relationships with the opposite sex, or financial integrity, stay away from him!  Have nothing to do with him unless he repents and seeks restoration to God; then love him back to the Lord.  

Fourthly, in place of elitism and abuse of authority, John practiced openness.

             Openness.  This word isn’t entirely satisfactory in explaining what I mean, but it’s difficult to find one word or phrase; perhaps “transparency” is better.  While many popular religious leaders today try to control the lives of their followers and isolate them from other influences, John preached in the wilderness, which means “the open places.”  Everything he said was in the open, even when he rebuked Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, which in turn led ultimately to his death.  

I feel certain that if Sam Donaldson had knocked on his door, John the Baptizer would have welcomed him in with his camera and tape recorder and preached the same way to him as he did to everyone else.  In fact, when some religious leaders came from Jerusalem to check him out, John said to them:  “You desert snakes!  Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?  Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’  I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.”  (Matt. 3:7ff).  Now that’s not how to win friends and influence people in Jerusalem, or anywhere else, for that matter.  

Furthermore, John was not motivated to isolate his followers from other teachers or other influences because he wasn’t trying to build an organization.  Instead, he spent most of the time trying to get his followers to follow Someone Else, that being Jesus, of course.  Fifthly, John exhibited …

             Total integrity.  How does John stack up with the penchant among media preachers for unethical methodology and gimmickry?  Well, it’s almost impossible to compare them because John didn’t use such means.  He simply preached repentance in a straightforward manner and lived a life beyond reproach.  Finally, instead of being self-centered, he was committed to Christ-centeredness.

             Christ-centeredness.  This is the key to John’s entire ministry.  And this is what I want to be the final focus of our time together this morning.  Look at John 1 and notice with me the number of times the concept of “witness” is used of John:  verses 7, 8, 15, 19, 23, 29, 32, 34, and 36.  He was only a voice, but he was a powerful voice.  John’s total goal, indeed, his obsession, was to bear witness to who Jesus is.  

Jesus is of high rank.

Jesus is the bridegroom.

Jesus is the one who baptized with the Holy Spirit (as opposed to baptizing with mere water).

Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Jesus is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is the Son of God. 

Instead of seeking larger crowds of followers, John turned his followers away from himself toward Jesus.  Everything he did and said was centered around the person of Christ.  John viewed himself as only the Preparer, the Forerunner, the Voice.  But Jesus was the one worthy of worship, the one who should be heeded, the one deserving of all allegiance.  

Conclusion:  One of our greatest needs in evangelical circles today is for leaders like John the Baptizer—people who are sent from God to witness regarding Jesus Christ, people willing to pronounce judgment on a sinful society, humble people who believe in holy living and are free from materialism.  What we need now more than ever is discernment so that we follow leaders of character, not just leaders with charisma.

The past several weeks there have been some fascinating mini-series on public television on the lives of John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon.  I viewed most of these three series and was fascinated by them.  In talking with Brad about them, one fact stood out to us—namely the degree to which power corrupts a man.  The philosopher who said, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” may not have been far wrong, for here were three successive Presidents of the United States, each with character flaws which were enormously exaggerated by getting into a position that is the closest to absolute power in the western world.  It reminded me of the fact that in the church, too, power corrupts.  The answer is not to have weak leaders, but rather for strong leaders to direct their followers to the only One truly deserving of disciples.  

A final question:  are the characteristics of a godly leader which we have examined today expected by God in the lives of only our church leaders, or are they marks that should characterize all of us?  You see, the marks of a phony will not only ruin your pastor’s ministry but also your own.  And the marks of a godly leader such as we have seen in John the Baptist will earn not only the church leader God’s approval, but also the faithful layperson.  In fact, after Jesus said, “I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John,” He added, “yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”


John the Baptizer

Marks of phony religious leaders




John 1:10-18
John 1:1-5