Christ's Perspective on Greatness (Matthew Sermon 43 of 151)
January 12, 2003 | Andy Davis
The Kingdom of Christ
Introduction: World’s Perspective on Greatness
We continue our study in the Gospel of Matthew in a marvelous section of Matthew's gospel, Matthew, 11:1-15. In this section, we see Jesus, praising a human being. That's an incredible thing for Jesus does not give his praise lightly. He is no flatterer. Therefore, it's important for us to understand what it was in particular that he praised in the life of John the Baptist.
A short time ago, I had the opportunity to go back to MIT where I went to school, and I was reminded again of all of the evidences of the world's perspective on greatness around all the time. In one particular court called Killian Court, up high, there's inscribed the names, the greatest names of science, human technology names like Archimedes and Newton and Plato, Aristotle, and Mendel and Mendeleev and Faraday and Copernicus. These names are in front of you all the time as you're walking down the halls, and they're an inducement to greatness, so they believe. And I think it's true. I think when we have evidence before us, the lives of great people who have gone before us, it causes us to want to be great ourselves. You see, the Book of Ecclesiastes says that God has set in the hearts of every individual person eternity, but I think he's also said a yearning for greatness there too. The sad thing is that sin twists that yearning for greatness, and makes it self-centered that somebody would worship us, that somebody might focus on us, and so it becomes a form of idolatry.
That kind of greatness has no future. That kind of greatness is like a flower of the field, cut and soon to wither. “For all men are like grass and all their glory is like the flower of the field, the grass withers, and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever.” I've mentioned before on a windswept kind of deserted plain in modern Iran there's a tomb of Cyrus the Great. The inscription on the tomb can't be read anymore. It's been effaced, it's been erased by the winds, the sands of time. But an ancient historian wrote it down for us and this is what it said: "O man, whoever you are and wherever whenever you may come, I am Cyrus who won for the Persians their empire. Do not begrudge me this little earth that now covers my corpse." Such is the end of all human greatness. But to be great in the eyes of Christ, that's different, that's eternal. I just have one goal this morning, and that is to put inside your hearts a yearning, a hungering and thirsting to be praised by Christ on the final day— that Christ might praise you, that he might find your life worthy.
Greatness of the King & the Kingdom
The context for this package of Matthew 11:1-15 must always be the advancing kingdom of heaven. That is the message of the book, that is the message of the Gospel of Matthew, the greatness of the kingdom of heaven, and more specifically the greatness of the king of the kingdom of heaven, Jesus Christ. By way of context, we've seen a series of testimonies given to Christ, as the king of the kingdom of heaven. Began in chapter one, with a series of genealogies, forty-two names were given which proved to the Jewish mind that Jesus was great, that he was the son of David, he was the son of Abraham, he was the rightful heir to David's throne, the greatness of Christ. It went beyond that, because in the second half of Matthew 1, it showed that Jesus is not just the Son of Man, but he's also the son of God, born of a virgin, and so rightly, it could be said of him that he's Immanuel, God with us. So he is the son of David, yes, but also the son of God who took on a human body.
Then in chapter 2, we have the testimony of the Magi who came from the ends of the Earth to worship him. Precursors to us who are Gentiles, who wanted to find in Christ our king. The Magi came to worship him. We also see the testimony in Matthew chapter 3 of John the Baptist, who testified very plainly that Jesus was the one who was to come the Messiah. John the Baptist gave a clear witness to Jesus and said, "After me, there will come one who's sandals I'm not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire." We also have the testimony of God the Father himself at that moment of baptism, when He spoke from heaven and said, "This is my beloved Son, whom I love, with him I am well pleased". We have also the testimony of the Holy Spirit, who came down like a dove and landed on Christ.The Father and the Spirit are testifying that this was Jesus the son of God.
Then there is the testimony of Christ's personal holiness. In Matthew chapter 4, he went on into the desert to be directly tempted by the Devil, and for 40 days he fasted and for 40 days he was tempted by the Devil. He resisted every temptation never once yielded, never once said yes to temptation, but said no — the testimony of his perfect holiness, and righteousness. Then there is the testimony in Matthew chapter 4 of his preaching. He began to preach, "The kingdom of heaven is at hand". He began to point to himself as the king of the kingdom of heaven. He testified to the truthfulness of his words by miracles, signs and wonders, which he was enabled to do. Just a foretaste in chapter 4 but fully unfolded for us in chapters 8 & 9. This is the testimony of the power of Christ over any disease, even over death itself. Then there was the testimony of Christ's perfect words, not just His mighty works but his mighty words: The words of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5, 6 and 7, the testimony of the kingdom, of kingdom life, what it's like, and of the king of the kingdom of heaven.
Then finally, we've looked at the testimony of the twelve disciples who Jesus called apostles whom he sent out with the message of the kingdom, saying, "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” These twelve went out and gave a testimony to Christ, that he was in fact the king of the kingdom of heaven. We have an accumulation now of ten chapters of evidence and testimony to Christ. We're going into Matthew 11 and 12, and now we're going to start getting negative reactions to these testimonies coming back. It's going to start in a mild way here with John the Baptist, but it's going to unfold from there, this series of actual negative reactions to Christ. We have doubt in the face of John the Baptist. He says, "Are you the one who was to come or should we expect someone That's doubt. It's a language of doubt. Coming from John the Baptist, it could have been devastating to Christ's ministry.
We also have criticism that Jesus alludes to, in verses 16-19, when he talks about the surrounding society, saying, "We played the flute for you, and you didn't dance, we sang a dirge and you didn't mourn.” Criticism from society, and then flat out unbelief. This are Chorazin and Bethsaida who will not believe in Christ, no matter how many miracles he does. All of that is followed by a remarkably gentle invitation to faith. "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” He invites them to come to personal faith. Again in chapter 12 we have a similar thing. In verses 1-14, there is the murderous entrapment from Jesus' enemies. They want to kill him. They're beginning to plot against him, and eventually they're going to succeed in killing Christ. It begins in chapter 12 where we see unbelieving astonishment and blasphemy. Jesus speaks of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. The people are seeing the evidence, but they're rejecting, they're turning away from it. They show curious fascination, where crowds are gathering, but they're not committing to Christ. With all of that, again followed by an invitation saying, "Whoever does the will of my heavenly father is my brother and sister and mother.” So again, in chapters 11 and 12, we see negative reactions to all this evidence followed by an invitation from Christ to personal faith. I want to pause just for a moment and appeal to each one of you. There is evidence all around and in the scriptures of the deity of Christ, and of his role as our personal savior. What is your response? What will you say when Christ commands you, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest". Will you respond with faith? Will you come into the kingdom? That's what's before us in this section.
Christ sets the example for souls. He is zealous for your soul, he's zealous for my soul. He came into the world to save souls and so he is pursuing them. He's a good Shepherd going to look for what was lost. Not only does he send the twelve out in chapter 10 but he himself sets the example by going out, we assume alone because he sent these twelve out and now he goes on and continues his own preaching ministry. In verse 1, he says, "After Jesus had finished instructing his 12 disciples, he went on from there to teach and to preach in the towns of Galilee.” Great leaders, a great king, will never ask of his followers what he is unwilling to do himself, so Christ is out courageously confronting society, courageously confronting unbelief. He's preaching, he's proclaiming the very message that he wanted them to proclaim. He went out and set the example.
As he went out something happened which could have been very disturbing, very troubling in his ministry. As he's out ministering some messengers from John the Baptist come. They confront him bringing him a message from John the Baptist. John the Baptist is in prison at this point, He’s been arrested because of his faithful, bold proclamation of righteousness. He came against king Herod, who had sinfully and wrongfully unlawfully married his brother's wife, while his brother was still alive. He took her, Herodias, and married her. John the Baptist would not stand for it, and proclaimed righteousness. That took a lot of boldness and his preaching career didn't last long after that. King Herod arrested him and put him in prison. He was languishing in prison because Herod wasn't man enough to see through what he wanted to do. He was very weak and vacillating. He wanted to set John free, he wanted to kill him. He didn't know what to do, but there he was, and he languished in prison.
Human Greatness-Still Imperfect: John’s Doubts About Jesus
That's the context of what happens in verse 2-6. We've talked about how Jesus gives a testimony to John's greatness, but we actually have right from the beginning evidence of the limitations of human greatness. Even the greatest man that had ever lived up to that point according to Christ was imperfect, the great John the Baptist was imperfect. This is what he says, in verse 2-6, "When John heard in prison, what Christ was doing he sent his disciples to ask him. Are you the one who is to come or should we expect someone else? And Jesus replied, go back and report to John what you see and hear, the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and Good News is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me". The psalmist in Psalm 119:96, says, “to all perfection, I see a limit". You take that word perfection out and say, "To all human greatness, I see a limit.” Even in John, there's a limit, and John was reaching his limits. John the Baptist doubted Jesus Christ.
Now just let that sink in for a moment. We're looking at a man who lived an uncompromising life, who gave an incredibly clear-headed faith-filled testimony to Jesus and in a moment of weakness, he doubted. This doubt is rather shocking isn't it when you stop and think about it. John had proclaimed earlier in Matthew 3, that Jesus is the one who would come after him, who having been baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire and his winnowing fork is in his hand, would clear his threshing floor, gathering up the weed into his barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire. In John 1, when the authorities came from Jerusalem, they asked if he was the Christ. John and he said “No, but he's coming after me, whose sandals I'm not worthy to untie.” Then when he saw Jesus, he pointed to him and said, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world". What an incredible testimony. Then as was alluded earlier in John chapter 3, John said of Christ, “He must increase, and I must decrease". Here we have an incredible testimony from John. The greatest of his dispensation of the Old Covenant of the Old Testament. The clearest understanding of who Christ was, and yet doubt has creeped in.
What are the roots of John's doubt? Where does it come from? Well, first of all, I think the root is limited exposure to Christ and to his ministry. I really don't think he observed Jesus very much at all. I don't think he listened to Christ preaching. I don't think he ever saw him do a miracle. He was finishing his own ministry when Herod arrested him suddenly and threw him in prison. Mark's gospel give us a clearer account of this. In Mark 1:14 it says, "After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee proclaiming the good news of God." There was only a brief overlap. You get the incidents of John 1,2 and 3, some overlap there, but very brief. I don't think that John himself ever experienced Christ's ministry of the kingdom of heaven. I think that was the beginning of the roots of doubt. He actually never saw Christ except at Christ's baptism, as far as the scripture gives record. He didn't have much information.
Secondly, they're the physical trials that John was going through. He was in prison, in the first century, in Palestine. Don't imagine some kind of a clean, well-run modern 21st century American prison, with three meals a day, and walking a certain line and all kinds of order and if you get sick, there's an infirmary. It was a filthy thing to be in prison back then, without any provision. They had no concern for whether you were fed. You had to have outside people bring you food, and they did so at risk of being in prison themselves. It was a dangerous and difficult place. John had been there as far as we can tell, for a long time, perhaps more than a year. He's only flesh and blood. It beat down on him day after day, week after week, and every day wondering if that would be his last day, because he knew Herod wanted to kill him. That wears on a person. It was a time of weakness for John.
Thirdly, I think perhaps faulty expectations. I don't think he expected what Christ was doing. He didn't expect the kingdom to come the way that Christ was bringing it. Perhaps just like so many Jews, he expected a time of vindication, of vindication for the righteous, that he would perhaps even come and get John out of prison and establish him as a prophet. He did not expect the kind of righteousness that Jesus was bringing. He was very confused about some of Christ's actions. Why was Christ hanging out with tax collectors and sinners, for example? Why wasn't he fasting, the way he had taught his own disciples to fast? You remember the interaction in chapter 9 where John sent his disciples said, "Why is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples don't? It seems like you're just having one celebration after the other.” John was an ascetic. He lived in the desert eating locusts and wild honey. He wasn't used to this kind of a prophet of God who was able to sit down at feast with sinners. He was confused by Christ's actions. These are the roots of John's doubt. What was the significance of John's doubt?
For John personally his doubt sapped all his strength. He lay in prison wondering if he'd wasted his life. Think about it. If Jesus was not the one who was to come, then John had wasted his life. He would have missed it, testifying at the wrong time, and in the wrong way. It must have been devastating to John, to lay there in the dark, not knowing whether he had missed it, whether Jesus really was the one who was to come later. How devastating for John to lay there doubting. But, how devastating also for Christ's mission. John was very famous, well-known. He was established by God as a lamp that burned and shone brightly for a while. If in the end he repudiated Christ, how devastating would that be for the advancing kingdom of heaven? This doubt from John must be dealt with, and Jesus does it so powerfully and so gently. We see a lot of the character of Christ here. At the end of this chapter Jesus gives us the only description, the only adjective, he ever gave for himself. As far as I can read, he says, "I am gentle, and humble in heart, and you'll find rest for your souls". He deals with John's doubt very gently in two ways. He gives him evidence, and he gives him exhortation. He gives him evidence first of all by doing miracles for John's messengers. You don't really get it in Matthew's account, but you get it much stronger in Luke. In Luke 7:21 it says, "At that very time,” when John's messengers were there, while they were standing there, "At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits and gave sight to many who were blind". Oh, the glorious moment. "Now John sent us to ask if you are the one who was to come or should we expect someone else.” Jesus said, "Sit down over there and wait.” Then sick person after sick person, blind and deaf, and demon possessed people, lepers kept coming. One after the other, and Jesus gave such a display of power had never been seen before. A river of miracles done for those messengers, evidence for faith. There they are, just sitting there observing at that very time the miracles that Jesus did as he gave them evidence.
Faith doesn't hang out in the middle of nowhere. It's not like those existentialists who say, "The leap of faith,” as though we're going totally contrary to any evidence whatsoever. Jesus gave rivers of evidence. He said, "Sit right here and I will show you, I am the one who was to come. And then go back and report to John what you're seeing here, the blind received sight, the lame walk. Those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and good news is preached to the poor. There is the evidence". Then he gives him an exhortation in verse 6, "Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me".
That's an exhortation. Perhaps even a warning, although it is a promise of blessing, is it not? It's not a negative message, a very positive message. It's a message of blessing. He says, "I promise you, blessing John, if you will, just stand firm to the end." Have you heard that before? "All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. "Oh, John stand firm, stand firm to the end. Don't yield to the temptation of doubt. Don't yield to what's going on inside you. Stand firm to the end and you'll be saved. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me." He ministers to John. In the next chapter, Matthew 12, we're going to come across a marvelous description of Christ's gentleness. Richard Sibbes preached a sermon on it entitled, “The Bruised Reed and the Smoking Flax.” Basically the picture is that Jesus does not destroy a bruised reed. You can imagine a piece of grass just hanging by a few green threads. He's able to bind it up so it grows healthy and strong again; the gentleness of Christ in dealing with John here. "The smoldering flax he will not snuff out." It's like a candle just out, it's smoking and there's just a little glow of orange, and Jesus is able to blow it back into a flame again, not extinguish it. That is the gentleness of Christ with which he deals with John here. "Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me." He gives him the standard word that God gives to any who are suffering persecution. "Stand firm to the end and you will be saved." In Revelation 2 it says, "The Devil's about to put you in prison, and test you for 10 days. He who is faithful to the end will receive a crown of life." He gives them the exhortation.
Jesus Praises John’s Greatness
As John's disciples are leaving, after Jesus has ministered through them to John, he turns to the crowd and uses John's example to set greatness before us, but also to limit it. He begins to speak to the crowd about John, and he praises John's greatness in verse 7-8 as John's disciples are leaving. He brings out evidence of the greatness of John the Baptist. He speaks about John's personal character and then about his prophetic call. He's going to give an incredible commendation. Of John’s personal character he says in verse 7-8, "What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, then what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No. Those who wear fine clothes are in king's palaces." This is the personal character of John, and Jesus is bringing it out for commendation. He wants them to understand what is great about John in his personal character. Realize John had immense popularity. It says, "When John began his ministry and he was preaching and baptizing in the desert, huge crowds from Jerusalem, Judea... " Actually it said all Jerusalem went out to see him. Now, that's a little bit of hyperbole. You have to imagine there must have been some people left in the city. But everybody went to see John in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, the region of the Jordan. Everyone went. Everybody knew about John. You can see again how serious it would be if John were allowed to continue in doubt against Christ. But Jesus challenges, "What motivated you to get up from your home and go see John? He never did a miracle. All he did was preach and live and be out in the desert and baptize. Why did you go and make the journey to see him? What motivated you?"
Well, the root of it was John's faith which produced an incredible character. And he looks at that character and what does he see? He sees, first of all, unshakable convictions free from earthly consent. He's not asking permission from his generation for what he believed. He's not looking for validation from his own generation for what he proclaimed. He believed in truth, whether you did or not. He had unshakable convictions free from earthly consent. Jesus said John was not a reed swayed by the wind. He was a mighty oak tree that no wind could sway. Oh, how we need this in this time of relativity, tolerance and pluralism. We need people who are not reeds swayed by the wind. Politicians these days use polls, internet polls and other kinds of polls. They put their finger in the winds of popular opinion. Why? So that they can shape their policies thereby. A sailor going out in a yacht will tie little pieces of thread on the rigging. And why? So he can look at the wind and adjust his course thereby. A golfer like Tiger Wood will take little pieces of grass and throw them in the air because he wants to see what the wind is doing so he can adjust his game to the wind. Pastors will try to find out what their people want to hear and preach accordingly. Why? So they can adjust their message to what the surrounding culture wants to hear. That's a reed swayed by the wind.
John was not a reed swayed by the wind. He preached boldly and courageously. We have a sample of his preaching in Matthew 3. When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them, "You brood of vipers, 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 are Abraham's descendants.' I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the tree and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire." That's incredible preaching. Personal convictions. Not looking for worldly consent. He preached what God put on his heart. Haddon Robinson said true preaching is truth poured through character. True words poured through the purity of John’s character. He was not a reed swayed by the wind.
Secondly, his pure lifestyle, free from earthly comfort. He said, "If not, then what did you go out to see? Did you go out to see a man dressed in fine clothes? No. Those who wear fine clothes are in king's palaces." This is clearly a swipe at king Herod. Do you know the story of John the Baptist's death? Here is John, and Herod is vacillating back and forth on whether to execute him. A little daughter-in-law, a daughter of Herodias, Salome, begins to dance in a sensuous and alluring way at the king’s birthday party. If ever a man deserved a birthday party, it was king Herod. There he was laying on silken pillows, living in the lap of luxury, drinking wine, having guests, all the beautiful people there at Herod's birthday party and here's this sensuous dance going on. Motivated by pride and by drink and by lust, he agrees to give Herodias, the girl's mother, John the Baptist's head on a platter. John didn't live like that. He wasn't looking for sensuous luxury. He wasn't looking to comfort himself with earthly comforts. He wore camel's hair and he ate locusts and wild honey and lived out in the desert. This was the essence of John. His powerful faith drove out concern for human popularity, so he didn't adjust his message. He's not a reed swayed by the wind. And it drove out a yearning for earthly luxury and comfort. That is the character of John.
Thirdly, we see his prophetic calling, in verses 9-10, "Then what did you go out to see?" What motivated you to leave Jerusalem and go see this man? "Was he a prophet? Yes, he was." He was a prophet. The words he spoke were God's words; that's the prophet. He speaks, and it is God's word through him. He was a prophet, but Jesus said he was a more than prophet. "This is the one about whom it is written, I will send my messenger ahead of you who will prepare your way for you." Only a few people in all history, Jesus is one of them, have ever been written about by prophets hundreds of years before they were born. Josiah is another. So also, John the Baptist. He had been predicted centuries before he was born. He was Jesus said, "The Elijah who was to come." Malachi had written about this in chapter 4:5, "See I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes." Here comes John, not merely a prophet, but I believe, the culmination of all of the Old Testament word of prophecy pointing toward Christ. He's the final Old Testament prophet. I know John is written about in the New Testament, but he stood in the line of the Old Testament prophets and pointed ahead to Christ. He finished them. He completed the testimony of the Old Testament prophets when he pointed at Jesus' and said, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." Matthew 11: 13-14, “All the prophets in the law prophesied until John. If you are willing to hear it or to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear." John had a unique prophetic calling. It was unlike any that had ever come before. He was to be the summing up of all of the Old Testament in it's pointing ahead to Christ. “Behold, look the Lamb of God, by whose death the sins of the worlds are atoned for. Look at him. Behold the Lamb of God.”
As a result of this role, Jesus gives a powerful commendation. Verse 11, "I tell you the truth, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist." If Jesus we're going to speak about you, what would he say? He's not a flatter. He knows everything. There's nothing hidden from him. The Scripture testifies that he will speak about you on Judgment Day for he is the Son of Man and God has committed all judgment to him because he is the Son of Man. What would it be worth to you to have this kind of commendation from Christ? What does he say? Among all the Old Testament people anybody who has been born of woman, any naturally born person, none of them are greater than John. That's incredible. Not Abraham, a friend of God, with whom God had made his covenant. Not earlier Abel, who had offered the sacrifice. Not Noah. Not even holy Daniel who stood up for God in an ungodly pagan empire. Not Job, not David, a man after God's own heart. None of them was greater than John the Baptist.
I want you to be hungry and thirsty for the praise of Christ. That on that final day he would say to you, "Well done, good and faithful servant. I'm pleased with your life. You did what I wanted you to do. You didn't care about earthly comforts or commendation. You cared about me. You sought the praise that comes from the only God. Well done."
Jesus Limits John’s Greatness
Jesus gives John commendation, then, in a very shocking way, he limits John's greatness. I have to tell you, as an exegete I'm not 100% sure what this verse means. “He who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John." It's a hard verse. There are hard verses in the Bible. We don't know all the answers. I have an idea, and I'll give you my idea, but I'm not 100% sure why, of all those born of women, none had risen greater than John the Baptist and yet, the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John. Was he testifying that John wasn't in the kingdom of heaven? Was he saying that John wasn't a believer? Hardly so. What then? I think it has to do with John's place in redemptive history and the ability he could have to give testimony to Christ, never having seen any miracles, never having understood the story of Christ, he was limited. He was locked away in prison once the kingdom of heaven began, and from the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing and he's only heard hearsay. He's not observed it first hand. He's had to send messengers. "Anybody, any son or daughter of the kingdom who's seen me, who's heard my words, who's seen the miracles I've done, who has entered the kingdom by faith, can give a far greater testimony to me than John." John was the final Old Testament prophet, but the New Testament testimony to Christ is greater. Expect to see John in Heaven. Don't grieve over John as though he didn't enter the kingdom of heaven, he's a believer. But you yourself, the least one of you, can give a greater testimony to Jesus than John could because you know the story. John's disciples in Acts 18 and 19 didn't know much about Jesus, so Priscilla and Aquila had to instruct Apollos. They were limited in their knowledge. We have a more full instruction now, and so we can give a greater testimony to John.
Jesus Describes the Kingdom’s Advance
Jesus limits John's greatness, and then he describes the advance of the kingdom. Verse 12, "From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing and forceful men lay hold of it." Another difficult verse. I understand the Greek and I understand what it says; I just don't know what it means. This time it's a translation problem. It could go one of two ways and the challenging part is both of them are true. The first concept is that the kingdom of heaven advances forcefully. It moves ahead. It's making progress. In effect he's saying, "Oh, John, don't miss it. Keep on, keep moving on. The kingdom of heaven is advancing and against great opposition." It's advancing against opposition, and nothing can stop it. The kingdom of heaven is advancing forcefully, and, forceful men lay hold of it. This means that if you want to enter it, you've got to be able to turn your back on your father and mother, on loved ones who don't believe in Christ. You've got to be almost violent about it and enter the kingdom of heaven violently. That's one possible interpretation. The other is that vicious persecutors like king Herod grab hold of the kingdom and shake it, trying to stop it. We must stand firm in this time of persecution and not yield. Now, you say, "Pastor, which of the two is right?" My answer is, "I don't know." But since both of those things are true — that the kingdom of heaven advances forcefully and nothing can stop it and it's advancing against great opposition with persecution — we must stand firm. If you want to enter the kingdom of heaven, you must do so by faith, and not let anything hold you back. Don't miss the kingdom; that's what I'll proclaim.
What application can we take from these verses? First of all, concerning doubt. I want your doubt to be healed. There may be some of you doubting Christ today. It could be that you're doubting because you're not a believer in Christ. That's devastating. Do you understand, if you don't believe in Christ, you're not justified by faith. You're under God's wrath, under his condemnation without salvation. Believe the deity of Christ and his atoning work on the cross, how he shed his blood for sinners just like you and me. Don't leave this place in doubt.
But it could be that you're a Christian, and maybe you're going through severe trial. Maybe a loved one has died, going through disease, or infirmity yourself. Maybe you're in your own kind of prison, just like John was in a physical prison. You're getting beaten down and little by little doubt is starting to creep in. Even more viciously, once you start to doubt, Satan will then add to it the testimony that you're not a believer, because anyone who doubts can't be a believer. That is not true. William Perkins, a great Puritan theologian said, "For the most part, only the elect doubt whether they're elect." It's only through intense concern that sometimes we doubt. It's because we care so much that we want to know for sure that we're born again. So what do we do? What if doubt has creeped in to our lives? Do what Jesus did for John's messengers. Immerse yourself in Jesus' ministry again. Remind yourselves what Christ could do, that only Christ could do —the miracles, the preaching, the teaching. See again the evidence that he is the king of the kingdom of heaven, and do it in scripture, because faith comes from hearing the Word of God. Saturate your mind in scripture, and say, "Oh Lord, lead me out. I'm in doubting castle now." Bunyan called it, "Get me out through belief in the promise."
Secondly, seek Christ's praise. Don't care anymore to have your name inscribed up on the walls at MIT. Some day those walls are going to come down. Don't seek the world's praise. Seek Christ's praise. “For all men are like grass and all the glory is like the flower of the field, but the Word of our God stands forever.” Even a word of praise given by Christ on Judgment Day will stand forever. Seek Christ's praise.
Thirdly, imitate John. Do you realize that your fellow Americans, your fellow students at university, your neighbors, need you to be not a reed swayed by the wind. They need you to stand firm for biblical truth. Stand firm then. Don't be a reed swayed by the wind. Don't seek to change your message and what you believe to please your neighbors and friends. Don't seek earthly physical comforts. What a challenging word to the American church. Imitate John. And then finally, advance the kingdom. The kingdom's going to advance. This is the winning kingdom. Christ is the winning king. Anything you do by faith to advance the kingdom will stand for eternity.