In Luke 1:15 we find these words, “he will be great in the sight of the Lord” (NIV). The angel Gabriel (Luke 1:19) said this to Zechariah as he delivered God’s message to him (Luke 1:11-20). Zechariah was a priest (Luke 1:5) and this message was given to him while he was inside the temple (Luke 1:8-9). This is the only record of this encounter in Scripture. The statement the angel made to him was predictive, it spoke about the future. The word “will” tells us that the message was yet to be fulfilled, the person the verse speaks about had not yet arrived at greatness. In fact, this individual had not yet been born! The word “he” lets us know that the person Gabriel spoke about would be a male. Those who are familiar with the opening chapter of Luke’s gospel know that the person being referred to by the angel is John the Baptist.
I have chosen to write about John because I would like to address the subject of greatness. Human beings recognize greatness, admire greatness, and in some cases strive for greatness. But as many have found, greatness can be quite elusive. It requires time, effort, and dedication. Different scales are used to determine greatness. The greatness of an athlete may be seen by comparing his or her accomplishments with the objectives of the sport that they are participating in. Or, it can be recognized by comparing their skills with those of others who play the same sport. The greatness of a businessman might be measured by the wealth he has accumulated or the power or influence he exerts in the market. These examples show that there are different spheres in life and different measurements of greatness. If the truth be told, greatness is in some sense in the eye of the beholder. For example, if I do not follow baseball I will not be impressed with the skills of a person who plays the game. In the same way, if I am not interested in business I will be less likely to recognize a great business man.
Readjusting our focus regarding the subject of greatness, I dare say that most people would like to be seen as great to someone or some group of people. This is true with regard to families, businesses, sports, and even the church. We want to be valued, we want to be great, we want to impress someone. Once we determine in whose eyes we want to be great we may be setting ourselves up to be offensive to others (we will not, and cannot, please everyone). So this brings us to a question, in whose eyes do we, as Christians, want to be great? We may not typically think of our lives in these terms but it is a good question. If you are an evangelist you may want to be seen as great by the crowd that you preach to. If you are a pastor you may want to be seen as great by your congregation or church board. These desires are understandable, but if this is the case, our sights are too low. The statement made about John the Baptist is significant, it said he would be great in God’s sight. That is what we should aspire to as well.
You would think greatness would be synonymous with being successful. I think they are connected, but not everyone is going to recognize the connection because people look at different indicators of greatness. This will be true in our lives and I suspect it was true in the life of John the Baptist. Though he was great in God’s sight he was probably not great in everyone’s eyes.
Some people measure greatness in terms of wealth, by that I mean money and possessions. It is doubtful that John had them. His clothing and food do not sound very impressive. He “wore clothing made of camel’s hair” and “ate locusts and wild honey” (Mark 1:6 NIV). These do not exactly classify as designer clothes or exquisite cuisine. We never hear anything about him living in a house.
John’s ministry was successful in that many people were baptized by him (Mark 1:5), but it did not look impressive from the outside. He was born into a priestly family (Luke 1:5) but he did not function in a priestly capacity. He did not wear the priestly robes and he did not minister in the temple. Instead, he ministered outside of Jerusalem near water so that he could baptize. He functioned in a prophetic capacity.
Jewish history shows us that true prophets of God were not always well received. John’s message, like those of many Old Testament prophets, was not one that people would like. He preached a message of repentance (Matt. 3:2; Mark 1:4). When you tell people they are not living right and that they need to change you will probably not make many friends. The people respected John as a prophet (Matt. 14:5) but I am sure he encountered his share of opponents, particularly when he called his hearers “vipers” (Luke 3:7 NIV). He may have been accused of being harsh or judgmental (he would by some people in our day). No doubt he was resisted and resented for this part of his message. He also spoke of one coming after him, Jesus (Mark 1:7-8).
John also did not have any miracles that attended his ministry (John 10:41). He was strong and faithful in the message he had been given to preach but there were no “signs following” (Mark 16:20 KJV) his ministry. The miraculous could be seen in Moses’ ministry (Exod. Chapters 7-11), Elijah had evidence of supernatural working (1 Kgs. Chapters 17 & 18; Jas. 5:17-18), and so did Elisha (2 Kgs. Chapters 4 & 6). But John had no such signs. In our day there are some who would have stopped following him for this very reason. In their eyes he would not be great.
The ministry of John was also not very long. We know he was ministering before he baptized Jesus. We also know that his life was cut short, he was executed before Jesus’ death. John was beheaded when he was in prison (Matt. 14:9-10). In addition to the short duration of his ministry there was a time when fewer people came to him, the numbers began to fall off. John was told that everybody was now going to Jesus (John 3:26). This would not look like a great ministry to some people but he was faithful to the Lord and the task he had been given. Thus, he was great in the Lord’s eyes.
Whose eyes will we be great in? Whose eyes do we want to be great in? Hopefully the Lord will be at the top of our list. We must always keep Him in view. There are many things in life, even in the ministry, that seek our attention and affection. However, they should not be allowed to usurp the place that rightly belongs to God. He is the one who called us and commissioned us. He is also the one that we will ultimately have to answer to. May we seek to love and please the Lord all the days of our lives. If we do, we will be great in His eyes, and that is true greatness.
John P. Lathrop is a graduate of Zion Bible Institute and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is an ordained minister with the International Fellowship of Christian Assemblies. He has written articles and book reviews for a number of publications including: the Pneuma Review, the Africanus Journal of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Christian Trends Magazine, in India, and Berita Mujizat and Jurnal Jaffray, both in Indonesia. He is also the author of four books.