Lecture 28: John the Baptist
Course: 52 Major Stories of the Bible
Lecture: John the Baptist
Let’s pray. Father, we pray that you will be magnified. We pray that you will be made great. We pray that you will be made great in what we say as we proclaim our praises to you. We pray that you will be magnified in what we do. We pray as Jesus tells us, that it is in this my Father is glorified, that we bear fruit and pursue holiness. We pray, Father, too, that you will be magnified in what we do not say and in what we do not do. Father, as we bow down in worship, may that be our position throughout the week; may we not compartmentalize our religiosity to Sunday morning, but may our lives be lives of worship and lives of confession when we need to confess, and lives of praise as often as we can. Father, we thank you for the prophets you have sent, like John, and even though their message can sound harsh, we know it is true, and for that we praise you and we magnify you as we seek to put the words into practice. In Jesus name, Amen.
John the Baptist
The Jews of Jesus’ day were heirs of an Old Testament chock full of promises, and it is the promises of the Old Testament that create the back drop to the entire New Testament. Promises like those to Abraham in Genesis 15, that his descendants would be a special people to God. The promises of Joel 2 and the coming Day of the Lord. A day when God would establish his Kingdom. Isaiah’s promise of a future salvation. A salvation that we need to prepare for. The promises of Ezekiel 36, of God’s Spirit being poured out on all his people. And even when you get to c. 500 B.C. to the book of Malachi and look at the last two verses in the Old Testament, you see that it too closes with a promise. Malachi says in 4:5, "Behold I will send you Elijah, the prophet, before the great and awesome Day that the Lord comes and he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction." All of these promises that knit together create the backdrop for Jesus’ ministry.
After Malachi was written, Judaism waited. In fact, it waited over 400 years of prophetic silence where God did not speak. Then about A.D. 27 a figure named John, who came to be known as John the Baptist, breaks into the scene. We read about this in the book of Matthew, Chapter 3. In the first 6 verses we read, "In those days, John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, for this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’ Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist and his food was locusts and wild honey. And in Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordon were going out to him and they were baptized by him in the Jordon River, confessing their sins. We know from the parallel passage in Luke 1:80 that John actually grew up in the wilderness and begins his ministry in the wilderness as conscious fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophesy that there would be someone "crying in the wilderness that they should get ready for the coming King." His clothing and his food shows a simple lifestyle and yet his clothing is a conscious fulfillment of the promise in Malachi because we read how he was to prepare the people for the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of God, God’s kingly reign; and he is to prepare them by calling them to repent of their sins.
It is really hard to underestimate the level of excitement that John would have created. Over 400 years of silence, all of these promises, all of this longing in the Jewish heart for God’s Kingdom to come, and all of a sudden here is the guy who looks like Elijah, who acts like Elijah, declares that he is the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophesy and that the Kingdom of God is right around the corner. It is no wonder that all of Jerusalem and Judea went out to be baptized by him. It is probably hard to underestimate the level of excitement that John caused. It is also probably hard for us to understand the conflict that John’s message would have produced as well, especially with the religious leaders. The lay people seem to have accepted it fine, but there was a serious conflict with the religious leaders brewing as John preached and baptized. Because his message was "Repent and be baptized," and the religious leaders would have responded “Repent of what? We have nothing to repent of; we are children of Abraham.” God’s kingdom, they believed, belongs to all Jews, regardless of their sin or lack of sin, faith or lack of faith. The Jewish leaders would have responded, “We don’t have to prepare. We were prepared when we were born Jewish, when we were born descendants of Abraham.” It had been ingrained into these people from day one that all of Israel is going to be blessed, except for perhaps the most sinful, and then all of the Gentiles are going to be punished. So along with the excitement of all the people listening to John and being baptized, there would have been incredible conflict established between John and the religious leaders; the Scribes, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees.
Part of the conflict certainly had to do with the meaning of John’s baptism. There is a lot of discussion on this, but most people are comfortable of seeing that John’s baptism is based on what is called “proselyte baptism.” A proselyte is simply a convert. So if you were a Gentile you would proselytize when you become a Jew. We know that there are three things that Gentiles had to do in order to proselytize, to become a Jew. They had to make a gift to the temple, they had to be circumcised, and then they had to be baptized. It is the significance of proselyte baptism that helps us understand the conflict with John’s baptism. The Jews taught that when you were a Gentile and you proselytized to being a Jew, you were dying to your old life as a Gentile in your baptism. That old life ceased to exist. It was no more, and you actually entered into a new life. A new life as a Jew. And, in fact, the break between not being a Gentile and being a Jew was so strong that we read of stories of Gentiles who were in debt and they proselytized so they would not have to pay back their debts. They said “Hey, that person doesn’t exist any more. That Gentile is gone. I am a Jew. I have started over.” There is one particularly disgusting account where a mother and her son proselytized so that they could become married. Now, as disgusting as that is, it does illustrate how firm a break there was in proselyte baptism between who they were as a Gentile and that life being over and a clear break and then becoming a Jew and starting life over. That most likely is the backdrop to John’s baptism. When John declared that people be baptized, this certainly is what they would have understood. John’s baptism was a declaration that Jews are in exactly the same position as Gentiles. Just because they are Jews does not mean they are automatically acceptable to God and ethnic descent does not guarantee salvation.
John’s Conflict with the Jewish Leaders
You can see why that would conflict with the Scribes and the Pharisees. If I could say it another way; God has no grandchildren, God only has children. There is no family plan. Nobody enters the Kingdom of God because of their parents. God has no grandchildren; we are all children. That was what the declaration of John’s baptism was all about. In verses 7 to 10, then, we see the actual conflict between John and the Jewish leaders, "but when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism he said to them, ‘You brood [meaning offspring] of vipers!’ Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance and do not presume to say to yourselves ‘We have Abraham as our father.” For I tell you God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. [There is a play on words going on between stones and children. In Aramaic the words sound almost identical.] Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree, therefore, that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
You see, John is questioning the sincerity of their repentance. He says “I won’t believe you until I see the fruits of your repentance. Because if you are truly repentant you will see good fruit in your life. If you are truly repentant, then you will see movement towards obedience, movement towards holiness. And in the parallel passage in Luke 3, Luke specifies what this looks like for people. Then John, anticipating the objection that he knows for sure is going to come, he says “Oh, by the way, your ethnic heritage means squat! God does not need you to fulfill his promises to Abraham; he can make children for Abraham out of these stones. He doesn’t need you!” He questions the sincerity of their repentance because their repentance did not show itself in their lives. You see, these things are connected because if the Jewish leaders really understood the significance of John’s baptism, then their repentance would have been real. However, the Jewish leaders think they have something their ethnic heritage, among other things, to offer God. Because they come to God with their hands full, because they think they can do something to earn favor with God, to earn his pleasure, and present it before him; “Well, after all, I am a Jew.”; then their repentance is not real, because they really do not think they have anything to repent of. But John understands that true repentance begins with an accurate assessment of our sinful condition. John understands that repentance starts by you and me coming to God with our hands empty and saying, “I have nothing to offer you. I have nothing to give in exchange for my soul.” And when you come to God with open, empty hands, then repentance is real. It changes not only your heart but your life and your life starts to show fruit and you start to grow towards holiness.
If I could say it another way, I would say it this way. There is no place for Biblical repentance that is followed by constant sin. To the person who claims to have had a conversion experience and whose life shows no change, and he thinks this is okay, then John cries out to that person as well, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance!” And if there is no fruit, then John says that God’s axe of judgment will cut you off at the feet and you will be thrown into the fire of judgment! Now I can imagine what is racing through some of you-all’s minds is: “Where’s the grace? Where is the divine empowerment to do this kind of stuff? I mean, are you saying you can lose your salvation?” I know that there is a tendency to go more comfortable places when we see passages like that, but I would encourage you to let this passage speak for itself. This passage is just as true as Romans 8:38-39, "I am convinced that neither life nor death, nor height nor depth, nor anything in all of creation can separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus." That is true! But guess what? So is this. Repentance must show itself in a changed life. Nothing can separate me from the Love of God; no one can snatch me out of the Father’s hand [John 10]. We cannot afford to go to this side of the theological teeter totter and ignore this altogether. Because then the teeter tooter does not work. This is one reason why we tremble before God, is it not? We tremble before God as I Peter 1 says, that he also is a God of Judgment. He is a God of love and grace. He is a God of judgment and he calls for a true repentance that shows itself in our life. There is no place for Biblical repentance that is followed by constant sin. It simply does not exist in Scripture. It certainly does not exist in John.
John Was Preparing the Way for Another
John then continues, in verses 11 and 12, emphasizing that he is only a preparer. He is only preparing the way for someone else. Then he says, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” John is saying, “I am the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophesy but we are to prepare the way for the coming of the King. I am the fulfillment of Malachi; I am the Elijah figure who is the preparer.” John is saying there are two kinds of people in this world. There are those who understand they have nothing to offer God. Nothing, including their ethnicity. They come to God with open, empty hands, and these are the people that submitted to John’s baptism. They are truly repentant and that change of heart has affected their lives and they are bearing fruit and they become God’s wheat gathered into His barns. These are people who have received God’s promised Holy Spirit; the fulfillment of the Ezekiel prophesy and we see that in Acts 2 at Pentecost. These are people who have received the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit becomes the agent of change guaranteeing that the process of sanctification, the process of bearing fruit, will begin. And the fire that accompanies the Holy Spirit is a purifying and a refining fire.
But there is a second kind of person in this world, those who think they have something to offer God. These are people who come to God with their ethnicity and other things in their hands, who refuse to submit to John’s baptism. These are people who, because they think they can earn God’s favor, they have nothing to repent of and there is no fruit in their lives and they become a tree that is cut down. They become chaff that is burned, and they are cast into the fires of judgment. These are people who do not receive God’s Spirit and the fire that accompanies the Holy Spirit, in this case, is a fire that destroys. There are two kinds of people in this world, those who come with their hands empty, and those who come with, they think, something in their hands to offer God. Notice that there is no third option. There is not a third person who thinks that it is okay to repent, for their life not to change, and then to say “that’s okay, maybe not preferable, but that’s okay.” John says, “If your repentance is real, it will produce fruit. And if the fruit is not produced in our lives, then we are trees cut down and destroyed by the fires of judgment; we are chaff that is burned with unquenchable fire. That is what the Bible says. That is what John the Baptist says. It is a strangely American phenomenon that this third option, that it is okay to have a repentance that doesn’t change anything in a person’s life, has been preached as long as it has, but it needs to stop. That all that God wants is a moment of positive volition and you have your “get out of Hell free” card just does not exist in the Bible! I really doubt whether the sisters from Aluku would even dream up something like that. I do not think they would. This is a strangely American phenomena and it is not true. There are only two kinds of people in the world, there are not 3. Interestingly, when Jesus appears on the scene in Matthew 4:17, he comes preaching the same message and his disciples come baptizing the same baptism. What is true for John is true for you and for me. You all, our evangelical heritage, our heritage of John the Baptist, must be repeated now. It must be repeated in America. Our evangelical heritage from John the Baptist must proclaim that it is not enough to be born American! It is not enough to be born into a white, middle class, American family. It is not enough to be born into a family where parents go to church! Every one of us is a sinner. Every one of us is separated from our creator. Every one of us is unacceptable to Him on our own. We have nothing in our hands, and every one of us, individually, must repent. Every one of us, individually, must turn to Jesus. God has no grandchildren and my eternal destiny has nothing to do with my parents. It is an issue between God and me. It is not enough to be born American, just like it is not enough to be born Jewish.
Secondly, John the Baptist demands we understand that repentance is more than raising a hand or saying the sinner’s prayer. A truly repentant heart always shows itself in a changed, converted life. I love the story of the thief on the cross. I think that is one of the strongest changes in anyone’s life possible. He is hanging there, almost dead. He is looking at another person hanging next to him, almost dead. I have to believe that Jesus was talking to him during those hours. I do not know why he would shut up after 3 ½ years of talking. I believe that he converted the thief on the cross. So the thief is hanging there and looking at a person who is almost dead and the thief says “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Wow! Lives do not change any more than that, do they? This is why our statement of faith says what it says. God’s will for every believer is his sanctification (I Thessalonians). It is the necessary and certain fruit of salvation, yet not meritorious; it is God alone who saves. Through the work of the Spirit, saints are called and enabled to live lives of holiness. A truly repentant heart, the Bible says, will always show itself in a changed life. And if we do not bear fruit befitting/appropriate to repentance, then we have not received Isaiah’s promised salvation. We have not received God’s promised Spirit and we have not entered the Kingdom of God. I do not think John could say it any more clearly. If we truly repent, our godly sorrow will lead to the pursuit of God, because the Holy Spirit is given to us as a down payment, as a guarantee of the inheritance that is waiting for us in heaven and he is the agent of change and the fire of the Holy Spirit will start to refine. It will start to fix and mold and move things, and our lives will start to change and we will, empowered by this very Spirit, become God’s wheat that is being gathered into His barn. That is the Biblical doctrine of repentance. May we be a truly repentant church.
Let’s pray. Father, I know it is in me, I am sure it is in many people, that when we see passages like this we want to go running to the gushy and soft and loved passages. Those are good passages and we are thankful that they are there. We are thankful, Father, that when you call us you also empower us and this is not something that we do on our own, it is not something we earn, but it is all in you power. Yet, Father, may the message of John the Baptist ring very, very true. May it never be watered down because it is uncomfortable. May we understand in our own lives and in our families lives and in the lives of those around us, that people who are truly repentant will have not only a change of heart but a change of life. We are not the judge. We do not know the truthfulness, the sincerity; these are all your decisions. Yet may we understand your standards, that our repentance must show the fruit that is appropriate to repentance. May we unashamedly proclaim your gospel to everyone we meet. In Jesus Name, Amen
Repentance involves both confession and profession. Confession of our sins; that we have nothing to give in exchange for our souls, and then profession of faith that Jesus put something in our hands; the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, and faith in that is the forgiveness for our sins. And then the refining work of the Holy Spirit starts and changes us from one degree of glory to another. May we be true, Biblical Christians, confessing sin and professing faith in Him.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matthew 3:11).
- What promises from Scripture are especially important to you? How does knowing what God has promised to do affect how you live your life here and now?
- Every one of us, probably, to one extent or another, thinks that we deserve to be saved. What could some of those reasons be?
- If you do not think that you deserve to be saved, what events in your life and what teachings helped you understand this?
- How is John’s baptism like Christian baptism? (I didn’t say it in the sermon, but John’s baptism is the model for Christian baptism.)
- Have you ever experienced “true repentance” and it hasn’t shown, in one way or another, in your life? What are ways that true repentance has shown itself in your life?
- How can we talk about the necessity of fruit without becoming a legalistic church? How can we keep from thinking our “fruit” earns us favor with God?
- Many people in the church have been taught that it is okay to be a “carnal” Christian, that it is okay to live in sin because you did, at one time, raise your hand or prayed the “sinner’s prayer.” How can we start to fix this problem, again, without becoming legalistic and judgmental?