John the Baptist: His Message of Repentance

John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:3b).  This message was preached with power in a way unlike the teachers of the day, and the common people flocked to hear it.  They were instructed to bear fruit in keeping with repentance.  What exactly was this message of repentance?  What did the fruit of repentance look like?  John preached this message in order to prepare the hearts of the people for the coming of the Messiah.  Likewise, better understanding his message of repentance will serve to prepare our hearts for the message of the gospel.

John came on the scene like many of the Old Testament prophets before him; preaching in the wilderness (Matt 3:1).  His message was twofold.  First, he called for the people to repent because the kingdom of heaven was at hand (Matt 3:2).  This was a reference to the impending public ministry of Christ.  God had entered into history to redeem fallen creation and establish the reign of Christ; in heaven and on earth (Matt 28:18).  If fallen men would enter into this kingdom they would need to repent and submit to the reign of its king.

This is further explained in Luke, where John is said to proclaim a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:3).  The people were not ready for the coming of the Messiah because their hearts were evil.  They were marred by sin.  In recognition of this, they needed to turn from their sin, and turn to God for his gracious forgiveness.  The physical baptism he performed was a picture of the cleansing their repentance brought.

John’s arrival on the scene proclaiming this message was the fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3-5 (Matt 3:3, Mark, 1:2-3, Luke 3:4-6).  It was customary during this time, for great preparations to be made when a king would visit an area.  They would go to great lengths to smooth the highways, and make the king’s route as direct as possible.[1]  John’s message, likewise, prepared the way for the coming king, by preparing the hearts of the people to receive his message.

With their repentant hearts prepared for the gospel message Jesus would proclaim: “all flesh would see the salvation of God” (ESV).  This does not mean everyone would be saved, but that all who respond in repentance and faith, both Jews and Gentiles, will be saved.  Only Luke includes this portion of the text from Isaiah and it serves to reveal his missionary heart for all peoples.

John must have seemed radical, to borrow one of our current buzz words, as he lived in the wilderness.  His appearance was strange and reminiscent of Elijah (2 Kings 1:8), he wore a garment of camel’s hair with a leather belt (Matt 3:4, Mark 1:6).  The bold preaching of John was very effective, and people from all around the Jordan river, as well as, Jerusalem and Judea were going out to be baptized and confess their sins (Matt 3:5-6, Mark 1:5).

Among the people coming to be baptized were many Pharisees and Sadducees (Matt 3:7a).  John confronts them by calling them a “brood of vipers” (Matt 3:7b, Luke 3:7 ESV).  His response indicates that their motives for baptism were impure.  We might speculate that they either were coming to find some incriminating evidence against John, just as they would later do with Jesus.  It could have been that they were just following the crowds, or were looking to maintain, or even elevate their religious reputations.  In any case John’s harsh words remind us of Jesus dealings with them as well.

John commands them to demonstrate their sincerity of heart by bearing fruit in keeping with repentance (Matt 3:8, Luke 8a).  He knows they are consumed with religious pride in their ethnicity, with Abraham as their ancestor, so he immediately addresses this (Matt 3:9, Luke 3:8b); simply having Abraham as their father is not sufficient to please God.  If that were enough, God could raise up children of Abraham from the stones; indeed he created Adam from the dust.  Ethnicity is not enough, as demonstrated with Ishmael and Esau (Romans 9: 8-13).

Returning to his command to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (ESV), he says that judgment is coming for those whose lack of fruit demonstrates the true nature of their hearts.  Not only will fruitless trees be cut down and thrown into the fire (Matt 3:10, Luke 3:9), but even the roots will be destroyed.  This is a picture of complete destruction.

John’s condemnation of the religious leaders is so shocking, the crowd responds by asking “What then shall we do?” (Luke 3:10).  If the religious leaders were at risk of being cast into the fire, what hope did the common people have?  John’s response is not a legalistic formula for earning forgiveness, but very practical examples of the fruit of true repentance in the life of the believer.

His response to the crowd is that true repentance will result in the sharing of personal possessions to meet the physical needs of others.  He does not simply suggest this, but rather commands it as the necessary fruit of true repentance: “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” (Luke 3:11 ESV)  For John, the fruit of repentance and the corresponding right relationship with God is the outworking of the second great commandment (Matt 22:37-40).  This type of lifestyle is the mark of life in the kingdom of heaven he previously referred to.

The tax collectors also came asking what fruit they should bear as evidence of their repentant hearts (Luke 3:12).  John responds that they should collect no more than they were authorized to collect (Luke 3:13).  Tax collectors were infamously corrupt, and profited from collecting excessive amounts beyond the actual taxes.  While the tax system was corrupt and broken, John did not call for its overthrow, but for the redeemed to transform it by operating under the principles of the kingdom of heaven.

In the same manner, soldiers came to him asking what repentance should look like in their lives (Luke 3:14a).  John commands them not to extort money and to be content with their wages (Luke 3:14b).  Their common practice of extortion via threats, and false accusations was fueled by a sinful lack of contentment.  These soldiers’ covetous hearts led to the oppression of the weak for their own gain.  True repentance will deal with this root of covetousness, and thus the behavior of extortion, and oppression.  In this section, Luke captures what the repentance, John proclaimed, will look like practically as it yields its fruit in the lives of God’s people.

John’s ministry grew in prominence to the extent the people began asking if he were the Messiah (Luke 3:15).  Even the priests and Levites from Jerusalem came asking if he were the one (John 1:19).  John, having no desire to rob the Lord of his glory, was very quick to explain that there was one coming who was greater than he was (Matt 3:11a, Mark 1:7, Luke 3:16a, John 1:26-27).  Further revealing John’s reverence for Jesus, he stated in John 3:28-30, that he rejoiced at the coming of Christ, and that it was necessary for his ministry to decrease while the Lord’s must increase.

John points to their baptisms to illustrate the superiority of Jesus to himself (Matt 3:11b, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16b).  Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire is purifying for all who receive it.  However, John’s baptism with water is only symbolic of this greater baptism by Jesus.

The analogy of the wheat and the chaff speaks to the redemption, and ultimate judgment that Jesus brings (Matt 3:12, Luke 3:17).  Those who respond to John’s message of repentance and receive the one to come will be gathered together for eternal life.  However, those who refuse John’s message of repentance of sin, and faith in the one to come will be judged by Jesus and cast into eternal fire.

John came to prepare the way for the Lord and this required repentance from the people.  To understand the message of the Messiah, the people needed to understand their own sinfulness, and moreover, they needed to be broken and repentant over it.  When we think of sin we do not often think of greed, covetousness, and love of self, but these were areas John specifically addressed.  The church in the West would do well to consider how these sins flesh themselves out in our daily lives.  We too are in desperate need of repentance in these areas.

For John, brokenness over sin was not simply a spiritual thing.  If genuine, it would yield fruit in the life of the person repenting.  He did not describe this fruit in vague terms, but very clearly explained what the fruit of a repentant heart looked like.  Does repentance over sin, and faith in Christ, lead us to share sacrificially with others who are in need?  Does it compel us to love our neighbor as ourselves, and to treat everyone justly?  If not, then we may be in danger of being cast into the fire like fruitless trees or worthless chaff.

[1] W. MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. A. Farstad, ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995).  Logos Bible Software 4 (accessed November 23, 2011).

John the Baptist: His Season of Doubt

John the Baptist was a great prophet commissioned with a unique task.  In fact, Jesus referred to John as the greatest prophet.  Yet when in prison, facing death, even he had a season of doubt.  John wanted to know that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.  Many had come claiming to be the one, and from his prison cell, John was beginning to think he made a mistake.  Even the greatest of the prophets had moments of doubt, and unbelief.  Understanding his season of doubt will help us as we endure difficult seasons of life, and ministry.

John continued his ministry of preaching the good news, and calling the people to repentance (Luke 3:18).  However, his boldness would ultimately get him into trouble.  He confronted Herod about his adulterous relationship with his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias (Luke 3:19-20, Mark 6:17-18).  Herodias was furious, and wanted John killed, but Herod kept him safe in prison because he feared him (Mark 6:19-20, Matt 14:5).

During this time in prison, John began to reflect on the ministry of Jesus, and doubt crept into his heart.  John taught that the Messiah would bring great blessing and judgment, yet from his prison cell it seemed all Jesus was bringing was blessing.  There seemed to be no judgment, especially on the evil Herod who had imprisoned John.[1]  Out of discouragement and a misunderstanding of the ministry of Christ, John found himself doubting if Jesus really was the one to come.

From his prison cell, John heard of the teaching and miracles of Christ (Matt 11:2).  In response, he sent two of his disciples to inquire of Jesus if he were the one to come (Luke 7:19-20, Matt 11:3).  John was confused because the ministry of Jesus did not fit into his preconceived notions, and this led him to question the Lord.

Jesus did not respond harshly to John’s question.  Instead, he performed many miraculous works.  He healed the sick, cast out demons, and gave sight to the blind (Luke 7:21).  Rather than chastise John for his doubts, Jesus did these things in order to affirm himself as the Messiah, and give John the confidence he needed to endure prison.

Then he sent John’s disciples back to him, instructing them to tell John all that they had seen, and heard (Luke 7:22a, Matt 11:4).  The blind received their sight (Is 35:5a), and the lame walked (Is 35:6a, Matt 11:5a, Luke 7:22b).  The lepers are cleansed (Is 53:4, Matt 8:16-17), the deaf heard (Is 35:5b), and the dead are raised up (Matt 11:5b, Luke 7:22c).[2]  Although raising the dead was not prophesied of the Messiah, it far exceeded the other miracles in power, and further authenticated Jesus’ ministry.

The last evidence Jesus gave, was the preaching of good news to the poor (Matt 11:5c, Luke 7:22d).  This was a direct reference to Isaiah 61:1-2, which was an explicit Messianic passage.[3]  The Lord’s message to John was clear, he is the Messiah, and though he was working in a way that John did not expect, John could confidently trust in him.  If John would continue in faith he would be blessed (Matt 11:6, Luke 7:23).

Jesus then addresses the crowds in reference to John; this is significant in light of John’s doubts.  Jesus asked if the people had gone to see a reed shaken by the wind (Matt 11:7, Luke 7:24).  Jesus makes it clear that John was not a double minded man tossed to and fro (James 1:6).  John was a man of faith, who in a time of deep discouragement, resulting from his imprisonment, and a misunderstanding of the ministry of Jesus, had a season of doubt.  He also asks about John’s physical appearance, as he was not a man in fine clothing (Matt 11:8, Luke 7:25).  Jesus asked both of these questions to focus the people’s attention on the person, John really was.

Jesus verifies that John was a prophet; indeed more than just a prophet (Matt 11:9, Luke 7:26).  Jesus clarifies that John was indeed the forerunner that was prophesied in Malachi 3:1 (Matt 11:10, Luke 7:27).  All of the prophets had spoken of the coming Messiah, but John alone held the special privilege of announcing his arrival.  This made him the greatest of the prophets.

In fact, as Jesus’ confirmation of this fact, made John the greatest person ever (Matt 11:11a, Luke 7:28a).  Next, Jesus makes a statement that is somewhat difficult to understand.  He states that as great as John was, even the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he (Matt 11:11b, Luke 7:28b).  The question we immediately have is, was John not in the kingdom?

John was on the cusps of the kingdom; he heralded its coming, but did not live to see it inaugurated.  His role was of great importance, but he did not live to see, or experience life in the kingdom.  While John’s ministry pointed to the coming kingdom, Christians who now live in, and thus, according to the principles of the inaugurated kingdom more clearly point to Jesus Christ.

Jesus confirms that John was indeed the answer to Malachi 4:5-6 (Matt 11:13-14).  John was the last of the Old Testament prophets.  He came in the fullness of time, to fulfill the role of Elijah, and prepare the way for the Lord Jesus.  However, just as he himself said, the time came for Jesus to increase, and John must necessarily decrease.

While John was still in prison, Herod’s wife Herodias finally seized an opportunity to have him killed.  Her daughter danced for Herod, and his guests.  He was so pleased that he offered her anything, up to half of his kingdom (Matt 14:6-7, Mark 6:21-23).

She immediately asked her mother what to request, and Herodias instructed her to ask for John’s head on a platter (Matt 14:8, Mark 6:24).  This she requested, and to save face, Herod obliged her request (Matt 14:9-11, Mark 6:25-28).  John was killed by a ruthless king, because he made a hasty oath.  Nonetheless he was able to face death with the confidence that he had been faithful to his calling of preparing the people to receive their Messiah.

John was described by Jesus as the greatest person ever born, and as the greatest prophet yet, even he had a season of doubt.  John expected Jesus to bring immediate judgment on sinners, and when he found himself wrongly imprisoned by Herod, he began to question whether Jesus really was the Messiah.  Jesus did not work according to the way John expected, so his faith was shaken.  However, Jesus was not angry or disappointed with him.  Instead, Jesus used the opportunity to once again demonstrate that he was the Messiah, by reiterating the message he had proclaimed earlier in his ministry (Luke 4:17-19).  It is always in our times of trial, and struggle that our faith in Jesus is ultimately strengthened.

[1] D. A. Carson, Walter W. Wessel, and Walter L. Liefeld, “Matthew, Mark, Luke” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary with the New International Version, Vol. 8. Edited by Frank E. Gæbelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 261-262.

[2] W. MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. A. Farstad, ed., (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995). Logos Bible Software 4 (accessed November 23,        2011).

[3] Carson, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 262.

John the Baptist: His Birth and Mission

John the Baptist was born under miraculous circumstances in order that he might fulfill a very specific mission in the unfolding of God’s plan of redemption.  The Lord intervened in the lives of Zechariah and Elizabeth, to miraculously bring about the birth of his prophet.  He was faithful to accomplish this, in order to fulfill the prophecy that a prophet like Elijah would prepare the way for the coming of Jesus (Mal 4:5-6).  A better understanding of John, and his mission will help to better prepare our hearts for the revealing of Jesus Christ in the gospels.

To understand the mission of John it is important to understand the prophecy his parents received concerning their son’s birth and mission.  Zechariah and Elizabeth were a couple from priestly lineage.  He was a descendant of Abijah, and she was a descendant of Aaron (Luke 1:5).  Their lack of children was not the result of sin, as they both were righteous, and blameless before God (Luke 1:6).  Rather, the scriptures say that they did not have children “because Elizabeth was unable to become pregnant and they both were very old.” (Luke 1:7 CEB )

While Zachariah’s division was serving in the temple, he was chosen to enter the sanctuary, and burn incense (Luke 1:8-9).  This was a once and a lifetime opportunity for Zechariah, and therefore, it was a great honor.[1]  It was during this moment, the pinnacle of his ministry, that God chose to answer he and Elizabeth’s lifelong prayer for a son.  An angel appeared to him and said “…Your prayers have been heard.  Your wife Elizabeth will give birth to your son and you must name him John.” (Luke 1:13 CEB )  The name John is important, as it means “the grace of God,” and it signifies the grace that John’s mission would make available to all.[2]

The angel goes on to reveal the wonderful mission that God has ordained for their son.  John will be a joy to his parents, and many will rejoice at his birth because he will be great in the Lord’s eyes (Luke 1:14-15a).  He will be filled with the Holy Spirit from his birth (Luke 1:15b), that is he will excel in the gifts of the Spirit even from birth.[3]

Through his message of repentance, John will be used to bring many in Israel back to the Lord (Luke 1:16).  His message will prepare the hearts of the people for the coming of Christ (Luke 1:17b).  He will do this in the power, and spirit of Elijah, in fulfillment of the prophecy in Malachi 4:4-6 (Luke 1:17a).  This does not mean that John is a reincarnation of Elijah, but simply that his ministry will be similar to Elijah’s, who also called the people of Israel to repent and return to the Lord.

Like Abraham and Sarah before him, Zechariah had long since given up hope of having a child.  His age lead him to doubt the accuracy of the prophecy (Luke 1:18).  The angel Gabriel replies that he stands in God’s presence, and was sent by the authority of God to deliver this message (Luke 1:19).  Based on this authority, what he had prophesied will come true (Luke 1:20a).  Zechariah was a priest, and therefore should have believed Gabriel.  His lack of faith results in judgment, and he will be mute until the baby is born (Luke 1:20b).

The people, who had been praying while Zechariah performed his priestly duty, begin to grow restless.  They wondered what was taking so long (Luke 1:21).  When he exits unable to speak, they realize that he has seen a vision (Luke 1:22).  Zechariah completes his service, and returns home (Luke 1:23).

Upon his return home, Elizabeth conceives, and the fulfillment of the prophecy begins to take place (Luke 1:24a).  Having lived with the shame of being barren for so long, Elizabeth keeps the news secret until she is sure it will come to pass (Luke 1:24b).  There is no doubt in her mind that the Lord has performed a miracle, and removed the disgrace of being childless from her (Luke 1:25).

The miraculous nature of Elizabeth’s pregnancy is confirmed by Gabriel when he visits Mary.  Mary is curious as to how God will accomplish what was prophesied about the virgin birth, and the angel says “Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son.  This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant. Nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:36-37 CEB ). These verses also reveals a possible kinship between John and Jesus.

Mary immediately goes to visit Elizabeth, and her entrance into their home causes John to leap in his mother’s womb, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:40-41).  By the power of the Spirit, Elizabeth understands that Mary is carrying the Messiah.  This incident also reveals a glimpse of the relationship between John and Jesus.  Even from the womb, John rejoices in the presence of the Messiah.

Eventually, the time arrived for the prophecy to be fulfilled.  Elizabeth gave birth, and her family rejoiced for the great blessing she and Zechariah had received (Luke 1:57-58).  When the time came to circumcise the boy, the family wanted to name him Zechariah after his father, but Elizabeth said he would be named John (Luke 1:59-60).  Zechariah, in obedience to the Lord, confirmed this and immediately was able to speak again (Luke 1:61-64a).  He began to praise the Lord and the family was in awe at how God had blessed, and began to wonder about God’s plan for the boy (Luke 1:64b-66).

In response Zechariah prophesies.  He begins with praise to God for sending the Messiah to deliver his people (Luke 1:67-75).  He then turns his focus to his son John, and the mission God has for him.  John will be a prophet and will prepare the way for the Messiah; his message of repentance will give the people the knowledge of how to be saved (Luke 1:76-77).  God sent the Messiah, and John as his forerunner, for this purpose because of his great compassion.

John grew physically, but even more importantly he became “strong in character” (Luke 1:80a CEB ).  With this Luke shifts his focus to the birth of Jesus, and we do not learn anything further about John’s childhood.  When he reappears in scripture, his public ministry had begun.

In the fullness of time, God sent John to fulfill the role of Elijah, and prepare the way of the Lord.  Zechariah and Elizabeth’s prayers were not answered when they expected, but in his timing God answered, and they were blessed with a son.  Repeatedly in the life of Israel, the Lord overcame the obstacle of infertility to keep his promise to  Abraham and his descendants.

John fulfilled a unique role in God’s plan of redemption.  He was sent, in the spirit of Elijah, to prepare the way for the Messiah.  He was great in the eyes of the Lord; Jesus said no one greater than John had ever been born (Matt 11:11).  He was filled with the Spirit even before his birth and this was evident from the power and authority of his ministry.  His message of repentance served to prepare the hearts of the people to respond to the ministry of Jesus.

[1]  D. A. Carson, Walter W. Wessel, and Walter L. Liefeld, “Matthew, Mark, Luke” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary with the New International Version, Vol. 8. Edited by Frank E. Gæbelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 826.

[2] John Calvin, Harmony of Matthew, Mark, Luke, vol. 16 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009), 15.

[3] Ibid, pg 17.