Several years ago I had perhaps the most unusual introduction of my ministry. I was about to preach when a man whom I greatly respect stood to introduce me to the audience. During the week, there had been considerable press coverage of a famous preacher who was referred to as ‘the man with the silver tongue’ and so on. Well, my dear brother had had just about enough of all that, so in introducing me he took a moment to put things in perspective. “There is too much emphasis these days,” he began, “on the instrument through whom the Word of God is proclaimed. It’s not the man, but the message that counts. It doesn’t matter if the man’s shoes are shined, or if he has a new suit, it’s the message which should be paramount.” He then went on to say, “And now the man with today’s message is Bob Deffinbaugh.”
I knew my brother too well to misunderstand his meaning and loved him too much to take offense. But, when I got up to preach, I found it difficult to miss the humor in it all, so I said, “What our brother meant to say was, ‘Here’s Bob, he’s not much, but he’s all we’ve got.’”
As I have been preparing this week’s message, I’ve found my mind turning back to that introduction for several reasons. First of all, I think that might be the way I would have introduced John the Baptist had the occasion ever arisen. I mean, you have got to admit John the Baptist was a unique individual. I can’t even conceive of him fitting into the contemporary Christian scheme of things. For example, can you feature John doing a 30-second spot on the ‘I Found It’ campaign? Or can you envision an interview with John on the Johnny Carson show? I find it difficult to even feature John standing behind the pulpit on a Sunday morning. Yes, sir, I think I might preface an introduction of John with a disclaimer, too.
Second, although such an introduction contains an element of truth, it also suggests something which it does not seem to convey. There is a great deal of truth in the fact that our attention should not be so much on the speaker (his flashy sport coat, wild shoes, or trembly voice), but on the message which is spoken. Surely it is wrong to glorify and emulate the messenger. In this sense, we might say that while the Catholic church has only one pope, Protestantism has many.
But my real interest in such a statement is that it can be understood in such a way as to be very misleading, even erroneous. The man cannot be separated from the message. Messages are seldom more effective than the man who utters them. As I have studied the towering figure of John the Baptist, I have become convinced that the magnitude of his ministry came not only from the greatness of the message, but also from the godliness of the man. It is my sincere conviction and prayer that our study of this man and his message will be as discomforting and challenging to us as it was to those in his own day.
The most puzzling aspect of John’s ministry was that he had any audience at all. What was it that compelled residents of Jerusalem to leave the comfort of home to venture miles into the Judean desert to hear John? Some of the uninitiated may puzzle as to why people brave the traffic and the sweltering afternoon heat to watch the Dallas Cowboys. But these people poured out in multitudes, miles into the wilderness to listen to John preach. It would not be stretching the truth to say that John’s sermons were more scorching than the blistering Judean sun. And let us remember that John is never reported to have performed so much as one miracle. Even Herod himself was strangely attracted to his preaching.
Surely there were some who listened to John whose motives were far from noble. To some, it may have been a matter of curiosity. To others, peer pressure. To the religious leaders, it was likely pride and self-preservation. After all, John was a competitor who was cutting into their territory. Others who were fed up with Roman occupation and domination would be hoping for a political revolutionary who would deliver Israel from foreign domination.31
Although some came for reasons less than noble, the vast majority came by virtue of the explosive force of John’s message. Pause with me for a few moments to consider the basic ingredients of John’s message, a message so simple that it could be concisely summarized by the Gospel writers in just one sentence, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2).
(1) A Prophetic Message. John’s call to the nation not only penetrated the silence of the wilderness, it shattered the silence of 400 years. The last written word of prophecy was that of the post-exilic prophet Malachi in the 5th century B.C. From that time until John’s public preaching, it was as though the heavens were made of brass. The nation anxiously awaited a word from God, and they were not about to be choosy about the instrument. John was the last of the great Old Testament prophets.
(2) A Messianic Message. When we say that Israel anxiously awaited a word from God, it was specifically a Messianic word that they desired. All through the Old Testament, God had promised an Eternal King and a literal kingdom. Messianic hopes, though diverse, were running high. When John announced that the ‘kingdom of God was at hand,’ many different expectations filled the minds of his audience, but all understood this to be a reference to the Messianic Kingdom.32
(3) A Preparatory Message. When Zacharias was told of John’s birth by Gabriel, his ministry was defined as one of preparation:
“And it is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous; so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17).
John continually stressed that he was not the Messiah, but that he was the forerunner33 of Messiah prophesied by both Isaiah and Malachi. His task was to prepare the people spiritually for Messiah’s appearance. In the Old Testament, God’s choice of Israel’s King was designated by a prophet. Samuel designated and anointed both Saul and David. So it was fitting for John, the last of the Old Testament prophets, to designate Jesus as Israel’s Messiah. The word Messiah itself means ‘anointed one.’ Jesus was the Christ, God’s anointed one, whom John pointed out by public proclamation, and whom God publicly proclaimed at His baptism.
(4) A Negative Message. John’s preaching was a far cry from that to which churches are accustomed today. There were no syrupy sweet pious platitudes or discourses on positive thinking. John’s message was one of warning. The day of the Lord was not just a time of rejoicing and blessing. It was a day of vengeance when God would separate His true believers from the phony and the false professors of religion.
(5) A Partial Message. Some may have observed that little in John’s preaching was positive. That is partially true, but we need to put this in proper perspective. In the days of the physical presence of our Lord among men, people were saved in slow motion. Let me explain what I mean by this. Today, when we share the gospel of Jesus Christ, we should begin with the fact that men are sinners, justly under the condemnation of God, headed for eternal torment. We should then immediately move from man’s problem to God’s remedy. We should inform men that God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to bear our punishment and to provide us with His righteousness in place of our wretchedness. All one need do is acknowledge his need and trust in Christ’s work on his behalf for eternal salvation.
Now this did not happen quite so quickly in the days of our Lord’s earthly visitation. John came with a message of sin and judgment. He could not tell men that Jesus Christ died for their sins, for that was yet future. He simply preached that God’s solution for sinners was going to appear, and after Jesus’ baptism, had appeared. Upon our Lord’s death on the cross, men who had acknowledged their need of forgiveness of sins then needed to place their faith in what Christ had done. That is why the early ‘conversions’ in the book of Acts were those of God-fearers, those who already had faith that God would provide a solution for their sins, and indeed, now had done it in Christ (cf. Acts 19:1-7).
The full disclosure of the message of salvation in the time of John the Baptist and of our Lord took several years. This should help us understand why John’s message was so negative. It is because it was preliminary and preparatory. The good news of the gospel begins with the bad news of man’s sin and of God’s righteous anger because of it.
“He Himself will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire. And His winnowing fork is in His hand to clear out His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:16c-17).
From time to time, I hear Christians speaking of the ‘baptism of fire’ as something which we should seek. But the baptism of fire of which John speaks is the baptism of judgment, and that is something from which we should flee. That which prevented God’s kingdom from being established on earth was the problem of sin. Israel must be restored to an unfallen condition. And the necessary action required for this is repentance.
(6) A Call to Repentance. The word repent usually brings several pictures to mind. First of all, is the image of the hairy, disheveled creature holding a sign, ‘repent, the end is near.’ Then, too, we think of sorrow and anguish, of remorse for wrongs done. The biblical term employed (metanaeo) combines several nuances. The root meaning of the term conveys a change of mind. By its usage the idea of sorrow or remorse is also suggested. Finally, this repentance produces a change in behavior. Biblical repentance is a genuine sorrow which is the product of a changed mind, looking at our sin as God sees it, and which results in a change in our actions.34 35
John was very pointed about the change of mind which the Gospel required. Israelites were depending upon their ancestral origins and externalism as the basis for entering into the blessed Kingdom.36
“ … do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for I say to you that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Luke 3:8).
The all-important question for those who wished to enter the kingdom was not, ‘Who is your father,’ but ‘In whom is your faith.’ Those who listened to John were reminded of their sinfulness and the need for spiritual cleansing to enter into the kingdom.
The call to repentance was not unexpected, for “it was currently taught and believed among the Jews, that ‘if Israel repented but one day, the Son of David would immediately come’”37
The outward sign of repentance was the rite of baptism.38 Baptism was not without its Old Testament antecedents, rites and washings of purification, but the closer analogy is to be found in proselyte baptism.
“A Gentile who was converted to Judaism had to be circumcised (if he was a male) and to offer a special sacrifice in the Temple (while it stood), and also to undergo a ceremonial bath.”39
There were differences between proselyte baptism and John’s baptism. While proselyte baptism was self-administered, John baptized those who came to him. But baptism surely was a humbling act for the Jew. In effect, it implied that just as a pagan must undergo baptism to enter into Judaism, so the sinful Jew must join the ranks of the pagan and enter into relationship with God in the same way as the Gentile.40
Baptism was not the means of attaining forgiveness of sins and readiness for the coming kingdom, but the manifestation of it.
If the sign of repentance was baptism, the fruit of true repentance was to be a radical change of life for individual Israelites.
“Therefore bring forth fruits in keeping with your repentance …” (Luke 3:8a).
Selfishness should be replaced with sharing. The one who has two tunics should share with him who has none. The one who has food should share with the one without (Luke 3:11). Rake-offs should be replaced by righteous dealings. Taxation was a sore point for Jews. Tax gatherers were despised for good reason. It was common practice to increase the tax to include a healthy margin of profit for the collector.41 Such rip-offs were inconsistent with the kind of righteousness required in the kingdom.
Extortion must be replaced with contentment. When John tells the soldiers to ‘be content with their wages’ (Luke 3:14), I do not think the force of his teaching bears upon the matter of wage disputes and labor unions. The soldier who was unhappy with what he made had no recourse with his employer. But what he could do was to use his police powers to supplement his salary. They could, for example, press false charges and benefit from the fines thereby collected. Now we should not look so pious, for the same thing goes on today. We tell ourselves we are worth much more than we are paid so we extend our lunch hour and coffee breaks. We ‘borrow’ little things like paper and pencils, tools and materials, all under the guise of bringing our salary to our real worth. John says to the soldiers of his day, don’t misuse your job in order to increase your salary. Be content to live on what you are paid without practicing extortion.
(1) His Credentials. As I have suggested previously, the measure of the impact of the ministry of John the Baptist cannot be determined apart from a consideration of the man. No greater compliment could be paid to John than the assessment of our Lord: “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist.” (Matthew 11:11a).
The Gospel writers give us an indication of the extent of his ministry: “And all the country of Judea was going out to him, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins” (Mark 1:5).
His ministry touched multitudes in Judea. To whatever degree numbers indicate success, John was a successful man.
When evaluated by the standard of longevity, John was also a successful preacher. Most of his ‘converts’ were rather quickly blended into the mainstream of Jesus’ teaching and ministry, even some of John’s disciples (cf. John 1:35ff). Perhaps the most interesting evidence of John’s effectiveness is Luke’s reference in Acts 19 to the small group of men that Paul encountered in Ephesus who were ‘believers’ only to the extent of believing in what John had taught. This was nearly 25 years after the abrupt conclusion of John’s preaching ministry.
(2) His Clothing. One of the most unique features of John was his apparel. A camel’s hair garment and leather belt were not the attire of the fashionable young men of Jerusalem. Neither were locusts and wild honey (Matthew 3:4) served in the finest restaurants. Today we would be likely to identify this kind of clothing and food with the attire of a rebel, as an indication of a kind of counter-culture. I don’t believe this was entirely the case. There were, I believe, several reasons for John’s unusual appearance.
First, his appearance was intended to result in an association. Zacharias had been told that his son John would go forth in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1:17). Elijah was described as “… a hairy man with a leather girdle bound about his loins” (2 Kings 1:8). John’s attire was designed to associate him with Elijah and his ministry.
Second, his appearance was intended to signify separation. His dress was not that of the man on the street. John stuck out like a sore thumb. Again, this separation was prophesied at his birth: “For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and he will drink no wine or liquor; and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit …” (Luke 1:15).
John was to be a Nazarite (cf. Numbers 6:2ff; Judges 13:4-5), and remain separate, set apart from normal defilements for divine service. John was pointedly aloof from the religious system of his day, for it did not reflect the old time religion of the past at its best. Jesus did not come to patch up the existing mess in Judaism, but to create something new. John’s dress symbolized his separation from all that constituted the worn out Judaism of his day.
Third, his raiment revealed application. John had preached that true repentance should result in a compassion for the needs of others. It would have been glaringly inconsistent had John arrived at his speaking in an airconditioned Cadillac and a silk suit. The food and clothing of John were the fare of the poor who lived the simple life of the desert dweller.
(3) His Character. Thomas Carlyle once said, “To teach religion, the first thing needful and the last, is to find a man who has religion.”42
As we assess the character of this man John through the Gospel accounts, we can readily see that he is a man who has religion, or better, a man who’s religion has him.
John was a man of strong convictions and great courage. He did not coddle his audiences; he condemned them. When Herod married Herodias, the wife of his brother, John called it sin. Preachers today are hardly willing to call homosexuality ‘sickness’ and immorality ‘wickedness,’ let alone call it sin. John was a man who spoke boldly to his times. Even when it was Herod himself, John did not shrink from his calling.
Our Lord said we are to serve as salt in our society, but most of us function more like sand—we make good ballast, rather than to rock the boat. John was a man who believed God was listening to what he said.
John was a man of deep humility. The nature of John’s task kept him in the spotlight. Not only did he have the opportunity to enhance his position and prestige, but the crowds were inviting him to do so. There is no greater insight into the character of John than the discourse between the religious leaders of Jerusalem and John as recorded in John 1:19-28. They wanted him to speak of himself, but he could only speak of Messiah. John openly encouraged his disciples (one of whom was Andrew) to leave him and follow Jesus (John 1:35ff). When others tried to stir up jealousy due to the popularity of Jesus, John indicated that he was privileged to draw the attention to Christ and not himself. In his words, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
John was a man with feet of clay. Lest we bestow too much praise upon John, let me conclude by reminding you that John was a man with feet of clay. John witnessed the divine testimony of God that Jesus was his Messiah (John 1:29-34) and was fully convinced. And yet in the last dark hours of his life in Herod’s prison, dark clouds of doubt began to form. Luke tells us that he sent a deputation to Jesus for a word of assurance and our Lord sought to assure him (Luke 7:18ff). Even so great a man as John had feet of clay.
John’s ministry has much to say to us about evangelism. Today, evangelistic methodology seems to be best summarized by the words of the song, ‘Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.’ We avoid the ugly matter of sin and the wrath of God. The fires of hell and the future judgment of eternal damnation are considered pass. John, as the Lord and His apostles did, emphasized the day of judgment. The way we present the gospel, there is no more urgency about conversion than buying a set of encyclopedias or joining a social club.
We do not, and we must not preach only the message of John. We should not speak only of sin and damnation. The problem of today’s evangelism is that it speaks too little of it—if at all! The Gospel begins with the bad news of sin and judgment. Let’s be reminded by John’s preaching that the Gospel of God begins with the bad news of man’s sin and impending damnation and ends with the good news of Jesus’ work on the cross.
Second, there is an amazing contrast between John’s priorities and ours today. Note John’s attitude toward the three most frequent priorities of man (and young people) today.
(1) Popularity. Our children want more than anything to be sought out as friends by others. They (as we) suppose that this happens when they do the ‘in’ things, use the right terminology, and are ‘cool.’ How different was John. He dared to be different, and the result was that he was sought out by all Judea, even Herod, miles in the Judean desert.
(2) Prosperity. Money is the god of many men today. John had little if any of that. He ate from the produce of the wilderness, locusts and wild honey. He preached that money is to be shared, not selfishly hoarded. John was never rich in this world’s eyes, but he received of our Lord the greatest compliment given any man.
(3) Position. The third goal for which men will sell their souls is position—power. They will, in their desire to get to the top, climb rough-shod over anyone who gets in their way. How different was John. “He must increase, but I must decrease.” He willingly took second place, willingly saw the limelight shift to the Savior, willingly encouraged his disciples to follow Jesus. And yet in God’s eyes, and even in that of men, John was a powerful figure in Israel’s history. When Luke introduced the preaching ministry of John, he mentioned the names of five of the most powerful political leaders known to John’s day, and the two most powerful religious leaders (Luke 3:1,2). Luke scarcely gives these men the time of day other than as points of reference by which to introduce John.
Another emphasis I wish to call your attention to is the interrelationship between the man and the message. John had a divine revelation from God; he had a message. But more than that, the message had him. You and I have the Word of God—we are men with a message. But that message will never have great impact in our times until it has taken hold of us. I know of no other city in America where Bible doctrine and teaching are so available than in Dallas, Texas. But my prayer is that we will be marked out in our communities as those men and women whose lives manifest that God is in us. May God grant this to be true in our lives.
Not only should we learn from John, let us also learn from Herod. Here was a man strangely attracted by John’s preaching, yet also repelled by it. Herod’s problem, like ours, is that his morality had control of his theology. Our rejection of the Gospel is seldom based, in the final analysis, upon theology, or upon intellectual hang-ups, but on morality. Believing the Gospel would mean cleaning up our act. Herod attempted to straddle the fence. He was somehow trapped between Herodias and John. Just as his morality finally was his downfall, so will it be with you. My friend, if you understand your sin and understand that Jesus Christ has died for your sins, don’t delay. Surrender to Him Who can save.
“Now some of the Jews thought that it was God who had destroyed Herod’s army, and that it was a very just punishment to avenge John, surnamed the Baptist. John had been put to death by Herod, although he was a good man, who exhorted the Jews to practise virtue, to be just one to another and pious towards God and to come together by baptism. Baptism, he taught, was acceptable to God provided that they underwent it not to procure remission of certain sins but for the purification of the body, if the soul had already been purified by righteousness. When the others gathered round John, greatly stirred as they listened to his words, Herod was afraid that his great persuasive power over men might lead to a rising, for they seemed ready to follow his counsel in everything. Accordingly he thought the best course was to arrest him and put him to death before he caused a riot, rather than wait until a revolt broke out and then have to repent of permitting such trouble to arise. Because of this suspicion on Herod’s part, John was sent in chains to the fortress of Machaerus ... and there put to death. The Jews therefore thought that the destruction of Herod’s army was the punishment deliberately sent upon him by God to avenge John.”
Josephus, Antiquities, xviii, pp. 116-119, as quoted by F. F. Bruce, in New Testament History (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1971), pp.152-153.
32 “There is no such thing as the Jewish Messianic hope. Many quite independent ideas are usually grouped under this term. Some looked for a new and greater prophet, some for a priestly leader, some for a supernatural figure, a sort of angelic judge. But the dominant hope was for a king like David, and that meant, by the time of Jesus, a warrior capable of defying the power of Rome and restoring the political glory of Israel. The theologians may have had other ideas, but if you had spoken to the man in the street about the Messiah, he would certainly have understood you to mean the ‘son of David,’ the warrior king of the coming empire of Israel.” R. T. France, I Came to Set the Earth on Fire, Portrait of Christ, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1976), p. 22.
33 “In the orient, a herald went before the King, calling the people together to repair the roads which were usually very poor, that the royal equipage might pass safely.” J. W. Shepard, The Christ of the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), p. 61.
34 “In the New Testament the terms ‘repent’ (metanoeo) and ‘repentance’ (metanoia) refer basically to a change of mind. It is all-important to note this signification. For repentance consists in a radical transformation of thought, attitude, outlook, and direction. In accordance with the pervasive Old Testament emphasis and with what appears also in the New Testament, repentance is a turning from sin unto God and His service. The co-ordination of turning (epistrepho) with repentance places this fact in relief (cf. Acts iii. 19, xxvi. 20) as well as the frequency with which turning from sin unto God occurs as the virtual synonym of repentance (cf. Lk. i. 16; Acts ix. 35, xi. 21, xiv. 15, xv. 19, xxvi. 18; 1 Thes. i. 9; 1 Pet. ii. 25). Repentance is a revolution in that which is most determinative in human personality and is the reflex in consciousness of the radical change wrought by the Holy Spirit in regeneration. It is a mistake, however, to underrate the place of grief and hatred for sin and turning from it unto God. It is true that there can be a morbid and morose sorrow which has no affinity with repentance. It is the sorrow of the world which works death (2 Cor. vii. 10), exemplified in Judas (Mt. xxvii. 3-5) and Esau (Heb. xii. 17). But there is a godly sorrow that works repentance unto salvation (2 Cor. vii. 9,10) and it is an indispensable ingredient in evangelical repentance.” “Repentance,” New Bible Dictionary, ed. by J. D. Douglas (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), p.1084.
35 “… such a virtuous alteration of the mind and purpose as begats a like virtuous change in the life and practice,’ Kettlewell), which we call repentance…” Richard Chenevix Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament (Marshallton, Delaware: The National Foundation for Christian Education, n.d.), p. 243.
36 “For, no principle was more fully established in the popular conviction, than that all Israel had part in the world to come (Sanh x.1), and this, specifically, because of their connection with Abraham. This appears not only from the New Testament, from Philo, and Josephus, but from many Rabbinic passages. ‘The merits of the Fathers,’ is one of the commonest phrases in the mouth of the Rabbis. Abraham was represented as sitting at the gate of Gehenna, to deliver any Israelite who otherwise might have been consigned to its terrors. In fact, by their descent from Abraham, all the children of Israel were nobles, infinitely higher than any proselytes. ‘What,’ exclaims the Talmud, ‘shall the born Israelite stand upon the earth, and the proselyte be in heaven?’ In fact, the ships on the sea were preserved through the merit of Abraham; the rain descended on account of it. For his sake alone had Moses been allowed to ascend into heaven, and to receive the Law; for his sake the sin of the golden calf had been forgiven; his righteousness had on many occasions been the support of Israel’s cause; Daniel had been heard for the sake of Abraham; nay, his merit availed even for the wicked. In its extravagance the Midrash thus apostrophises Abraham: ‘If thy children were even (morally) dead bodies, without blood vessels or bones, thy merit would avail for them!’” Alford Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), I, pp. 271-272.
38 “John immersed the entire man in the water in the Jordan river. This mode of baptism symbolized a complete moral cleansing. It was a public confession of sin and of the need of a Saviour-Messiah. The one receiving this rite had to first give evidence of genuine repentance, a sorrow for sin and a determination to turn away from it. It was a declaration also of allegiance to the coming Messiah, when He should appear. John’s new rite was not a means to secure the remission of sins. It was a baptism on the basis of repentance and a confession of sin which accompanied the rite, being related thus to the remission of sins (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3).” J. W. Shepard, The Christ of the Gospels, p. 63.
40 “In so far as proselyte baptism provides an analogy to John’s baptism John was saying in effect to true-born Jews, proudly conscious of their descent from Abraham: “Your impeccable pedigree is irrelevant in God’s sight; if you wish to be enrolled in the new Israel of the age that is about to dawn, you must take the outside place, acknowledging that you are not better in his eyes than Gentiles, and you must enter the end-time community of his people by baptism, as they have to do.’” Ibid.
41 “It has been calculated that the total taxation, Jewish and Roman together, may have exceeded 40% of an ordinary man’s income. An elaborate taxation system demands an elaborate civil service, and it was here that the grievances were multiplied. The lucrative privilege of tax-collection went to the highest bidder, who then farmed the work out to smaller fry, and they in turn to others. The top men would be Romans; the lower rank, who actually made contact with the people, were Jews. And each had to make his position profitable to himself. Provided the correct tax was produced, the officials would not worry about how it was collected. So the officially required tax was swollen by the necessary rake-off at each level of civil service, and the name ‘tax-collector’ became in common parlance a synonym for an unscrupulous quisling and extortioner.” R.T. France, I Came to Set the Earth on Fire, Portrait of Christ, p. 20.