7. John the Baptizer (Luke 3:1-20)
A good friend of mine, Brady Pamplin, had the unique experience of growing up as the son of a county sheriff. His father who was the sheriff of Marlin County for many years, passed away this past year. It was at this time that Brady was told of an incident which had happened many years before. A gentleman who had been confined to a wheelchair for years told Brady about the first time he had met his father. There was a circus in town and he had gone. He had bought his ticket, but when he reached the gate he learned that his wheelchair wide to wide to pass through it. The circus people seemed unwilling to do anything to help. Sheriff Pamplin arrived on the scene at this moment, and sizing up the situation promptly kicked down the gate. That gate was never again put up, and the man went to the circuses from year to year without any difficulty.
Sheriff Pamplin, I fear, was one of the last of a dying breed of sheriff. The stories of such men are still swapped, but there seem to be few peace officers like these any more. I tend to think of John the Baptist as this kind of man, a unique man, with heroic qualities, and yet a man who was the last of a vanishing breed—the Old Testament prophet.
John the Baptist is not introduced to the reader of Luke’s gospel at the time his public ministry commenced, as is the case in all the other gospels. The first four chapters of Luke’s gospel intertwine the accounts of the announcements of the birth of both John and Jesus, along with significant childhood events. Thus, when we come to the ministry of John the Baptist in chapter 3 we are simply finding John to be in the spotlight, as he has been before, as the forerunner of the Messiah. Luke’s account is sort of like the old Huntley-Brinkley news program of years gone by. The camera and microphone continually switching from “Chet” to “David”: “Now back to you, David.” In our case, it is now back to John.
The ministries of John and Jesus are intertwined, but they are not identical. Both commence their ministry with the proclamation, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand” (Matt. 3;2; 4:17). Both men (or at least their disciples) baptized (John 3:22ff.). Indeed, at least two of John’s disciples became the disciples of our Lord (John 1:35-42). And, of course, many of those who were baptized by John became followers of the Lord Jesus (John 10:40-42; cf. Acts 18:24–19:7).
There were significant differences between John and his ministry and Jesus and His ministry and message. Almost without exception, it was John who stressed the differences between himself and Jesus, showing Jesus to be superior. John clearly distinguished their origin, as was made clear by Luke. Jesus was from above, while John was from below. Jesus was God, while John was but a man:
The next day he saw Jesus coming to him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is He on behalf of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me’” (John 1:29-30; cf. 3:31-36).
Jesus was the bridegroom; John was the friend of the groom (John 3:29). While both baptized, the baptism of Jesus, John maintained, was greater (Matt. 3:11). Jesus was the Messiah; John was the forerunner of Messiah. John’s message stressed coming judgment, while Jesus spoke of forgiveness and salvation. The “tension of the text” comes here, however, for while John speaks of coming judgment, he does so as though the Messiah, the Lord Jesus will be the judge:
John answered and said to them all, “As for me, I baptize you with water; but He who is mightier than I is coming, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals;52 He Himself will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fir. And His winnowing fork is in His hand to clean out His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:16-17).
John’s description of Jesus’ ministry here does not seem to square with our Lord’s words, as recorded in John’s gospel:
“For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through Him” (John 3:17).
“Neither do I condemn you; go your way; from now on sin no more” (John 8:11).
“You people judge according to the flesh; I am not judging any one” (John 8:15).
I believe that this tension between the ministry and message of John and that of Jesus is not only the tension of our text, but also the cause for John’s doubts, as revealed in his sending a delegation to Jesus, asking if He was indeed the Messiah (cf. Matt. 11:21-28; Luke 7:18-35). The resolution to this problem will provide us with the key to understanding the relationship of the ministries and messages of John and Jesus.
The Approach of This Message
Our approach in this message will be to focus first on John the man, then on John as the last of the Old Testament prophets, and then to see how his ministry relates to Christ and the gospel of the New Testament. We will further explore the meaning of John and his ministry as recorded in this portion of Luke’s gospel. Finally, we will seek to discover the relevance of John to the lives of the modern day reader.
Our text can be understood as falling into the following divisions:
(1) The setting, vv. 1-2
(2) The message of John, vv. 3-6
(3) The meaning of John’s message, vv. 7-14
- a. John and the Messiah, vv. 15-17
- b. John’s ministry terminated, vv. 18-20
John the Man
I suppose that if I were to ask my children what they thought about John the Baptist after reading our text, their response could probably be summarized this way: “He was a rude, crude, dude!” It is very easy to categorize John as kind of weird, and certainly, it would seem, quite hostile! This, however, is to fail to view John as a prophet, and also to miss the greatness and the marvelous qualities of this unique individual. Let us begin, then, by considering John as a man.53
(1) John was a man of distinction. By this I mean that John was a very unique individual, a man who stood out from the crowd. This is evident in various ways. John was a Nazarite from birth, and thus his food was distinctive. John was also a “desert man” so that he ate wild locusts and honey, the food of the desert. John was a prophet, and so he dressed in the garb of Elijah the prophet.
(2) John was a popular and powerful preacher. Mark’s account of the commencement of John’s ministry makes it clear that John’s ministry was widely known and widely sought:
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).
Mark informs us that even Herod had enjoyed listening to John, even though the message of John struck hard at his own sins (Mark 6:20; cf. Luke 4:19). John may have been “a voice crying in the wilderness,” but many people heard this voice. John was a man like E. F. Hutton (at least as the T.V. commercials would have us believe): when he spoke, people listened.
We might be inclined to think that John’s popularity was like that of our Lord, a result of the miracles which He performed (cf. John 6:26). John informs us of a very significant fact, however:
And many came to Him [Jesus, at place where John commenced his ministry]; and they were saying, “While John performed no sign, yet everything John said about this man was true” (John 10:41).
When you stop to think about it, there is not one instance in the gospels where we are ever told that John performed a miracle. John did not heal, like our Lord, so far as the text informs us. Those people who witnessed the ministry of Jesus, in the very place where John had formerly preached and baptized, testified that John “performed no sign.” This means that it was only John’s preaching that attracted the crowds. He must have been some preacher. (No doubt it was the messianic nature of his message which caused such excitement. John’s ministry seemed to give hope of the coming of the kingdom, as it was intended to do (cf. Luke 3:15-17).
It may not be saying enough to simply say John was a powerful preacher. It is probably more accurate to say that he was a powerful man. While it is true that Herod, as a politician, feared John because the people thought him to be a prophet (Matt. 14:5), Herod, as a pagan, feared John because he was a holy man:
For Herod was afraid of John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and kept him safe. And when he heard him, he was very perplexed; but he used to enjoy listening to him (Mark 6:20).
(3) John was a man a great insight into the sinfulness of people and society. You might think that a man who lived in the remote places of the wilderness would have little grasp of what was going on in the “big city.” John’s ministry reveals that he was very much up to date with what was going on. John not only rebuked Herod for taking another man’s wife as his own,54 he also rebuked Him for “all the wicked things he had done” (Luke 3:19). John was able to put his finger on the specific sin which most characterized the tax-gatherers, and of the soldiers as well (Luke 3:12-14).
(4) John was a man of integrity. John lived what he preached and preached what he lived. His message was not one that would “tickle the ears” of his audience, but he proclaimed it forthrightly and forcefully. He did not appeal to fleshly motives, nor did he hesitate to point out the implications of the message of repentance which he preached. He did not have a vacation retreat in the mountains (we can assume), nor a fat bank account, all the while telling others to share with the needy (cf. Luke 3:11).
(5) John was a man of prayer. I would not have immediately thought of John as a man of prayer, but why not. More and more I am coming to view proclamation and prayer as the priorities of our lives, especially those who are in positions of leadership (cf. Acts 6:1-6). I have frequently heard the request of the disciples, “Lord, teach us to pray,… ” but I have seldom heard the request finished. The disciples of our Lord, some of whom had been John’s disciples previously (John 1), asked, “Lord, teach us to pray just as John also taught his disciples.”
John was a man of prayer—a fact noted by the disciples of our Lord.
(6) John was a man of humility. John’s deep humility becomes particularly evident on several occasions. The first is when John’s ministry had become widely acclaimed and simultaneously messianic expectation had become intense. Note John’s response, as recorded by Luke:
Now while the people were in a state of expectation and all were wondering in their hearts about John, as to whether he might be the Christ, John answered and said to them all, “As for me, I baptize you with water; but He who is mightier than I is coming, and I am not fit to tie the thong of His sandals; He Himself will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire. And His winnowing fork is in His hand to clean out His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:15-17).
How easy it would have been for John to hedge here, allowing the people to conclude he was the Messiah, without actually claiming to be. How easy for John to have gained financially, to have misused his role to bolster his ego. But John quickly set about to correct the misconceptions of the people, to focus their attention and devotion toward the Messiah, and not on himself.
The second occasion on which John’s humility became evident was after the appearance of Jesus, when His public ministry had commenced. Immediately His ministry began to overshadow John’s. His disciples were baptizing more than John’s, and His ministry was attracting more followers. John is at his finest hour here, as recorded in the last part of John chapter 3. What a giant John was. How graciously he accepted his role and rejoiced in the success of the Savior. He was, indeed, a man of deep humility.
As a man, John provides us with a model for ministry. His life was testimony to the fact that John believed with all his heart that, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
John the Baptist,
the Last of the Old Testament Prophets
John was a prophet whose ministry was rooted in the Old Testament. In the first place, the appearance and ministry of John was prophesied in the Old Testament:
A voice is calling, “Clear the way for the LORD in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God. Let every valley be lifted up, And every mountain and hill be made low; And let the rough ground become a plain,55 And the rugged terrain a broad valley; Then the glory of the LORD will be revealed, And all flesh will see it together; For the mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isaiah 40:3-5).
“For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze,” says the LORD of hosts, “so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear My name the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall. And you will tread down the wicked, for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day which I am preparing,” says the LORD of hosts. Remember the law of Moses My servant, even the statutes and ordinances which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel. Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD. And he will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse” (Malachi 4:1-6).
Our Lord made it clear to His disciples that John was the fulfillment of the prophecy of Malachi:
And His disciples asked Him saying, “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” And He answered and said, “Elijah is coming and will restore all things; but I say to you, that Elijah already came, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they wished. So also the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that He had spoken to them about John the Baptist (Matt. 17:10-13; cf. also Mark 9:11-13, Luke 1:17).
John did not merely fulfill Old Testament prophecy, he spoke as an Old Testament prophet. His message was the same message which the (other) Old Testament prophets had proclaimed. We can but briefly summarize the similarities between John’s proclamation and that of the other prophets, but a comparison of their messages (a worthwhile endeavor) will show that their messages and emphases were the same.
John spoke of the coming of the kingdom of God (e.g. Matt. 3:2), but he rather than speaking of it only as a time of blessing, he spoke of judgment, of “the wrath to come” (cf. Matt. 3:7). In a similar way, Joel foretold the coming of the “day of the Lord,” warning that it was to be a time of judgment for Israel, as well as for the nations (Joel 1:15; 2:1-3, etc.). There was also a promise of grace and compassion, for all who repented (Joel 2:12ff.).
John called upon his audience to share their material possessions with those in need: “Let the man who has two tunics share with him who has none; and let him who has food do likewise” (Luke 3:11).
His words should have a familiar ring, for this is what the prophets of old had called upon Israel to do:
“Is this not the fast which I chose, To loosen the bonds of wickedness, To undo the bands of the yoke, And to let the oppressed go free, And break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry, And bring the homeless poor into the house; When you see the naked, to cover him; And not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light will break out like the dawn, And your recovery will speedily spring forth; And your righteousness will go before you; The glory of the LORD will be your rear guard (Isaiah 58:6-8).
John called upon Israel to show mercy to practice justice.
“Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.” “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages” (Luke 3:13, 14).
The prophet Malachi, as did the others, called upon the Old Testament saint to do likewise:
“Then I will draw near to you for judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan, and those who turn aside the alien, and do not fear Me,” says the LORD of hosts (Malachi 3:5).
John rebuked Herod for taking the wife of his brother (cf. Luke 3:19). His message could easily have been preached from this text in Malachi:
“And this is another thing you do: you cover the altar of the LORD with tears, with weeping and with groaning, because He no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. Yet you say, ‘For what reason?” Because the LORD has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. But not one has done so who has a remnant of the Spirit. And what did that one do while he was seeking a godly offspring? Take heed then, to your spirit, and let no one deal treacherously against the wife of your youth. For I hate divorce,” says the LORD, the God of Israel, “and him who covers his garment with wrong,” says the LORD of hosts. “So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously” (Malachi 2:13-16).
The Meaning of John’s Preaching For Israel
John’s message was like that of the Old Testament prophets in a particularly important way. John and the Old Testament prophets spoke of the future, of the Kingdom of God, of the Messiah, and of “things to come” in two different ways. The prophets spoke of the coming of the Lord both as a time of judgment, and as a time of blessing. They spoke of Messiah both as the great King, who would reign from the throne of David, and as the Suffering Servant, who would die for the sins of the world. And, you will recall, that this was the cause for considerable interest and even agony on the part of the prophets. As Peter tells us,
As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful search and inquiry, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow (1 Pet. 1:10-11).
In the same way, John’s ministry contained these two themes, these two messages. One was of judgment, the other of God’s grace and salvation. The one was an exhortation to keep the Law of God, the other the promise that God would provide salvation apart from man’s keeping of the Law. The one message was that Israel must prepare the way for the Lord, the other was that the Lord would prepare the way for men.56 Thus, Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me” (John 14:6).
When John spoke of Messiah’s coming, it was in either one of two senses: either as the judge, who would put down the wicked and establish His kingdom (which is still future for us), or as the “suffering Servant” who would die for Israel’s sins. It would soon become evident that Israel would not repent. Many of those who came to John for baptism left without ever entering the water (Luke 7:29-30). Thus, the kingdom of God was rejected, along with her King! All of this in fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies.
John’s one ministry as a prophet—calling Israel to repentance and to the keeping of the Law—was a failure, as all other prophets had failed (cp. Matt. 23:29-39; Acts 7:52). It was thus with John’s ministry that the preaching of the Law, of the old covenant, ceased: “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John; since then the gospel of the kingdom of God is preached, … ” (Luke 16:16).
From this point on, it is the new covenant, that of which the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah especially spoke of (Jer. 31:31-34), that is in view. Thus, the Messiah must come to suffer in the place of sinners, to be rejected by men, and to be smitten of God.
It was this transition, I believe, which was the source of John’s doubts, as recorded in Matthew 11:21-28 and Luke 7:18-35. John was hoping that Israel would repent, keep the Law, and that the promised blessings of the Law would come on Israel. With his own arrest, John began to see the failure of the old covenant, and thus he began to question his ministry and that of Messiah. Could he have been wrong? Why, then, was his ministry a failure? I personally believe that the answer which our Lord gave to the delegation sent from John provides the key.
“Go and report to John what you have seen and heard: the BLIND RECEIVE SIGHT, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the POOR HAVE THE GOSPEL PREACHED TO THEM” (Luke 7:23).
It is my opinion that these words are intended to focus John’s attention on the second, but less clear, phase of Messiah’s coming—to be the Savior of the world. Jesus’ ministry was not that of judgment, of overthrowing Israel’s enemies, but of ministry to the poor, the afflicted, the distressed. Jesus’ ministry was not of judgment, but of salvation. John needed to focus on this aspect of His ministry, not on that which would still later be evident, in His second coming. This, indeed, was that dimension of our Lord’s ministry which John himself introduced with the words, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John1:29).
John’s ministry should thus have demonstrated, once and for all, that the blessing of Israel, in fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant, would never be achieved through the Mosaic Covenant, through the law-keeping of the nation Israel. Justification and blessing would only come by faith in the suffering, death, atonement, and resurrection of God’s Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ.
John’s ministry was to close, once and for all, that chapter in Israel’s history of the Mosaic Covenant, of law-keeping. No one had ever been saved by law-keeping, and neither would the kingdom of God ever be initiated because of it. Grace must replace law, the suffering of Messiah would provide a means of forgiveness and escape from the judgment of God. John’s ministry was intended to point this out, in a final and definitive way. John not only proclaimed, one final time, a call to repentance and law-keeping, but introduced the One through whom the law would be fulfilled, and through whom salvation and forgiveness would be accomplished. What privilege for John to end the one dispensation, and to introduce the other!
For Luke’s readers, the message was even more pointed. Luke was writing to a predominantly Gentile audience. In particular, Luke wrote to Theophilus (1:3). The question which a Gentile would want answered would be this: “How can a Jewish Messiah, fulfilling Jewish prophecies and promises, bring salvation to Gentiles?” Luke’s answer, supported by the ministry of John the Baptist, was this: “The Jewish system of law-keeping failed. It could not save Jews, nor can it save you. Thus, both Jews and Gentiles must be saved another way—through Christ.” This is precisely the apostolic answer of Peter, which Luke records in the book of Acts:
“Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are” (Acts 15:10-11).
Ironically, Paul found it necessary to remind Peter of this when he compromised under pressure from Judaizers and separated himself from eating with Gentile Christians:
“Nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified” (Gal. 2:16).
Thus, the failure of the Jews to keep the Law opened the door for God’s grace to provide a better way, the way of salvation by grace, through faith, in Jesus Christ. Luke’s account of the failure of John’s ministry sets the stage for the grace of God to be made known through Christ’s first coming, death, burial, and resurrection.
Luke’s gospel reveals the rejection of Jesus as the King of Israel, and of the Law, as He taught it, and thus of the transition from Law to grace, from a “Jewish” religion to a universal (the church) religion. I will but briefly survey this, for our study of Luke will reveal it in much greater detail. In chapter 4 our Lord presented Himself as Israel’s Messiah, which received an immediate warm welcome (Luke 4:22), until Jesus went on to spell out what His ministry meant—including salvation for the Gentiles (Luke 4:23-27). This resulted in immediate and explosive anger, and an attempt to kill the Messiah (Luke 4:28-29). Thus, in chapter 5 (vv. 33-39) our Lord spoke of not putting “new wine” (the program of the new covenant) in old wineskins (the program of the old covenant). In chapter 7, the old covenant ministry of John is shown to be “inferior” to the new covenant ministry (7:28). As the gospel proceeds, the new covenant ministry of our Lord is more and more revealed, consummating in His death, burial and resurrection, instituting that covenant. So, too, Luke’s account of the book of Acts shows the fulfillment of John’s promise that Jesus would bring about a better baptism, a baptism of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, in Acts, especially chapters 18 (Apollos) and 19 (the 12 who had received John’s baptism), we see that once Christ’s sacrificial death had been made on men’s behalf, acceptance of John’s gospel was not sufficient. At best, John’s gospel looked forward to what Christ would do, as the “Lamb of God.” After Christ’s ascension, men were called on the believe in the Christ who had come, and to receive His baptism.
Luke’s account is unique among the other gospels in several ways. The meaning of John’s ministry in Luke’s account will, to some degree, be evident by those unique characteristics of his record. These three contributions can be seen by comparing Luke’s account of John with the other gospel writers:
(1) First, only Luke so specifically sets the ministry of John in its political and religious context. The first two verses of Luke 3 give us the key political and religious figures of that day. Perhaps Luke is suggesting to the reader that God’s revelation was not through political or even religious leaders, but through a humble desert man, John. The power of God was not introduced through the “power” brokers of the day. God’s power is quite distinct from man’s power. John, though a solitary figure, was a powerful man, not because of his position, but because of his message, and because of his divine calling. Here, perhaps, is the kind of “separation of church and state” which God practices. The fact that these men who are named are not a part of the revelation of Messiah may also be a reminder of Israel’s bondage, and of the sinfulness of her religious leaders, demonstrating the need not only for repentance, but also for divine deliverance.
(2) Second, Luke draws our attention to the masses, not to the leadership nor to the elite of the nation. While the first two verses focus on Israel’s “secular” (including the unbelieving religious leaders) leaders, the remaining verses highlight John’s message to the masses. It is the “multitudes” and the “people” (vv. 7, 10, 15) to whom we are told John spoke specifically, pointing out the particular sins they were practicing. And, you will note (Luke 7:29-30), that it was from this group that the greater portion of John’s followers came. Luke’s emphasis on the gospel to the poor and to the oppressed is evident here.
(3) Third, we find Luke’s account giving very specific emphasis to the material and monetary implications of the gospel. In speaking to the multitudes, including the soldiers and tax-gatherers, Luke informs us that John spelled out the proper use of money and power. It is little wonder that Luke’s gospel contains so many parables on the subject of money. The gospel will directly bear upon the use of our material goods.
The Meaning of John and His Message For Today
It might be thought that because John was “the last of the Old Testament prophets,” his life and ministry have little to say to 20th century Americans. This is far from the case. Both in his person and in his prophetic ministry, John has much to say to us today. As we conclude this message, let us seek to survey some of the ways this passage and this person relate to us.
(1) We have much to learn from the personal example and lifestyle of John the Baptist. The press has created the stereotype of a bearded “weirdo” carrying a sign, “Repent or Perish.” No doubt John the Baptist would be considered just such a person. John however, was a model man in many regards. John was a man who knew who he was (self-image?) and was thus committed to enhancing the ministry and person of Messiah, while at the same time diminishing his own role. He was a man who dared to be different, to stand apart and alone. He was a man who was not held captive by those sins which were characteristic of his day. In order to speak as boldly as he did, his life was even more rigorously guarded against any appearance of evil. Here was a man who life was as powerful as his words.
(2) We can also learn much from John’s ministry. While John’s ministry and message was to be replaced, there is much that we can learn from them. We can learn, for example, from the boldness of John in proclaiming his message. He did not hesitate to call sin sin, or to warn men of the coming judgment of God. For those of us who tend to be “wimpy” Christians (I include myself here), who are reticent to tell people they are sinners, who shy away from telling people there is a literal hell for all who do not trust in Christ, John’s boldness should serve as a rebuke. And note that it was his boldness in proclaiming God’s word that enhanced the power of his message. The gospel is, as Paul says, “the power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1:16). Let us therefore proclaim it boldly.
I should quickly add that John’s boldness and honesty was not hostility or anti-social behavior. There are some Christians who are angry people, who are looking for an excuse to attack others and to vent their anger. John’s life and ministry do not sanction this kind of behavior. What John did he did out of love for God and for man (the essence, you will recall, of the Law, cf. Matt. 22:37-39). Let us boldly confront men with their sin, with the judgment of God and with God’s offer of salvation. It is precisely these truths of which the Spirit of God will convince men (John 16:8).
John’s ministry made sin and salvation very personal. I often hear people say, “My relationship to God is a very personal thing.” In one sense, they are absolutely right, but generally this is an excuse not to talk with anyone about their beliefs. John made sin personal by confronting men with those sins of which they were guilty. Herod was confronted with his sins, as were the multitudes, the soldiers, and the tax-gatherers. Also, salvation was very personal. Each person had to repent of his sins and turn from his wicked ways. Each person needed to renounce any false basis for salvation (e.g. “we are Abraham’s seed,” Luke 3:8). Each person was called to make a definite commitment to righteousness and a definite break with sin.
Besides having a personal experience, John also required a public experience. John’s preaching was public, as was his exposure of sin. The baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins was likewise public. The baptism of John was to be accompanied by a change in the life of the repentant individual, public evident to others, so that the sins of the past were to be left behind.
It is possible, my friend, that you know all the vital facts, about your sin, about the present and coming judgment of God, and about the righteousness of Christ and the salvation which He has made available to all men. And yet it is also possible that you have never made a personal, public commitment to Christ. If not, I urge you, just as John urged those men and women of long ago, to take a public stand, to acknowledge your sin, and to express your faith in Christ as your Savior. No one is saved by osmosis, by inheritance, or by mere knowledge, but by a personal commitment, a personal entrusting of yourself and your eternal future into the hands of Jesus Christ, who died for your sins, whose righteousness may be your own. Do it today!
What a beautiful example of ministry we see in John. He was content, better yet, his “joy was full” (John 3:29) to have played a role in turning men to Christ, of having men follow Christ and not himself. He was joyful to have his ministry terminate and Christ’s ministry to perpetuate. He was willing to be an instrument, and then to allow his ministry to pass away. How few ministries there are today which are joyfully allowed to die, having fulfilled their role.
While John and his ministry are, in one sense, history, may we seek to emulate the spirit and the motivation of this great saint of old, and may our ministries also be modeled after his.
52 “And when it comes to worth, John sees himself as unfit to loose the thong of His sandals. Palestinian teachers were not paid, but pupils used to show their appreciation with a variety of services. A rabbinic saying (in its present form dated c. 250 but probably much older) runs, ‘Every service which a slave performs for his master shall a disciple do for this teacher except the loosing of his sandal-thong’ (SB,i,p. 121). Untying the sandal-thong was just too much. But John selects precisely this duty, which the rabbis regarded as too menial for a disciple, as that for which he was unworthy. This is genuine humility. Leon Morris, The Gospel According To St. Luke, The Tyndale Bible Commentary Series, R. V. G. Tasker, General Editor (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), p. 97.
54 “Herodias was the daughter of Aristobulus, half-brother to Herod Antipas, and she was married to Herod, another half-brother and a private citizen. Herod Antipas persuaded Herodias to leave her husband and marry him, though it involved his divorcing his own wife also. It was a very unsavoury business. Luke mentions other evils of Herod (as Matthew and Mark do not) and goes on to say that he added to all the rest this further example, that he imprisoned John.” Morris, p. 98.
55 The commentators have explained this imagery in the light of the ancient world: “In 1845 when the Sultan visited Brusa the inhabitants were called out to clear the roads of rocks and to fill up the hollows. Oriental monarchs often did this very thing. A royal courier would go ahead to issue the call. So the Messiah sends his herald (John) before him to prepare the way for him.” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), II, p. 38.
In one sense, the imagery here can be summarized in the expression, “straighten up!” On the vertical plane, the high places are to be made low and the low places raised. Everything is to be “on the level.” Horizontally, the crooked places are to be made straight. Something like the crosshairs in a telescopic sight, both the vertical and the horizontal are to be straightened.
I believe there is a rather clear symbolic application made of this “high” and “low” imagery in the prophets and in the New Testament. I believe that the “high” refers to the proud, while the “low” refers to the humble. To prepare for the kingdom of God, the proud must and will be put down, while the humble will be elevated. Thus, Ezekiel wrote, “And all the trees of the field will know that I am the LORD; I bring down the high tree, exalt the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish. I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will perform it” (Ezekiel 17:24).
Mary’s words, spoken in praise to God for being honored to be the mother of the Messiah, reveal this same theme: “He has done mighty deeds with His arm; He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart. He has brought down rulers from their thrones, And has exalted those who were humble” (Luke 1:51-52).
Note, then, how the words of James convey this same message: “But let the brother of humble circumstances glory in his high position; and let the rich man glory in his humiliation, because like flowering grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with a scorching wind, and withers the grass; and its flower falls off, and the beauty of its appearance is destroyed; so too the rich man in the midst of his pursuits will fade away” (James 1:9-11).
James brings down the lofty and elevates the humble, and he validates his words by a reference to the withering grass, a citation from Isaiah chapter 40, indeed the verses which immediately follow those which characterized John’s message and ministry of “preparing the way of the Lord” by lowering the high places and elevating the low ones.
I suggest, then, that the meaning of Isaiah’s imagery, as understood and used by the prophets and those in the New Testament, had to do with pride and humility. Indeed, is the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount not doing the very same thing? It lifts up the poor and puts down the proud. So, also, the Lord’s reference to His ministry in Luke chapter 4, in citing Isaiah chapter 61 relates to this same theme.
56 The imagery of preparing the way by lowering the high places and raising the low ones is frequently found in the book of Isaiah. In Isaiah 40:3-5 the imagery is applied to Israel, who must prepare God’s way. In 42:16, 19; 49:11, it is used of God preparing Israel’s way. In chapter 45 (vv. 2, 3, 13), it is used of God preparing the way of Cyrus, who will accomplish God’s purposes.