John Prepares the Way
P. G. Mathew | Sunday, January 26, 1997
Copyright © 1997, P. G. Mathew
In Matthew 3 we are introduced to the person and the ministry of John the Baptist, or John the Baptizer, the messenger of Jesus Christ. Matthew introduces the beginning of John's ministry very abruptly. After telling in chapter two of his gospel how the child Jesus and his parents returned to Israel and settled in Nazareth, Matthew then says in chapter 3, verse 1, "In those days John the Baptist came. . ." Luke had already chronicled the wonderful conception and birth of John in the first chapter of his gospel, and in the third chapter he gives a more precise time for the beginning of John's ministry, "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar-- when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene--during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas. . ." Thus we know that John's ministry of preparing the way for Jesus Christ began in A.D. 27.
Who was this messenger John? He was the only son of an elderly couple--Zechariah the priest and his wife Elizabeth. John was a miracle son like Isaac. God enabled this elderly couple to bear a child just as he had enabled Abraham and Sarah to have Isaac in their old age.
John was born about six months earlier than Jesus. At his birth his own father prophesied that he would be called a prophet of the Most High, to "go before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins" (Luke 1:76-77).
After his parents died, probably when he was very young, John went out into the desert of Judea north of the Dead Sea near the Jordan River. He grew up in the desert and became a man of great conviction and sensitivity to God's requirement of righteousness.
John was an ascetic. He did not wear designer garments; rather, he dressed like the prophets of old that we read about in Zechariah 13:4 and 2 Kings 1:8. He wore garments of coarse camel hair and a leather belt and ate what was available in the rocky desert--wild honey and large roasted grasshoppers, which was permissible according to Leviticus 11.
John's very life was a rebuke to the self-indulgent worldly people of his day. Anointed by the Spirit, he walked in the spirit and power of Elijah. He was rugged and passionate, full of zeal and conviction. He was fearless of people and ready to confront the sinful, whoever they were.
John's ministry was a fulfillment of prophecy. As I already said, he came in fulfillment of his father Zechariah's prophecy that he would become the prophet of the Most High. He came also in fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy that speaks about the voice of the one calling, the one who will prepare the way of the Lord in the desert (Is. 40). He came also in fulfillment of Malachi's prophecy which says, "See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me" (Mal. 3:1).
God Spoke Again
As John lived in the desert of Judea, suddenly the Spirit of the Lord came upon him and the word of the Lord came to John, as we read in Luke 3:2. What was God doing? After four hundred years of silence, God was sending a prophet to his people in the person of John. Four hundred years after the last prophet, once again the Spirit of God was active and God was speaking.
Let me tell you, God is faithful to his covenant and he still loves and cares for his people. Therefore, the word of the Lord began to come through John the Baptizer, the messenger of the Lord, and multitudes of people went out from Jerusalem and Judea into the desert to see and hear John. All four gospel writers record this as well as secular historians like Josephus, who made reference to John, the messenger of righteousness who was later murdered by Herod Antipas. Just A Voice
John the Baptizer was a self-effacing person who knew he was just a voice. He knew he was the advance man of Jesus Christ--his herald and ambassador--and he clearly declared that he was neither the Christ nor Elijah nor the Prophet. He was only a messenger, and he knew that the importance is not in the messenger but in the message that he is bringing.
John was only a voice. Yes, he had a message, but he knew that his job was only to prepare the way in human hearts for the coming of the Lord. He came to make the way smooth and remove the obstacles from the hearts of the elect people of God so that they could receive the King who was coming imminently. John was the runner before the chariot of the Lord Jesus Christ. He was not the bridegroom; he was just the friend of the bridegroom. But as such, he rejoiced with inexpressible joy at the success of the one who was coming, the bridegroom, whose is the bride.
As a messenger, then, John's person was not important, but his message was. What was his message? Get ready! Prepare the way of the Lord! Repent! Humble yourselves! Forsake your way of sin! Why? The King was coming.
John the Baptizer was fully aware of his calling and his limitations. He desired to decrease while this King who was coming would increase. Now, many people do not embrace their limitations. For example, Korah was a Levite, but he wanted to grasp the priesthood also, as we read about in Numbers 16. But in John we find one who knew his God-given calling and limitation, and he rejoiced greatly in them.
John was a man of great humility. He said he was unfit to untie and carry the sandals of this King who was coming. In other words, he was saying, "Not only am I just a messenger, just a voice, but I am less than the least of all slaves. Unworthy!"
Sent from God
We are told in John 1:6 that John the Baptizer was sent from God. Let me say this: If you are not sent from God, you will have no courage and no message. Many people may follow you, and you may even hold missionary conferences in which you make emotional appeals, especially to young people. Your followers may even say they also received a calling. But the question is, are you called and commissioned and sent by God?
In Galatians 1:1 Paul says he is sent "not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father," and we can easily observe the boldness of Paul in the pages of the New Testament. In the same way, how could John be so bold, so fearless, and so courageous that he could denounce the sin of the high and mighty and call a whole nation to repentance? Let me assure you, John also was called by God and sent from God.
And John received a message from God. In Luke 3:2 we read that the word of the Lord came to him in the desert. If you are called by God and sent from God, the word of the Lord will come to you and you will declare it without fear. Many preachers today are hirelings. They have to pay mortgages and have no word. They will speak smooth things. Why? They are afraid and fearful of offending people. But if you are sent from God, you will be like John the Baptist--passionate and full of conviction. He had a word from God and always pointed people to the Lord Jesus Christ.
John was sent from God as a prophet of the Most High. He was the last prophet in the tradition of prophets that we read about in the Bible. Throughout Israel's history God sent prophets to prophesy about the coming of the Messiah. But in John the mission of such prophets came to an end, and as the last prophet, John could point directly to the Messiah and declare, "Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29) The Messiah had finally come! Upon hearing that, what did John's disciple Andrew tell his brother Peter? "We have found the Messiah" (John 1:41). Why did he say that? Through John, Andrew recognized that Jesus Christ was the long-awaited Messiah.
John's message was forthright and confrontational. Why? The Spirit of God was upon him. He was inspired and anointed by God to declare the burden of the Lord and prepare the way for him. As the word of God came to this ambassador of the King, John, then, declared it to the rich, the famous, the poor, the powerful, the high, the mighty, the Sadducees, and the Pharisees. To all alike John declared God's message to them: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
This truly was preaching God's word. It was an urgent, accurate, authoritative and fearless message. John had no fear because he knew he was sent from God as an ambassador of the King.
The Offense of the Message
How did the people react to John's message? Many self-righteous and complacent people were offended by it. John's message was not soothing. It cut into the very hearts of many and shook them up. But this was the word of the Lord to his people for their benefit. Even the Greek philosopher Diogenes once said, "He who never offended anyone never did anyone any good."
What was the heart of John's message? "Repent! Confess your sins. Believe in God. Escape the wrath of God or be judged by this coming King." He told those who came to him, "You are full of sin. You have turned away from the covenant of the Lord. You have wandered away. You have altogether become filthy. You need to return to the Lord of the covenant--return to worship and serve him and live once again by his righteous laws. Forsake all idolatries and return to covenant loyalty. You must repent!"
Radical Repentance Required
What does it mean to repent? In the Greek world at that time there was no concept of repentance, of radically changing one's life for the good. Repentance is a thoroughly Hebrew idea which God's prophets spoke about many times in the Old Testament.
Repentance means to turn, once for all, from one's sinful way of life and to be radically changed in one's mind, will, and emotions. Repentance means to grieve over one's sins, to forsake evil thoughts, to think God's thoughts after him, and to decide by exercising one's will to follow God in belief as well as in ethical behavior.
God does not tolerate phony repentance of the lips. There must be a harmony between confession and conduct. There must be a radical change of mind and heart that leads to a complete turnabout of one's life. And so John refused to baptize anyone without the necessary precondition of genuine repentance.
I was reading a popular commentary and the writer was saying that the biblical message of repentance is only for God's people. He said that pagans should believe and only God's people must repent. But that is not true. That represents an atomistic interpretation of the Scripture. Everyone must repent. Repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin, and if God by his Spirit works in your heart and brings about regeneration, you will repent and believe. Your repentance will be godly repentance, meaning it will result in godliness, in a godly life. Those who repent truly will repudiate their evil lifestyles once and for all.
Repent and Be Baptized
John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. But we must realize that baptism itself does not bring about the forgiveness of one's sins. John the Baptist would not baptize anyone who would not repent. Baptism is a symbol and a seal of an inward reality of genuine change.
Some Jewish people thought that only the Gentile proselytes needed to be baptized. If a Gentile wanted to convert to Judaism at that time, he had to be circumcised and must baptize himself by dipping himself in water. Then he assumed the burden of the law, becoming a son of the law who offered sacrifices and so on.
But John said that not only were Gentiles called to repent and be baptized but Jews were also called. Those words were shocking to the Jews. I am sure they asked, "Wait a minute, John. Are you saying that Jews are sinners too?" "Yes," John would reply, "Jews are sinners too. There is no difference. All are sinners and all must repent. All are under God's wrath and have wandered from God's way. There is no one righteous, no one who understands, as we read in Romans 3."
But I am sure some Jews asked, "What about Pharisees, John? We are the descendants of the Hasidim, the holy ones, the supporters of the Maccabean revolt, those who separated themselves from things that were Hellenistic and secular? We are diligent students of the Scriptures and staunch adherents of the traditions of the elders. We believe in divine decrees. We are punctilious in observing the traditions of the elders. We believe in resurrection, in angels, and in spirits. We are from Jerusalem. We are holier than everyone else, as far as we can tell. Surely we don't need to repent and be baptized!" "No," John would say. "You must repent too. You must change also. I can see through all your lies, your deceit, your hypocrisy, your greed, your envy, and your lust. You are all the offspring of vipers. Pharisees, I want you to know that no one is exempt from this requirement of repentance." Let me assure you, there is no salvation, no forgiveness of sins, and no escape from the King's wrath without repentance, whether one is a Jewish Pharisees or a Christian Pharisee.
I am sure the Sadducees asked next, "What about us, John? We are the priestly aristocrats. We subscribe to the canon of Scriptures, but, unlike, the Pharisees, we do not subscribe to the traditions of the elders. We like and embrace Greek culture. In fact, we love the good life. We are rich and love money. We are rationalistic, educated people who only believe in this life. We don't believe in the resurrection, angels, spirits and so on. We like the Romans and their government. We like our position in the land. What about us, John?" Again, John would answer, "You must repent also. Why? You are phonies, liars, cheats, deceivers, and oppressors. You are greedy and lovers of pleasure. Like the Pharisees, you also are children of the vipers and of the devil.
It took courage for John to preach to these aristocrats the same message he preached to everyone else. But John knew that in God's eyes there were no exceptions. All must repent and must do so as soon as possible. Why? The King was coming to save and to judge.
The Proof of True Repentance
Not only that, John said that those who repented were required to show their repentance in terms of ethical conduct. When the ordinary people came to him and asked, "What should we do?" John told them, "Be generous. Share your food. Share your clothing." When the tax collectors asked, "What should we do?" John replied, "Do not cheat. Be just in your tax collecting." When the soldiers came and said, "You know, we don't make much money and we have to extort here and there. What do you say to that?" John answered them, "You must not do that. You must be content with your pay."
John demanded a righteous life as proof of one's repentance. He told the crowds, "Produce fruit in keeping with repentance." In other words, their lives should produce the good fruit of obedience to the King's law. Then John condemned the self-confidence of the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the rest of the crowd who did not repent and seek forgiveness for their sins. No Treasury of Merit
What were these people placing their confidence of salvation in? I am sure they said something like this: "We don't have to repent and believe. We don't have to do anything to be saved. Why? Just look at our family tree. We are Abraham's descendants and proud of it. Children of Abraham we are!" In modern times we might say something similar: "My father is a minister. My mother is a minister's wife. I am a pastor's kid. I live next door to the church. I was baptized and grew up in the church. Why should I repent?"
What did John tell them? "Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.'" John was aware that these people would reason that because they were physically descended from Abraham they would automatically be saved. (PGM) He knew they thought that because they were circumcised they would not be sent to hell. He was aware of their belief in the theology of the treasury of merit, that the merits of the patriarchs would be sufficient for their salvation and that all descendants of Abraham would go straight to heaven and experience eternal life. He was aware of their false sense of eternal security.
But John told them it was all a lie. There is no treasury of merit in God's kingdom. There is no eternal security for any who rest in Abraham's merit but refuse to believe as Abraham did. Their circumcision meant nothing and availed nothing if they did not personally repent and trust in God. Do not trust in circumcision, rituals or family trees, John told these people.
God Doesn't Need Us
Then John told these people a secret. He told them that God is almighty and that he did not need them. What a disappointment! John was speaking of the aseity of God, that God is the self-existing, self-sufficient, eternal, infinite God who does not need creation.
John said, "For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham." This is true. Did not God create Adam out of the dust? Certainly he would be able to create children for Abraham out of dead stones! In fact, God does not even need stones, as far as I am concerned. He can create out of nothing Just as he created the universe out of nothing, he can create even out of pagan Gentiles a people who love God as Abraham did.
What was John saying? He was saying that none of us must think too much about ourselves. God does not depend on the so-called chosen people--those who are influential, noble, rich, powerful, and smart. In fact, we are told in the Bible that he chooses the foolish to shame the wise. He chooses the weak to shame the strong, the lowly things, the despised things, the nothings of the world, to be his people, and he chooses to nullify things that are.
God does not tolerate anyone boasting in his presence. We must forget about our little claim to fame. We must humble ourselves, repent, and be saved. But I ask you, do you need a little encouragement to repent? If so, look at the encouragement John the messenger gave. He warned the crowd that judgment was coming.
Flee from the Coming Wrath
The gospel is good news only in the context of judgment and wrath of God. If there is no wrath of God, there can be no gospel. So John gave some encouragement for repentance in his message: Flee from the wrath that is coming! he thundered.
We must realize one thing: Holy God is intensely against any contradiction of his nature. God is not soft on sin, and we must never think that he is. He is against every sinner and every sin every day. As we read in Romans 1:18, "The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men." God is not pleased with sinners. He is not concerned with being politically correct. In John 3:36 we read, "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him."
The just wrath of God abides on all who will not repent. So John urged the crowd to repent and escape the just wrath of the coming King. Why? The kingdom of heaven was at hand. It was coming in the King who is the Lord.
The kingdom of heaven meant the dynamic rule of God that was about to come in the person of the Messiah. The kingdom of heaven was about to break into the kingdom of Satan and soon the strong man would be bound by the person and deeds of the Messiah. Soon the sovereign rule of God in the person of Christ would defeat the devil and save all who trust in the King. Soon the kingdom of heaven in the person of Jesus would proclaim good news to the poor and curses and woes to the arrogant. Soon judgment would be meted out to all who did not repent and prove their repentance by good fruit of good deeds.
The Ax of God's Wrath
Then John gave his listeners a little more encouragement to repent. He told the crowd that the ax of God's wrath was already at the root of the trees. What did this mean? Total destruction of the defiant was coming. Trees represent all people, Jews and Gentiles, who do not repent. And who was wielding this sharp, glistening instrument of destruction? Not John the messenger! The Messiah himself was wielding the ax of God's wrath, and soon he to whom the Father gave all judgment would pour out that judgment.
Do you need some encouragement to repent? Take a look at that sharp, glistening ax that is already laid at the root of every tree. You must repent. Why? Your rituals will not deliver you. Your rationalism will not deliver you. Your materialism will not deliver you. Your PC will not deliver you. Your science and technology will not deliver you. Your feminism will not deliver you. Your newly found religion will certainly not deliver you. Look at the ax!
The Messiah's Winnowing Fork
As if the ax was not convincing enough, then John introduced the winnowing fork, which is also in the hand of the Messiah, the King. Do you remember what Jesus said in Matthew 10:35-36? He came to divide and separate.
What is the significance of the winnowing fork? The picture is that of a threshing floor at harvest time. First the sheaves are threshed to separate the grain and chaff, and then the chaff must be separated from the grain. When there is a good breeze, a person takes the winnowing fork and throws the mixture of grain and chaff high into the air. The heavy grain falls straight down but the chaff falls down further away. Just as the fruitless trees were cut down by the ax and burned, the chaff is collected and thrown into the fire of divine wrath and judgment. In Psalm 1 David said the wicked are like chaff which the wind blows away. They will not stand in the fiery judgment.
The Kingdom of Heaven Is Near
So John urged the crowd to repent because the kingdom of heaven was coming soon. What is the kingdom of heaven? It is the realm of eternal life. How can we enter it? Through repentance and faith and relationship to the King. God requires repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Why? The kingdom of God came in Jesus Christ. He is the kingdom, in other words. Jesus Christ has defeated the powers of darkness and even now he is liberating sinners from the bondage of sin and Satan throughout the world.
In Matthew 11:1-6 we read, "After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee. When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, 'Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?'" Why did John ask this? Even though he was the messenger of the kingdom, he had some doubt because of the hidden nature of the kingdom. He may not have realized that the King would assume the role of a servant when he came.
"Jesus replied, 'Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.'" In other words, the power of the kingdom had broken into the realm and domain of Satan and people were being released. The kingdom of God had truly come in Jesus Christ!
Escape the Wrath
The kingdom of God is still with us, and people are still getting saved. Even now many are escaping the wrath of God through a vital relationship with Jesus Christ, the King. But the kingdom of God also involves a just judgment--a manifestation of God's wrath--and that judgment is coming soon. Jesus Christ is coming again, we are told, with great glory and power, and he will wield the ax of his wrath. The Bible speaks of the wrath of the Lamb coming and then asks, "Who can stand?" (Rev. 6:16-17)
Jesus Christ will soon cut down and burn all fruitless trees. He will soon separate the wheat from the chaff and burn the chaff in unquenchable and everlasting fire. There is a heaven and there is a hell. There is eternal life and eternal punishment. The same ark of the Lord that blessed the house of Obed-Edom shall smite the Philistines.
We must listen to John the Baptizer. As the last prophet he introduced us to the promised Messiah. He said, "Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" He understood that the basis of forgiveness is the death of Jesus Christ on the cross.
Who listened to John? First, we see Andrew going after Jesus. Then Peter, Philip, Nathanael and others came. They began to follow the Messiah because John the messenger had prepared their hearts for the Lord. They repented and believed that this Lord is the Messiah, Jesus Christ, the Lamb of sacrifice for the sin of the whole world.
We Must Repent
Who else must repent? We all must--rich, poor, sophisticated, unsophisticated, old, young, Jews, Gentiles, male, female, slave, free. Repent and be saved! Escape the wrath of the Lamb!
Soon he is coming, and those who do not repent will die and enter into an eternity of shame. John Bunyan wrote that he once heard a voice, saying, "Will you leave your sins and go to heaven, or will you have your sins and go to hell?" God enabled him to leave his sins and he went to heaven.
John the messenger urged his listeners to repent. Jesus himself said the same thing, as we read in Matthew 4:17. In Acts 2:38 Peter urged the crowd at Pentecost to repent, and here I, a poor, unsophisticated preacher, am telling you the same thing: Repent and be saved today.
Baptized with the Holy Spirit
In Matthew 3:11 John said, "I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire." John could only baptize in cold water, and we may think that it is a violent act to immerse a person into cold water. But the Lord Jesus Christ will bring us in direct contact with the Holy Spirit and fire. This baptism of the Holy Spirit will bring about change in our life.
In the Scriptures the Holy Spirit is likened to breath which gives us life, and to wind, which speaks about power. He will give us not only life, but also power, mighty power. The Holy Spirit is also the Creator of life, and let me assure you, he will recreate us. The Holy Spirit is true, and thus a source of truth for us. The Holy Spirit also enlightens us and enables us to see and appreciate the truth.
Yes, said John, the one who is coming will baptize us in the Holy Spirit. He will baptize us also in fire, which I consider to be a synonym for the Holy Spirit. What does fire stand for? Fire speaks about light in the midst of darkness, atheism, foolishness, feminism, materialism, and every kind of nonsense that is going on all around us. Fire also speaks about warmth. In the freezing coldness of the world we will be brought to have contact with this fire that will warm our souls. Fire also speaks about purification. As the Spirit of the living God applies redemption into our hearts, he will burn away falsehood, lies, and deceit. He will cleanse us. And finally, fire stands for God. We read that our God is a consuming fire. The impenitent, the stubborn, the one who lifts his heel against God and his Anointed--God will deal with that individual, and he will do so most severely.
A Call to Repentance
As John the Baptist called for repentance, I must also call for repentance, because I know there are sinners, saved and unsaved, who must repent. Would you repent enough to forsake your sinful life? Will you repent with godly sorrow that you may seek godliness? As we read in 2 Corinthians 6:2, "Now is the day of God's favor, now is the day of salvation."
May God help us and forgive us all our sins. May he bring us into vital contact with the Holy Spirit and fire and breathe the breath of life into us. May God grant us the mighty power of the Spirit of God, reveal truth to us and enlighten our eyes that we may appreciate truth and oppose error and falsehood with all passion. May God warm our hearts and remove from us the coldness of formalism, ritualism, materialism, and worldliness. May he save his people this day and set them on fire for him. Amen.
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Copyright © 1997, P. G. Mathew
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