Textual Reference: (Isa 40:1-8; Ps 139:1-16; Acts 19:1-7; Luke 3:1-18)
John the Baptist is perhaps the most misunderstood of all biblical characters.
When a preacher labelled John “harsh and legalistic” I sent him an email with biblical references pointing out that there was no evidence for his judgement.
For example, John’s father Zechariah prophesied about his son’s ministry; “you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God,” (Luke 1:76-78).
In the end my preacher friend confessed that he found the Baptist a difficult person to relate to because of his own fears of confronting people about their sins. It is easy to misread the physical circumstances of John’s ministry. That he was preaching in the wilderness by the Jordan didn’t make him strange but located him in a region where so much of Israel’s history, like their entry into the Promised Land, had taken place.
His camel’s hair coat and leather belt immediately identified John with the apparel of the Old Testament prophet Elijah, and his tastes for wild honey and locusts, which I tried in Africa and found to be quite tasty, did not make him an antisocial person but simply someone who lived off the land (2 Ki 1:8; Matt 3:4; Luke 1:17).
Who said to the crowds, ““Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand….. you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?””, was it John or Jesus? They both used this serious language and both are said to “preach the gospel” (Matt 3:2, 7; Matt 23:33; Mark 1:15; Luke 3:18).
If John was the stern person many Christians think why did prostitutes and sinners flock to him for baptism (Matt 3:13-16; Matt 21:32)?
Some of the worst confusions about John relate to this incident; “v.2 when John heard in prison about all the things Christ was doing he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, v.3 “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?”” (Matt 11:2-3).
Some preachers teach that John had lost his nerve and did not understand why Jesus had not used his miraculous powers to break him out of jail. Whatever human beings might think about the Baptist Jesus’ verdict is final, “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John” (Matt 11:11).
I have significant personal reasons for being interested in the rehabilitation of this prophet’s reputation.
Firstly, according to the Church calendar John and I share the same birthday (June 24). Secondly, I have countless times been compared to John in my ministry.
John Understood Sinners
Have you ever been walking through Hay St Mall and heard someone preaching words like those used by John, ““Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”” (Matt 3:2).
Perth’s street corner preachers make their listeners feel judged, but in John’s case crowds flocked across the harsh wilderness to the Jordan, and having visited that area it is very harsh, to be baptised (Matt 3:5). As a man of God filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb John knew the difference between a sense of guilt induced by legalism and a sense of conviction brought about by the Word of God (Luke 1:15).
The prostitutes and sinners of John’s day had been filled with guilt by the Pharisees who repeatedly told them that they had failed God’s standards and were unworthy of his kingdom. But when the guilty and ashamed heard God speaking to them through the mouth of John their faith rose and for the first time in their lives they believed that through repentance and baptism they could experience real forgiveness.
The preaching of the Baptist illustrates that there are two kinds of guilt. The guilt that comes from violating law breeds misery the conviction of sin that comes from hearing God leads to repentance, forgiveness and new life (cf. 2 Cor 7:10). Let me illustrate.
When I was a teenager I smashed up my sister’s car and then lied about it. I felt terrible inside, tried to dull the guilt by taking numerous pain killers and just wanted to hide.
Since turning to Christ however and accepting his forgiveness I have never experienced that sort of guilt again. There is no evidence in the New Testament that Christians ever need to experience feelings of chronic guilt or unworthiness.
Those who heard John preach felt that the End of the world was near and the Last Judgement was about to overtake them.
Conscious of their sin they experienced a presence stronger than guilt and condemnation, they were empowered by the presence of God’s kingdom and willingly turned to the Lord in repentance. Desiring to get right with God before it was too late people asked the Baptist with great seriousness how they should change their lives (Luke 3:10-14).
These sorts of conversions are rare in the Church today because John’s style of preaching is rare; and here is why.
Not so long ago a well-known pastor in Perth started sleeping with another pastor’s wife; when this became public some people went to speak to him about his sin.
The response was predictable; “You are being legalistic/who are you to judge?” People in our culture loathe anyone who makes them feel like they are a “bad person”.
Experience teaches me that most pastors in Perth are paralysed by the fear of being accused of the great sin of our time, judge mentalism.
John did not have this fear; “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”” (Luke 3:9 cf. John 15:6).
John was not afraid of human opinion because he experienced a divine power within strengthening him to prepare people for the coming of their King; this King was Jesus.
John Witnessed to Jesus
John is the one human prophet whose own coming is prophesied; he alone would see his prophetic predictions come true (Isa 40:3; Mal 3:1 cf. Deut 18:15). When the “word of God came to John” Israel heard a prophetic voice for the first time in 400 years and the whole nation was stirred with expectation about the coming of Messiah (Luke 3:2).
“As…all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”” (Luke 3:15-17).
The sole source of John’s spiritual greatness is his supreme Christ-centeredness. When John pointed to Jesus and declared to his followers, like Andrew and Peter, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”, they stopped following him and started to follow Jesus (John 1:29ff.).
When some of John’s disciples said of Jesus, ““look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” John answered, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven…He must increase, but I must decrease.”” (John 3:25-30).
John’s entire joy was in seeing the ministry of Jesus grow and enlarge (John 3:29).
But John’s entire purpose was to point to Jesus. That is why over the centuries countless artists have portrayed John as a man pointing beyond himself to Christ (photo 2). John was simply a witness to Jesus (John 1:7-8, 15 etc.). This is John’s greatest gift to the Church; but to speak of Jesus is not always easy.
But John’s entire purpose was to point to Jesus. That is why over the centuries countless artists have portrayed John as a man pointing beyond himself to Christ (photo 2).
John was simply a witness to Jesus (John 1:7-8, 15 etc.).
This is John’s greatest gift to the Church; but to speak of Jesus is not always easy.
Earlier this month Donna and I were having a week off, my car was in the smash repairers and I went to pick it up.
When the boss (joke) was about to hand me back my keys he noticed that they had my car registration number on it, and he remarked that if someone found them they’d know which car to steal.
I said straight back that he thought in a very different way than me.
Then he said, “What do you do for a living?”
To be quite honest I didn’t feel like answering him, because I was tired and on holiday trying to escape people.
But since I pray daily for opportunities to speak to people about Jesus I knew in my heart what I needed to do. I got away as quickly as I could from talking about being an Anglican priest, he was a nominal Catholic, to talking about Jesus and how I became a Christian.
This is the one great thing we can learn from John the Baptist, to point in every circumstance to Christ as the Saviour of the world. John was nothing other than a witness.
A witness to Christ is an ordinary person with an extraordinary commission to point away from themselves. As a witness your centre is no longer in yourself but in Jesus, you no longer speak or write to satisfy your own emotional needs or urges. Contrary to much contemporary Church behaviour, the focus is not on my experience of Christ but on the Christ of my experience (2 Cor 5:15; Gal 2:20).
In the age of the “selfie” the need for true witness to Jesus is urgent.
To be such a witness you must be free from the self-centredness that guilt brings and filled with the power of the Holy Spirit.
But great as John there was a deep limitation in his life which would cause him to question whether Jesus really was the Messiah. Living the other side of the cross John could not understand Jesus had to die in our place to bring in the full presence of God’s kingdom. Jesus explained; ““I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”” (Luke 7:28).
John did not understand the Cross
The Baptist prophesied that when Messiah comes, “he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”” (Luke 3:17)
As Jews, John’s first hearers knew the Old Testament prophecies about a coming fiery judgement (Isa 26:11; Zeph 1:18; 3:8; Mal 3:2-3; 4:1). In the tradition of all the prophets John proclaimed that outstanding evidence of the arrival of Messiah was the burning up of all wickedness in the flames of God. Others close to Jesus had this mindset; when a Samaritan village refused hospitality to Jesus the apostles James and John said, ““Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”” (Luke 9:52-53)
In prison John heard that Jesus was performing many mighty miracles, but there was one supernatural demonstration that Jesus never performed, he never once called down fire from heaven to consume his adversaries (cf. 2 Ki 1:1-14; Rev 11:5).
Was John then a prophet with a mix of an Old Testament message of wrath and a New Testament message about a God of forgiveness?
Anyone who thinks in this way disregards Jesus’ estimate of John and in their own spiritual confusion will not see men and women come to repentance and enter the kingdom of God.
Confusions like this explain why most of the Anglican parishes in this city are dying!
John was right in preaching that the fire of the Spirit’s judgement needed to fall on guilt and sin. But what he did not and could not see, on his side of the cross, was that the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world must take this fiery wrath upon himself (John 1:29).
After John’s death Jesus explained to his disciples, ““I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!”” (Luke 12:49-50).
On the cross Christ took the fire of God’s judgment on our sin at immeasurable cost to his relationship with the Father.
John and all the prophets had testified of the coming of Jesus, but when Jesus cried out in anguish, ““My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”” he was dying alone without either the testimony of man or of God’s Spirit that he is indeed the Messiah taking away the sin of the world (Mark 15:34; Luke 24:25-27).
Until Jesus was raised from the dead no one could fully understand our need to believe in him as a King who had triumphed over our sins through crucifixion (Acts 2:36). John’s understanding of the nature of messiah-ship was necessarily limited; but we are in a radically different position than John.
Today whoever has repented of their sins and received forgiveness in Jesus’ name has God’s own Spirit in them testifying to the identity of Jesus as Messiah and King (John 3:3; Acts 2:38; 1 John 5:9-10).
This is an inner testimony whose truth cannot be destroyed by any worldly power.
For the Christian the inner witness of the Holy Spirit to Christ crucified should be more powerful than anything your guilty conscience may say to you, more powerful than the message of your own emotions, stronger than anything your parents or any other human being has ever said to make you feel condemned, unworthy and ashamed (1 Cor 1:18; Rom 8:14-17).
If sinners flocked to the message of John, why has the life-giving message of Jesus been so strangled in the Church?
Every human being spontaneously witnesses to their deepest inner experience (Prov 4:23; Prov 20:5).
You will speak about what touches you most deeply; if Donna never spoke passionately about her children, grandchildren and husband we would all know she was a woman suffering from shame and guilt. You will you give witness to others about Jesus to the exact degree that you experienced the power of the forgiveness of the cross (Luke 7:47; John 10:910).
If you have no desire at all to talk about Jesus as your Saviour then you are not a saved person, you are not a Christian. But if you know he is your Saviour and you struggle to tell unbelieving neighbours, workmates, family and friends about the Lord you have a different sort problem.
Unlike the tax collectors and prostitutes who first followed John and then Jesus you are deceived into thinking your sins cannot be forgiven.
But in the fiery baptism of Christ’s suffering for us on the cross all is forgiven.
What about our family at St Mark’s?
Do we want to be a church that relentlessly points people to Jesus?
Do you personally desire to be someone who continually testifies that Jesus is the Lamb of God who has taken away the sin of the world?
The repeated comments “John Yates is like John the Baptist” are not jokes.
My life’s vision is to stand in every situation in which God places me and point to Jesus.
Is this your life’s vision?
I would rather be a person misunderstood like John but with a reputation of pointing to Jesus than someone who never saw people powerfully impacted by the kingdom of God.
When John preached he required of the people a physical sign of their sincerity and commitment to seek the kingdom of God.
I think the sign God is asking from us today is that we stand together and commit to being a group of people who will give testimony to Jesus in Bassendean and beyond, no matter what (Rev 19:10).
Preached St Mark’s Church on the Rise 19.7.15