John the Baptist was a great man. He is called “the Baptist,” because his ministry was characterized by a call for people to be baptized. Luke 3:3 says, “Then John went from place to place on both sides of the Jordan River, preaching that people should be baptized to show that they had repented of their sins and turned to God to be forgiven.”[i] This baptism is how we distinguish him from other men named John, such as John the Apostle.
John the Baptist did not write any Scripture. The gospel of John, 1st, 2nd, 3rd John and Revelation were all written by the Apostle John. John the Apostle started out as a political zealot and ended up as the Apostle of Love. John the Baptist was a wild man. By “wild man,” I mean that he lived in the wild. He wore clothes made for rough country and ate what food he could find in wild places.
John the Baptist apparently isolated himself for a time. There is no suggestion of the length of time he lived in the wilderness. However, in Luke 3:2 we learn, “At this time a message from God came to John, son of Zechariah, who was living in the wilderness.” Receiving this message from God may have been part of the fruit of his isolation. The Scriptures do not say this, but I imagine part of John’s living in the wilderness was his personal seeking after God.
We also see in these early verses of Luke 3 that John lived in a politically charged time. We see names that are famous even in our day. Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Annas and Caiaphas are names famous in the story of Jesus.
John was born as the forerunner of Jesus. This is what Luke 3:4 is referring to when it quotes Isaiah saying, “He is a voice shouting in the wilderness.” This is the Advent Season and we are looking forward to the birth of Jesus. The Advent is a time of preparing and anticipation. It is a time for us to reflect and worship. As we look at John as a forerunner, we are looking at this preparing aspect of his ministry. However, historically the events we are looking at today actually took place almost 30 years after Jesus was born. Historically, John and Jesus were born close in time with each other.
I began by saying, “John the Baptist was a great man.” Jesus, Himself, said of John, “I tell you, of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John.” (Luke 7:28) Luke 1:17 and other passages say that John would be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah who would prepare people for the coming of the Messiah. Elijah was a great Old Testament prophet, and John represented the last of the Old Testament prophets. However, John the Baptist did not perform any recorded miracles. Elijah did. Elisha did. Moses and Jesus did. But, John did not.
John came with a very simple message. He came preaching, “. . . people should be baptized to show that they had repented of their sins and turned to God to be forgiven.” (Luke 3:3) John said more. His head was chopped off because he told the king that he had no business marrying his brother’s wife. He said more, but his message was one simple idea. “People should be baptized to show that they had repented of their sins and turned to God to be forgiven.”
John’s job as a forerunner was to announce the Good News. He does this saying, “someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not even worthy to be his slave and untie the straps of his sandals.” (Luke 3:16)
John’s message was simple, and his announcement was equally simple and direct. He did not perform miracles. Without miracles or a flashy show, this wild man with a simple message and simple announcement drew large crowds.
In our day of marketing, media and flashing lights it is hard to imagine something so simple drawing huge crowds. However, I think people today hunger for something simple and direct. A man who has isolated himself from the corruption and glamour of the world and in a simple straightforward way tells the truth is appealing. The Gospel is powerful. Before marketing, before preaching, before speaking, we need to take the time to get alone with God and hear from Him. Even Jesus, the Son of God, rose a great while before dawn to be alone with the Father. John the Baptist spent time alone in the wilderness, and left the wilderness after hearing from God.
We are busy. We are busy, but not busier than Jesus was. We make time for what is important to us. I have worked with men who worked 60 and 70 hours a week, who made time to watch their favorite football team. 60 or 70 hours a week may be a light week for you, but I would still ask, “Are you too busy to seek the Lord?”
All of us are drawn to the simple, straightforward truth of the Gospel. Crowds flocked to John the Baptist just to hear that the Savior was soon to appear. But, the reception they received was less than inviting. While we are drawn to the Gospel, we can be driven away by the truth about ourselves.
Verses 7, 8 and 9 of Luke 3 are harsh, very harsh. It says:
7When the crowds came to John for baptism, he said, “You brood of snakes! Who warned you to flee God’s coming wrath? 8Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones. 9Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.”
What a greeting! “You brood of snakes.” John was harsh.
These people were Jewish. From the day they were born, they celebrated the Jewish Holidays. They learned about the 10 plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea at Passover. They learned about the 40 years in the wilderness and manna during the festival of Sukkot. They knew the 10 commandments from the time they were children. They knew God’s promise to Abraham, and were looking forward to the coming of the Messiah. John assaults their confidence when he says, “Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing.”
We all put our confidence in something. Many say, “I am a good person. I have not done anything wrong.” By wrong, they mean criminal. We all like to consider ourselves good people. But, our standard of good is based on our own ideas and not God’s. Others count on the fact that they were baptized, or some other religious practice.
The people John the Baptist was talking to were the most religious people possible. If anyone could be right with God by religious practice, surely they could have been. However, all their religious practice proved is that one cannot be right with God by religious practice. Galatians 3:11 says, “So it is clear that no one can be made right with God by trying to keep the law.”
Writing in 1948, well know author and preacher A. W. Tozer, writing in his introduction to the book The Pursuit of God said:
The truth of Wesley’s words is established before our eyes: “Orthodoxy, or right opinion, is at best, a very slender part of religion. Though right tempers cannot subsist without right opinions, yet right opinions may subsist without right tempers. There may be a right opinion of God without either love or one right temper toward Him. Satan is a proof of this.”
Thanks to our splendid Bible societies and to other effective agencies for the dissemination of the Word, there are today many millions of people who hold “right opinions,” probably more than ever before in the history of the Church. Yet I wonder if there was ever a time when true spiritual worship was at a lower ebb. To great sections of the church the art of worship has been lost entirely, and in its place has come that strange and foreign thing called the “program.” This word has been borrowed from the stage and applied with sad wisdom to the type of public service which now passes for worship among us.
The point is, all need a Savior. There is no exception. You and I, no matter how spiritual we may think we are, are entirely dependent on Jesus Christ for salvation. That is why the coming of the Savior is such good news.
John came with a simple message that drew hearts to hear more. However, the nature of the message confronted all men with their sins. The conclusion of the message was the need for change.
Change does not save us. John says, “Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God.” (Luke 3:8) Salvation is found in turning to God. Repentance is changing one’s mind. I once thought I did not need a Savior. I now see that I need a Savior. I have changed my mind. I once thought I was good enough. I now see that my righteousness is as filthy rags before God. I have changed my mind.
John tells the multitude that baptism means nothing if the evidence of change is not there.
2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!”
We are talking about this kind of change. James says it like this:
You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror. How foolish! Can’t you see that faith without good deeds is useless? (James 2:19-20)
In John’s day as in ours, if we have truly repented and turned to God, our lives will show it. Do we change in order to be saved? No, rather, change is the evidence that we have repented and turned to God to be saved.
John came to prepare the way for the Lord’s arrival. We still need his message today.
[i] Unless otherwise noted Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation. Copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Steam, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.