JOHN THE BAPTIST
John the Baptist was a phenomenon. There had been no prophet of the Lord in Israel for 400 years, not since the time of Malachi. And the last words of Malachi predicted the Lord would send Elijah before the great and dreadful Day of the Lord (Malachi 4:5, 6). Elijah was always remembered for his camel hair cloak, and his fierce denunciation of evil. John Baptist fitted this description perfectly. Maybe this was Elijah? Maybe he was the Messiah? Maybe the Day of the Lord was near? It was a time of great excitement, and thousands decided to go and see for themselves.
Imagine we are joining the crowd by the Jordan who have gathered to watch him. It has taken two days’ steady walking from our home town in Galilee. John’s favourite spot is on the east of the Jordan, but he has chosen to be near a crossing point (Bethabara means ‘house of the ferry’) so that people from both east and west can get to him easily. So we pay the fare and cross over. It is a remote place, wild and dry, near where the Israelites once crossed over under Joshua. John is weather beaten and dark from the sun, thin from his ascetic diet of locust beans and honey, and wrapped in his hair cloak bound with a strong leather belt. He is clearly a forceful character. As we approach, a party of well-dressed men surrounds him, asking him questions. They are from the Pharisees, the religious rulers, so the people stand at a respectful distance. ‘Who are you?’ they ask him. He dismisses the popular idea that he was the Messiah. ‘I am not the Christ’ he insists. ‘Are you Elijah’? ‘I am not Elijah’, he says. ‘Are you the prophet Moses spoke of?’ ‘No, I am not!’ ‘Who are you, then?’ ‘I am the messenger sent before the Lord, the one Isaiah said would appear in the wilderness to prepare the road for the king’. Now, when the king comes to town, there are mighty preparations. Gardens are tidied, houses are painted, and any bumps or potholes in the road that might shake the royal carriage are carefully removed. That was John’s task. He was like a steamroller. See Luke 3:4, 5. He came to prepare the hearts of men and women for the coming of the King. As the angel said of him (Luke 1:17), though he was not Elijah, he would come in the spirit and power of Elijah, and his task was to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
Now, as the priests walk away, John Baptist speaks aloud, intending they should hear him. Compare Luke 3:7 with Matthew 3:7-10. It is the Pharisees, not the ordinary people, who are the prime target of his condemnation. These evil men were very proud of their righteousness. They disdained John’s call to repentance. They were sure they did not need to be forgiven anything – they were Abraham’s children. But these same men in three years’ time were going to murder the Messiah. In Bible language, they were the Seed of the Serpent, who would strike Eve’s Seed in the heel (Genesis 3:15). We can understand now why John calls them a generation of vipers. ‘Generation’ means ‘descendants’. They were the children of the Serpent. Compare John’s vehement attack on them with Jesus’ condemnation of the same people in Matthew 23:29-33. John had come to warn these men that if they did not repent, time was running out. God’s judgment on Israel would fall, irrevocably. In 40 years’ time, in AD 70, it would be like a flaming fire. Jerusalem was literally burnt with fire and destroyed. It is interesting to note that when bush fires race across the land in Australia, snakes are often seen fleeing the flames. If the Pharisees had been wise, they would have heeded John’s warning in Matthew 3:7. But he knew he was wasting his time on them. In the words of Jesus’ story, God the gardener was inspecting the fruit tree of Israel (Luke13:6). It was the last chance to produce a crop. Otherwise, as we read in Luke 13:10, the tree would be cut down. And that is what happened. There was no fruit, and the Jewish state came to an end.
As the priests disappear from sight, John turns to the ordinary folk, with a more kindly tone in his voice. They had heard what he said to the Pharisees. Now they ask him what exactly he meant when he talked about ‘bringing forth fruits meet for repentance’. He answers them with practical examples. To the ordinary people he recommended showing love and compassion to the poor (Luke 3:11). To the tax collectors he insisted there must be no more extortion (v12). To the soldiers he said "take money from no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your pay” (NET). The point about false accusation was that a soldier could make an official accusation against a civilian, and then share part of the fine imposed by a court if the accused was found guilty – a useful supplement to his pay.
We watch as one person after another comes forward to be plunged under the water by the Baptist, confessing their need for forgiveness and a new start. We see the joy on their faces as they step onto the bank, to be hugged by their relatives. We turn and cross the river, meditating on what we have seen.
What is the message we take home to our friends as we retrace our steps across the mountains? What did John stand for? Clearly he had no time for the rulers, with their arrogant claim to an outward righteousness. He warned them they face God’s judgment, because their tree is fruitless. But for the ordinary folk, John’s message was that we need to change our way of life if we are to go into the Kingdom of the coming King. The King has no room for hypocrites or thieves. He wants people who practise the simple Old Testament virtues of compassion, truth and love. We need to have our hearts washed clean if we are to be ready for the King.
That message still applies today. We also await the arrival of the Lord Jesus. Like Anna and Simeon (Luke 2:25, 36), we know the time is ripe for his appearance. We need to be bringing forth fruits in our lives that he will appreciate – the simple things like compassion, and truthfulness, and love. We need to share our possessions with the poor, to keep our lives free from covetousness, to be content with a little, and to cleanse our hearts with the water of God’s word that reminds us every day we read it of the character of the Lord we have chosen to serve.
John was the forerunner. Those who came to his baptism would later meet the King himself, dressed in the robes of a carpenter, treading the streets of Galilee, bringing healing to the sick and hope to the hopeless. Some would accept him as God’s Messiah. Others would reject him and cry for his death. Like John Baptist, he would divide mankind, as he still does today. Whether we live in the 1st century or the 21st, we either turn our hearts back to the ways of the fathers of Israel, or we perish in the fire of his judgments on the great and terrible day of the Lord.
David M Pearce