When I think of the ministry of John the Baptist, I generally think of a wild guy wearing animal skin clothes and eating bugs (Matt 3:4). But Luke leaves this description out. He chooses to focus on John’s message rather than his appearance.
Discussing the ministry of John inevitably raises questions concerning the nature and purpose of his baptism:
- What was he doing in the wilderness? Did he know the Essenes (writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls) since they had a commune near there.
- Where’d he get the idea of baptism from? It’s not in the Old Testament.
- Did his baptism actually give people forgiveness of sins (Lk 3:3), or just move them in the right direction to receive forgiveness?
- How was it different/similar to Jesus baptism or different/similar to Christian baptism?
- How does the story of Apollos in Acts 18 play into this discussion?
But somehow we seem to lose John’s message as all these questions overwhelm us. Perhaps that’s why Luke spends so much time laying out the content of John’s preaching.
In verses 4-6 Luke quotes Isaiah 40 and clearly presents John as the prophet-herald preparing for the return of God. A survey of Isaiah 40-66 demonstrates that when God returned he would create a new people and bring permanent salvation to His people. (This differs from the cyclical salvation Israel had previously experienced as foreign powers had periodically oppressed them.)
John announces the imminent return of God. What’s fascinating is that he prepares the way for God by preaching repentance. He challenges people to make life changes. But not in the way we usually think of repentance.
John doesn’t ask for Pharisees to become Sadducees, or for Gentiles to convert to Judaism. John doesn’t ask for people to affirm particular doctrinal beliefs. John challenges these people who sought the return of God to prepare by changing their lives, and their priorities. I find it interesting that all three of his specific instructions concern personal finances. 1. Give to the poor. 2. Don’t be greedy, but be honest in carrying out your job. That’s what repentance meant to John.
Repentance involves more than saying “Sorry” or changing our thoughts. Repentance means changing the way we view and treat those around us. John expects us to display true repentance through “fruits of repentance” (3:8). In summary, we might say, “We love God, by loving others”. And loving others means respecting and caring for the physical needs of those around us, as well as their spiritual needs. When we do this, we join John in preparing the way for the LORD to return.
- What’s the first thing you think of when you read about John the Baptiser?
- “Repentance” is a word we don’t use much outside of church. Can you suggest some other words and phrases that have the same message but might be more easily understood?
- In the Church of Christ we, rightly, teach repentance as an essential part of the process of salvation. Yet John preached to God’s pious people the need for repentance, so shouldn’t this be a message we continue to preach within our churches? Do you think it’s difficult for Christians to regularly acknowledge their need to repent?
- If we regularly preached John’s message, wouldn’t we just have churches full of guilty feeling people? But re-read v3 which says that repentance is for forgiveness of sins. Can we preach John’s message and feel forgiven, not guilty?
Okay, I recognise that I seem to have asked more questions than I’ve answered here. There are obviously a lot of things to talk about here, so why don’t you throw some of your answers as well as few questions at me and maybe we can discuss some of these issues further.