Wednesday, November 16, 2011

More Thoughts From the Journal

Luke 3:1-20

Here we have the introduction to (adult) John the Baptist. I confess, I've always had trouble understanding the role of John the Baptist. Why does Scripture treat him like such an important figure? I mean, the opening of the Gospel of John starts talking about him in the sixth verse, right after identifying Jesus as the Creator of the universe and sustainer of all life and goodness. It sounds like an odd thing to talk about next. “There was the Word – the Creator of all things who came to the world to overcome darkness and evil...and then there was JOHN!”

This juxtaposition is extra ironic, considering that the author of the Gospel of John is also, of course, named John. It would be easy for a person reading John's Gospel to come across the sixth verse and think, “Oh, I see. The author is talking about himself and establishing his authority as one sent by God to testify about Jesus.” But no. This is a different John.

I've heard that, in Jesus' time, the arrival of a king was supposed to be preceded by a herald. The herald would come, announce the coming king, and then the king would arrive shortly afterward. John is fulfilling the role of the herald.

Which, according to the Book of Luke, is a necessary thing because it was prophesied in the Book of Isaiah. If Jesus is the Messiah, as John is arguing, he would have to fulfill the Old Testament prophecies. John (the apostle) is making the case that he did – because, as it says in Isaiah, a voice will call in the desert for people to repent in preparation for the Lord's coming. That is what John did.

It's interesting to me when verse 2 simply says, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.” I wish it gave more details. What did it look like when the word of God came to Zechariah? What did it feel like, for him? How did he know it was the word of God? The Bible states a lot of mysterious things very matter-of-factly.

When John was going around “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” what was he really telling people? Verses 7-18 give us some interesting insight, although I'm still a little confused. I don't think John was saying, “believe in Jesus of Nazareth and the imputed righteousness he will grace us with through his future death and resurrection.” Certainly he heralded the coming Messiah, but his call for repentance seemed to call for action more than it did for faith in Jesus. This verse says he told people to repent so that they might experience forgiveness for their sin. In other words, he told them to change their ways in order to be forgiven. Or at least that's what it sounds like.

Verses 7-18 support this. John announces to everyone that wrath is coming and that they need to produce “fruit in keeping with repentance” if they want to avoid that wrath. It doesn't matter that they are “children of Abraham” in a literal sense – that will not spare them. When the crowd hears this, they ask, “Well – then what are we to do?” To the general public, John says, “share and be generous toward the needy.” To the tax collectors, John says, “don't take more money than is necessary.” To the soldiers he says, “don't extort and don't accuse people falsely.

Basically, John calls for social revolution. He calls for people to give rather than take. That, and he says someone is coming very soon who's going to make this revolution happen. John announces that the long-awaited Messiah will soon arrive – a leader who will wipe out the tax collectors and liars and extorters. Someone who will right the wrongs and establish an everlasting kingdom. Someone who will make shalom happen.

But John is only the herald - he cannot do these things himself. He calls people to change their immoral practices and baptizes them in the river, but he cannot baptize "with the Holy Spirit and with fire" like the one who is coming.

What does it mean to say that Jesus "baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire"? In verse 17, John suggests that the baptism by fire is one of judgment, where all that is "chaff" will be burned with "unquenchable fire." But Jesus isn't just going to baptize with fire, he's also going to baptize with the Holy Spirit. And what is the baptism of the Holy Spirit? It's the baptism that "writes the law upon our hearts" (Jeremiah 31:33). It's when the chaff somehow gets turned into the wheat. Somehow, Jesus can do that.

John calls the chaff to change its ways and turn into wheat. Jesus makes a similar call, but he provides a means of making that transformation happen that John never could supply.  


  1. Can I share this with Scott? He was telling me about social revolution.

    I've actually been thinking about the social/political aspects of Christianity a lot recently. We should discuss.

  2. Sure (to both). Tim Keller has a really good message on Christianity and politics called "Arguing About Politics." I listened to it on the way home from Providence last time.