The significance of John's message to the nation of Israel is only heightened when we see that he is baptizing. Yet it is important to remember the audience of his proclamation was not Gentiles, but the Jews, the physical descendants of Abraham. This episode examines the importance of baptism and how offensive it would have been for John to call the Jews to be baptized.
This video is part of the Opening Up the Gospels
Hi I'm Josh Hawkins and this is episode 37 of Opening Up the Gospels. In Episode 36 I began to break down the message of John the Baptist and what he was telling the people of Israel in Luke 3 and Matthew 3. We saw that John had identified Himself with the voice of Isaiah 40, saying that he was sent before Yahweh to prepare for Him. I talked about how his message was one of division and reckoning - that the day of the Lord was at hand and the God of Israel was coming to personally evaluate and lay bare the hearts of His people Israel. I also talked about how John pulled the imagery of a tree and a stump right from Isaiah chapter 6, where the Lord prophesies through Isaiah that a time would come when the cities of Israel would be laid waste and without inhabitant because of the hardness of their heart. John said that the axe was at the root of the trees - in other words, the trees of Israel had not been cut down yet, but were about to be. And the trees that didn't bear the fruits of repentance would be cut down and thrown into the fire. John's message probably wouldn't make modern churchgoers walk away on Sunday afternoon and say "good sermon today, huh?" It's not a feel-good message, but it is one of mercy. The Lord sent John ahead of Himself to prepare the people for His coming. I want to pick up today in Luke's Gospel, and I want to look at a couple of other very important points related to John's message. Let's read Luke 3 starting in verse 15: “As the people were in expectation, and 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, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with 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 ESV) Just right off the bat here Luke tells us that all the people were in expectation and questioning in their hearts whether John was the Christ or not. Here's where I want to draw on knowledge that I talked about from a few past episodes - specifically the supplemental episode on what "Christ" means, called "Biblical Foundations of Messiah and Christ" which is right around Episode 21, and then also just a couple episodes ago, Episode 35 where I talked about the Maccabean Revolt. All the people here are wondering - is John going to be the king of Israel that will deliver the nation and establish God's kingdom and all of God's promises that the law and the prophets spoke about? Not only are they wondering, but they have heightened expectation because of where John is - he's in the wilderness and crowds are gathering to him. This "insurrection" idea of some sort of resistance movement forming secretly out in the desert or in the inner rooms and then gaining strength - this had happened recently with Judas Maccabeeus and the overthrowing of the Greeks. But John the Baptist is not the Christ, as he himself would later say explicitly, and he was no Judas Maccabeeus. His message was way different - it wasn't one of Jewish pride or nationalism, but as we'll see now, it was one of Jewish repentance. Now, what was John was doing in the desert? He wasn't forming a resistance movement against Rome, but he was baptizing. I want you to see this - this is so significant. In order to better understand the significance of John baptizing Jews, we need to go back to the Old Testament and the story of Joshua. Moses had died, and Joshua was the one finally leading the people of Israel into the land that God had promised them. You can read this whole thing in Joshua chapter 3 and 4, but let's look at a few verses here in Joshua 3: “So when the people set out from their tents to pass over the Jordan with the priests bearing the ark of the covenant before the people, and as soon as those bearing the ark had come as far as the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the brink of the water (now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest), the waters coming down from above stood and rose up in a heap very far away, at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, and those flowing down toward the Sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea, were completely cut off. And the people passed over opposite Jericho. Now the priests bearing the ark of the covenant of the LORD stood firmly on dry ground in the midst of the Jordan, and all Israel was passing over on dry ground until all the nation finished passing over the Jordan.” (Joshua 3:14–17 ESV) It's so important to see who it was that was actually passing through the Jordan River here. It was the remnant of Israel. Remember, it had been 40 years that Israel had wandered in the desert. Look at this in Joshua 5:6: “For the people of Israel walked forty years in the wilderness, until all the nation, the men of war who came out of Egypt, perished, because they did not obey the voice of the LORD; the LORD swore to them that he would not let them see the land that the LORD had sworn to their fathers to give to us, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Joshua 5:6 ESV) So the unbelievers who didn't obey the Lord the ones who had initially come out of Egypt, they were cut off as the nation wandered for 40 years and they died in the desert. But only the believing remnant had passed through the Jordan and saw the land that the Lord had promised the people. Does this make sense? So with this in mind, let's think about John the Baptist again. Where is he? He's right by Jericho and he's baptizing in the Jordan River - he's causing people who would repent of their disobedience and hard hearts to once again pass through the waters of the Jordan. Just feel the parallels here and imagine what was going on in the mind of the Jewish people. A transition and a division was coming and on the other side of it, only the believing remnant who would repent and submit to his baptism would remain. Do you see how this is just like what happened to all of their great great great great great granddaddies? Also, this is really interesting... Remember how we looked at the angel Gabriel's words to Zechariah about John the Baptist back in Episode 12? There Gabriel had told him that John would go before the Lord in the spirit and the power of Elijah. Now with thst in mind, check out this verse in 2 Kings 2: “Then Elijah took his cloak and rolled it up and struck the water, and the water was parted to the one side and to the other, till the two of them could go over on dry ground.” (2 Kings 2:8 ESV) Just before Elijah is taken up into the heavens, he repeats this same miracle at the Jordan River that had happened with Joshua and the Israelites. And here's John the Baptist in the spirit and power of Elijah, baptizing people and causing Israelites to pass through the waters of the Jordan. Man. Do you see how this all ties together? Let's talk about baptism for a second. Why is John baptizing and not just preaching? Baptism isn't really found in the Old Testament, and there's a lot of research and scholarship on it, but the biggest point I want to stress is that from what we can see, baptism became the rite that someone underwent when they wanted to join themselves to the Jewish nation and their promises. So for instance, if a foreigner wanted to become part of the covenant people of God, they could and baptism would be ritual what they would submit to. This is extremely important to understand when we see John doing what he's doing. He is baptizing. But that's not all. He is calling for the Jewish people to be baptized. By doing this, John was calling forth a remnant that would enter the true Promised Land of the New Covenant that was going to be established by God. Now I'm not spiritualizing the New Covenant and the promised land here - I'm just saying that there would one day, through the New Covenant, be a remnant of Israel who would participate in the promises that God made to Abraham and to his seed. So, imagine this. John is in the Jordan River, calling Jews to repent and be baptized. He's not speaking to Gentiles here. He's in essence saying to the Jewish people - "repent and convert to Judaism!", because remember, baptism was the way that someone would become part of God's people. And here is where the offense of John's ministry lies. He's basically saying that the Jewish people need to join themselves to the covenant people because they aren't the ones who will receive the promises that God made to Abraham and to his seed just because they were Abraham's physical descendants. Clearly the Pharisees and the leadership of Israel didn't like him, because they were the epitome of all things Jewish - they claimed strict adherence to the Law of Moses and, like the Apostle Paul would later say about his life in Judaism, they were blameless according to the law. But John is inherently saying "Jewish people, don't think you get the promises just because you're physical descendants of Abraham. Remember our forefathers and how the disobedient died in the desert because of unbelief. You are no different, and Yahweh is about to come to expose how you feel about Him and what He commanded. You need to repent and become part of God's covenant people by being baptized if you don't want to be burned in the fire when the kingdom comes at the day of the LORD." Do you see how offensive this message would be? Think about the people - they're wondering if John is the guy who's going to rise up and do away with the oppression of Rome just like what happened with the Maccabean Revolt, and this is the message he preaches! My goodness! Here's a couple of points for your meditation on this scene this week: 1) Imagine you're living in Judea in 26AD when John begins baptizing. How would you feel if you heard John preach? Would you repent and be baptized? What about your family and friends? 2) Ponder the small talk between the Pharisees and the Jewish authorities after hearing about John. I'm sure they didn't have too many nice things to say about him. In the next episode we're going to continue looking at John's message, specifically Luke 3 verses 16 and 17 when John says that the one coming would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. This may not be what you think it is, so I'd encourage you to check it out. You can sign up to receive email notifications of these episodes on my website, www.joshuahawkins.com/gospels. You'll also find all of the other episodes in this series there as well. If this episode has challenged you or brought some clarity to you, leave me a comment or send me an email through the contact form on my website. I'd love to hear from you. Well, God bless, see you next time.