This morning we’ll look at the
man who Jesus said was “the greatest man born of woman.” From Luke’s gospel,
we want to see what God will teach us through the ministry of John the
came to prepare God’s people for the coming of the
Lord Jesus and he
comes at a unique moment in salvation history and preaches to a unique group of people.
Still, we can today glean important truths that will enable us to know how
to live more faithfully to God and how God through his word prepares a sinner’s heart to receive the
forgiveness Christ offers. As
we read earlier John quotes Isaiah chapter 40 to announce that purpose of preparation.
He says, “The voice of one crying
in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be lifted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall become straight,
and the rough places shall become levels
ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” God prophesies that he will send John to remove the
obstructions that would hinder people from coming to Jesus.
He uses this geographical language to convey this--every valley will be elevated
to sea level—the mountains and hills will be flattened, the
crooked roads shall be straightened ones, the rough places, leveled.
The purpose of all of this spiritual excavation is so that all
flesh—people from every people group (but beginning with the
Jews) will be able to have a clear vantage point from which to view the
salvation of God seen in his Son, Jesus Christ.
That begs the question, “What are those obstructions that obscure people from
having a clear view of Jesus Christ?”
The main one is revealed later in Isaiah in a very similar passage. In chapter 57:14,
in a passage that teaches what is required for a sinful people to come to God, the
prophet says, “And it shall be said, “Build up, build up, prepare the way, remove every obstruction
from my people’s way.” For
thus says the One who is high and lifted
up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy; “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of contrite and lowly
spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” Do you hear what he is saying?
He’s saying two main things—1. “prepare the
way for my people to come to me and 2. I am holy and that means that I dwell with those who are contrite and lowly
in spirit—I revive the lowly and contrite.”
John’s role within salvation history
was to bring a message that would prepare God’s people (and all
flesh) for the Messiah by
humbling them through a very pointed, prophetic message exposing their
great sin and calling them to repentance.
Another clue that tells us that the
purpose of John’s ministry was for spiritual preparation through humbling is--the
venue in which John’s ministry takes place.
Did you ever wonder why the gospel
writers make a point of telling us that John ministered in the wilderness? This is surely a
terrible evangelistic strategy. Doesn’t John know that if you want to influence a culture, you must take your message
to the cities?
The reason John was in the wilderness is because in the
Bible, the wilderness or the
desert was seen as the place where God prepares his people.
The Jews after the Exodus were
led by God into the wilderness to be prepared to enter the Promised
How does God use the
wilderness to prepare his people? Moses tells them why God had brought them
into the wilderness in Deuteronomy 8:3. “And
you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread
alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mount of the LORD.”
Before entering the Promised
Land, the Jews must know that the
bread they need in order to live is not fundamentally physical, material
bread—true life is not found in the temporal things of this world like
food—it is found in the eternal Word of God.
Do you see the connection with
here Jesus on the stage of world history about to make his entrance—and
he comes as the bread of heaven—THE Word of God who gives life to all
who believe in him. In
order to receive him, you must be humbled and see that your essential need has nothing to do with the
things of this world. It’s
spiritual—our essential need is to be made right with God because we have a massive sin problem.
John’s wilderness venue for ministry was chosen intentionally to help communicate
that the nature of his ministry was to prepare God’s people for the
Messiah by humbling them to see their
devastating need for him.
Now that we have a lens through
which to look at John and his ministry, I find three elements of his ministry of preparation—all of which involve
humbling his hearers. First,
to repentance. Repentance
is a large Biblical theme and entire books have been devoted to it, but to repent is to turn away from your sin—by
God’s grace, to turn away from the things of this world and reorient
yourself to God. This
is a radical change in a person’s orientation from self to God, from sin to obedience.
This change begins in how we think or the
attitudes we have toward sin and God, but that change in thinking or attitude always works its way out to how we
Repentance is a very important theme
to Luke. He
emphasizes repentance in both his gospel and in Acts.
In his version of the Great Commission
he says, “...Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed
in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” When
Peter preaches his first sermon in Acts and his hearers are cut to the
heart over their sin and ask Peter and the
apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” his
response to them in Acts 2:38 is, “Repent
and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Paul
is preaching to the Greek intellectuals in Athens
and says in Acts 17:30, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now
he commands all people everywhere to repent.”
Luke, and more importantly the
Holy Spirit who inspired Luke, would have no tolerance for those today in the
church who teach that repentance is not an essential part of salvation.
As we see from the ministry of
John the Baptist, a repentant heart is necessary to receive Jesus.
I see at least two truths about
repentance revealed in Luke’s portrayal of John’s ministry.
First, in order for repentance to occur,
you must by God’s grace see yourself as God does.
After John announces his mission by quoting Isaiah chapter 40, we read in
verse seven, “He said therefore to the crowds that come out to be
baptized by him, “You brood of vipers…”
In order to see just how chilling these
words are, we need to hear them the
way John’s audience heard them.
John literally calls the crowds
“ You offspring of vipers” or “baby vipers” and that’s significant.
The viper that most people knew about in that area was the
called the Nicander’s viper. This
snake was renowned for its nastiness. After mating, the female bites the
head off the male and the
baby snakes give some payback to their mother. When they
were ready to be born they would eat their
way out of their mother’s
creature is what John likens these crowds to.
We must understand that John was
speaking as a prophet of God here which means he is speaking under the
inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
That implies that God characterizes these people who had come out
to John as a “brood of vipers.” This wasn’t just a loud man dressed like Elijah calling them
this; this was the God Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who was comparing them
to nasty snakes. God
intends this to be a cold, hard slap in the face of his people who
had been spiritually snoozing and living just like the rest of the
had not been seeing their sin or themselves
as God did and therefore they
felt no burden to repent.
This truth exposes something about
much of what passes for evangelism in North America.
Jesus is often peddled as being the answer to our financial, emotional or
domestic problems—as the key to a prosperous and happy life. People who come
to Jesus fundamentally on those grounds cannot possibly be saved because as we have seen, Jesus did not come to
make our world any easier, he came because we are born into this world (as Whitefield said) as “monsters of iniquity”
who desperately need our sins forgiven. The ground of the human heart must by God’s
grace be softened and made humble through the recognition of our need of a Savior before it will receive Christ. There is application
here for believers as well. Many in the church struggle to overcome
a stubborn sin for years unsuccessfully because they have not repented
of it and one reason they have repented of it is because they
haven’t seen in as God sees it. They know its “wrong” and at some level they feel bad about it, but that is not the same
as seeing it from God’s perspective.
The understanding that I am doing
something “wrong” has never led me to the godly sorrow that brings
pray about certain stubborn sins for years because they are troubled
in their conscience and don’t like that so they
pray for freedom. But
if you pray for awhile about a sin and you are not seeing progress, that would seem to indicate that prayer alone
is not enough. Have
you humbled yourself by going to someone you know who, when you confess your sin to them,
will shoot straight with you--who will lovingly put the word of God
on you. “Duncan, what you are doing is selfish—do you see what
you are doing to those who love you—James says in chapter two…” We don’t have many
friends like that—we tend not to want those people in our inner circle.
Or, when we are struggling with a sin we can’t get free of, do we go to those
sections of the Word of God that specifically speak to those areas
of sin and immerse ourselves with God’s mind on it, crying out that we would see our sin as God does? That can by God’s
grace allow us to experience the godly sorrow that leads to repentance.
A second truth about repentance
seen in John’s ministry is genuine
repentance always brings a fruit-bearing change in the life of the repentant.
Notice that the command John
issues here is not “Repent!” No, the command part of verse eight and is
“Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” The
command is to “bear fruits,” which always happens when you repent.
Something always changes when we repent—an attitude, a desire, an action
changes and fruit replaces sin. If an attitude, desire or action hasn’t changed, then
you have not repented. This
is what separates repentance from remorse.
In remorse, you just feel badly.
In repentance, fruit is produced.
In response to John’s call to repentance in Luke three, three different groups
ask him what this fruit of repentance looks like in their case. First the
crowds ask him in verse ten, “What then shall we do?” And he answered the, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever
has food is to do likewise.”
The word used for “tunic” was used for the undergarment worn under your outer
people back then didn’t have discretionary income like we do--so if they had anything that was extra, it was in
places like their closets or their food pantries. John says, “Show
fruit of a changed heart by giving away what extra you have to those in need.”
This call is very hard for us to appreciate in America
because our houses are filled with extra things. We count extra not as extra, but as necessary.
It’s necessary because, “What
if I should need it someday?
What if I should run out?”
Repentance is always marked by the
presence of faith and often, sacrifice. If you give your spare undergarment away, then
the one you keep will wear out twice as quickly as if you had two. If you have no discretionary
income, you will have to trust God for the money to buy another
one in half the time.
If it gets dirty, you will have to wash it immediately if you want to wear
it the next day.
The same faith and sacrifice is seen when a person with no discretionary
income gives away their extra food.
You have to trust God for any future needs.
It’s no coincidence that in Acts 2:45, Luke mentions that one of the
marks of a repentant church is seen in their willingness to sacrificially
meet the material needs of other
reports, “And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” A repentant heart
is a trusting, sacrificial, generous heart.
The tax collectors, who frequently
abused their office by collecting far more than they
were entitled, ask John, “what then shall we do?” “And he said to them, “Collect no more than you
are authorized to do.” This will mean a significant decrease in income
for many of them.
To be a tax collector was basically a license to steal and the
Jews hated them so much they
excommunicated people for being tax collectors. You made a lot of
money this way. John
doesn’t tell these men to quit their
tells them to bear fruits seen in collecting only what was required. Finally, the
soldiers asked, “What then shall we do?” These soldiers were
almost certainly what we today would call police. They were Jews and who served under the
Roman authorities. They
had some authority and many abused it by intimidation and extortion. John tells them
that in their case bearing fruit meant, “do
not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”
he confronts these police in two areas.
First, he tells them that they
were not to (literally) “shake people
down” through extortion by threats and false charges, but he also confronts
their underlying heart attitudes.
These soldiers made only enough to meet their
basic needs but if they abused their
authority they could get much more.
John tells them that repentance
for them looks like this--“be
content with your wages.”
You earn enough—be content—don’t covet after what God hasn’t given you and
you won’t be tempted to abuse your authority.
Notice with all three groups, John’s call to repentance will bear fruit in
ways that impact the pocket book.
You will have to buy clothing or food more frequently if you give away your
the case of the collectors
and the soldiers, repentance would have a significant impact on their
bottom lines. What
connects all these fruits of repentance is being genuinely concerned
for those around you. A
repentant, humbled heart is one that increasingly inclines you to live for other
people are sensitized to the needs of others
and not only refuse to take advantage of others; they
also do what they can to meet the
needs of others. Micah says in 6:8, “He has told you, O man, what
is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to
do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
That’s a good summary of what
John’s call to repentance looks like.
A second element of John’s ministry of preparation is: he warns them
coming judgment. The
two main warnings are in verses nine and 17.
In verse nine he says, “Even now
the axe is laid to the root of the trees.
Every tree therefore that does not bear good
fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” In these
warnings, John takes his message one step further.
Not only is repentance seen in bearing fruit, but if you don’t bear fruit,
you will face the judgment of God.
There are sharp teeth in his call to repent.
The picture is of an axe-wielding God who is about to lethally bring his
axe down on the roots of the
tree—the Jewish people--who are in imminent danger of violent judgment. It’s after John
issues this prophetic call to judgment, that these three groups begin
asking what they must do.
The threat of judgment, though rarely heard in most evangelism today, is
often essential at some point in the evangelistic process, for a person
to be prepared to receive Jesus. God calls John to issue this threat to the
Jews before they receive Jesus and he goes even one more step in his
message by picturing the coming Christ as the
Judge in verse 17.
He says of Jesus, “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
This metaphor is taken from a common agrarian scene.
At harvest, the grain was beaten
to separate the edible part from the
hull or the chaff.
After the grain was beaten, someone
with a wooden pitchfork would then throw the
grain up in the air on a windy day or in front of a winnowing fan and
the chaff would blow away and be gathered
for burning, while the grain would fall on the
floor and be stored away. John
says—the Winnower is Jesus who will separate those who repent from
those who do not.
Two groups are seen here.
First are those collected into the
barn and deemed valuable to the farmer and second, those that good
only for burning. And
the difference between the
two is--one group by God’s grace repents and accepts Jesus and the other
you refuse to repent, first you are separated out and then you face
judgment. Again, notice that the threat of judgment is part of John’s
role in preparing the way for people to receive Jesus.
If you are here today and have not repented of your sin and placed your trust
in Christ, today is the time to do that.
The axe is laid at the root of
the tree as John says and you must hear his urgency and God’s perspective
on your sin.
A third and final element of preparing people to receive Jesus that John
shows us here is he
clarifies for them
who Jesus is.
The people wondered if maybe John wasn’t the
Messiah and John makes a clear distinction to clarify who Jesus is as contrasted with himself.
In verse 16 Luke says, “John answered
them all, saying, “I baptize 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.” John does two things here to clarify Jesus’ identity.
distinguishes him from sinful humanity. Jesus is mightier than John. And he illustrates
how much mightier he is by telling the crowds that he is not worthy
to untie his sandals. One
of the duties of slaves in the
Ancient Near East was to untie their master’s sandals.
But within Judaism, that task was considered so contemptuous—so degrading
that Hebrew slaves did not do this.
To the Jews who heard this, what
John was saying was—The Messiah is so far above me that I am not worthy to perform even the
most onerous task to minister to him. Today, we might say—I am not worthy to empty his spit bucket.
What John is saying through this is that Jesus is not simply a bigger, much
improved version of himself, he is qualitatively different.
John dramatically exalts Jesus here.
Part of what prepares people to receive Jesus is for his people to rightly
exalt him—and John models that here for us by drawing clear and distinct differences between Jesus and himself
and by implication--every other so called god or prophet. Jesus is not just
a prophet as many claim. If
the greatest man born of woman distances Jesus from himself, how much
more should we work to distance him from Allah or Joseph Smith?
The church must consistently communicate the
utter uniqueness of Christ if lost people are to be prepared to receive him.
Again, we contrast this with the
popular conception of Jesus we often hear in modern day evangelism where Jesus is portrayed only
as a loving and compassionate friend and not someone for whom fallen
humans are not worthy to do even the most menial and degrading tasks.
A second thing John does to clarify Jesus’ identity is he
communicates that Jesus will do for you what only God can do for you.
John contrasts his water baptism with Jesus’ Spirit baptism. Anyone
can baptize with water—dunking someone in the Jordan
River is no trick, but only God can baptize--can immerse you to the
point of indwelling you with the third Person of the
Jesus can give God himself to indwell you.
Again, this exalts Jesus because only God could possibly ever baptize a Person…with
Jews and even John didn’t understand all of this, but they clearly understood
that this One who was to come was in a completely different class than John.
John also says that this One who was to come would baptize “with fire” those who receive him. The image of fire
implies that Jesus comes to those who believe and purges them from their
is coming not only to separate the wheat from the
chaff—the saved from the
is also coming—make no mistake about it—to separate you from your sin.
He will baptize you with fire—a fire that will burn away everything that
doesn’t look like Jesus. We
see this in a prophecy about the coming of Christ in Malachi chapter
three. He says, “2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who
can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver,
and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and
they will bring offerings in righteousness
to the Lord.” It’s important for unbelievers to know that when Jesus comes into their
life, he will begin a process that will make an end to all their sin. If they
are not interested in moral and spiritual transformation, then Jesus
is not for them.
As we close, here two are points of application for us from the
we must be Biblical in our evangelism. That
is—we must allow John’s message to remind us that there are certain
truths that are necessary to prepare a person to be ready to receive Jesus and they
are, like John was—counter cultural and will bring persecution.
Now, does this mean that we are to call sinners names like “brood of vipers?” No, but we must
pray that sinners will see their sin as God sees it and sometimes we
need to apply the Word of God to them
so that they will do that.
It also means we need to be clear to teach the
necessity of repentance--that willingness to change their orientation
from self to Jesus—from ascribing supreme worth to the things of this
world to the things of heaven.
The message John models for us also reveals our need to communicate the
reality of divine judgment. The
command to bear fruit is God’s command and refusal to do that brings eternal consequences.
Don’t miss verse 18.
After John gives these flaming
and hard truths, Luke summarized his ministry saying, “So with many other exhortation he preached good
news to the people.”
Luke sees all this as good news!
Its good news to be told you are a brood of vipers because the
knowledge of God’s perception of you as a sinner can lead you to Jesus.
Warnings of eternal judgment are good news because God uses them
to wake people up from their slumber and repent of their
to radical and sacrificial repentance are good news because they prepare
our hearts for Christ. A
final element of Biblical evangelism is that the world needs to know
in very clear terms the utter uniqueness of Jesus.
He is God in the flesh and is
not comparable to any other religious figure in history.
Second, even though this message was originally intended for people who lived
before the cross, it still contains some valuable insights into repentance. That’s important
because believers are to live lives marked by continual repentance. We
must practice Biblical repentance.
Biblical repentance is not remorse—feeling bad about your sin—it’s a
change of mind, a change of our attitudes, desires and actions.
It’s a miracle of God’s grace that occurs within the
human heart. We don’t need to struggle with sin for years—in Christ we can repent in the
Spirit’s power and be increasingly free from sin.
Work to see the sin from God’s
perspective and humble yourself before others in confessing it to them
and hearing them speak truth to you.
May God give us the grace to
repent of our unbiblical repenting and not be afraid to tell others
all the good news to prepare them