Episode 38 - The Message of John the Baptist part 3 - Opening Up the Gospels

In the last episode, we looked at John’s ministry of baptism and the significance that it had for the Jewish people. In Jewish history, baptism was the rite that someone would undergo when they wanted to become part of God’s covenant people. John’s message was offensive in his day because he was in the Jordan River calling Jewish people to be baptized – in essence, to convert to their own religion. In the past couple of episodes we’ve been working through the broader message of John and the biggest point I hope you’ve seen is that John is saying that God Himself is coming to Israel and because of Him Israel would be divided or separated in a way that would cause only a small remnant of them to inherit the promises that God made to their ancestor Abraham and to His descendant. You’ll see this again today as we look at this final picture the Gospels give us of John and his message. Let’s read in Luke 3: “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 3:16–17 ESV) These two verses really sum up everything John has been saying and doing thus far. He’s doing something far more than just preaching the gospel, which by the way, the gospel for John was not “Jesus died on the cross for your sins”, because Jesus hadn’t even come yet, so we do well to rethink our idea of the “gospel” if we think it’s just the message of Jesus dying on the cross for our sins. We’ll talk more about this throughout the series. But John is preaching these ‘glad tidings” and is proclaiming a message of coming judgment and reckoning to Isreal. The boundary lines of who would obtain God’s promises were being drawn solely in reference to the One who was mightier than John, the One that was coming. And of course we know that to be Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus would be like a sword that cuts through the cities and towns of Israel, exposing hearts and causing some to be for Him and others to be against Him. There would be no neutrality after He had come through. Now, think back to when Jesus was a baby and what was said about him back them. If you’re thinking about Simeon and the prophecy he gave to Mary about Jesus when they were in the Temple, good job. That’s a critical connection we have to see here. We looked at the words of Simeon back in Episode 24 and 25, where Simeon said that Jesus would be like a sword, and would cause many in Israel to rise and fall. And in the last episode, we talked about the axe and the trees – which is a little different than a sword, but it’s the same idea – there’s a cutting happening. And now here you have another picture here, a separation between wheat and chaff. And this is the purpose for which Jesus came. Look at this verse in Luke 12, straight from the lips of Jesus – I hope this makes so much more sense to you now: ““I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” (Luke 12:49–51 ESV) What a statement! Jesus came for division. What does that mean, and if it’s true, what are the implications for that? We have to let this shape our answer to the question “why did Jesus come?” I hope you now see that Jesus came for much more than just random healings, a few good sermons, some pretty heated confrontations with the Pharisees, and then to just end up dying on the cross a few years later. He wasn’t in this holding pattern until the crucifixion – there was a real purpose for why He did what He did and said what He said. Just like He said Himself, Jesus came for the division of Israel. This is so important and this radically shapes the way we view the rest of the Gospels. We have to remember that the Gospels are the continuing story of Israel from the Old Testament, and they are the story of Yahweh, the God of Israel, visiting His people. We so often read the Gospels through an individualistic, modern lens as if the words of Jesus were just written down for us 2000 years after he actually spoke them and the cross is really the only important point of the Gospels. There are obviously volumes of application that could be written about the cross and the words of Jesus, but we must first be faithful to the original context of the story, which again, is the continuing story of the descendants of Israel and how their God visited them. John says that even though he himself was baptizing with water, the One coming after Him would be the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. I want to look at this word “fire” for a second. Like so many other things we’ve looked at so far, we’ve got to go back to the Old Testament to see how the Jews would have understood this. I think you’ll see that it’s very different from what many in the body of Christ often think of today. Our ignorance of the Old Testament causes us to miss this, but John is alluding to Isaiah chapter 66: ““For behold, the LORD will come in fire, and his chariots like the whirlwind, to render his anger in fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire. For by fire will the LORD enter into judgment, and by his sword, with all flesh; and those slain by the LORD shall be many. “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”” (Isaiah 66:15–16, 24 ESV) This is pretty gruesome passage. Isaiah is prophesying of a time when Yahweh is going to come with fire and render his anger in fury. He will slay many and the worms that eat the dead corpses won’t die from lack of food, and the fire that burns the lifeless bodies won’t be prematurely put out. Isaiah is pulling on imagery from Genesis with Sodom and Gomorrah. And now John is drawing on this passage and isn’t just making up a concept. Any Jew who was reading Isaiah 66 would have completely and totally thought that these verses referred to the Gentile nations who rebelled against the God of Israel and didn’t repent. The idea that a Jew would be thrown into the fire was absolutely unthinkable to them. They were the people that had received the Law, they were descendants of Abraham who God had made promises to, and thus wouldn’t be subject to the final judgment. But think about the crowd that John is speaking to. They are 100% Jewish, and John is saying that if Jews didn’t bear the fruits of repentance, they would be subject to the baptism of fire. John uses the picture of a threshing floor to expound upon the baptism of the Spirit and the baptism of fire. A threshing floor was a flat area outdoors where harvested grain like barley or wheat would be spread out to dry so the seed kernels can be separated from the chaff. Threshing floors were often set on the tops of hills so that they were exposed to the wind that blew away the chaff. The harvested grain was laid out on the threshing floor and was threshed by oxen driven over it or by beating it with sticks. Wooden forks, which here John calls a winnowing fan, were then used to throw the grain into the air so that the wind would blow off the chaff while the heavier grain fell back to the floor. So take this image and what theme do you immediately see? Separation and division, right? Let’s look at this so you can see what’s going on here. The one coming would separate the wheat from the chaff based on the response of the heart towards Him, that they bore the fruits of repentance. It would not be based on their ethnic identity. The ones who responded in faith, the wheat, would experience the promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which is the guarantee or the down payment of the promises made to Abraham, but those who hardened their hearts, the chaff, would be subject to the fiery baptism of judgment. Now, it’s very important to see the chronological context of Isaiah 66, and how that ties in to the analogy of the threshing floor. The implications of the decision of each Jew would not be fully evident until the time of the harvest – which, as Jesus goes on to say several times throughout his ministry, the harvest is at the end of the age at the Day of the LORD. Do you feel the intensity of what’s happening with John now? The one coming would cause the future fate of each Jewish person to be sealed by exposing their hearts – either they would end up in eternal life in the resurrection in the age to come on the earth or in judgment in eternal destruction by fire. Their ethnicity was not sufficient to qualify them to inherit the promises of blessing. They had to repent and turn from the heart. It’s a fairly common expression in some parts of the body of Christ today to say “set me on fire God” or “baptize them with fire”. But I hope you see now that the baptism of the Spirit and the baptism of fire, in this context here in Luke 3 and in its parallel in Matthew 3, are completely different things. The fire here is not a good fire. Now I don’t think it’s wrong to ask God to set us on fire, as long as we understand the context of what we’re asking for. I think of Luke 24 and the disciples on the road to Emmaus when Jesus opened up the scriptures to them and they said “did not our hearts burn within us?” And clearly there, we see the idea of burning or fire on someone’s heart because of the truth of the Bible. So that’s great, we want that fire. But we don’t want this fire of judgment from Luke 3. Well, I want to take one more episode to wrap up these important details of John’s message, because it’s critical for us to see this rightly before we get into the rest of the Gospels. I hope this has brought some clarity to you. Go back and check out the last couple of other episodes on John the Baptist if you’ve missed them.