“In those days, John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.’” Matthew 3:1
According to John, the Kingdom of God was knocking on the door and about to enter. John was eager to prepare the people of Israel for this event. But how does one prepare for the kingdom of God to arrive? What difference will the kingdom of God make in this world? John seemed to think that the first effect of the kingdom would be a harsh judgment.
John baptized people, which is a symbolic act of cleansing. John urged the Israelites to renew their commitment to God's covenant with Abraham and Moses because he believed a day of judgment was on the horizon. When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Matthew 3:7.
The Pharisees were zealous Torah observers, but John was not impressed with the Sadducees or any Israelite who believed their ethnicity or appearance of piety would provide anything to commend them on the day of the King’s arrival. What does John want? John wants his fellow Israelites to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” What standard would have been good enough for John, we can only guess, but nobody seemed to argue with him.
Who appointed John as the enforcer of his or anyone else’s standard? John appears to be acting, more or less, on his own authority, and everyone seems to be okay with that.
Here is an interesting point, John comes across as severe and unrelenting, but he is very well-received. John the Baptist is so well received that King Herod was mortified at the thought of having him killed (Matthew 14:5). On the other hand, Jesus comes across as significantly more gracious and generous and faces much more opposition than John, even and especially from within Israel! Why is that the case?
It seems that John, who performed no “signs” to validate his authority, did not need any signs. Many people gladly received John’s words and granted him authority because he spoke words that resonated with their hearts. The people of Israel wanted to hear John’s harsh words. When John said, “The axe is laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down,” the people rejoiced. John spoke the longings of Israel’s heart. The people want justice! John expresses the hopes of my heart! I resonate with John’s words.
John and Jesus did not preach the same message. That is not to say that Jesus’ disapproved or contradicted John’s message; nevertheless, they weren’t the same. John the Baptist acknowledged their messages' differences when Jesus first began His public ministry. “I have need to be baptized by You,” said John to Jesus, “and do You come to me?” (John 3:14). It was not part of John’s expectation that the one who was more significant in His eyes should receive baptism at the hand of the lesser. Thus began the collision of John and Israel’s expectations with reality. John was right about everything He said concerning the Messiah and the Kingdom. Nevertheless, what John’s words would look like when they were literally “fleshed out” would often defy expectations. Thus the need for Jesus to perform many signs.
“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Matthew 3:12
John was not wrong about the fire Jesus would bring. John simply had no idea how unpredictable this fire would be. John himself would need the purifying flame.
So, are we ready to move from John’s preaching to Jesus’ ministry? Many people are angry at evil and injustice “out there” and are happy to condemn people to the coming wrath. We are like James and John, who wanted to call down fire on their enemies (Like 9:54). But are we ready for Jesus’ message, which is no less focused on justice but also brings the power of deliverance, healing, and forgiveness? After all, justice is not only about punishment but restoration. Justice is about setting the world right, not on fire. When cleansing a house, fire is often needed. But the goal of the fire is to restore the home, not destroy it.
It is well and proper that we should condemn evil. But if we want to follow Jesus, we must also become ministers of deliverance and be delivered ourselves.
“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” John 3:17 CSB
Ironically and tellingly, the ministry of healing and deliverance draws more persecution than the ministry of condemnation. The Devil is the accuser, after all. He enjoys the condemnation of God’s image bearers. The ministry of John the Baptist becomes the ministry of Satan if the deliverance ministry of Jesus doesn't follow it.