Summary: The word of God did not come to the palaces of the great or the mighty in church or state, but to John, in the wilderness.
THE MINISTRY OF BAPTISM
People may be impressed with names and titles, but God is not. As Peter told the household of Cornelius, God shows no partiality: “God is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34).
Tiberius was Emperor in Rome. Pontius Pilate was governor in Judea. Herod was king in Galilee. Luke names two other kings. There were two high priests in Jerusalem.
The word of God did not come to the palaces of any of these men. The word of God came to John, in the wilderness.
For 400 years there had been no word of prophecy, but now one came in the spirit of Elijah and the prophets. Matthew tells us that John was dressed in camel’s hair, and lived on a diet of locusts and wild honey (Matthew 3:4).
John preached a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. His message was straightforward: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2).
This was echoed in the opening salvo of the message of Jesus: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17).
We must recognise the horror of sin. We must understand what it is to offend God. We must see our own guilt in its true colours.
We must turn from our sinful ways with sorrow. We must accept God’s offer of free forgiveness. We must turn to God with a new desire to love and serve Him.
That is what it is to repent.
John came to the river Jordan to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus. This was in fulfilment of the words of a prophecy written 800 years before: (Isaiah 40:3-5).
Along with his call to repentance, John gave a solemn warning. Baptism was the way by which other nations were initiated into the Jewish faith. However, even the Jews needed the remission of sins. As Paul teaches, “There is no difference: for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22-23).
John warned his hearers not to rely on their descent from Abraham. They still needed to repent of their sins. The Old Testament system was passing away, and God was able to raise up new children for Abraham from the stones of the ground.
It is folly for anyone to imagine that they might have peace with God by any other way than that which God has provided. If we come from a Christian background we cannot rely upon the faith of our parents, but must ourselves repent, and look to Christ for the forgiveness of our sins.
It is not enough if we just occasionally listen to the preaching of God’s word. There were doubtless some who came to hear John because of the novelty of it. The message is the same today: we must each repent of our sins, and live our lives accordingly.
One of the evidences of true repentance is the change that takes place in our lives. If we are sincere in our desire for forgiveness, we will also be willing to replace the old bad deeds with present good deeds.
John encouraged the rich to share with the poor. A true repentant will be marked out by a new generosity of spirit. The early church, Luke tells us elsewhere, “shared all things in common” (Acts 4:32).
John told the tax collectors to end their corruption.
John instructed the soldiers to end their violence. He sanctioned against bearing false witness. He warned them to be content with their wages.
The people were so impressed with John, that they began to wonder if he was the Christ, the anointed Saviour promised long ago by God.
John responded by pointing away from himself. This is what all true ministers of God will do: the message of the gospel is not about us, it is about Jesus! John humbly acknowledged that he was unworthy even to stoop down and untie the sandals of Jesus.
So John was astonished when Jesus came to be baptised. This was the One whom he had earlier pointed out to his disciples with the words, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29; John 1:36). This was the One who was able to baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The symbolic cleansing of water baptism is an outward symbol of an inner reality. It is Jesus who endows us with His Holy Spirit, and purifies us from our sins. It is also Jesus who will come as judge at the end of the age.
Matthew tells us that John even tried to stop Jesus from being baptised. John said, “I need to be baptised by You, and are You coming to me?” Jesus answered, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.” Then John baptised Him (Matthew 3:14-15).