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1. Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene.
2. Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.
3. And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins;
4. As it is written in the book of the words of Esaias the prophet, saying ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Make His paths straight.
5. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth;
6. And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’
7. Then said he to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
8. Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.
9. And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
10. And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then?
11. He answereth and saith unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise.
12. Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do?
13. And he said unto them, Exact no more than that which is appointed you.
14. And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.
15. And as the people were in expectation, and all men mused in their hearts of John, whether he were the Christ, or not;
16. John answered, saying unto them all, I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire:
17. Whose fan is in his hands, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and will gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable.
18. And many other things in his exhortation preached he unto the people.
I want to talk to you about the message of John the Baptist as he began his ministry. We look tonight at the message of the first great prophet whose voice sounds out in Judaea for some 400 years. It is a very unusual time. It’s an unusual time politically, religiously, economically, socially, every way you can imagine. There was extreme stress with great problems. We would think sometimes that God would choose better times to begin some great something than He sometimes does. We would think that He would wait for a more opportune time or put things in better order. But it appears that when the Lord gets ready to usher in a new era of His activity upon this earth, that in most cases it is the worst of times that He begins the work.
He does not begin where we might expect Him either. We are told here that the word of the Lord came to John, not to the political leaders and kings, Caesar, Governor Pilate, Herod and Philip Tetrarchs and other leaders. It didn’t come there. It came to John in the wilderness. The word of the Lord came to John, not the High Priest, Annas and Caiaphas, the religious leaders of Israel and the people who were in control of the temple with all of its ceremony and ritual representing the Jewish religion of that day. It didn’t come to them. Organized, institutionalized religion, somehow the word of the Lord couldn’t even find a way to come to them and come get entrance into that great temple situation. But it came to John out in the wilderness. And when it did, that meant responding to divine leadership of that new message and preaching it because that is the message; that is the work - that is the way of the prophet. He may be called up out of the wilderness, and out of obscurity. But his voice will be heard and his influence will impact the whole world. Because that’s the way God works.
Oftentimes, He reached into areas like this where John came from, the wilderness of Judea, because that’s where Elijah the great prophet came from and that’s also where Amos the great prophet came from. And it would appear that at times God would reach way out in the rural areas to touch, to put His hand on somebody and bring them face-to-face with what was happening in the cities, the great world cities. And anytime God brings forth a prophetic ministry, I’m not talking about just any kind of ministry, I’m talking about a prophetic ministry…anytime God brings that forth, most of the time, it clashes against the culture of the day. It clashes against the social mores and practices of the day. It clashes against the religious systems of the day. It clashes against the political situations of the day. It always does. And, as a result, prophets don’t last long, as John the Baptist didn’t. He would soon be killed because he would dare to point a finger of condemnation toward sin that was being practiced in high places.
Prophetic ministry is a kind of ministry that simply jars a whole community or a place so much that it pricks the conscience of people and allows its indignation and sometimes stirs up all kinds of attitudes, and as a result, the prophet stands in jeopardy. Look at John and look at the ministry of Jesus coming against the religious system of Judaism and it was a terrible clash that took place.
I think sometimes that when you look at the stages of how religious systems, church movements, or whatever, when you look at the stages they go through, they all begin that way; as a reaction to status quo, as an effort to grieve over the situation. There is involved the grieving of certain people over the situation and then there is a crying out to God. When the Lord delivered the people out of Egypt, there was a great cry and grieving going up. And God saw it and began to move to bring deliverance. And when that happens, then organized religion in particular, looks at this newfound message and prophets and religious movement and looks upon it with the desire to put it to silence and not be disturbed.
Prophets are seen as disturbers and who rock the boat and who are sent…they have this message from God, so they have to go out. They don’t have to come back. They have to deliver the message. They don’t have to survive and do well. They have to go out and obey God. They don’t have to obey people. They go, and when they do, they disturb people all around them.
And this is the case with John the Baptist. When he began to preach, he began to quote or fulfill the passage from Isaiah 40:4-6 which says that it is written in that book, the voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight. See prophets always come up to cry out against crooked paths and crooked methods and crookedness in general. Every valley shall be filled. God knows how to put everything on a level, filling in the low places and bringing down the high places. And He has the power through His prophets and through His Word to bring it all on a level as far as the way He looks at things is concerned. And He said the crooked shall be made straight and rough ways shall be made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. It is the entrance, it is the introduction to the salvation of God that is coming. John is going to prepare the way of the Lord and he will talk about the salvation of God and the people of the world will come to see what this means…the salvation of God.
So, prophetic ministry is always one that comes in a disturbing way to penetrate the hearts and minds of people to condemn sin and to call people to repent and to turn to God. This is exactly what John is doing here. He uses, in his message that he preaches, three particular illustrations of God’s divine judgment against people who reject His message, who refuse to repent, who refuse to obey the voice of the prophets. I want to talk about these three kinds of judgment that John uses in his message.
First of all, when he saw the whole multitude of people coming to be baptized, because that was not necessarily not anything new – baptism in water, and a new religious sort of ceremony, because there had been proselyte baptism in the Jews’ religion and all kinds of things there, but this just seemed to be something kind of new and fascinating that the people would be drawn to just like a magnet. It would probably become the popular thing to do, to go out and see what new thing is happening in the religious world and participate in it. But that is not the way a prophetic religion is. It never is an appeal to popularity. It never is an appeal to people who are already half-way religious minded, yet who live in deep sin. No! It never reaches out with a smooth hand to calm the nerves of people who have been condemned by sin. It is not an effort to cause people to accept themselves and their own guilt and live with it without being forgiven and purged. That is the popular notion of our society now. If you’ve got hang-ups and if you’ve got guilts, then you learn how to overcome them and just live with them and everything is going to be alright because you need to build up your self-esteem and it’s probably something that happened to you during your childhood and some other place that’s causing you to have these hang-ups and these problems. When you can pay enough money to the right psychiatrist, then you can probably get all this straightened out. When really all it would take would be a trip down to an old-fashioned altar and confess sin.
I remember as a student in seminary in a course in Pastoral Care and Counseling, the professor kept talking about this whole thing of counseling and accepting people like they are and hearing them and not condemning them. One day, I stood it just about as long as I could, and I said to him and the class, ‘When do you confront people in their sins and let them know that they are breaking the laws of God and living in sin and they will never be free from guilt until they confess and repent?’ They all looked at me like a skunk had been let loose in the classroom! It was a terrible way they looked at me! But that’s the popular notion. Just work to get through your hang-ups. As a pastor, I went heavy into Pastoral Counseling, and I got totally overloaded and I had to back out of there a whole lot and start being a prophet. Because I found out that you can just soothe people over and pat them on the back and accept them as they are and never say anything about repentance and the first thing you know, sin will just grow and thrive right in the church. And you have to be prophet now and then and turn things upside down and speak with some kind of unction and boldness that causes people to repent and be condemned of sin in their lives.
So, when they came like this, ‘Oh well, we’ll just follow this fad,’ John said, ’You generation of vipers…” That’s pretty tough talk. Prophets have a way of having more boldness than they have wisdom. That’s the way God puts them together it seems! Who’s warning you to flee from the wrath to come? And if you want to have me to baptize you, then I’ve got to see some fruits in your life that show that you have repented and turned from your evil ways because that’s repentance really means…to turn. In the Old Testament and in the New, it means to turn. First of all, it means to turn from something and turn to someone. It means to turn from sin and turn to God and change directions. That’s what repentance is all about.
One of the best teachers I ever had wrote a book called “Quest for Vitality and Life in Religion” and he has a chapter in that book where he struggles, as a Southern Baptist, he struggles with the idea of trying to do God’s work with an unregenerated membership. If you don’t think that that is a rough time, sometimes we’ve been surprised at some of the things we encounter with Spirit-filled people, sanctified people. Just think how you would do if you were trying to pastor a church and all the members were not generated, regenerated…they’ve never repented, never confessed their sins, never been born again, never changed. Whew! I don’t want any of that, do you?
I had one young man in that school to tell me, he said ‘Oh, I’ll just get people to join the church and then I may spend the next twenty years trying to get them saved.’ I said, ‘Oh my goodness. We don’t do it that way. We don’t even baptize them or take them in the church unless they are saved, unless they’ve repented and got saved first because we believe in believer’s baptism; that you believe on Christ, you’ve repented of your sins and you’ve turned to God. Then you get baptized.’
So, he said “Who’s warned you to flee from the wrath to come? I’m expecting to see fruits in your lives before I am going to baptize you.’ That’s when he started using these three illustrations of judgment. He says ‘And another thing, don’t begin to rely on the fact that you’re descendants of Abraham and say you’ve got Abraham for your father because it says that is not the way God gets children. And He doesn’t have any grandchildren. You have got to be born again yourself. He said I want you to know the ax of God’s judgment is already laid to the root of the trees. And every tree that does not bear fruit, He cuts it down.
This whole thing of fruit bearing is a theme that goes through Scripture in many different ways and always there is a word of judgment about fruit bearing. Jesus used it when He talked about being the true vine and He said ‘every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, said the husbandman, the Father cuts it off – takes it away. Men gather these branches that have been cut off and they are burned in the fire.’
You see, the message of repentance brings people face-to-face with not only the love of God and the grace of God that He is extending, but is also a balance message that brings people face-to-face with the divine justice and judgment of God that it stands against sinfulness and especially religious hypocrisy. John is crying out against religious hypocrisy more than anything else in this particular first sermon that he preached.
All that was happening in those days…it happened in the time of Amos. It happened down through Israel, it happened where there would be false witnesses brought against somebody to condemn them. Like Stephen, for example. He said, ‘Be content with your wages.’
Now, I don’t know what all you have to do and have to practice to show you’ve repented and you’re following God, but John the Baptist was setting down some principles that people ought to live by in this world to prove that you have turned from sin and you are following God. It has to do with not being selfish and greedy and not taking advantage of people, especially the poor, and not doing violence and not just overriding people. It has to do with the principle of having respect and love and regard for other people regardless of who they are. God is in the people business! When the systems and institutions are low lying in ashes, God will still be innocent in the peoples of this world. And when he [John] says ‘God so loved the world,’ he was talking about the world of people. When we show despite for God’s creation, we’re standing in danger of the judgment of God.
Then he went on to talk about ‘There is one coming after me and He is mightier than I, and when this mighty One comes, He is going to baptize you with the Holy Ghost and fire.’ John then mentions ‘fire’ twice in two ways. I’ll talk about that in just a minute. He said ‘I’m not worthy to unloose His shoes, but He will baptize you, not just with water like I do, but with the Holy Ghost and fire.’ And he said ‘But His fan is in His hand.’ And when you look at that, some of the other translations make it very clear that that fan is a winnowing fork that they used in the process on the threshing floor, separating the grain from the chaff,. lifting up the chaff, allowing the grain to fall back to the floor and tossing the chaff away in the wind. It’s the idea of separation. It is the idea that God – John is saying that the Almighty God has a principle that will come through Jesus Christ and it will be a separating, sifting kind of process. He will insure that He has a harvest. Jesus later will talk about it in the sense of allowing the tares and wheat to go together because what makes for a great harvest is not the absence of tares, but the presence of the golden grain. And men, in his own way and his own time, he knows how to take care of tares and chaff.
He’s talking about separation. I want to tell you that the Almighty God has a way of looking down in our hearts and He knows whether or not we are the wheat of the harvest or if we’re just chaff. He knows how to discover and separate out hypocrisy. Sometimes he did it by a miracle, in the early church especially. Look at Ananias and Sapphira, the sifting out of chaff from the true harvest of the church. What I want us to be reminded of in this message tonight is that with all the great good news of the gospel and the blessings of grace, there is also judgment that comes that is in action. You don’t have to wait for a great day of wrath to come, although that’s coming for a specific purpose in a particular way. But, Paul said in Romans 1 that the judgment of God, the wrath of God is already revealed from Heaven against ungodliness and so on. It is a process that goes on in this world and there is a continual separation of wheat from the chaff.
And then, as I said, he mentions the fire. The chaff is burned in unquenchable fire. The alternative is to repent and turn to God and receive Holy Ghost fire because it cleanses and it purges as well as causes fervency and excitement and energy and strength to do the work of God. But people who reject it and turn away from it are in danger of this other fire of judgment.
Luke says ‘Many other things in his exhortation preached he unto the people.’ We don’t know what all He preached. We know that here is the voice of the first prophet that can be heard throughout the land for many, many centuries. It is the call to repentance. It is a call to purity. It is a call to turn back to the Word of God that has been revealed and to the God that has been known through the centuries. It is a call for people to come, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. What a message! The beginning of any great movement in this world begins with that same kind of message, same kind of call. The thing about it is, in most cases, God bypasses the palaces of kings and the mansions of governors and the offices of high priests and other great leaders and all these political religious leaders and He usually – the Word of the Lord comes to somebody like John in the wilderness of our world. Like John, we still witness in a wilderness situation. It is a marvelous thing. I think it’s the greatest thing and expression of God’s grace that I can possibly know anything about. When God reaches down in the wilderness of our world and places His hand upon somebody and brings him forth to stand up and stand out with a message from God for the people calling them to repent and turn to God.
I would like to direct you in our closing prayer tonight. I would like for us to pray for God to indeed put His hand upon a prophet for our day who will speak up, call us to God. I would like for you to pray that God would indeed let His message go forth, even if it cuts against the grain of society in which we live, even if it bucks against the accepted things of our culture. I know our church in its earliest days was a movement that was counter to the culture of this world. The message cut across lines of hypocrisy, religious lines of hypocrisy, and it cut across the lives that people lived in sin. God honored His message and He honored the prophet who spoke. And a new day came. Wouldn’t you like to see something of newness and freshness of what God is doing in the last days right here in our own lives? If so, please stand and let’s pray that way in our closing prayer.
“Our Father tonight we thank You for your Holy Word. We thank You, oh Lord, for the grace, for the Good News, for the blessings. But we also thank You for the Word that talks of the acts and the fourth in the fire. Lord, in Jesus’ Name, search our hearts tonight and may the fire of the Holy Spirit fall upon us to burn out all the dross and help us to stand justified, uncondemned before You, Lord. Pour out Your Spirit upon us tonight and pour out Your Spirit upon the church and let the Word of the Lord come to the prophets of our day who with boldness will stand up and proclaim the living message. Oh God, where are the prophets that you can call up out of the wilderness of our world now and anoint with a message of God that will change things? Praise Your Holy Name, Lord!”
Don’t you thank God for prophets? Prophets like John the Baptist; people who with boldness and at the risk of their own lives would carry the message into areas that are really dangerous. Let’s pray for our people who are in dangerous situations tonight that God will give them protection and provision and His presence and His power. We’ll close our prayer time by praying that way tonight.
“Our Father, we would lift up our brothers and sisters around this world who are serving You in trying circumstances. We pray for those, oh Lord, who are facing opposition and threats because of their testimony and because of preaching the Gospel. We ask you to continue to strengthen them and protect them and provide for them. May Your Name be glorified and the Word of God keep working to bring down the high places and fill in the low places, to straighten up the crooked paths and the crooked people and cause Thy Name and Thy Power to be glorified in this earth. In Jesus’ Name we ask it. Amen.”
Now may the grace of God go with you everyone now and forevermore. Amen.
The message of John the Baptist as he began his ministry. A look at the first great prophet whose voice sounds out in Judaea for some 400 years.
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