The Ministry of John the Baptist, Part 2
Oct 22, 2013
After dating the call of John, Luke then shows the nature of his calling. Luke 3:3-6 says,
3 And he came into all the district around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins; 4 as it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make ready the way of the Lord, make His paths straight. 5 Every ravine shall be filled up, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough roads smooth; 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God’.”
In order to understand John’s ministry, we have to first understand Isaiah’s prophecy which Luke quotes from Isaiah 40. Luke was telling us that John was called to fulfill some of the prophecies of Isaiah. Many in the past have noticed that Isaiah’s 66 chapters represent the 66 books of our Bible, and that Isaiah 40 represents the 40th book of the Bible—namely, the book of Matthew, which begins the New Testament.
Bible critics divide Isaiah into two books, often referring to Isaiah 40-66 as “Second Isaiah.” They debate if Isaiah or someone else wrote it, because it appears to be so different. But the difference is mainly due to the change from Old Covenant judgment to New Covenant restoration. It is quite natural for biblical prophets to know both sides of the divine plan, for even Moses prophesied of these things.
The unity of these two halves of Isaiah becomes apparent also when we understand the structure of the book itself. Isaiah’s topics form a chiasm, or Hebrew Parallelism.
A.Isaiah 1:2 – 5:30 (Exhortation)
B.Isaiah 6:1-13 (The Voice from the Temple about The Scattering)
C.Isaiah 7:1 – 12:6 (Historic regarding King Ahaz)
D.Isaiah 13:1 – 27:13 (Burdens yet with Israel’s blessings)
D1.Isaiah 28:1 – 35:10 (Woes yet with God’s glories)
C1.Isaiah 36:1 – 39:8 (Historic regarding King Hezekiah)
B1.Isaiah 40:1-11 (The Voice from the Wilderness about The Gathering)
A1.Isaiah 40:12 – 66:24 (Exhortation)
We see by this outline that Isaiah 40:1-11 directly parallels Isaiah 6:1-13. The Voice in the Wilderness with a message of hope is the solution to the Voice from the Temple with a message of judgment. So to understand John’s ministry which is prophesied in Isaiah 40, we must understand the problem that was prophesied earlier in Isaiah 6.
In Isaiah 6 the Voice from the Temple speaks about the scattering of Israel on account of the nation’s refusal to keep the Covenant that they made in Exodus 19. Divine judgment said that Israel would be cast out of the land and scattered among the nations. The word in Isaiah 6:9-10 says,
9 And He said, “Go and tell this people: ‘Keep on listening, but do not perceive; keep on looking, but do not understand.’ 10 Render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their eyes dim, lest they see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and be healed.”
In Isaiah 40, on the other hand, the Voice from the Wilderness comes from the perspective of Israel outside of the land, and it speaks of the gathering of Israel under Christ, the King. The people were to be comforted by the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, who would open their eyes, ears, and hearts to hear the Word.
Hence, John’s ministry was the Voice from the Wilderness prophesying “comfort” to the people who had been scattered by divine judgment for breaking the Old Covenant. They were to be regathered under a New Covenant mediated by the Messiah Himself. John was not that Messiah, but was sent to bear witness of Him and to prepare the way before Him.
The Law and the Prophets
Of course, as it turned out, the fulfillment of Isaiah 40 has come in two stages, prophesied by the law. Leviticus 14 speaks of two birds, and Leviticus 16 speaks of two goats. These prophesy of Christ’s two comings, the first time to die and the second time to be released in a living work. And so John’s ministry prepared the way for Christ’s first appearance, and we are now living in the time when we are preparing the way for Christ’s second appearance.
Malachi 4:2 prophesies of the coming of “the sun of righteousness” (speaking of Christ), but also tells us that first we must “remember the law of Moses” (Malachi 4:4) and that God will “send you Elijah the prophet” (Malachi 4:5). The law and the prophets are in agreement. We see, then, that John came in the spirit and power of Elijah to call the people to remember the law of Moses.
In our time the calling is modified and enhanced, for we are called to move in the spirit and power of Elisha to call people to remember the law of Joshua. The Elisha calling is the double portion of Elijah, and the law of Joshua implements the law of Moses in the Kingdom, rather than in the wilderness.
Preparing the Way
John was called to prepare the way of the Lord. This preparation is pictured by the metaphor of filling up the ravines on the road caused by erosion from the rain and by removing rocks and bumps. The road was to be made smooth. It was common practice in those days to repair the main road for a ruler or high-ranking official, so that his chariot could be driven smoothly and easily to the city.
Such preparation, then, became a metaphor also for removing the obstacles of false teaching and for filling in the gaps of understanding. Removing a mountain was a Hebrew metaphor for resolving a big problem or to humble the proud and arrogant.
So John came preparing the way by the baptism of repentance. The fact that he had to do this in the wilderness, rather than at the laver in the temple, implies that there was already a problem in the temple itself. He was ministering outside of the authority of the temple. This baptism was for “the forgiveness of sins” (NASB). The KJV says “the remission of sins,” which preserves the medical meaning of the Greek word aphesis.
In Colossians 4:14 Paul calls Luke “the beloved physician.” So how would Luke have viewed John’s ministry? He would have seen John as a spiritual physician, healing the breach between God and Israel and, in a broader sense, between God and the world itself. Sin was a sickness, pictured in the law as leprosy and in Isaiah as a degenerative disease. Isaiah 1:5, 6 says,
5 Where will you be stricken again, as you continue in your rebellion? The whole head is sick, and the whole heart is faint. 6 From the sole of the foot even to the head there is nothing sound in it, only bruises, welts, and raw wounds, not pressed out or bandaged, nor softened with oil.
John’s ministry, then, was to bring Israel’s disease into “remission.” The word literally means “to release,” as from prison, because disease is a prison.
The people of John’s day perceived themselves as being in a Roman prison. They were an oppressed people, politically oppressed by Rome and domestically oppressed by the wealthy priests who controlled the temple. The people, therefore, wanted “salvation,” which to them meant being set free from external oppression. John, however, redefined salvation in terms of the release from sin. The situation is explained very well by Kenneth Baily,
“The concept of sin is shaped by what people are enduring from their oppressors, and the word salvation is used to express their longing to be free from that oppression. For such a community there is little space in the mind to tolerate anyone talking about its sins and its need for salvation from those sins. An oppressed community perceives its own faults as dwarfed by the enormity of what it is suffering from others. Any discussion of its sins will be heard as belittling the harsh world in which they live. It takes a brave man or woman to tell the community that it needs salvation from its sins” (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, p. 49).
When we view the problem through Isaiah’s eyes, we see that the nation of Israel was brought into judgment on account of their sin, that is, their violation of the law. So the root problem was not that Rome was ruling them, but that they were under divine judgment. They saw Rome as their problem, just as the rulers in the days of Jeremiah and Daniel had believed Babylon to be the problem. It is difficult for men to understand or believe that God would put the nation under oppressive foreign governments, while they were doing all of the required rituals in the temple.
The idea of salvation, then, means different things to different people. But in the end, salvation is a Person, Yeshua, for that is the meaning of Jesus’ name. Ironically, when the people of Judea did not accept Him, they were rejecting their only source of salvation. Jesus was rejected because He had no interest in overthrowing the Roman yoke of oppression, and yet if they had accepted Him as King, He would have saved not only them but the Romans, too! Both the oppressors and the oppressed were in need of salvation from bondage to sin, and hence, Jesus came as the Savior of all men.
Luke 3:7 says,
7 He therefore began saying to the multitudes who were going out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
Matthew’s account clarifies who John was addressing, saying in Matthew 3:7,
7 But 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?”
Luke saw no need to identify the Pharisees and Sadducees in his report to Theophilus. It may be, in fact, that Theophilus was one of those Sadducees who came to investigate John, and perhaps his heart was pricked at that time. Certainly, at the very least, some of his family would have heard John speak.
Coming from the most prominent Sadducee family of the day, Theophilus would have seen firsthand how the people were being oppressed by the priests. He would have seen the poverty of the people but may not have understood how his own family was instrumental in that oppression or what God expected them to do to alleviate the problem.
This is part 2 of a mini-series titled "The Ministry of John the Baptist." To view all parts, click the link below.
This is part 9 of a series titled "Studies in the Book of Luke." To view all parts, click the link below.
Dr. Stephen Jones