The Ministry of John the Baptist, Part 4
Oct 24, 2013
Luke tells us that John warned the nation of Judea that divine judgment was coming. In Luke 3:8 he debunked the common notion that their genealogical descent from Abraham would be an acceptable substitute for “fruit.” In Luke 3:9 he debunked the notion that descent from Abraham could prevent divine judgment.
9 And also the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Part of John’s ministry as the Messiah’s forerunner was to inspect the “fig tree” that represented the nation of Judea. He was a fruit inspector, sent by God to see if the tree had borne any “fruit.” A legal investigation of this kind was called a “visitation” (Luke 19:44). The Greek word is episcope, which is also the word used for a “bishop, or overseer,” because he is the one called to conduct such an investigation, gathering evidence to see if allegations or accusations are true.
Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words says that it “denotes a visitation, whether in mercy, Luke 19:44 or in judgment, 1 Pet. 2:12.”
After a year of such ministry, John was executed by King Herod, and Jesus continued the investigation. He says this in Luke 13:6-9, and here we learn that it was to be a four-year investigation. John’s ministry began at Passover of 29 A.D. and ended at Passover of 30 A.D. Jesus continued the investigation for more three years, ending at Passover of 33.
Some time after John baptized Jesus in September of 29, he was thrown into prison. Jesus performed his first miracle by turning the water into wine at the marriage feast of Cana, but confessed at that time that His time to minister had not yet come. He had to wait for John to complete his work of preparation. Nonetheless, Jesus began to choose disciples, and when John was cast into prison, He also began to teach.
In Matthew 14 we are told how John was beheaded by Herod at the instigation of his unlawful wife, Herodias (Matthew 14:8). John’s disciples were then sent to inform Jesus of his death (Matthew 14:12). They arrived at the time that Jesus was feeding the 5,000 on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. The same story is also told in John 6, where we learn that this occurred shortly after Passover (John 6:4).
Therefore, we say that John’s ministry lasted just one year. Jesus then continued His “visitation” for another three years until His death on the cross in 33 A.D.
The Axe of Divine Judgment
In Luke 3:9 John makes it clear that from the evidence that he had already gathered, it appeared that divine judgment was justified. He said, “the axe is already laid at the root of the trees.” In other words, preparations were already being made to chop down the tree. The axe was ready leaning against the base of the tree. John already had enough evidence that the nation as a whole had refused to bring forth the fruit of repentance that was required to avert judgment.
Nonetheless, many individuals took heed to John’s message and were baptized to show their repentance.
How to Avert Judgment
Luke 3:10-14 says,
10 And the multitudes were questioning him, saying, “Then what shall we do?” 11 And he would answer and say to them, “Let the man who has two tunics share with him who has none; and let him who has food do likewise.” 12 And some tax-gatherers also came to be baptized, and they said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.” 14 And some soldiers were questioning him, saying, “And what about us, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.”
These are basic instructions about how to love one’s neighbor as himself. In the first case men ought to be givers, helping the poor. Tax-gatherers, or Publicans, were notorious for collecting more taxes than were owed in order to pocket the difference for themselves. John tells them to stop such a practice. Later, we read of Zacchaeus, the Publican, who repented by vowing to restore fourfold whatever he had stolen (Luke 19:8).
Soldiers, too, often used their position and their weapons to rob people, often by falsely accusing them of wrong-doing. John told them to cease from such practices.
The Baptism of Fire
Luke then turns to what seems to be a new topic, but is, in fact, the solution to the problem. The problem is that they lacked the fruit of the Spirit, and the only way to bring forth the fruit that God requires is through the baptism of fire. So Luke 3:15, 16 says,
15 Now while the people were in a state of expectation and all were wondering in their hearts about John, as to whether he might be the Christ, 16 John answered and said to them all, “As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
Most of the people knew that “Elijah” was to come at Passover, but most did not have a clear understanding that he was to be the forerunner to the Messiah. So many thought that John was the Messiah himself. John made it plain, however, that he was not. More details of this are given in John’s gospel. John 1:19, 20 says,
19 And this is the witness of John, when the Jews sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 And he confessed, and did not deny, and he confessed, “I am not the Christ.”
The priestly investigators pressed John further to know his claims:
21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” And he said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet [prophesied by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:18]?” And he answered, “No.”
John denied being Elijah, for he was not the incarnation of Elijah but came only “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17). He himself could not send the Holy Spirit to baptize any man. Only the Messiah could do this after completing His earthly ministry (John 16:7). John knew the fine distinctions of his calling and did not exceed those boundaries to enhance his own reputation. He also denied being the nameless prophet that Moses had prophesied in Deuteronomy 18:18, for Moses had spoken of the Messiah (Acts 3:20-23).
Getting back to Luke 3:16, John confessed that as an Aaronic priest he could only baptize people with water, a practice established by Moses with the laver. But the Messiah, he said, would baptize the people “with the Holy Spirit and fire.” In other words, a greater baptism was coming, prophesied in Joel 2:28, 29,
28 And it will come about after this that I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind; and your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions, 29 and even on the male and female servants I will pour out My Spirit in those days.
Isaiah too forecasts this rain of the Holy Spirit, saying in Isaiah 32:15,
15 Until the Spirit is poured out upon us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fertile field and the fertile field is considered as a forest.
When we link these prophecies together, we see that John’s water baptism was limited in its effectiveness. He ministered to the fruitless fig tree of Judah. It would take a greater baptism to bring forth the fruit that God truly desired. No doubt those who truly repented at John’s preaching later followed Jesus, particularly after John’s death. The believers were eligible for Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit was poured out upon them.
Yet in the big picture, even this was limited, because a greater outpouring was reserved for the second round of prophecy. John and Jesus had to die, as prophesied by the law in the first bird and the first goat. Likewise, Pentecost had its own limitations, for history shows the ebb and flow of the Spirit under that anointing. But in our time, we are seeing the rise of the Elisha ministry and its double portion, by which the Holy Spirit will be poured out in a greater way upon “all flesh” in order to bring forth fruit in the earth.
Winnowing and Burning the Chaff
John continued his description of the baptism of fire in Luke 3:17,
17 “And His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat [sitos, “grain”] into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
John’s metaphor pictures the harvest of barley and perhaps wheat. The Greek word sitos means “grain,” but not necessarily wheat. Barley is winnowed, for it is thrown into the air with a winnowing fork, allowing the wind to blow away the chaff. Wheat was treated differently, for it needed threshing to remove its outer shell. Men used the threshing floor both to winnow barley and to thresh wheat. In each case men ended up with great piles of chaff that was burned afterward.
So John shows us that the purpose of the baptism of fire was to burn chaff. Chaff cannot be eaten. Chaff pictures sin and all worthless fleshly activity of men. It is the opposite of the fruit that God desires to eat.
We learn more in 1 Samuel 12:17 of the precise nature of this “chaff.” This is Samuel’s speech at the coronation of Saul, the prophetic type of the church under Pentecost.
17 Is it not the wheat harvest today? I will call to the Lord, that He may send thunder and rain. Then you will know and see that your wickedness is great which you have done in the sight of the Lord by asking for yourselves a king.”
The day of wheat harvest was Pentecost, or the “feast of weeks,” as it was called in those days (Exodus 34:22). When the first-fruits of the wheat was offered to God, then the people were allowed to harvest their wheat. Hence, Pentecost was known as the day of wheat harvest, making Saul a type of Pentecostal.
Samuel prayed that God would send “thunder and rain,” which typifies the voice of God and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The purpose of this outpouring was to “know and see that your wickedness is great… by asking for yourselves a king.” This desire for man’s rule or covering is the equivalent of the chaff which John pictures. When the people desired a man to rule them and “cover” them, God said in 1 Samuel 6, 7,
6 But the thing was displeasing in the sight of Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” 7 And the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in regard to all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them.”
The overriding problem of Pentecost is their desire for a man to rule over them. They were not content with the direct covering of God (that is, Jesus Christ), but they wanted denominational leaders to cover them as well. The people did not really understand their own hearts in this matter, but God exposed the problem. The people had rejected Christ’s direct rule over them, and so He took it personally.
In demanding a king, God crowned Saul in the midst of thunder and rain, so that they would come to know the problem. Then, instead of being servants of men, they might become servants of Jesus Christ. This revelation comes as the baptism of fire burns the chaff from our minds and our understanding.
To understand this problem more fully, one must study David’s relationship with Saul, how he desired to be Saul’s servant, but finally realized that to continue that relationship beyond a certain point would kill him. David then chose to flee and to come directly under the covering of Jesus Christ, rather than to die in the house of Saul.
The “coverings” doctrine in the church during the Age of Pentecost is perhaps the most fundamental problem of the church that needs to be corrected by the baptism of fire. Only a genuine outpouring of the Spirit will reveal this to the people, so that they may honor leadership without becoming enslaved to men. When believers are enlightened in this area, they will understand the difference between obeying the commands of men and obeying the word of Christ when He speaks through men.
When the Spirit is poured out from on high, then the land will become a fruitful field, as Isaiah 32:15 tells us. This is the solution to the problem of the lack of fruit which John observed during his ministry. While this problem resulted in the divine "axe" chopping down the fruitless fig tree of Judah in 70 A.D., we are promised today that the outpouring of the Spirit will bring fruitfulness to the earth in order to establish His Kingdom.
This is part 4 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