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. This strongly points to a single author of both halves of Isaiah.
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.
Mal. 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” (Mal. 4:4) and that God will “send you Elijah the prophet” (Mal. 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 Col. 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 Matt. 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.
The Gospel of Change
To repent is to change one’s mind, direction, and behavior. Luke tells us the essence of John’s message of repentance in Luke 3:8, 9,
8 Therefore bring forth fruits in keeping with repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham for our father,” for I say to you that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 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.”
The people of Judea were taught to depend upon the promise to Abraham as the source of their salvation. In other words, they said, because we are of the seed of Abraham, God will save us, for we are “chosen.” They did not seem to understand that their physical descent from Abraham was insufficient to prevent God from sending them into captivity in the first place, so how could they expect their genealogy to remove the captivity?
God’s law in Deuteronomy 28 promised to bring Israel into captivity if they violated their covenant, regardless of their genealogy. Throughout the book of Judges, God brought them into six distinct wooden-yoke captivities. The seventh brought them to Babylon under an iron yoke. After seventy years the people were allowed to return to their land and serve their captors under a wooden yoke. The wooden yoke lasted throughout the reign of Persia, Greece, and Rome, but in 70 A.D. God again put them under the iron yoke and forcibly removed them from the land once again for refusing to submit to the judgment of God.
The solution is not to present one’s genealogy before the divine court to show one’s worthiness to be released. The solution is repentance in order to reverse the original cause of the captivity.
The Fruit God Desires
John told the Pharisees and Sadducees in Luke 3:8 (NASB), “Therefore bring forth fruits in keeping with repentance.” My friend, Mark Eaton, who has studied the Greek and Hebrew for decades, says,
“Verse 8 is very difficult in the Greek. ‘Bring forth” is badly translated. It is a Greek word that is rooted in the word that means ‘to create to bring forth in creativity the fruits, the First Fruits that are worthy or honorable by the change of thinking, acting, and manifesting that comes from God’s Comfort’.”
In other words, John was connecting repentance to a first-fruits offering which in turn represented their hearts. We may recall Jeremiah 24, where the prophet saw two baskets of figs—one good, the other rotten. These were two first-fruits offerings given to God in the temple, and God revealed that they represented two kinds of people, each with a different heart toward God.
Hence, John was telling the Pharisees and Sadducees to bring good fruit to God. Stop doing what most of the people had done in Jeremiah’s day. Stop being “very bad figs, which could not be eaten due to rottenness” (Jer. 24:2).
The heart problem in Jeremiah’s day was still manifesting in the people in John’s day. Like Jeremiah before him, John was issuing a call to repentance, which, if they had heeded, could have prevented Judea from returning to the iron yoke. In part, repentance meant complying with the judgment of God and submitting to the wooden yoke that Rome had placed upon them (i.e., captivity within their own land). But if they did not bring the proper first-fruits (edible “figs”) to God, then God would place them under the iron yoke (Deut. 28:48), even as in the days of Jeremiah, when the people were sent to Babylon under the iron yoke (Jer. 28:13).
The problem was that the people desired freedom from the yoke of captivity without feeling any need to repent. They continued to disagree with God’s judgment and did not feel that they were worthy of captivity. Their genealogical claims were more important to them than their faith and obedience to God.
The Children of Abraham
In Luke 3:6 we read that John’s calling was to present a very important truth: “And all flesh shall see the Salvation of God.” This quotation from Isaiah brought “Salvation” (that is, Yeshua) to “all flesh,” and not only to a certain “chosen” subset of humanity. Luke then proceeds to show how John was faithful to fulfill that calling.
John told the religious leaders not to depend upon their descent from Abraham, because “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” Abraham’s seed was to be as the sand of the sea (Genesis 32:12). Because sand is just small stones, some have insisted that God must still raise up genealogical Israelites in order to have “children.” However, this interpretation misses the whole point of John’s statement, as well as Luke’s purpose in writing this gospel.
Luke was trying to heal the breach between Jew and non-Jew and to tear down the dividing wall mentality. To say that the Greeks were dispersed Israelites by genealogy may be a partial truth—for indeed, some were—but the point is that Christ was coming to save the world, not just those dispersed Israelites. The process of regathering Israel and “others” (Isaiah 56:8) involved the Great Commission and something called FAITH.
All men, regardless of genealogy, were required to repent and to have faith in Jesus Christ before securing the blessings of the New Covenant. The New Covenant, as portrayed in Deuteronomy 29:10-15 and again in Jeremiah 31:31-34, is an oath of God to bring all men to the place of faith and obedience. It was prophesied to Israel and Judah, but it was never meant to apply to them alone. Israel and Judah were called and “chosen” to bring the New Covenant gospel to the rest of mankind.
As for the term “children of Abraham,” the Hebrew language used the term “children” many times in a metaphorical manner, saying, “wisdom is vindicated by all her children” (Luke 7:35). Wisdom cannot physically give birth to children, but the wise are her children. Likewise, Luke 16:8 speaks of “the sons of light.” These are enlightened ones, not sons who are physically begotten by light. In Luke 20:36 Jesus speaks of the “sons of the resurrection” in the sense of being the inheritors of the resurrection.
In John 8:39 we read,
39 They answered and said to Him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you are Abraham’s children, do the deeds of Abraham.”
This sets forth the precise metaphorical meaning of “children,” for the term was used to describe one’s deeds, not one’s genealogy. Hence, Abraham was reputed to be the father of faith (Rom. 4:11), and “all who believe” are said to be Abraham’s children. Paul makes this plain in Gal. 3:6-9,
6 Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. 7 Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. 8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles [ethnos, “nations”] by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the nations shall be blessed in you.” 9 So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer.
Paul concludes his discussion in Gal. 3:26 and 29, saying,
26 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus… 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
The original pattern of the “household of faith” (Gal. 6:10) is established in the life of Abraham himself. When he left Ur of the Chaldees, he brought with him many families who had been led by the birthright holders since Noah and Shem. These were the household of faith who did not scatter into other parts of the world or become servants of those who tried to usurp the right to rule the earth.
When Abraham went to Canaan, he brought with him “the persons which they had acquired in Haran.” We are given no specific number until Abraham raised up an army to fight against the kings that had taken his nephew Lot captive. But Gen. 14:14 tells us, “he led out his trained men, born in his house, three hundred and eighteen.”
If Abraham had 318 men of military age in his house, then surely there must have been at least 2,000 in Abraham’s household of faith, including wives, children, parents, and grandparents. None of these were Abraham’s physical children, for Isaac had not yet been born, nor even Ishmael.
Ishmael was later cast out because he was contending for the birthright. The other children of Abraham’s house remained, because they recognized that the rightful ruler of the earth (the birthright holder) was to come only through Abraham and Sarah. Two centuries later, when the sons of Jacob went to live in Egypt, the population of the clan must have risen to at least 10,000. These increased in numbers and became part of the nation of Israel. When they left Egypt, their population was about six million, and by this time they had all been integrated into the tribes of Israel.
The point is that Israel was a nation, not strictly a genealogy. Abraham’s household of faith included many who were not his physical descendants. Yet they were part of the nation of Israel and, in fact, would have been in the majority. Scripture is careful only to choose the birthright holder in each generation, because that was the specific lineage through whom the Messiah would come.
The Sadducees and Pharisees in the first century believed that their physical descent from Abraham gave them special privileges over other men. Neither John nor Jesus ratified their belief. In fact, John called them a “brood of vipers” (Luke 3:7). Jesus acknowledged that they were “Abraham’s offspring” (John 8:37) but yet said to them, “You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father” (John 8:44).
They were not physical offspring of the devil, but metaphorical “sons” of the devil on account of their deeds and desires. Throughout biblical history, there were countless Israelites who were like them, having stoned the prophets sent to them. On account of their rebellious nature, in fact, the Israelites were cast out of the land and divorced by God (Jeremiah 3:8). The covenant was broken (Jeremiah 31:32), and no one could be reinstated apart from faith in Jesus Christ.
And so Luke tells us that John was not impressed with the genealogical claims of the Pharisees and Sadducees. They too had to repent in order to become children of Abraham. Any connection to Abraham had to be proven by the fruit of the Spirit manifested in their lives.
Keep in mind also that Luke’s attempt to heal breaches between Jew and non-Jew was only possible by abolishing the dividing wall in the minds of the people. The dividing wall had wounded all non-Jews and women. The victims of this ungodly mindset could be healed only through the blood of Jesus Christ reconciling all men to Himself. No doubt as a Greek, Luke felt the injustice and greatly appreciated Paul’s uncompromising stand on the issue, even confronting Peter’s hypocrisy (Gal. 2:11-13).
The message of John, then, was that Yeshua was for all men, not just for a chosen few. In this he fulfilled the expectations of Isaiah who prophesied that “others” besides Israelites would be gathered to God under the New Covenant (Isaiah 56:8) and that God’s house was to be a house of prayer for all people (Isaiah 56:7). God was not just the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but was also “the God of all the earth” (Isaiah 54:5).
The universality of Isaiah’s vision and understanding of God is seen most clearly in the New Testament, especially in Luke’s gospel and the epistles of Paul. John, too, expresses it clearly in Revelation 5:13, where he says,
13 And every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things in them, I heard saying, “To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever.”
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 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 (Matt. 14:8). John’s disciples were then sent to inform Jesus of his death (Matt. 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 Deut. 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 Deut. 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 Sam. 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 and “cover” them, God said in 1 Sam. 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.
Luke tells us that John preached about many topics, but it is plain that Luke wanted to let us know that he prophesied specifically about the Holy Spirit. Luke 3:18 says,
18 So with many other exhortations also he preached the gospel to the people.
His ministry was largely focused upon exhorting the people to repent and to raise their moral standard to conform to the law. Yet he also “preached the gospel to the people,” that is, the “good news” of the coming Messiah and the baptism of fire that was to come. It should be noted that the coming “unquenchable fire” of the Spirit was not a threat but a promise. In other words, the “chaff” to be burned was the chaff in the lives of the people. The people themselves were grain. The Holy Spirit would help them achieve the level of righteousness that God had set forth in the “fiery law” (Deuteronomy 33:2, KJV).
The Scandalous Life of Herod Antipas
Luke then tells us the reaction of King Herod (Antipas) in Luke 3:19, 20,
19 But when Herod the tetrarch was reproved by him on account of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and on account of all the wicked things which Herod had done, 20 he added this also to them all, that he locked John up in prison.
The wickedness of Herod Antipas was well known to all the people. When he had visited Rome a few years earlier (26 A.D.), he was a guest in the house of his brother, Philip, and his wife, Herodias. During that visit, he had fallen in love with Philip’s wife. Herod then divorced his first wife Phasaelis, the daughter of King Aretas IV of Nabatea, in order to marry Herodias. She, in turn, divorced Philip and married Herod, creating a quiet scandal among the people.
Furthermore, divorcing Phasaelis sparked a disastrous war with her father, King Aretas, which had to be ended by the threat of Roman troops in 37 A.D. Tiberius died before the threat could be carried out, but two years later, after Herod was accused of conspiracy, his successor, Caligula, exiled Herod and Herodias to Gaul, where they died at unknown dates.
Earlier, in 30 A.D., John was outspoken and denounced Herod’s marriage as unlawful. Herod then cast him in prison but did not dare to put him to death, for he knew that John was considered to be a prophet among the common people. But then they had a party to celebrate Herod’s birthday (Matthew 14:6). Herodias’ daughter, Salome, danced at the party, and Herod “promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked” (Matthew 14:7). After consulting her mother, who hated John for speaking out against her marriage to Herod, she asked for John’s head on a platter (Matthew 14:8).
Herod’s birthday was evidently on or near Passover of 30 A.D., because when John’s disciples told Jesus what had happened, it was shortly after Passover, as I have shown.
John Baptizes Jesus
Luke 3:21, 22 says,
21 Now it came about when all the people were baptized, that Jesus also was baptized, and while He was praying, heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came out of heaven, “Thou art My beloved Son, in Thee I am well-pleased.”
Luke’s account is very brief. It appears that his main purpose was to show that Jesus was the One of whom John had spoken earlier. Jesus was the One who would baptize others with the Holy Spirit and fire. Hence, readers such as Theophilus are told that Jesus was able to baptize others with the Holy Spirit because He Himself had received that Spirit at His baptism.
Further, the heavenly witness came in the form of a dove, and a voice identified Him as the Son of God. Lightfoot reports that Jewish tradition claimed that Solomon’s scepter was topped by a golden dove:
“If you will believe the Jews, there sat a dove upon the top of Solomon’s sceptre. ‘As Solomon sat in his throne, his sceptre was hung up behind him… at the top of which there was a dove and a golden crown in the mouth of it’.” (Lightfoot, Commentary, Vol. III, p. 52).
If the tradition has merit, then Solomon’s dove may have prophesied of this event at Jesus’ baptism. Solomon was the son of King David, and his name is derived from Shalom, which means “peace.” He is therefore the Prince of Peace, a type of the Messiah who is also given that title prophetically in Isaiah 9:6. The dove represents the Holy Spirit in His peaceful character.
Official Recognition as King
Matt. 3:13-15 records a brief conversation before John would baptize Jesus, telling us that John did not feel worthy to baptize the Messiah. John 1:33 tells us that the Baptizer “did not recognize Him” (NASB) as the Messiah until the time of Jesus’ baptism. Since their mothers knew each other and were cousins, John no doubt was acquainted with Jesus. It is also likely that John often had been told of the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, and that he knew from his earliest days that Jesus was to be the Messiah.
How then did he not “recognize Him” until the baptism? I believe we must interpret the idea of “recognition” in a formal, political way, for indeed, John was consecrating the King of Judah and the King of the Earth. In that sense, recognition had to do with a formal introduction, which is normally done when an ambassador presents his credentials to a foreign nation and receives “recognition.” Likewise, when nations “recognize” each other, it means that they accept the integrity of each other’s identity and status as nations.
Because Jesus was both Son of God and Son of Man, He had to receive recognition in both directions. First, Jesus had been born on earth and was being presented to God as the rightful Heir of the throne of David. Hence, the voice from heaven “recognized” Jesus as the King.
Secondly, Jesus had come from heaven and deserved recognition from the earth. John “recognized” Him formally by accepting Him as the King sent to the nation. John did so in his priestly office as the legitimate high priest in Judea. In those days the high priests were installed only if “recognized” by the representatives of Rome. The former manner of installation, established by God in the days of Aaron, was that the high priest’s son would take the office on the death of his father.
When Solomon replaced Abiathar in 1 Kings 2:35, it was an extraordinary event brought about by the corruption of Eli and his sons three generations earlier. This change was prophesied and authorized by God in 1 Sam. 2:30, 35. Unfortunately, later kings took Solomon’s action as a precedent, allowing them to replace high priests according to their own carnal will. And so by the time of John’s ministry, the old custom had long ceased, and high priests were installed and removed at the whim of the kings’ representatives.
In the days of John and Jesus, Joseph Caiaphas was the high priest recognized by Rome. Josephus tells us how he and those before him came to obtain the high priesthood:
“He [Tiberius] was now the third emperor; and he sent Valerius Gratus to be procurator of Judea, and to succeed Annius Rufus. This man deprived Ananus [the father of Theophilus] of the high priesthood and appointed Ismael, the son of Phabi, to be high priest. He also deprived him in a little time, and ordained Eleazar, the son of Ananus, who had been high priest before, to be high priest; which office, when he had held for a year, Gratus deprived him of it and gave the high priesthood to Simon, the son of Camithus; and when he had possessed that dignity no longer than a year, Joseph Caiaphas was made his successor.”
Gratus, the procurator of Judea before Pontius Pilate, deposed Ananus (the biblical Annas) in 16 A.D. and replaced him with Ismael. Gratus soon replaced him with Eleazar, one of the sons of Ananus. But a year later Gratus deposed him and appointed Simon. A year later, Gratus deposed him and appointed Caiaphas, who held the position for about 18 years and was the high priest who condemned Jesus.
The point is that high priests are not legitimate unless God ordains them. Neither Gratus nor any other representative of the Roman Empire had the divine right to appoint high priests of God. Since the days of Julius Caesar the Roman emperors held the title of Pontifex Maximum, Latin for High Priest. Hence, when they appointed high priests in Jerusalem, those priests remained under the authority of the pagan Roman high priests, who were king-priest counterfeits and usurpers of the Melchizedek Order.
The Legitimate Office
I believe that John’s ministry established a legitimate high priesthood that was recognized by God Himself. The problem was that John died childless, and so his office passed to his nearest relative, his first-cousin, Jesus.
This also marked the transition from the Aaronic priesthood to that of Melchizedek, for Jesus was of the tribe of Judah, not Levi. It is likely that John’s mother, Elizabeth, had been born in the tribe of Judah, but had married a Levite, and so her tribal affiliation changed to Levi, as the law commanded.
While John was yet ministering, Jesus was unable to take His place as the High Priest, even though He was the first in line of succession. John was childless and apparently unmarried. When John was cast into prison, Jesus took John’s place and began to preach the gospel of repentance. But it was only when John died that Jesus fully became the Inheritor of the office of high priest under the Order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 7:12-15).
When Jesus was baptized, He was recognized as such by the voice of God. Even so, at the wedding feast of Cana, Jesus protested, saying, “My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4). John was not yet finished with his work as the forerunner.