There is no doubt that John’s chief function was to announce the arrival of the Coming One of OT expectation. Yet by his own admission he did not know Jesus as such until Jesus’ baptism (Jn. 1:33). Hence, for some time prior to his pointing to Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (Jn. 1:29), John preached less specifically of the imminent arrival of Israel’s Messiah. He testified that when he baptized Jesus, He saw the Holy Spirit descend upon Him in the form of a dove. He already knew that he was not worthy to loosen Messiah’s sandal strap (Mk. 1:7),1 because the Coming One was mightier than he was (Mk. 1:7). By the time of Jesus’ baptism, John understood that Jesus was the mighty one he was preparing Israel for (Matt. 3:13-15). He knew Jesus was the Christ (Jn. 3:28), but it appears that it was not until after baptizing Jesus that he understood that Jesus was in fact the Son of God (Matt. 3:16-17; Jn. 1:34).2
The times in which the Baptist preached were often difficult for the general populace of Israel, with the lavish lifestyles of the rich and powerful being paid for by taxation of the lower classes amid the uncertainty of the agrarian way of life. Judea was under direct Roman governance, while in Galilee Herod Antipas ruled capably but always attempting to extend the Hellenist influences he had imbibed during his many years in Rome. John’s call for “fruits worthy of repentance” (Lk. 3:8) would have struck a powerful counter note to the encroaching Hellenism, as well as the lifestyles of those who promoted it.3 It would also have added fuel to the fire of messianic expectation that all NT scholars comment on.
When we piece together the message of John the Baptist in the four Gospels it is clear that he is presaging a new age. He demands repentance (conversion) in view of the coming Kingdom, yet He does not refer to Jesus as King but as “the Lamb of God”; a name that speaks of sacrifice. This is intriguing. John is filled with the Holy Spirit, and he preaches God’s words, and yet those words present a tension between preparing for the Kingdom of God and the Lamb of God. This paradox is intensified with the understanding that Jesus is the Son of God. Obviously, righteous living is needed in the face of the Kingdom’s arrival, but why does John point to Jesus as God’s Lamb and not God’s King? Few writers have posed this question, but it seems to me to be worth the asking.
The only adequate answer to the problem would appear to be that John had enough comprehension of his calling and mission that he knew Christ would have to die and be presented again to Israel (cf. Psa. 118:22-23). That would explain the ambiguity in his identification with Elijah and his denial of the name. But that would also mean that he knew that his call to repentance in light of the Kingdom would fail, since the Lamb of God to whom he pointed would be handed over to the Romans for execution.
When we look at Matthew 11:18-19 we get a hint of this:
“For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, `He has a demon.’
The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, `Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But wisdom is justified by her children.” (Matthew 11:18-19)
Jesus’ rebuke was aimed at “this generation” (Matt. 16:16); the generation who heard and saw both John the Baptist and Jesus. If John were aware that many were calling him demon possessed (probably on account of his uncouth manner and appearance), he may well have known that his message was being rejected by many, and that as a consequence of that the Lamb of God would likewise be rejected.
Another possibility that needs to be considered is that John the Baptist’s idea of the coming Kingdom was spiritual. This is by far the most accepted view. But it suffers on account of its idiosyncrasy. Modern scholars may not find much wrong with the “secret spiritual meaning” of such a Kingdom proclamation, but there is no doubt at all that such powerful preaching, and in such a manner, would only ferment the expectations of the covenants of God in the hearts of the people. If John wanted to point people to a spiritual kingdom, he certainly went about it in an odd way!
More than this though is the fact that John said that the Coming One would,
“His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:12)
What should be noticed here is that the threat of clearing the threshing floor and burning up the chaff – with “unquenchable fire” no less – does not refer to the first coming but must refer to the second (cf. Matt. 3:30, 39). But this is connected by John with the first coming, which the previous verse demonstrates:
“I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:11)
The baptism with the Holy Spirit is, as we all know, a gift which comes as a result of Jesus’ passion and resurrection (e.g., Jn. 7:37-39; Acts 11:16-17). But what is the “fire”? Is it a figurative way of referring to the endowment of power that comes from the Holy Spirit; or perhaps the refining of one’s heart, or of Israel? There are diverse opinions.4 I take the reference to “fire” as divine judgment, as verse 12 (and Lk. 3:17) appear to indicate, although it may not refer to hell-fire. It might refer to God as “a consuming fire” (Deut. 4:23), who spoke out of the fire (Deut. 4:12). In the imagery of the coming of Yahweh, He is described as having “devouring fire from His mouth” (Psa. 18:8; Isa. 30:27, 30; cf. Zeph. 3:8). According to Malachi, the coming of “the Messenger of the covenant”5 will be “like a refiner’s fire” (Mal. 3:1-2). Since only one baptism is mentioned many take the “fire” as an image of rejection.6 But it is rejection by God that logically leads to literal judgment.7 Theologian Graham Cole supports the traditional view (e.g. of Origen, who knew the Greek very well), that the fire refers to coming judgment.8 If there is anything connection between Matthew 3:11-12/Luke 3:16-17 with these OT verses then there is a connection with the second coming. So, without wishing to press the matter more than it can bear, I think there is a distinct possibility that we have an instance of the two comings being seen as one event.9
John the Baptist is a commanding figure in the early part of the Gospel accounts. He did no miracle, but his presence and mission made him “more than a prophet” (Matt. 11:9). He made sure that Jesus got a fitting introduction, even if he came to realize that his message would be rejected by the majority in Israel.
1 “In Judaism this was such a degrading act that a Hebrew slave was not to undertake it.” – Darrell, L. Bock, Luke 1:1 – 9:50, BECNT, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994, 320-321.
2 Because the Gospels report all these facts, it is ridiculous to think that Jesus was at one time a disciple of John, as for example, James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 350-352.
3 For the background see Paul Barnett, Jesus & the Rise of Early Christianity, ch. 6.
4 The 19thCentury NT scholar Frederic Godet thought that the “fire” did not signify judgment, but instead denotes the purging of the old nature. – F. Godet, A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, trans. E. W. Shalders, Edinburgh, T & T Clark, n.d., Vol. 1.180. See also David Hill, The Gospel of Matthew, 94.
5 See The Words of the Covenant, Vol. 1.350-351. My understanding of Malachi 3:1 is that “My messenger” is John the Baptist, and “the Messenger of the covenant” is Christ.
6 E.g., Darrell, L. Bock, Luke 1:1 – 9:50, 322-324.
7 Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, 80. Schnabel notes that the term “Lord of the harvest” is a reference to final judgment in Matthew 3:12, 13:30, 39. Eckhard J. Schnabel, Early Christian Mission: Jesus and the Twelve, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004, Vol. 1.312.
8 Graham A. Cole, He Who Gives Life: The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007, 181-182. See also A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930, Volume 1, 28.
9 I called attention to this phenomenon in Volume 1.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.