The Ministry of John the Baptist
John was a prophet. We already know that because the earlier words of Gabriel and of John’s father Zechariah had made it clear. Now Luke introduces John as we would expect an OT prophet to be introduced. After setting John’s ministry in its historical context, Luke tells us that “the word of God came to John son of Zebedee.” John received the word as a prophet and he would share it as a prophet.
What was John’s ministry?
It was a ministry of preparation. That is, he was preparing the way for the coming of the Messiah. Therefore, John’s ministry would never fully focus on John. It would always push the spotlight over to the Messiah. Such is the way it should be for all of us, really. “Our” ministry is never really “ours” at all. Our lives, if they are being lived as they should, point to the Messiah and not to us.
John was preparing the way for a Messiah who would make salvation available to everyone. Luke used some words from the book of Isaiah to help explain what John was all about. Those words originally expressed the expectation that God would come to deliver his people from exile in Babylon. Now in Jesus God is preparing to come to call his people out of the world. The last line from the Isaiah quotation says, “And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” What God was about to do would be evident to all. We learn as we go along through Luke-Acts that from Luke’s perspective it was also available to all. Pedigree and prestige did not matter. Thus John told the crowds that they could not count on their status as descendants of Abraham (v. 8). God could get children wherever he wanted them, and that’s what he was going to do.
John’s ministry was also a ministry of repentance. He was a real hell-fire and brimstone preacher. He was, as we know from the other gospel writers, quite something to behold as well. The medium and the content of his message were driven by the dynamics of his mission. John was called to turn the attention of people to the coming of the Messiah and to all that it entailed. And so he had to talk about judgment as a component of the Christ event. The fact is that people needed to change their ways and they still do. The basic act in repentance is a turning away from self and sin and a turning toward God. John used baptism to symbolize repentance, but he made it clear that he was only preparing the way for the one who would baptize “with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (v. 16). The Holy Spirit is the mark of the Christian and of the Church. Fire is a symbol of judgment. John’s message is still valid. People need to turn away from sin and toward God. Judgment is a reality for those who don’t.
John’s ministry was a ministry of changed lives. That is, he preached about a Messiah whose coming should prompt repentance that would lead to real change in people’s lives. Now, by definition repentance should lead to real change. What I like about John’s message here is that he made the call to repentance very specific to someone’s life circumstances. So to the crowds who asked what they should do, John told them to share with others. That is something that all followers of God are called to do. Human beings are by nature selfish. Salvation changes that; we become sharers rather than hoarders. When tax collectors asked him what they should do, John told them not to abuse their office by overcharging. So our salvation is to affect us in the particulars of our job. The motivation that most people have, “to be successful at any cost,” is changed into “to be successful in the right way by treating people the right way.” So we see that John’s preaching makes it clear that changed hearts lead to changed lives in very practical and very specific ways. Ask yourself, “Is my life in its particulars truly reflecting the salvation that I have experienced?”