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“Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene, Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, the Word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness. And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins; as it is written in the book of the words of Esaias the prophet, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make His paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. Then said he to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then? He answereth and saith unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise. Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do? And he said unto them, Exact no more than that which is appointed you. And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages. And as the people were in expectation, and all men mused in their hearts of John, whether he were the Christ, or not; John answered, saying unto them all, I indeed baptize you with water; but One mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire: whose fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly purge His floor, and will gather the wheat into His garner; but the chaff He will burn with fire unquenchable. And many other things in his exhortation preached he unto the people. But Herod the tetrarch, being reproved by him for Herodias his brother Philip’s wife, and for all the evils which Herod had done, added yet this above all, that he shut up John in prison. Now when all the people were baptized, it came to pass, that Jesus also being baptized, and praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon Him, and a voice came from heaven, which said, Thou art My beloved Son; in Thee I am well pleased”—Luke 3:1-22.
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This passage brings before us the baptism of John, the baptism to which our blessed Lord Himself submitted.
Perhaps there is no person portrayed by the pen of inspiration less understood than John the Baptist. Our Lord Jesus said of him that of all those born of women there had never been a greater than he, but yet he that is the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John the Baptist. He stood at the door inviting people to enter. He never got in himself. He did not belong to the new dispensation in its fulness, but he showed the way to others; so in the sense of privilege, those who are in the kingdom of heaven are greater than he. But Jesus said that of all the prophets none was greater than John. Abraham was not greater. Moses was not greater; David was not; neither were Isaiah nor Jeremiah greater. John the Baptist in some way outshone them all. He was chosen by the Spirit of God to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ and to seek to bring men and women to an attitude of soul where they would be ready to receive the Saviour when He appeared before them.
In telling the story, Luke is very specific. He writes as a careful historian. He gives us dates that any readers of his own time would have been able to verify, and that we ourselves to some extent are able to verify today. He tells us exactly when John the Baptist began his ministry. It was in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberious Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod, tetrarch of Galilee. This was a grandson of the infamous Herod who was responsible for the slaughter of the babes in Bethlehem. His brother Philip was tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias was the tetrarch of Abilene. John got into trouble later on because of the fact that Herod lured away his brother Philip’s wife, and took her to himself. Then we are told that Annas and Caiaphas were high-priests in Judaea. We might ask, According to the Old Testament Scriptures how could there be two high-priests? There was to be only one high-priest at a time and then he was to be succeeded by his son. But at this time everything was out of order and the high-priesthood was a political plum bought and sold by the Roman conquerors who gave the office to the highest bidder. Annas was retired later on, and his son-in-law, Caiaphas, had the position. But they were both recognized as high-priests.
It was at this time, when Israel was in dire confusion, that the Word of God came to John the Baptist. Thirty years or more had gone by since his birth. We know nothing of his early training. We are not given any particulars as to how the Lord made Himself known to him, and gave him to realize that he was appointed to be the herald of the coming of the Saviour. Evidently for sometime he had been dwelling in the wilderness. Many of God’s servants had graduated from the university of the wilderness! Moses was given a post-graduate course there for forty years. Much of David’s training was given him in the wilderness. Take Elijah the Prophet—what lessons he had to learn out in the desert! And our blessed Saviour Himself spent forty days in the wilderness of Quarantana.
John the Baptist suddenly appeared in the region around Jordan, and we are told he was preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. He was not telling people that if they would be baptized their sins would be remitted. There is no such doctrine as that in Scripture. When we read of being baptized for the remission of sins it means that by baptism one confesses that he deserves to die. When John the Baptist called upon the people to be baptized confessing their sins, he was telling them that they were lost, that they deserved to die, that they could not make atonement for their own sins; but he told them of One who could. Some people imagine that John knew nothing of the grace of God. They forget that his real message was this: “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” Who said that? John the Baptist. That is the gospel of the grace of God. Did John the Baptist preach the gospel? Yes! He told men that only through the Lamb of God, the Lord Jesus, would their sins be remitted. He stood there in the Jordan valley and he drove home to the people their sins. We are told that those who believed his words justified God, and were baptized of him in the Jordan, confessing their sins. Their baptism was the outward acknowledgment of their lost condition. All this was in accordance with prophecy. We are referred to Chapter 40 of Isaiah where God says, “Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, saith your God.” The prophet looks up and asks, “How will I comfort them?” The voice of God says, “Cry that all flesh is grass and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field.” If God is going to comfort men they must first own their utter good-for-nothingness in His sight. To bolster men up in their own self-righteousness by trying to make them believe they have ability in themselves whereby they may save their own souls, is simply misleading men, and those who so preach will be responsible for soul-murder. The true servant of God is to put before men their lost condition in order that they may see their need of a Saviour. So Isaiah tells us that one was coming into the world with a message like this: “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” There is beautiful poetry in the Bible. He means that God’s messenger was to go forth before the face of the coming Messiah as a leveler, to bring all men to one common plane, the recognition of their sinnership: “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” John was to bring this to the hearts and consciences of Israel in order that they might realize how badly they needed the Saviour who was about to come.
“Then said he to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” In the great audience he saw many who were really unreal. They were there sight-seeing. They had heard of the strange, weird, desert-preacher, and they wanted to find out what he was doing. So John turned to them and said, “All of you who have never been born of God, who are not honest with God, and do not want to be honest with God, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John says, “If you profess to be the people of God evidence this in your lives. Bring forth fruits worthy of repentance.” Do not misunderstand me. He was not saying they could be saved by anything they might do. They were in the place of covenant relationship with God. They professed to be the seed of Abraham, and yet their lives were bringing disrepute upon the very name they bore. Whatever you profess to be, evidence it in your lives. Repent. What is repentance? It is self-judgment. It is a complete change of mind and attitude. If you have repented, if you have faced your sins before God, if you know deliverance from them as shown by new lives, you are a truly repentant people. Do not fall back on natural relationship. It would be a small thing for God to raise up children from the stones unto Abraham. The mere fact that you are Israelites does not mean that you are children of God. It is just another way of saying what Jesus said to Nicodemus later on, “You must be born again.”
Then John adds, “And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.” In many places today you will hear beautiful, eloquent sermons that really would amount to this: “The axe is laid to the fruit of the tree.” In other words, men are told, “Give up your bad ways. Give up your evil behavior. Everything will be all right and you will be saved by reformation. You will be saved by ethical culture. You will be saved by character. That’s all you need.” Imagine an orchardist trying to make a bad tree produce good fruit by cutting off all the imperfect fruit! The next crop will be just more bad fruit. The more you keep cutting it off the more bad fruit there will be. It won’t change the nature of the tree at all. The apple-tree isn’t an apple-tree because it bears eatable apples. It bears good apples because it is a good apple-tree. A crab-apple tree isn’t bad because it bears crab-apples. It bears crab-apples because it is a crab-apple tree. A man isn’t a sinner because he sins. He sins because he is a sinner. That’s the trouble with him. That’s why he needs to be born again. That’s why John the Baptist came saying, “Cut it down completely. Let there be a new thing altogether.” The axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that beareth not good fruit shall be hewn down, and cast into the fire.” Nothing you can do as a natural man will enable you to bring forth fruit to God. The apostle Paul preached the same doctrine that John the Baptist preached. He told the Ephesian elders that throughout his ministry. He preached “repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.” Repentance means that the natural man takes God’s side against himself. God says, “All have sinned.” Man says, “I’m not a sinner.” The penitent confesses he is a sinner. He acknowledges his sin. He confesses his guilt. There is a Saviour for sinners. That’s the gospel. “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” But it is only the repentant one who cares anything about his Saviour.
When men do not realize their lost condition, they do not care. But when the Holy Spirit of God awakens a man to see his need, he is ready for Christ. When John the Baptist’s ministry takes effect, and when men realize the axe is laid to the root of the tree, and they come down before God and take sides with God, they say, “Tell me about the Saviour,” and then the further message of John the Baptist fits in, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.”
When John saw the people were repentant he baptized them and they confessed their sins. He expected them, however, to give some evidence of their sincerity. “If you have two coats look around for a fellow who doesn’t have one, and if you have more food than you need, divide with somebody else.” There are many professing Christians who could not stand that test. One evidence that a man is truly repentant toward God is that he has real concern for his fellow-men who are in worse circumstances than he is himself. So John says, “Show yourself by your concern for others. To the publicans, that is, the tax-collectors, who inquired, “What shall we do?” He said, “You be careful now. Don’t you gouge the people. Don’t you take any more than you should—exact no more than is appointed you.” That would be the evidence of a repentant tax-collector. Even Roman soldiers came to John asking, “What shall we do?” He replied, “Don’t swagger so much, and don’t act as if you are so important. Don’t trample on the rights of any man! Do violence to no man! Serve your country, and try and let it go at that. Don’t lord it over other folks.” Understand, not as a means of salvation, but as an evidence of repentance. This would show that they were genuine.
The people were greatly interested and they wondered whether John himself might be the promised Messiah, but he said, “No, I am not He. I indeed baptize you with water; but One mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost,” or, He is going to baptize you with fire. Do not make the mistake that some people do—as though the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost are the same thing. The baptism of the Holy Ghost is something which every believer enters into, but the baptism of fire is the baptism of judgment which all men must know who reject the salvation that God has provided. See what he says about that: “He will truly purge His floor. He will gather the wheat into His garner”—that is the redeemed— “but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire”—those are the unreal.
Herod heard about this. He wanted to see the strange desert-preacher. We are told he sent for him and he liked to hear John talk. There was something about that earnest man that appealed to the poor, wretched, godless Herod, and he was stirred. But when John spoke out plainly concerning Herod’s adulterous relation with his brother’s wife, Herod was angry. John said, “It is not lawful for thee to have her.” Herod said, “I didn’t ask you to come and tell me how to live. I don’t believe in preachers interfering in personal affairs. Keep out of this.” But John refused to keep out of it. Herod said, “Off to jail with you,” and that was the end of John the Baptist, so far as his ministry was concerned. Herod liked to hear him preach as long as he did not touch the sin of Herod’s own life. There are many people like that. They can enjoy fervent, earnest preaching as long as it is directed to somebody else, but when it comes home to them it is too personal. They don’t like it.
Before John was put into prison something very important happened. When all the people were baptized it came to pass that Jesus also was baptized. He came to John, and He stepped down to the waters of Jordan. John drew back as he recognized Him, and said, as it were, “I cannot baptize you in repentance. You have nothing to repent of. I have need to be baptized by you.” But Jesus replied, in effect, “John, you baptize Me. I know that I am not a sinner, but I see these sinners being baptized, and I am going to take My place with them. I am here today to pledge Myself to fulfil every righteous demand of the throne of God on their behalf.” It was His pledge to go to the cross and die for sinners. So John baptized Him. When I see my Lord going down into Jordan I say, “There He is promising to go to the cross and die for me.” He came forth from the waters, and the Spirit descended like a dove upon Him, and a voice was heard saying, “Thou art My beloved Son; in Thee I am well pleased.”
At the very time when He had pledged Himself to fulfil all righteousness on behalf of sinners which involved His being made sin for them God the Father signified His delight in Him and declared Him to be the Holy One who glorified Him in all His ways.