Wednesday, September 26, 2012

John the Baptist was Kind of Obsessed with Fire

John the Baptist was a hippie who talked about fire a lot. Or something like that. Read the story here: Matthew 3.

Here are my thoughts and observations about this passage:

"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near."

This is John's main message. What does it mean? "Repent" means to quit doing bad things, and to completely leave behind that lifestyle.

Is John saying "Hey, you're a bad person. Repent, because God is coming"? I don't like this way of wording it because it's an accusation that seems to come out of nowhere, and people are going to be angry and feel judged.

If I were putting a positive spin on this, I would say, "Do you feel dissatisfied/alone/anxious/stuck/depressed/guilty? God doesn't want you to live that way- God has something way better. Repent of your sin and get ready."

In the context of the culture John was in, how would people have understood his message, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near"? As condemnation, as an exciting opportunity for change, or maybe something else entirely?

Whatever it was, his message was effective. Verses 5-6 say that "Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan" went to see him and confessed their sins and were baptized. The "all" thing doesn't literally mean every single person who lived there- but still, a ton of people. Evidently, his followers believed that he was right- they needed to repent and get ready for what God was about to do.

"Prepare the way for the Lord"

Matthew says that John the Baptist is the one described by the prophesy in Isaiah 40:3 "A voice of one calling: 'In the desert prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.'"

The purpose of John's preaching was to prepare people to follow Jesus. He did this by emphasizing their need to turn from their sin. Perhaps this shows that in order to follow Jesus, we must first be humble enough to recognize our need for God.

Well, did it work? Did John help people find Jesus and believe in him? Yes- years after John's death, his influence was still helping people find Jesus:

Acts 18:24-26
Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.

Acts 19:1-7
While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?"
They answered, "No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit."
So Paul asked, "Then what baptism did you receive?"
"John's baptism," they replied.
Paul said, "John's baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus." On hearing this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all.

Both of these passages take place when the church began to grow, after Jesus' death and resurrection. Apollos and these 12 men at Corinth believed in John's message and were baptized by him (or possibly his followers), but they didn't know much about Jesus or the Holy Spirit. However, they knew that John was pointing the way to someone who was supposed to come after him, so when they heard the full story about Jesus, they believed.

Why does Matthew mention that John ate locusts?

This just seems weird. It makes for a good illustration in little-kid bibles, but seriously, why does Matthew include this line about "John's clothes were made of camel's hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey"?

So basically he's a weird hippie/ cult leader...? Was this a publicity stunt? Was he weird so that people would talk about him and maybe come hear what he had to say?

I did a google image search for "eat locusts" and then noped right out of there. Instead, meet Lego John the Baptist. Image source.
John was not a fan of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

He calls them "vipers" and uses some imagery of trees being chopped down and burned. Why?

The Pharisees and Sadducees were the religious leaders, and it seems that John was calling them out because they believed "we have Abraham as our father" so they didn't need to repent. What does he mean by "we have Abraham as our father"? It could refer to their Jewish ancestry, or their obedience to Jewish laws.

John calls them out because they think they know God better than everyone else, and they're so awesome and don't need to repent. He's pretty harsh; this stuff about the trees getting "cut down and thrown into the fire" is scary.

John tells us what Jesus will be like.

In verses 11-12, John predicts that "after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire."

Wow, John talks a lot about fire- a symbol of judgment. Jesus- the one who comes after John- would separate the wheat from the chaff, good people from bad people (however you define "good" or "bad" people...).

The kingdom of heaven is near! Repent, and get a fire extinguisher. Image source.

I don't like to talk about God's judgment. It's real, but it's scary. And it seems that John is saying Jesus is all about judgment. John even judges himself- he says he is not worthy to pick up Jesus' shoes.

Did Jesus come to judge people? In some sense, yes, but when you read the gospels you see Jesus teaching and healing and accepting and loving people- how does this fit in with judgment? I guess we'll find the answer to this as we read further along in the gospel of Matthew.

Jesus' baptism

Then Jesus shows up and wants to get baptized. John tells him this clearly makes no sense, but then Jesus says, "Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness." John had no idea what that meant, so he just went along with it.

Seriously though, what DOES that mean? "Fulfill all righteousness"???

After Jesus gets baptized, the Holy Spirit comes "like a dove" and lands on him, and a voice says "This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." That's pretty epic and awesome, but what does it mean?

We have the 3 parts of the Trinity- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit- coming together, with the Father showing his approval as Jesus starts his ministry.

Does this mean that before his baptism, Jesus did not have the Holy Spirit? So Jesus did not have as much power? Maybe? I don't know the significance of the Spirit coming "like a dove" landing on Jesus.

Why does Jesus need to get baptized?

Because isn't baptism supposed to be about repenting from sin? And Christians believe Jesus did not sin. So... why does he get baptized?

A few reasons I thought of:
  1. To set an example for Christians. (Fun fact: I got baptized a year ago.)
  2. To show his approval for John's work.
  3. As a sign of submission/obedience to God the Father.
Any more reasons?

Summary/ take-home message:

I love how John the Baptist was able to point people to Jesus, and his influence was still there years after his death. I hope that I can also show people who Jesus is- and maybe they won't believe until years later, but that's still awesome.

But I'm uncomfortable with how much John talked about fire and judgment. I don't want to judge people.

Perhaps it is possible to ask people to repent without judging them- without saying I'm better than anyone. John's message to EVERYONE was about their need to repent, and he was harsh only toward the religious people who thought they didn't have to. John even thought of himself as unworthy to carry Jesus' shoes. He warned about God's judgment, but he didn't judge people. If that makes sense.

Christians should take John's warning seriously- do we think we're automatically good, like the Pharisees and Sadducees did? Do we forget our own sin and need for God? Do we think we're better than other people?

And somehow, John's message of repentance and the kingdom of God was exactly what people needed to hear. John prepared the way for Jesus, and I hope I can do that too.


This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.

Previous post: God became man... and babies died for it (Matthew 2:13-23)

Next post: I Would Only Follow a God Who Was Tempted (Matthew 4:1-11) 

Click here to go to the beginning of the series.


  1. I imagine Paul's explanation of Abraham's fatherhood in Romans 4 might illuminate some Pharisee's ethnocentric attitudes.

    1. Good call- I'd never thought of it that way before.

  2. John's clothes resembled those of the prophet Elijah (see 2 Kgs. 1:8). As the last great prophet of the kingdom of Israel, he repeated the call for repentance (from doing bad things, as you say)--and most especially, announcing a new kingdom, the kingdom of heaven. John's use of "fire" for future judgment also could relate to Elijah, who called down fire from heaven to consume the many false prophets of Israel.

    The Pharisees and Sadducees were not just religious leaders; they were national leaders, authorities over the kingdom of Israel (under Rome's watchful eye). The conflict between John, and later Jesus, with those leaders pointed out the major difference(s) between the two kingdoms.

    Jesus' baptism does show his approval of John's mission; yet his baptism is not about repentance; it is about beginning to fulfill the righteousness of the new kingdom. John wants to be baptized (with the Spirit) by Jesus; but Jesus is the first to be baptized (as an anointing) by the Spirit. The Spirit descends from heaven and anoints Jesus as the new king of the new kingdom, the beginning of the fullness of righteousness. Jesus will now rule as the righteous king, gathering a kingdom of disciples who will eventually be baptized with the Spirit and live according to Jesus' righteousness.

    The words of God (from heaven)--this is my son--point back to Ps. 2:7, where God decrees to his new anointed king: you are my son; in Ps. 2:2 the kings of the earth are against the Lord and his anointed one. Jesus' anointing at his baptism confirms his kingship, the beginning of the kingdom of (and from) heaven.

    The words about pleasing God point back to Isa. 42:1, where God will put the Spirit on his servant and he will faithfully bring righteousness (justice) to the nations (Gentiles). So Jesus receives further confirmation of his receiving the Spirit and new way of righteousness, and of beginning an international kingdom (of disciples), the new kingdom of (and from) heaven.

    1. Wow I totally forgot about the connection between John the Baptist and Elijah- that must be why Matthew points out John's clothes and stuff. Cool. ^_^

  3. Hmm that's interesting- I've never heard that explanation before. :)

  4. One reason I heard that Jesus got baptised is so that those who believed but never were baptised could get into heaven. It was just another way that he lived the perfect life that God substitutes for ours. I think this reasoning is a way of explaining those verses that are like "You must be baptised in order to enter heaven" - not that I'm sure that that is EVEN a verse ... :)