St John the Baptist Baptizes the People, circa 1635, by Nicolas Poussin

Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness, circa 1635, by Jose LeonardoJohn the Baptist preached in the wilderness of Judea, telling his audience, “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven has come near.” John was the one spoken of in the Old Testament through the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of a man calling in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way for God, make a straight path for him.’”

John wore clothes made of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist. He ate locust and honey. People from Jerusalem, Judea, and the Jordan went to John where they confessed their sins and were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

When John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees arrive (popular religious groups at the time), he called them “vipers” and said,

“Who told you that you could come here, be baptized, and avoid the wrath of God? Being baptized is not enough – you must actively follow the word of God and seek forgiveness (repentance) for your sins. And don’t think you are exempt because you are descendants of Abraham. God could just as easy raise up children for Abraham out of these stones. The axe is already positioned at the base of the tree and any tree that does not produce fruit will be cut down.”

John told his followers:

“I baptize you with water for repentance but one day, one will come who is more powerful than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to even carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand. He will clear the threshing floor, gather up his wheat into the barn, and burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

What the story means to us today

John the Baptist’s lesson still relevant today

Our introduction to John the Baptist provides a clear image of who the man was – a fiery but humble preacher aggressively spreading the word of God and baptizing those who chose to follow God’s plan. The lesson John taught is equally as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago –entry into the Kingdom of Heaven requires actively following God’s plan while recognizing, and acknowledging, your shortcomings and confessing your sins, seeking forgiveness (repentance) from God when you fail to meet his expectations.

John prepares man for the introduction of Jesus – what it means to repent

It is evident from the scripture that John the Baptist was preparing the masses for the arrival of Jesus and his ministry of God’s New Testament message – a message that focused strongly on repentance. The warning that John issues to the Pharisees forms the basis for Christ’s ministry – you should be a Christian by your actions and repent if (when) you fall short.

It is important to recognize that “repent” is not simply “saying you’re sorry”. It is more than that. Repentance is a fundamental change in mindset – a regret or remorse accompanying a realization that wrong has been done. It is by no means an invitation to sin as you please with the expectation that you can simply ask God for forgiveness later. On the contrary, it’s a complete change in how you think and live.

The Preaching of St John the Baptist, circa 1690, by Giovanni Battista GaulliAdditional thoughts and considerations

Parallels between John the Baptist and Old Testament Elijah

Matthew depicts John the Baptist as a New Testament version of the Old Testament prophet Elijah. Religious leaders in John’s day often led lives of luxury. John however, lived a simple life, much like Elijah. His dress, a garment of hair with a leather belt wrapped around his waist, is similar to the Old Testament description of Elijah as was his living conditions (e.g. living in the desert, eating locusts and honey).

John’s apprehension towards Pharisees and Sadducees

Why the Pharisees and Sadducees came to John’s baptism ceremony is not specified. The scriptures suggest that they were there to be baptized (which John refused) but they may have believed they were righteous enough to receive baptism without prior repentance as evidenced by John’s condemnation of their hypocrisy. Jews in this period believed themselves to be righteous, not necessarily because of their keeping of Old Testament law, but by their identification as children of the covenant promises God made to Abraham. John’s messages was a departure from the beliefs of the Pharisees and Sadducees. According to John, entry into the Messiah’s kingdom required a change of mind, a repentance.

The significance of the baptismal location

John the Baptist conducted his ministry in the desert of Judea, a rugged land west of the Dead Sea. The Jordan river, in which John baptized followers, was significant for the people of Israel at the time. The Jordan served as a resource for water but also as the border between Israel and the Promise Land.

Does hell last forever?

The Old Testament established the idea that punishment of the damned was eternal. John’s mention of the “unquenchable fire” further supports this belief implying that the fires of hell burn forever.

The Science behind the story

Who were the Pharisees?

The Pharisees were members of one of the most important and influential religious and political parties of Judaism in the time of Jesus. The Pharisees were strict adherents to the laws of the Old Testament and the unwritten, oral “tradition of the elders”. They were opponents of the Sadducees and although relatively few in number, held great influence in popular opinion and quite possibly, national policy. The historian Josephus was himself a Pharisee. He claimed that the Pharisees received the backing and goodwill of the common people, apparently in contrast to the more elite Sadducees.

Who were the Sadducees?

The Sadducees were extremely strict followers of “law and order” and rejected Oral Law that was followed by the Pharisees. The historian Josephus wrote that they were the sophisticated and wealthy elite who controlled the official political structures of Judaism at the time of Jesus. The religious responsibilities of the Sadducees included maintenance of the Temple in Jerusalem. Other responsibilities included the collection of taxes and equipping the military.

A winnowing forkWhere did John the Baptist preach his message?

The area that John the Baptist preached in, the desert of Judea, stretched about 20 miles from the Jerusalem-Bethlehem plateau to the Jordan River and the Dead Sea.

Winnowing fork in hand

Winnowing is an agricultural method used to separate grain from chaff (the protective casings of seeds and grain). It is preceded in the process by threshing, the loosening of the grain or seeds from the husks. A winnowing fork was used on a pile of harvested grain to separate the components, often by tossing it into the air allowing the solid grain to fall back into the pile while the dry, empty chaff is blown away by the wind. Of course the grain was kept and the chaff thrown away and John uses the imagery of sifting through threshed grain for useful kernels to portray God’s separation (and disposition) of good and bad men.

The Dead Sea Scrolls and John’s potential relationship to its authors

The Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in 1947 in the Qumran caves, were found not far from where John was preaching. Some scholars speculate that John the Baptist was associated with the religious group (the Essenes) that lived in the area and copied (and preserved) the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Essenes were the third major religious group besides the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Ancient ritual purification bathArchaeological evidence of Jewish ritual baptism baths

A number of Jewish ritual baths have been excavated in Jerusalem, Jericho, and throughout the east. By rabbinical law, the baptism baths were required to hold at least 60 gallons of water in order to be deep enough to fully immerse the person’s body under water. Although Christians may have later been baptized in these same structures, the baptisms John conducted differed from those in the Jewish community where rites of immersion were typically associated with purity of priests and placed no requirement on repentance.

Bible Text

NIV

3 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ ”

4 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. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 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.”

The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.

The Message

1–2 While Jesus was living in the Galilean hills, John, called “the Baptizer,” was preaching in the desert country of Judea. 2 His message was simple and austere, like his desert surroundings: “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.”

3 John and his message were authorized by Isaiah’s prophecy:

Thunder in the desert! Prepare for God’s arrival! Make the road smooth and straight!

4 John dressed in a camel-hair habit tied at the waist by a leather strap. He lived on a diet of locusts and wild field honey. 5 People poured out of Jerusalem, Judea, and the Jordanian countryside to hear and see him in action. 6 There at the Jordan River those who came to confess their sins were baptized into a changed life.

7 When John realized that a lot of Pharisees and Sadducees were showing up for a baptismal experience because it was becoming the popular thing to do, he exploded: “Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to make any difference? 8 It’s your life that must change, not your skin! 9 And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as father. Being a descendant of Abraham is neither here nor there. Descendants of Abraham are a dime a dozen. 10 What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.

11 “I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. The real action comes next: The main character in this drama—compared to him I’m a mere stagehand—will ignite the kingdom life within you, a fire within you, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. 12 He’s going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.”

The Preaching of St John the Baptist, circa 1602, by Alessandro AlloriPeterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.

The NET Bible

3:1 In those days John the Baptist came into the wilderness of Judea proclaiming, 3:2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” 3:3 For he is the one about whom Isaiah the prophet had spoken:

“The voice of one shouting in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make his paths straight.’ ”

3:4 Now John wore clothing made from camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his diet consisted of locusts and wild honey. 3:5 Then people from Jerusalem, as well as all Judea and all the region around the Jordan, were going out to him, 3:6 and he was baptizing them in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins.

3:7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 3:8 Therefore produce fruit that proves your repentance, 3:9 and don’t think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones! 3:10 Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

3:11 “I baptize you with water, for repentance, but the one coming after me is more powerful than I am—I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 3:12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clean out his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire.”

Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.

King James Version

3 In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, 2 And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. 3 For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 4 And the same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan, 6 And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins. 7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance: 9 And think 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. 10 And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. 11 I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire: 12 Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.

The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.

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