Reacting to Words of Warning
Topic: Grace Pulpit Passage: Luke 3:15–3:20
Reacting to Words of Warning
May 8, 2016
Let’s turn to Luke Chapter 3. Of all the Gospel writers, there is a special love that I have for Luke because of this aspect—he really does take a lot of time throughout his Gospel to note God’s interest in women, his love for them, his acknowledgement of them, like I said at the Women’s Conference; let a woman learn. Women are learners, they’re students of Scripture, and Luke acknowledges that all the way through the Gospel. Christ acknowledges that in his ministry to women directly. But our passage today has nothing to do with women. It’s got to do with people. So if you are “a people,” it has to do with you. We’re going to go back to our study of Luke’s Gospel. I’m actually going to start in John chapter 10. If you turn to Luke 3, you can keep a finger there and turn over to John chapter 10. I want to look at John chapter 10 because I want to illustrate a principle that is really at the heart of our passage this morning, Luke 3:15-20. I want to start there in John chapter 10.
The word of God is so profound. It’s so powerful, and as we know through this repentance teaching, it’s often quite penetrating. We’ve been studying this section that highlights how penetrating God’s work is to us. And Luke’s record of the preaching of John the Baptist is some convicting stuff. It’s convicting to hear, I know. It’s convicting to preach. It’s been such a great joy in my own heart, though, to see how many of you have responded so well to this series on repentance. You’ve understood the gravity of the message and at the same time embraced the message. And that does not happen—you have to understand—it does not happen apart from the Spirit of God. Mark it down. Whenever God is at work among a people, he causes those people to honor his Word by embracing it, by obeying it, by rejoicing in it. That goes for every part of Scripture—the comforting parts and the convicting parts, as well. And that is happening in our midst, beloved. It is happening. God is causing us to receive and to embrace his perfect Word and that is so exciting. We who belong to God, we who receive his word—the whole of it and every single part—we want to hear it preached. We want to hear all of it—the whole and the parts—because God’s Word is our very life. It is our food. It is our drink. And the words of our God—they comfort us, don’t they? They bring us joy. They keep our eyes set on our eternal hope. And that’s why we visit his word as often as we can because in his work we find life and light in a very dead and darkened world.
There’s a voice that cuts through this darkened, sin-sick world to reach those who believe. It’s the voice of our God written in Scripture. It’s the voice of our Shepherd who is calling out to us, his sheep. Many don’t hear that voice, but we do. And as Jesus said in John 10—if you’re there look at verse 27 and 29. He said:
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.
That is a powerful promise. It’s a promise to all who belong to Jesus Christ. It’s a promise that is guaranteed by the Father’s predetermined will to give his Son the gift of a redeemed people. We, the redeemed, are the Father’s gift to the Son. How can you know if you are a part of that gift that the Father has given the Son? Answer: “My sheep hear my voice.” Those who belong to Christ hear his word. They listen to his word. The true sheep embrace his word by obeying it, by submitting to it, by doing what it says. That’s by no means a given. The context of John Chapter 10, even back in Chapter 9—Chapters 9 and 10—the context is conflict. Again, Jesus is dealing with detractors. Jesus was challenged by those who claimed to know God and they held strongly to other opinions. They believed Jesus misrepresented God. They believed he was leading people astray. And Jesus told them—back up into John 10 verse 24—
The Jews gathered around him [This is happening, by the way, at the temple. As he’s walking through the temple, they approach him,] “and they said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe [Why?] because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice.”
They hear, they listen, they obey. Did these Jews listen to Jesus? Did they repent? No, not at all. They tried to silence him. If you go down the context there by verse 31, they’re getting ready to stone him. If you continue on, by verse 39 they’re seeking to arrest him. They have no intention of hearing his voice. They want to still his voice. They want to shut him up.
All that to say, this is just to illustrate a principle to you that there are two responses to the proclamation of God’s Word, and two only, just two. Repentance or rejection. Two reactions to the truth—repentance or rejection. People will either embrace the Word with joy, or they will reject it in rebellion. Many of us here have embraced the truth as we’ve come to understand it. As I said, I rejoice in that, folks. As a pastor, that keeps me going. Sadly, there are many, many people who respond to the proclamation of the truth by rejecting it. And rejection takes a myriad of forms, doesn’t it? We understand that. Some reject God’s Word by embracing a more pleasant sounding word, one that feels better to them. And they drown out truth with smoother voices. That’s what Paul told Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:3 to 4. He said, “For the time is coming”—and I would say, folks, the time has arrived—“when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” You don’t like what you’re hearing in one pulpit? No problem. There are plenty of pulpits to choose from, plenty of preachers on the radio, plenty of preachers on the Internet. It’s easy these days to find someone more pleasant to listen to. Just drive to the next church, turn that radio dial, click on a different link. Others—they reject the truth with outright hostility whether it’s a verbal scorn, threat of violence, even actual violence. Many faithful Christians have experienced that kind of hostility.
But there’s a less aggressive form of opposition than violent reaction. It’s called passive resistance. It’s called passive aggression against those who teach the truth. They want to undermine the truth. They turn away from the truth. And these people justify themselves in turning away from the clear teaching of the truth. They’re like the generation whom Jesus described in Luke Chapter 7, verses 31 to 34. He says, “To what then shall I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? They are like children sitting the marketplace and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance, we sang a dirge, and you did not weep.’” That’s a pretty apt illustration, isn’t it? People of this generation—Jesus is describing his generation and I would say he is describing a lot of generations, including ours—they’re like fickle children. They want the preacher to dance to their tune, whatever they play and whenever they play it. “Follow our lead,” they tell the preacher. Many preachers have succumbed to that. They send out surveys and say, “How do you want church to be? Let me figure out what you want, what your preferences are, then I’ll accommodate myself to you.” They’re not a voice crying out in the wilderness, are they?
Jesus continued, “For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” Well, either way you go, they find a reason not to listen. Any excuse they could find to poison the well, any reason to deny the validity of the preacher. Why? Is it the preacher’s fault? No, it’s because they don’t want to listen to the truth. It’s not about eating or not eating; it’s not about drinking or not drinking; it’s about their heart, about a heart that rejects the truth.
Listen, beloved, most people are in that category. That’s why Jesus describes them as “this generation.” Most people are in that category, and it’s most religious people, most church-going people who are in that category. In their arrogance they’ve closed their ears to the truth, and they’ve sought other voices to affirm them, affirm their decisions, tell them everything’s okay, soothe their guilty consciences. That’s why I say, folks, what I said at the very beginning—we have been going through some pretty strong stuff here with this fiery prophet John the Baptist and his lost message of repentance, which I’ll grant you is like a foreign language to most evangelicals today. Listen, this message of repentance needs to be embraced with joy. You’re ready, you’re willing, you’re rejoicing to obey it for yourselves, you’re rejoicing to proclaim this message to others. You acknowledge how hard it is.
One couple told me after one of these messages a few weeks ago, “That message would get you run out of most pulpits around here, Preacher.” It’s true. I believe that they have embraced the truth. That’s evidence of the Spirit’s work. It’s evidence of what Jesus said: “My sheep hear my voice, I know them, they follow me. I give them eternal life and they will never perish and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” What a promise. For that, I rejoice. It is a massive encouragement to me, folks, to see you walking in the truth. As the apostle John put it, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 1:4). And that is heart of every true pastor. This is our payday right here—to see people walking in the truth. This is our greatest joy in ministry.
Well, all that to say, we’re going to see the consequences of these two reactions to the truth here in our passage in Luke 3. You can turn over there if you’re not back there yet. In particular, we’re going to see reactions to John’s preaching—anticipated reactions. Many people, as we see by the evidence of the crucifixion, rejected John’s message of repentance. And those people needed to be warned. But some embraced it and found some tremendous reasons for comfort in John’s words. So, look back at Luke 3:15 to 20 and we’re going to look at our text here. We’re going to consider two reactions to John’s ministry, which was really a ministry of warning, wasn’t it? It was a ministry of calling people to repent so they could embrace Christ when he comes. Those who repent—they experienced mercy and grace from Christ. Those who do not repent—they’re under divine condemnation. And that’s really the point, folks. I want all of you to rejoice in the mercy of Christ by being rightly oriented to him and having a heart of genuine repentance.
To that end, let’s consider the first point for this morning: The Right Reaction to Words of Warning. There are actually two reactions we are going to see in this section here, but I want to focus on the right reaction to words of warning because that is what it’s trying to provoke in us—to react rightly. Look at verses 15 to 17 in Luke Chapter 3:
As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
John tells the people about Christ. Two baptisms and two outcomes. And this is, as I said, to provoke in the people here a desire for the one and not for the other; a fear of the one and a longing for the other. He wants them to have a right reaction to his warning. Now, as Luke brings us into one final summary scene of the ministry of John the Baptist, he records the identity question that the people were asking about in John’s presence there. Luke has provided us, the readers, with so much back story about John the Baptist—it occupies pretty much the entire first chapter. And we, the readers, are not in any doubt about John’s identity. We know who he is. We know that John is not the Christ. The Christ is coming. John is the forerunner. But Luke wants to bring us, the readers, into the scene here. He wants to give us this snapshot of the impact of John’s ministry because it is a vital perspective that we need as we continue reading the story. John was really getting people’s attention here. There was a level of popular excitement that is really hard for us to understand fully. John was a cultural phenomenon here. He’s becoming a cultural icon, a folk hero even. He is standing up to the establishment. No one was able to contradict him or his preaching.
It had been a long, long time since a prophet had been to the land of Israel—more than 400 years, in fact. And during those years there was a growing sense of unease about the darkness that was shrouding the land. We’ve talked about all of that. The recent Maccabean revolt against the Romans—that lasted from 167 to 160 B.C., so about 150 years before this time. But that uprising had raised Messianic hopes. Many people looked to the Maccabean family—this family of leaders, hoping that their revolt was signaling the fulfillment of restoration promises. And that revolt failed. For many people, their hopes were dashed. Many became jaded and cynical, as happens. We’ve seen that in our own country as the moral majority, the religious right has failed to actually bring lasting change through legislation in our country, and many people feel saddened by that. I feel saddened. I don’t like seeing the way our country’s going. Man, just turn that up to a level ten in your mind and realize that these people were so sad being oppressed by Rome, hoping that the Maccabeans would relieve them of this, but it didn’t.
Still, the hope of restoration lived on. God’s Word remains and many people returned to God’s Word. They saw the restoration promises in the prophets. So, hope wasn’t entirely banished from the land. Words of restoration hope still lingered in the cultural background. In fact, there were some sectarian groups who held fast to a brighter future for Israel, and they encouraged people to look for a coming Messiah, or coming Messiahs, you could say—plural—which is probably more accurate. The Jewish leaders—some of the priestly class, the sectarian Pharisees, the Scribes—they had asked John if he was “The Prophet” (John 1:21). Do you know what they’re referring to? Deuteronomy 18:18, when God told Moses, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among the brothers and I will put my words in his mouth and he shall speak to them all that I command him.” That is a Messianic text. That is a promise of a coming Messiah clearing predicting one of the three offices of the coming Messiah—Prophet, Priest and King. This is a prophet.
There was another group active at the time of John the Baptist and Jesus. They were known as the Essenes and they were sectarian separatists. They lived apart from normal people. Some of you may have heard about the Dead Sea Scrolls and 981 texts of Scriptures—scrolls that were discovered between 1946 and 1956 at a place called Qumran. Qumran refers to a place on the west bank of the Dead Sea where there are caves and about 11 caves where scrolls were discovered, and that was the communal home of these people, the Essenes. When persecution came and the fall of Rome, they abandoned those caves and fled, but they left their scrolls there. They left their documents there, hoping to come back to them at another time. These Essenes were alive and well in John’s day. They were one of the groups who kept this Messianic hope alive. In addition to anticipating the Messianic fulfillment of Deuteronomy 18:18, the Essenes also looked for a Priest-Messiah and a King-Messiah. For them it was two separate men—one from the tribe of Levi, the other from the tribe of Judah—a priest and a king. They had their facts wrong, but the expectation was right. The expectation was there. That hope spread to the entire culture. So, as John shows up on the scene, and he is, by the way, a son of whom? Zechariah. And what was Zechariah? A priest. So they’re thinking, wondering if he might be one of those Christs.
Notice in verse 15 Luke tells us “the people” were in expectation. “The people”—the word there is a broad term and it refers to more than just the Jews. This is the entire populace. This a word that encompasses all different kinds of people who came out to witness John’s ministry. You have already heard from the crowds, the tax collectors, the soldiers. And as we said, those three groups are only representative of the kinds of sinners who came to John to be baptized and asked about bearing repentance-worthy fruits, but there were others, other groups, other kinds of people who also came. Many others. The curiosity about John’s identity then was widespread. This is showing a universal interest. In fact, look at verses 18 and 21. Both of those verses use the same term for people. It’s the term laos. John is preaching “good news to the people,” verse 18. “All the people [are coming to be] baptized,” verse 21. So there’s universal interest, universal curiosity, universal proclamation, universal ministry. All kinds of people are coming—verse 15—and they’re filled with expectation. Luke wants us to imagine here a very crowded scene—all kinds of people, all of them eager with anticipation. And they’re all talking, chattering excitedly about what’s going on, energetically talking among themselves about what’s going on. You might want to consider them on the edges of their seats. They’re on their tiptoes looking into this. There’s a massive amount of excitement, and it crosses all ethnic and social and cultural boundaries. They’re all just this big mash of people.
The activity here—it’s not just external either. All of this activity and the conversation, the widespread chatter—it’s welling up from within. It’s coming from the inside. Look at verse 15: “And all were questioning”—where?—“In their hearts.” All of them, every single one, all kinds of people were filled with expectation, and every heart was wondering about John’s identity. Who is he really? Could this be the Messiah? That’s a remarkable scene. We call it a spiritual revival. The word translated “questioning” is a word that indicates very deliberate thinking. It’s not just a mild curiosity; it’s not just a superficial thought that flits in and then flits out and you don’t really care if you get it or don’t. This is deliberate. This is careful consideration. These people are all thinking through the implications of all of this stuff, pondering it, reasoning about it, discussing it. It’s as if everybody has been transformed in that setting into serious-minded seminary students. Even with the tie. They’re all wearing ties and they’re saying, “I want to know. Take me to seminary.” They’re anxious to get to the bottom of this issue of John’s true identity. They’re talking about prophecy, and they’re talking about the past and the future and everything in between.
Amidst all of this excitement, all of this energy, it may seem here a bit incongruous that John does not come across here as very affirming, does he? He doesn’t seem encouraged by all of these crowds. He doesn’t seem to see the excitement, the popularity, as evidence of any kind of success. In fact, true to form, he warns them yet again. John knows that the excitement here is temporary. He knows that the buzz is going to wear off. What really matters to him is this: 1. Do they know the truth? 2. Will they heed the warning? So John tells them again in verse 16: “John answered them all saying, ‘I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.’” That verb—“John answered”— is the aorist tense, middle voice of the word apokrinomai, which means absolutely nothing to you, I know that. But you’re about to know. For this particular verb to be written in the way that it is—aorist tense, middle voice—is actually quite rare in the New Testament. And what it shows here is that John’s reply is anything but casual. John’s response to the popular opinion about his identity, his answer to those who are confusing him with the Messiah, contains no sense of false humility.
John’s not saying something like, “Aw come on, guys, I know I’m a pretty good preacher and I know lots of people are coming, but I’m not that good, really. Don’t turn the attention on me. Don’t give me any praise.” He’s not doing that at all. He couldn’t be more diametrically opposed to that kind of an attitude. There’s nothing flippant about his answer. There’s nothing casual. John gets deadly serious here. He ignores the commotion. He cuts through the excitement and gets serious. That’s what the grammar of that verb indicates. He’s solemn here. He is grave. He is intense as he responds to this continuous popular misidentification of himself with the Christ. He does not want them to get this fact wrong because their entire future—their eternal future—depends on it. He says, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”
Listen, folks, that’s not modesty. That is not some kind of self-deprecating humility. This is dead earnest truth pointing people away from himself toward a sober-minded consideration of Christ and who he really is. First of all, there’s a contrast between himself and this mightier one who’s coming. In comparison to that Mighty One, John isn’t even worthy enough to unstrap his sandals. That is a low position indeed. The people who hear him knew what that meant when he said it. You have to understand in that day there were all kinds of slaves; it was a slave culture, slave society. And there was one level of slave who brought the sandals to the master and put them on his feet before he left the house. It was the lowest level of slave—usually a foreigner, usually a Gentile—and that slave removed the master’s sandals after he had returned to the house, after his sandals and his feet had become filthy in the muck and the mire of the polluted streets. If you can imagine in your mind the filth that runs down some of the streets in a third-world country, you get the picture. That low level of slave—well, think about the picture of walking through a dairy in nothing but your sandals, okay? That’s the picture.
This low-level slave would unstrap the sandals, remove them, and wash the master’s feet. Not an enviable position at all. John considers himself here unfit even to take the first step of that process—just to unstrap the sandals. I mean touching the master’s feet, washing the master’s feet? Those are honors that are way too high for him. In fact, just to unstrap the sandal, even that John says “is too high an honor for me.” John thought of himself as unworthy to be in the master’s service at all. That is the difference between himself and the one coming. You might ask, “What is the big deal? Why does John have to make such a big deal about humiliating himself in contrast to Christ? That is really, really low self-esteem. He needs to get into a support group and really work on that self-esteem.” John is not making a big deal here. He’s simply acknowledging a big deal, and we’re not to condemn him for his humility here. We need to learn why he thought this way and adopt the same mentality, to follow his lead in how we esteem ourselves. Listen, do you want to know how the Bible tells us to esteem ourselves? Do you want a biblical picture of self-esteem? Here it is: we are lower than the lowest slave. We are unworthy to be in the master’s service, utterly unworthy to be in the master’s house on our own, unworthy, really, to be anywhere near the master. Folks, truth be told, on our own, we don’t belong on the same planet as he is on. We don’t belong in the same universe. Do you know what we deserve for our sins? We deserve to be banished from him. There’s a radical, there’s a profound, there’s an eternal distance between John and this Mighty One who will follow him. It’s a distance as vast as that between creature and Creator. Gabriel told Mary, “He will be great.” Jesus will be great. “He will be called Son of the Most High,” and then this: “The child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”
Listen—there is no comparison, is there? No comparison at all. John is not being humble here; he’s just being honest, he’s just acknowledging the truth. He understands where he is—his position is all by grace. It’s very important that the people here, who are coming to hear him, do not miscalculate what kind of person was coming next. It’s critical that they understand the one with whom they have to do, the one with whom they must reckon. This is no mere man; he is mighty. It’s interesting the verb tense here in verse 16, “He who is mightier than I is coming,” is not the future tense as in, “He will be coming, he’ll be here soon.” Certainly it’s talking about a future event, but it’s in the present tense. It indicates the fact that he’s here right now, right around the corner. You better be on the lookout for him. This no joke. This is not a drill. He’s here. So there’s this huge contrast between John and this mightier one who is coming. The two of them are in completely different classes of personhood. The people need to acknowledge that. John, though a prophet, though mighty in our estimation in his own right, puts himself in the dirt in the presence of the mightier one, doesn’t he?
That brings us to a second contrast, which is a contrast between the nature of their ministries. Notice again in verse 16 at the end of the verse, “I baptize you with water, but […] he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” John’s ministry of baptism, being water—it was symbolic, wasn’t it? It involved the physical element we call water, which merely pictured the necessity of the internal cleansing of repentance. John’s baptism provided a visible symbol of a prepared heart. It used the physical ritual of water baptism. By contrast—as in a polar opposite contrast, as stark as day is to night—Jesus’ baptism involved the true spiritual reality, real power. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Or, the grammar tells us, Jesus will baptize you by means of the Holy Spirit and by means of fire. And you see there are two options there—it’s one or the other. Those who are baptized by the means of the Holy Spirit—listen folks, this is where we need to camp and take a lot of comfort from because this is talking about us. They’re the partakers of the New Covenant—those who are baptized with the Holy Spirit are participants in the New Covenant, promised back in the Old Covenant.
There are many passages we could turn to, but for the sake of time, let me just mention one very clear text. You can write this down, you can turn to it if you’re quick enough, but Ezekiel 36:25 to 27. In chapter 36 verses 25 to 27, God tells him this, speaking to the entire nation:
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all you uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a new heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
That right there is a fuller description of what John meant when he said, “He will baptize you by means of the Holy Spirit.” By prophetic revelation, John has recognized that Jesus is the one who will fulfill that work right there by means of the Spirit. See, the baptism of the Holy Spirit involves first of all the cleansing from all sin, even down to the deep, deep internal sin of idolatry—what you love and what you don’t love. It goes down to those sins. The baptism of the Spirit involved regeneration—what we’ve come to know as the new birth in John 3—inJesus’s conversation with Nicodemus. By means of the Holy Spirit, people will be born again. There’s new life. That means the baptism of the Holy Spirit involves the end of the old life, the beginning of the new life. It involves the removal of an old heart—a cold, dead rock-like heart—and involves the insertion of a new heart. This is open-heart surgery; it’s heart replacement surgery that’s going on. A new heart comes in with new desires, new interests, new passions. No more old ways. The baptism of the Holy Spirit means a new creation. “The old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Baptism of the Holy Spirit also involves—as if all of this were not enough—it involves the indwelling of that same Spirit, the abiding presence of God by his Spirit who causes that baptized person to walk in God’s statutes, to be very careful to obey God’s rules. Again, notice, no sense of legalism here. It’s not legalistic to be obedient to Christ. Obedience is the evidence of a new life. Those baptized in the baptism of the Holy Spirit are the ones pictured in verse 17. Look at it there. They’re the wheat on the threshing floor. Yes, they’ve had to suffer the choking, irritating presence of dry, fruitless chaff. Yes, they’re had to suffer the crushing weight of the crushing sledges running over them. But in the end Christ will gather all that wheat into his barn for use. Precious promise, isn’t it, for those of us who are wheat? It’s a precious promise. We need to just enjoy that. Come back this afternoon, read it throughout this week and just enjoy the fact that you belong to those people. You are the wheat, not the chaff.
Because there is a second baptism here that Jesus will baptize with, and it’s the baptism of fire. You say, “Is that as painful as it sounds?” No, it’s worse. This is the baptism of judgment, and it uses the word “baptism,” which involves full immersion in liquid, right?—along with the word “fire,” which involves consuming energy and heat. Together a baptism of fire paints an intolerable picture of the most excruciating, inescapable pain. John had already been warning people back in verse 9 that “Every tree not bearing good fruits is cut down and thrown into the fire.” He illustrates this judgment, and he makes a distinction again between the two types of baptism in verse 17. He says, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So John here illustrates using the metaphor of threshing. And he takes people into the threshing room, on the threshing floor, the place where they brought the harvested grain. The oxen drag behind them a threshing sledge over the harvesting stalks to separate the good grain from the bad chaff, to extract that which was useful for baking bread—useful for feeding people—from that which was worthless—the husks and the straw. And once the oxen trampled the harvested grain, the farmer used the winnowing fork to scoop up and toss the grain and the chaff into the air. That’s where the wind would blow the lighter chaff away, allowing the heavier grain kernels to fall to the ground. And after that process, the grain was gathered and carried away to the barn for storage. The chaff was swept into a pile, taken out to the trash heap, and burned with the rest of the garbage.
Just as in verse 9, this is a picture of coming judgment. The chaff isn’t burned in a garbage dump where there’s physical garbage, a physical fire that will eventually go out. He’s speaking in metaphors here, right? This isn’t literal, this is a metaphor. The chaff pictures somebody. It pictures those who reject John’s message of repentance. It pictures those who reject Christ’s true person, his true work, to deny him his rightful place. It’s those people—most of them religious people, good people, neighbors, friends, coworkers, church-going people. They’ll suffer this burning judgment of an unquenchable fire. He’s talking about spiritual suffering, torment that will never end.
Folks, this has to rip your heart. I mean, first of all for us as believers, we wonder—I have never met a true believer who doesn’t’ wonder this sometimes—“Am I the chaff or am I the wheat? Where do I stand?” You know what? That is a mark and evidence of the Spirit of God who is holding you fast. If you worry at all about whether you stand on one side or the other, that’s a good thing, beloved. It’s the people who are flippant about this. It’s the people who aren’t listening. It’s the people who sit in church pews week after week, an entire lifetime of listening to sermons over and over again, and this doesn’t even make a dent. Those are the people I’m concerned with. Notice here the one who’s conducting these two baptisms, the one who is personally involved, the one who takes full responsibility—who is it? It’s Jesus.
In fact, this same Jesus said in Luke 12:49, “I came to cast fire on the earth and would that it were already kindled.” Wow! This gentle Jesus, meek and mild—he’s the same one who is executing the judgment of unquenchable fire, and not only that, folks—he’s eager to get there. That’s what we read earlier in 2 Thessalonians 1:8; as we talked, the Lord Jesus will return “with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed.” Beloved, aren’t you glad you’re part of that last group? I am.
This Jesus that we preach—he is no one to be trifled with, is he? What Paul tells the Thessalonians is that there is a division among the people on the earth between those who obey the Gospel and those who do not, those who heed the warnings and those who do not; those who obey Jesus Christ and those who are flippant about obedience to Jesus Christ, who want Jesus on their own terms. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard somebody say to you, “Well, my Jesus would never judge. My Jesus would never…he’s okay, he’s just love, love, love.” I’m frightened for people like that. I’m not mocking them; honestly, I’m just saying that’s what they say, that’s what they think. They need to be disabused of the notion that they can make up their own Jesus. He’s here. He says, “I want judgment to come.” How will people react? How will you react to these words of warning?
Something we passed by that I don’t want you to miss—it’s very simple—there at the end of verse 16, do you see that simple sentence, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”? Not, “he might,” not, “he should.” “He will.” John doesn’t present a litany of options here, a multitude of options Jesus has about how he’s going to react to people on the earth. Just two options. Two. Baptism by the Spirit and baptism by fire. Spiritual regeneration unto new life, which looks very different from the world’s, or judgment unto eternal fire. Again, why is John saying all of this? These people are excited. they’re encouraged. There’s a spiritual revival breaking out. He’s telling them because he loves them, that’s why. He loves them. He’s concerned about them, and he wants them to see them embrace Jesus when he comes. He’s giving them words of warning because he wants them to have a right reaction to them.
Folks, there a number of implications in this text for our own lives. And you need to think very carefully about this. We all do. First, how do you think of this Jesus in your own mind? Does he have the rightful place of command over you and your conscience? Does he command and determine your use of time, money? Does he determine how you use your gifts and talents? Does he determine your interests and hobbies? Or do you think of him far too casually? If you do think of him casually, you’ll probably speak about him that way, too. Are you bothered when other people speak casually about Christ? Does it raise your blood pressure when you hear people slander his name, blaspheme him? And do you speak out to correct the ignorant, irreverent slanderers of our Lord? Do you take time to boldly, lovingly, firmly, teach others about this great and mighty person who is so important to you? Because if not, you’re just not thinking about it carefully enough. And we’re all in that category, aren’t we? We’ve all seen an opportunity pass by and we’re like, “Ugh, I should’ve said something.” Look, we have to say something. We cannot go on with a casual, unworthy attitude toward this Mighty One who is holy, the very Son of God. Jesus said in a passage that should give even the most confident Christian pause, which should cause us to reflect. In Luke 12:8 to 9, he said:
I tell you everyone who confesses me before men, the Son of Man also will confess before the angels of God, but the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God.
Confessing and denying. It’s not as superficial as you think. Denying doesn’t mean you walk up to people and say, “I deny Jesus Christ.” Denying is just silence, it’s shame, it’s embarrassment. To confess Jesus, on the other hand, is not referring to some nebulous thing. It’s not the idea of, “Yes, of course, people around me know I’m a Christian. They know I’m always involved in church.” Folks, take a look around in our culture. See how many people go to church and who profess belief in a Jesus of their own creation, a belief that allows them or others to embrace all kinds of lifestyles, all kinds of sins, and never repent. Is that what Jesus means by confessing along with those people that you believe in just some nebulous Jesus? To confess—it’s the word homologeo. Homo—same; logeo—to say or to speak. So it’s literally “to say the same as.” To confess Jesus means to say the same thing about Jesus that God has said about Jesus. It means we need to confess the truth, all the truth, about his true person, his true work, his salvation and his judgment. Casual approaches to Jesus, causal words about Jesus—they are not worthy of him, beloved. We cannot be guilty of this. For those who claim to belong to him, it is especially unfitting for them to obey casually, to treat Christ’s authority casually and to speak to others about him casually. Jesus is the Messiah. He matters. It’s a truth that is awesome in the truest sense of the word awesome. Jesus is the Messiah, the King, which is a truth that is as wonderful to us as it is terrifying to the unbeliever. All of us without exception will be put through one of those two baptisms—whether of the Spirit or of the fire. No doubt about it.
Well, you certainly want to be on the right side of history here. You want to have the right reaction to words of warning. By God’s grace, many of us have, which is why we’re here filled with joy and why these words are so precious to us. We see what we’ve escaped—an immersion in liquid fire. Sadly, many follow the pattern set by Herod Antipas here in the text—this is point two. They want to show you the wrong reaction to words of warning. Luke records a summary of John’s ministry here in verses 18 to 20 as he prepares to transition us from John and his ministry to Jesus and his ministry. And as he does so, he provides us with an illustration of a wrong reaction to words of warning. Notice verses 18 to 20:
So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all, that he locked up John in prison.
Luke is telling us three things there in verse 18: First, although he recorded the heart of John’s preaching, John’s ministry actually involved a multiplicity of varied exhortations. The word “other” means exhortations of different kinds. That is to say, John was not boring. He wasn’t plucking the same string on his one-string banjo, even though that is how it appears to us. He used many exhortations, and he exhorted the people in various ways. I am certain he was a fascinating preacher to listen to. And second, don’t miss that word “exhortation.” It’s the word parakaleo, which ranges in its semantic meaning from mild words of comfort to sharp words of rebuke. It can mean anything from “console and invite” to “urge and command.” That is to say, John is not merely suggesting things here. He’s a preacher and as a preacher, he commanded their consciences. He preached for a verdict. He intended to see people do something. He was caring with the repentant, insistent with the unrepentant. John here is not some kind of dispassionate academic; he’s a zealous prophet with fire in his eyes. He’s pounding his fist on the desk. He demands that you listen. He exhorts you to change, to repent. And when you do, he is there with words of encouragement and comfort to help you along the way, to help you work out your repentance. That’s what we saw in verses 10 to 14, right?
Notice, thirdly, John used many and varied exhortations, all in preaching good news to the people. That word translated “preached good news” is one word in the Greek—euaggelizo—preach the Gospel. This is the Gospel. Folks, we’ve done a real disservice to the power of evangelism in our evangelical world when we call it “sharing” the Gospel. It makes it sound so benign, as if we’re sharing cookie recipes or something, as if we’re telling people about favorite restaurants. We’re “sharing.” We’re not “sharing” anything. We’re not “sharing” the Gospel. And we’re not “sharing” Jesus either, whatever that means. We want Jesus to be completely and totally consuming—to ourselves first and to others second. We don’t “share”; we preach, we proclaim. And we want Jesus to baptize us by his Holy Spirit and others too. Just a word to our Presbyterian friends—we want full immersion, right?—not just a sprinkling. Full immersion. So we’re not “sharing” here. We are warning people about coming judgment. We’re calling people to repentance. We’re exhorting them to bow in submission to the authority of Jesus Christ. And if they don’t, we need to leave them with a warning about a baptism of fire. That’s what John did. Why do we want to change what he did? Why do we want to change what Jesus did, how Jesus preached?
There are some who turn away from the exhortations. There are some who refuse to heed the warnings. They turn their ears from the truth. That’s what we mentioned earlier in our introduction. And Herod was a quintessential example—he turned his ears away from the truth by shutting John up. Look at verses 19 and 20: “Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved [or convicted, we could say] by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, he added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.” One of John’s exhortations was targeted at Herod Antipas, who was the tetrarch of Galilee as we saw in Luke 3:1 and 2. John warned this king about all the evil things he had done and one exhortation in particular, which irritated Herod and wicked Herodias, was this issue of their unlawful relationship. Not only were the two of them committing adultery, but Herodias was also the niece of Herod Antipas. So this was an incestuous relationship—total scandal.
History records that Antipas was visiting his half-brother Herod Philip I. Herod Philip I is not the same one you see in the text there—that’s Philip II. Philip I is a private citizen living in Jerusalem. He’s not the tetrarch of Ituraea and Trachonitis named in Luke 3:1. I know, sin and depravity creates so much confusion in the family tree, doesn’t it? I sympathize. The family tree of Herod is a complete mess. But Herod Antipas—he used to visit his half-brother in Jerusalem, and he became infatuated with Philip’s wife, Herodias. That’s also confusing, isn’t it, that they can’t be more creative in naming their children—Herod, Herodias.… So, you see again, sin destroys creativity, right? Yet another reason not to engage in it. But Herodias here is married to Philip, her half-uncle, which is wrong, and she became enamored with her other half-uncle—Herod Antipas. It’s a mess. The two of them agree secretly to divorce their spouses. They called it “conscious uncoupling”—that’s the word today. So they divorce their spouses. Herodias leaves the hapless Philip there. Herod Antipas discards his wife, who is the daughter of a Nabatean king, Aretas. And those two marry each other. Everything that kings do, everything that politicians do, especially when they divorce and remarry, they do in the eye of the public, right? Everybody knew about this.
So John is vocal in condemning this unlawful marriage. Very judgmental, isn’t he? And since some of Herod Antipas’ soldiers were on scene as we talked about before, John’s condemnation made its way back to Herod’s ears. Herod didn’t like what John said, but that is not what got John in prison. It’s because his wife, Herodias, didn’t like what John said. That’s what got John thrown into prison. She didn’t want anyone raining on her fairytale, let alone some wilderness prophet like John. She was moved out of the private citizenry of Jerusalem into the palace. Disney has happened to her in this. So she leans on Herod Antipas. You know how it is—he caved. He kind of liked John. He kind of liked listening to him, thought he was interesting, provocative. As a man, he liked the manly prophet, but he caved. Continual pecking, pressuring of his wife. So, he threw John into the prison at the fortress of Machaerus in the northeast corner of the Dead Sea. What did he do? He silenced the prophet, shut him up.
As I said earlier, most people just change churches when they don’t like the message. They change the station, they click on a different sermon link. I guess when you’re a king, you have the power of a government at your back and soldiers at your command; when you have an offended wife who’s also guilty of incest and adultery and does not want to be reminded of her guilt—well, you have to throw that dissenting voice in jail. You have to shut it up. You may remember this woman Herodias. She had given birth to this evil spawn named Salome who danced before Herod Antipas at a dinner party for his guests. Herod was so pleased with this lewd display that he promised her, “Anything up to half my kingdom.” Salome and her mother held a quick conference, whispered a little bit together, giggled. She came forth to request the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter. The deed was done. Head handed over to her mother, Herodias. It’s really a sick scene if you can imagine. A head is not something you want at a dinner party. Wicked people. Dangerous people.
Listen, we’re not even close to the gravity of the consequences of that for our preaching, are we? As the writer to the Hebrews says, “You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” But I wonder at our lack of boldness to preach the exhortation to deliver the warnings, to judge and condemn things that are unlawful, to preach the whole Gospel in our more genteel civilized age. The world is not going to stay genteel and civilized for very much longer, beloved. And I’m concerned that we, the Christian Church, have been pacified and sissified into silence. I’m concerned that our message has been defamed, declawed. I’m concerned that the Jesus whom we represent has been robbed of his authority by our tendency to back off when we ought to be leaning right in. These times call for the boldness of the Baptist right here, not the niceness of the pacifist.
For many evangelicals, we’ll never have to worry about being locked up in prison because they aren’t saying anything. And when they say something, it’s like they’re tiptoeing through the world, trying not to be noticed, hoping their silent witness as good Christian citizens is going to suddenly remarkably, inexplicably cause people to fall down in sorrow, crying in anguish, “Sir, what must I do to be saved? Your life is so remarkable.” No, they’ve got to talk. They’ve got to speak. They’ve got to preach and proclaim. It is not going to happen without words, folks—without proclamation, exhortation and confrontation. When you do that, you will find, like John did, that people are going to want to silence you. You’re going to find that people are going to make a choice; either repent on one hand and follow the truth, or to walk away, turn away. You will discover people slandering you, trying to find ways to justify why they don’t need to listen to you any longer. You’re going to find people turning their ears away from the truth, not enduring sound teaching, having itching ears. They will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. There are many, many more people out there preaching in complete opposition to what I’m preaching here right now. Many voices.
So, if you want to go with what’s popular, that’s popular. It’s always popular. It was popular in Jesus’ day. It’s been popular since the Old Testament prophets. It’s popular now. Do you want popular—or do you want the truth? You’ve got to want the truth, folks, because it is so sad when people turn away from the truth, when they wander off into myths because they miss out on the best part, which is what comes next in the text. Look at it there. They’re going to miss out on seeing Jesus Christ, this Mightier One who shows up in verses 21 to 22.
When all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
There is so much to say about that divine affirmation. But as we close, let the wonder of this scene that is coming next fill your imagination. There is a heaven open wide. There is a Spirit in his presence, descending in bodily form on the beloved Son of God. There is the verbal affirmation of the Father himself. Let the wonder of the triune God compel you to be on the right side of history, folks. When the time comes for the curtain to close, how you react to these words of warning is eternally consequential.
Let’s bow in a word of prayer. Heavenly Father, this is a sobering section of Scripture and that is what you intend it to be. I pray that you would help us all to take note, to look at our own life, to look at our own ways of living, ways of thinking about your beloved Son Jesus Christ, whom you publicly, verbally, audibly affirmed on that day. We want to be standing with you affirming Jesus Christ loudly, publicly in all truth. Help us to preach the Gospel, the whole Gospel. Help us not to back down especially as the days become darker and hostile to this message. We pray you’d help us to be bold and to find great, great joy. We are the wheat put into the barn serving the master. Let us stand like John the Baptist, and serve our Lord and Savior.