John the Baptizer was the forerunner of Jesus. Many depictions portray him as a wild-eyed, shaggily dressed evangelist pointing a finger to expose sin: “You brood of snakes! Who warned you to flee God’s coming wrath?” (Luke 3:7). John was a courageous man of unyielding integrity who publicly rebuked the behavior of rulers and religious leaders, but is it possible that some of today’s evangelists misapply his condemnation of sin though righteous anger as the gospel’s standard?
So many Christians seem to need a judgmental God who weighs people down with culpable failure beyond life’s normal guilt and shame. Are today’s religious moralizers correct when they rage against sinners, burdening them with hateful condemnation? Why do so many Christians need God to be threatening and to spew vindictiveness to show how much He hates sin? Sinners are urged to repent, but we sometimes forget that repentance means turning from our own sin and returning to God’s loving ways.
Others consider John the Baptizer a promoter of country living, dress reform, and simple diet and use his advocacy of these things to define the requirements for meeting Jesus in His second coming. It amazes me how the ancient traditions of sustainability, healthy living, and a simple diet are relevant and needed today, however, John was not a strict ascetic regarding food or austere regarding clothing nor a selfish recluse hiding in the countryside. John baptized people in the wilderness where Israel first entered the land as a dynamic declaration of a renewal movement—a kind, honest, and honorable society renewed for God’s kingdom (Luke 3:10–14). Our need for an angry God who condemns sinners or for a rigorous correctness test gives way to John’s understanding of Jesus. We must experience what John the Baptizer proclaimed: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). John speaks of Jesus as greater, so much so that John becomes nothing in comparison. “He is so great that I am not even worthy to untie the strap of His sandal” (John 1:27). According to John, Jesus is the greatest, and he would have us constantly confess this greatness.
Christians can learn from John the Baptizer to see the way of Jesus as He brought God’s kingdom rather than seeing what others thought it would be. After being arrested for his political protests, John began rethinking his earlier expectations of the Messiah in light of the “less-than-expected impact of Jesus” (Sigve Tonstad, God of Sense, 2016, p. 60). Questioning his faith related to addressing Israel’s long-suppressed hopes at the time. From his lonely cell, John sent messengers to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Luke 7:20). In many ways, John had envisioned the coming of the Messiah as most contemporary Christians now envision the second coming—a mighty Messiah coming with destructive fire and wrath upon the wicked and delivering the righteous. Jesus’s response to John’s inquiry challenged his previously held expectations by proclaiming a different prophetic outlook that placed the good news of God’s character at the forefront: “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them” (Luke 7:22).
John was given a fresh outlook on what the one greater than he would do (Matthew 11:4–6). Many of us hold a theology about God that does not match the goodness and loveliness of Jesus. He is not the fiery, judgmental figure we may expect Him to be. To believe that Jesus must return with greater power to complete the task that He failed to do the first time is to miss the greatness of His person, which healed the brokenhearted and cared for the sick and oppressed—the big view of God’s righteousness. Like John, our Christian expectations of who God is must be redirected toward greater hope. Jesus urges us to take a greater view of God’s activity—His most extraordinary grace, mercy and salvation.
John the Baptizer was an apocalyptic thinker. He left us with the images of an axe at the base of a tree, wrath in the face of rebellion, and chaff that is separated and consumed in destructive fire. Revivalist preaching about an angry God waiting to execute awful vengeance on sinners through flames of divine wrath will not prompt repentance. An angry and judgmental God cannot engender repentance, but other behavior might—that of the Lamb John preached about, who revealed what God is like. Indeed, it is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). This is a different way of describing how God exposes and overturns systems of sin and injustice and brings the world to peace. I like how F. Dale Bruner summarizes John’s message about God’s anger: “The wrath of God is not the irritability of God; it is the love of God in friction with injustice” (Matthew: A Commentary, Volume 1: The Christbook, 2004, p. 92). The judgment of the mightier one exposes what is already wrong with our world and what will inevitably come if we are not rescued from it.
So, what happens if we don’t accept the gracious, loving, forgiving, self-giving love revealed by Jesus? If we refuse to repent, we will be left with our own selfishness, vindictiveness, and violence. John’s era was ripe for threshing, and judgment came via the tangible presence of the Roman empire. The Jewish leaders in power did not repent or accept the good news but instead waged vengeful and violent insurrections against their enemies, which were finally met by the enraged and ruthless armies arrayed against Jerusalem (Luke 21:20–23). The wrath that befell Israel was a consequence of its own rejection of Christ’s healing love and salvation, which made it ripe for destruction. The judgment was an anger so severe that it was felt in the pain of war—in the swords that destroyed those who fought (Revelation 13:10). This divine judgment foretells the cosmic event yet to come, when God will return a second time and release His divine control over human passions. Rejecting the fruits of love that are in keeping with repentance leaves nothing but the mob, irrational rage, and war, allowing satanic fury to take control as it leaves destruction, ruin, and exile in its wake.
How is John’s message relevant today, as we endure thwarted expectations while awaiting the second advent of Jesus? John certainly experienced more than his share of suffering; lacking miraculous deliverance from Jesus, he was jailed and beheaded. This injustice was not addressed; there was no swift punishment for his murderers, only Jesus’s words to help John place his hope elsewhere. We must understand what John the Baptizer came to understand and come away with greater reliance on Jesus’ faithfulness. As the final forerunners of Jesus, we must get the message right, placing the positive revelation of the good news about God at the forefront. Such a revised vision of Jesus may challenge our expectations about a second advent, but we should prepare the way for the same Jesus—the revealer of God’s character—to come again.
Unpleasant as it may seem, judgment remains an important element of the coming of Jesus, for “rejecting the revelation brings judgment on oneself” (Paul N. Anderson, An Introduction to John, 2011, p. 214). The one mightier than John has shown us a different way to execute judgment on the wayward. He expressed this through His own suffering and death as He gave Himself to rescue a broken world. Divine judgment is real, and the hour of His judgment has come (Revelation 14:7). God will not leave injustice unanswered forever; His compassion and love stand greater, for He is the one who has appeared as the healer, deliverer, and revealer. It’s a message that centers on beholding Jesus, and by beholding Him we are renewed for God’s kingdom.
Craig Ashton Jr.