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The Life of Jesus - Series 2: Episode 1

The work of John the Baptist

| Martin Charlesworth
Luke 3:1-20
Matthew 3:1-12
Mark 1:1-8

John, a prophet working near Jerusalem by the River Jordan. His message challenges people to repent and be baptised. He specifically challenges the wealthy, tax collectors and soldiers and points to the Messiah.

John, a prophet working near Jerusalem by the River Jordan. His message challenges people to repent and be baptised. He specifically challenges the wealthy, tax collectors and soldiers and points to the Messiah.


Hello and welcome to Series 2, which we're starting with this session, Series 2, Episode 1 and this is ‘The Work of John the Baptist’.

Introduction and Recap of Series 1

Series 1 dealt with the childhood of Jesus; the birth narratives and all the miraculous events that happened around the birth of Jesus; the escape to Egypt, when Herod the Great threatened the life of Jesus; the return to Galilee in Nazareth; finally, in the last episode of Series 1 (Episode 13) we discussed the incident when Jesus was 12 years old and went up with his family to Jerusalem and met with the religious leaders in the Temple - and that was where we finished Series 1. We haven't got any information about Jesus' life from then until his public ministry and so we're now moving into that era. Jesus' public ministry is initiated by John the Baptist who starts his preaching and baptism work before Jesus appears publicly.

You would do well to imagine Jesus' life up until this point as living in Nazareth, working with his father in the family business (carpentry, building, woodworking) and living an ordinary, but very godly life in Nazareth. We come to John the Baptist and in the first series we told the story of the miraculous way that John was born to Zechariah and Elizabeth, who were very elderly and apparently unable to have children but suddenly John was born in their old age and prophetic words indicated the remarkable ministry that he would have as a prophet in Israel. That's what we heard of John the Baptist earlier on but now we take up the story and we're going to take it up in Luke's Gospel, chapter 3. As with so many incidents in the Gospels there are parallel accounts - in this case in Matthew 3 and Mark 1- but we're going to use Luke's account. It's the fullest account of the work of John the Baptist and the opening of his ministry. I'm going to read from Luke 3: 1 - 20:

‘In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod (the) tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip (the) tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of (the Lord) came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all people will see God's salvation.’” John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe 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.” “What should we do then?” the crowd asked. John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don't collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don't extort money and don't accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps 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 he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them. But when John rebuked Herod the Tetrarch because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother's wife, and all the other evil things he had done, Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison.’

Luke 3:1-20, NIV

Historical Background

This is a very interesting and dramatic story. John's life is portrayed very vividly by Luke who starts by anchoring it all in history - the sort of phrases in the New Testament we don't often look at very closely. He describes, at the beginning (in verse 1 and 2), some of the historical context. He talks about which year of the reign of Tiberius, the Roman Emperor, these events took place. He describes who's ruling in which parts of the country. After Herod the Great died (we mentioned Herod the Great in terms of Jesus' birth), the country was divided up into different sections and by the time we get to this particular period the southern area around Jerusalem is ruled directly by the Romans. They've got a governor - they had one of Herod the Great's sons there but he proved to be a pretty useless ruler and was forced out by the Romans - so they've got their own direct rule taking place. The governor's name is Pontius. We hear a lot about him later on in the story but here he is mentioned at the very beginning. He rules in the south around the Jerusalem area, the province called Judea. Further north, in the area where Jesus lived in Galilee, was another ruler called here Herod the Tetrarch, or Herod Antipas, so he is the ruler who is responsible for the area where Jesus actually lived in Galilee. His brother Philip ruled in another nearby area. Luke anchors this, very firmly, in history and this reminds us that the story of Jesus is a historical story and no one is more particular about emphasising that than Luke. I've mentioned in earlier episodes his great interest in a historical way of thinking, in an orderly account, in research and eyewitness testimony. Here he marks the beginning of the public ministry of John the Baptist - and then Jesus very closely following - by identifying a particular moment in history with all these authorities in place. He even mentions the High Priests in Jerusalem, Caiaphas and his father-in-law, Annas, who we will hear more about later.

John the Baptist - Prophet

John emerges in a very sudden way. It says he'd been living in the wilderness. In that particular area is a wilderness, or semi-desert area, known as the Judean wilderness and it appears that John had lived the life of a hermit, of a recluse, away from society in some form for a number of years in his adult life. He would now be, presumably, around the age of 30, so in his twenties we can imagine him living rather separate from society. Maybe he went home from time to time, but he lived largely on his own and very much aware of his destiny and the fact that he had to fulfil a challenging role that was going to come very suddenly. He knew that he was going to be a prophet. The Jews had a very high regard for prophets; the Old Testament has a record of some of the great prophets of Israel who wrote the books which we now call the prophetic works and some of the other prophets whose actions are recorded, like Elijah and Elisha. But for a period of about 400 years the Jews had not recognised anyone as having the status of a true prophet - whose words, they felt, represented the voice of God to the nation. We're talking of a period of spiritual greyness and lack of clarity into which John came. Yet the words given at the time of his birth (Luke 1: 76) the prophetic word was ‘And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; (and) you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him.’ John the Baptist is going to be a very remarkable figure. He's aware of his calling; he's waiting for it and the text says that at this particular time the word of the Lord came to him. In other words, he knew, ‘This is the time to get moving’, and he started preaching and baptising people. We'll talk more about baptism in a moment. Along the eastern side of the nation of Israel runs the Jordan river, from the north to the south. In the north, it's fed by the Sea of Galilee, the Lake of Galilee (a beautiful freshwater lake where Jesus lived just near the lake). The River Jordan is the main river in the whole country and runs from north to south; and this is the river that John chose to start his baptismal work. Probably it was further south, towards Jerusalem, towards the capital city. In fact, the early church has always tended to view that particular area as the place where John baptised - within reach of Jerusalem. This is an important point for our story. Jerusalem was the capital city and John wanted to be within reach of the capital city.

John's Message

We've read the extraordinary things that he began to say. He called the people to change - to change their lives. He called the people to prepare for something to change in their country. He spoke as if there was going to be some kind of division in the country; that God was either going to judge people or give them salvation through the Messiah coming. It was a very dramatic message, as if to say this particular time is very significant for the nation. Why did the crowds come? Why would you come to hear somebody preaching, quite aggressively, by the River Jordan, who was unknown? He had no status; he wasn't a priest; and he wasn't known in Jerusalem. He was, if you like, a hermit who lived in the Judean wilderness. The crowds came, principally because the Holy Spirit was on John - and it's amazing, when the Holy Spirit empowers a person, people will come and listen to him or her with the message they bring. There was also, I think, a spiritual emptiness in the people. There's a sense of longing for something to happen in the country - a feeling of being oppressed by the Romans. The religious system is a bit dull; nothing seems to be happening; no prophetic voice has been heard; and there's a hope that the Messiah will come - could John be that Messiah? People came down to the river in large crowds - we're talking, no doubt, thousands of people who came to hear John.

Luke very clearly says that he fulfils a prophecy from Isaiah, I love this prophecy, that John will be ‘a voice of one calling in the wilderness “Prepare the way for the Lord make straight paths for him.”’ and literally, comes from the wilderness and calls people to prepare. He's sort of opening up the way for God to come. That's really what prophets do - they open up the way, they make clear what God intends to do and they help people align themselves to that reality as it comes.


Let's talk for a moment about the significance of baptism. Jews didn't use baptism as a regular part of their religion. (What we mean by baptism here, is a single immersion of the whole body in water as a sign of cleansing). The Jews had a way of identifying their religious affiliation and that was circumcision of infant boys. If you were a non-Jew and you joined the Jewish religion, you went through a form of baptism. They would use that for non-Jews but not for their own people. Baptism wasn't a routine initiation ceremony in Judaism at the time. When this baptism was used, it was a prophetic sign of a fresh start - and also a fresh start that could incorporate anybody, not just Jews but other people as well. It's very dramatic and new - people wouldn't have seen anything like this before.


John then spoke about practical repentance. He said, ‘produce fruit in keeping with repentance.’ The word repentance means to change your mind, therefore to change your actions. It's basically turning your life around; it's not about words, it's about the reality of what's happening inside you. It's very interesting that John gives three, very graphic, examples. To the people who were wealthy, he said, ‘if you're serious about God, you need to actually be serious about sharing your wealth - if you've got two coats, give one away; if you've got more food than you need, you can share it with the people who haven't got food.’ That was quite a challenging message! People tend to like to have religion without affecting their materialism but Christianity is not like that.

The second group he addressed were tax collectors and it was interesting - he said to them that they should only collect the amount of money that was their legal responsibility to collect. The system in those days was such that tax collectors were told by the Romans ‘You need to collect a certain amount of money and give it to the Roman authorities’ - and then they were given the freedom to collect extra beyond that, which they could keep for themselves. It was an informal system, open to tremendous corruption. John the Baptist puts his finger on this and says, ‘You really ought to only collect what you are obliged to do by your contract to the state.’ Many of us in different parts of the world will be very familiar with the fact that those in authority can use bribes and extortion to get money and goods out of us that really their public office doesn't allow them to do. Tax collectors is one example, police is a very common example in many countries where you have to bribe them in order to gain what you need.

For soldiers, he said don't extort money or manipulate people. Soldiers were very commonly able to commandeer people to carry loads for them and they are forced to give them money in order to let them pass if they met them on the road. Soldiers could use their power to exploit people - that is an extremely common reality in our world today, as some of you will be very aware.

John's Role - to point to The Messiah

I want to focus, for a few moments, on verses 15 - 18 because this is the main statement that John gives to explain what it's all about: what is he actually doing? In the earlier verses he's basically calling the Jews to respond to his message and the coming Messiah, and he warns them that there'll be judgement if they fail to do so. He continues and intensifies his teaching here in verse 15 through to verse 18. Let me just read it again: ‘The people were waiting expectantly ... were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah.’ The first thing to note here is that this expectation of the Messiah - the deliverer - coming to the country, was a very real expectation and they thought maybe John is going to deliver us - particularly deliver us from Roman occupation and corrupt religious rulers’. ‘John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. (He'll) baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.’ John very clearly says, ‘I'm pointing you to somebody else. While I use water to baptise you, the person coming after me will baptise you in the Holy Spirit.’ That's a wonderful, powerful description of what will happen when people come to believe in Jesus and receive the Holy Spirit's power - as they did on the day of Pentecost onwards. Jesus is described here as having the power to baptise in the Holy Spirit; to give us such a powerful experience of God's spirit that it's like being inundated in water, which of course is a very powerful physical experience. He says, ‘He'll baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.’ Basically, there's a choice between Holy Spirit and fire, because he goes on to say, ‘His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’ This is a fire of judgement on those in Israel who rejected this opportunity to believe in Jesus. This fire is not to be sought; the baptism in the Holy Spirit is to be sought. In other words, Jesus will bring a division in Israel and those in Israel who are open should choose to believe in Him, receive the Holy Spirit which will insure you against God's judgement.

At the very end, there's just a brief reference to what happens to John after this. The ruler Herod the Tetrarch (or Herod Antipas who I mentioned ruled in Galilee, further to the north, and in some of the eastern districts as well) John challenged him about the fact that he'd married a lady, Herodias, who used to be married to his brother and it was illegal by Jewish standards to do that. He did a lot of other evil things and so John ended up, shortly after this, in prison. Later on, in fact, he will be executed, as we'll see in a future episode.


This is a very dramatic opening section to the story about Jesus - Jesus is about to be introduced to the stage. There are a number of important reflections that I would make on this story. Number one, just thinking about John - the sheer courage of the man is remarkable! He's on his own; he has no status; no support group; no wealth; and no heritage. All he has is his calling from God. He could have been very bitterly opposed, stopped in his tracks or even put in prison immediately (and it wasn't long until he was put in prison). I want to first reflect on the fact that John the Baptist showed incredible courage as he opened the door for the coming of Jesus. This was going to be a controversial moment in the life of the nation of Israel. We'll see that controversy all the way through the life of Jesus as we continue our studies.

The second thing I notice is that the Gospel was offered to Israel first. The Jews had this opportunity but, interestingly enough, even in this passage, we see that the Gospel is going to be offered to all the nations. For example, in verse 6, quoting Isaiah 40: ‘And all people will see God's salvation’ - beginning to refer to the other nations of the world. When John says that, ‘You know God can raise up children of Abraham from the stones,’ he's basically saying, ‘Your racial heritage as a Jew isn't going to ensure your salvation’; it's going to be faith and that could apply to anyone.

My two final reflections: First is that we begin to see here a very important principle of the Christian faith that emerges again and again: to become a believer in Jesus is not a matter just of what you think in your mind - believing a few historical facts, thinking that he is probably the Son of God, thinking that he died for us on the cross; it's not just an intellectual idea or a mental idea. Christianity is also completely of the heart. The word repentance describes it very powerfully - repentance meaning a change, a turning around of the whole personality (our will, our mind, our actions, are all implied in it) and John points out, very graphically, that repentance is a very practical thing. When you become a believer you have to change some of your behaviour. You have to turn away from things you did in the past that are wrong and you have to follow a new way. You will have to mentally believe in Jesus, the Messiah, and what he did on the cross - we'll come to talk about that more in later episodes - but your lifestyle will also change. So nominal Christianity - Christianity in name only - as a badge, as a historical tradition, is not real. Christianity is in the heart; it involves the change of the individual. Three examples are given by John: the wealthy, who share their wealth with the poor; the tax collectors, who are honest; and the soldiers, who don't use their power to exploit people. We could multiply these kinds of examples to: the business community; to political leaders; to what you do in the marketplace, and how we conduct our family relationships. Morality and practical actions need to change and, as the story goes on, we'll find out in what ways they change more specifically. John is highlighting this issue. Christianity is about a fundamental, personal change.

Christianity is also, in conclusion, about a dynamic encounter with God's Holy Spirit described graphically here as a baptism in the Holy Spirit. This is a wonderful reality, and we'll talk more about this in subsequent episodes. John points out that Jesus has the power to bring God's Holy Spirit to every individual person in such a way that we feel overwhelmed, inundated, empowered, strengthened, transformed by God's presence within us and around us.

With these words, Luke introduces John the Baptist and also, by implication, introduces Jesus' his public ministry which is going to be the subject of our next few episodes. So thank you for joining us for Series 2, Episode 1 of ‘The Life of Jesus’.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. What do you understand about ‘repentance’? What does it mean?
    2. John was given power by the Holy Spirit. What difference did this make to his work?
  • Discipleship
    1. John the Baptist addressed the wealthy, tax collectors and soldiers If he were alive today, which groups of people would he address in your nation - and what would he say? Pray for the truth of the Gospel to reach the groups of people you have identified.
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Use a map to locate the different Roman governors at the time of Jesus. (This will be a useful resource when thinking about when Jesus moved from place to place)
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