The Lord Jesus held John the Baptizer, his cousin and forerunner, in the highest possible regard. John, the last in the line of Israel’s prophets, performed the most important task that even exceeded the loftiest assignments of his predecessors. Jesus said of John: “Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, and I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ ” (vv9-10).
John was, as we recognize from the Te Deum, a member of “the noble fellowship of the prophets”. But his role was exalted above the others. They spoke of Jesus from afar, some more fully than their fellows, and their word of expectation preceded the coming of Jesus by hundreds of years. Prophesy concluded, or began its long intermission, 400 years before the Saviour’s birth. John was the man hailed in Holy Scripture as the messenger who would announce Jesus’ presence to his people. He would prepare Messiah’s way and declare that his appearance was closely imminent – just a step or two behind.
The prophets prior to John said that Jesus was coming. John actually pointed him out and baptized him. It is a high honour and enormous privilege to direct people’s attention toward Jesus (John 1: 29-31). John was the prophet closest to Jesus of them all – chronologically and physically. Others foretold Jesus – John introduced him. John’s eminence is indicated in Jesus’ statement recorded in verse 14. He is ranked with Elijah the bold spokesman of God in Israel’s troubled history. He occupies a place of huge significance in the Old Testament order of things and his witness spans into the fringes of the New. He alerts the Jews as to the prophet par excellence foretold by Moses and now anonymously among them (Deuteronomy 18:15 cf. Matthew 11: 21b, 26-27).
John was undoubtedly the greatest figure of the day until Jesus commenced his ministry. The Baptist’s stature was large and his influence immense. His strength of character and forthright proclamation were legendary. He must have been impressive and even intimidating. He was a serious threat to the authority of the religious leadership in Jerusalem and members of that leadership knew that they had to rid themselves of this rival.
John had so many assurances as to the reality of Jesus’ Messiahship and heaven-sent ministry. He knew his own call from God and the credentials of Jesus, but the hardships of prison life had weakened his morale and blurred his spiritual vision. He became vulnerable to doubt and susceptible to uncertainties about Jesus. He saw Jesus as the embodiment of divine mercy but he also expected immediate judgement to be meted out by him. In John’s view Jesus was principally the Agent of wrath (Matthew 3: 7-12).
Jesus was seen as the divine axe about to be wielded against errant Israel and to cut it down. Jesus would command fire to consume the wicked nation. Jesus would winnow out the wicked without delay. John took his cue from Isaiah who was his warrant for his own powerful word to the nation, but he mistook the timing of God’s dreadful judgement upon humankind. He did not calculate for the divine delay and reckon on God’s gracious period of amnesty for our rebel race. John had memorized the description of Messiah’s role referred to in Isaiah 61: 1-2. He had not, however, accounted for the Lord’s extended programme of compassion and the opportunity for sinners to repent and return to him (Luke 4: 18 - 22a). Jesus’ inauguration of his mission omitted the detail of divine vengeance.
John perceived with such clarity the gravity of Israel’s sin and the impending peril that threatened the populace. He strategically performed his baptisms at a point where candidates for the ritual washing had to step briefly but definitely beyond the border of the promised land to re-enter through repentance and cleansing. He ascertained that the Jewish people had forfeited their privileges in knowing God, and that they deserved severe retribution. Accordingly, they must step out of the promised land in acknowledgement that disobedience entailed disinheritance, and that reinstatement to God’s favour was through penitence. Both locale and ordinance were symbolic.
John was right about Israel’s infidelity and ill-desert. But he wrong about Jesus’ primary intent to seek and to save the lost before the catastrophic and cataclysmic judgement occurred. When Jesus replied to John’s enquiry as to whether the actual Messiah would adopt the policy of Jesus, the Saviour himself delineated the features of Messianic ministry with which he himself complies. Jesus faithfully fulfils the role, but as is God’s custom, he puts the brakes on the ultimate necessity of punishing sin. St. Peter picked up on this tendency within the divine heart – to prefer mercy and exercise it to the extreme (2 Peter 3: 8-10). John the evangelist concurs with Jesus’ stated priority to saver rather than condemn (John 3:16-18). Unbelievers condemn themselves. The judgement ratifies their determined choice. The blame for God’s abandonment of the soul eternally lies with the lost.
An Advent theme is that judgement is sure and ultimately swift, and yet it is so alien to the divine nature that God often “chooses to suspend it”, as it were. This should not encourage laxity and procrastination with regard to getting right with God. It should spur us on to reconciliation with him. St. Paul issues the rallying cry (2 Corinthians 6:1-2: As God’s fellow workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. For he says “In the time of my favour I heard you and in the day of salvation I helped you” (Isaiah 49:8). I tell you, now is the time of God’s favour, now is the day of salvation.
In his mind John the Baptist had seemingly shortened the day of divine favour expecting an early appearance of divine fury. He sensed the inevitability and urgency of such a time and that surely the Lord’s patience and forbearance must soon be exhausted. His righteous instincts were accurate. The conduct of man is always ripe for judgement, and yet God sends warning after warning which somehow the human mind explains away and ignores, grievously offending the enormous generosity of God so emphasised by Jesus in showing how the pity of God is widely expressed beyond human desert and comprehension.
For Jesus affirms the year of God’s favour in contrast to the day of wrath. The terms can be interchangeable of course, simply expressing a given period in the purpose of God, but the point is worth noting in view of the Redeemer’s intent to underscore his Father’s benevolence. God would rather bless than bring judgement, be kind rather than kill (Ezekiel 18:32, 33:11).
Salvation and judgement are on the Lord’s agenda and Advent reminds us of both with sweet invitation and solemn warning. Both aspects of the message should be earnestly and eagerly heeded – the acceptance of the Lord’s favour through Christ and the avoidance of the terrible verdict of unforgiven guilt.