John described his ministry, not just as a messenger, but more specifically as a Friend of the Bridegroom. To John’s audience, this was a shocking description of his ministry, because this description of his ministry was loaded with meaning. While believers now understand the Jesus’ identity as Bridegroom for all believers, John’s audience understood his message in a uniquely Jewish context.
27John answered and said, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven. 28You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent before Him.’ 29He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled. 30He must increase, but I must decrease. (John 3:27–30 NKJV)
YHWH had described His relationship with Israel as the relationship between a bridegroom and a bride. His relationship to Israel was unique and He used marriage language to describe it (Jeremiah 2:2; 3:1,14; 31:32; Isaiah 54:4-6; Ezekiel 16:7-34; Hosea 2:19). John’s proclamation put Israel’s covenant relationship with YHWH front and center.
5For your Maker is your husband, The LORD of hosts is His name; And your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel; He is called the God of the whole earth. 6For the LORD has called you Like a woman forsaken and grieved in spirit, Like a youthful wife when you were refused,” Says your God. 7“For a mere moment I have forsaken you, But with great mercies I will gather you. 8With a little wrath I hid My face from you for a moment; But with everlasting kindness I will have mercy on you,” Says the LORD, your Redeemer. (Isaiah 54:5–8 NKJV)
2“Go and cry in the hearing of Jerusalem, saying, ‘Thus says the LORD: “I remember you, The kindness of your youth, The love of your betrothal, When you went after Me in the wilderness, In a land not sown. (Jeremiah 2:2 NKJV)
John took YHWH’s relationship with Israel one step further. Not only had YHWH made covenant with Israel in the wilderness, He was now coming even closer. He would actually walk among them and consummate the covenant He initiated with them. John was challenging their understanding of the covenant. Sinai was not God’s final word in His covenant with Israel. He was going to walk among His people – much more intimately this time – and again make covenant with them. YHWH walking among them in this kind of intimacy was unthinkable to the Jews and yet John described his deep joy at preparing Israel as a bride for YHWH. In the same way, we are called to declare that Jesus longs to come even closer to His people than He is right now. Our present condition is not the end of the story. We are to remind the church that our physical separation from Him is not permanent. Jesus will reign on the earth among His people – and we must prepare the people for this great hope.
John expressed his message in the context of YHWH’s deep emotion for Israel. He refuses to let Israel go. God was not content with Israel’s condition. His answer to Israel’s difficult situation and compromise was to come even closer. You have to understand God’s deep emotional commitment to Israel to understand John’s ministry and to understand the end of the age.
God will not let the age end with an Israel that does not love Him. He will pursue her until the end. His controversy with her will end up on the world’s center stage and the entire earth will watch YHWH pursue Israel, even in their unfaithfulness, because of of love and it will not end until He gets what He wants. The enemy will rage, but He will prevail. This is exactly how God feels about ever believer. He will not let you go easily. He will come after you. He will hedge you in, with thorns if necessary (Hosea 2:6), until you submit to His love for you.
It is hard to understand how radical the message John described was for his audience. Everyone hearing him understood that YHWH was the Bridegroom of Israel, but John was applying that term to his cousin, Jesus and claiming that the God who terrified Israel with His thunderous voice wanted a more intimate relationship with them and was revealing Himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
John not only used covenant language, he also used an analogy for his ministry that his hearers all understood. When John called himself the “friend of the bridegroom” he was referring to the Jewish wedding custom of the “shoshbin.” The shoshbin was similar to the concept of the “best man” but he had more responsibilities. He would contribute financially to the wedding and help take care of things for the bridegroom. He even helped guard the bride and watch over her for the bridegroom. He had the great joy of hearing the bridegroom’s voice when the wedding was over and the bride finally belonged to the bridegroom. John understood that his purpose was not to draw the people to himself, but to steward them as the property, and dearly beloved, of YHWH.
The prophetic voice had re-emerged in John, but the core of the message itself was shocking. Repentance itself was not shocking because prophets typically preached repentance. The content of his call for repentance was shocking. Israel at that time assumed that she was “qualified” for God’s deliverance. What “qualified” them in apocalyptic writing of the day was the idea that they were the only nation of all nations to have received the law from God. In some of these non-canonical writings, the world was created for the purpose of blessing Israel:
55All this have I spoken before thee, O Lord, because thou madest the world for our sakes. 56As for the other people, which also come of Adam, thou hast said that they are nothing, but be like unto spittle: and hast likened the abundance of them unto a drop that falleth from a vessel. 57And now, O Lord, behold, these heathen, which have ever been reputed as nothing, have begun to be lords over us, and to devour us. 58But we thy people, whom thou hast called thy firstborn, thy only begotten, and thy fervent lover, are given into their hands. 59If the world now be made for our sakes, why do we not possess an inheritance with the world? How long shall this endure? (2 Esdras 6:55-59; KJV Apocrypha)
Israel assumed their qualification because they had been uniquely chosen by God and severely oppressed by gentile kingdoms. Surely their unique selection by God and the suffering they had endured qualified them to receive God’s favor and deliverance from their enemies. As they struggled to maintain their identity under the control of the mighty Roman Empire, they felt even more how they deserved God’s deliverance and how the gentiles deserved His judgment.
What was shocking was that John was calling for the repentance of Israel in relation to the arrival of the long awaited Kingdom of Heaven. John’s scathing words were directed, not at Rome, but at Israel. Instead of directing his threats primarily against Rome, John warned that being Abraham’s posterity did not automatically secure God’s favor and that God was ready to completely topple the tree that the root of Abraham was supporting.
7But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, 9and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. 10And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 3:7–10 NKJV)
Israel’s mind, their primary problem was Rome and the oppression of the gentiles, and they were looking for deliverance from this problem. However, there was a much larger issue looming in John’s preaching. Israel’s greatest problem was not Rome. It was God. In the same way, our primary issues are not what they think they are. Our primary issue is God. Israel thought Rome was a problem, just as we worry and fret about the systems of this age, but Rome was ultimately no greater than Egypt. When God was done with Pharaoh, there was nothing he could do and God brought Israel out in power. God can shatter an empire in a moment. The gods of this age do not threaten Him.
God’s greatest opposition was not Rome’s military might, it was Israel’s resistance to Him, because man’s biggest problem is his incompatibility with God. This issue must be dealt with if the people are to be prepared for God. In John’s bold proclamation, Malachi’s prophecy could be heard. Israel’s election did not secure their position; it only intensified God’s contention with them.
2“But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire And like launderers’ soap. 3He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver; He will purify the sons of Levi, And purge them as gold and silver, That they may offer to the LORD An offering in righteousness. (Malachi 3:2–3 NKJV)
John warned of Messiah’s judgment, not on Rome, but on the religious of Israel. The fire of Messiah’s baptism was interpreted by John’s audience as an eschatological event. It was the fire of His judgment. The same fire that would purify the sons of Levi would also judge everything that resisted God. The Messiah was going to baptize with Holy Spirit fire. In other words, He was the eschatological Judge and would pour out the Spirit unto that judgment.
11I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:11–12 NKJV)
It was not unexpected that God would pour out wrath upon Israel because of her sins. They were painfully aware of this reality because of the exile. However, this same warning being proclaimed in the context of the fulfillment of the Messianic promise was truly unthinkable. As he baptized Jews, John was communicating a powerful reality to the nation. This immersion in water was one of the means by which a gentile was converted into Judaism and now John was “converting” the Jews into their own coming kingdom.
The entire nation was shocked to hear that there was no inherent security in their national identity as children of Abraham, nor anything earned by their suffering. Apart from repentance they had no more guarantee of entering the coming Kingdom than the Gentiles themselves. John announced that there was no corporate guarantee. The individual’s response to God’s will is significant to their participation in the blessings of the Kingdom of God promised to Israel. Though God would fulfill His promise to national Israel, the nation would be composed of the repentant. Not all Israel was true Israel (Romans 9:6).
John offered a baptism of repentance for the remission, or forgiveness, of sins. This was also a staggering proclamation. John was offering forgiveness apart of the temple sacrifices that were present in Jerusalem. It is hard to fathom how challenging this message was for his Jewish audience.
4John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. (Mark 1:4 NKJV)
Where did this desert prophet get the authority to offer forgiveness for sins through repentance in the desert rather than through the temple service in Jerusalem? That fact that John was not doing miracles points to the sheer authority of his preaching. There was divine authority on John’s words and he had no need to prove it because when you hear authority you know it. It is interesting that Jesus pointed to the miraculous signs as proof of His greater ministry, but the authority of John’s ministry rested entirely on His preaching.
The people were used to control and power, but shocked at the display of divine authority resting on John. A fuller measure of this divine authority would cause them to be astonished at Jesus’ teaching. It was clearly different from the religious establishment and divine authority made the difference.
28And so it was, when Jesus had ended these sayings, that the people were astonished at His teaching, 29for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. (Matthew 7:28–29 NKJV)
The authority that rested on John and ultimately on Jesus separated them from the rabbis even more than the content of their message. There is a difference in the authority obtained by political maneuvering and the authority given from heaven. That is why it is to our shame that we so often seek places of responsibility in the church based on who we know and how we can work a system rather than on the basis of the gift of the Spirit resting on us.
When the religious establishment came out to see John, he forced the implications of his message and asked why they came. Did they want to flee the wrath that was to come on Israel or did they want to continue a system that instead positioned Israel for judgment?
7But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? (Matthew 3:7 NKJV)
19Now this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?”…22Then they said to him, “Who are you, that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?”…24Now those who were sent were from the Pharisees. (John 1:19, 22, 24 NKJV)
He challenged their position of leadership calling them a brood of vipers. The ancient world believed the vipers ate their way out of their mother because this kind of snake gives birth to live young rather than laying eggs. John was accusing the religious leaders of devouring, and therefore destroying, mother Israel. The priest of the desert was challenging the priests of Jerusalem.
Jesus’ baptism by John was an unthinkable endorsement of John’s message. Jesus, the sinless Lamb of God, submitted to John’s baptism to fulfill all righteousness. In other words, he affirmed John’s preaching of repentance as the path to righteousness rather than the path of the scribes and Pharisees.
13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. 14And John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?” 15But Jesus answered and said to him, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed Him. (Matthew 3:13–15 NKJV)
In His ministry, Jesus continued to force the issue of John’s authority by asking the religious leaders whether or not John’s authority was legitimate.
3But He answered and said to them, “I also will ask you one thing, and answer Me: 4The baptism of John—was it from heaven or from men?” 5And they reasoned among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 6But if we say, ‘From men,’ all the people will stone us, for they are persuaded that John was a prophet.” (Luke 20:3–6 NKJV)
The axe was now at the root. The issue of righteousness was at stake. The issue of Israel’s calling was at stake as Jesus pointed out that righteousness and favor is divinely given from heaven apart from what we can earn. Israel thought they merited righteousness from their suffering and their family lineage, but Israel would have to become righteous through the work of another just as their father Abraham did. Jesus shattered the expectation and reset the foundation of righteousness. It was the free gift and mercy of God in response to repentance. God stood ready to fulfill all His promises to Israel, but only those who responded in repentance would enjoy the benefits of being born into Israel.
The authority on John’s preaching leveled the playing ground. Those who came out to see him were undone and cried out, “What must we do?” because John’s burning message was like an arrow right into the hearts of men. Interesting preaching causes men to think about things, but preaching with authority forces a response. The prophetic word forces you to respond to it. You cannot only consider it, you must make a decision about those words.
10So the people asked him, saying, “What shall we do then?” 11He answered and said to them, “He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” 12Then tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13And he said to them, “Collect no more than what is appointed for you.” 14Likewise the soldiers asked him, saying, “And what shall we do?” So he said to them, “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages.” (Luke 3:10–14 NKJV)
John had such divine authority resting on him that, even though he did not do any miracles, the people questioned whether he was the Messiah. John was so aware that the immense authority on his words was not his own that he refused to take any credit at all. He was aware of his weakness and refused to entertain any speculation that he might be the Messiah. John was a Friend of the Bridegroom and it was his deep joy to use the power resting on him to proclaim the glory of Another. Amazingly John could see who he truly was and who Jesus truly was. John, as Jesus’ cousin, had more reason to see Jesus commonly than everyone else and yet He submitted to who He was.
41Then many came to Him and said, “John performed no sign, but all the things that John spoke about this Man were true.” (John 10:41 NKJV)
15Now as the people were in expectation, and all reasoned in their hearts about John, whether he was the Christ or not, 16John answered, saying to all, “I indeed baptize you with water; but One mightier than I is coming, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather the wheat into His barn; but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:15–17 NKJV)
24Now those who were sent were from the Pharisees. 25And they asked him, saying, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26John answered them, saying, “I baptize with water, but there stands One among you whom you do not know. (John 1:24–26 NKJV)