The Ministry of John the Baptist (3:1–12)
These verses describe the ministry of John the Baptist, the forerunner of our Lord Jesus Christ: it is a ministry that deserves close attention. Few preachers ever produced such effects as John the Baptist: “People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan” (verse 5). No one ever received such praise from the great head of the church: Jesus called him “a lamp that burned and gave light” (John 5:35); the great bishop of souls himself declared that “among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11). Let us then study the leading features of his ministry.
1. Sin and Repentance
John the Baptist spoke plainly about sin. He taught the absolute necessity of repentance (verse 2) before anyone can be saved; he preached that repentance must be proved by its “fruit” (verse 8); he warned his hearers not to rest on outward privileges, or outward union with the church.
This is just the teaching that we all need. We are naturally dead, and blind, and asleep in spiritual things; we are ready to content ourselves with a mere formal religion, and to flatter ourselves that if we go to church we shall be saved: we need to be told that, unless we “repent … and turn to God” (Acts 3:19), we shall all perish.
2. The Lord Jesus Christ
John spoke plainly about our Lord Jesus Christ. He taught people that one “more powerful” than himself was coming among them (verse 11). He was nothing more than a servant: the coming one was the King. He himself could only baptize with water: the coming one could “baptize … with the Holy Spirit” (verse 11), would take away sins, and would one day judge the world.
This again is the very teaching that human nature requires. We need to be sent direct to Christ: we are all ready to stop short of this; we want to rest in our union with the church, our regular use of the sacraments, and our diligent attendance on an established ministry. We need to be told the absolute necessity of union with Christ himself by faith. He is the appointed fountain of mercy, grace, life, and peace. We must each have personal dealings with him about our souls. What do we know about the Lord Jesus? What have we got from him? These are the questions on which our salvation hinges.
3. The Holy Spirit
John the Baptist spoke plainly about the Holy Spirit. He preached that there was such a thing as the baptism of the Holy Spirit. He taught that it was the special work of the Lord Jesus to give people this baptism.
This again is a teaching which we greatly require. We need to be told that forgiveness of sin is not the only thing necessary for salvation. There is another thing, and that is the baptizing of our hearts by the Holy Spirit. There must not only be the work of Christ for us but the work of the Holy Spirit in us; there must not only be a title to heaven purchased for us by the blood of Christ, but a readiness for heaven wrought in us by the Spirit of Christ. Let us never rest till we know by experience something of the baptism of the Spirit. Baptism in water is a great privilege, but let us see to it that we are also baptized in the Holy Spirit.
4. The Danger of Unbelief
John the Baptist spoke plainly about the awful danger of the impenitent and unbelieving. He told his hearers that “wrath” was coming (verse 7); he preached about “unquenchable fire” (verse 12), in which the “chaff” would one day be burned.
This again is a teaching which is deeply important. We need to be warned severely that it is no light matter whether we repent or not; we need to be reminded that there is a hell as well as a heaven, and an everlasting punishment for the wicked as well as everlasting life for the godly. We are fearfully apt to forget this. We talk about the love and mercy of God, and we do not remember sufficiently his justice and holiness. Let us be very careful on this point. It is no real kindness to keep back the terrors of the Lord. It is good for us all to be taught that it is possible to be lost forever, and that all unconverted people are hanging over the brink of the pit.
5. The Safety of Believers
Lastly, John the Baptist spoke plainly about the safety of true believers. He taught that there was “a barn” for all who are Christ’s “wheat” (verse 12), and that they would be gathered together there on the day he appears.
This again is a teaching which human nature greatly requires. The best of believers need much encouragement. They are still in the body; they live in a wicked world; they are often tempted by the devil. They ought to be often reminded that Jesus will never leave them or forsake them (Hebrews 13:5). He will guide them safely through this life, and at length give them eternal glory. They will be hidden on the day of wrath; they will be as safe as Noah was in the ark.
Let these things sink down deeply into our hearts. We live in a day of much false teaching. Let us never forget the leading features of a faithful ministry. Happy would it have been for the church of Christ if all its ministers had been more like John the Baptist!