Luke’s Gospel records the historical details of the ministry, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. So it is perhaps surprising that he doesn’t begin with the story of the birth of Jesus but instead with the birth of a different miracle baby. Born to a priest called Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, who was much too old to have a baby at all, that man would be the last of the Old Testament prophets. He was a distant cousin of Jesus and we know him as John the Baptist.
14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born.
God would put his Holy Spirit in John to equip him for a unique role in God’s plan of salvation. His job was to prepare the way for Jesus. To fulfil the prophecies of Isaiah chapter 40:
3 A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.
5 And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all people will see it together.
John was the forerunner, to get the people of Israel ready to receive the Messiah and Saviour God had promised to send.
Luke 3 16 He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’
We make a mistake if we underestimate the significance of John the Baptist in God’s masterplan of salvation. So let’s remind ourselves this morning of just why John’s ministry was so important.
John the Baptist’s Message
1 He called people to repent
Luke 3 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptised by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 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. 9 The axe has been laid to the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.’
Repentance is an important idea for everyone who wants to follow Jesus Christ. At its root the word means a complete change of direction. To do a U-turn in life. If anybody wants to meet God, they have to change direction. If we have our back to the light, all we can see is the darkness of our own shadow. If we want to see the light, we have to turn around and walk towards it.
Repentance means admitting our sins. But more than that, repentance means being sorry enough for our sins that we are ready to give them up and ask God to change us.
John Locke :- “Repentance is a hearty sorrow for our past misdeeds, and a sincere resolution and an endeavour to the utmost of our power, to conform all our actions to the law of God. It does not consist in one single act of sorrow, but in doing works meet for repentance; in a sincere obedience to the law of Christ for the remainder of our lives.”
Repentance isn’t just being sorry for your sins. Repentance is being sorry enough to quit! “Produce fruits in keeping with repentance,” as John the Baptist demanded. “Go and sin no more,” Jesus told the woman caught in the act of adultery.
“To move across from one sort of person to another is the essence of repentance: the liar becomes truthful; the thief, honest; the lewd, pure; the proud, humble.” A. W. Tozer. John spelled out in very practical ways what that would mean.
11 … ‘Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.’
12 Even tax collectors came to be baptised. ‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘what should we do?’
13 ‘Don’t collect any more than you are required to,’ he told them.
14 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.’
So John called people to repent of their sins and change their lives. And to show they were truly repenting, people were baptised by John in the river Jordan. Baptism by immersion in water was already a sign in Judaism. It was the ritual by which non-Jews could become Jews. Through this act of “proselyte baptism”, heathens could become Jews. But in John’s ministry the act of baptism gained a new significance, because the people who were being baptised were already Jews. The symbolic message was very clear. You aren’t good enough as Jews to be ready to welcome the Messiah. You have to repent and be baptised and become Jewish all over again if you are going to be ready for your Saviour when he comes.
John the Baptist’s Message
2 He told people to expect the Messiah to arrive
Luke 3 15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, ‘I baptise 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 baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 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.’ 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them. (Luke 3:15-18)
Jews in the time of John the Baptist and of Jesus were eagerly awaiting the arrival of their Messiah. But they had forgotten the many warnings in the Old Testament that the Messiah’s purpose in coming would be to refine and purify God’s chosen people. John’s baptism in water was a symbol of cleansing from sin, a sign of forgiveness as sins are washed away in preparation for the arrival of the Messiah. When John spoke of the one to come baptising with Holy Spirit and fire, that would be a cleansing fire, purifying Israel.
7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptised by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?
John the Baptist’s Message
3 He announced that Jesus is the Saviour
John 1 29 The next day John saw Jesus coming towards him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is the one I meant when I said, “A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.” 31 I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptising with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.’
32 Then John gave this testimony: ‘I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. 33 And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptise with water told me, “The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptise with the Holy Spirit.” 34 I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.’
35 The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. 36 When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God!’
In these few verses we read how John bore witness that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, and more than that, God’s chosen one, the one and only Son of God. But there is an even more important message, and it is declared twice. John proclaimed to the world not only who Jesus is but also what his mission was. “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! Jesus came to be the Saviour of the world. As the Angel told Joseph in Matthew 1 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Jesus – the Saviour. Jesus came to set people free from the penalty and the punishment of their sins. The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
The title, “The Lamb of God”, would have reminded any Jew of at least three parts of the Old Testament. Firstly, the Lamb of God is a reminder of the Passover Lambs. In the story of the Exodus God sent plagues on the Egyptians to persuade Pharaoh to release his chosen people the Israelites from slavery. In the tenth and most terrible plague, the firstborn children and animals in all of Egypt would all die in one night. Only the children of the Israelites would be spared and that because they had sacrificed a lamb and smeared the blood of the sacrifice on their doors. So the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb rescued the Israelites from the plague of death on the firstborn, and that was what persuaded Pharaoh to let the people of Israel leave Egypt. In echoes of the Exodus, the Lamb of God brings salvation and freedom to God’s chosen people.
Secondly, the Lamb of God would remind any Jew of the lambs which were sacrificed on different occasions for the forgiveness of sins. As well as daily sacrifices the Jews celebrated their annual feasts and in particular a special offering for sin was presented on the Day of Atonement. Just once a year, only one man, the great High Priest was allowed into the most holy place in the Temple, the Holy of Holies, to present this sacrifice for sin. So the Lamb of God which deals with all the sins of all the people is the sacrifice of atonement.
But then there was a third understanding of the Lamb of God in the Old Testament in the prophecies of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah chapter 53. Seven centuries before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah looked ahead to this individual, and even compared him to a lamb.
Isaiah 53 5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way;
and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.
8 …. For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was punished.
10 … and though the LORD makes his life an offering for sin,
….by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.
12 ….because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
This servant of God would be rejected and ultimately sacrificed, which is exactly what Jesus foretold many times about his own life and death. But this sacrifice was God’s way of dealing with the sins of the world. And these are all the things the prophet Isaiah foretold about God’s Suffering Servant. “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Right from the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, Jesus AND John the Baptist knew how it was all going to end. In tears.
John the Baptist was not the Saviour, not the Light of the World, not the Son of God. He was not the main event – he was the warm-up act. John the Baptist was the forerunner sent to prepare the way of the Lord. How have we responded to John’s message? John called people to repentance. Have we truly repented? John came to announce that the Messiah was coming. Have we recognised Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God? Will we be ready when Jesus returns? And John came to introduce Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Have we accepted Jesus as our Saviour?