What is this week’s episode about? The short answer is, John the Baptist, and how he appeared in the wilderness of Judaea in just the way the prophet Isaiah foretold. He came with an urgent message for people to turn from themselves and their wrong ways, and to perceive God in His holiness and their need to be right with Him.
• See also this week’s TLW Bible Study for the background to this post with verse-by-verse commentary, reflections on each main reading and discussion starters for individuals, Bible studies or home groups
• Watch this week’s video also entitled When Jesus Comes Near It Changes Everything
But the longer answer is that John the Baptist was not calling attention to himself, but to One who would immediately follow him, a person of such power and righteousness that he, John, wouldn’t be a fit person to even carry His shoes.
This, of course, was about his cousin, Jesus of Nazareth, and John’s role was to point Him out and to get people spiritually prepared to meet with Him. While John was submerging people in the River Jordan to symbolise their being washed from the impurity of their sins, the Person he was drawing attention to, he shouted out to the onlookers, would be drenching them with God’s Spirit of holiness and bringing a purifying fire. A bit like winnowing harvested ears, He would separate out the fruitful grain and sweep out the chaff and straw to be burned up.
We continue the overall story of how When Jesus Draws Near It Changes Everything by seeing the effect in those first-century churches. We see how God’s Holy Spirit, this Spirit who is like the presence of Jesus, transforms individuals and communities in an amazing way. He knits together people of the most diverse backgrounds in spiritual unity and friendship, giving those who receive him a confident assurance about their lives, with joy and peace – a very different security to anything the world can give.
This is good news for everyone, especially those who know their need of Him, as we hear in this excerpt from Psalm 72:
May the royal Son judge Your people in righteousness [and] defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; may He crush the oppressor… Praise be to His glorious name forever; may the whole earth be filled with His glory.
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19 excerpted
So the immediate focus of this episode is the person we know as John the Baptist. But the story is really about who John the Baptist came to announce: Jesus of Nazareth. And it tells us about the deep roots of Jesus’ ancestry and relationship to the renowned King David, who had lived and reigned almost a thousand years earlier.
Closer to that early time was when the prophet Isaiah lived. He was specially gifted in a way that God could show him things from the perspective of heaven, for him to put into language as best he could for others to understand, and even see ahead to God’s future purposes.
Chapters 9-11 of Isaiah’s book of prophecies are like a greatly speeded-up video which starts with the calamity that would result from the unfaithfulness of God’s people. Then it does a fast-forward to the coming of someone from the same family line as King David — who was (if you remember the story of Goliath) the youngest son of Jesse. That’s what Isaiah is recalling here, in a vision of the future, where he sees a righteous and compassionate rule established under someone far superior and more caring than any king or noble they had ever experienced — this is from Isaiah 11:
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the LORD will rest on Him – the Spirit of wisdom… understanding… counsel and… might, the Spirit of the knowledge… of the LORD, and He will delight in the fear of the LORD. He will not judge by what He sees… or decide by what He hears… but with righteousness He will judge the needy, with justice He will give decisions for the poor of the earth…
…Righteousness will be His belt and faithfulness the sash around His waist.*
… The Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to Him, and His resting place will be glorious.
Isaiah 11:1-10 excerpted
Isaiah also had a particular spiritual insight about the remarkable way this new rule and new compassionate ruler would be announced. It would not come through the people of power and influence in their court in Jerusalem — as might be expected. He saw a picture of someone with a distinctive belt around his tunic, calling people to come out to a remote wilderness area — someone with a big voice and an even bigger challenge!
After introducing us to the messenger, Isaiah continues with the message this herald will be shouting out:
“Shout and do not be afraid… Your God is coming… He will rule with a powerful arm. See, He brings His reward with him as he comes. He will feed His flock like a shepherd. He will carry the lambs in His arms, holding them close to his heart.
From Isaiah 40:9-11
The messenger and now the message, which is about someone to come. It is a picture of strong and confusing contrasts: this is God coming, the most powerful rule imaginable. But — wait — He will appear as an ordinary shepherd (a lowly occupation) preoccupied with protecting His sheep and rescuing them.
You might not need reminding that one of Jesus’ most memorable sayings is ”I am the Good Shepherd!”
Matthew, in his gospel, relates what Isaiah so clearly foretold, to what was happening out in the desert scrub by the side of the River Jordan. This is from Matthew 3:
At this time John the Baptizer began to preach in the desert of Judah. His message was this:
“The realm of heaven’s kingdom is about to appear — so you’d better keep turning away from evil and turn back to God!”
Isaiah was referring to John when he prophesied: A thunderous voice… will be crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare yourself for the Lord’s coming and level a straight path inside your hearts for Him.”
John wore clothing made from camel’s hair, tied at his waist with a leather strap, and his food consisted of dried locusts and wild honey. A steady stream of people from Jerusalem, the surrounding countryside and the region near the Jordan, came out to the wilderness to be baptized by Him. And while they were publicly confessing their sins, he would immerse them in the Jordan River.
But when he saw many… from the wealthy elite of Jewish society and… religious leaders known as Pharisees coming to witness the baptism, he began to denounce them, saying,
“You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to slither away like snakes from the fire of God’s judgment? You must prove your repentance by a changed life.
Don’t presume you can get away with merely saying to yourselves, ‘But we’re Abraham’s descendants!… The axe is… ready to cut down… every fruitless, rotten tree [to be] thrown into the fire. Those who repent I baptize with water.
“But there is coming a Man after me who is more powerful than I am. In fact, I’m not even worthy enough to pick up Hhis sandals. He will submerge you into union with the Spirit of Holiness and with a raging fire!
He comes… to His threshing floor to sift what is worthless from what is pure. And he is ready to sweep out His threshing floor and gather His wheat into His granary, but the straw he will burn up with a fire that can’t be extinguished!”
Matthew 3:1-12 TPT, excerpted
It all comes to a point of focus on “the Man after me who is more powerful” and how He will thresh and sift, keeping what is good and consigning the rest to be burnt. There is imagery about the classic view of heaven and hell there.
John brings out the complacency and sense of entitlement that was the mind-set of many Jews of that time. Because we are Jews, descended from Abraham, we are God’s chosen people — so went the false argument.
The other falsehood many Jews were hampered by, was an understanding of the law that saw merit in religious works — of which there were a great many. The law was essentially about relationship: love God, and receiving His love, love others. But if it is no longer about true relationship, then it becomes about many things that are supposed to prove the relationship without actually working on it. The Pharisees ‘majored on the minors’, lots of minor acts of obedience that had been embroidered onto the law, while failing to make the main thing, the main thing. Instead of being loving and merciful, like God, they were judgmental, demeaning to women and harsh to those who questioned their man-made rules.
In many ways they are forerunners of the legalistic strands of church today which emphasise participation in every church ritual and activity and the idea of salvation through the church rather than personal faith.
The Sadducees — the wealthy elite — were interested in power, not rules or what God was saying. They saw only Moses as any kind of authority, not the prophets God sent in every generation. They are the forerunners of some church people today who do not accept the Scriptures, God’s Word, as fundamentals for life and a yardstick for decisions. They want to keep control!
But when Jesus draws near, it changes everything. It ended the unspiritual stranglehold of the wealthy and often formally-religious leaders of His time — but not without a struggle that ended after three years with His contrived trial, and death on a Roman cross.
Are we getting ahead of ourselves? No, because the story of Jesus’ fast-growing number of disciples continues to unfold in a new era, following the resurrection, the era of the Holy Spirit coaching believers in the Way of Christ and transforming them (and us) from the inside.
These believers — the new people of God — were increasingly not from a Jewish background. And this was difficult to accept for Jews brought up on cultural exclusivity. Or, as we might say today, racist values.
But with the Holy Spirit renewing minds and instilling the new identity of those belonging to Jesus as being children of God, who have be en given the rights of adoption, the whole basis of living in salvation becomes clear. It is grace — unearned, undeserved, and given. And, to the consternation of the religious mind, given without any kind of partiality, to rich and poor, male and female, slave and master — and, upsetting long centuries of prejudice, to Jew and Gentile alike, as we hear now in this Romans 15 excerpt:
The Scriptures give us hope and encouragement as we wait patiently for God’s promises to be fulfilled.
May God, who gives this patience and encouragement, help you live in complete harmony with each other, as is fitting for followers of Christ Jesus. Then all of you can join together with one voice, giving praise and glory to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, accept each other just as Christ has accepted you, so that God will be given glory.
Remember that Christ came as a servant to the Jews to show that God is true to the promises He made to their ancestors. He also came so that the Gentiles might give glory to God for His mercies to them. That is what the psalmist meant when he wrote: “For this, I will praise you among the Gentiles; I will sing praises to your name.”
And in another place it is written, “Rejoice with His people, you Gentiles.”*
And yet again, “Praise the LORD, all you Gentiles. Praise Him, ALL you people of the earth.”
In another place Isaiah said, “The heir to David’s throne will come, and He will rule over the Gentiles. They will place their hope on Him.”
I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in Him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Romans 15:3-13 NLT excerpted
As the Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit of Jesus, we can see Him as being Jesus drawing near. And this changes everything. He gives us spiritual discernment that transcends human understanding. He reveals what living in salvation is all about.
Two phrases stand out. They are separated in the passage but we can put them together with integrity, like this: “Christ has accepted you… because you trust in Him”.
It’s about believing and trusting Jesus, knowing we are accepted, being those who belong to Him… not any imagined entitlement or the rituals and activities we have turned up for.
We get this from the Holy Spirit. He is like Jesus drawing near to us. This is the Advent lesson for churches struggling with attendance and giving and divisions. When we invite the Holy Spirit, a lot of what we thought was important doesn’t matter any more, and we begin to see our mission the way God has planned it. The divisions and judgments and prejudices that lay beneath the surface soon dissolve when we get a revelation of how we are all loved and accepted, equally.
It’s such a simple solution that we are prone to miss it. But the truth is, when Jesus draws near, everything changes.
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