John the baptist’s message for everyone else.

by K.W. Leslie, 12 February

Someone greater than John was coming, and he was just paving the way.

Mark 1.7-8 • Matthew 3.11-12 • Luke 3.10-20 • John 1.24-28

Last time I dealt with what John the baptist had to say to religious folks—people who already followed God, or at least were active in temple and synagogue. John didn’t come to preach to them; they already had prophets, and shouldn’t need to come to John and repent. He came to reach the people who had no relationship with God, who needed to get ready for their coming Messiah.

But you might notice Luke describes John’s message to the religious folks as being directed towards everyone. Religious and irreligious alike.

Luke 3.7-14 KWL
7 John said this to the crowds coming to be baptized by him:
“You viper-spawn! Who warned you to escape the wrath of God?
8 Fine then: Produce worthy fruits, from repentant people.
Don’t start to tell yourselves, ‘We have a father in Abraham’:
From these rocks, I tell you, God can raise up children for Abraham.
9 Plus, the axe lays at the root of the tree right now.
So every tree not producing good fruit is cut down and thrown into fire.”
10 The crowds were questioning John, saying, “So what can we do?”
11 In reply John told them, “You who have two tunics: Share with those who don’t.
You who have food: Do likewise.”
12 Taxmen came to be baptized and told John, “Teacher, what can we do?”
13 John told them, “Do nothing more than you were ordered.”
14 Soldiers were questioning John, saying, “And we, what can we do?”
John told them, “You could stop shaking people down, or stop accusing them falsely.
Be content with your paychecks.”

I explained the whole worthy fruits, making Abraham’s children from rocks, and axe at the foot of the tree stuff in the previous article. Here Luke included John’s corrections to the people who came to him for baptism.

In general the problem was stinginess. The crowds needed to share their food and clothing with the needy. Yes, the Law had a sort of welfare system built in so farmers would leave gleanings for the needy, Lv 19.9-10 and so every third-year’s tithes would go to the needy. Dt 14.28 But then, same as now, people don’t bother to do any more than their obligations, and share food and clothing only with people we consider worthy—not so much needy. Loving our neighbor Lv 19.18 gets limited to thinking pleasant thoughts about them, not doing for them. It’s an attitude which always needs breaking.

The taxmen (KJV “publicans,” although Julius Caesar abolished the publican rank in 30BC; NLT “corrupt tax collectors”) were customs agents. They sat in booths at ports and city gates, and charged everyone a fee to get in. Merchants especially: Usually 2 to 5 percent of whatever they were selling. (Which added up, especially when you transported goods from city to city.) Taxmen were usually already-wealthy men who bought their commissions from the city officials (usually Roman), because it was such a lucrative job: One of the perqs was the ability to set the rates above what the city required, and pocketing the difference. Or cheating the merchants with faulty scales, and again pocketing the difference. It’s why they were so hated. And why they knew they needed to repent. “Don’t steal” is one of the 10 commandments, y’know.

Lastly soldiers. Who were likely—and kinda surprisingly—Roman soldiers. This is the first time we see gentiles really getting involved in the gospel, but Luke wanted to make it clear in his gospels (both Luke and Acts) that God’s kingdom is likewise for gentiles. And interestingly, John initially responded to them with what they could do, not commands: They could be more fair and just in their duties, instead of hassling the locals and trying to rob them. As gentiles, they weren’t under the Law, so John couldn’t command them to follow it in quite the same way. But like the taxmen, they also knew they needed to repent.

The greater one is coming.

Luke 3.15 KWL
The people were anticipators,
and everyone was discussing privately about John—“Perhaps he might be Messiah?”—
John 1.24-25 KWL
24 These people had been sent by the Pharisees.
25 Questioning John, they told him, “So why do you baptize,
if you’re neither Messiah nor Elijah nor Prophet?”

The first-century End Times kooks were prosdokóntos/“anticipators,” people who looked forward to Messiah’s first coming, whenever that was. And as we know from the stuff the Pharisees and Qumranis wrote, and from the way Judeans treated Jesus in the gospels, they were mostly wrong, and missed Jesus completely. Only the anticipators who were willing to accept Jesus no matter how he appeared, were able to identify him as he is. Something we oughta bear in mind. Don’t get too wedded to your End Times predictions. You’re likely to be just as wrong as the anticipators.

Anywho, the Pharisees and anticipators seriously wanted to know where John fell into their End Times timeline. Was he Messiah, the Prophet, or the second coming of Elijah? According to John, no, no, and no. (According to Jesus, who knows better, no, kinda, and yes.)

John was only Messiah’s forerunner, and he wanted this made clear to the anticipators. Messiah is much stronger than he was.

Mark 1.7-8 KWL
7 John proclaimed to them, “One stronger than me comes after me.
I’m not able to stoop down and loose his sandal strap.
8 I baptize you in water.
He’ll baptize you in the Holy Spirit.”
Matthew 3.11 KWL
“Indeed I baptize you in water for repentance.
And coming after me is one stronger than me.
I’m not able to carry his sandals.
He’ll baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire.
Luke 3.16 KWL
In reply John told everyone, “Indeed I baptize you in water.
And one stronger than me comes.
I’m not able to loose his sandal strap.
He’ll baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire.
John 1.26-27 KWL
26 Answering them, John said, “I baptize in water.
In the midst of you stands someone you don’t know, 27 who comes after me.
I’m not worthy to loose his sandal strap.”

Iskhyróterós/“stronger” is also translated “mightier” (KJV) or “more powerful” (NIV) or words which indicate Jesus has more power than John. ’Cause Christians tend to think in terms of supernatural power. Other than prophecy—God identified Messiah to him, once prenatally Lk 1.41 and later with a sign Jn 1.33 —we don’t see John do any miracles. Doesn’t mean he never did any; it only means they’re not included in the gospels. But y’know, Christians get weird when it comes to power. Humans covet it so much.

“Stronger” only means John believed Messiah capable of achieving way more than John could. John baptized in water, but Messiah baptized in Spirit and fire. The ancients believed the universe was made of air, earth, fire, and water—and that spirits were made of fire. (I know; you’d think air.) No, we don’t believe that anymore. Spirit’s aren’t physical. But to the ancients there’d be an immediate connection between the Holy Spirit and fire—and a significant contrast to a water baptism. This alone would demonstrate how Jesus is stronger than John.

To emphasize Messiah’s strength, John overemphasized his own weakness: He’s uk ikanós/“not able.” In the gospel of John, uk áxios/“not worthy.” The translators of the KJV, in order to make the gospels sync up better, interpreted ikanós as “worthy” too, but ikanós isn’t about whether you merit doing a job, but whether you have the means. If you don’t have enough supplies, food, money, resources, contacts, stuff, you can’t do the job. John felt he hadn’t the stuff to take care of Messiah’s sandals.

John considered himself unworthy. Jesus did not. It’s why he came to earth: To make us worthy. He let John baptize him, and ordered his followers to keep baptizing people John-style. He esteemed John greatly. Mt 11.11 Let’s pay more attention to Jesus’s estimation than John’s self-debasement. John may have legitimately felt that way, but it’s not accurate.

As for that baptism in the Spirit and fire, I discuss how that works elsewhere.

Messiah makes a clean sweep.

Matthew 3.12 KWL
“The winnowing-shovel is in his hand, and he’ll thoroughly clean his threshing-floor.
He’ll gather up his grain in the silo.
He’ll burn up the straw with endless fire.”
Luke 3.17 KWL
“The winnowing-shovel is in his hand to thoroughly clean his threshing-floor.
He’ll gather together the grain in his silo.
He’ll burn up the straw with endless fire.”

Other bibles tend to go with “fan” to translate ptýon/“shovel,” because medieval Europeans used a fan for the job. (Our winnowing machines also use fans, a lot of the time.) But the way ancient middle easterners did it was to shovel up grain, toss it into the air, and let the wind blow away the chaff (the seed-husks and straw). Do this enough times, and what you’ll have on the threshing-floor is mostly the edible seeds, which would go into the silo, and as needed be ground into flour.

The rest? Well, some straw could be used for animal feed and adobe, but ordinarily it’d be burnt. In comparison John described pyrí asbésto/“endless fire,” the sort of trash fire which you didn’t put out because there was constantly trash to burn. Chaff would burn up quickly, but the fire would keep going. And whenever the folks in the bible started talking about endless fire, what they meant was hell, and the sort who’d go into it: The undesirable, versus the desirable. The unrepentant, versus the repentant. Those who want nothing to do with God, and those who love him.

This is still good news Lk 3.18 for the anticipators of Messiah’s first coming back then, and the anticipators of Jesus’s second coming in the present. We expect, as they did, to be the useful, productive grain. Not the empty, nutritionless husks. Hope we are.

Wrapping up John.

Luke 3.18-20 KWL
18 John evangelized the people with much more—
and many other such exhortations.
19 Quarter-king Antipas Herod, embarrassed by John
about his brother’s wife Herodia, and everything evil Herod did,
20 shut up John in prison, adding this to everything.
John 1.28 KWL
This happened at Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan, where John was baptizing.

John points out the Pharisees interviewed John péran tu Jordánu/“beyond the Jordan,” meaning on the east side of it. Current copies of the Greek bible have Bithanía/“Bethany,” which is not the same place as the Beit Aní where Lazarus and family lived; that Bethany is 1.4 km outside Jerusalem. This is another city named Bethany.

The Textus Receptus calls it Bithavará/“Bethabara,” which—again—is not the same place as the Beit Avára within the tribe of Benjamin, on the west side of the river. Js 18.22, Jg 7.24 If it was called Bethabara, it’s not that Bethabara either.

Whatever they called it in John’s day, the location tends to be identified as al-Maghtas, Jordan. Tradition claims it’s also where Elijah crossed the Jordan before ascending to heaven. 2Ki 2.6-14 So, kind of an appropriate place for someone like Elijah to do his ministry.

Luke prematurely mentioned John’s arrest even before getting to Jesus’s baptism. Antipas Herod wasn’t any more devout than his father, and John’s denouncement of his behavior in those pre-free-speech days got him in serious trouble.

No, John wasn’t within Antipas’s jurisdiction. But Roman provinces weren’t sovereign states, and Antipas could’ve sent people to arrest anyone in the Roman Empire. If no other official raised any objection about John being under his protection, that’d be that. John could rot in lockup for all anyone cared.

I’ll deal with Antipas when the time comes. Gotta move along to Jesus’s baptism.