When John came preaching “good news,” it may not have sounded like the good news we think of today. In fact, in our day it seems that any call to repentance, to deny self, or to do hard things is either dismissed as unloving or labeled legalism. And yet, to think biblically about the good news requires us to see how Scripture presents the gospel, both in content and tone. And thus, it is worth meditating on how John the Baptist in Luke 3 presents the gospel with many exhortations.
In Luke 3:18, the good doctor summarizes John’s preaching ministry with these words, “So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people.” This summary statement follows three ‘paragraphs’ outlining the content of John’s message (vv. 7–9, 10–14, 15–17) and precedes the arrest of John the Baptist by Herod the tetarch (vv. 19–20). For our purposes, it is worth considering what John said in order to see how he presented the gospel.
The Message and Method of John the Baptist’s Ministry
1. A Word of Judgment
In verses 7–9 John identifies his audience as a “brood of vipers” and calls them to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” Going back to the Garden, the serpent is associated with evil, the devil, and the works and workers of iniquity. Thus, John does not begin his message with a warm, comforting tone, but a strong invective against the wickedness of his people. Indeed, as Luke reports, John sounds far more like a shrill, street-corner preacher than a mild-mannered gospel conversationalist.
In this way, Luke shocks the reader with John’s word of judgment. In fact, he goes further. After the association with Satan and the command to bear good fruits, he calls them to stop trusting in their heritage: “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father'” (v. 8). Why? Because God does not need the house of Abraham and is now bringing the axe of judgment upon Abraham’s offspring. Indeed, to mix history and metaphor, just as God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son; so the hand of the Lord is about to strike down his own beloved Son, and only those who bear good fruit will escape the threshing sledge of God.
Far from presenting John as a winsome messenger of gospel truth, Luke portrays him as a firebrand railing against Israel’s pride, commanding them to produce fruit (which they cannot produce), and threatening a certain judgment that is about to begin at the Lord’s house. To be sure, Luke is not giving us in the Baptist a picture of the new covenant disciple; John is rather an old covenant prophet. Still, Jesus’ high evaluation of John in Matthew 11:11 reminds us that it was John’s zealous commitment to the Lord which pleased God.
As it concerns the modern Christian, John is a disrupting figure. He is not a calm, Kelleresque conversationalist. He is raving prophet who went to jail for his message. Indeed, high society Christians will be tempted to distance themselves from such bullhorn preachers today, but let us not forget that the gospel remains true even when communicated in harsh ways. In our post-Christian culture, I do not recommend a nuclear message of “turn and burn.” Still, I must remember that those who employ such tactics and who preach and believe a true message are my brothers in Christ. Even more, those who speak of salvation devoid of judgment do so in a way that dulls the point of Scripture (see Romans 2:16).
This is the good news: God saves us from his judgment, through the substitutionary wrath-bearer. And thus judgment is a necessary theme in our gospel message.
In light of this, we must remember God does not save the socially deft and he does not use those who cleverly package Christianity in culturally-acceptable ways. He saves those who repent and believe, and he used men and women who proclaim the unalloyed truth.
Thankfully, some of those preachers will be graced with incredible skill to speak truth to culture (think Ravi Zacharias, Russell Moore, or Sam Allberry). But others who believe the gospel won’t have any tact at all when it comes to preaching Christ; rather, they may blurt out and speak up in socially awkward ways. And when that happens, unbelievers can easily chastise their speech. But friends, these bullhorn preachers, if they trust in Christ, are also God’s children. And God will use their unpolished speech when it faithfully proclaims the gospel—just like the prophet with rough clothes and rough speech.
2. A Demand for Ethical Obedience
In addition to John’s word of judgment, he also gives ethical instructions that explain how one’s repentance should look. Rather than letting people figure out on their own what repentance should look like, John weighs in on matters of personal wealth, economic justice, and military service. In other words, by calling individuals to share their possessions, tax collectors to collect only what is right, and soldiers to stop using their office for personal gain, John is stepping into the secular arenas of life.
Clearly, repentance is not just a form of religious observance. Repentance reaches into the very identity of a person—whether it is the clothes they wear, the food they eat, the people to whom they are attracted, or the vocation they exercise—and tells them to change.
Does this sound like good news to the modern Christian? Indeed, to those who only think of grace in terms of pardon, it doesn’t. However, because grace both pardons guilt and empowers service to God (see e.g., 1 Corinthians 15:10; Titus 2:11–13; 1 Peter 3:18; 4:1ff.), the good news includes a call to good works. Clearly, it never demands good works for justification. But faith is seen in the outward works of repentance (i.e., a changed life). Hence, baptism is granted to those whose faith is evident and not merely implicit.
3. John pointed to Christ
Ultimately, what made John’s message good news is the way it pointed to Jesus. When men began to make much of him (3:15), he humbly sidestepped their praise and pointed to the coming Messiah. He explained his role (baptism with water) and the greater role of his Lord (baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire). He understood that he was only a voice crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord” (3:4), and that he was not the good news.
Indeed, the good news is always something we carry. Only Jesus could point to himself as the content of the good news. Indeed, for everyone else, we are servants, prophets, messengers pointing to Jesus. In this regard, we don’t have to make people like us, we only have to be faithful to proclaim him.
I wonder how often we get this confused? There is the perennial temptation for Christians to believe that if people like us, then we will be in a better position to make people like Jesus. But that premise is entirely faulty. The underlying power of the gospel is not in us selling Jesus to religious people, or selling ourselves in order to proclaim Christ. The power of the gospel is that it performs what it demands; it grants new birth to those dead in sin.
In other words, to a world in enmity with God, the message of Jesus Christ not only calls people to repentance, it also grants repentance and faith as the light of the gospel shines into their hearts. Tragically, the church is filled with Christians who point to themselves and say, “Look at me! Don’t you want to be like me? All you have to do is believe in Jesus.” The problem with that message is Jesus becomes the means to some other end; the Lord becomes servant to the disciple.
In the case of John the Baptist, he led off with an anti-testimony: “Don’t look at me. Look to him. Look to the one who is coming in judgment. Repent of your sin before Christ comes with winnowing fork in hand and throws the chaff into the fire. Are you one of his? Do you have fruit that bears testimony to your relationship with him? If not, repent. Cry out for mercy. Come to Christ for forgiveness. And stop living for yourself.”
That’s a hard message, but it is imminently biblical and one we need to hear today.
What We Can Learn from John’s Evangelism
In truth, when John preached the good news, he didn’t promise ease or comfort. In fact, he preached the opposite. He called people to turn from their worldly pleasures and to stop trusting in their glory (i.e., their earthly heritage). As we see, John’s message is not easy on the ears, because it calls sinners to reckon with their sin. To borrow language from today, it is not in any way affirming. And how can it be?
The God who made man for his glory is bringing judgment on the world for our rebellion against him. In this, God is not an all-affirming God. Instead, he is a just God who in his love has made a way for sinners to be justified and forgiven through the substitutionary death of his son. This ultimately is what Luke’s Gospel declares; and it is to this substitute that John the Baptist points, and why his message of judgment and obligation is not a dour message of legalism. Rather, it is the good news that God’s Son is coming and will make all things new with the gift of the Holy Spirit (3:16; cf. Isaiah 32:15).
In that we hear the good news about Jesus Christ and are called to run to him to take refuge from his coming judgment.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds