John the Baptist and the Baptism of Jesus
[Luke chapter 3, verses 15-37]
This week we will be studying the 2nd half of chapter 3 of the apostle Luke’s gospel, which will include a minor detour into the gospel of Matthew. I am adding this to today’s Biblical teaching because I think it’s necessary in order to better understand why John the Baptist became the last Old Testament prophet and the very first martyr for Christ in the New Testament all at once. I will explain more about this as we go along, so hang in there while we enter into the remainder of Luke chapter three. We’ll begin at verse 15.
“The people were all waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ. John answered them all, ‘I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 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’. And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.” (Luke 3: 15-18)
The phrase “the Christ” is a Greek word for “messiah”, which translates into Hebrew as ‘salvation’ (the Hebrew pronunciation is “Yeshua”). I find it noteworthy that John could have told the people he was the Messiah and could have profited greatly. Yet he chose not to do so. It apparently made a deep impression with those who came to see him and be baptized by him, and that positive indication of his character and integrity reverberates throughout Christianity to this day. But then John mentions two different baptisms, which is explained in the gospel of John chapter 3, where Jesus was responding to Nicodemus, and I quote: “…’I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.’ ‘How can a man be born again when he is old?’, Nicodemus asked. ‘Surely a man cannot enter his mother’s womb a second time to be born!’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you the truth ,no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of the water and of the spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.’” (John 3: 3-6)
Further down in this same chapter, Jesus clarifies what he was trying to explain to Nicodemus, who held a high-ranking position as a religious leader of that day. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in God’s one and only Son.” (John 3: 17-18) I see no way this passage of Scripture could be misunderstood! If you truly and sincerely believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, you will be saved, or more explicitly your soul will be redeemed, when your physical or temporal life is over. Anyone who refuses to believe, or who places their faith in something other than Jesus Christ for their soul’s salvation, will be condemned at the end of their physical or temporal lives. Period, end of story, and there will be no exceptions! So, everyone who reads this has been warned! Belief in Jesus, combined with the practicing of our faith, is very serious business!
In the same way John warned all the people, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” John was talking about the conversation I mentioned between Jesus and Nicodemus, who was a Jewish rabbi. The only thing is, that conversation had not yet taken place. Talk about being spot-on with prophecy! This is one way we can tell that John the Baptist was an authentic prophet. There was nothing phony about him! John baptized with water, but Jesus baptized with fire on the day of Pentecost, which is not mentioned in the Bible until much later in Acts chapter two. John prophesied this more than 3 decades before the fact!
But what did he mean by “the thongs of his sandals”? Someone reading the Bible from beginning to end would not have that question answered until that individual gets to the story of the Last Supper, where Jesus washed the feet of his apostles as an act of humility, and to set a good example for all generations to come. Back then people wore sandals because there were no shoes like we have today. That technology had not been invented yet as far as I know. So people’s feet got really dirty, and foot washing was a sign of being welcoming and accommodating for visitors. This was work that was usually done by slaves, a clear indication of John’s awareness that Jesus, the one to follow him in prophecy, was the true Messiah. It is also further evidence of John’s humility and of his reverence for his cousin, Jesus Christ.
“’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’. And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.” A winnowing fork is similar to a pitch fork except it’s shaped a little different, and it was used for wheat rather than for straw, although it may have been used for both. ‘Chaff’, of course, is the byproduct of wheat processing as we would call it today. John describes the chaff being burned up with ‘unquenchable fire’, which is a metaphor for those who are condemned like Jesus mentioned in John chapter three. “And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.” John exhorted and encouraged those he baptized to live their lives as those who were being saved by the Messiah, like a good coach, while warning them of the consequences if they did not. Bearing that in mind, let’s move on to the second part of today’s lesson.
“But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of Herodius, his brother’ wife, and all the other evil things he had done, Herod added this to them all: He had John locked up in prison. When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’ Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry. He was the son, or so it was thought, of Joseph….” (Luke 3: 19-37)
What was the apostle Luke referring to here? As I explained back in chapter one, Herod the tetrarch was the ruler of what was then called Judea, which is in the general area of Israel’s West Bank territory today. Herod has an affair with Herodius, his sister-in-law, as it is documented further in Matthew’s gospel chapter 14, verses 1 through 12, and I quote: “At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, and he said to his attendants, ‘This is John the baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.’ Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodius, his brother Philip’s wife, for John had been saying to him: ‘It is not lawful for you to have her’. Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered him a prophet. On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodius danced for them and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give him whatever she asked. Prompted by her mother, she said, ‘Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist’. The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that his request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison. His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus.”
As you can see by reading in between the lines, this was a really sick and despicable bunch of people who were in charge of ruling Judea. When king Herod heard about Jesus, he thought people were seeing John the Baptist, and that he had risen from the dead. Why did Herod think this? He had a guilty conscience because he had John beheaded. Like any good prophet, John had pointed out the evil that Herod was engaged in, which was his affair with his sister-in-law. This ultimately cost John his life. One night while John was languishing in prison, king Herod had a birthday party. I can only speculate on how much everyone had had to drink, but you can be sure it was quite a bit, and Herodius’ teenage daughter evidently had helped herself to no small portion of the wine. At some point she apparently performed the equivalent of a table dance for the king, except the king soon found out there was a very high price tag that went along with her dance that Herod apparently loved so much.
As you read, when Herod told Herodius’ daughter to name whatever gift she wanted for the lewd dance she had performed for king Herod, the price was the head of John the Baptist on a platter. As you have similarly seen, this was a really twisted group of people. The prophet John gets his head cut off, and the severed head is delivered to Herodius’ daughter, who gives it to her mother (“mommy, here’s the severed human head you wanted”). So there is the background for this story within a story in Scripture, and this is how John became a martyr for Christ. I also say that there is a time coming, which for some has already arrived, when some of us may have to pay the ultimate price for our own faith. But don’t be discouraged, because that ultimate price is immediately followed by the ultimate payoff for that investment, which is eternal life with Jesus our Lord and Savior. The true scope of that payoff is so great as to be beyond our wildest dreams or our most elaborate imagination!
“When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” There is no avoiding the symbolism here! The water baptism and Spirit baptism of Jesus occurred all at once. This can happen with new believers too, I have met a few of them, although this was not my own experience. My experience was that there was a 16 year gap between my water baptism and my Holy Spirit baptism. I can truthfully say here that I don’t know why this was what it was, but God works in different ways with all who believe so that he can achieve his perfection through those who become one with him in Spirit!
From here onward, Luke chapter 3 devotes itself to tracing the genealogy of Jesus from his earthly father Joseph (“He was the son, or so it was thought, of Joseph….”) all the way back to Adam, and so back to God. Since this is rather lengthy, let me just ask the reader to give these last 13 verses of Luke chapter 3 a quick read on your own time for the sake of brevity. Along the way, certain people are mentioned who are prominent in the Old Testament (or the Law of Moses if you’re Jewish), such as the fact that Jesus claims King David, his son Solomon, and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob from before that, all the way back to God the Father, as his direct ancestors. The point Luke is making here is that Jesus is unquestionably and without a doubt the Son of God. This is an indisputable fact that the Bible proves right here, right now. And we can all take heart in that fact, that our worship of Jesus Christ as the Son of God will never be in vain. On that note, I think we’ve reached a comfortable place to close, and next week we’ll move on to chapter four.