The Kingdom is Coming: The Role of John the Baptist in God's Mission

The British are coming!  The British are coming!” For those of you who are not history buffs, these words were attributed to Paul Revere. From my understanding, he most likely did not shout these words as he rode his horse on April 18, 1775 to tell the Colonial militia that British forces were approaching. Regardless of whether or not Paul Revere shouted or quietly spread the valuable military news, he was instrumental in warning the Colonial militia to prepare for the British king’s invading troops.

Some 1700 years before Paul Revere lived, another man announced another invasion. Living in the wilderness by the Jordan River, John the Baptist also announced a foreign invasion. John was not broadcasting the coming of a man-made foreign kingdom, but the coming Kingdom of God. By sending Jesus into the world, God was ripping open the heavens. The Kingdom of God was invading the world as Jesus was born in a manger and as Jesus journeyed towards the cross. God was doing a new thing, something that he had not done before, but something that was promised long ago. God was sending his only Son to live a perfect life and then die on behalf of sinful mankind.

How important was John the Baptist? In a radio interview about John the Baptist, Dr. Jeff Gibbs referenced Luke 3:1-6, saying, “John the Baptist was the most important human being to have lived up to that point.” Why was he so important? He was the one who announced the coming King. Nothing in the history of the world has been as important as the coming Messiah with the mission of redemption for you and me.

John did more than simply announce the coming King, though. A plethora of Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled in John’s calling and role. Zechariah, John’s own father, sings about the Messiah and John’s role as the one spoken of in the Old Testament, the one who was to prepare the way before the Lord. Even Jesus himself, in Matthew 17:12, says that John is Elijah, the one who was promised to come before the Messiah.

Now, in addition to fulfilling Old Testament prophecies and announcing the coming Messiah, John’s ministry had some profound implications. His message not only prepared people for Jesus, but his message also prepares us daily for the Gospel.
Can you imagine someone saying to you, “You are not a Christian! You’ve got it all wrong!  Your parents, grandparents and ancestors may have been Christians, but you are not. Quit claiming your spiritual heritage as a basis of assurance. Repent, for you have gone wrong. You need to begin again.” That is what John essentially was saying. Some 1,400 years before John the Baptist’s ministry began by the Jordan, the Israelites originally entered the Promised Land by crossing the Jordan River (see Joshua 3). It is no coincidence that John was calling the people of Israel back out to the Jordan. Israel had drifted. They had gone astray and needed to be completely remade as a people. They were slothful and spiritually apathetic as they appealed to Abraham as their Father. Yes, their forefathers entered the Promised Land by the Jordan. Yes, they were children of Abraham. However, John was calling them back out to the Jordan because the Kingdom of God was at hand. Their spiritual apathy had to be shattered and they needed to go back to the Jordan and do it all over again. John was calling them to repentance.

Creating more controversy, John spoke to the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious elite, and called them to bear fruits of repentance. But weren’t both the Pharisees and Sadducees already the most moral and upright people of the society at that time? Weren’t they already displaying good fruit through their good works? They were displaying outward righteousness, but this was not what was needed to be prepared for the Kingdom of God. John was not primarily calling for more good works; he was rather calling for the fruit of repentance—confession of sins.
The real problem for the people of Israel and for you and me in the 21st century is not merely that we need to repent of bad choices, though this is good. Rather the much larger issue is that we are turned inward on self. As we turn inward on self we become self-reliant and trust in our own righteousness. This is self-justification. Proper repentance, as John calls us, is not only to avoid sin and do righteous things instead. It is to confess that we have sinned, that we continue to sin, that we cannot stop ourselves from sinning, and that we actually like to sin because of the old Adam in us. To be sorrowful about our sinful longings is at the heart of John’s repentance. This repentance is about despising the unholy trinity of “me, myself and I.”

This is the strange gift that John the Baptist brought to the Israelites and the same gift that the Holy Spirit must work in us through the Word. Our pride and self-reliance, our stubborn belief that by our own goodness we can please God—these are the things that need to be killed so that we can be prepared to receive the Kingdom of God. In this gift of repentance we are laid bare before the coming Kingdom.

John was calling Israel to come into the Promised Land again not by physically crossing the Jordan, but this time by passing through the waters of the Jordan in baptism. Just as their forefather entered the Promised Land, they needed a new entrance into the coming Kingdom of God. John proclaimed this new entrance as he proclaimed a message of repentance for sin and then baptized them in the Jordan. This was no empty baptism. He was not getting people wet in some symbol or formality. This was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, a baptism that pointed to Jesus, a baptism that would be expanded by Jesus and a baptism that was fulfilled by Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Israelites needed to enter through the coming King, Jesus; they needed God’s washing that came through Christ. The same is true for you and me today.

Today and every day we need to be gifted with the fruit of repentance—confession of sins. As we confess our sins we are prepared to receive the King and his Kingdom of grace and truth. Take comfort, my friends, for God will not despise this status of brokenness and helplessness. God does not cast aside sinners, that is, those who recognize their sin. Like the Israelites we progress in this Christian life as we daily return to the waters of our baptism where we were and are presently washed and claimed; water that is filled with Jesus’ death and resurrection. For it is in this very brokenness and fallenness that God meets us with his tender Word of Gospel and his Sacraments, reminding us that all has been forgiven and completed by Jesus Christ—the one who invaded our world to atone for our sin.

“The Kingdom of God and Forgiveness is coming! The Kingdom of God and Forgiveness have come! Jesus has come for you.”

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