ISRAEL’S “BILLY GRAHAM”
“When crowds of people came out for baptism because it was the popular thing to do, John exploded: ‘Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskin is going to deflect God’s judgment? It’s your life that must change, not your skin. And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as “father”. Being a child of Abraham is neither here nor there – children of Abraham are a dime a dozen. God can make children of stones if He wants. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s dead wood, it goes on the fire.'” Luke 3:7-9.
Talk about a fiery preacher! John wasn’t exactly “seeker-friendly” and he was seriously lacking in people skills! Like the one whose coming he was announcing, he was more concerned about truth than popularity.
Who were the people who made up the crowds? From the other gospels we learn that there were people from among the religious hierarchy; there were taxmen and there were even Roman soldiers; the good, the bad and the ugly! What attracted them to John? Did they enjoy getting a tongue-lashing? Was it his brutal honesty? Were they fascinated by this wild man from the wilderness? Was it his message?
Perhaps the angel’s prediction before his birth may give us a clue – he was filled with the Spirit from birth. The Holy Spirit must have played a big part in the response to his preaching. Obviously there was a high expectation that Messiah was coming. The presence of the Romans was intolerable; like the Gestapo in Nazi Germany, they were everywhere, it seemed, breathing down people’s necks.
On top of that, John’s message was riveting. Isaiah’s prophecy was actually happening! ‘A voice thundering in the desert,’ is what John called himself. But isn’t that what Isaiah said would happen? “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.'” Luke 3:4b (NKJV). ‘Messiah is on the way!’
Did John really understand the hearts of these people or was he just having a bad day? ‘Basket of snakes!’ he called them, ‘slithering down to the water.’ Was there a subtle reference to their origin – children of the devil, as Jesus called them? Whatever John meant, it was enough to get their attention. Were they being like sheep, following one another out of curiosity and John knew it? It was time for them to wake up and think for themselves.
What was the point of John’s baptism? Baptism, or ritual washing, was a common practice in Jewish culture. It was called “mikvah”, washing. It was the prescribed way of “cleansing” after any period of ritual uncleanness; it was a form of initiation into a new function or office, for example, the priesthood; and it was a form of initiation into a new movement (Gentiles who adopted Judaism were baptised into their new religion). Archaeological digs have uncovered ritual baths in many places in Israel.
John was calling people to return to their original purpose in God. This demanded a change of heart and a change of lifestyle. It was to be something much deeper than just a symbolic washing. It was to be a change that affected every part of their lives. John’s challenge was: ‘Are you in this for the ride or do you really mean business with God?’
God called Israel to be His representatives in a world of people who were in rebellion against Him; who were creating and worshipping gods in the form of His creatures rather than the Creator, and who were, in turn, being created to be just like the evil gods they were worshipping.
Israel was to be different. Their lives were to reflect the kindness and generosity of their God. God prescribed a lifestyle in His Word that taught them what He was like so that they could mirror His way of doing things that worked, bringing peace and harmony to the community. But it had not worked because the Jews had followed the ways of their heathen neighbours instead of God’s ways.
John’s message was ‘Return!’ It was a simple as that!