10:30 am Sunday Worship
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Plowing Fallow Ground

Luke 1:76-77

We’re getting into God’s Word this morning. Open your Bibles to Luke’s Gospel once again. We are at the end of the first chapter where we’ve slowed down just a bit to focus our attention on Zechariah’s Song. What we’re about to study as we get into Chapter 2 and following, throughout the rest of Luke’s Gospel, is quite weighted. It’s holy. And our society, our culture, our American culture—we’re not used to weighty. We’re not used to things that are heavy and demand our full attention and study. We’re kind of used to being catered to, marketed to. We’re kind of used to things being dumbed down for us. That’s the job of marketers who are trying to get you, the consumer, to buy products they want to sell you. They want to take your money and turn it into their money. So, they do that by not making you think too hard about anything. They just want you to do. They just want you to obey, so they don’t want you to think. They just want you to very quickly make decisions. To do that, they do a lot of entertaining. We are in an entertainment-saturated culture. Everywhere you look there’s something to distract your attention and pull it away, to chase after things. Listen, as we get into this Gospel, we have 23 chapters left of Luke. And it’s not easy reading. It’s not the light Reader’s Digest kind of stories. These are stories that are on the surface very, very simple, but as you read into the stories more and more, you see the depth. You see the profundity. You see the mind of God on display. We shouldn’t be surprised; the mind of God is absolutely profound, full of wisdom that demands our attention. It demands our full, undivided attention. And so it’s going to require our study attention as well because it’s going to inform our meditation. We need to see what Zechariah wants us to see, what Luke wants us to see. We need to see the full, profound significance of this Gospel so that we can give the praise and the honor that is truly due to our God and Savior. That’s what we’ve been seeing even as we’ve gone through this song just a little bit. 

As we begin this morning, let’s go ahead and read Zechariah’s song again and just listen again to these gracious words that he prophesied regarding the salvation he saw coming in his own time. Look there at verse 67: “And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying, ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.’” 

We’ve spent the last couple weeks working through just two sentences in the song. We just worked through one of them in the last couple weeks, the long sentence going from verse 68 to verse 75. We finished that. It’s been a joy, an absolute joy, hearing about the significance of salvation from a covenant perspective, understanding that God promised Israel throughout its history certain things, and it’s all culminating here in the Gospel. That’s how Zechariah looked at this. He was a faithful priest. He was a Jew. He was a Jew of Jews. He was a priest teaching the Jews. He’s one who hoped in God, hoped that God would fulfill all the promises he had made throughout the ages to the fathers through the prophets. As we’ve seen, this song is rich with covenant language pointing to the fulfillment of all the covenants and all the promises, and even the entirety of the Psalter, all the praise that the psalter is meant to evoke, is all consummated in this New Covenant salvation. As I said, it’s being fulfilled right in front of Zechariah’s eyes with the birth of his son, John. 

We’ve been seeing the redemptive glory of God on display, revealing God, really, to be kind and merciful, to be powerful, to be gracious. He’s a faithful Savior who cares enough to rescue sinners form their sins. He could chose to leave us suffering as we deserve. But hee doesn’t do that. He steps in to relieve suffering, to give the gift of eternal life, the gift of worshipping him for all of eternity. That salvation of God is so magnificent, and what it reveals about God is so wonderful, so joy-inducing, you’d expect everyone who hears about it to recognize it for what it is: divine salvation, grace from God, a wonderful deed, profound joy. As Christ entered into the world, as he entered into public ministry, as he walked through the entire land healing people, teaching people, proclaiming the gracious coming of the kingdom of God, it seemed like a pretty safe bet that everyone would listen intently to him, receive him gladly, right? Sadly, that didn’t happen. Quite the opposite, actually. 

I want you to turn ahead just for a moment to Chapter 4 of Luke’s Gospel. Luke Chapter 4, starting in verse 16. I want to show you Jesus’ first outing as he entered into public ministry. This is in Nazareth, by the way, Jesus’ home town. This is where he grew up, among friends, among neighbors. These are people who watched him from just a little baby to a little boy to all those middle years, learning his dad’s carpentry business, becoming a reliable son as his father evidently passed away sometime in there, becoming a reliable son to his mother. You’d expect this to be an easy crowd that he would first appear to in his public ministry. That would be completely understandable. Take a look at verse 16, chapter 4. It says, 

“And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. [Imagine that. Jesus Christ reading the Scripture to you! Wow! So he stood up to read.] And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the years of the Lord’s favor.’ And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. [Teachers in that day would sit down before they’d teach. Not a bad idea.] The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, ‘Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. And they said, ‘Is this not Joseph’s son?’” 

So far, so good, right? He’s reading good words to them. He’s reminding them of gracious promises from, I believe Isaiah 61. He’s pointing them to a good and prosperous and joy-filled future. He said, “Today this is fulfilled.” Wow! They’re thrilled. They’re anticipating great, great things. Everything is going fine until he began to apply to the truth, until he began to confront. Look at verse 22 again. 

“All spoke well of him, and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. And they said, ‘Is this not Joseph’s son?’ And he said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Physician, heal yourself. What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.”’ And he said, ‘Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, [a time of judgment, right?] a great famine came over all the land, [many of their people, many of the Israelites were starving. Many of them were hurting. Many of them were suffering, but, verse 26,] Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon [Gentile country, right? Tyre and Sidon], to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elijah; none of them were cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.’ [A Syrian, a Sidonian widow, not Israel. Wow!] When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. [Wait a minute. These are Jesus’ neighbors, his friends, people who watched him grow up. Don’t you think they could give him the benefit of the doubt, try to understand what he was saying? No.] They rose up [verse 29] and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff.” 

“God sent John to go before Christ and prepare his way.”

Travis Allen

What in the world? What kind of reaction is that? Why did it provoke such anger? As I said, the message of divine salvation makes its own case, doesn’t it? You read those words and you say, “Who wouldn’t believe? Who wouldn’t see the joy in those words? Who wouldn’t see the grace pouring through? Anyone with half a brain can see the goodness of God, his kindness, his condescension, his grace, his mercy. Any thinking person knows Jesus was coming to fulfill the restoration promises of Isaiah.” They all marveled, they all loved the gracious words he was speaking. Israel’s future looked so bright, but what happened? What happened? Did Jesus sorely miscalculate his audience? Did he miscommunicate here? Just bad calculation? Did he come at them with a wrong approach? Maybe he came across a little too harshly and should’ve backed off a bit just to win the crowd. Did he fail to make them at ease? No. None of that was true, obviously. Jesus is a master communicator. He knew exactly what he was saying and he knew why. What he spoke on that day in Nazareth revealed hearts, didn’t it? It exposed true motivations in their hearts. It exposed false expectations. It actually foreshadowed his own ultimate demise at their hands, a cold-blooded murder at the hands of his own kinsman. “He came to his own, but his own did not receive him.” They killed him. It’s not that Jesus failed, not at all. He was actually quite successful in doing exactly what he came to do, to reveal the thoughts of many hearts. That’s what Nazareth was meant to do. 

You can go back to Luke Chapter 1 now. As we continue moving through Zechariah’s song, we actually get a preview of the coming conflict with the false expectations of the nation of Israel. We’ve come through the first half of the song, as I’ve said, that first single sentence from verse 69 to 75. It’s all about God’s work of redeeming and saving people from their sins, all about his fulfilling covenant promises. All sounds great. As we get into the second half of the song, and again, one long sentence—verses 76 to 70—Zechariah here provides some insight into how this revelation of salvation is going to be received. For the most part, it will be utterly ignored, ultimately rejected. And Zechariah here gives us a strong clue of that fact as he turns his attention and turns our focus on John’s ministry. 

So let’s look a little more closely at what Zechariah prophesied about his son John the Baptist, the nature of his prophetic ministry. They are actually three unique features of Johns’ ministry mentioned here. And as we go through these points in your bulletin, we want to be thinking about some of the parallels between what John faced in his day and what we face in our day, as well. Like John in his time, it is our job to prepare people to receive a true understanding of the Gospel. We need to set proper expectations about the nature of divine salvation. We need to tell people what Christ actually accomplished by coming to earth, not what they hope he accomplished. Also like John in his time, like Jesus in his time, not everyone is going to like what we have to say, especially if we say it accurately. Everybody will like what you have to say if you tell them a superficial message. But if you really get to the point, you will find opposition. Jesus said, “Don’t be surprised that the world hates you. It hated me before it hated you.” 

Let’s get right into the text. It starts off with an unparalleled privilege, a massive honor for John here. Point one in your outline there: John’s ministry involved the universal scope. “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High.” When Zechariah prophesied that John would be called a prophet, it was fascinating. He was listing him among the prophets that he had already referred to back in verse 70, “As he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old.” John becomes one in that long line of faithful prophets. John was to be included—a great honor—he was to be included with massively important company. He was to be included in an exclusive number of men who were called and chosen to speak God’s word, to bring it to God’s people. Prophets were essentially preachers. They did foretell the future at times, but most of their ministry was just preaching, “forth-telling,” speaking truth. At times God would speak directly through the prophet like a mouthpiece directly to his people. And John was to be one of them, numbered among the prophets of Israel’s long and ancient revelatory history, which was unique on the earth. No other nation had the prophets speak to them like Israel’s prophets spoke to them. This is such an honor, such a privilege. But Zechariah says more than that about John. By predicting he would be called the prophet of the Most High, Zechariah actually elevated John higher than that entire list of Old Testament prophets, actually ranking him first in that distinguished list. He had the greatest honor. No other prophet before or ever since John the Baptist, no other prophet bore this designation, “Prophet of the Most High.” That honor belonged to John and to John alone. And that was quite significant because the title, “Prophet of the Most High” transcends the sphere of national Israel. 

We actually learned this back in verse 32, verse 35, where Jesus is called “the son of the Most High”—a term for God, ”God Most High.” It refers to God’s universal sovereignty. This is his absolute rule over all the nations. He’s not only the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, though he is that God. He’s not only the God of Israel, though he is that God. God is also the supreme sovereign over all nations, all peoples, individuals and groups. He is the highest authority. He is the power over the entire universe, no one above him, no one to whom he answer, all are under this God Most High. That comes from the Hebrew, El Elyon, Melchizedek was called the priest of God Most High. Kings of Babylon, like Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar knew God as God Most High. His jurisdiction extended beyond the borders of Israel, beyond their nation, reaching around the entire world into the heavens, encompassing all the created order, whether invisible or visible, and everything in between. He’s God Most High, sovereign over all.  

What’s the relevance here? Why is it pointed out that John is going to be called “Prophet of the Most High God?” Well, this foreshadows what God was about to do, he kind of salvation he was going to bring. Last week, we saw how Zechariah alluded to the fulfillment of New Covenant promises in verses 74 and 75. So he’s about to get into the New Covenant, he’s about to do something completely new, “Not like the covenant I made with your forefathers,” the covenant they broke. This is a new covenant. This is about forgiveness of sins. Now we read that John, as prophet of that Most High God, is going to go before the Lord, he’s going to go before the Son of the Most High to prepare his way, giving his people the knowledge of salvation through forgiveness of their sins. This is subtle here, but it’s clear. Zechariah has clearly foreshadowed the fact that the New Covenant and all of its promises will reach beyond the borders of Israel. They’re not going to be confined to Israel and Israel alone. They’ll come out of Israel, but they’ll reach around the earth. The coming salvation would not be merely a national deliverance. Spiritual salvation will save all the offspring of Abraham, Jew and Gentile alike, whoever puts his or her faith in God. That’s whom God would save. That is good news to us, isn’t it? A bunch of Gentiles sitting here, right? listening to this news unfold, reading it here in the Bible twenty centuries later. 

But as the implication of Zechariah’s’ prophecy about salvation that went beyond the national borders of Israel begin to be heard and felt and thought about in and around Israel, the Jews would not find this to be such welcome news. They didn’t like that. A universal scope of New Covenant salvation, with no regard to race, no regard to ethnic identity, no regard to physical lineage tied back to Abraham. That concept was completely counter to Israel’s expectations. More to the point, it was offensive to Jewish sensibilities. It was a blow against Jewish nationalistic pride. It was abrading Jewish confidence in God’s favor of Israel over all other nations. Unlike us. Jews in John’s day, Jews in Jesus’ day wouldn’t be happy to hear about God favoring the Gentiles. They wanted to see the Romans judged, to see them get their due, not receive the mercy of God. 

Listen, you will know when Israel, the nation of Israel today—when it truly put its faith in its Messiah, whom it crucified—you will know it has truly trusted in Christ when Israel sends missionaries into Lebanon, when Israel sends missionaries to the West Bank, when it sends missionaries to Syria, when it sends missionaries to Jordan, when it sends missionaries to Egypt because they love them and they don’t want to see them dead. That’s when you’ll know that they’ve truly repented as a nation. Right now, they’re justify their hostility. You can understand on a human level. They’re surrounded, they’re fearing death every single day. You’ve been reading the news. I have, too. It’s been horrible over there. Man’s expectations about what salvation should deliver for them, though very real, quite stubborn, sometimes impossible to overcome. God often acts in this way, doesn’t he? He acts to subvert man’s expectations as he does whatever he pleases, however he pleases to do it. 

Still, in his grace, God sent John to go before Christ and prepare his way, and that leads us to point two. Another aspect of John’s ministry, number two: It had a confrontational focus. John’s ministry had a confrontational focus. Look what it says there, “You, child, will be called Prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” You say, “What confrontation? Sounds pretty benign. Sounds harmless.” That verse actually signals a great conflict. It points to confrontation. Let me show you what I mean. That phrase, “For you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,” you know where that comes from, right? It comes from the Old Testament. And that combines a couple of Old Testament prophetic passages that predicted that the forerunner would precede the Lord’s coming. One is in Isaiah 40, verse 3. The other is in Malachi 3, verse 1. By combining those two texts in one summary prediction, Zechariah is making it plain that John is the fulfillment of those texts. He will occupy that role as the forerunner. And as I said, the confrontational nature of John’s mission might not seem immediately obvious when you read those passages. 

In Malachi 3, the Lord says, “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me.” Seems simple enough, right? Like ambassador from another nation, the nation of heaven, the kingdom of God, he’s coming to go before the Lord to herald his coming, to call out to people, “The king is coming! The king is coming! Get yourselves ready!” Sounds like a joyful message. Sounds like a wonderful message. What does it mean though, that John would prepare the Lord’s way? How is that going to happen, actually? You get more insight into what preparation involved when you go back to Isaiah’s fuller prophecy. Turn back there, actually, to Isaiah Chapter 40, verses 3 through 5. You go back to Isaiah’s fuller prophecy about the forerunner because that’s the text that Malachi referred to in his later prophecy. Malachi prophesied to Israel after the exile. And when he mentioned this in Malachi 3:1, he was referring back to the earlier prophecy of Isaiah, who prophesied before the exile. 

Isaiah’s prophecy is a bit more descriptive about the nature of the preparation ministry prior to Messiah’s arrival. This is figurative language here, but it accurately portrays the real difficulty of John’s mission. It says there Isaiah 40 verse 3, “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’” Coming before the Lord to prepare his way would not be a simple task. This wasn’t a matter of passing out tracts at the annual feasts. What God sent John to do was comparable to road grading. This is nothing short of leveling the entire earth. And notice, it’s not just scraping the earth to take off the high spots, it’s not just smoothing the rough edges. This is about filling in deep valleys as well. “Mountains and hills—take them all away. Valleys, low elevation spots—fill all of them in, make the entire ground level, totally flat, turn the Rocky Mountains into the Bonneville Salt Flats. That’s what I’m asking you to do, John.”  

Now, remember, that prophecy came 700 years before Christ, which was hundreds of years before the Romans famously built the roads that connected the entire Roman Empire. They were known for that, they were renowned for that. That’s one of the ways that God providentially speeded the spread of the Gospel in the first century. We should quickly add, this prophecy came thousands of years before the invention of road-grading machine, big, massive, earthmoving equipment that builds our roads and highways today, and they didn’t have any of that. 

Now again, this is figurative language. God didn’t send a construction worker, he didn’t send a civil engineer to do literal road-grading work. Valleys, mountains, hills, uneven ground, rough places are metaphors for the condition of human hearts. Many are high and lifted up in pride; they can’t be told anything. High and lifted up. Others, though, are low and downcast, needing to be raised up, like Mary, back in Luke 1:79. Luke 1:79 is not a dramatic overstatement. The people truly were sitting in darkness. They truly were cowering under the shadow of death. They were languishing spiritually, they were overcome by sin and by guilt. And the imagery of people sitting—not standing, not walking, they were sitting—indicates they’re going nowhere. They’re chained, they’re pinned down. They’re incapacitated in guilt and sin. 

At the same time, their heads were filled with all sorts of wrong notions about the true nature of their problem. Due to the recent Maccabean period with its violent revolts against the Greeks, people looked forward to, as one writer said, “A warrior deliverer who would defeat, avenge and vindicate.” That’s what they wanted. They wanted power, and they wanted a leader who was going to come in with power to destroy and to kill and to vindicate, to get vengeance. But this desire for political and military conquest was so strong, it was so widespread, that the Jews couldn’t see beyond their temporal longings for a physical salvation. They were absolutely blinded in national pride. They were blinded in their hatred for the Romans, the Gentile Romans, and they put all their hope in the wrong kind of salvation. Their hopes, actually, were very, very small, way too small, so short-sighted, so shallow. The majority of the Jews simply hadn’t discerned the true nature of their problem. They hadn’t yet come face to face with the real enemy. They thought it was the Romans, but in reality, they had put themselves at enmity with God himself because of their sins. We talked about that last week. They needed to take a good, hard look in the mirror, didn’t they? The mirror of God’s holy law. They needed to see themselves the way they really were. They needed to see the true reasons for their predicament. They needed to look for a spiritual solution to all their problems, not a military one, not a political one. 

Swiss theologian Frederic Lois Godet raised the question about the need for a forerunner to go before the Messiah. Great question. Think about it. Why was that necessary in the first place? What need did the Lord himself have of someone to go before him? Why couldn’t he simply come, show up, preach, perform his redemptive work? Why did he need a forerunner? Here’s how Godet answered the question: “Because the very notion of salvation was falsified in Israel and had to be corrected before salvation could be realized, a carnal and malignant patriotism had taken possession of the people and their rulers. The idea of a political deliverance had been substituted for that of a moral salvation. If the notion of salvation had not been restored to its Scriptural purity before being realized by the Messiah, not only would he have had to employ a large part of the time assigned to him in accomplishing this indispensable task, but further, he would certainly have been accused of investing a theory of salvation to suit his impotence to effect any other. There was needed, then, another person divinely authorized to remind the people that tradition consisted not in subjection to the Romans, but in divine condemnation. That salvation, therefore, was not temporal emancipation, but the forgiveness of sins to implant once more in the heart of the people this notion of salvation was indeed to prepare the way for Jesus, who was to accomplish this salvation, and no other.” 

As we talked about last week, getting rid of the Romans would not do any good, would it? Because Satan would be there all along to stir up another nation, to oppress, persecute, chase them around the globe, chase them out of the land, pursue them to the ends of the earth, annihilate them. And why was Satan unleashed after all to persecute and chase the Jews in the first place? Well, because, according to Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, God had become Israel’s enemy. Why? Because they made him their enemy. People held fast to their sins. They stiffened their necks, they hardened their hearts, they refused to repent and believe. They rejected the covenant they made to obey God to keep his statutes rather than take a hard look themselves, rather than examining their hearts, instead of repenting. Most of the people steeped themselves in national pride, personal pride. They put false hope in the political, military victory, deliverance. They set expectations on the kind of Messiah they thought they needed. They were not only set up for disappointment when the true Messiah came, but they were predisposed to reject him, to be angry at him, of all things, and try to throw him off a cliff. 

Listen, that’s precisely why John had to come first: to prepare the way of the Lord. Commentator James Edwards wrote, “The Benedictus does not celebrate weapons and war; it celebrates a child.” That’s exactly right. People want conquest. People want glory—glory they can see, glory they can celebrate, glory they can put their hands on. They want politics, they want the military. God delights in sending babies, the epitome of helplessness and dependency. God wants humility, not pride. He wants our hearts low before him. That child, John, would grow up in the wilderness—verse 80, see it there—tucked away from society, unaffected by his culture, and when he arrived on the scene, he was as unfamiliar to the people as the people were to him. John wore a garment of camel’s hair. He wore a leather belt around his waist. His food: locusts and wild honey. He didn’t look like them, he didn’t act like them. He didn’t eat like them. He learned to live without the company of others. He didn’t need their affirmations or their praise. He didn’t care whether they liked him or not. John’s job was to confront a spiritually proud society, to level the ground, and prepare hard hearts. And that meant he had to demolish false expectation. He had to shatter empty hopes. He had to expose people’s true motives. He came requiring a baptism of repentance, calling Jews to admit that they were no better than sinful Gentiles, calling Jews everywhere to admit they were just as much in need of a spiritual salvation and forgiveness as the godless mass of humanity. 

Turn over a page or two to chapter 3. Let me just give you a taste of what Zechariah predicted here, what he foresaw his child, John, would be doing. This is the beginning of John’s ministry. Verse 80 says, “The day of his public appearance to Israel.” Look at Chapter 3, verse 1: 

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip, tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias, tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight. And the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh [in that repentance] shall see the salvation of God.”’ He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our Father.” For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’” 

Wow! Hard-hitting, penetrating stuff. You see him overcoming false expectations. “Don’t even begin to say, ‘We have Abraham as our Father.’ Don’t even begin to say that; don’t even try that line with me.” It’s like a mother scolding her kids, right? “Don’t even—wipe that look off your face!” You know it’s the same thing he’s doing to the people there. Why? So that he can tell them about the salvation of God. He’s not heartless. He’s not cruel. He’s not unloving. He’s bold enough and humble enough to tell them the truth. “Crowds asked him [verse 10], ‘What then shall we do?’ And he answered them, ‘Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.’ Tax collectors actually came to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than you’re authorized to do.’” Interesting. Jewish tax collectors working for the Roman state—he doesn’t tell them to quit their job. He says, “Just collect what you’re required to.” Soldiers also—okay, now we’re getting even further. So we started with Jews, then we’re going to tax collector, compromisers, now, we’re going to Roman soldiers, the oppressors themselves, the face of the enemy. Soldiers came to him, “What shall we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” He didn’t tell them to quit their job. He didn’t tell them to stop being soldiers. “Just do your work in a virtuous way that will demonstrate your repentance.”  

“As the people were in expectation and all were questioning their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ [verse 16], John answered them all saying, ‘I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I’m not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in this hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’” John is saying to them, “You think I’m something? Just wait and see.” He had to prepare them for that. He had to prepare them. Verse 18, “So with many other exhortations he preached the good news to the people.” Did you get that? He preached the good news to the people. It’s a good news. It’s repentance. It’s breaking down false expectations, it’s confronting hard hearts. 

“That is true salvation. Jesus came to seek and save the lost. He came to cleanse and forgive.”

Travis Allen

As you might imagine, and as the Scripture tells us, John’s task was not easy. Listen folks, the Scripture promises us, as well, it’s no easy task for us today either. American religion is at a very low ebb. I’m afraid the tide is still going out. We have yet to see the bottom. People today think you can be Christians and embrace gay marriage, too. In fact, if you’re not doing that, you’re not truly following Jesus. See how the judgment turns on you. You’re just trying to be Scriptural, you’re just trying to be Biblical, but all of sudden you’re the harsh one, you’re the unloving one. Everything’s changing, folks. Due to the ubiquity of false Gospels preached all over this land, due to the superficiality, shallowness of Biblical understanding, most people believe they are doing just fine spiritually, thank you. People have dropped their expectations of holiness to accommodate their own sins. They’ve diminished the glory of God, his high standard of righteousness. They become content with glib superficiality. It’s left their hearts hard, and it’s left their hearts proud. You can’t tell them anything without their being offended. Such hard-heartedness is also accompanied by such thin skinned-ness, isn’t it? They don’t want to think too much when they come to church. Many today profess Christianity, but it’s a different religion altogether. It’s a false spirituality; it honors a god of their own making, a god that doesn’t trouble them too much. People just come into the church and say, “Hey just give me a few tasty tidbits to chew on, ruminate on, a few moralistic breath mints to freshen up my spiritual life. I’ll be just fine.” 

Like the people in the days of Isaiah—Isaiah 30 verses 10 and 11—they say, “The seers do not see, the prophets do not prophesy the truth to us. They tell us flattering things, prophesy illusions, rid us of the holy one of Israel.” Not much has changed today, has it? That means that, like John, as we point people to Jesus, we have to prepare people to receive the Messiah. We, too, are involved, like John, in a ministry of confrontation. We have to overcome false expectations. We have to teach people what God truly means by what he says so we can point them to a real faith in Jesus Christ that is known by repentance and sanctification. Many of those around us who profess Christ don’t truly know him. They don’t truly know the nature of his Gospel; they don’t know the message of the New Covenant. Beloved, that’s what we possess. And we can introduce them to true, full and final salvation in Jesus Christ. 

That’s what we see next. Look at it there. John’s ministry had a universal scope, it was confrontational in nature and, the third point: John’s ministry was a proclamation of a saving message. He proclaimed a saving message. Verse 77: “You’ll go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” What? “To give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins.” Now, John was essentially an Old Testament prophet. On the timeline of divine redemption, he lived, preached and died before the ratification of the New Covenant in Jesus’ blood. So, he belonged to the era of the Old Covenant, not the New. Prophets who preceded John were confrontational preachers as well, just like John. They exposed and confronted sin. They exhorted people to obedience. They pointed people back to the Law, back to Covenant faithfulness, back to Moses. And they also spoke words of encouragement and comfort to the downtrodden and to the humble, those who were humble before the Lord. 

But prophetic ministry has always been characterized by warning. It’s promoting the fear of the Lord. That’s what prophets do. If you want to grow in your fear of the Lord before God, read the prophets, spend time in the prophets, and see what the prophets say, how they’re continually exposing, confronting and warning, warning, warning, pleading. Nehemiah said as much in his prayer for repentance on behalf of his people. He acknowledged that ministry of the prophets. In Nehemiah 9:26, he said, “The people of Israel were disobedient, rebelled against you, cast your law behind their back and killed your prophets who had warned them in order to turn them back to you.” Later in that same prayer, he said, “Many years you bore with them and you warned them by your spirit through your prophets.” That was the nature of prophetic ministry: confronting, warning, calling Israel to repent, turning back to obey the law, obeying the covenant they’d made with God. 

So in that sense, John was like the rest of his prophetic forebears. He belonged to the era of the Old Covenant, not the New. And yet John was also the prophet of the New Covenant, not the Old. He came to preach a New Covenant message of permanent salvation. John also called people to repentance based on the law, but he primarily pointed people forward, not back. He wanted them to look ahead, to get ready for something new, something they’d never seen before. As verse 77 says, look at it there, “John came to give.” It doesn’t say he came to give salvation, but the “knowledge of salvation.” The knowledge of salvation. That road-grading operation also involved helping people understand what God truly intended in his promise of salvation, not just what they expected in a Messiah, but what they expected in salvation. They expected temporal salvation. He came to give them knowledge of that salvation, which involved the forgiveness of their sins. That final verse, the final phrase there in verse 77, “In the forgiveness of their sins,” is so vital, so important. The word “forgiveness” is the word aphesis. It’s from the verb aphiemi. It means “to send away, to remit, to cancel out completely.” That’s forgiveness: to send sins away, to cancel them out completely. It’s quite a contrast from what people wanted, what they expected, from what all people expect, really, both then and now. Nothing’s changed. As I said, people cannot imagine a salvation that they themselves are not involved in. Sinners want to do something, whether it’s their own or in partnership with God; they want to play a role in saving themselves. And that’s why a political or a military salvation is totally appealing. There’s an aspect of earning and achieving there, and that feeds human pride. There’s an aspect of struggling and suffering, which salves the conciseness, makes people feel like they’ve duly earned the right to be saved if they’ve suffered enough. 

Not only that, but no one likes to be told how bad they are. Sinners like to hear they’re doing well enough. They like to be stroked a little. They like to be told they’re doing just as well as they can do. “Don’t discourage us by talking about our sinfulness! Can’t you see we’re suffering already? Have you no compassion? Speak gentle words, speak soothing words. Tell us we’re getting really, really close.” That was the spirit of the age, then and now. Nothing’s changed. But that is not helpful. It’s not true either. The truth was that they were not almost there. They were not doing pretty well. They were not getting close. They were an infinite distance from God and still spinning in circles, no closer to God than the devil himself. And the majority of people living in Israel wanted religion, oh, yes. They loved their religion. They wanted a connection with the God of their forefathers, but they wanted that on their own terms. They wanted the non-invasive kind, the non-confrontational, non-threatening kind of religion that would accommodate their sin, that would accommodate their pride, that would affirm them, make them feel good about themselves, make them feel happy. They wanted God to acknowledge their suffering. They wanted God to count their suffering as merit in the merit column, and give them a pass on the rest. 

And that is the world that John the Baptist was born into. That was the challenge he faced in his prophetic ministry. And, frankly, that is what Jesus faced as well, and every follower of Jesus since. We all face the same kind of thinking. John would have to plow through fallow ground, break up hardened soil. He had to point people back to old truths, to call people to fresh repentance, to point them to faith in the coming son of God. Folks, that’s our challenge today as well. People walk through the doors of the church all the time, and they’re looking for worldly comfort. They’re seeking affirmation. They’re licking their wounds. And I know many of them are hurting. I’m not diminishing that, but they want what conforms to their preconceived notions. They want what satisfies their expectations. People think they have an idea of what Christianity is all about, but it’s a false idea. It’s been learned from tradition. It’s been learned from the culture. It’s been learned from their own sinful hearts, with no basis in Scripture, and therefore, if it has no basis in Scripture, it’s not the Christianity at all of the Bible; it’s another religion altogether. 

We’re living in a time when presenting the Gospel to people, when conducting church ministry, requires us to do some amount of preparatory work, just like John. We need to expose, confront false expectation. That’s gracious. We need to help people see their true need before a holy God, not just stroke felt needs. Felt needs are a way in, but they are not an end in and of themselves. We need to help people see Christ the Lord and Savior as he truly is, not as the one they hope him to be. So, we need to proclaim the knowledge of a different kind of salvation, the one that God intended all along. So we proclaim a salvation by grace through faith, which all starts with free, unearned forgiveness, the unmerited remission of sins. Like we read already in Luke 3:18. All John’s hard words, all that confrontational ministry, all that plowing of the fallow ground—ultimately, it was all about preparing people to receive God’s grace. So with many other exhortations, John preached good news to people. Salvation. It’s fundamentally a matter of personal sin before a holy God, not taxation before an oppressive occupier. 

Salvation was ultimately from the greatest danger of all: the mortal threat of divine wrath. God’s judgment was going to fall far deadlier and infinitely heavier than any Roman sword could. Salvation points us to a new heaven and a new earth. Not heaven on earth. I’m grateful to God that contrary to Joel Osteen, this is not our best life now. Amen? As John MacArthur once wrote, “The only way you’re living your best life now is if you’re going to hell.” It’s true. If your best life is still in the future, if your best life is in heaven with God, that means you stand perfect before God. You stand without sin. You stand in perfect righteousness. Because to enter heaven you must—Matthew 5:48—“You must therefore be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” How’s that going to happen? Well, God knew his people couldn’t keep the law. Prophet after prophet he continued to send, and you know what they did? They didn’t listen, they killed them. He’s not getting through. 

And so Isaiah 59:16: “God saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intercede; then his own arm brought him salvation and his righteousness upheld him.” God knows what’s in us. He knows we’re fallen. He knows we tend to rebel and reject. He knows we tent to shirk his authority. So, he acted. And he acted because he’s the God of grace. God sent the Messiah to accomplish what sinners failed to do. Jesus said, Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets […] but to fulfill them.” Paul wrote in Romans 8:3-4, “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin and flesh in order”—get this—“in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.” 

Listen, folks, that’s grace. That is true salvation. Jesus came to seek and save the lost. He came to cleanse and forgive. He came to save from sin and guilt. He came to deliver from shame. He came to purge darkened consciences for a pure worship before the all-knowing God. That’s why John had to come first, to give the knowledge of salvation, defining the term. John had to teach them what God meant by the word salvation. He had to teach them what God wanted for his people. He had to rid them of false, small minded notions, what they thought salvation meant, and help them see what God truly intended in sending his Messiah. This is undeniable evidence of the grace of God, is it not? 

Well, let’s wrap this up and look forward to the communion table. Bow with me in a word of prayer. 

Father, thank you so much that you did not give us what we wanted, you didn’t give us what we expected, you didn’t give people what they clamored for. You gave us what we truly need. You’ve promised us the salvation that involved first and foremost a forgiveness of sins, cleansing, purifying, purging, washing. It hurts, but it hurt Christ most of all as he died on the cross for our sins, as he suffered and died so that we wouldn’t have to. He suffered in your hands. We’re so thankful for your grace and mercy to us in him. And as we come before the table, we ask that there would be no hardened heart, there would be no impure motive, there would be no sullied conscience, but that you would bring us all before this table with purity, joy and holiness as we give thanks to you.