John the Baptist

The Morning Light From Heaven

12 Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. 13 And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

15 “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
    the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people dwelling in darkness
    have seen a great light,
and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,
    on them a light has dawned.”

17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” – Matthew 4:12-17 ESV

Once again, it seems that Matthew fast-forwards his account of the life of Jesus, skipping over about a years worth of ministry. A comparison with John’s Gospel reveals that not long after His baptism and temptation, Jesus had made His way to Galilee (John 1:19-2:12), where He began His public ministry. But then He returned to Judea in order to attend the Passover in Jerusalem (John 2:13-3:21). John reveals that sometime after Passover, Jesus made His way into the Judean wilderness, where He performed baptisms, just as John had been doing.

After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized (for John had not yet been put in prison). – John 3:22-24 ESV

After this brief time in the Judean wilderness, Jesus and His disciples made their way through the region of Samaria, where Jesus encountered the woman at the well (John 3:22-4:42). It was after this that they returned to Galilee, and this is the point at which Matthew picks up the story.

Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. – Matthew 4:12 ESV

It seems rather significant that Matthew would choose to begin His recounting of Jesus’ earthly ministry with the arrest of John the Baptist. The arrest and imprisonment of this well-known cult figure would have been the talk of all Judea. If you recall, John had amassed quite a following.

Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. – Matthew 3:5-6 ESV

Even the religious leaders of the Jews had been showing up in the Judean wilderness, seeking to be baptized by John. So, his arrest would have caused quite a stir, especially when you consider the reasons behind it.

…it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly. – Mark 6:17-20 ESV

This has all the trappings of a modern soap opera script. Herod had married his brother’s wife, and John had called him out on it in public. And while Herod had a healthy fear of John, Herodias wanted him silenced. So, Herod had him imprisoned. And this is the point at which Matthew picks up the story. But why?

The apostle John provides us with at least a partial answer, and he does so by relaying the words of John the Baptist himself.

At this time John the Baptist was baptizing at Aenon, near Salim, because there was plenty of water there; and people kept coming to him for baptism. (This was before John was thrown into prison.) A debate broke out between John’s disciples and a certain Jew over ceremonial cleansing. So John’s disciples came to him and said, “Rabbi, the man you met on the other side of the Jordan River, the one you identified as the Messiah, is also baptizing people. And everybody is going to him instead of coming to us.”

John replied, “No one can receive anything unless God gives it from heaven. You yourselves know how plainly I told you, ‘I am not the Messiah. I am only here to prepare the way for him.’ It is the bridegroom who marries the bride, and the bridegroom’s friend is simply glad to stand with him and hear his vows. Therefore, I am filled with joy at his success. He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.” – John 3:23-30 NLT

It’s unlikely that  John the Baptist knew the prophetic nature of his words. He fully understood that Jesus was the Messiah and that his own role was subordinate and subservient. He knew his job had been to prepare the way for the anointed one. Yet, when John the Baptist found himself in jail and heard all that Jesus was doing, he seemed to have second thoughts or at least some doubts about Jesus’ actions.

John the Baptist, who was in prison, heard about all the things the Messiah was doing. So he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?” – Matthew 11:2-3 NLT

Perhaps John was a bit surprised and disappointed that Jesus was not displaying the characteristics of a Messiah. Like the rest of the Jews of his day, John may have been expecting a slightly more regal demeanor from the long-anticipated Messiah. But Jesus seemed to be doing the very same things John had done before His arrest. He was even preaching the very same message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17 ESV). 

But the arrest of John the Baptist provided an immediate end to his ministry. He was removed from the scene, and his followers would now be forced to choose between following him or Jesus. John had performed his role faithfully and well. He had done what he had been sent to do. Now, the focus was shifting from the preparatory work of John the Baptist, who heralded the coming King, to the King Himself. The Messiah had come.

And Matthew records that this inaugural phase of Jesus’ ministry was accompanied by a change in ministry headquarters.

And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali… – Matthew 4:12 ESV

Once again, Matthew wastes no time in linking the details of Jesus’ life with the Old Testament prophecies that told of a miraculous future for the nation of Israel. He picks up a key passage found in the writings of Isaiah and associates it with Jesus’ decision to relocate His ministry headquarters to Capernaum. 

Nevertheless, that time of darkness and despair will not go on forever. The land of Zebulun and Naphtali will be humbled, but there will be a time in the future when Galilee of the Gentiles, which lies along the road that runs between the Jordan and the sea, will be filled with glory.

The people who walk in darkness
    will see a great light.
For those who live in a land of deep darkness,
    a light will shine. – Isaiah 9:1-2 NLT

And the apostle John would recognize and relate this prophetic link between Jesus and the light.

The one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. – John 1:9 NLT

And Jesus would pick up this theme, describing Himself in terms that reflect His understanding of His prophetic mission.

“I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.” – John 8:12 NLT

“I have come as a light to shine in this dark world, so that all who put their trust in me will no longer remain in the dark.” – John 12:46 NLT

But Jesus provides a sobering assessment of the world’s response to His arrival.

“God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil.” – John 3:19 NLT

The Light of the world had come, but the residents of the world preferred the darkness over the Light. And Jesus makes it clear that there will be those who will run from the Light out of fear of having their sins exposed. But there will be others who will find life in the Light invigorating and liberating.

All who do evil hate the light and refuse to go near it for fear their sins will be exposed. But those who do what is right come to the light so others can see that they are doing what God wants.” – John 3:20 NLT

In a sense, John the Baptist’s light was fading. His job was complete, and now it was time for Jesus to shine. Even Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, had been given a Spirit-inspired insight into his son’s future role. At the news of his son’s birth, Zechariah had prophesied:

“And you, my little son,
    will be called the prophet of the Most High,
    because you will prepare the way for the Lord.
You will tell his people how to find salvation
    through forgiveness of their sins.
Because of God’s tender mercy,
    the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    and to guide us to the path of peace.” – Luke 1:76-79 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

To Fulfill All Righteousness

11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” – Matthew 3:11-17 ESV

John was the opening act for the main attraction. He was the precursor to the primary player in God’s redemptive plan. His job was to prepare the people for the arrival of the anointed one of God. And no one knew this better than John. Luke records that many of those who were making their way to the Judean wilderness were doing so because they believed John might be the long-awaited Messiah.

…the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ. – Luke 3:15 ESV

But John quickly put these rumors to rest by stating, “I baptize you with water, for repentance, but the one coming after me is more powerful than I am—I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11 NLT). There was to be no confusion. John was not going to tolerate any misperception on the part of the people. He was not the Messiah. He could not offer the people of Israel salvation from their sins. All he could do was baptize them in water as a sign of their willingness to repent of their sins. But the true Messiah was coming to offer far more. And He would have a power far greater than anything John or the people of Israel could ever imagine. 

The Jewish people were very familiar with the prophetic passages found in the Hebrew Scriptures that told of the coming of the Messiah. They knew there were to be great signs and wonders associated with His coming. And John reminded them that the Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. This imagery was designed to tie Jesus to the words of God as spoken through the prophets.

“And it shall come to pass afterward,
    that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
    your old men shall dream dreams,
    and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female servants
    in those days I will pour out my Spirit.” – Joel 2:28-29 ESV

John wanted the people to know that the Messiah would bring the capacity for true life change. He would offer far more than repentance from sin. He would bring release from slavery to sin and the condemnation of death. But there was more. The Messiah would also bring judgment. He would separate between the holy and the common, the clean and the unclean. He would create a clear delineation between the sheep and the goats, the saved and the unsaved.

But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

“Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.” – Malachi 3:2-5 ESV

John was prophesying about aspects of Jesus’ role as the Messiah that had long-term implications. These prophetic statements concerning the Messiah would not all take place at once – at the moment of His arrival. But they spell out the full scope of His redemptive role, from start to finish. Jesus was going to show up on the scene as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. But the day will come when He returns as the conquering King of kings and Lord of lords. His first advent was not as judge, but as the sacrificial offering to satisfy the just judgment of God Almighty. The second time He comes, He will appear as the judge of all mankind. The apostle John was given a preview of coming attractions when he saw and wrote about the Messiah and His second advent.

Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. – Revelation 19:11 ESV

Yes, Jesus came to make possible atonement for the sins of mankind. But the complete eradication of sin will not take place until He returns a second time. And John the Baptist knew that there was going to be far more to the ministry of Jesus than baptizing for the repentance of sin. He came to deal sin a death blow.

But before that happens, Jesus was going to have to do the will of His Father. And part of that will involved His incarnation, but also His submission to the Spirit’s leading in His life. Matthew makes it clear that “Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him” (Matthew 3:13 ESV). It was time, and Jesus, moved by the Spirit of God, knew where He was supposed to be and what He was supposed to do. He showed up that day in order to follow His Father’s preordained plan for His life.

John, recognizing the superior nature of Jesus, was reluctant to baptize one “whose sandals I am not worthy to carry” (Matthew 3:11 ESV). But Jesus responded to him with an interesting and somewhat cryptic statement: “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15 ESV). But what did Jesus mean by the phrase: “to fulfill and righteousness?”

It seems obvious that Jesus was not inferring that His baptism by John would somehow make Him righteous. This verse is not a reference to salvation, but to ethical righteousness, which has to do with doing that which is in keeping with the will of God. It was God’s will that Jesus be baptized and, in obediently doing what God had willed, John and Jesus would be acting righteously – in keeping with God’s desires.

God desired that Jesus be baptized, not as a sign of his repentance of sins, but as a way to validate the message and ministry of John, and to associate Himself with all those who had repented because the kingdom was at hand. The King was aligning Himself with His subjects. In allowing Himself to be baptized, Jesus was illustrating His complete submission to the will of His heavenly Father, something all those who would eventually come to faith in Him would do.

It is interesting to note that, upon His baptism, God validated and lauded Jesus’ actions by stating: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17 ESV). God affirmed the deity of Jesus. And He let all those who had witnessed the baptism of Jesus know that His Son’s actions had been pleasing because they had been in keeping with His will.

And the apostle John records that John the Baptist had been given a divine tip concerning the coming Messiah. He would know who He was based on the Spirit descending on Him in the form of a dove.

“I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” – John 1:32-34 ESV

The Spirit’s presence and God’s own words both confirmed Jesus’ identity. He was the Son of God. And, as we have seen, that is one of the primary point Matthew was attempting to make with the writing of his Gospel account. Jesus’ identity as the Son of God had been firmly established from the moment the angel told the virgin Mary she was going to have a baby.

And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” – Luke 1:31-33 ESV

When Jesus was born, He came into the world as the Son of God. When He went to the temple at the age of 12, He had done so as the Son of God, which is why he had declared to his parents, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?” (Luke 2:49 ESV). Jesus had been the Son of God all those years He had worked alongside His earthly father, Joseph, in the family business. But the earthly ministry of Jesus began with His baptism by John. The Son of God, anointed by the Spirit of God, and validated by the words of God, officially launched His ministry to fulfill the will of God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Messiah Has Come!

1 In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 3 For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
    make his paths straight.’”

4 Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not presume 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. 10 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” – Matthew 3:1-10 ESV

Matthew has an agenda and he wastes no time on anything that will not support his overall objective. His primary interest is to establish Jesus as the Messiah of Israel, and so, after providing an abbreviated overview of Jesus’ birth, Matthew fast-forwards to His baptism and the beginning of His earthly ministry.

In keeping with his more truncated and sparse narrative style, Matthew provides little details regarding the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist. Luke’s Gospel contains a much-more detailed account of this seminal character, providing information about his birth, unique lifestyle, and the nature of his God-given assignment to prepare the way for Jesus.

But Matthew eliminates all the background information regarding John the Baptist, introducing him into the narrative in a somewhat abrupt and jarring manner. Matthew fast-forwards from the news that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had settled in Galilee and brings us to a future point in time when John was baptizing somewhere in the Judean wilderness. He makes no effort to explain who John was, but simply gives us a description of his work and his wardrobe.

John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea… – Matthew 3:1 ESV

John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. – Matthew 3:4 ESV

It’s fairly clear that Matthew saw John as a supporting character in the story. He was vital to the narrative but played a clearly subordinate role to that of Jesus. And John the Baptist had been fully comfortable with his secondary status, having recognized the divine nature of Jesus’ ministry and mission. The apostle John records the words that John the Baptist spoke to his disciples when they expressed concern that Jesus was also baptizing in the Jordan and drawing large crowds.

“You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.

”He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all.“ – John 3:28-31 ESV

Once again, Matthew sees the events surrounding the life of Jesus as fulfilling the words of Scripture. He refers to John the Baptist “preaching in the wilderness of Judea” and calling the people to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:1 ESV). And these actions by John were in direct fulfillment of a message delivered by Isaiah hundreds of years earlier.

A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” – Isaiah 40:3 ESV

John had been sent by God to prepare the way for the coming Messiah. He had delivered his message of repentance, warning that the Kingdom of Heaven was near. The long-awaited Messiah was about to reveal Himself.

In his Gospel, Mark shares that John “appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4 ESV). But what was this “baptism of repentance?” What exactly were these people repenting of? And why was John attracting such large crowds?

Some of John’s attraction might be linked to his rather strange attire and bizarre lifestyle. Matthew describes him as wearing “a garment of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist” and subsisting off a diet of “locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 3:4 ESV). John’s attire linked him with the Old Testament prophet, Elijah (2 Kings 1:8). After the last Old Testament prophet spoke his final words, God went silent for 400-years. There were no prophets. There was no communication from God. And then, suddenly, John the Baptist shows up on the scene, bearing a striking resemblance to Elijah and reminding the people of the words spoken by God to the prophet, Micah, hundreds of years earlier.

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” – Malachi 4:5-6 ESV

John was the fulfillment of this prophetic promise. He came in the spirit of Elijah, accomplishing the same prophetic ministry as his Old Testament predecessor. And God had promised Zechariah,  the father of John, that all of this would take place.

“Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” – Luke 1:13-17 ESV

Once again, Matthew is establishing Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah of Israel. And John the Baptist was sent to prepare for his arrival by calling the people to repentance. But as we asked earlier, what kind of repentance? The Greek word for “repentance” is metanoeō and it means “to change one’s mind.” We tend to think of repentance as exclusively linked to behavior, but it has a much more robust and all-encompassing meaning. Repentance begins, first and foremost, in the mind, not the actions. John was calling the people of Israel to change their minds about everything. They were going to have to radically change their minds about God. They had developed a warped perspective about Yahweh that had allowed them to treat Him with a bit too much familiarity. They were going to have to change their minds regarding righteousness. They were living under the false impression that their status as descendants of Abraham and their relationship with the Mosaic Law made them righteous. But all of that was about to change. They were going to have to change their mind about sin and the means by which the sinner is made right with a holy God. The sacrificial system had never been intended to make anyone righteous.

Years later, the apostle Paul asked the question: “Why, then, was the law given?” and then he answered his own question: “It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised” (Galatians 3:19 NLT). And now, here was John letting the people know that the child who was promised had arrived. He was now a 30-year-old man and, as John would later describe Him, “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 NLT).

But John’s ministry included proclamation and immersion. He baptized, which is how he got his nickname, John the Baptist. John was calling the people to prepare for spiritual restoration. The anointed one of God had arrived and they were going to have to confess their sins and prepare their hearts for what God had in store. Just as the prophet, Elijah, had called the Jews of his day to repentance, so was John. The Israelites were guilty of spiritual complacency and, at worst, apostasy. And God had graciously sent His messenger, John, to call them back.

But when John saw the religious leaders showing up to be baptized, he accused them of hypocrisy.

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” – Matthew 3:8 ESV

They were simply going through the motions, attempting to align themselves with the large crowds that John was attracting. But John’s baptism was intended to reveal the heart of the one being baptized. It was a baptism of repentance, symbolizing a desire to be restored to a right relationship with God. But John saw through the charade of the Pharisees and Sadduccees. They were unrepentant because they saw no need for it. They viewed themselves as fully righteous and John knew that their false concept was based on their status as sons of Abraham. Which is why he stated:

“Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones.” – Matthew 3:9 NLT

Not exactly PC-language. But John was out to prepare the people for the arrival of the Lamb of God, who alone can take away the sins of the world. The Pharisees and Sadduccees saw themselves as sinless and, therefore, in no need of a Savior. But John warns these self-righteous men that their lack of fruit in keeping with true righteousness was going to result in their removal.

“Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.” – Matthew 3:10 NLT

There was a change coming. The status quo that had existed in Israel for centuries was about to be rocked. With the arrival of Jesus, everything was about to change. The first would be last and the last would be first. The self-righteous were about to be exposed as unrighteous. The sinners of the world were about to be embraced by the Savior of the world. The weak would find new strength. The spiritually blind would gain their signt. The captives would be set free. And the lost would be found. Because the Messiah had come.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Opposition Mounts.

1 At that time Herod the tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus, 2 and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” 3 For Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, 4 because John had been saying to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” 5 And though he wanted to put him to death, he feared the people, because they held him to be a prophet. 6 But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company and pleased Herod, 7 so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. 8 Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” 9 And the king was sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he commanded it to be given. 10 He sent and had John beheaded in the prison, 11 and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother. 12 And his disciples came and took the body and buried it, and they went and told Jesus.

13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. – Matthew 14:1-12 ESV

Herod Antipas was one of the sons of Herod the Great and the successor to his throne as tetrarch of Judea. The period of his rule spanned from 4 B.C. until 39 A.D., and included the entire lifetime of Jesus. Yet, while Jesus was not to meet Herod until later in his life at His trial before him, their paths crossed on numerous occasions. Herod had evidently heard about Jesus. We know from Luke’s gospel that the wife of Herod’s household manager had become a follower of Jesus and, no doubt, had provided updates about Jesus to her husband and his co-workers.

1 Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, 2 and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod's household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means. – Luke 8:1-3 ESV

Herod had evidently heard the rumors that were spreading about Jesus among the people.

King Herod heard of it, for Jesus' name had become known. Some said, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” – Mark 6:14 ESV

And Luke tells us that Herod was at a loss as to how to explain the actions of this Jew from Nazareth. He even began to consider the truth behind the rumor that Jesus was actually John the Baptist come back to life.

Now Herod the tetrarch heard about all that was happening, and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead… – Luke 9:7 ESV

This news, if true, would have greatly concerned Herod because he had been the one to have John beheaded. John had initially been imprisoned by Herod for contronting the tetrarch about his adulterous affair with his brother’s wife. And while had wanted to kill John for his pertinence, he had feared angering the people, who believed John to be a prophet. But as the story goes, Herod and his guests had been entertained at his birthday party by the daughter of Herodias, his brother’s wife. When Herod had offered the young girl a reward for her dancing, she had asked for the head of John the Baptist. And Herod reluctantly delivered her request.

And it seems clear from Matthew’s account, that Herod was fearful that John had come back to life.

“This is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” – Matthew 14:2 ESV

We can only imagine what was going through Herod’s mind. Perhaps he was afraid that the resurrected John the Baptist had come back to seek his revenge. If the stories were true and Jesus had supernatural powers, what would keep Him from using those powers to get even with Herod?

Herod had seen John as a threat to his rule and reign. John’s open disregard for Herod’s power and the unmitigated gall he displayed by confronting Herod’s morals, was unacceptable. And while Herod had regretted having to behead John, his reputation meant more to him than any potential outcry from the people. This story provides a foreshadowing of what was to come. Herod, as a puppet of the Roman government, represents the earthly political powers that stood against the kingdom of heaven. John the Baptist had been the forerunner of Jesus, proclaiming the coming of that kingdom, and calling the people to repentance. In fact, he had told the religious leaders of Israel, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8 ESV). Their lives were to display outward proof of an inner change in the way they thought about everything from God and righteousness to sin and salvation. And John’s accusation against Herod had been a similar call to a change in behavior.

But Herod, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, had rejected John’s call. He was not going to repent. He had no intentions of giving up his elicit affair with his brother’s wife. And the animosity of the religious and political powers of Israel and Rome was going to increase over time. Their opposition to Jesus would intensify. And eventually, He would face the full wrath of the powers that be, just as John had. The King would suffer a fate similar to that of His forerunner.

As Matthew continues to present the growing opposition toward Jesus, he reveals the unlikely alliances being formed against Him. The Jews had no love affair for the Romans. The Pharisees despised them. And within the Jewish religious leadership, the Pharisees and Sadducees were sworn enemies. But over time, they would join forces in order to plot the defeat of Jesus. He had become their common enemy. And there was a Jewish political party that held close ties to Herod and the Roman government. In fact, they were known as the Herodians. While the Pharisees strongly supported Jewish independence, the Herodians encouraged cooperation with the Romans. They were willing to compromise for the sake of political expediency, and this infuriated the Pharisees. Yet, these two opposing forces joined together in their opposition to Jesus. Their mutual hatred for Him became greater than their perceived differences about Herod and Rome. Mark tells us:

The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. – Mark 3:6 ESV

Matthew tells us that, when Jesus heard the news of John’s death, “he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself” (Matthew 14:13 ESV). While likely not surprised by John’s gruesome execution Jesus was deeply impacted by the news. This was the man of whom Jesus had said:

11 “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” – Matthew 11:11-12 ESV

Jesus knew that John was the first of many who would die as a result of their faith. And He knew that He would be the next to suffer and die at the hands of the religious and political powers. The day was coming when Jesus would also appear before Herod. And in the room that day would be represented all the powers of Rome and the religious leadership of Israel. Their common interest would be their hatred for and rejection of the Messiah, the Son of God.

6 When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. 7 And when he learned that he belonged to Herod's jurisdiction, he sent him over to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. 8 When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had long desired to see him, because he had heard about him, and he was hoping to see some sign done by him. 9 So he questioned him at some length, but he made no answer. 10 The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. 11 And Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him. Then, arraying him in splendid clothing, he sent him back to Pilate. 12 And Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that very day, for before this they had been at enmity with each other. – Luke 23:6-12 ESV

The Jews leveled false accusations against Him. The Romans treated Him with contempt, mocking His claims to kingship by dressing Him in royal robes. All the forces of earthly power aligned themselves against Him. And, like John, Jesus would face the full brunt of their wrath and hatred for Him.

Jesus knew what was coming. He was well aware that His own days were numbered and it was only a matter of time before He faced a similar fate as that of John. But He knew that it was all within the will of His heavenly Father. It was why He had come. 

“…the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Matthew 20:28 ESV

And as the opposition to His ministry mounted, Jesus’ commitment to His mission would grow stronger. He would allow nothing and no one to keep Him from accomplishing what He had come to do. And as He would later tell Peter, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:17 ESV).

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Are You the One?

1 When Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities.

2 Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” 4 And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. 6 And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”  – Matthew 11:1-6 ESV

For whatever reason, Matthew chose to leave out what happened when the disciples went on their mission. He seems less interested in what the disciples ended up doing, than with what Jesus continued to accomplish as part of His messianic activities. Remember, Matthew is out to prove that Jesus is the Messiah so, it makes sense that he would ignore the accomplishments of the disciples. What they ended up doing was secondary in importance to what Jesus was doing and saying.

This chapter opens up with an encounter between Jesus and a few of the disciples of John the Baptist. John sits in a prison cell, by the order of Herod Antipas. His crime? Speaking out against the king’s immoral relationship with his own brother’s wife, Herodias. She had been incensed by John’s remarks and arranged to have him imprisoned. From his cell, John sent two of his own disciples to ask Jesus an interesting question. “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3 ESV). Was John’s question an indication of a lagging faith or a growing impatience? Was he beginning to doubt whether Jesus truly was the Messiah? It is likely that he was more than a bit confused by his imprisonment, wondering how it fit into the coming of the Kingdom as he had been preaching. Was he simply wondering when Jesus was going to begin acting like a Messiah and usher in His Kingdom? The passage doesn’t tell us what was going on in John’s mind, but based on the tone of his question, it seems as if John is struggling with both doubt and impatience. After all, he is sitting in a prison cell and Jesus is traveling around the countryside drawing crowds, but also drawing the anger and animosity of the nation’s religious leadership. If John is suffering from a case of doubt, who can blame him? While he had been chosen by God as the one to pave the way for the Messiah, he did not have in-depth knowledge of just how Jesus’ ministry would unfold. I don’t think John is wrestling with his imprisonment as much as he is with his expectations of just what should be happening outside the walls of his prison cell. Like all Jews, he had an image of what the coming of the Messiah would look like. John had preconceived ideas of what Jesus should be doing and he was probably wondering just what was going on.

When the two disciples arrived and presented John’s question to Jesus. In his Gospel, Luke tells us that “at that very time, Jesus cured many people of their diseases, illnesses, and evil spirits, and he restored sight to many who were blind” (Luke 7:21 NLT). And Matthew states that Jesus responded to John’s disciples with a command to return to John and describe what they were seeing.

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” – Matthew 11:4-5 ESV

John was the herald, the offical God-appointed prophet, tasked with announcing the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah and His Kingdom. But even John had to have been a little confused by all that was going on. His concept of the Kingdom was markedly different than what was going on outside the walls of his prison cell. The activities of Jesus were not lining up with his expectations.

And Jesus wants John to understand that His immediate mission was far different than any of the Jews had expected. If you recall, John had a fairly strong view of Jesus’ role as the Messiah. Part of his message to the people entailed a fairly clear vision of Jesus as judge.

His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. – Matthew 3:12 ESV

He had told the Pharisees and Sadducees, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7 ESV). So, in John’s mind, Jesus should have been taking names and dishing out some well-deserved wrath on those who stood opposed to Him. And this encounter between Jesus and John’s disciples opens up a section in which Matthew begins to reveal that rejection of Jesus by the Jews. Which is why, when Jesus said, “blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” Most would end up finding Jesus offensive and reject not only His message of salvation, but His claim to be the Messiah of Israel.

Jesus seems to be trying to assure John that His miracles were evidence of His authority and power, and that His message of Good News spoke of His agenda. Jesus encouraged John to stay faithful in the face of adversity. There were going to be bumps along the road. Not everyone was going to believe in Jesus or His message, just as not everyone believed in or took advantage of John’s baptism. In refusing John’s baptism, the Pharisees and experts in religious law were really rejecting God’s plan for them and that seems to be the real message of this passage.

The people to whom John had been sent and to whom Jesus was ministering were cynical and skeptical of this new message. They were attracted to Jesus’ miracles, but didn’t know quite what to do with His message. He tended to challenge them and raise the bar of expectation for them. He seemed to be making it harder, not easier. Jesus challenged the status quo and made them uncomfortable in their self-satisfied little worlds.

For John and all those who heard the message of Jesus, it tended to make no sense at times. It was confusing and seemingly contradictory to all that they had come to know about how to have a relationship with God. Jesus’ message was about faith in who He claimed to be – the Son of God, sent directly from the throne of God with a message of repentance and a plan of salvation for restoring man’s marred relationship with God. And the wisdom of what Jesus was saying would be proved true in time – for John and all those who chose to have faith in Him.

Jesus wanted John to know that everything was happening just as God had ordained it to happen. Yes, John was in jail, but that was no indication that the Kingdom was in trouble or that Jesus had lost His focus. John would be executed long before Jesus was tried, crucified, buried and raised again. But the disciples of Jesus would see the wisdom of Jesus’ message proved true. They would see their own lives radically changed. They would witness a literal revolution that would spread throughout the known world in a very short period of time, as the Gospel of Jesus Christ, powered by the Holy Spirit, exploded onto the scene and into the lives of men at Pentecost. So Jesus encourages patience and faith. Give Him time to do what He came to do, in the manner in which He came to do it. Things would never be the same again.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

True Repentance Made Possible.

1 And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. 2 And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John's baptism.” 4 And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. 7 There were about twelve men in all. Acts 19:1-7 ESV

At the close of the last chapter, Luke had Apollos headed to Achaia, while Paul was beginning the first leg of his third missionary journey. Paul would circle back through the regions of Galatia and Phrygia, eventually arriving back in the city of Ephesus. Apollos, meanwhile, was still in Corinth, having not yet left for Achaia. For time being, these two men would pass as ships in the night, but their paths would eventually cross.

If you recall, Apollos had been in Ephesus. That is where he had met Priscilla and Aquila. They had found him there, teaching in the synagogue, where “he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John” (Acts 18:25 ESV). That last point is important because, as we will see, upon his arrival in Ephesus, Paul will meet additional individuals, referred to as disciples, who knew only the baptism of John. This is important. Were these people believers or not? They are referred to as disciples, but that does not necessarily mean they were disciples of Jesus. In fact, in this context, Luke seems to infer that they were disciples of John the Baptist. They had been baptized with his baptism. But what is the difference between the baptism of John and that of the Holy Spirit? All the way back in Acts chapter one, we have recorded Jesus’ command, given to the eleven just before He ascended back into heaven.

4 While he was with them, he declared, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait there for what my Father promised, which you heard about from me. 5 For John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” – Acts 1:4-5 NLT

Jesus mentioned the baptism of John, and he referred to it as a baptism with water. Why did he bring this up at that particular time? He appears to be contrasting John’s baptism with the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which the disciples were soon to receive. But what is the difference? To understand that, we have to go back to the gospels and see how John himself described his baptism.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” – Matthew 3:11 ESV

His was a baptism of repentance. He was unable to offer the baptism of the Spirit because Jesus had not yet begun His ministry, and most certainly had not yet died, been resurrected or ascended. Therefore, the Spirit had not yet come. So, John’s baptism was limited in its scope.

John made the difference between their two baptisms clear.

8 I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” – Mark 1:8 ESV

John’s baptism was reserved for those who repented. But what does that mean? To repent literally meant to change one’s mind, to change your way of thinking. John was demanding that they turn away from their sin and back to God. He was requiring people to prepare their hearts for the coming Messiah by changing the way they thought about their own sin. And John was also demanding that they change their behavior.

8 “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.…

But listen to how he answers the questions of those who wanted to know what kind of fruit he was expecting.

10 And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” – Luke 3:8,10-14 ESV

John was demanding lifestyle change. He was requiring behavior modification. In other words, he was providing them with a list of works to perform to prove that they were truly repentant and turning from their sins and back to God. But how long could that kind of self-manufactured change last? Would any of those people be able to pull off what John was demanding, over the long-haul? No. But why? Because they lacked the very thing they needed to do it: The Holy Spirit. And John knew that what he was doing was temporary in nature, designed to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus.

30 “This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.”– John 1:30-31 ESV

He also knew that his water baptism was not going to be enough. What the people really needed was the baptism Jesus would make possible: That of the Holy Spirit.

33 “I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” – John 1:33 ESV

So, Paul arrived in Ephesus and met some disciples. They obviously knew about Jesus, but when Paul asked them if they had received the Holy Spirit when they had believed, they had answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit” (Acts 19:2 ESV). When Paul asked them what kind of baptism they had received, they told him, “The baptism of John” (Acts 19:3 NLT). They had been baptized because they had repented of their sins. And Paul pointed out the difference.

“John’s baptism called for repentance from sin. But John himself told the people to believe in the one who would come later, meaning Jesus.” – Acts 19:4 NLT

John’s baptism had been symbolic in nature. It was done to signify that the one being baptized had repented and agreed to change their behavior, to live a different lifestyle, all in preparation for the arrival of the Kingdom of God. These disciples anticipated the coming of the Messiah and the Kingdom of God, but had not understood that Jesus had been the fulfillment of those expectations. And they had no idea that there was a baptism of the Spirit of God awaiting all those who truly believed that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. And Luke records that, as soon as these individuals heard the truth that Paul shared, they believed.

5 As soon as they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 Then when Paul laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in other tongues and prophesied. – Acts 19:5-6 NLT

Their belief in Jesus resulted in the same outpouring of the Spirit that the disciples had experienced in the upper room on the day of Pentecost. These men exhibited the same miraculous manifestations of the Spirit’s indwelling power. Again, it is important that we understand that the events recorded in the Book of Acts are not meant to be prescriptive in nature, but descriptive. What happens here in Ephesus is not intended to be a hard-and-fast example of how the Holy Spirit comes. We have already seen that Cornelius and all those in his home who believed, immediately received the Spirit without the laying on of hands by Peter. Each of these events represent a specific circumstance with unique characteristics surrounding it. Paul was in Ephesus, a hotbed of demonic activity and idolatry. Apollos had been there before Paul, and Luke made it clear in chapter 18, that Apollos had also been baptized in water for having repented of his sins. But he had not yet received the baptism of the Spirit. He most likely propagated among the people what he knew and had experienced. It was Priscilla and Aquila who had come along and opened the eyes of Apollos to the truth. It seems that Paul’s laying on of hands and the subsequent pouring out of the Spirit was a way in which God confirmed the difference between mere repentance and true redemption, available only through belief in the finished work of Jesus on the cross. The arrival of the Holy Spirit by the laying on his hands also validated Paul’s apostleship and authority among the people in Ephesus. Paul would later write to the believers in Ephesus, telling them:

13 And when you heard the word of truth (the gospel of your salvation)—when you believed in Christ—you were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the down payment of our inheritance, until the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of his glory. – Ephesians 1:13-14 NLT

The Holy Spirit came with belief in the name of Jesus. In the case of those in Ephesus, He came with a slight delay and by the laying on of hands. But that was not to be the norm or the required means by which the Spirit was received. It was only in this instance and under circumstances unique to those in Ephesus at that time.

The real issue is that, with the arrival of the Spirit and His indwelling of the believers in Ephesus, they received the very power that was going to make true repentance possible. Up until that time, they could only hope to live repentant lives. They could try, eagerly and sincerely, but they would ultimately fail, because they lacked the power to keep their promise to repent and live differently. And Paul would later write to these same believers, reminding them that their salvation and subsequent sanctification, was the work of God.

8 For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 it is not from works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand so we may do them. – Ephesians 2:8-10 NLT

Now, for the very first time in their lives, they had the capacity to live truly repentant lives, marked by holiness and righteousness. And they could accomplish the will of God because they possessed the power of God in the form of the Spirit of God. Their lives would be radically different, but not based on anything they had done or would do. It was all the work of God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

Empowered By the Spirit.

And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” – Matthew 3:16-17 ESV

As Jesus prepared to begin His earthly ministry, He inaugurated it with His own baptism. This was evidently a private affair with only Jesus and His cousin, John the Baptist present. John knew Jesus well, probably having grown up with Him, but he had not known that Jesus was to be the Messiah. It was he who said of Jesus,  “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one about whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who is greater than I am, because he existed before me.’ I did not recognize him, but I came baptizing with water so that he could be revealed to Israel.” (John 1:29-31 NET). 

It is not quite clear when John came to fully comprehend the unique status of his cousin, but when Jesus came to him at the Jordan River asking to be baptized, John expressed his reluctance, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14 ESV). Yet Jesus persuaded John to do as He had asked, saying, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15 ESV). The righteousness to which Jesus referred had nothing to do with Him receiving righteousness or being made righteous. He was simply stating that His baptism was in full keeping with the will of God. It would be an expression of obedience to God, as Jesus willingly submitted Himself to the will of God. And at the same time, it would validate the ministry of John the Baptist. 

John did as Jesus asked. “And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him” (Matthew 3:16 ESV). Jesus’ obedience to His Father’s will was immediately followed by the anointing presence of the Holy Spirit and the confirming words of God, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17 ESV). This event does not indicate that Jesus had somehow been lacking the Holy Spirit up until that moment. Matthew has already told us that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit. The angel Gabriel had told Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called ‘holy – the Son of God’” (Luke 1:35 ESV). So Jesus was not receiving the Holy Spirit for the first time, but the Spirit’s arrival in the form of a visible dove was a confirmation of His public ministry. What He was about to do would be done in the power of God, and with the full authority and backing of God. Jesus would confirm this when He read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue of His hometown of Nazareth. “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 year of the Lord's favor” (Luke 4:18-19 ESV).

God’s Spirit gave Jesus the power and authority to proclaim God’s message of good news. Time and time again, the Pharisees would question where Jesus got the authority to do the things He did. They wanted to know who had given Him the right to say the things He said. It was God. The Father had placed His Spirit upon Jesus, providing Him with the right, the power, and the divine authority to proclaim God’s message of good news. And we have that same right, privilege and authority. As followers of Jesus Christ, we have received the same Holy Spirit. Like the disciples at Pentecost, we have received fire from on high. We have been anointed with the Spirit of God so that we might fulfill the will of God. We didn’t receive the Holy Spirit so that we might enjoy happy, whole and trouble-free lives. We have been given a power and authority from God so that we might do exactly what Jesus did: Proclaim good news to the poor, liberty to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and offer liberty to all who are oppressed. It is our God-given, Spirit-empowered responsibility to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. We live in a unique time in history. We live in the dispensation of grace, when God is offering forgiveness of sins to any and all who will accept it. Jesus’ death on the cross and His Spirit-empowered resurrection to new life has made it possible for men and women to experience the grace of God in the form of the total forgiveness of their sin debt and the undeserved gift of Christ's righteousness. But that gift would never have been made possible had Jesus not done what He had been commissioned and empowered to do. His obedience made possible man's salvation. Throughout His life He willingly submitted Himself to the Spirit’s leading. Paul tells us, “he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Colossians 2:8 ESV). All in order to fulfill the will of God in the power of God. And we must do the same. We must rely on God’s indwelling, empowering Spirit to give us the strength we need to fulfill the job we have been given to do. Each of us should be willing to say, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, liberty to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and liberty for the oppressed.”

Life.

And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. – 1 John 5:11-12 ESV

1 John 5:6-12

Jesus came in order that we might have life. He boldly claimed, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 ESV). On another occasion He stated, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10 ESV). Paul wrote, “just as Jesus Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4 ESV). John picks up on this theme by stressing that God gave us eternal life through His Son. It is the same message he conveyed in his gospel. It was what he had heard Jesus talk about so often during His time on this earth. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 ESV). But this life is not just a future expectation. It is a present reality for the one who has believed and continues to believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. This life in Christ is far more than a guaranteed pass into eternity. It is our key to living abundantly, joyfully, confidently and powerfully right here, right now.

The life John speaks of is inseparable from Jesus Christ. It is directly tied to belief in Him as the Son of God and in God's testimony regarding Him as the Savior of the world. John makes the point, that to have the Son is to have life. To possess Jesus is to have taken possession of the abundant life He offers. Life and Jesus are synonymous. To reject Jesus as Savior is to reject life, not just eternal life to come, but abundant life here and now. It is to remain in death, condemned because of the penalty of sin. The apostle Paul would have us remember, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:1-3 ESV). But the good news is that God showed mercy, and “even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:5-6 ESV). By believing in Jesus, we receive new life. John the Baptist said, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36 ESV). Those who refuse Jesus as Savior find themselves still under God's wrath. Not only do they face a future, eternal separation from God, but they are in the unenviable position of being under His wrath and incapable of enjoying His peace and presence at this very moment. If they don't know Jesus as Savior, they don't know God. They are without life. In essence, they are the living dead. But God has offered life through His Son. And those who accept the gift of His Son's substitutionary death in their place, receive that life. They move from death to life. “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:13-14 ESV). Jesus promised us, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24 ESV). Believing in Jesus as the Son of God and our Savior from sin and death, brings life. Yes, eternal life, but not just at some future point in time. We receive new life immediately. No more separation. No more condemnation. No more judgment. No more fear. No more death. Jesus described eternal life this way: “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3 ESV). Knowing Jesus as Savior provides us with an intimate knowledge of God Himself. It creates a relationship with God and His Son – that is the essence of eternal life. We have been restored to a right relationship with God. We have been reconciled. And that relationship is as true today as it will be in the future. We are His children right now as much as we will be in heaven. We are as right with God as we will ever be. We have life. What an incredible reality. So let us live life to the full. Right here. Right now.

The Redemption of the Lord.

Exodus 39-40, Luke 1

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people. – Luke 1:68 ESV

The Tabernacle was completed and on the first day of the first month in the second year since their departure from Egypt, they erected it for the very first time. After many months of hard work and painstaking attention to detail, Moses and the people were able to see all the various pieces of the Tabernacle come together. They consecrated and anointed it so that it might be holy – set apart for God's use only. They cleansed and purified Aaron and his sons, then anointed and consecrated them as well, so that they might serve God as priests in His Tabernacle.

Then when all the work was done and the Tabernacle was complete, the glory of the Lord descended and took up residence. God confirmed the work with a visible sign of His presence. "Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle" (Exodus 40:34-35 ESV). What an incredible day that must have been. What an amazing sight to have witnessed. The visible glory of God descending in the form of a cloud and filling the Tabernacle. And His glory would rest above the Mercy Seat which sat on top of the Ark of the Covenant, in which were contained the Ten Commandments. "For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys" (Exodus 40:38 ESV). God was among them. His presence was visible to them.

What does this passage reveal about God?

God mercifully made Himself known to the people of Israel. He appeared in a form that allowed them to know He was among them, but was not His true essence. If God had appeared to them in all of His glory and revealed Himself to them as He truly is, they would have been destroyed. So the Tabernacle became symbolic of His holiness, majesty, glory and power. The cloud by day, hovering over the Tabernacle, and the fire by night glowing from within the inner recesses of the Tabernacle, became the representation of His presence among them.

"Finally God was dwelling among His people. His redemption of them was now complete. He had liberated them from bondage in Egypt (chs. 1-15) and adopted them as His special treasure (chs. 15-40). He had made a covenant with them and now blessed them with His presence. He would guide them from then on 'throughout all their journeys' (vv. 36, 38). The descent of God to take up residence in the midst of His people is therefore a fitting climax with which this book closes" (Dr. Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Exodus, Page 160).

What does this passage reveal about man?

While designed by God, the Tabernacle was a man-made structure. Without the presence of God it would remain nothing more than a man-made structure. In and of itself, it was beautiful, but incomplete without God's presence. It was His presence that assured their redemption was complete. Had God left them at any moment, they would have become just another people worshiping in just another building, but to a god who did not exist. Moses knew that God's presence was essential. Just a short time before this, he had prayed to God, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:15-16 ESV). Without God's presence, their sacrifices would be in vain. It was His presence hovering over the Mercy Seat that made forgiveness possible. Without God's help, man is incapable of coming into His presence. Without God's intervention, sin would permanently block man's access and keep him in a perpetual state of isolation and condemnation. But God showed up. He came down and appeared to men in a form they could comprehend and offered redemption on their behalf.

How would I apply what I’ve read to my own life?

Which is exactly what God has done for me. He sent His Son, born of a virgin, and in the form of a man. God took on human flesh and walked among us. He came in a form we could comprehend, but with the intention of providing us with redemption. By sending His Son as a man, God provided a way to pay the penalty due for our sin. He would offer His own Son as the sacrifice for the sins of man. His Son would do what no other man had been able to do – live a sinless life, in keeping with God's commands. He would become the spotless Lamb, the ultimate sacrifice for sins. John the Baptist, whose birth is described in Luke 1, would later say of Jesus, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV).

Regarding this aspect of Jesus' earthly ministry, Paul tells us, "In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace" (Ephesians 1:7 ESV). God sent His Son to dwell among us. "He is the image of the invisible God" (Colossians 1:15 ESV). "No one has ever seen God. But the unique One, who is himself God, is near to the Father's heart. He has revealed God to us: (John 1:18 NLT). "He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high" (Hebrews 1:3 ESV).

God's plan all along was to send His Son. The Tabernacle was temporary. It was a symbol of something far greater to come. And Luke describes the advent or coming of Christ, the Messiah, the Savior of the world. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, at his son's birth, prophesied, "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" (Luke 1:68-69 ESV). He knew that his son was only the herald of someone far greater to come – the Messiah Himself. He prophesied that John would "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" (Luke 1:77-79 ESV).

I have received the knowledge of that salvation. I have been given access into God's presence by the sacrifice of His Son. I have been the recipient of God's love and mercy. "But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8 ESV). I have had the darkness of my life transformed by the Light of God, the Light of the world. And my redemption is complete.

Father, it is amazing to see the parallels between the Old and New Testaments and see how You have been working all throughout history, preparing mankind for Your redemption plan. You have mercifully revealed Yourself over the centuries in so many ways, but the greatest expression of Your reality is the gift of Your Son who not only made you visible, but made our restored relationship with You possible. Thank You. Amen

The Ultimate Question.

Matthew 16:13-20; Mark 8:27-30; Luke 9:18-21“But who do you say I am?" – Matthew 16:15 NLT

It had been a long day, and Luke tells us that Jesus left the crowds behind and was on His way to find a place to pray. The disciples were walking along with Him and so He took advantage of the moment and asked them a question. I don't think this was in order for Jesus to get information He was lacking, because I think He already knew the answer. He was simply engaging His disciples in a conversation that was directed at revealing what their true perception was of Him. They had been with Him for years now and had seen Him do some remarkable things. He had made it clear to them who He was. They had even heard demons call Him the Messiah, the Son of God. But Jesus knew there were still doubts in the minds of the disciples. While they hoped and prayed that he truly was the Messiah, so much of what He said and did was so unlike what they expected from the Messiah. He was not the conquering hero they had long anticipated. He was not regal, kingly, or a warrior like David had been. He was obviously as wise as Solomon, but He had no royal retinue and lacked Solomon's vast wealth.

So Jesus asks them a simple question: "Who do people say I am?"

The disciples immediately share all the various opinions that were floating out there. "Some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, and others say you are one of the other ancient prophets risen from the dead" (Luke 9:18-19 NLT). In Matthew's account, they throw in the name of Jeremiah. Obviously, the people were having a hard time coming to grips with Jesus being the actual Messiah, so they had come up with a series of viable options to explain who He was and how He was able to do the things He did. Interestingly enough, all of their options involved someone having to be raised from the dead. John the Baptist had been killed by Herod. Elijah and Jeremiah, both Old Testament prophets had been long gone. So the people didn't seem to have a problem with Jesus being miraculously sent from God. They just had a difficult time believing He was the Messiah.

But Jesus cuts to the chase and asks the disciples the more revealing and important question: "But who do you say I am?" (Matthew 16:15 NLT). They had each been personally chosen by Jesus. They had walked with, learned from and lived alongside Him for over three years at this point. They had had intimate communication with Him and heard things from Him that the others were not allowed to hear. He had explained His parables to them. He had given them power and authority to cast out demons and heal the sick. They had seen Him raise the dead and walk on water. They had watched Him calm the storm and feed the multitudes. They had listened as He condemned the religious leaders and easily handled their attempts to discredit Him as a fraud and a lunatic.

Now Jesus was asking them the most important question of their lives. It isn't surprising that Peter was the first one to speak up. He was the always the first to open His mouth. Most of the time, that habit got him in hot water. But this time, He said the right thing. "You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God" (Matthew 16:16 NLT). Jesus blesses Peter for His answer, but before Peter can get a big head, Jesus lets him know that he didn't come up with this on his own and he didn't learn it from anyone else. It was revealed to him by God. In other words, this awareness of Jesus' true identity was divinely inspired. God had made it known to Peter and the other disciples. If left to their own devices, they would have come to the same conclusions as the people had. They would have rationalized away any thoughts that Jesus was the Messiah. But God had made it possible for Peter and the others to perceive and accept Jesus' claim to be who He said He was – in spite of any misgivings they may have had.

Even our ability to believe in Jesus comes from God. He must soften our hard hearts and breathe life into our dead souls in order for us to recognize and respond to the priceless gift being offered to us – His Son. Like the crowds, if left to the whims of our own intelligence, we would come up with all kinds of explanations or rationalizations to account for the Jesus as He is revealed in the Bible. We would conclude that He was a good man, a great teacher, a moral icon, and a worthy example to follow, but we would never conclude that He was the Son of God. Only God can reveal that to us. Living with Jesus for over three years was not enough. The disciples still needed God to open their eyes. Going to church your whole life is not enough. You still need God to open your eyes. Jesus made this perfectly clear when He said, "For no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them to me, and at the last day I will raise them up" (John 6:44 NLT).

God calls. We respond. Jesus saves. God opens our eyes so that we can see His Son standing right in front of us, and He opens our ears so we can understand the offer He makes to us – and along with Peter we say, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." We have nothing to boast about. It is all the work of God.

Father, You made it all possible. You sent Your Son. He died in my place. Then you open my eyes and ears so that I can hear the message and respond. Otherwise, I would never hear. I would never choose Him. But through Your Spirit, You revealed Your Son to me. You did for me what I could not have done on my own. And Jesus paid a debt for me I could never have paid on my own. Thank You. Amen.

Trusting God's Plan.

Matthew 11:2-19; Luke 7:18-35

“But the Pharisees and experts in religious law rejected God's plan for them, for they had refused John's baptism.” – Luke 7:30 NLT

John sits in a prison cell, on the orders of Herod Antipas. His crime? Speaking out against the leader's immoral relationship with his own brother's wife, Herodias. She had been incensed by John's remarks and arranged to have him imprisoned. From his cell, John sends two of his own disciples to ask Jesus an interesting question. " Are you the Messiah we've been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?" (Luke 7:19 NLT). Was John's question an indication of a lagging faith or a growing impatience? Was he beginning to doubt whether Jesus truly was the Messiah, based on his own imprisonment? Or was he simply wondering when Jesus was going to begin acting like a Messiah and usher in His kingdom? The passage does not tell us what was going on in John's mind, but based on the tone of his question, it seems as if John is struggling with both doubt and impatience. After all, he is sitting in a prison cell and Jesus is traveling around the countryside drawing crowds, but also drawing the anger and animosity of the nation's religious leadership. If John is suffering from a case of doubt, who can blame him? While he had been chosen by God as the one to pave the way for the Messiah, he did not have a in-depth knowledge of just how Jesus' ministry would unfold. I don't think John is wrestling with his imprisonment as much as he is with his expectations of just what should be happening outside the walls of his prison cell. Like all Jews, he had an image of what the coming of the Messiah would look like. He had preconceived ideas of what Jesus should be doing and he was probably wondering just what was going on.

When the two disciples arrived and presented John's question to Jesus, Luke tells us that "at that very time, Jesus cured many people of their diseases, illnesses, and evil spirits, and he restored sight to many who were blind" (Luke 7:21 NLT). Then Jesus told John's disciples to go back and tell him what they had seen. But He adds a point of clarification: "the Good News is being preached to the poor. And tell him, 'God blesses those who do not turn away because of me.'" (Luke 7:22-23 NLT). Jesus seems to be assuring John that His miracles were evidence of His authority and power, and that His message of Good News spoke of His agenda. Then Jesus encourages John to stay faithful in the face of adversity. There were going to be bumps along the road. Not everyone was going to believe in Jesus' or His message, just as not everyone believed in or took advantage of John's baptism. In refusing John's baptism, the Pharisees and experts in religious law were really rejecting God's plan for them And that seems to be the real message of these two passages. Jesus compares the generation to which He came to children playing a game. They argue and bicker over everything. They can't agree with one another. The people to whom John had been sent and to whom Jesus was ministering were cynical and skeptical of this new message. They were attracted to Jesus' miracles, but didn't know quite what to do with His message. He tended to challenge them and raise the bar of expectation for them. He seemed to be making it harder, not easier. Jesus challenged the status quo and made them uncomfortable in their self-satisfied little worlds.

For John and all those who heard the message of Jesus, it tended to make no sense at times. It was confusing and seemingly contradictory to all that they had come to know about how to have a relationship with God. Jesus' message was about faith in who He claimed to be – the Son of God, sent directly from the throne of God with a message of repentance and a plan of salvation for restoring man's marred relationship with God. And the wisdom of what Jesus was saying would be proved true in time – for John and all those who chose to have faith in Him. "But wisdom is shown to be right by the lives of those who follow it" (Luke 7:35 NLT). John would be executed long before Jesus was tried, crucified, buried and raised again. But the disciples of Jesus would see the wisdom of Jesus' message proved true. They would see their own lives radically changed. They would witness a literal revolution that would spread throughout the known world in a very short period of time, as the Gospel of Jesus Christ, powered by the Holy Spirit, exploded onto the scene and into the lives of men at Pentecost. So Jesus encourages patience and faith. Give Him time to do what He came to do, in the manner in which He came to do it. Things would never be the same again.

Father, Your way is right. Your Son's methodology, while radical and hard to understand at the time, was prove true and right. He knew exactly what He was doing, because He was doing exactly what You sent Him to do. How easy it is for us to question Your ways even today. When things don't seem to be turning out quite like we expected, we tend to lose faith and begin to doubt. Help us to remember that wisdom, Your wisdom, is shown to be right by the lives of those who follow it. If we give You time, Your ways will always work out for our good and Your glory. Amen.

A Light In the Darkness.

Matthew 4:13-22

“…the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. And for those who lived in the land where death cast its shadow, a light has shined.” – Matthew 4:16 NLT

A light in the darkness. What a vivid image this conjures up in our minds as we think about the significance of Jesus' arrival on the scene in Israel. He is like a like shining into a dark void where there has been no light for some time. Over time, the light that was there had slowly diminished, eventually enveloping the people in total darkness. Unable to see, they wander around aimlessly. They are incapable of distinguishing one thing from another. They have no idea what they truly look like. Slowly, imperceptibly, they acclimate themselves to the darkness, and almost begin to believe that this is just the way life is meant to be. They become content with darkness, having long forgotten what the light was really like.

That is the spiritual atmosphere of Israel at the point Jesus appears on the scene. The nation is blanketed in a cloak of spiritual and moral darkness. The nation has gone through a 400-year period of silence in which God refused to speak to them or do any kind of miraculous work among them. No prophets. No judges. No kings. They had endured invasion after invasion by other nations and had been subjected to all kinds of oppression at the hands of their enemies. Now the Romans, their latest conqueror, held them under their iron-fisted rule. But like fish living in the depths of the ocean where no light is able to penetrate, they had simply adapted themselves to the conditions. They had learned to tolerate their circumstances and had actually gotten used to their condition. Their spiritual world was dark and foreboding, but they failed to recognize it. Which is why they also failed to recognize the Messiah when He burst onto the scene. John tells us:

God sent a man, John the Baptist, to tell about the light so that everyone might believe because of his testimony. John himself was not the light; he was simply a witness to tell about the light. The one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He came into the world he created, but the world didn't recognize him. He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. – John 1:6-11 NLT

Later on in the book of John, we read this statement from the lips of Jesus, “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.” (John 8:12 NLT). Even Jesus saw Himself as the light of the world and knew that He was the solution to the moral and spiritual darkness in which the people lived. And He called out for them to simply follow Him. Follow the light.

Which is exactly what we see four ordinary fishermen do as they encounter Jesus, the light of the world, for the very first time. There they were, minding their own business, fishing as they always did along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, when along came Jesus, walking along the shore. He called out to them, "Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people!" (Matthew 4:19 NLT). A strange invitation, but Matthew records that "they left their nets at once and followed him" (Matthew 4:20 NLT). Next Jesus encounters James and John, sitting in their fishing boat repairing nets. Jesus offered them the same invitation and, "they immediately followed him, leaving the boat and their father behind" (Matthew 4:22 NLT). The Light had penetrated the darkness of their world and they made the decision to follow it, to follow Him. They couldn't see into the distant future and know exactly what their decision would lead to, but they had seen enough light to take the first step of obedience. They were attracted to the Light, like moths to a flame. And they followed. Their lives would never be the same again. This man would shed light on their lives and into their souls, exposing their darkness and expanding their vision of what it means to have true life. They would begin to see the world in a different light. Over time, their eyes would begin to adjust to the Light and they would see their surrounding more clearly than they ever had before. This new vision would confuse them and shatter their previous perceptions about everything. Light has a way of exposing and clearing up what was once shrouded in mystery and confusion. It enlightens and informs. It exposes and clarifies. But most important of all, the Light removes the darkness and replaces it with hope, joy, truth, comfort, and peace..

Father, thank You for sending Your Son, the Light of the world, into the darkness. Without Him, we would still be enveloped in a cloak of darkness and the shadow of death, unable to save ourselves and doomed to an eternity apart from You. I am so grateful that the Light of the world illuminated the darkness of my life and allowed me to see truth for the first time. Now help me to be a light to others, pointing them to You. Amen.

And So It Begins.

Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-23; John 1:29-34

“Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” – John 1:29 NLT

More than likely, John the Baptist did most of his preaching and baptizing along the Jordan River in the region known as Peraea, just east of Jerusalem. It is a wilderness area, but close enough the capital city that crowds could make their way there to see this unusual phenomenon, this prophet named John. It is in this semi-remote region that God chooses to launch the earthy ministry of His Son, the Messiah. After nearly 30 years of relative obscurity living in the city of Nazareth and within the environs of Galilee, Jesus makes His way to the River Jordan where John is baptizing all those who have repented of their sins. That day, in the crowd, John sees Jesus, his own cousin, and immediately exclaims, "Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." Jesus asks John to baptize Him, but John tries to talk him out of it. He tells Jesus, "I am the one who needs to be baptized by you, so why are you coming to me?" (Matthew 3:14 NLT). He knew that Jesus' baptism was different than his own. He had been telling the people, "He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire" (Matthew 3:11 NLT). But Jesus insists, because He knows this is all part of God's divine plan for Him. He tells John, "It should be done, or we must carry out all that God requires" (Matthew 3:15 NLT).

What a fascinating scene. Here is John, this wild-looking prophet of God, dresses in camel's hair, surrounded by a crowd of anxious onlookers, having an intimate and animated discussion with Jesus. To the crowd, He was just another man. Despite John's pronouncement that Jesus was the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world, they did not comprehend who Jesus was. This appears to be an exchange between the two cousins. Two men who had been set apart by God prior to their own births as part of God's redemptive plan for mankind. Somewhere in the wilderness on the banks of the Jordan River, God inaugurates His Son's public ministry. And He does it by having Jesus identify with the people by following in the same act of baptism John had been calling them to. While Jesus had no sin to confess or repent of, as God's representative for mankind, Jesus acknowledged the sins of mankind by submitting Himself to John's baptism. He was modeling for the people obedience to God's will and encouraging them to return to God in repentance and submission. Jesus was the ultimate substitute for mankind. His life would be lived on their behalf. His death would serve to replace their own need to die as payment for their sins. His baptism was a public declaration and confession of mankind's sinfulness and need for repentance.

And Matthew, Mark and Luke each tell us that as soon as Jesus came up out of the water of the Jordan, something remarkable happened. "As Jesus came up out of the water, he saw the heavens splitting apart and the Holy Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice from heaven said, 'You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy.'" (Mark 1:10-11 NLT). It is amazing to think that the very Son of God received the Spirit of God as a part of the launch of His earthly ministry. Jesus, the God-man, was filled with the Holy Spirit and would be directed by the Spirit throughout His earthly ministry. And as the water continued to drip off of the face and clothes of Jesus, God the Father acknowledges His love for Him. God broadcasts His love for Jesus for all to hear, but it was mainly for the ears of Jesus. And it is interesting that this expression of love proceeded what was going to be one of the most difficult periods of Jesus' life, His own temptation in the wilderness. God loved His Son, but was still going to require that He undergo a very difficult trial at the hands of the enemy. How often do we doubt God's love in difficult times? How easy it is to feel unloved by God when things don't go quite the way we would like them to. But God let it be clear up front, that His Son was beloved and loved. Everything that was about to happen during the next three-and-a-half years was within God's loving plan for His Son. And so it begins.

Father, what a way to start a ministry. Your Son, identifying Himself with the common, sin-suffering man. But that was His role. He was the God-man. He had been born like a man, raised like a man, worked like a man, and would spend His next three years living like a man in the midst of all the sin and suffering this world had to offer. He was going to live the life that You required and that no other man could live – sinless, perfectly obedient, and in complete submission to Your will. All so that His ultimate death would be totally sufficient to satisfy Your demand for justice. Thank You! Amen.

Now What?

Mark 1:2-8; Luke 3:3-18

“The crowds asked, 'What should we do?'” – Luke 3:10 NLT

John came onto the scene preaching a message of repentance. He was calling the people to change their minds about God and their mindset about what it means to be in a right relationship with God. But his was a call to life transformation via behavior modification. While at this early stage of the game John is preaching the Good News, it is as of yet incomplete. His job is to prepare the way for the Messiah. He is getting the hearts of the people ready to receive the Message of salvation through faith alone in Christ alone. To do so, he must call them to repentance. He must make them aware of their need and their inability to live the life God demands of them. To date, they have been saddled with attempting to keep the Law in an effort to please God and have a right relationship with Him. They have been counting on their Jewishness – their standing as descendants of Abraham – to qualify them as children of God. Now when John breaks the bad news to them that "God can create children of Abraham from these very stones" (Luke 3:8 NLT), and "every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown in to the fire" (Luke 3:9 NLT), they are blown away. They ask him, "What should we do?" Look closely to the answer he gives them. "If you have two shirts, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry" (Luke 3:11 NLT). He is calling them to a different lifestyle. He is calling them to reconsider how it is they live their life and what they will consider as their priorities for living holy lives. He talks of sharing and sacrifice. He tells the corrupt tax collectors to "collect no more taxes than the government requires" (Luke 3: 13 NLT). In other words, change your behavior. Stop doing what you are doing and act differently. He tells some soldiers, "Don't extort money or make false accusations. And be content with your pay" (Luke 3:14 NLT).

Do you see what John is doing? He is raising the bar. He is making this about life change, not political revolution or religious renewal. After 400 years of silence on God's part, He is picking up His message right where He left off. Listen to the words of God against the people of Israel, given through Malachi the prophet some 400 years earlier. "You have said, 'What's the use of serving God? What have we gained by obeying his commands or by trying to show the Lord of Heaven's Armies that we are sorry for our sins? From now on we will call the arrogant blessed. For those who do evil get rich, and those who dare God to punish them suffer no harm.'" (Milachi 3:14-15 NLT). God goes on to warn them, "Look I am sending you the prophet Elijah before the great and dreadful day of the Lord arrives. His preaching will turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers. Otherwise I will come and strike the land with a curse" (Malachi 4:5-6 NLT).

That same passage is used by the angel when he tells Zechariah that he and his wife Elizabeth will have a son. Speaking of John the Baptist, the angel says, "He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and he will cause those who are rebellious to accept the wisdom of the godly" (Luke 1:17 NLT). John's job, like that of any prophet of God, was to call the people to repentance, to convince them to turn back to God. That required them to acknowledge their sin and to come to grips with their shortcomings. They had failed to measure up to God's revealed standard as expressed in the Law. Now he tells them that God was going to require them to live completely different lives than they were currently living. John tells them, "Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God" (Luke 3:8 NLT). God expected not only repentance, but life change. And this call by John was meant to leave the people feeling inadequate and incapable of pulling off what God was calling them to do. And what better way to prepare their hearts for the coming of the Savior. A recognition of our own sinfulness and helplessness must always proceed our acceptance of God's gift of salvation. Our inability to measure up is what drives us to turn to Christ as the solution to our problem. The reality of the judgment of God hovering over all those who fail to live in complete obedience to God should cause us to gratefully and eagerly accept His mercy and grace as expressed through His Son's own death in our place.

I find it interesting how verse 18 explains what John was doing. "And in this way, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed good news to the people" (Luke 3:18 NET). This was all part of the Good News, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. John was explaining the problem. He was opening their eyes to the dilemma they faced. After 400 years, God's expectations had not changed. His holy requirements were the same. And the people's ability to meet them remained unchanged as well. Which is why He was sending His Son.

Father, how hard it is to admit our need. Even after experiencing Your gracious gift of salvation, we can easily tend to think we can live this life in our own strength and according to our own set of criteria. But like the Israelites in John's day, we have to come to grips with our need for You and Your Son's sanctifying power. We do not have the capacity to live the lives You've called us to on our own, but thanks for the finished work of Christ and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, we can and should be living transformed lives. Amen.

Repent!

Matthew 3:2-12; John 1:19-28

“I baptize you with water, for repentance, but the one coming after me is more powerful than I am – I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” – Matthew 3:11 ESV

John was a unique character, to say the least. We're told that his "clothes were woven from course camel hair, and he wore a leather belt around his waist" (Matthew 3:4 NLT). His diet consisted of locusts and wild honey. But while his attire and dietary choices may seem a bit odd, his role was out of the ordinary. John, the cousin of Jesus, had been chosen by God for a very important task. He was to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah. His job was to preach a message of repentance to a people who had long ago replaced their relationship with Yahweh with a mindless, heartless exercise consisting of rule-keeping and religious rituals. Their God was distant and silent. Their hearts were cold and their faith was weak. So John was given the task of calling them back to God. John was the first prophet of God to speak on behalf of God in over 400 years. And like the prophets of old, John's message was one of repentance. He was calling the people to return to God. The Greek word for repentance literally means to "change one's mind." They needed to change what they believed about virtually everything – from their views about God, sin, righteousness, and religion. As Jews, they had become convinced that being simply being descendants of Abraham was enough to guarantee their relationship with God. But as John warned the religious leaders, "Don't just say to each other, 'We're safe, for we are descendants of Abraham,' That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones" (Matthew 3:9 NLT).

They needed to change their mind about God. They needed to change their mind about obedience. They needed to change their attitude about righteousness. They needed to come back to God in repentance and asking for His forgiveness. He had been silent for 400 years for a reason. They had refused to listen to the prophets. They had refused to live in obedience to His will. And now, if they were going to be able to accept the coming of the Messiah, they would need to repent of their sins and return to God, asking for His forgiveness. And those who did, were baptized by John in the Jordan. But that was simply the first step in the process. John's baptism, while essential, was incomplete. They were still going to recognize and accept Jesus as the Messiah sent from God. Their baptism was an outward sign of their commitment to God. But they were going to need to have their hearts transformed. That would require a different kind of baptism, a baptism of the Holy Spirit. One of the greatest changes of mind they would need to undergo would be their misconception that somehow they could produce their own righteousness – that through self-effort, they could earn favor and acceptance with God. John was calling them to repent of their wrong ideas and false forms of righteousness, and to turn back to God for His help. Holiness could not be achieved with God's help. Righteousness could not be obtained alone. John was preparing the way by restoring the people's dependence on God. Their ability to accept the Messiah would be directly tied to their reliance upon God. They needed to acknowledge their own sinfulness and rebellion, so that they could freely accept God's salvation in the form of His own Son, Jesus Christ.

Father, we too need to change our mind about You and what is required to have a right relationship with You. Too often, we believe that it is our own self-effort that earns us favor with You. We get it into our minds that we can somehow keep You pleased by doing more. We work hard. We do religious things. We attempt to live our lives in ways that will somehow keep You happy. But we fail to recognize that we need You. We need to repent of our self-righteousness and return to You for help. Only You can make us holy. Only You can help us live the lives You've called us to live. And it is all made possible through the gift of Your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Prepare the Way!

Matthew 3:1; Mark 1:1-4; Luke 3:1-2

“Prepare the way of the Lord,make his paths straight.” – Mark 1:3 ESV

Luke gives us the specifics. "It was now the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius, the Roman emperor. Pontius Pilate was governor over Judea; Herod Antipas was ruler over Galilee; his brother Philip was ruler over Iturea and Traconitis; Lysanias was ruler over Abilene. Annas and Caiaphas were the high priests. At this time a message from God came to John son of Zechariah, who was living in the wilderness." (Luke 3:1-2 NLT). The timing was precise. The long delay was over. The Messiah's arrival was near.

John, the son of Zechariah, later to be nicknamed John the Baptizer, was to set the stage for the entry of Jesus into His public ministry. Interestingly enough, John's commission sent him to the Judean wilderness to begin his proclamation of the Messiah's arrival. Not exactly a prominent assignment or an ideal place to begin his tenure as the Messiah's advance PR team. The Judean wilderness was not exactly user-friendly. It was a harsh and hostile place, far from the political and religious action taking place in Jerusalem. But it was all part of God's divine plan and in fulfillment of the Word of God given to Isaiah hundreds of years earlier. "Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight" (Mark 1:2-3 ESV).

John began his ministry right where he lived – in the wilderness. It was all part of God's elaborate, detailed and predetermined plan. It had been 30 years since Jesus arrived on the scene as a newborn baby in Bethlehem. John, a cousin of Jesus, had been born at roughly the same time. His life had been set aside by God for this very moment. His assignment had been predetermined by God and predicted by an angel 30 years earlier. "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared" (Luke 1:13-17 ESV).

The time had come. John was ready. His assignment was clear. The Messiah was near. God was about to do something out of the ordinary, unexpected, unpredictable, unorthodox and unlike anything that had ever happened since the creation of the world.

Father, this story never ceases to amaze me. You could have brought Your Son into the world in so many other ways. Yet You chose this path. You decided to bring it all about under these circumstances and including these obscure individuals. I am reminded of the necessity of John's obedience. He was set apart by You before birth, yet it was essential that he be willing to do what You had called him to do. His parents had kept the requirements given to them by the angel. Mary and Joseph had done their part in the raising of Jesus. And now it was all coming together. Because You had ordained it that way. Your ways are not our ways. "Oh, how great are God's riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways!" (Romans 11:33 NLT). Amen.

In the Fulness of Time.

Luke 1:5-80

“For nothing is impossible with God.” – Luke 1:37 NLT

Galatians 4:4 tells us, "But when the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law. God sent him to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children." At just the right time. The imagery here conjures up pictures of a pregnant woman ready to give birth. Her day has come. After months of preparation, the day of delivery finally comes. Something long-awaited and highly anticipated is about to take place. The same is true of the situation in Israel as we read Luke's account of the coming of Jesus. For more than 400 years, the Hebrew people have been waiting anxiously for a word from God. They have been desperately and eagerly waiting for the promised arrival of the Messiah. But unlike a pregnancy, they have no timeline to go by. They have no idea when the Messiah might come. During the period between the close of the Old Testament and the time recorded in the Gospel accounts, God has been silent. He has cut off communication with His people. There have been no prophets and therefore, no word from God. There have been no miraculous manifestations of God's presence. It is a dark period, a virtual blackout, void of God's abiding presence. And it would have been easy for the people of Israel to have lost hope. During those 400 years they had suffered considerably. They had had to endure repeated invasions by various enemies, and it culminated with the taking of Jerusalem by the Romans. By the time Jesus came onto the scene, the Jews were living under Roman rule, subject to Roman laws and Roman taxes. Herod the Great sat on the throne, having been appointed "king" over all of Palestine by the Romans. He was wicked, oppressive and a political schemer who had clawed his way to the top. Things could not have looked worse for the average Jew living in Judea at that time.

But at just the right time, God put His long-awaited plan into action. Luke records it for us. Breaking the long silence, suddenly God begins to speak again. He sends angels to Zechariah and Mary. He begins doing works of power and wonder. An elderly and barren couple miraculously give birth to a son. A young virgin girl becomes pregnant – by the Holy Spirit. Luke records for us the birth of John the Baptist, the conception of Jesus, and the foundational events that would set up the birth of Jesus, the Son of God and the Savior of the World. At just the right time – God acted. When things looked bleak and impossible – God did the impossible. "For nothing is impossible with God" (Luke 1:37 NLT). Mary echoed this sentiment when she sang, "For the Mighty One is holy, and he has done great things for me" (Luke 1:49 NLT). "His mighty arm has done tremendous things!" (Luke 1:51 NLT). Zechariah praised God saying, "Praise the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has visited his people. He has sent us a mighty Savior from the royal line of his servant David" (Luke 1:68-69 NLT). God was fulfilling the promises He had made centuries ago to Abraham and David. He was doing exactly what He said He would do, at just the right moment in time.

Nothing is impossible with God. Circumstances are no match for Him. Wicked kings and powerful nations can't stand in His way. Barrenness and old age are no problem for God. Normal human biological and reproductive requirements don't limit God. Mary's virginity, Elizabeth's barrenness, Zechariah's old age, Herod's wickedness, Rome's dominance, and Israel's weakness were not going to keep God from accomplishing His will and unleashing His redemptive power on the world.

"Because of God's tender mercy, the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace" (Luke 1:78-79 NLT).

Father, nothing is impossible with You. You are limitless in Your power and unstoppable in regards to Your will. Yet I tend to place limits on Your effectiveness and doubt Your ability to handle all that goes on in my life. Forgive me for my fear and floundering faith. Use the story of Your Son's coming to remind me of Your sovereign control over all. Amen.