. . . the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. (Luke 3:2b-8)
The story of John the Baptist draws on two striking mages: exile and proselyte baptism.
Luke follows the synoptic tradition in linking John’s prophetic ministry with the prophecy of Isaiah 40:3-5.
Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
Isaiah’s prophecy relates to the return of the Judean exiles from Babylon. The prophet says, “Fix up the roads between Babylon and Judah. God’s people are coming home. Shorten up the curves. Smooth out the rough road. Get rid of the steep terrain. Eliminate the dangerous mountain passes.” The prophet is drawing a mental picture, not calling for an actual construction project. He begins by speaking as if his listeners bear the responsibility for preparing the way for Judah’s return, but ends with passive language. Every valley shall be filed, every mountain made low, the crooked made straight and the rough places smooth. God will do it. God not only will free his people, he will prepare the way for their return.
How are John the Baptist’s hearers like Judeans in exile?
The people may reside in the land of promise, but they are in exile in their own land. The Romans, the Herods and a corrupt Judean ruling class are part of the problem, but the problem goes deeper than that. The road to freedom doesn’t start with getting rid of the snakes at the top. Israel had become a family of snakes. It wasn’t just the tax collectors and soldiers who needed to repent; everyone did. The people of Israel were not living as God intended, and until they did they would never be “at home” in the land that God gave them. That was true nature of Israel’s exile. The road home, John the Baptist says, is the way of repentance.
For those who don’t repent, there is “wrath to come.” It’s not clear that John the Baptist thought in the same eschatological terms as Jesus. For Jesus, God’s judgment not only lies within history (which it does), but also within the apocalyptic framework of the coming of the Son of Man. Perhaps John just foresaw a coming historical crisis, as the prophets who came before him did.
If 1st century Judeans could be living in exile, even though they were apparently at home, could not 21st century Christians also be living in exile, even though they have been baptized into Christ and have a place in his church? Insofar as we are not the church that God intends us to be, and insofar as we are not yet people who live as new creatures in Christ, we remain in exile. The way home begins with repentance.
Israel’s exile created another situation that relates to John the Baptist. The people of Israel were dispersed throughout the world, living not only in the land of promise but also among the nations of the world. The word that we normally used for these dispersed Judeans is “diaspora.” As the dispersed Jews lived among their Gentile neighbors, some Gentiles became attracted to the Jewish faith. Converts to Judaism underwent a period of instruction, followed by exorcism and baptism by immersion. The word “proselyte” means to “draw near,” and that’s the word that described these converts from pagan idolatry. Repentance, exorcism and baptism prepared them to “draw near” to God of Israel.
In calling his fellow Judeans to a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” John puts the native-born children of Israel in the same category as Gentile converts. Just as Gentiles converts did, the Jews of Judea and Galilee needed to repent, to cleanse themselves of their idolatry and to change the way they lived their lives. John’s choice of the Jordan River as the site for his baptizing suggests that God is reconstituting his people. The people of Israel entered the land of promise when they crossed through the waters of the Jordan. Those who passed through the waters of baptism constituted a renewed people of God whom God would save in the coming time of trial.
The coming crisis required the biological sons and daughters of Abraham to approach God with the same intensity and seriousness as proselytes. Repentance was absolutely necessary, and it must bear fruit in real change. This was no time for business as usual or for presuming upon one’s privileged status with God.
Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. (Luke 3:8)
Like our Jewish forbears, Christians have an exalted status with God. Through our baptism and union with Christ, we have become members of the covenant people of God. We have already been baptized, so does John have any message for us?
As the apostle Paul said in his epistle to the Romans:
For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either. (Romans 11:21)
The church invites those who have never been united to Christ to come to turn from sin and idolatry, put their faith in Christ and come to the waters of baptism. It calls the baptized to continuing repentance as well. God’s work in the waters of baptism will not be complete until we reach the full stature of Christ. And it begs those who slide back into living as baptized heathen to take John the Baptist’s warning to heart. Through your baptism, you are a child of God. It’s not to late – yet – to return to the God who loves you and claimed you as his own.