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John the Baptist's ministry is a two-sided coin: a plea for repentance in preparation for the Lord's coming on one side, and looking to Christ on the other. Like a good pathfinder, John points to Christ. But Christ is no mystery for John; he is the bearer of the Spirit. John serves humanity and the Messiah by showing humanity what the anointed one of God will do. This section explains why John is a pointer, not the center of God's plan. The theme is clearest in verses 15-17 (v. 18 simply notes that much more could be said about John, while vv. 19-20 reveal Herod's reaction to and rejection of John). By mentioning John's arrest here, Luke places all the events of the Baptist's ministry in one passage. This arrangement enables Luke to concentrate on Jesus from this point on. The picture of John as the servant who points the way to Jesus illuminates what servants of God are like: they magnify the God they serve (Jn 3:25-30).
The power in John's message leads some to speculate that perhaps John is the Christ. The question is logical, since John has spoken of the coming Day of the Lord, God's wrath and the approach of God's deliverance. Many Jews at the time expected that God would crush his enemies decisively during the time of Messiah (Psalms of Solomon 17—18). So maybe John is this figure. Luke states the popular expectation with the Greek particle mepote ("perhaps"; NIV if), indicating that the answer to the question is negative. If this grammatical hint is not enough, John's reply settles the matter.
But then a question remains: if not John, then who is the Christ? John's answer expresses Jesus' superiority at three points. First, Jesus has a higher position than John. John will detail exactly what this means in the following two points. When he calls Jesus one more powerful, he is thinking more of personal authority than of physical power. So great is the One to come that a prophet of God is not worthy to untie his sandals. This illustration carries great power. Among the many tasks that a first-century slave performed for his master, one of the most demanding and least liked was removing sandals from the master's feet (Schneider 1977:88; Mekilta Exodus 21:2). John reverses the image to highlight the gulf between human beings, even great persons, and the One to come. It is not that untying sandals is too demeaning for the prophet; it is that he is not worthy to be that close to the Messiah. This is like a CEO saying he is not worthy to take out Jesus' garbage.
John's humility gives a proper perspective on the relationship of humanity to Jesus. Human beings are not Jesus' advisers or equals; they are greatly honored to know him and serve him. John does not draw attention to himself; instead he points to the superior greatness of the one to come. To direct others to Jesus is the call of God's servant.
The second area of Jesus' superiority is the blessing he brings. John has a baptism of water, but as verse 16 shows, this is a mere preparatory baptism. Jesus baptizes with the Spirit, bringing blessing, discernment, enablement and divine presence. To say that Jesus' baptism is with the Holy Spirit and fire raises an interesting point, since only one baptism is in view. We know only one baptism is described because (contrary to the NIV) the terms Holy Spirit and fire are tied together by one preposition, en ("with"). John is prophesying of all the Spirit will do as Jesus forms his people. Thus this is not addressing the rite of water baptism, but pictures the Spirit's coming to gather a people to himself. It refers to the promise of the Spirit's coming to those who trust in Jesus, while excluding those who do not respond to him (1 Cor 12:12-13). Fire is a key image for purging and judgment (Is 1:25; Zech 13:9; Mal 3:2-3; Dunn 1970a:12-13). A key Old Testament passage mentioning Spirit and fire together is Isaiah 4:4-5, where people are purged so some may dwell in God's presence. The Holy Spirit and fire, then, represent two integral aspects of Jesus' ministry. He comes to gather and to divide (12:49-53; 17:29-30). The offer of the Spirit must be received. Those who respond are purged and taken in, while those who reject are tossed away like chaff, as verse 17 suggests. Jesus is far superior to John because in the end it is Jesus alone who matters for any person.
The third and final point of superiority marks the ultimate difference. Jesus is superior because he is the Judge who makes distinctions between people. The wheat retained for storage and chaff that is blown away, gathered and burned evoke a picture of harvest time and are symbols with Old Testament roots (Job 20:26; Prov 20:26; Is 34:8-10; 41:15-16; 64:6; Jer 15:7). The key image is that of sifting, the separation Jesus makes between people. There is no room for universalism in this imagery: the winnowing fork is in his hand. Note the juxtaposition of judgment and fire—an echo of verses 7-9. The difference between John and Jesus is ultimately the difference between a prophet and the Judge. Jesus is stronger because he has all authority.
Luke's point is crucial. Jesus is not simply a great teacher, a moral example or a friend to those in need. He is these things, but he is also much more. Jesus' significance is evident in our accountability to him. In his hands God has placed ultimate authority. This picture of Jesus as ultimate Judge is central to Luke and to the preaching of Acts (Acts 4:10-12; 10:42; 17:31; Rom 10:9-13). If we wish to hear the voice and will of God, we must hear Jesus and those who carry his gospel message. This authority is why John pointed so exclusively to Jesus and why he counted it an honor to serve him. We do well to emulate John's respect for Jesus and total commitment to his uniqueness. In fact, doing so is a matter of life and death.
Luke next notes that John preached the good news to them. His preaching included a variety of other exhortations. Calling John's message good news might seem odd to us, given his direct, challenging, even harsh tone. His words seem more caustic warnings than good news. Our problem is our failure to appreciate what John is offering. Reality, especially spiritual reality, often seems a bitter pill to swallow at first. Healing can involve pain, especially when we are asked to look honestly at ourselves. Yet healing is good news, and John is calling people to genuine healing of the soul.
Herod's reaction to John's preaching stands in negative contrast to the openness of the crowds in 3:10-14. Like many Old Testament prophets, John holds the political leader accountable for his moral insensitivity and failure. Herod's marriage to Herodias is objectionable on two grounds. First, both have left previous marriages to marry each other. Second, Herodias had previously been married to a near blood relative of Herod; thus her union with Herod is forbidden under Jewish law (Lev 18:16; 20:21). Since Herodias had been married to Herod's half-brother, Herod Philip, in effect she is Herod's wife, sister-in-law and niece all in one (Barclay 1975:36)! John also points to other sins of Herod, but the use of the general term porneron ("immoral things"; NIV evil things) does not allow us to speculate on what these things are specifically.
Herod's response to the exposure of his sin is instructive. He does not face the sin and take responsibility for it; he strikes back, taking advantage of his authority to do so. Such a response is all too familiar. Herod will use all the authority at his disposal to silence the voice of conviction, for eventually he will execute John. Sin confronted but unchecked often becomes sin multiplied and magnified. Defensiveness in the face of sin is inevitably self-destructive. Unfortunately, the damage often extends beyond the one who is sinning.
Also instructive is an evaluation of John's ministry against the modern standard of success. By that standard John's scripturally honest but confrontational style could be seen as the cause of his downfall and failure. A modern PR consultant might have advised him, "Don't say anything that's too upsetting to your hearers, even if it's true. Work especially hard to avoid offending those with influence, because you might lose them." But the call to Jesus is not a call to maintain the status quo; it is an invitation to personal renovation. Our spiritual well-being may require that we recognize and deal with sin. Renovation implies change, and problems need to be exposed if they are to be corrected. Confrontation occurs because of a commitment to the hope of renovation; proper moral correction means moving closer to God.
John may be in prison, but his ministry has been carried out faithfully and is a success, for he has pointed people to God's will and to God's agent. He has treated the hated tax collectors and Herod the same way, calling them all to walk with God. These two practices still make for an effective life compass today: (1) to honestly appraise one's spiritual condition and (2) to focus on Jesus and the gift of his grace.