Defying Expectations

15 As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 16 John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

18 So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. 19 But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, 20 added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.

21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Luke 3:15-21 ESV

As will become increasingly more clear as Luke’s gospel unfolds, John the Baptist certain expectations regarding the coming Messiah. Like all Jews, he was anticipating a kingly Messiah who would rule and reign in Jerusalem just as David had. John was aware of the many prophetic passages that pronounced the arrival of the long-awaited Savior of Israel. And, as John has already revealed, he believed that when the Messiah finally appeared, He would bring salvation but also judgment. That’s why John warned the people, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Luke 3:7 ESV).

John was the divinely appointed messenger sent to prepare the way for the coming Messiah. But that does not mean he fully grasped what the nature of the Messiah’s role would be when He appeared. The apostle John records that John the Baptist described Jesus as the Lamb of God and understood that He would offer atonement for the sins of the world.

“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” – John 1:29-31 ESV

As John began his public ministry, preaching and baptizing in the wilderness of Judea, he drew large crowds. And his ministry and message began to have an impact on all those who came to hear him. Luke reports that “the people were in expectation” (Luke 3:15 ESV). They sensed that something significant was about to happen. When they heard John proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2 ESV), their excitement began to peak. Was the one for whom they had been waiting so long about to show up? Would He deliver them from the oppression of the Romans? Was He going to restore Israel’s power and prominence?

They even began to question whether John was the Messiah. But He cleared up those rumors by declaring, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16 ESV). While John was speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, there is no reason to believe that he understood the full import of his own words. It seems clear that John understood that when the Messiah appeared, He would come as both Savior and judge. John’s reference to fire conveys his expectation that one of the primary roles the Messiah would play would be that of meting out judgment upon the nations.

“His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” – Luke 3:17 ESV

John believed that one for whom he was preparing the way would usher in the end times. His arrival would fulfill all the prophetic promises concerning the renewal and restoration of Israel as well as the judgment of all of Israel’s enemies. John was expecting the final form of the Kingdom. Like many Jews of his day, John had conflated all the prophetic passages concerning the Messiah into one event. He had no concept of a first and second advent. From his perspective, when the Messiah showed up, it would be to set up His earthly Kingdom on earth – once and for all time.

But Jesus would later debunk the idea that He had come to judge the world.

“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. I will not judge those who hear me but don’t obey me, for I have come to save the world and not to judge it. But all who reject me and my message will be judged on the day of judgment by the truth I have spoken.” – John 12:46-48 NLT

the purpose for His first advent was to offer salvation to a lost and dying world. He would do so by offering His life as a sacrifice for their sins. He would pay the debt they owed by laying down His life in their place. Jesus had come to suffer and die, not rule and reign. His appearance, while significant, was far from spectacular. He had not been born to a wealthy family and raised in an environment of privilege and power. He had not shown up on the scene with an army or a contingent of “mighty men” like David had. No, Jesus had been born in obscurity and relative anonymity. And even after John baptized Jesus and stood back and watched as He began His earthly ministry, the faithful messenger would begin to have serious doubts about Jesus’ identity.

At the baptism of Jesus, John had witnessed the dove descending upon Jesus’ head and had heard a voice from heaven declare, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22 ESV). And yet, as Jesus began His earthy ministry, John would begin to have questions about what He saw Jesus doing. It seems clear that John expected a radical transformation to take place in Israel. He had been calling the people to repentance and demanding that their behavior reflect their willingness to change. He had even confronted Herod, the Roman-appointed king of Judea, demanding that he repent of the adulterous affair he was having with his brother, Philip’s wife. Matthew records that John the Baptist fully expected everyone in Israel to get their spiritual act together, including the tetrarch of Judea. John had repeatedly confronted Herod and told him, “It is not lawful for you to have her” (Matthew 14:4 ESV). This bold accusation angered Herodias, Philip’s wife, and ended up getting John imprisoned. It was while in prison that John would begin to have second thoughts about Jesus.

Later on in his gospel, Luke records that, while in prison, John was receiving regular updates from his disciples about all that Jesus was doing. And what he heard left him scratching his head in confusion. Surely, they told him about all the miracles Jesus had performed. They must have shared the amazing miracle of Jesus raising a dead boy back to life (Luke 7:11-14). Yet John felt compelled to send two of his disciples to Jesus with a surprisingly blunt question: “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?” (Luke 7:19 ESV).

And Luke seems to highlight the absurdity of John’s question by adding, “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 ESV). In other words, Jesus had been performing many incredible and inexplicable miracles. Yet, John was unconvinced. He seems to have been expecting something completely different.

But rather than rebuke John for his doubt, Jesus sent back the two disciples with a message: “Go back to John and tell him what you have seen and heard—the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor…God blesses those who do not fall away because of me” (Luke 7:22-23 ESV).

John had expected the Messiah to bring deliverance to the people of Israel. And yet, here he was in prison. He had been declaring God’s message of repentance and calling the people to prepare themselves for the coming Kingdom. But he was behind bars and having to wonder how any of this was part of God’s plan of redemption and restoration. It’s clear that John knew his role was subordinate to that of Jesus. He had no aspirations of greatness or desire for glory. But he had not expected to be in jail. The apostle John reports that John the Baptist had one desire: To see the Messiah accomplish His God-appointed assignment.

“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 3:28-30 NLT

Little did John know the prophetic nature of his own words. He would become less. In fact, he would never leave the prison alive. Herodias would arrange to have John beheaded (Matthew 14:1-12). And Jesus would honor John with a profound statement concerning his contribution to the Kingdom.

“I tell you, of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John.” –  Luke 7:28a ESV

John had been given the privilege and responsibility for preparing the way for the Savior of the world. And he had done his job faithfully. Yet, Jesus reveals that John’s greatness or significance will be exceeded by all those who become citizens of the Kingdom of God.

Yet even the least person in the Kingdom of God is greater than he is!” – Luke 7:28 ESV

John had faithfully declared the message he had been given. But he did not have a full grasp on the nature of Jesus’ earthly ministry. He had fully expected Jesus to come with power, but not the kind of power that healed the sick and raised the dead. He had been hoping for the kind of power that would raise a nation back to prominence. He had been expecting a King who would rule in righteousness. But he had not anticipated a suffering Savior who would provide a way for sinful men and women to be declared righteous by God.

It’s interesting to note how Luke records that John “preached good news to the people” (Luke 3:18 NLT). Yet, his message comes across as anything but good news.

His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” – Luke 3:17 ESV

The beauty of the Gospel message is that it will eventually fulfill all the Biblical prophecies concerning the Messiah. But what John failed to understand was that the final fulfillment of the Messiah’s earthly kingdom would come at a much later date. With His first advent, Jesus came to offer salvation, not to celebrate His inauguration. He came to be crucified, not to be glorified. He came to serve, not to be served.

“I have come to save the world and not to judge it.” – John 12:47 ESV

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