It’s like waiting at the airport for someone. Many times I have waited at the Lubbock International Airport for in coming flights with preachers, students, or just guests for the Sunset workshop to arrive. And the whole time I’m wondering as a new person emerges from the terminal, “Is this the person I have been waiting for?” Now take that and amplify it times ten and you probably get an idea of what these people gathered around the Jordan listening to a preacher of repentance might have felt. Is he the Messiah, the one we have been waiting for.
Luke says they wondered this “in their hearts.” This is something they deperately wanted. It was no small thing to them; the Jews had waited long enough (some 400-600 years) for the Messiah – so John, are you him? And very humbly John replies that he is not. John gives a fuller account of the questioning John faced and he would deny being anyone of power, humbly and always pointing to the coming Lord. In Luke, John explains that he is not even worthy to untie his sandals, a lowly, menial job. He also points out the fact that his (John’s baptism) is inferior to the baptism that the Messiah bring with him. After all, John’s is merely preparatory for the “one baptism” that Jesus introduces for the church. This is not to say John’s baptism is of no value; the people still needed it and John was preparing the people for the “one baptism.” It was still required for the people.
Now about the baptisms: John’s was in water; Jesus brings a baptism in the Holy Spirit and fire. There are many different ways this phrase could be interpreted but I think the context demands that the Holy Spirit correlates to Pentecost (see Acts 1.5 where Jesus picks this idea up and exegetes it for us) and the fire relates to judgment. We read the next verse (3.17) and this becomes clear. This is a judgment type scene John describes. He uses simple language the people could understand (preachers can learn from that) and explains that “the Lord knows them that are his” (see 2 Tim 2.19) and gathers them up while those who are not his and remain in wickedness (i.e. do not repent) will be burned up like chaff in a fire that cannot be extinguished.
John was truly a preacher who preached the gospel. But you cannot preach the gospel without divine judgment. The “health and wealth gospel” that so many preach today that promises all the blessing but doesn’t touch the wrath of God on sin and wickedness with a ten foot pole is not the full gospel. John understood that one cannot preach the good news of salvation and deliverance with preaching about what one is saved and delivered from. But if you want to preach like John, know this: people will not like it. Herod did not like the cut of John’s jib and had him thrown into prison. Nevertheless, the watchman must stand on watch and warn the people of the things that could ruin their relationship with the only God who can save them from sin, death and hell. So every watchman, every preach and teacher, stay alert and keep watch and sound the trumpet to warn the people lest the Lord hold you accountable for the people’s blood (See Eze 33.1-9).