John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, “I baptize you with[a] water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with[b] the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.
Jesus’ cousin John, for good reason is called John the Baptist (or Baptizer). His ministry was to prepare the way for the Lord in getting the people of Israel ready for the coming of the Messiah-King. It was certainly a message of repentance along with the warning of judgment to come. And of great promise in that while John baptized the people with water, Jesus would baptize them with the Holy Spirit. Something unprecedented was to happen to the people of Israel at large. But they’d better be ready. Baptism with fire awaited those who would not be ready.
John preached the gospel to them, which simply means good news, which is Jesus, and God’s good will in him, that good news unfolding as we read on in the gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), and further explained in its outworking in the rest of the New Testament.
The people in preparation for the coming of the Messiah were not only to submit to John’s baptism of repentance by confessing their sins and being baptized by him in the Jordan River. They were also to change their ways, to do and not do certain things which John spells out clearly for them in this passage in answer to their question. Works play an important role in our preparation for the coming of King Jesus. It’s not enough to repent as in merely expressing remorse and regret over our sins. We have to change our behavior, which means we must do as well as not do certain things. Scripture is clear concerning that. We can’t just wait for some change of heart before we change our ways. Somehow both are simultaneous in God’s working. A change of heart with no corresponding change of life is no change at all.
And so John the Baptist’s ministry is an important reminder to us of the necessity of preparing ourselves for the Lord’s coming. We want to be ready when he is appears, to be in sync with God’s good will in him, something that has begun even now through his first coming, which we soon are to celebrate.