Why Did John the Baptist Call Israel to be Baptized?
Remember in the Old Testament the prophets, particularly Isaiah, talked about the coming of the Messiah, but that before the Messiah would arrive there would be a forerunner. One who would come and prepare the way for the Messiah. And John is that one who is anointed by God to be the one who’s crying as a voice in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight His paths.” And so in this preparatory mission to which John is sent, and for which he is consecrated by God, he’s now calling the whole nation of Israel to be subjected to baptism. Why? What was his message? He comes on the scene and his message is simply this: “Repent…” Why? “…for the kingdom of God is at hand.” The kingdom of God that the Jews looked forward to in the prophecies of the Old Testament was in the nebulous, distant, far-off future. No specific time frame had been given for their expectation of the coming of the kingdom and the coming of the Messiah.
And what John is saying is the time is at hand, the kingdom of God is about to break through. And he uses some metaphors and some images to describe the urgency of the moment, where he says, “The axe is laid at the root of the tree.” Now using that image of the woodsman who goes out and he’s going to chop down a tree and he starts with the outer bark and he makes a dent in the bark and then he has to keep penetrating deeper, and deeper, and deeper into the course of the tree and get to the root of the tree before the tree will topple.
And so John’s image is this: It’s not like the woodsman is out in the shed sharpening his axe and thinking about cutting down the tree, nor has he just given one or two strokes to the tree removing the outer bark. No! The axe has come all the way, cutting through all the pulp and the meat of the wood to the very center and core. So that with one more stroke, in one more second, the tree will fall.
The other image he uses is of the winnowing fork, where the farmer says it’s time for harvest. And they would harvest the wheat, and they would separate the wheat by the chaff. They would have this big pile of wheat and it would be all filled with chaff and you wouldn’t get down on your hands and knees and take a little piece of wheat and a little piece of chaff—it would take you forever to do the harvest. But because the chaff was lighter than the wheat the farmers used the winnowing fork. And they would take this big fork and they would put it into the pile of wheat and chaff and just throw it up into the air and the slightest zephyr of wind would carry the chaff away. And the heavier wheat would settle straight down. And the separation between the wheat and the chaff had taken place—efficiently.
And John says, here’s how urgent it is. His fork is in His hand. He’s ready to put that winnowing fork into that wheat and the chaff. That crisis moment of separation is now. It’s about to break through and the problem with you, Israel, is that the King is about to appear and the Messiah is at the threshold, and you’re not ready; you’re unclean.