When I was growing up and was first taught about John the Baptist, I visualized a man in a kind of caveman outfit with wide eyes, unkempt hair and usually screaming out a message of hellfire and brimstone. You know what? This same picture is pretty much painted of him today, as well. But, is it accurate? Can we know from the Scriptures what John was like? Yes, I believe we can know a few things about John; at least enough can be learned to show that this assumption of his being a hell and damnation type preacher is wrong.
What was John’s message? “I am the voice of one crying in the desert: make straight the way of the Lord!” (John 1:23). This text points us to Isaiah the prophet. In other words, John was fulfilling this prophecy of Isaiah; so what does Isaiah say concerning John’s mission?
Isaiah 40:1-5 KJV Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. (2) Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD’S hand double for all her sins. (3) The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (4) Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: (5) And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.
How anyone can get a hellfire and brimstone preacher from this prophecy, I’ll never know—“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people…” Wow! When have I ever heard those words from a hell and damnation preacher? Nevertheless, this was John’s ministry; he was sent to comfort the people of God—the Jews. John was telling them that their warfare was over and their iniquity was pardoned, and that they had received double for all their sins (Isaiah 40:2). In other words, the purpose for which God called the Jews was a mixed bag of success and failure, and they received, as his firstborn, a double portion of both blessing and punishment for what they had done. The point being—hey, it is okay; I understand you haven’t been as faithful as you should have been or even as you thought you were, but it is over now. Take comfort in the fact that I accept you as you are and make yourselves ready for me, because I am coming to you (Isaiah 40:1-3).
John’s overall mission is parabolically expressed in Isaiah 40:4 where valleys, mountains (read hills), crooked and rough places are put forth as the types of the people in Palestine that he preached to. Most of the Jews were oppressed, both by the Romans and the Jewish authorities in Palestine. They needed to be lifted up and shown they had value with God. Those who exalted themselves (the mountains, hills) were the Jewish authorities—the Sadducees and Pharisees. They lorded it over the common folk and made them think they were not accepted by God (cp. John 7:49). Both John and the Lord had trouble with these people, that is, those who saw themselves as authority figures. They were the ones who opposed both John’s and Jesus’ ministries, not the common folk. They needed to be brought lower, but they wouldn’t yield. Actually, it is in ministering to these men that John is supposed to be a hellfire and brimstone preacher (cp. Matthew 3:7), but his ministry was not only to these people—and even to them he said they should be comforted in the fact that the glory of the Lord was about to be revealed to all flesh (Isaiah 40:5). The message of comfort was to all, but the message to yield to the authority of God was to those who lorded it over others and thought they had authority before God.
Finally, John ministered to those whom the text refers to as the “rough places” or the stony places. Jesus said these have no root in themselves (Matthew 13:20-21). They are those who are easily offended. It is difficult for them to let go of offenses and forgive. More than likely they were the zealots of the day; they could receive the word that the Messiah was coming with joy, but as soon as they were offended, they would take matters into their own hands—yet John’s message was that their warfare was over, that is, they needed to let go and let the Messiah do his job. Obviously, they needed special attention and encouraged to drink in the word of God and believe God will do as he says he’ll do.
This is what John’s ministry was about. He was not anywhere near the hellfire and brimstone preacher that he is made out to be by modern theology. He was sent basically with a message of comfort which pointed to the coming of the Lord. He wasn’t on a guilt-trip mission pointing to everyone’s sins; rather, most of his mission was to lift up the already oppressed. Certainly he told people to repent, but his basic message was one of love and expectation of the coming of the Messiah.