According to the Gospel of Luke John lived in the wilderness of Judea until the time of his public ministry (Luke 3:2; cf. 1:80). After he was called by God, he went to the regions around the Jordan River, first of all because his ministry involved immersion (baptism) into running (living) water. Secondly, crossing the Jordan is what Israel did in order to take the Promised Land. John’s presence there may also point to the expectation of Christ’s ministry beginning at the Jordan River as the ‘other’ Prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15).
John described himself as ‘a voice’ in the wilderness spoken of by Isaiah the prophet whose mission was to ‘prepare the way of the Lord and make his path straight’ (John 1:23). I used to understand John as a hellfire and brimstone type preacher with a message of judgment and warning of impending doom, unless repentance was made (Luke 3:3-9). However, I no longer believe this way, because the text cannot support this understanding. First of all, neither Luke’s record, nor either of the other two Synoptics, nor does the Gospel of John put the Baptist in this light. They merely claim John preached his message of repentance, but a hellfire and brimstone persona is read into their accounts. Secondly, neither can we derive a hellfire and brimstone approach from Isaiah 40, that is, from the text where John derives a description of himself and his message to the Jewish people of his day.
Isaiah 40:1-8 Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. (2) Speak ye Isaiah 40:1-8 Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. (2) Speak lovingly to the heart of Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is done, that her iniquity is pardoned; for she has received of Jehovah’s hand double for all her sins. (3) The voice of him who cries in the wilderness, Prepare the way of Jehovah, make straight a highway in the desert for our God. (4) Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the crooked places shall be made level, and the rough places smooth; (5) and the glory of Jehovah shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of Jehovah has spoken. (6) The voice said, Cry! And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the beauty of it is as the flower of the field. (7) The grass withers, the flower fades, because the Spirit of Jehovah blows on it; surely the people is grass. (8) The grass withers, the flower fades; but the Word of our God shall stand forever.
Isaiah’s tone is vastly different from how I had originally understood John’s mission. Rather, it seems we should look for an attitude of comfort and encouragement, one of speaking to the heart of the people, rather than threats of judgment. Threats of judgment came from the Pharisees and rabbis of John’s day. John points to Isaiah 40 (John 1:23) for a description of both himself and his message. If Isaiah does not reflect the message that John preached, it is certainly odd for John to describe himself out of this passage. Logically, therefore, John’s message must have been one of comfort and encouragement, and one needs to read Luke 3 in the light of Isaiah’s account and adjust one’s take on John accordingly.
Certainly, John’s message was one of reform. It was expected that one’s behavior had to change in order to prepare oneself for the coming of the Messiah. However, John was not directly calling for one to cease from sinning in order to receive the Messiah. Neither is it that Christian message today. Rather, John was speaking of a particular sin (a singular sin – John 1:29). This sin is also mentioned in the Old Testament in Exodus 28:38, Leviticus 10:17 and Numbers 18:1, 23 as iniquity (singular). It refers to man’s rebellion, or his intention to act according to his own will—i.e. his refusal to submit to the authority of God.
This is the greatest of all sins, and it must be repented of, if one would ever receive Jesus as Lord and become his disciple (follower). Such a sin cannot be simply forgiven. If Abraham Lincoln forgave the South for its rebellion against the Union, we would be two nations today, and not necessarily friendly toward one another. The South had to submit for the Union to be retained, and man must cease his rebellion, if a relationship with God is to be retained and embraced. All other sins can be corrected and forgiven while in a relationship with Christ, but the sin of rebellion must be repented of and abandoned, before any good relationship could ever take place.