It’s been a long road to get here, but now we move into the section of our discussion of Public Theology where we observe pertinent biblical texts. There are several places in Scripture where one might start but, for our purposes, an examination of the life of John the Baptist will help us to understand some of the more important questions to ask as we proceed. The first glimpse that we see of John’s approach to Public Theology can be found in his interactions with those who came to him for baptism.
“So he began saying to the crowds who were going out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits in keeping with repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. ‘Indeed the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; so every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’ And the crowds were questioning him, saying, ‘Then what shall we do?’ And he would answer and say to them, ‘The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise.’ And some tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.’ Some soldiers were questioning him, saying, “And what about us, what shall we do?” And he said to them, ‘Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.’” (Luke 3:7-14; NASB).
The first thing that we notice is John’s assertion of the universal depravity of mankind. John understood that all men, whether they be Jewish leaders, the Jews themselves, or Greek converts, were a “brood of vipers.” All men are born of Adam. We are all born into the City of Man and, therefore, we all have been blinded by the god of this world. A proper understanding of Public Theology, then, must start with a proper understanding of our inability to reason with a proper, biblical rationality.
John understood that the crowd that was coming to him for baptism—a crowd comprised of all types of men: tax collectors, soldiers, Jewish leaders, etc.—was coming to him with flawed thinking. The first thing they needed to understand was that they were the offspring of Satan, a “brood of vipers.” Only after they rightly understood their spiritual poverty could they rightly assess the riches of Christ. And understanding the riches of Christ, His mercy and His kindness, is what leads us to repentance.
John came preaching a message of repentance: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” (Mt. 3:2; NASB). Notice also that this is the same message Christ Himself came preaching (Mt. 4:17). However, the repentance they preached was not devoid of specificity. Once the hearts of the people were pierced to the core by the gospel John preached, they naturally wanted to know specifically what repentance looked like for them. John addressed them one-by-one according to the sphere of influence in which they operated. What should be observed here is that John the Baptist directly applies God’s moral law to the sphere of influence of each individual person.
Children of Abraham
For the Jewish leaders, it was important that they not teach a false hope in fleshly inheritance. Christ would prove to be the Seed of Abraham (Gal. 3:16) in Whom all who believe as did Abraham would come to be descendants of Abraham. Thus, for the Jewish leaders to insist that they were the rightful heirs of Abraham’s promises, due to their heredity or the circumcision of their flesh, was to rob Christ of His rightful position as Covenant Head. Therefore, John called for the Jewish leaders to repent of their heresy:
“Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham” (Mt. 3:8-9; NASB).
The Faith / Works Principle
Secondly, John addressed the entire group who asked, “Then what shall we do?” He responded, “The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise,” (Lk. 3:11; NASB). John was not here teaching works-based salvation. Rather, he was demonstrating what true, faith-based repentance looks like. As the apostle James explained, “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself,” (Jas. 2:14-17; NASB).
John wanted the people to understand that mere lip-service to the Savior is not genuine faith. Faith without works is dead. If a man truly has faith in God, true saving faith, it will change the way he lives. He will love God, and he will love his neighbor. He will not merely say to his neighbor in need, “Go. I have faith that God will be with you in your affliction.” Rather, the true Christian, saved by faith alone, will act in love to help his neighbor. This is the evidence that he truly has saving faith.
It’s important to note that John’s message is consistent with the message of previous Old Testament prophets. As Moses instituted, “If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8). Here, we have specific application of the Law given to the crowd.
Thirdly, John addressed the tax collectors. Tax collectors were agents for the government who were notorious for exploiting the people. Many of them were Jews themselves and were seen as traitors for the way they took advantage of their fellow countrymen. When John saw these tax collectors coming, he had specific instruction for them as well concerning their repentance: “Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.”
Notice he did not tell them to stop being tax collectors. He did not tell them that a true Christian would have no part in government affairs, so they should find a new job. He did not tell them, as the Jehovah’s Witnesses would, that governments are run by Satan, so they are working for Satan and must repent. Rather, he told them to take only what they were ordered to by the civil magistrates. In other words, one can be a Christian while living and operating in a public office. However, being a Christian means that we will operate according to Christian principles in that particular sphere of life. For tax collectors, this meant that they would not rob their fellow countrymen.
It’s important to note that John the Baptist is holding them accountable to the eighth commandment, even when they are operating in public office. The eighth commandment requires us people to act truthfully, faithfully, and justly in our contractual and business relationships. Previously, these tax collectors violated this trust with the people, but repentant sinners, the entire ethical code for tax collectors should change. Instead of being extortioners, they should be individuals who “love justice” (cf. Mic. 6:8) and refuse to oppress the poor through exploitation (cf. Zech. 7:8-10). This message should continue to be proclaimed since we live in a day where numerous politicians enrich themselves off of the poor.
Fourthly, John addressed the soldiers that came to him: “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.” Now, it might be observed that these principles are universal principles to be observed by all Christians. However, they have specific significance for the particular groups John was addressing.
It could be noted that soldiers in a land of occupation have a unique vantage point from which they can exploit the people being occupied. If a soldier is not content with his wages, he might be prone to take the possessions of those under occupation, either by force or by false accusation. This was likely a very common practice in John’s day, so he instructed these men to love their occupied neighbors with integrity rather than with wicked hearts.
Now, it might be observed that John is here instructing people who had come to him for repentance, so we as Christians might seek to instruct Christians in similar positions in a similar way. However, since John was talking to converts and instructing them on how they should repent, it would be improper to talk to our pagan neighbors who have yet to repent in a similar way. Rather, we should speak only the gospel to our unconverted neighbors. At first glance, this seems a glowing, gospel-centered policy to have when formulating one’s Public Theology. However, was that really the approach of John the Baptist? Let’s look at another instance in which John calls a pagan to repentance:
“For Herod himself had sent and had John arrested and bound in prison on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, because he had married her. For John had been saying to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death and could not do so; for Herod was afraid of John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. And when he heard him, he was very perplexed; but he used to enjoy listening to him. A strategic day came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his lords and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee; and when the daughter of Herodias herself came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests; and the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for whatever you want and I will give it to you.’ And he swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask of me, I will give it to you; up to half of my kingdom.’ And she went out and said to her mother, ‘What shall I ask for?’ And she said, ‘The head of John the Baptist.’ Immediately she came in a hurry to the king and asked, saying, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’ And although the king was very sorry, yet because of his oaths and because of his dinner guests, he was unwilling to refuse her. Immediately the king sent an executioner and commanded him to bring back his head. And he went and had him beheaded in the prison, and brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl; and the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about this, they came and took away his body and laid it in a tomb” (Mark 6:17-29; NASB).
So we see that John not only called converted Christians to a specific repentance, but he even called unconverted pagans to repent of their specific sins. His call for repentance even rose to the ears of Herod himself, whom he rebuked in strong terms. This rebuke was not a safe rebuke. He did not simply, generally tell Herod to turn from sin. He called out Herod for his specific sin, and it cost John his life.
Questions Moving Forward
There are several questions this study of John the Baptist raises. In the articles to come, we hope to answer several of these by looking at other texts in the word of God. These questions may include:
- What is the role of government?
- What is the role of the moral law in relationship to government?
- What is the role of the church in relationship to government?
- Did John the Baptist operate according to the principles outlined for us in these last days?
- Does the church have a mandate to preach anything other than the gospel to our pagan culture and pagan magistrates?
- What is the role of activism in our Christian witness to our culture?
- What expectations should Christians have of our pagan magistrates?
- What Christian principles might be governing John the Baptist’s approach to Public Theology that may help us govern ours?