BIG BAD JOHN (THE BAPTIST)
1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” 7 He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 9 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10 And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” 15 As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 16 John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18 So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. 19 But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother's wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, 20 added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.
— Luke 3:1-20, ESV
It is a tradition at Advent to offer a sermon on the greatest of all the herald angels who harkened the arrival of Jesus Christ. I am not speaking of the heavenly angel Gabriel, nor one of the starry hosts who announced Christ’s birth to the shepherds. The man I speak of was not even aware of what was happening at the beginning of Jesus’ life, like prophets Simeon and Anna, since he was only six months old at the time.
But this man would grow up to be the “messenger” predicted by the prophets Isaiah and Malachi. He paved the way for the public ministry of the Messiah. He was the last Old Testament prophet and the first New Testament Apostle. He is the announcer of the Advent in the middle, not the birth of Christ, not the return of Christ, but the beginning of the public ministry of Christ. Then as Jesus increased, he decreased, dying a martyrs death. He is big (in the overall scheme of things), he is bad (in the hippest, coolest sense of the word), He is John, Big Bad John, the Baptist.
A few years ago I wrote a song about him, sung to the tune of Jimmy Dean’s “Big Bad John.” To refresh your memory, Dean’s song goes like this:
Every morning at the mine you could see him arrive,
He stood six-foot-six and weighed two-forty-five,
Kinda broad at the shoulder and narrow at the hip,
And everybody knew you didn't give no lip to big John,
Big John, Big John, big bad John.
Here’s my twist:
In the fulness of time God gave him a word,
And the people in the wilderness of Judea heard,
A man preaching repentance and faith in God,
He spoke real bold but he dressed kind of odd, big John,
Big John, Big John, Big Bad John (the Baptist).
John preached against sin and he preached about love,
He pointed all the people to the good Lord above,
But one day his sermon, it hit the wrong note,
Herod took him prisoner and it was all she wrote for big John,
Big John, Big John, Big Bad John (the Baptist).
He baptized Jesus and a new day began,
But then it was time for his work to end,
He lost his head in that cold jail cell,
But many went to Heaven and escaped from Hell, thanks to John,
Big John, Big John, Big Bad John (the Baptist).
Jesus’ arrival on the stage of public ministry begins with the back story of big, bad, John the Baptist. No one else shares his historic significance. Few have attained his level of character and courage. But all we Christians are heralds of Christ, too, introducing the gospel of Jesus to the people God has placed in our time, our story, until our end.
John’s Time and Our Time
John lived and died in a perfect time, for him, for the Baptist was a little bit old and a little bit new. Like the Old Testament prophets who preached four hundred years and more before him, John saw the Messiah as both a lamb and a lion, a suffering servant and a conquering king. And, like the New Testament Apostles he preached to, John had a personal relationship with Jesus the Messiah, even baptized Him, and helped set in motion the life-giving, soul-saving gospel ministry of the Messiah.
Big Bad John (the Baptist)’s time on earth was short. He died in his early thirties, right after Herod Antipas had him arrested and condemned for criticizing the king’s sex life, of all things. God’s providence is peculiar, indeed, but always perfect. John was faithful, even while doubtful, and fulfilled completely his God-given mission on earth.
You and I live in a perfect time, for us. We have the word of God more perfect in the inspiration of Holy Scripture. We, too, can see Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of the Messiah, both lamb, who takes away sin, and Lord, who will return to reward and punish and rule the new heavens and earth. We, too, enjoy a personal relationship with Jesus and a corporate relationship with His New Covenant church. Our lives should be gospel lives, and we have the most ways and means of spreading the gospel than any other generation which has ever lived on earth.
But out time is short, too. I’ve lived twice as long now as John did his whole life, and I do not know how much more time the Lord has for me. Neither do you. What is important is that, like Big Bad John (the Baptist), we make the most of our time, by preaching and living the gospel. We may get our heads cut off for speaking out against sexual immorality, like John. Or, we may be overrun by the runaway secular state, the beast, as another John saw. It does not matter. The only thing that matters is faith in and faithfulness to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
This is our time, now, to be a big, bad, bold witness for Jesus, like Big Bad John (the Baptist).
John’s Story and Our Story
In our time, we must tell our story. It is the same story that Big Bad John (the Baptist) told in his time. It is the story of repentance, faith, the faithfulness that ensues.
John let people know they were sinners. Actually, he called them a bunch of snakes. You don’t have to go that far, necessarily, unless you also want to dress in camel hair and eat wild locusts. John let sinners know that the wrath of God is the end of unrepentant sin. John begged people to repent from sin and selfishness, and commit themselves to God and His Messiah and His word. John preached real faith results in real faithfulness, giving glory to God and goodness to our fellow man. Above all John pointed people to Christ, whom he had baptized, as the ultimate savior and judge. Let Jesus save you, John said in his own words, so He won’t have to judge you. That’s John’s story, and he stuck with it.
What about us? What’s our story? Is it not the gospel, and should not our lives tell in word and in deed this same gospel preached by Big Bad John (the Baptist)?
Have you repented and committed your life to the Lordship of Christ? You have a story to tell. Have you been baptized and taken your rightful place as a responsible member in Christ’s church? You have a story to live and tell. Does your love for the Lord show itself in love for other people, in acts of fairness and kindness, in the sharing of the gospel and invitations to Christ and church?
We are all advent angels. We are all heralds of the first coming, the gospel ministry, and the second coming of Jesus Christ. We all “preach the gospel, a chapter each day, with the things we do and the words we say.” Big Bad John (the Baptist)’s life and testimony made a difference, and so can yours and mine.
John’s End and Our End
I don’t know but I don’t think Big Bad John (the Baptist) had two mites to rub together when he died. His was an austere calling, a mad monk preaching in crazy times, completely forsaken to the Lord who would become forsaken for him, and us.
John’s end was not pretty. After a life of relative poverty, after a ministry that reaped more ignominy than popularity, after an arrest on unjust charges, at the whim of an immoral couple, Big Bad John (the Baptist) was beheaded. While in prison, John had his doubts, which Jesus assuaged. Difficulty, doubts, dungeon, death, this was the destiny of Big Bad John (the Baptist).
Do you see how much better we have it than John? On the worst of our days we will not see his kind of poverty, or difficulty, or (I pray) unjust execution. We are doubly blessed with spiritual and physical benefits unknown to previous generations of Christians. For most of us, our end will come in the comfort of our nice homes, or perhaps in a hospital or hospice bed where every measure is taken to ensure our ease to the end.
Should we apologize for having it so much better than Big Bad John (the Baptist)? By no means. “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” But let us consider what to do with the means of our lives before they reach the end.
This brings us back around to Advent. It is a season of arrival, of announcement, of welcome. Christ has come, Christ has lived and died and rose again, and Christ is returning to Earth. Thank you, Big Bad John (the Baptist), and most of all thank you, Lord Jesus Christ, for making the gospel plain, accessible, wonderful.
Now is our moment in redemptive history. Let us make the most of it. Make sure you have welcomed the arrival of Jesus Christ into your own life as Lord and Savior, and if He is not Lord, He is not your Savior. Begin (or begin again) a God-centered life, surrounded by the things of God, His word, His church, His children. Be a herald, and angel, a messenger of the New Covenant offered by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Make your life a witness of the Advent of Christ, just like Big Bad John (the Baptist).