With Many Other Exhortations He Preached Good News
A few weeks ago, Brother Keith guided us through the gospel texts describing the ministry of John the Baptist. One of the texts struck me: “And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them” (Luke 3.18). This brief summary of John’s ministry opposes some of our modern ideas about evangelism.
John was an evangelist. He told people about the Messiah, and he made converts. In other words, his part in God’s plan is similar to our calling as Christians today. Like John, we tell people about the Messiah, and we make converts (Matt 28.19-20).
Before we consider John as an evangelist, I want us to stop and consider what we today think an evangelist ought to be like. Should an evangelist be put-together and presentable, or is he okay looking disheveled? Should an evangelist be gentle with his audience, meeting them where they are and slowly guiding them through the truth, or should he hit them with the full force of the gospel and upbraid them for their weakness and rebelliousness?
Modern Christians almost universally prefer the former options over the latter. We obsess over what outsiders think of us. We invest gobs of time, energy, and money into making ourselves presentable, “just so”—not ostentatious, but certainly put-together and respectable. We want to make a good impression.
Likewise, we are very gentle in our presentation of the gospel. We have taken Peter’s words to heart, “In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Pet 3.15-16, emphasis mine). We are conscientious not to offend the people in front of us. We make sure to present the core parts of the gospel in the most agreeable way we can.
John the Baptist was none of that.
John was a firebrand known for incendiary lines like, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” He was uncompromising and hard. He railed against human pride and materialism, clothed in camels’ hair and eating locusts and honey in the wilderness.
John addressed his audience’s sins head-on. He told the crowds, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” He told tax collectors, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” He told soldiers, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”
John preached a gospel that carried weight and authority. John’s gospel didn’t start with abstractions. He began by proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He didn’t invite, suggest, or cajole. He declared.
John was the exact opposite of the smooth, winsome evangelist that we esteem as a great soul-winner. Yet people flocked to John from all over. They left their homes and their duties to hear him preach in the wilderness. He baptized many men and women in the Jordan.
It is a fault in our way of thinking that we no longer associate the ideas which Luke so freely associated in Luke 3.18: that John preached the Good News of Jesus by telling people what to do. We associate evangelism with persuasion; John associated it with exhortation.
Perhaps we have lost our sense for what is attractive. We think that circumspection appeals to people more than it really does, and we think that assertiveness and directness are more off-putting than they really are. Let us not forget that we live among a lost people, not just spiritually but in every sense. The same individualistic, modern lifestyle that makes us nervous about telling people what to do also deprives people of any sense of direction, purpose, or stability—the very things which the gospel provides.
Let us grant what Peter says about gentleness in 1 Pet 3.15-16 and what Paul says about seasoning our speech with salt in Col 4.6. How could we not? We are obsessed with them to a fault. There is no fitter epitaph for our age than “His speech was seasoned with salt / Though few ever heard it.”
Let us not shrink back from declaring the gospel to the world. Jesus is King. The world is in rebellion, and each sin is damnable treason. All rebels will bow before Jesus sooner or later, and better to bow soon rather than late.
Do we fear the world? “I have overcome the world” (John 16.33); “rather fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10.28).