The Common Good

John the Baptist's Revolutionary Message

Every Christmas, my family makes an 8-hour drive to celebrate the holidays with extended family. This year, to fight off sleep half-way through the trek, my sister started reading aloud in the book of Luke. Before you begin to feel remorse about your worldly choices in travel entertainment this past holiday, you should know that we opted for this reading only after finding a disappointing selection at Red Box. While Hollywood failed us, God did not. The Spirit revealed something new in a story I’ve heard over and over.

Photo: Bible, olivier /
Photo: Bible, olivier /

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My sister read aloud. Chapter 1: Zechariah, Mary, Elizabeth, babies on the way. Chapter 2: Jesus, prophesies. Chapter 3: John the Baptist, and wait, what?

Luke 3:7-14 reads: 

When the crowds came to John for baptism, he said, “You brood of snakes! Who warned you to flee God’s coming wrath? Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. ... The crowds asked, “What should we do?” John replied, “If you have two shirts, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry.” Even corrupt tax collectors came to be baptized and asked, “Teacher, what should we do?” He replied, “Collect no more taxes than the government requires.” “What should we do?” asked some soldiers. John replied, “Don’t extort money or make false accusations. And be content with your pay.”

John’s instructions surprised me. I’ve heard this message before, but usually from the mouth of Jesus. I had reduced John as just a man in rugged clothing who came to warn people and baptize Jesus. I had completely missed this revolutionary lecture.

John the Baptist’s very life was a miracle. He was also a locust-eating wanderer. Yet, he was the man God chose to make the way for the Son. John could have said many things to usher in Christ’s ministry. But he didn’t say, “Beware! Expect not a political ruler, but a servant.” Or, “Prepare yourselves for a new life of health and happiness.” Or, “Dedicate your lives to study and prayer.” Or, “Bring all of the sick; the healer has come.” 

Maybe John said some of those things, too. But the author of the Gospel reported these commands: repent, care for the poor, be honest and fair in your dealings with others. I read: love your neighbor as yourself.

N.T. Wright explained repentance as a “serious turning away from patterns of life which deface and distort our genuine humanness.”* Repentance is not just an abstract idea or a feeling. Repentance is turning from one thing to another. John points us in the right direction to turn.

Walking this way isn’t easy. I often feel that I’m only taking baby steps. Maybe that’s why this message is repeated over and over in the New Testament, even before Jesus officially arrived on the scene. In this game-changing event, the ushering in of God’s Kingdom on earth, God made certain to speak through John about this ultimate act of our faith: loving our neighbors as ourselves. Let’s walk that way.

* New Living Translation (NLT)
Wright, N.T. Simply Christian, 2006 London: SPCK; San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Kelly Dunlap is Advertising Assistant at Sojourners. 

Photo: Bible, olivier /

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