John the Baptist and the Coming Judgment

John the Baptist’s preaching is a window into what at least some Jews believed about the coming messianic age.  For the most part, there was a consistent belief that the Lord himself would intervene in some way in history and render judgment.  Israel’s enemies will be destroyed and the nation gathered in a restored kingdom in the land promised to Abraham.  Both Matthew and Luke describe John as declaring that this judgment would be made by a messiah, who is coming soon.

The day of judgment is near in the preaching of John: the axe is to the root, branches which do not produce fruit will be thrown into fire (10). His winnowing fork is already in the hand of the coming one and he is ready to clear his threshing floor (12), consigning the chaff to unquenchable fire (12). The general image John is using is of a final harvest and separation and judgment of those who have not repentant (branches, chaff). This is an good example of continuity between John and Jesus, compare the image of burning fruitless branches here to Matt 7:19, the same phrase is used, Matt 13:29, bundles of weeds are to be burned, Mt 13:42, the tares are to be burned.

While the imagery is agricultural, it is also violent. An ax is a tool, but this particular word can also be a  vicious weapon (Jer 26:22). Branches which do not bear fruit are to be pruned, but the sense here is “to sever completely, to mutilate” (Philo, Spec Leg. 3.179.), to gouge out eyes (PssSol 4:20, Antiq. 10.140), and to totally eradicate something (Job 19:10, 4 Mac 3:2-4). This harvest language is frequent in the Hebrew Bible and the literature of the Second Temple.

While Malachi 4:1 (MT 3:19) compares the day of the Lord to a furnace or an oven, it is Isaiah which seems to be the source for the rich imagery of John’s sermon. It is not surprising that these same texts appear frequently among the DSS applied to the time of the Messiah. Isaiah 30:30-33 is a close parallel to John’s imagery. There the Lord’s raging anger and consuming fire judge Assyria. Verse 33 develops theme of a burning fire in great detail as a fire pit made deep and long, which is ignited by the breath of the Lord like a stream of burning sulfur.

The image of a fiery judgment is very common in the intertestamental literature, I will only summarize a few from the Psalms of Solomon here since that book dates nearest to the time of John’s preaching. In PsSol 15:4-5 the “flame of fire and anger” going out from the Lord to destroy the sinner. PsSol 12:2 compares the wicked man’s tongue to a scorching fire and prays for the Lord to deliver the devout by destroying the slanderous in fire (12:4). Based on Jeremiah 4:11-12, PsSol 8:2 compares the onslaught of invaders to a “raging firestorm sweeping through the wilderness.”

That the one who is coming has a “winnowing fork” in his hand is also a metaphor for impending judgment. In Isa 30:30-33 the Lord will shatter Assyria with his “scepter” (31). This word refers to a weapon that is used as a symbol of tribal leadership, but also as a shepherd’s staff (Mic 7:14, Psa 23:4). The parallel term in verse 32 is a common usually translated“punishing rod” (NIV) or “staff or punishment” (NRSV). Neither of these terms is exactly equivalent to a “winnowing fork,” but there are a remarkable number of texts which indicate salvation in the eschatological period will come from the rod or staff of the Lord. PsSol 18:7 describes the reign of Messiah as “under the rod of his discipline.” This text is ironic in the sense that Isaiah 10:24-27 tells the remnant that they need not worry about the rod of the Assyrians; now in 30:31 a rod is being used against the Assyrians. Perhaps John the Baptist substitutes a similar agricultural tool which is more appropriate for the theme of separation.

A major difference between John’s sermon and the fiery judgment scenes surveyed above is the motif of separation. When messiah comes there will be a separation, not of Israel from the oppressing gentiles, the enemies, the Kittim, etc, but of true Israel from false. At the harvest Israel itself will be shifted. Recall that John is addressing a cross section of Israel and telling them that they are facing a coming fiery judgment if they do not repent. The fate of the unrepentant Israelite is the same as for the gentile – fiery, violent destruction.

If this is the judgment that John expected, what happened to it?  Was he wrong about a coming fiery judgment ? Did John misinterpret the words of Isaiah?  How do the words of John the Baptist foreshadow the work of the Messiah especially in Luke / Acts?

9 thoughts on “John the Baptist and the Coming Judgment

  1. Well, I wish I could have just said all of this in my comment on your previous post, I would have sounded much better. That said, let me try to tackle this one, quite shallowly. Lets continue with the honesty and say this won’t be deep or insightful, and I am not even sure where I would start to look to find out good answers to your questions. I don’t think anything happened to the judgment John expected, it didn’t go anywhere, but rather isn’t in the way that they thought. The judgment is still happening for all gentiles and Jews. At the harvest I believe Israel is being brought together with the gentiles and “removed” for the lack of a better word from their distinction from the other nations. In judgment Israel will have to face the same fiery judgment all others will, if they don’t repent, they don’t have any special privileges or advantages, separating true and false Israel. Though I do not think that removes Israel from their role in the second coming. I am not sure if John misinterpreted the words of Isaiah, I wouldn’t say he did more than was was the normal misunderstanding of what was actually going to happen. Looking at Matt 13, John’s preaching of this judgement foreshadows Jesus in one way that he is the sower of the good seed, the son of man. And at the end of the age, the angels will come and throw the weeds into the blazing furnace with weeping and gnashing of teeth. John’s preaching was also a foreshadowing of Jesus’ mission in that at the cross Jesus would bring a sort of equality for all peoples, not dying for Israel, but for Gentiles as well, bringing Israel into judgment at the end of the age.

  2. I believe that John did not misinterpret the coming fiery judgment, but his listeners may have. As I said in my previous post, maybe the “time frame” of things was misinterpreted. Yes a fiery judgment is coming, but not until the second coming of Christ. Or is it a possibility that may he was talking about a spiritual fiery judgment that came down on Christ at the cross as he experienced all our sin and pain? God is not bound by time (2 Peter 3:8) so maybe He is correct in saying that judgment is at hand, but we can’t comprehend when that will be.

  3. John the Baptist, I think like most of Israel, was expecting a Messiah that would lead them all into battle against the Romans and deliver Israel for their oppression once more. This view of the Israelites is comparable to the Judges that the Lord used to liberate Israel. The Israelites didn’t realize that God’s plan was much bigger than them. I think that although Jesus didn’t come with physical rebellion and judgment, he came with judgment none the less. When Jesus died on the cross, he became the sacrifice that mankind needed to be freed from Judgment, however it is only ours if we accept it. When John speaks of Jesus separating the chaff from the wheat, storing the acceptable and burning chaff with an unquenchable fire (Luke 3:17), he has to prepare the way for that judgment. The cross brought the decision of mankind to believe and be saved or suffer for eternity in hell. The cross is the line in the sand, a last chance to become redeemed. John’s ideas of what Jesus ministry should look like is correct, but Jesus went about it in a different way. His sacrifice fought the battle for our hearts, that they could be cleansed from the worst infection, sin. While the world was corrupt (and still is) during Jesus time on earth, one of the things that needed to take place before the “true Israel” could be separated from the false, was a permanent solution, not a temporary solution, for their sin. Now that Jesus has cleansed believers, Judgment can take place without having all of mankind end up in hell, but the crucifixion had to take place before. John’s expectations will be filled when Jesus comes again,
    “I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: King of Kings and Lord of lords.” (Revelation 19:11-16 NIV)

  4. I do not think John misinterpreted the coming judgment of God. Like Scott said, it all comes back to the cross and no one would have predicted that. There was a level of judgment that happened with the cross and opened up the way for believers to accept God as their Lord and savior. There will still be a judgment to come and it will be of full completion of God’s kingdom. John was going off what he had and his metaphors line up with what was expected to happen
    John foreshadows the words of the messiah by declaring that the Israelite’s are not immune to God’s coming wrath. John was also present at the baptism of Jesus, which is basically the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

  5. I am not sure if John misinterpreted the coming of the kingdom. I wonder if John the Baptist knew for sure when this prophecy would come true. I do think that he might have expected it to come sooner and he could have misinterpreted the timing. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance,” (Luke 3:7-8a). John’s message was urgent. He was preaching that God’s wrath was coming soon and that he would descend with a winnowing fork in his hand to clear the way. John was right in warning the people that Jesus was returning and he was correct in saying that it was for Jews and Gentiles alike that needed to be baptized by the spirit. I wonder if he maybe expected more of a fierce God just like the rest of Israel was expecting.

  6. I would doubt that John was wrong about a coming fiery judgment. I would say John is interpreting Isaiah’s words correctly, but it did not happen the way he was expecting. I like how Naomi handled this, “I wonder if he maybe expected more of a fierce God just like the rest of Israel was expecting.” This fits well. Obviously, what John was expecting did not happen. What happened to the words of Isaiah and what John was expecting though? I would say that it has yet to be fulfilled. That is my best answer from my understanding of scripture. I believe John was predicting a coming judgment that will happen. Jesus seems to reaffirm this when he states similar ideas in passages like Matthew 13:29, 42. I do not think John was wrong, just early. John probably was expecting the coming Messiah to bring the judgment as many other Jews of the time did.
    “At the harvest Israel itself will be shifted. Recall that John is addressing a cross section of Israel and telling them that they are facing a coming fiery judgment if they do not repent. The fate of the unrepentant Israelite is the same as for the gentile – fiery, violent destruction.” This could also have been a reference to the judgment of the cross. If this is applied to the cross and how it tore down the separation between Jew and Gentile, then the unrepentant Jew would have the same fate as the Gentiles. This, perhaps, may be a reference to the cross.

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