The reality of a coming judgement day was a given, in John’s day. To say that there would be judgement, and that sinners would receive eternal punishment, was not news. What was new was the idea that sinners could escape it and be welcomed into the age to come. That was good news indeed to all those who were aware of their need for forgiveness. Interestingly, we find in the gospels that it is the religious people – scribes and Pharisees – who rejected John’s message. They thought they were OK and did not like being told to repent. Jesus reserves his harshest words for them.
These days many people choose not to believe in a coming judgement. They think that everyone will be all right in the end. They assume that because God is love, he will eventually welcome everyone into the age to come. The idea of excluding some people seems abhorrent, and inconsistent with love. After all, many of those who reject religion do so because they have had bad experiences of it, or because they can’t see how it could be true; and such people often are the nicest you could meet. How could a God of love possibly exclude them?
The Bible is clear, however, that God’s judgement will be completely fair. No-one who has lived a life worthy of the new age will be excluded from it. There is a sense in which such people do not need the good news of Jesus – he did not come to call the righteous. But that begs the question, who is righteous? Who has lived a life worthy of the new age?
That’s the problem. If we are honest, we have to concede that no-one is perfect (except Jesus); as Paul says, ‘everyone has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.’ What will God do? Will he acquit the guilty? That is what he would be doing if he lowered the bar, if he said that you’re OK provided you’re no worse than anybody else. But that is not justice, and cannot be the way to begin the age of perfection that he promised. So how can guilty people escape justice and be welcomed into the age to come, as John preached?
John did not know the full answer. What he did know was that people needed to be forgiven by God, for without forgiveness there would be no hope of entry into God’s kingdom. He knew that people needed to repent of their sins: to change their attitude to God and to change their ways – to ‘produce fruit in keeping with repentance’. Without repentance there was no hope of forgiveness.
What John did not know was how this forgiveness could accord with God’s justice, nor how the Messiah fitted in. He assumed the Messiah was coming to judge – ‘his winnowing fork is in his hand’. He did not know that before the Messiah comes to judge, he came to save: to be the means by which justice could be satisfied through his death on a cross, and forgiveness granted to all who believe in him enough to accept him as their lord and master, saviour and friend.
The good news is news of salvation from the justice that is our due, for a life that is not our due at all – eternal life in God’s perfect kingdom. But here’s the rub: both require our acceptance. We need to accept our need for rescue (there is no such thing as DIY salvation) and we need to accept the King of kings, Jesus, as our saviour and lord now and for ever. If we cannot do these things, we exclude ourselves from the kingdom – however nice we are.
1) People asked John, “What should we do?” How would you answer?
2) ‘He will come to judge…’ Will he? If so, why?