I remember vividly the graphics from my old Western Civilization book, Men and Nations, by Mazour & Peoples, illustrating the genius of Roman road construction – the deep bedding, the layers of different sized gravel, and the carefully laid surface stone. A boy from West Virginia would be impressed by roads that had lasted two thousand years. The slag, hot-patch, and dried grits that passed for asphalt in the great mountain state regularly produced potholes large enough for a Holstein to swim in. I remember that back in 1978, when Jay Rockefeller successfully ran for Governor, his campaign song was “I’m Jumpin’ like a Toad on this West Virginia Road.” Then again, thinking back, his complaint about the roads might have been an excuse to travel around the state in his private helicopter without looking like a chardonnay swilling carpetbagger.
In ancient times, when an official visit was made by a head of state, one of the first preparations made was to improve the road he would travel. Holes were filled in, rough places smoothed out, obstacles removed, bridges repaired. Something like this is promised in preparation of the coming of the Messiah:
A voice is calling, “Clear the way for the LORD in the wilderness! In the desert make a smooth highway for our God. Let every valley be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low. Let the rough ground become a plain, and the rugged terrain a broad valley. Then the glory of the LORD will be revealed…(Isaiah 40.3-5).
All four gospels identify John the Baptist as the voice crying aloud in Isaiah 40. The coming of the Messiah, then, is the event for which preparations are made. John’s ministry is the preparation for the coming of the Messiah.
We know this. We know that he announced the coming of the Messiah. We know that he baptized Jesus. We know that he identified Jesus as the “Lamb of God.” We know that he pronounced the current generation in need of salvation. We know that his mere presence as a prophetic voice was itself a herald of a new day since the prophetic voice had been silent for centuries. But I am afraid we forget the primary preparation he made for the coming of the Messiah.
All three Synoptics mention something first – something primary (Matthew 3.1-5, Mark 1.4, Luke 3.3). The main thing John the Baptist labored to achieve in order to clear the way for the Messianic Message was to establish a direct connection between repentance & baptism and the forgiveness of sins.
John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Mark 1.4)
And he came to the district around the Jordan preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. (Luke 3.3).
The Jews had been killing animals to address their many sins – thousands and thousands of animals. John told them this system will be through when the Messiah comes. When the Messiah comes one who repents and is baptized will be forgiven. No more slaughter. The Lamb of God will have been slain once for all. John taught the people to associate repentance & baptism with forgiveness of sins.
This, of course, is what was preached on the Day of Pentecost – Every one of you repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins… (Acts 2.38). This is the Gospel message.
Anyone who shares a way of salvation which does not connect repentance & baptism to forgiveness is directing us to a road full of tank-sized potholes that leads nowhere at all. This is no gospel, because it is not good news.