The Hebrew for John means "God has dealt graciously."
As I study Matthew 3, I see how significant this name is for the forerunner of the Messiah. Coming as the first prophet to speak after 400 years of silence, John's message of repentance, the nearness of the kingdom of God, and a judgment to come might sound a lot like "tough love". Yet his very name was a reminder to his primarily Jewish audience that God has, indeed, dealt graciously.
For the Jewish people, it was also intended as a reminder that God's gracious dealings in the past were the best way to know His character - a heart of mercy. Everything that He commanded was for them. So the call through John to "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" was a call for a heart change that embraced a way of living that resulted in a change of mind, heart, and life. It was for their benefit, because God as their Maker knew what was best and what would only bring harm. He wanted shalom - peace and wholeness - for them, because His kingdom had come near them. Just as the priests purified themselves to enter the holy of holies, so His people needed God to purify them for the coming kingdom.
God also reminded them of His graciousness in not meeting their kingdom expectations. For Matthew, "Kingdom of heaven" is used to refer to the rule of God that transcends political nations. As A.T. Robertson notes, "it points fundamentally to God's rule, not to the realm over which He rules." Although this would prove to be one of the hardest teachings for them to swallow - even His closest apostles wouldn't get it until the Holy Spirit came upon them in Acts - it really was gracious. "It is too small a thing", God told the Messiah in Isaiah 49:6, "that You should be My Servant To raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make You a light of the nations so that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth." Jesus didn't come to save Israel from Rome; He came to save all of us from the clutches of the enemy of our souls!
So how does one whose very name means "God has dealt graciously" approach ministry when he was bringing this "tough love" message to people with a quite different conception of the kingdom of heaven than God's? By preaching a message that I have summarized with the title "It's time for Authentic Faith." I always take notes in sermons, and so the "bullet points" I noted from John's message in Matthew 3 are:
- God's kingdom has come near - prepare for the Lord by repenting.
- Live consistently with the repentance you claim- this is fruitfulness.
- Reject the tendency to lean on a spiritual heritage instead of a personal faith.
- God is looking for fruitful faith.
- Baptism for repentance comes first, then baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire.
- Jesus brings this baptism along with judgment. He will separate the real (wheat) from the fake (chaff).
The words "tried to stop" literally mean "would have hindered" - involving strong protests on John's part. Later on Peter would try to stop Jesus from talking about the cross (Mark 8:27-33). The incarnation wasn't just about Jesus' birth - it was about Him entering into our lives, our world - about Him identifying with the people He came to save and following that identification all the way to the cross. From a human perspective, Jesus' actions were radical, maybe a bit eccentric, but ultimately honorable. To this day "holy" men and women in various religious traditions make sacrifices and some even die. But for the Messiah - God in the flesh, Jesus Himself - to not only step into our world but identify with sinners through a baptism of repentance -- that was almost incomprehensible. John rightly realized that the tables should be turned. Like Isaiah in the holy of holies (Isaiah 6), John's encounter with God left him humbled.
The shocking incomprehension of the incarnation - that God would bring Himself to our level and identify with His creation in very tangible ways - is also its beauty. Because when God took on flesh and came to walk with sinners and yet retain perfect holiness, He brought to earth the graciousness and mercy that were in God's heart all along. The Fall so corrupted man that even our view of God is skewed. Jesus came to set that right - all the way to the cross. As Adrian Rodgers has so aptly said, "The cross didn't change God's heart; it revealed it."
A.W. Tozer said that God is both "transcendentally personal" and "personally transcendent" - meaning that He is always separate from His creation, holy and uncorrupt, and yet unswervingly personal to each of His children. In the incarnation, transcendental met personal.
When we embrace that truth, we come face to face with who Jesus is. We see His holiness that certainly did not need to be baptized. And we see His heart of grace and mercy. We know that John's name reflected a deep truth - "God has dealt graciously."
Whatever you are facing today is subject to the character of this holy and gracious God. Like Job, we can bow in worship. Like David, we can pour out our hearts to Him in all the rawness of our emotions. And like John, we can know that He has dealt graciously with us, too.