One of the very first portrayals I saw of John the Baptist was in the 1970’s mini-series “Jesus of Nazareth”. The character was played by Michael York, whose hair was always askance and eyes wild. His voice was loud, his countenance a bit sullen and he was somewhat of a frightening character. This has always seemed to fit well with his words, which were like flaming darts aimed at the hearts of the people. John had some strong words, especially for the religious people. Knowing what we do now about the heart condition of those Pharisees, when we read about John’s strong words to those old religious hypocrites we want to cheer because there is something in us that gets some type of perverse pleasure in seeing those people embarrassed and exposed for what they really are in front of everybody. But John’s goal was not public humiliation, but repentance.
In Luke 3:7-15 John gives a flaming rebuke to the crowd and when the people respond, he doesn’t continue to pile on the condemnation. His mission was to prepare the way and when a heart had been made tender and brought to repentance, he knew his mission had been accomplished in that one. As their hearts were pierced by his words they would come to him asking “what should we do?” And John helps them by giving them instruction on how they can obey and please God. The fiery preacher turned to gentle teacher.
Even John’s rebuke to Herod was not to defame the man, but to lead him to repentance. There is no evidence that John ever publicly issued this rebuke to Herod in front of a multitude of people. Each account of this in the gospels said that John “said to Herod”. He wasn’t trying to dazzle the crowds with his speaking ability or draw their admiration by his recklessly courageous speaking. His heart yearned for these people to be ready for their Messiah. It was a longing that burned in him and through him.
A life on fire genuinely wants to help people get right with God. Whether with a harsh rebuke or tender instruction, whatever it takes, this one longs to be a minister of reconciliation.