Lesson Three – John Calls a Fruitless Nation to Repentance

John Calls a Fruitless Nation to Repentance

Lesson Aim:  To show the purpose of John’s preaching and the condition of different groups in Israel as they responded to the message of the kingdom.

Scriptures:  Matt. 3:1-9; Luke 1:13-17; Matt. 11:1-19; Luke 7:16-35; Matt. 21:28-32

Historical analysis for reading the following epigram in Matt. 11:16-19; Luke 7:31-35.

Place:  Towns of Galilee, Matt. 11:1.

Occasion:  John the Baptist, from his prison cell, sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who was to come?” Matt. 11:3.

Time:  After Jesus had chosen and instructed the Twelve, Matt. 11:1.

Audience:  The crowds in Galilee, Matt. 11:7; Luke 7:24.

Aim:  To cause the general public to think about their complacency about what God was doing in Israel through Jesus and John the Baptist.

Thought:  “But wisdom is proved right by all her actions (children).”  Matt 11:19; Luke 7:35.

Historical analysis for reading the parable in Matt. 21:28-32.

Place:  Temple in Jerusalem, Matt. 21:23.

Occasion:  Jewish Passover, Matt. 26:17.

Time:  During the last week before Jesus was crucified, Matt. 20: 17-19.

Audience:  The specific audience was the chief priests and elders, Matt. 21:23.

Aim:  To show that obedience to God means doing and not saying only.

Hook:  The Jewish leaders correctly chose the first son, but the second son’s behavior best modeled their lack of integrity.  Matt. 21:31, 32.


Near the close of the Old Testament period we find the Israelites coming back to Jerusalem under the leadership of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Zerubbabel.  An effort was made to rebuild the wall around the city and restore the worship.  Things never did work out too well for physical Israel because as Stephen said, they were stiff-necked and uncircumcised and always resisted the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51).  Approximately 450 years passed after the last Old Testament prophet, Malachi, wrote until the coming of the preacher, John the Baptist.  In this lesson we will study the purpose of his message and the hearts and minds of the people who heard him.


Malachi prophesied of the coming of John the Baptist when he said,

Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord.   Malachi 4:5

The angel who appeared to Zechariah, the father of the Baptizer, testified that Malachi’s prophecy was about to be fulfilled by John.

And it is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous; so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.  Luke 1:17

Speaking of John the Baptist, Jesus said, “And if you care to accept it, he himself is Elijah, who was to come.”  Matt. 11:14.  Mark let Isaiah introduce John the Baptist in the beginning of his gospel.

As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send My messenger before your face, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make ready the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.  Mark 1:2, 3

John proclaimed God’s kingdom was at hand and the people should prepare themselves to be a part of the culture of Jesus’ administration.  He told the crowds to “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.”  Luke 3:8.  He said fathers should take seriously their role as the head of their families.  He may have been thinking about Ezekiel’s warning that parents are rearing God’s children for His eternal kingdom (Ezek. 16:20, 21).  Another issue was the matter of righteousness.  Justice and life go hand in hand in the kingdom of God.  See Luke 1:17 above and Galatians 3:21.  John called upon the people to repent in whatever way they were being disobedient and do right.  For instance, John said, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none.”  Luke 3:11.  He told the tax collectors and soldiers to practice righteousness (Luke 3:12-14).

John admonished the people to evaluate their lives in relation to his preaching about life in God’s kingdom and confess their sins and be baptized in water.  This was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:5).  It was not a perfect remission of sins because only the blood of Jesus can make the conscience free from guilt (Heb. 9:14).  They did not receive the Holy Spirit or become a member of the body of Christ (John 7:39; Acts 2:47; Col.1:18).  It was a manifestation of their acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah and their willingness to turn from sin.  It was a great opportunity for the common people to make worthwhile changes in their lives.

John was not a socializing type preacher.  He did his preaching in the country and lived off the “fat of the land.”  He would have qualified as one of those slaves sent to collect the proceeds for the landowner in the preceding lessons.  He was killed by the leadership of Israel.  Herod, the tetrarch, had him beheaded (Matt. 14:1-12).  John was a great man but he never enjoyed the full rights of God’s children while on earth as Christians can today (Matt. 11:11; Gal. 4:5).

At the time John preached, the people of Israel could be divided into four classes:  One, those who opposed the preaching of the kingdom, such as most Pharisees and Scribes; Two, those who were good and righteous and were waiting for the kingdom; Three, the tax-gatherers and the harlots who repented; and then there was a group who was totally complacent.  Please read the lesson text to better understand the nature of these people.

Jesus reflected on the people’s response to His and John’s preaching of the kingdom in what appears to be an “epigram” about the children in the market place.  (An epigram is a short poem dealing concisely, pointedly and often satirically with a single thought or event and often ending with an ingenious turn of thought).  A group of children had formed in the market place, perhaps, while their parents did their daily buying and selling.  Evidently, the children normally played games, but in this particular situation one group of children tried to influence the other group to play.  They did not respond.  “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;” So they thought within themselves that they are not in the mood for a happy game, so we will be more serious.  “We sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.”  (Matt. 11:17).  Again, there was no response.  No matter what method they tried, they did not respond.  They were the complacent group.

Jesus said it was the same way with a part of that generation.  John used one approach and Jesus used another.  In both cases the people analyzed the preacher but not his message.  They were complacent about the dynamics of God’s movement in their day.  They said John had a demon because of his ascetic life style.  Although Jesus socialized with the people as He preached they concluded He was a glutton, a drunkard and a friend of sinners.

Again, Jesus revealed the character of the people of that time in the parable of the two sons (Matt. 21:28-32).  The second son said he would go work in his father’s vineyard, but he did not go.  He represented the people to whom Jesus was speaking.  The first son said he would not work in the vineyard, but afterward, he repented and went.  This son represented the tax-gatherers, harlots and hopefully others who had rejected God’s call but “repented and went.”  Jesus’ question to the chief priest and elders was “which one did the will of his father?”  They said it was the first son who pleased his father.  Although they wished to present themselves as people who “did what his father wanted,” they were like the second son; consequently, they condemned themselves.  The chief priests and elders held positions which allowed them to serve the Lord; however, they had other motives.  Jesus said they “did not even feel remorse” when they saw the tax-gathers and harlots confessing their sins and being baptized.

This illustrates one of the great powers in Jesus’ true parables.  It was not just the message in the parable, but the way Jesus used them.  He would hook the “wrong doers” into publicly condemning themselves before they realized they were the “bad guys” in His parable.  At the same time, the parables were so simple that no one could miss Jesus’ point.  We can see that even though the true parables are still powerful, they have a little “taken off” when we read them today.  It was their historical settings which gave them their ability to “hook” the ungodly hearers.  They were the characters in His story.  Jesus did not set all of His parables in story form.  The non-story parables were not intended to “hook” the reader in the same way.  Still, they make you think as we will see in future studies.

Questions for Discussion

  1. What appears to be Israel’s trouble throughout history in regard to God’s will?
  2. How much time elapsed between the last prophet of the Old Testament and the coming of John the Baptist?
  3. Which famous Old Testament prophet did John the Baptist represent?
  4. What did the following people have to say about John the Baptist, as revealed by the scriptures in our lesson?  (a). Jesus.  (b). Malachi.
  5. What was God getting ready to do when He sent John and then Jesus into this world in relation to His overall purpose for mankind?
  6. What is different about John’s baptism and that which we enjoy today?
  7. What was different about the manner in which Jesus and John went about their ministry of preaching the kingdom?
  8. List four different groups into which the people of Israel could be categorized in their response to the preaching of the kingdom?
  9. What attitudes were revealed by the epigram of the children in the market place?
  10. How did the Jewish leadership condemn themselves in their response to the parable of the two sons?

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