John the Baptist : The Truth About Consequences

(Published in Christianity Today, 17 April 1987, pp.33-34, and posted with minor editing on the Model Theology website in April 1999)

by Robert Brow   April 1999   (web site -

"Among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he" (Matthew 11:11)

Jesus said John was the greatest person who had ever lived, and not just a prophet but "more than a prophet." That was no empty praise. The angel Gabriel held the same opinion: John the Baptist was to be great before the Lord, filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother's womb. He would turn many to the Lord, and preach "in the spirit and power of Elijah" (Luke 1:15-17). How then could Jesus exclude such a great and powerful prophet from the kingdom of heaven?

We are not to deduce that John the Baptist lacked faith and was going to hell, but rather Jesus makes a sharp distinction between prophecy and gospel. "The law and the prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached" (Luke 16:16).

The dirge of the prophets

Although the Old Testament prophets sometimes spoke about the distant future, most of their work was pointing out the consequences of their present national, family, and personal behavior. Another name they gave to bad consequences was "wrath." And it is striking that in the Old Testament wrath has less to do with going to hell than with bad consequences here and now. "You have been oppressing the poor, and you will soon suffer the consequences." (See, for example, Amos 4:1-3). The prophet Nathan told David the wrath consequences of his adultery and murder. And the same dirge is chanted in all the historical and prophetic books of the Old Testament.

The gospel sings a quite different tune. "God loves you, and welcomes, and forgives, however badly you have behaved, and whatever bad consequences you suffer."

The surgeon general needs to proclaim the wrath consequences of tobacco smoking. But in a cancer ward our Gospel task is to assure the person that God loves him as much as those who have never smoked. If at that point we try to moralize and assign guilt ("You deserve to die by coughing your lungs out") we are not doing kingdom of heaven work. The surgeon general must denounce the bad consequences of promiscuity. But the prostitute or homosexual who is dying of AIDS has as much right to a loving welcome into Jesus' kingdom as the monogamous pillars of our churches.

In a sense, all of us are suffering the wrath consequences of what our parents did to us, and our own stupidity, the greed of industrialists, and the ignorance of those set on doing us good. Wrath envelops our work habits, our child-rearing practices, our overeating, our church, and our covetousness. Some kinds of behavior we may manage to improve and correct. But we remain flawed, and in this world we are stuck with the consequences. But we are still welcome in the kingdom of heaven.

By his lifestyle and friends, Jesus made clear that the greedy capitalists, hard-nosed soldiers, racial bigots, drunken drivers, and wife-beaters have as much right to the gospel as anyone else. Our churches have no business excluding those whom Jesus included. In the gospels, there is not a trace of Jesus haranguing ordinary sinners about their sins. He did, however, fiercely tell the Pharisees that their moralizing was not gospel. He also predicted the destruction of a Jerusalem that preferred legalism to being god news for sinners.

John's New Song

This is not to remove the reality of an eternal hell. Universalism tries to force everyone willy nilly into heaven, which would make it impossible for anyone to be a moral being. C.S.Lewis convinced most of us in The Great Divorce that God welcomes to heaven everyone who could possibly be happy there. But Lewis is under no illusion that some will prefer the darkness of grey city (see John 3:19-21).

Nor is it possible for anyone to be in heaven apart from Jesus Christ. "No one comes to the Father, but by me" (John 14:6). And no one" must include babies who die in their first hour, retarded persons, the ignorant, relatively good and bad people, and even the best of the world's prophets.

No one, but no one, can move out of the wrath of this world into heaven by their own power. Some will be surprised when they wake up in heaven that it was through Christ alone that they got there, but that is the gospel song of the redeemed from every tribe and nation. I assume that John the Baptist is singing that song, but it was not his preaching as a great prophet that saved him.

We should also add that the gospel of the kingdom does not deny the importance of justice in our world. Government anywhere is charged with assigning consequences for all kinds of unacceptable behavior (Romans 13:1-6). We may discuss whether one kind of consequence is a better deterrent, or fairer, or better for rehabilitation, or more human, or less vindictive, but we can all begin by agreeing that some consequences for bad behavior must be assigned. But whether the punishment is just or unjust, the gospel assures the murderer of forgiveness, but he may still suffer the wrath consequences of being hanged or buried for life in a penitentiary or psychiatric hospital.

Caesar's work and God's

The law and the prophets were until John, but they are still with us. They are essential for any civilized society, and Jesus certainly assumed that Caesar's task and therefore the prophetic task would continue. But rendering to Caesar should never be confused with the grace of a loving God.

Denouncing the evils of oppressing the poor, polluting the environment, warmongering, racial prejudice, and all other forms of chauvinism are evidently prophetic tasks, but Jesus reminds us they are not his gospel.

So we must distinguish between two stewardships: a general stewardship of the world that requires prophetic voices to denounce evil in every nation, business, social institution, and family; and a particular stewardship of the mysteries of the grace of God that requires "a kingdom of priests: who care about goodnewsing the gospel.

Of course, a church member can be, like our Lord, both a prophet and a priest. For example, a surgeon general may be involved in his priestly task of prayer and worship in church on Sundays, and then go out and engage in law-and-prophetic ministry during the week. What Jesus requires is that we distinguish the two functions. Our modern church is confused by confusing them.

I am pestered by all sorts of people who want me to turn the church into a conscience-raising school for prophets in the world. On the other hand, there are guilt trippers who want me to root tares out of the church. I have settled that my job in the kingdom of heaven is to be a priest and to train my church members to be priests of the good news. I can affirm and approve the need for proclaiming justice in our world, and at the same time say with Jesus that in the kingdom of heaven he or she who is least in gospel ministry is greater than the greatest of prophets.

That is why John the Baptist was supremely great as a prophet, and he prepared the ground for the Messiah, but he never engaged in the work of goodnewsing the Kingdom.

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