2012-12-23 Repent and Prepare | Luke 3:7-18
Prepared for His Coming: Living Like Poisonous Snakes or Fruitful Trees?
Today is the fourth Sunday in Advent, the fourth of four Sundays prior to Christmas on which we meditate again on the coming of Christ into the world as both Savior and Judge. We understand from our post-resurrection perspective that Christ’s coming is in two parts – his humble birth in the past and his glorious return in the future. But John, the miraculous son of elderly Zechariah and barren Elizabeth, a relative of Jesus just six months older than him, did not have the same advantage as we do. He was somewhat like the OT prophets who thought that when Messiah came, both salvation and judgment would arrive in one great event. Yet, he was unlike the OT prophets in that he was the first to preach the good news as we will see in this passage and which Jesus later confirmed in Luke 16:16 “”The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached…”
In our passage today we’ll see that John’s message is a call to repentance, a call to bear the fruit of repentance, and the results of either accepting or rejecting this call. John’s message was – get ready for the coming of judgment which Messiah will bring! John would make the plea, and Jesus, the Messiah, would do the judging based on how people responded to John’s plea.
¶ He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 9 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10 ¶ And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” 15 ¶ As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 16 John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18 ¶ So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people.
- The call to repentance: turning from reliance on self to reliance on God
First, the call to repentance in vv 7-9.
7 “He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 9 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.””
John referred in v7 to some who were coming to be baptized as a brood of vipers fleeing the coming wrath as before a raging fire. When a fire breaks out in the forest or even in the desert, everything that can move flees to get out of the path of destruction. If you’ve ever seen the movie Bambi you know what I mean. Bambi’s family flees the raging fire along with all the other creatures of the forest.
I’ve never seen snakes slithering away from a fire, but I’ve seen mice fleeing from a corn crib when it was being emptied in the spring to make room for the new crop. I’ve told this story before but it fits here. I was less than ten years old when while standing a hundred feet from the corn crib a fleeing mouse ran right up my right pants leg. I had never shaken my leg so hard as I did then to get it out of there. Fleeing critters will do just about anything to get away from certain death.
But why did he call them a brood of vipers? Vipers are poisonous snakes, and the image of a snake brings to mind the Garden of Eden where the serpent deceived Eve and sin entered into the world. The apostle John later identifies that serpent as the devil in Rev 12:9” And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world–…”
By calling them a brood of vipers, he was calling them children of the devil, to confute what they assumed themselves to be, children of Abraham. Just as the signs in New York City warn those who consider parking in certain locations, John warns these not to call themselves children of Abraham without demonstrating the same faith as Abraham when he says in v8, “Don’t even think about it.” These Jews assumed that because of their family and religious heritage that they were guaranteed acceptance in the Messianic kingdom.
John reminds them that they cannot depend on their family lineage for salvation, or even on the rite of baptism, but must also “bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” They must live daily in a way that demonstrates true repentance – by faith in God as just as Abraham did. In Rom 4:3 Paul quotes Gen 15.6 writing, “3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.””
John goes on to say in v8, “For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” What he means is that God will fulfill his covenant with or without them. If he finds no faith in Abraham’s natural descendants, he will create new children from stones and fulfill it with them.
Paul tells us in Rom 4:9-12 that Abraham was the father of all who repent and believe whether they are Jews or Gentiles, “…faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, 12 and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.”
John finishes this section with a final warning in v9 that judgment is coming soon, therefore repentance should not be delayed. “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”” John is comparing their unrepentant hearts to unfruitful trees that are good for nothing but to be cut down and burned. The image of a raised axe causes the characters in a horror movie to run, so too it should cause the unrepentant to run to the Savior. John’s point is that of warning. Imminent danger in the form of judgment is near. Immediate action is necessary to prevent certain destruction.
- The fruit of repentance: demonstrating evidence of true repentance in how we live day-to-day
That leads us to the second point. First, John calls them and us to repentance and issues a warning to those who might reject it. Second, he exhorts us to sustained repentance – the result or fruit of true repentance.
He addresses three groups who were likely enemies of each other but who all respond positively to his call to repentance by asking, “What then shall we do?” They all wanted to know how they might bear the fruit of repentance, how they might be like fruitful trees instead of poisonous snakes or unfruitful trees destined for the fire.
John gets very practical here. First he addresses what he calls “the crowds” in v10 – the average citizens, if you will, of Israel. He tells them what they should do – what we should do. He says we should be willing to give our surplus clothing and food to those who have need. V11 says, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” Tunics of that day were like long undergarments worn beneath the outer garment. That is like saying to us, “If you have more clothing than you need at the moment; if you have more food than you need at the moment – give it to someone who has none. Food and clothing are the necessities of life for everyone as 1Ti 6:8 says, “8 But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.” The evidence of true repentance in you and me is that we are willing, and do, give of our surplus – clothing and food, or money if that’s a better way to deal with the problem – to those in need. In Jesus’ parable of the final judgment in Mat 25.40 the king says, “If you did it to the least of these my brothers you did it me.” If our hearts are touched by his love and mercy for us, our hearts will be touched with love and mercy for his more unfortunate brothers and sisters.
Second, he answers the same question, “What should we do?” this time from some tax collectors. They were hated by the average citizens because typically they robbed the people in the course of their vocation. They bid for the privilege of collecting tolls or taxes from the citizens for the Roman officials. If they won the bid, they became middle men who often added their own exorbitant fees – more than the cost of doing business – on top of the legal tolls and taxes owed to Rome. John tells them what they should not do in v13, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” For them, evidence of true repentance is not giving up their line of work, but fulfilling their vocational calling with integrity and fairness. This is exactly what Zacchaeus the tax collector did after he joyfully received Jesus into his house. In Luke 19:8-10 he said to Jesus, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”” “And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.” “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.””
Third, he answers the same question from some soldiers. They, like the tax collectors, were often hated by average citizens, considered traitors because they served as local militia for Rome, typically taking financial advantage of their own people by means of their position. John tells them likewise what they should not do. “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”Threats,” here in the original language means “shaking” from which we get the phrase “shaking someone down.” They used the threat of force to extort money from people like you see bad cops do in the movies. “False accusations” here refers to their practice of giving false testimony in bogus lawsuits in exchange for a cut of the proceeds if they won. For them, evidence of true repentance is not giving up their line of work, but doing it with integrity and justice. A negative example of this is found in Joh 19:23-24 at Jesus’ crucifixion. “23 When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his garments and divided them into four parts, one part for each soldier; also his tunic. But the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom, 24 so they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be.” This was to fulfill the Scripture which says, “They divided my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” So the soldiers did these things…” They took advantage of their position as soldiers for their own material gain.
Taking these all three together, in the first case, the evidence of true repentance is, to use John Pipers’ words, “the willingness to give of our food and clothing…to those who have need” and in the last two cases, “the refusal to exploit anyone to get more money or things.”
- Good news for all: the Savior is near and the Judge has not yet arrived
If you’re like me, you may be thinking, well, sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t do the right thing. Should I fear that I will be thrown into the lake of fire with the devil and his angels? That brings us to the third point – the result of either accepting or rejecting the call to repentance in vv 15-18.
John’s arrival on the scene, his preaching and baptizing caused people to begin to have hope and to expect the coming of the Messiah. They wondered if it might be John himself. V15 says, As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ,
They remembered the final words of Malachi, the last book of the OT, Mal 3:1 “”Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.” Mal 4:5 ” 5 “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.
John, however, knew his place. He knew he was called to prepare the way for the Messiah, not to be the Messiah. He pointed rightly to the One who was greater than he in”” V16, he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” This is like what he said elsewhere, (Joh 3:30-31) “30 He must increase, but I must decrease. 31 He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all.”
John pointed also to the One who brought a better baptism than he. V16 says, “I baptize you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John said in effect, my baptism with water can wash the physical dirt off of you on the outside, but his baptism will transform you spiritually on the inside. You will become a new person by the indwelling power and presence of the Holy Spirit.
He pointed finally to the One who would bring final salvation and judgment on the last day in V17, His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” John could only bring the warning – Christ will bring the final judgment. Those who trust in Christ for salvation will be like wheat gathered into his barn, but those who trust in themselves or their own works or their religious or family heritage for salvation – who reject call to repentance – will be like chaff burned with unquenchable fire when Christ returns in power and glory.
We said earlier that Jesus would later call John a preacher of good news, and this passage says the same thing in V18, So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. But what’s good news about the coming judgment?
As Piper says, “It is good news when someone wakes you up and says, “Quick the hotel is on fire, but there is still time. I’ll show you how to get out.” “And what tremendously good news it is that the way to be forgiven our sin and escape God’s wrath is just to rest in his free mercy.” The good news for these is that judgment has not yet arrived – there is still time – but precious little time – to repent – “the ax is already laid at the root of the tree.” The good news is that those who repent are granted “forgiveness of sins” which averts the judgment of God. There is still time to place your faith in Christ and his finished work on the cross for your salvation. In 2Co 5:21, 6:2 Paul writes, ” 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 2 “For he [God] says, (quoting Isa 49:8) “In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.” “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” There is still time, but it is very short.
The good news for others is that we can be assured of the safety of our position in Christ if we are doing – not perfectly, but progressively, motivated by the working of the Spirit in our hearts – what John says we should and should not do, bearing good fruit. As 1 John 2:3 says, “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.”
The good news for others is that the time of salvation is nearer than before. If the “ax is already laid to the root of the trees,” and if the “winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn” that means we don’t long to wait in eschatological terms. In Rom 13:11 Paul reminds us, “Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.” With every passing day, for those who love the Lord, our salvation is nearer than before – like the coming of Christmas, or our next birthday, but much, much better. Time is not cyclical, this world as it is, is not our permanent home. We are looking for a city whose designer and builder is God in the new heavens and the new earth when all will be restored and salvation will be consummated.
In verse 3 of this chapter we learn that John’s ministry was preaching a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” The angel Gabriel told his father Zechariah what it would be many years earlier when Gabriel announced before his birth in Luke 1:16-17 “And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God,” “and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”” Notice the repetition of the word “turn” in that passage.
That’s the definition of repentance, turning away from self-reliance to reliance on God for salvation. John’s ministry was to prepare a people for the Lord’s arrival by exhorting them to turn away from reliance on themselves or their religious or family heritage to reliance on God for salvation.
And his ministry was not only to the Jews. Luke makes this point when he quotes Isaiah 40:3-5 in his description of John’s ministry earlier in chapter 3 (vv4-6). “A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” “And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, – and he finishes with this – and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”” All flesh here indicates the inclusion of the Gentiles, people of every nation.
In response to their repentance John promised “forgiveness of sins” but he expected them to demonstrate their repentance first by submitting to baptism. This was normally a rite only for proselytes converting to Judaism. By calling all to repent and be baptized, he was assigning equal status to Jews and Gentiles before God – based on a repentant heart, not family or religious background. We see this use of the word “salvation” also in Simeon’s song Luke 2:30-31 “for my eyes have seen your salvation” “that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,” and in Acts 28:28 “Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.”” It is an inclusive salvation.
As John Piper says, “John’s baptism implies both that Jewishness is no guarantee of salvation and that non-Jewishness is no hindrance from salvation; what matters is repentance unto the forgiveness of sins.”
This would have been offensive to some Jews who believed that their heritage as Abraham’s descendants guaranteed their inclusion in the Messianic kingdom to come. John’s demand told them that the heart, not family status is what was most important.