January 6, 2019
Let John’s teaching help you be ready to walk with Jesus.
I. John’s Mission - forgiveness (Luke 3:1-6)
II. John’s Message - fruit (Luke 3:7-14)
III. John’s Messiah - fear (Luke 3:15-20)
I’m not real happy with the choices the nearly-bankrupt Boy Scouts of America have made in recent years, but when I was a boy they taught me some key life lessons. One was “Be Prepared.” We took that seriously. I remember getting ready to go to the National Scout Camp, Philmont in New Mexico. There we would spend two weeks hiking over a hundred miles in the mountains. This was a big deal. We prepared hard. We made supply checklists, bought new equipment, weighed and measured. Weight was such an issue. If you brought a full tube of toothpaste, the rangers would squeeze more than half of it out on the ground. We reviewed maps of the route. We did a shakedown hike to make sure the patrol could work together. My friend Ned Powell and I loaded our backpacks with bricks and took to the roads in New Jersey, hiking ten or fifteen miles at a time to build endurance and strength, often walking one foot up one foot down on the curb. We were as prepared as we could be.
Now John the Baptist wasn’t a Boy Scout, but he understood the Boy Scout motto. He’d been sent to prepare the way for the Messiah, and his cry to the people of Israel was “be prepared.” His message to us even today is to keep our hearts and minds prepared for Jesus. Over and over as I read Luke I realize that the teaching of Jesus is challenging. Just as we looked forward with some trepidation to that trip to Philmont, and tried to prepare in any way we could, so also we need to look forward with some fear to the encounter with Christ that we will have in this Gospel, and we need to be prepared to let him challenge our complacency. Luke 3 gives us a marvelous picture of John the Baptist: His mission, his message, his messiah, and we hear his clear call: “Be prepared to meet Jesus in forgiveness, in fruitfulness, and in fearfulness.
John’s mission was to prepare people for their Savior. Luke 3:1-6 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
The word of God came to John. This is the classic formula from the Old Testament: A prophet was one to whom the Word of the Lord came, and who proclaimed that Word publicly. We’ve seen prophecy before in this book, prophetic words from Simeon and Anna and Zechariah. But these people were not prophets in the Old Testament sense: They had not been sent by God to proclaim his Word to the people, as John was. John broke the 400 years of prophetic silence.
Luke first puts John in his historical setting. The same thing was often done in the Old Testament. Zechariah 1:1 “In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, son of Iddo.” Micah 1:1 “The word of the Lord that came to Micah of Moresheth in the days of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.” Luke tells us the word of the Lord came to John in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar. We know from secular history that the fifteenth year of his reign would be around 26-28 AD. Luke confirms this timing through these other names. Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea from 26 to 36 AD. Herod, the son of Herod the Great was tetrarch in Galilee until 39 AD. His brother Phillip ruled his part of Herod’s kingdom to 34 AD. We don’t have good dates for Lysanias in Abilene, but we know Annas was high priest from 6 AD to 15 AD, and was still influential during the high priesthood of his son-in-law Caiaphas through 36 AD. All the dates point to the ministry of John, and then Jesus, around 30 A.D. We also have quite a bit of archaeological evidence for all this, including a ring identified just last year as having Pilate’s name on it.
It’s at this time that the Word of God came to John in the desert and he went into all the country around the Jordan river, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. His goal was to prepare people for the salvation offered in Jesus. Perhaps the biggest need in that day, as in ours, was for people to see their own sinfulness and recognize their need of forgiveness. Far too many in Israel believed they were automatically saved, simply by being Jews, sons of Abraham, or righteous because they practiced the ceremonial and external aspects of the law. John’s battle was to achieve an awareness of sin at the heart level. Jesus also fought this battle with the Pharisees, the teachers of the Law.
It’s a battle fought in every age. In our culture people excel at finding ways to convince themselves they don’t have a sin problem. There is no such thing as sin, either because a loving God wouldn’t take sin seriously, or because what satisfies and fulfills me cannot be sin. We allow in ourselves or accept in others behavior that would appall almost every generation in history. Behavior like killing unborn children. Behavior like elevating sexual and personal satisfaction above any reverence for God’s design. We buy into our culture’s pre-occupation with materialism and self-fulfillment.
But it isn’t just at a cultural level. We excel individually at making excuses, allowing in ourselves things like anger, lust, selfishness, greed, indulgence and pride. And often we convince ourselves that we can’t help it, that we’re victims. We truly need to hear this same call that John made, to be aware of our sin, and to turn from it in repentance. John’s symbol for this awareness, and repentance was baptism, a symbol of cleansing, a symbol of forgiveness. But baptism was a big step for the Jew. It’s almost certain that in this time period baptism was the normal way a Gentile convert indicated his or her desire to become a Jew. In calling Jews to be baptized, John was forcing them to admit they were no better off before God than a Gentile. Their parentage and possession of the law made no difference: They still needed to be baptized.
As John preached, thousands responded. Even Josephus, the Jewish historian was amazed by the ministry of John the Baptist. It was the fulfillment of Isaiah 40: “A voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all mankind will see God's salvation.'" The prophecy pictures the way ancient cultures would build or rebuild the roads to their cities so that their king or rule could enter with due pomp and dignity. But Isaiah's vision was grander. The highway was not simply a grand entrance to a city, but a great thoroughfare through a mountainous wilderness. He saw mountains flattened and valleys filled in so that a broad highway could be made ready for the Messiah. R. Kent Hughes, in his commentary on Luke says “The point we must not miss is this: the great highway John was building was one of repentance. The Baptist was saying, "Mend not your roads, but your lives." To put it in terms of American geography, repentance removes the obstacles, flattens the Rockies and fills in the Death Valleys in our lives, so that Christ has full access. Repentance invites the fullness of God.”
The question we need to ask is this; have we recognized in ourselves the problem, the disease called sin? Have we recognized that it’s fatal, and there is nothing we can do to cure ourselves? Do we know our need of a Savior? This is, of course, crucial for those who have never known Jesus. You’ve got to hear the bad news about yourself, before the good news about Jesus will be good news. You’ve got to see your need, see your sin and turn from it to put your trust for rescue in him. That’s repentance: changing your mind about your selfishness and sin, and turning to him for salvation. But believers need this too. Without ongoing dependence on Jesus we will fall back into bondage to sin. Without ongoing repentance from the sin that so easily entangles, and without ongoing relationship with Jesus we will never grow or learn or mature as believers.
Kent Hughes goes on to say “There is also no suggestion here that repentance is a human work that merits the forgiveness of God. John's ministry was entirely due to the work of the Holy Spirit as he preached in the Spirit's power to God's covenant people. The Holy Spirit convicted them, and the Holy Spirit gave them the grace to believe John's message and repent. Baptism was a sign of the Spirit-given grace of repentance.” So John’s mission was to show people their need for the Savior. But his message was about how they lived.
Verses 7-14: 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? 8Bear 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. 9Even 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.” 10And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11He answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13He said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”
John’s message is a challenge to live the repentance you’ve professed. He’s way out in the desert, yet great crowds are coming to him. A normal reaction would be “Great, glad you’re here, Look how successful this ministry is. Look how many have come.” Not John. His reaction, as a prophet of God, is righteous anger: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” He saw something false, a spiritual façade, people following a crowd or taking out an insurance policy. What he wanted to see was evidence of brokenness and turning. “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” This has always been God’s cry. “Don’t just say you’re my follower, live it out.” Let the Spirit produce in you the fruit of a changed life, a transformed mind. John’s call to ethical living applies to all people. It applies to those living before the Messiah, repenting of their sins and looking forward to His coming. And this call applies to us, who now have the Holy Spirit to aid us.
Verse 8: “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.” Many Jews thought they could count of their heritage to save them. Because they were children of Abraham, God would be lenient. In this they showed ignorance of sin’s gravity and of God’s holiness. Abraham, a mere man, could not buy righteousness for anyone. Only Jesus would be able to do that.
Verse 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 creates a vivid mental picture of a woodcutter aiming and lining up his blows. There is a judgment for sin, and the judgment is not far off.
By God’s grace, John’s warning was taken seriously. Verse 10 “The crowds asked him, ‘What then shall we do?’ 11And he answered them, ‘Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.’” I love the question “What then shall we do?” John’s answer is that repentance shows itself in works of love. John mirrors God’s heart. He says in Isaiah, for example, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him?’ John’s call challenges us. How self-forgetful and other-aware are we, really? Have you or I gone out of our way to meet real needs of the homeless in Houston or the urban poor in in Galveston or the many homeowners still struggling after Harvey? Are we those who serve, or have we been content to be served?
Verse 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’ 13He said to them, ‘Collect no more than you are authorized to do.’ Tax collectors were hated by the Jews. They had, for the most part, earned that hatred by giving their loyalty to the Romans, and by their unjust practices, collecting far more than they were due. Yet some of these people had come to listen to John and had been baptized. Their hearts were convicted that what they were doing was wrong and were open to John’s message of repentance. Isn’t it a wonderful picture? John, out in the wilderness, miles from anywhere, yet a huge crowd comes out to him. Some are clothed in rich dyed cloth, fine jewelry and deep disdain. Yet even some of these are moved to repentance. There is no sin so great nor any riches so captivating that you are immune to God’s call. They come to be baptized, and ask “What should we do to show fruit of our changed hearts?” John’s instruction? Don’t collect any more than you are owed.” This is simple ethics, a call to personal integrity and fairness.
Verse 14: “Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what shall we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.’ “Soldiers have a unique ability to extort, to steal, to ruin people’s lives. In a culture where the soldiers have also the cops, abuses have been flagrant. Think of the SS in Nazi Germany or the KGB in Soviet Russia, the knock at the door in the middle of the night.
Israel wasn’t exempt from this under Roman and Herodian rule. Soldiers were essentially above the law, and any petty extortion or denouncement they felt like doing they did. Yet some of them also, come to the river and repent. John tells them “Don’t extort, don’t steal, be content. Be content with your pay. Be content in your job.” He doesn’t tell them to quit, but to do their jobs with integrity. Again, this is a good word to us. We are called to make moral and ethical rightness the measure of our work. I’ve always enjoyed the Jack Ryan novels by Tom Clancy. Ryan is always striving to live with integrity, and to do so in the wild situations that Clancy gets him into. The person of integrity is so rare, you look forward to hearing about him, even when he’s a fictional character. God calls us, through John’s message, to integrity as the fruit of repentance, a changed life where we seek to make Jesus Lord of our behavior.
But John’s Messiah is not only Savior, not only Lord, but also Judge. Verses 15-20: As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 16John 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. 17His 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.” 18So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. 19But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, 20added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.
It was natural enough for the people of Israel to wonder if John was the Messiah. In Luke’s account of Christ’s birth we saw many in Israel who were looking forward to the anointed one God would send. But most expected him to be a political Messiah of national rescue. John himself didn’t always see the uniqueness of Jesus’ first coming. He didn’t differentiate his coming as servant from his coming to reign. Yet in some ways John was wiser than we are. We tend to look back at the humility and gentleness of Jesus, and forget, in our hearts, that he is also master and judge. John, at least, saw his messiah in full dimension. He didn’t forget the holiness and justice of God’s visitation.
So the people ask him “are you the Messiah? Are you the Christ?” He says “No way. Someone far more powerful, someone mightier than I am, is coming.” His words remind me of Robert Heinlein’s “Glory Road.” One of the characters says “I heard of Strong Muldoon from one of my uncles, a truthful man who was a ghostwriter of political speeches. He said he tracked Muldoon to rural Ireland. There he found a man plowing a field with a one-horse plow... but this man was shoving the plow ahead of himself without benefit of horse.
'Aha!' said my uncle and called out, 'Mr. Muldoon!' "The farmer stopped and called back, 'Bless you for the mistake, friend!' --picked up the plow in one hand, pointed with it and said, 'You'll be finding Muldoon that way. Strong, he is.' "So my uncle thanked him and went on until he found another man setting out fence posts by shoving them into the ground with his bare hand...and in stony soil, it's true. So again my uncle hailed him as Muldoon. "The man was so startled he dropped the ten or dozen six-inch posts he had tucked under the other arm. 'Get along with your blarney, now!' he called back. You must know that Muldoon lives farther on down this very same road. He's strong.”
John, a prophet strong in word and deed, has the same attitude. When he thinks of the Messiah, for whom he is preparing, he thinks, “Ach, he’s much mightier than I.” And of course we ought to share that awed attitude toward Jesus. That attitude is part of what the Bible calls the fear of the Lord. “Someone mightier than I is coming, the laces of whose sandals I’m not worthy to untie.” Untying the sandals was seen as the most menial of slave tasks in that culture. Those following a rabbi were permitted to do any menial task for him except untying his sandals. But John sees himself as unworthy of even this most menial duty. I don’t think this is false humility, John cutting himself down. This is humility that comes in comparing himself, to one who is truly so much, much greater.
“Not only will he be greater than I,” John says, “but his baptism will be greater than mine. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit, and with fire.” John sees two aspects of the Messiah’s work. First, with the Messiah will come the promised Holy Spirit, which God had told Ezekiel he would pour out on His people. From now on, believers would be given the incredible privilege of intimacy with God through the Spirit, To be baptized with the Holy Spirit is to have this permanent presence of the Spirit, and it is clear in Scripture that all who believe on Jesus, receive this free gift.
But this Messiah will not only baptize with the Spirit, he will also baptize with fire. Believers will receive the gift of the Spirt. Those who do not believe will receive judgment. Here John outdoes us. His perspective is better. He sees the coming of Messiah flowing directly into the judgment of the Messiah. We, on the other hand, look back on the coming of the Messiah, and tend to lose sight of His judgment. In every generation there are those who accept the Messiah and are saved. And those who reject the Messiah and are judged. That includes many around us. John uses an image from the harvest: his winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor, to gather the wheat into his barn, and to burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. The threshing fork was used to throw the grain up into the air. The wheat fell to the threshing floor, but the chaff blew away, to be gathered and burned.
Do you begin to understand why John is so serious about this Messiah, about this repentance, about how we should live? It’s because he sees the end from the beginning. From his perspective the Messiah is coming to save, but he’s also coming to judge, judging already and coming again for the final judgment. It’s in keeping both things in mind that we really prepare our hearts for Jesus, delighting not only in forgiveness and faithfulness but in the fear of the Lord.
This message of both salvation and judgment Luke calls ‘good news.’ Verse 18 “So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people.” This was the good news of Jesus: not just his gentle forgiveness, but his coming judgment. not just his call to integrity, but his gift of the Spirit. For each person in this room, Jesus right now is either the Savior, the one who gives the Holy Spirit and enables righteous living. Or he is the judge, the one who sees unforgiven sin and brings unquenchable fire.
How are you meeting Jesus right now? Have you turned to embrace him as Savior? Or are you standing in defiance, independence and self-confidence? John’s message helps us to see the importance of bowing our knees to the Savior now, and daily, and not just later when he comes to judge. We respond to Jesus by receiving forgiveness, producing fruit and walking in the fear of the Lord not just for ourselves, but for those who do not yet know him.