As Luke 3 opens we see that we’ve jumped ahead quite a bit in the story. When we left Jesus last week he was 8 days old and being dedicated in the Temple. The next scene finds him as a 12 year-old in the Temple, amazing the teachers with his knowledge and exasperating his parents who have issued an Amber alert for their missing son. Chapter 2 closes with, “Jesus went down to Nazareth with them [Mary and Joseph] and was obedient to them.” As my mom would have said after all that, “You bet he was!” Then verse 52: “Jesus matured in wisdom and years, and in favor with God’s people.” That single verse sums up the next 18 years of Jesus’ life.
And during that time a lot has changed: Augustus, who set the Christmas story in motion with a new tax plan, has died and his stepson, Tiberius, became the reluctant Emperor of Rome—he was actually Augustus’ fourth choice and became emperor by default after the deaths of three others whom Augustus had preferred. By the time Luke 3 opens, Tiberius had had enough of Rome and had exiled himself to a permanent vacation on the Isle of Capri in the year 26. It was up to others to run the day to day administration of the empire, and functionaries like Pontius Pilate represented the Emperor as procurator of Judea. Herod Antipas, one of Herod the Great’s sons, ruled as a Roman puppet over the Galilee region where Jesus lived, while his brother Philip ruled the area to the east over the Jordan. In Jerusalem, Annas and Caiphas were the high priests, also set up by the Romans as politically allied religious leaders. The bottom line was the Rome was in charge of the whole country of Judea, as well as rulers of the Mediterranean world.
And yet, verse 2 tells us that “the word of the Lord came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness.” It wasn’t to those in power, ensconced in wealth in the cities, but to an obscure prophet in the middle of nowhere that God’s word landed. Of course, having read the first chapter of Luke, we knew this was coming. John had been chosen from the beginning to be the prophetic forerunner of the Messiah—his own birth unlikely and miraculous and his call affirmed by an angel. While Luke nods to the power of Rome, he recognizes that the real power is lodged in people who have been called by God for a specific purpose.
John’s purpose is prophetic and his message aligns with that of the prophets to whom we have already been introduced over the last few months. Verse 3 tells us that John went through the whole region around the Jordan River “calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins.” It was a message of repentance—an echo of Joel’s call to “rend your hearts and not your clothing” and Isaiah’s call to “prepare the way for the Lord” and his salvation, as Luke reminds us in verse 4.
What’s interesting here, however, is that the sign for this repentance was “baptism.” Usually, it was only those non-Jews who wanted to convert to Judaism who were required to be ritually immersed in water in order to remove their impurity. Strangely, John called for his fellow Jews to engage in this act of conversion as well. It was unusual enough to draw crowds from Jerusalem and the surrounding areas to journey miles into the desert to find out what John was all about.
And John pulls no punches—this baptism, this repentance, was required of all because the judgment of God was coming and the dividing line between Jew and Gentile would no longer be relevant. John calls his own people “children of snakes” which was a horrific insult. Ancient people believed that vipers actually ate their way out of their mother’s womb, so calling them “children of snakes” or a “brood of vipers” was especially nasty. Even the nastiest of snakes would flee from a field that is on fire, however, and John accused the people of fleeing from the fire of judgment that would soon be upon them.
Of course, water is the antidote for fire—but it was what the water signified that would actually bring salvation. In verse 8, John says, “Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives” or “produce fruits worthy of repentance.” Notice that John is not merely calling them to change their belief system—indeed, belief systems and religious status were no shield against God’s judgment. “Don’t even think about saying to yourselves ‘Abraham is our father,’” says John to his fellow Jews. “I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones.” In other words, God can make a new people out of those who repent, and the time for repentance is now. “The ax is at the root of the trees,” he warns. “Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire.”
These words strike us as particularly harsh, especially since we’ve just come through the Christmas season where the emphasis was on “good news”—good news in the form of a baby in a manger, good news sung by angels and witnessed by gentle shepherds. John seems loud, brash, and bold by comparison—a wake up call after the dreamy season of candles, tinsel, and garland.
But that’s really the point: the coming of the Messiah is good news, but it’s good news that forces a crisis point—a decision point. What will we do as a result of his coming? He is bringing with him both salvation and judgment, which are two sides of the same coin. The news of God’s coming to dwell with his people in person is good news to those who will receive him and follow him, changing their hearts and lives, and bad news to those who will not. John makes the choices clear: Water or fire? Fruitful lives or withered ones?
The question for us, then, is the same question that confronted the crowds who came out to here John. “What then should we do?” Actually, this is a recurring question in Luke and Acts—it’s the question of how to be saved. It’s the same question the rich young ruler will ask in Luke 18 – “What must I do to obtain eternal life?” It’s the same question asked by the crowds in Acts 2 after Peter’s sermon on the death and resurrection of Jesus: “What then shall we do?”
See, the gospel, the good news, always requires a response—an active response. It’s never merely an intellectual exercise. It’s not about mere acceptance, it’s about action. Our response to the good news requires evidence, the fruit that is evidence of our repentance and change of heart and life.
“What should we do?” the crowds asked John. John gets specific and begins by hitting people where their priorities are best revealed—he hits them right in the wallet. “Whoever has two shirts must share with the one who has none, and whoever has food must do the same.” This is reminiscent of Jesus’ command in Matthew 25—if you’re not taking care of the least of God’s people, those in need, then you’re not part of the kingdom.
Tax collectors came to be baptized, and we’ve talked a lot about them. They made their living by skimming off the people, charging more than Rome actually required and keeping the difference. John tells them to collect only what was required and stop exploiting people. Soldiers, probably Roman auxiliary troops, often supplemented their meager incomes by extorting people. John tells them to knock that off and “be satisfied with your pay.” Repentance has consequences and requires change in every part of our lives, including our wallets—which is often the last thing we want dunked with us!
In 1854, the famous Texan Sam Houston was baptized. No one saw this coming, because up to that point Houston’s life was all about fighting, brawling, and drinking. He made his fame fighting the British and the Mexicans, became a robust politician, and had his first marriage end in a scandalous divorce. His second wife was a devout Christian, however, and under her influence Sam’s heart softened and he decided to turn his life over to Christ.
On November 19, 1854, people flocked from all over to come to his baptism ceremony. Three pastors were present for the service—I mean, how big a sinner were you if you require three pastors at your baptism? As Houston walked down to the water’s edge, one of the pastors noticed that Houston still had his watch on his hip. He pointed that out and Houston handed it to a friend to keep it out of the water. “You’d better hand him your wallet, too,” said the pastor. “No, I believe not,” said Houston. “I’m afraid that needs baptizing, too.” Houston understood that baptism is an all or nothing proposition—it all needs to go in.
Interestingly, after he came up out of the water, one of his friends said, “Well, General, all your sins have been washed away,” to which Houston replied, “If that be the case, God help the fish down below.”
It’s the same kind of story we see later in Luke when we encounter the tax collector Zacchaeus, whose encounter with Jesus led to him repay those whom he had cheated four times over. Repentance changes everything. For John the Baptist, real fruit is evidenced in the use and desire for financial resources. We can be pious, have all the right beliefs, do some good things, have all the outward signs of a follower of Jesus, but it is our canceled checks that reveal our true priorities. Are we bearing fruit or merely hoarding it? Are we fully immersed as disciples of Jesus, or are we merely dipping our toes in the water?
All of John’s message, strong as it is, is simply preparation for the ministry of Jesus to come. John’s preaching merely fills the people with expectation. Some wondered whether he was actually the Messiah, but John quickly disavows them of that notion. This is just the preview. “I baptize you with water,” he says to the crowd, “but the one who more powerful than me is coming…he will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” That fire will be a purifying fire—he will separate the wheat from the chaff and burn off that which isn’t fruitful.
For John, this is good news. God’s justice, God’s Spirit, God’s Messiah was soon at hand. God’s judgment is good news if it brings people to genuine repentance and transformation. It’s only bad news if you’re unwilling to hear it and respond. And usually, it’s those in power, who are most invested in the idols of money, sex, and power, who see it as bad news.
Luke tells that Herod Antipas saw John’s message as bad news, particularly when it hit him publicly. John called him out because Herod had seduced his brother Philip’s wife, Salome, and made her his own. You could say that John hit Herod literally below the belt and challenged the sexual licentiousness of the powerful. Prophets do that, you know, and they call God’s people to do the same. That message comes at a cost, however. John was thrown in prison and it would get worse.
It’s easy for most people to kind of skip over John the Baptist in order to get to Jesus, but in many ways I think Luke uses him right up front as the perfect example of what it means to be a follower of Christ. John understood that his whole life was about pointing to someone beyond himself. He spent his life preparing people to meet the real Messiah, the only one who could really save them. He entered into a culture locked in the grip of sin, economic exploitation, sexual license, and inauthentic religion and drew people in with a message of both warning and salvation. He didn’t tell people what they wanted to hear, but rather what they needed to hear. He didn’t soft pedal the gospel, but challenged people to let it affect every area of their lives. He didn’t shy away from speaking the truth, but challenged the powerful even when it would cost him his life. His was a life fully invested in the coming of Christ. Is there a better way for us to spend our lives than that?
As if to punctuate this message, Luke reminds us that the one about whom the angels sang has now broken on to the scene in public. Jesus undergoes baptism, identifying with us but, even more so, being identified as the beloved Son of God. In him the fullness of God is pleased to dwell—The voice of the Father, the dove of the Spirit, and the obedience of the Son are all present there in the water. He will bring John’s message to its fulfillment.
What should we do? It was the question asked by the crowd and it’s the question we should be asking ourselves at the beginning of a new year in the midst of a culture desperately in need of good news. We’ve already been baptized—but will we bear fruit? Will we align our lives around the good news? Will we submit everything to the waters of our baptism—our wallets, our desires, our hopes—and follow the Christ who has come? Will we speak the truth to the powers of this world, no matter the cost, or will we shrink back in silence? John invites us to join him in the wilderness and consider what we’ll do because the Christ has come.