A SURVEY OF LUKE’S GOSPEL, PART 2

John and His Preaching

Luke 3:7—18

What was it that motivated John the Baptist? He was an ordinary man on an extraordinary mission: to get his world ready for the arrival of the Messiah by preparing the hearts of those who would hear his message. John preached the “baptism of repentance.” He was the last of the Old Testament prophets; he walked from the pages of the Old Testament into the opening pages of the New. He is like a bridge connecting the two eras with a single message: the Messiah is coming…get ready!

His message resonated with the people; he had his followers. His message also attracted the ire of the religious elite. How did John respond to these religious people? Let’s take a look…

1. A tough question, verse 7

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?”

What a way to address your congregation! Just who was John the Baptist directing this question to? The answer is found the parallel passage, Matthew 3:7—9.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.

John was addressing the two main sects in Judaism of his day. Who were the Pharisees? The name or title comes from the Hebrew word parash, meaning “the separated one.” Some scholars believe “pharisee” comes from another Hebrew word, perushim, which has a similar meaning to parash, but the separation is specified: from “unclean people.” In either case, we can see that aim of the Pharisees was to live away from the “normal folk.”

It was during the Babylonian captivity that Pharisaism began. During this period, the Jews had no Temple to worship in, so they became “people of the Book” in their everyday lives. The Law of Moses became central to their lives and the study and teaching of the Law became the obligation of the religious leaders. Later, during the Maccabean years, the Hasidim (the pious ones) struggled to keep Judaism free from the influences of the surrounding pagan religions. And during the time of Herod the Great, it is estimated that there were some 6,000 Pharisees practicing in Israel. The main task was enforcing the Law of Moses, as well as the myriad of other rules and regulations that had been added to the Law since the days of the Captivity.

The Sadducees made up the second largest sect in Judaism. They were made up of aristocratic priests, and while the Pharisees could be found teaching in and around synagogues all over the land, the Sadducees stayed in and maintained control of the Temple in Jerusalem.

It should be noted that the Pharisees, in spite of their obsession with the minute details of the Law, were much more popular with the people than the Saducess. They are mentioned 100 times in the New Testament while the Sadducees only 14 times. After the the final destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, the Sadducees vanished from the face of the earth. It is not an exaggeration to say that Judaism exists today because of the efforts of the Pharisees.

These people John the Baptist addressed as “a generation of vipers.” Why he calls them this derogatory term is suggested by the question: “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” Or, in other words, as far as John was concerned, the reason they were coming out to be baptized was simply to avoid God’s judgment. They were doing the proper thing but with the wrong motive.

2. An important demand, verse 8

Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.

And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. (Matthew 3:9)

The Pharisees and religious people loved the symbols but had no interest in the substance of faith. This really rankled John the Baptist because he understood what real repentance was all about: turning TO God FROM sin. You can’t turn to God and take your sin with you! But that doesn’t stop many believers from doing just that. Certainly they were baptized, but they came up out of the waters of baptism the same person they were when they went in! To John, this was not true repentance. A new life must be manifested by a new way of living. The religious were proud of their connection to Abraham, but to John, father Abraham was incidental to manifest faith in God.

John may have been a simple prophet living out in the desert eating insects, but he could certainly turn a phrase! His retort to their reliance on religious pedigree was terse:  if God wanted to, He could make children of Abraham out of rocks. So, religious pedigree means nothing to God. What God demands is a change in moral character.

3. A testing crisis, verse 9

The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

Here is a powerful metaphor suggesting that God’s judgment is ready to take place. At any time, the lumberjack will pick up his axe and swing it. Every tree that is not producing its proper fruit will be chopped down and burned up. This is an idea Jesus would much later take up:

Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 7:19)

This is not exactly a message about God’s love! In fact, John the Baptist never preached about the love of God. His message was a dire one: turn or burn. This is the responsibility of every sinner who hears the Gospel message; once they hear it, they must respond to it. If they don’t accept it and repent, they will face sure and certain judgment.

There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; that very word which I spoke will condemn him at the last day. (John 12:48)

Therefore consider carefully how you listen. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has will be taken from him. (Luke 8:18)

4. A practical doctrine, verses 10—14

What should we do then?” the crowd asked. John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

In this paragraph, John the Baptist sounds more like John the Counselor. Even though some specific groups of Jewish people are addressed, John the Counselor gives universal principles that apply to all believers in all generations.

First, Christians should always manifest brotherly love. If a Christian sees a need, he should do what he can to meet that need. Showing brotherly love is a way to allow others, sometimes unbelievers, to experience the love of God.

Second, believers should be honest in their business practices. Tax collectors were in view here, but the point is much broader than just honest taxation. The real point here is that of all the people in the world who engage in business of any kind, the Christian should always be the most honest and above reproach; we ought never to take advantage of another.

Last, John addressed some soldiers. To them, his advice involves being content with your lot and not taking advantage of others in order to improve that lot. It’s all well and good to be ambitious and to take honest advantage of situations and circumstances to have a better life, but a Christian should never be so dissatisfied with their position in life that they would harm others to get ahead.

The fact that all this practical advice is given within the context of a sermon on repentance suggests that cheating others, taking unfair advantage of others, and not caring for others is the natural way of the world. When Christians repent, they must turn from that way of living. However, merely changing ones way of life is not what results in salvation. Repentance that does not lead to a life of faith in Jesus Christ is a repentance that should be repented of!

5. A humbling confession, verse 16a

John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.

Some of those listening to John’s preaching were so impressed, they thought he might be the promised Messiah, so John made it clear: he was NOT. While John may have been mighty in righteousness, Jesus is mighty in grace. John may have been an imposing preacher, and he may have preached with authority, but it wasn’t his authority, it was derived from Christ.

When John suggests that he isn’t worthy to untie the Messiah’s shoes simply means that as far as John was concerned, he wasn’t even worthy to be the Messiah’s servant.

6. The most significant statement, verse 16b

He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

Many religions and cults baptize people in water. In this, Christianity is no different. But, John stressed, when the Messiah finally appears, He will baptize His followers, not in water, but with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

The first part of this statement indicates in no uncertain terms that there is a baptism in or with the Holy Spirit. But John the Baptist also says “with fire.” Bible scholars are split on what John meant when said this. Some suggest he was referring back to the “fires of judgment” the fruitless trees would be cast in to. In that case, the preacher is talking about the fire of final judgment.

Others teach that the Baptist is referring to the fires of purity, that is, when one is baptized in the Holy Spirit his life is purified; the dross is being burned off.

And others see the “tongues of fire” here. When the early church was baptized in the Holy Spirit, the Spirit was seen as tongues of fire coming to rest of the head of each believer.

Given what we know about the Holy Spirit’s ministry in the life of a believer, it seems likely that John is referring to life-changing work of the Spirit. He really does function like a blow torch sometimes, burning away the trash in our lives. Bishop Ryle’s statement on this issue is worth noting:

We need to be told that forgiveness of sin is not the only thing necessary in salvation. There is another thing yet; and that is the baptizing of our hearts by the Holy Ghost…Let us n ever rest till we know something by the experience of the baptism of the Spirit. The baptism of water is a great privilege. But let us see to it that we also have the baptism of the Holy Ghost.

There are three things the fire of the Holy Spirit does in the believer: (1) It warms; (2) It lights; and (3) It cleanses. This is what the Holy Spirit brings to the heart of every believer He baptizes. To walk in the Spirit is to live in the glowing fire of God’s presence. When we walk in the Spirit, the things of the Spirit become more real than the things of the world; they become more vital than the things of the world. This baptism, the Baptism of the Spirit, does not happen by working for it; you can’t buy it. It is a gift from the Ascended Christ. Have you laid hold of that gift? If not, why not?

7. A final warning, verse 17

His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.

The same One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire also carries a winnowing fork in His hand. The same One who unites and enriches with spiritual blessings will also separate and judge. There will come a day when the Messiah will separate true believers from false.

This is really the summation of the sermon, and John’s point is sharp. Anybody can be baptized in water, Pharisee, Sadducee, common man, but that water baptism must be followed by corresponding evidence of the new life. Somebody that claims to be a Christian and has been dunked in the baptismal tank yet does not live in repentance of sin and obedience to God’s Word will face the winnowing fork. This didn’t happen when Jesus came the first time, but it will when He comes back. The Messiah will separate the true from the false believers, the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the weeds.

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