By Andrew E. Courtis
Imagine the horrifying experience of driving on the wrong side of a busy road, and then to be confronted with a sign, “Wrong Way, Go Back”. The sign is designed to warn you of the potential danger ahead and the necessary action to be done so as to avoid the potential harm. Though such a sign may be startling, it is actually very gracious and helpful.
This illustration reveals a real danger, but there is a greater danger than going the wrong way on a busy road that every human being faces. What is it? It is the danger of dying without your sins being forgiven. This is the message that a man named John preached to the people of Israel. He proclaimed this message after 400 years had passed in which there had been no prophet in the land of Israel. Luke 3:1-2 place the ministry of John the Baptist in historical context. We read,
“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, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas” (3:1-2a).
What we have here is a dark scene filled with some evil characters. The point here is to show that the events in this passage occurred at a real time in history, and that this time was spiritually dark both politically and religiously. In the midst of such a time, we are then told, “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah” (3:2b). Bypassing the most powerful individuals in the world, God brings His message of good news to a world in darkness to an obscure man in the wilderness named John. The last time we learnt about him was right after his birth (1:57-66) and then a brief statement about growing up and being in the wilderness until his public ministry began (1:80).
The time has now come for John’s public ministry to begin. We will consider in more detail the content of John’s ministry in a moment, but here we simply have a summary statement of what he did. John “went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (3:3). This message of John was a message all needed to hear. It is a message we all need to hear today. It was a message of repentance. It was a call to turn from our sin and find forgiveness in the Lord God. What is repentance? Repentance is a gift that God grants a sinner, by means of the Holy Spirit, in which the individual comes to the realization that they have sinned; they are filled with remorse and repulsion concerning that sin, and then they renounce the sin by turning from it to God. Repentance is necessary for salvation and is to be practiced throughout the Christian life. John’s public ministry happened in fulfillment of a prophecy of Isaiah,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every 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, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God’” (3:4-6).
John was not what we would call a seeker-sensitive preacher. Both his clothing and content were not considered cool. He was dressed in a garment made of camel hair with a leather belt and his food was locusts and wild honey (Matt. 3:4). His message was simple, He preached and proclaimed a message of repentance.
As John arrives on the public stage, he prepares the way for the Messiah, and then presents Him to the people (cf. John 1:29). John prepares the way with a message of repentance. In this message we will learn about the Proclamation of Repentance, the Pattern of Repentance, and the Power for Repentance.
1. THE PROCLAMATION OF REPENTANCE (3:7-9)
As John went about his task of preaching, the significant crowd went to hear John. In-fact, he had become somewhat popular. This crowd would of consisted of all sorts of people. There were the curious, the convicted, and the committed. As this crowd gathered, using very strong words, John issues a call to repentance. He said, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (3:7). Now this is not the way most preachers begin their sermons. John had no opening illustration; he got straight to the point! The reference to vipers is anchored in OT terminology that goes back to Genesis 3:15. In other words, he is calling them the spawn of Satan! Now this is confronting language. But I would have you know that this is very similar to what Jesus said to those who did not believe in Him (cf. John 8:44).
To be called a “brood of vipers” describes their condition before God and this is why they must repent and seek forgiveness from God. Now some may object to this and feel that John is being way too harsh. Why does John say these words with such force? He speaks with such conviction and certainty because of “the wrath to come” (3:7) and the “axe” that “is laid at the root of the trees” (3:9). Judgment is coming, and all who are guilty will face the full force of that judgment (cf. Rev. 20:11-15). What many may view as callous is actually compassionate. He is warning them of a real danger.
How can guilty sinners escape this end time judgment? John goes on to make it clear that they are to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (3:8a). In other words, they are to realize they have sinned against God, they are to be filled with remorse and repulsion concerning that sin, and then they are to renounce it. Often the problem is that many feel they don’t need to repent. All sorts of things can blind us to our need to repent. We may think that we are good people. Or we may think that our religious affiliation gives us a pass on repentance. Whatever the excuse, many things can blind us to our need to repent. John said to this crowd, “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” (3:8b). Religious affiliation or family connections cannot save you. God is not fooled by what we look like on the outside. God looks right into our hearts and He knows what is there. He sees our corruption. He sees our secret sins. There is no hiding from the all-seeing God.
In verses 7-9 John the Baptist stands before this crowd and issues the proclamation of repentance – a true and radical change from sin and to God.
2. THE PATTERN OF REPENTANCE 3:10-14
John has just made it very clear that the people must repent, and he destroyed any false and fake ideas of repentance. The crowd now responds and asks, “What then shall we do?” (3:10). John answers their question by providing three examples of the pattern of repentance. This pattern is the fruit of genuine heartfelt repentance. These three examples are not exhaustive, but they speak into three distinct situations. In other words, John is saying that if you truly repent, the fruit of that repentance will be seen in the areas you need to change. John goes right where it hurts, and that is how we treat other people.
Firstly, he speaks to the crowd in general and says, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise” (3:11). Next, he addresses the Tax Collectors in the crowd. He doesn’t go all political and confront or complain about taxes. He simply says, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do” (3:13). If you are a tax collector and you repent, this will work its way in they way you show integrity in your work. Finally John speaks to the solders. The fruit of repentance in their life would be for them to “not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages” (3:14). The proof of their repentance in seen in what they actually repent of. These actions don’t make them repentant, but these actions prove their repentance.
3. THE POWER FOR REPENTANCE 3:15-17
After hearing what John had to say, the people were beginning to wonder if John was the promised Messiah (3:15). There was high expectation among the people at this time; there had not been a prophet in the land for over 400 years. Now John is speaking with authority, so they wondered if he is the One. John looked at this crowd and clearly proclaimed,
“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” (3:16)
John may have been calling for people to repent and be baptised. But he is clear that going in the water and being baptised does not change someone’s sinful condition. John did what every faithful servant of Christ should do, and that is he pointed the people to Christ. We often get in the way of Christ. We can get all caught up in our opinions, our accomplishments, that before we know it, it is all about us and not Christ. That is useless religion. John knew that the power to repent comes through Jesus Christ.
There is coming One “who is mightier than” John. John told them that He is so great and glorious, that John is not even worthy to untie the strap of His sandal (3:16). In that culture the untying of the strap of a sandal was such a menial task, that it was the duty of a slave. One of the reasons Jesus is mightier than John is because His baptism is superior. John’s baptism is symbolic of the individual’s repentance. However John’s baptism by itself does not save anybody. In contrast to John’s, the baptism of Jesus is “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (3:16). This means that it a baptism that divides people into two groups. To be baptised by the Spirit means to be immersed into the family of God as a changed individual who has been forgiven of their sins. To be baptised by means to be immersed into God’s judgment for our sins. If one to repent and find forgiveness, they must come to the One who grants them the power to repent and believe and that is Jesus Christ. John illustrates the different outcomes of these two baptisms, “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” (3:17). By describing the process of separating wheat from the husks, so it will be with us. You either come to Christ and find forgiveness in Him, or you reject Him and receive retribution from Him.
In a summary statement, Luke records for us what happened to John. In addition to what we read in this passage, “with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people” (3:18). He continued to proclaim the good news that is found in the coming One. Luke also tells us that John’s faithfulness and fearlessness in making this message known, was not just reserved for the common people. He rebuked King Herod for living a sexually immoral life and “and for all the evil things that Herod had done” (3:19). This led to him be imprisoned (3:20) and later beheaded. When the people of God stand up faithfully, it will not always end in popularly. For John it ended in a prize, and that was to be with His Lord in Heaven.
As I bring this message to a close, what are some lessons for us to take away? This passage teaches us what true repentance is. True repentance is not merely feeling guilty or sorry for what we have done wrong. It is agreeing with God that our sins are repulsive. We turn from our sin and cling to the Lord.
Secondly, this passage provides for us the model of a faithful servant of Christ. A faithful servant makes much of Christ in their lives and in their words. A faithful servant of Christ is clear and consistent in what they believe. John’s message was the same to the people as it was to politicians.
Finally, this passage teaches us that true forgiveness can only be found in the person of Jesus Christ. He alone has the power to grant this, and He will forgive any who come to Him. To those who come to Christ for salvation, He will immerse you in His family; to those who reject Him, He will immerse you in His fury.