In chapter 3, Luke begins by looking at the ministry of John. John was prophesied to be the forerunner to the Messiah. We are going to learn about how John is preparing the way for the arrival of Jesus, the Savior of the world. John is going to teach us what repentance looks like. Repentance is a difficult concept to quantify. What does repentance look like? Luke is going to show us in this third chapter what God means when he calls us to repentance.
The first two verses of chapter 3 set the historical world context for the ministry of John and Jesus. Luke records that it is the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar. This means that it is 28-29 A.D. This is when the word of the Lord came to John. This signifies John’s prophetic calling to preach to the people.
Proclaiming Repentance (3:3-6)
John was in the region around the Jordan River preaching a message of repentance. Repentance is not a word commonly used today. The word literally means a change of mind, but the scriptures indicate a broader meaning than just a change of mind. In the Old Testament repentance was a call for a person to turn away from sin and turn to God (1 Kings 8:47; Ezekiel 18:21,30). This is what John is doing. He is preaching to the people, telling them to turn from their sins and turn to God because the Lord is coming. John’s preaching is in line with Isaiah’s prophecy.
John is the voice crying in the desert. John is not in Jerusalem preaching this message to the masses. John is preaching his message in the wilderness and the crowds are coming to him. John’s job is to tell people that the Lord is coming and they need to be ready for his coming. The creation is to roll out the red carpet and be ready for his arrival. This is the idea behind the words of the prophecy to make his paths straight, fill every valley, bring the mountains low, and level the rough places. The imagery is commonly used for the clearing of the way for the entry of a king. If we were going to have an important person arriving at our house, we would make sure everything is prepared and as perfect as possible for that arrival. John is calling out that the most important person ever, the Lord, is coming. When the Lord is coming, you better make sure that you are ready for his arrival.
We have many obstacles that interfere with the Lord coming to us. We have lives full of clutter that keep us from finding the salvation of God. We are busy with things that are morally neutral, interfering with our relationship with God. There is nothing wrong with work, but we let it interfere with our worship and service to God. There is nothing wrong with our children’s extracurricular activities and sports. But we let those things interfere with our worship and service to God. There is nothing wrong with having our hobbies and recreation. But we let those things get in way of our service and worship to God. We just busy ourselves with all of these worldly things and we think we that we are okay with God because we are not doing wicked things. But the problem is that we have obstacles, not evil obstacles, but time consuming obstacles that prevent the devotion to God that is necessary for salvation. John is going to explain further what it looks like for us to remove these life obstacles that occupy our time and keep us from worshiping as we ought. But I want for each of us to think about what are the obstacles that we have in our lives. What are the things that are stopping me from having a deeper devotion for God? What am I doing in my life that is preventing me from having a deep relationship with God and with his disciples?
The Content of John’s Message (3:7-9)
What we read in verses 7-9 is John’s very sensitive message to the nation (sarcasm). Notice the sharp words of John. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John just called the crowds of Jews that were coming to see him a family of venomous snakes. This is especially interesting because snakes are commonly used as an image for being an enemy of God (Isaiah 59:5; Jeremiah 46:22; Isaiah 14:29). Now what is staggering about John’s declaration is that he does not say these words to the pagan Gentiles who are practicing idolatry. John says this about the Jews, the people who thought they were God’s saved people. The Matthew account tells us that John says these words when he sees the religious leaders and teachers of Judaism coming to him. John says this to the religious people. John’s point is that the Lord is coming and wrath is coming because the people having not been doing what the Lord requires. The people are in a rotten condition. They need to turn their lives around, away from sin and toward God, before it is too late.
In verse 8 John gives the people instructions for what they need to do. They need to bear fruits in keeping with repentance. They needed to show repentance. The people needed to show that they had turn their lives away from sin and to God. We learn that it is not enough to say that we need to make changes or to say that we love God. Our lives must reflect that decision. Our lives must show the change of mind that has turned toward God. This is what John is doing by proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The people are coming to John and they are realizing that God’s wrath is firmly against them. They are being baptized to mark this commitment of a life turned to God, asking God for deliverance from the coming wrath. We will talk more about baptism in a future lesson. But it is important to see that baptism is being used as symbolic picture of washing sins away and marking a life that has turned from sin to God.
Verse 8 continues John’s preaching. The people were not to think that repentance was unnecessary. They were not think that their lineage or genealogy was enough. The Jews thought that since they were children of Abraham that this was enough to save them from God’s wrath. John says that this thinking was false. Don’t think you can rely on what your parents did. Maybe your parents had you dedicated at a church or christened or baptized as a baby. But that is not relevant. Just because your parents were religious or you grew up in a church does not mean that you are saved. Look at verse 9. The ax is laid at the root of the tree. When the ax is at the tree, the tree is about to be cut down. It was going to be God’s wrath against them because their life did not reveal repentance. The point is that here are all these religious people who had religious parents who performed religious acts. Yet none of those things mattered! Why? Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Even though they were religious it did not matter because they were not living a life that showed they had turned to God. They were relying on what their parents had done rather than on faith. They were depending upon their genealogy rather than on a changed life for God. When we learn how merciful and gracious God has been toward us, we must live a life of thankfulness to God for what Jesus has done.
What Repentance Looks Like (3:10-14)
The crowds ask John what they need to do in verse 10. Since the wrath of God is coming and we are not saved based upon our religiousness or genealogy, what needs to be done? John has already answered this question. The people need to live lives that reflect they have turned to God. The crowd wants to know what that looks like. I am sure that these religious, Jewish crowds who kept the feasts and offered their sacrifices already thought they were living lives in devotion to God. John says they are not. So the natural question is what does it look like to have lives that are turned to God? Verses 11-14 reveal the answer and the answer may surprise us.
John tells the crowd that whoever has two shirts is to share with him who has none and to do the same with food. The answer John gives is not social separation or to offer more sacrifices. John’s answer is to look out and care for the needs of others. Jesus is going to have the same message. Now let’s not be too narrow with what John is saying. He is not saying that because I gave someone my undershirt that now God is going to save me. I hope that if we saw someone who did not own a shirt that we would all run to our closets and give our extras. In a similar way, we have been sending our extras to the suffering Christians in Zimbabwe. The ideal that John is teaching involves an unselfish approach to life that is compassionate for others and gives a spare possession to meet a basic need. A life turned to God is an unselfish life.
John calls into question our perspective of our possessions. Do we view everything as ours or as everything is God’s? God has blessed us and we must share our blessings with others. God has given us the things we have and a life turned to God understands that. The repentant heart does good to others because God’s love has been so great toward us. One of the fruits of genuine repentance, of a life that has turned to God, is sharing what we have joyfully.
The tax collectors also ask what they need to do. John answers that they were to only collect the money that they were authorized to collect. In the first century tax collectors had the deserved reputation of taxing higher amounts than legislated to line their own pockets. In verse 14 the soldiers also ask what they need to do. John responds to not take by force and by false accusations. John says that a life turned to God does not cheat others. Repentant people do not take from other people. Don’t take from others. Notice that John is also calling for honesty in this teaching. A life that has turned to God reflects honesty. We will be honest in our business practices and not take. We will be honest in our dealings with people, not trying to take every last dime out of someone. We won’t be bully. We will not force people to do things for us or to do things our way. It is shame to see how often Christians act like bullies, especially in their marriages. Further, notice also that the life turned to God shows contentment. Be happy with the things you have. Don’t take. Just enjoy what God has given you.
God is not glorified by our begrudging submission to rules, but in our joy in submitting to him. What would you think if you asked my about how my marriage was to April and I gave this response: “Well, I gave my word so I am in. Look, to be honest with you, I think my wife is horrible and she sucks the life out of me. But I made a promise. I made a promise to stay faithful and I am a man of my word. So for the rest of my long, long life I am going to stay with her.” Is anyone saying that they want that for them? Is this the submission that we think God wants? Yet this is all too often how we approach God. “I guess I have to go to church services.” “I guess I have to do the right thing and help.” This is not what God is asking for and does not reveal fruits in keeping with repentance. We are not showing a life changed for God.
So we need to examine our lives. Are the valleys being filled and are the mountains being lowered? Are we clearing out the obstacles in our lives to prepare for the Lord’s return? Repenting is the removing of those obstacles and turning our lives to God. Then we need to live lives that reflect that we have turned our lives to God. We need to be honest. We need to be selfless. We need to give and serve. Our lives must show God’s love. Are we doing things that show we have lives that are turned away from sin and to God?