Summary: The uncompromising preaching of John. Bearing fruit that proves our repentance. Practical moral guidance. Redirecting Messianic expectations.
THE TWO ADVENTS
In the fullness of the times (cf. Galatians 4:4), John came ‘preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins’ (Luke 3:1-3). Being 30 years old, you might expect him to be starting his priesthood in the Temple in Jerusalem (cf. Numbers 4:3), but God laid another calling upon his heart. John was to be ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness’, preparing the way before Jesus so that ‘all flesh might see the salvation of God’ (Luke 3:4-6).
Our present passage (Luke 3:7-18) is book-ended by a “brood of vipers” (Luke 3:7) and “many other exhortations” (Luke 3:18). The first exhortation had taken the form of an indictment (Luke 3:7-9); the second the form of practical moral guidance (Luke 3:10-14); and the third re-focussed the Messianic expectations of the people (Luke 3:15-18).
1. There was no compromise with this preacher. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” challenged any hypocrisy on the part of his baptismal candidates (Luke 3:7). “Bring forth therefore fruits unto repentance” (Luke 3:8a) tells them that repentance isn’t just saying, ‘I repent’, but the living of a life less like the vipers’ brood and more in keeping with those who profess to be children of God.
The fiery prophet warns some of them (e.g. the Pharisees and Sadducees, cf. Matthew 3:7-9) not to take it for granted that, just because they come from godly stock, “having Abraham as their father” (Luke 3:8b; cf. John 8:33) that they will automatically be accepted by God. We can’t be Christians only by association, or ride on the back of godly parents or grandparents, but we each must take responsibility before God for our own relationship - or lack thereof - with Him.
Towards the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, He scolded those who would have Him scold children for praising Him: ‘I tell you that if these should be silent, the very stones would cry out’ (Luke 19:40). That God can “raise up children from these stones” (Luke 3:8c) may also be a metaphor for the calling of the Gentiles.
Even now, says John, “the axe is laid to the root of the trees” (Luke 3:9a). In another 40 years, the Temple would be destroyed, and the people scattered. So neither descent from Abraham, nor association with institutional religion is what finally counts with God; but rather, individual new birth (cf. John 3:3) and having the same type of faith as Abraham had (cf. Romans 4:3).
In the parable of the barren fig tree, Jesus concludes, ‘If it bears fruit, well: but if not, cut it down” (Luke 13:9). Elsewhere He also says, ‘If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch, is withered, and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned’ (John 15:6). John here says, “Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:9b).
2. “What shall we do then?” was the question on everyone’s lips (Luke 3:10; Luke 3:12; Luke 3:14). In each of the specific cases addressed by John, he speaks to the besetting sins (cf. Hebrews 12:1) of the people: don’t be greedy, but share (Luke 3:11). Don’t defraud (Luke 3:13). Don’t bully or accuse falsely; and be content with your wages (Luke 3:14). This practical moral guidance is not necessarily out of place in a 21st century setting.
We might also ask, ‘How are we to bear good fruit?’ The fruit must arise from the root. It is only as we enter into a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ that we even begin to produce ‘fruit unto God’ (Romans 7:4), or ‘fruit unto holiness, and the end, everlasting life’ (Romans 6:22).
3. So it is to Jesus that John next turns the Messianic expectations of the people. It is good that John’s preaching had got their minds open to thinking: and they were just wondering if John might be the Christ (Luke 3:15)? As John the Baptiser says elsewhere, ‘He must increase, I must decrease’ (John 3:30) - and even in these days of preparation he was already on the lookout for the “mightier” One of whom he was but the forerunner (Luke 3:16a).
I see two Advents here. Jesus was about to be revealed, and suffer all that He suffered on our behalf, rise from the dead, and ascend into heaven: all culminating in Pentecost’s “Holy Spirit and (tongues of) fire” (Luke 3:16b). But He will also come again as judge, with His “winnowing fork” in His hand, to separate the wheat from the chaff, gathering “the wheat into His barn; but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17).
So we have come from indictment, through moral guidance, to the Second Advent. Our passage concludes, “And with many other exhortations he preached to the people” (Luke 3:18). May God bless His Word to us, and may we be empowered to bear good fruits of holiness unto Him.