Luke 3:7-18 - EXEGESIS:
Luke 1-4-BACKGROUND: Chapters 1-2 tell the birth stories of John the Baptist and Jesus, thought to be cousins because Luke says that Elizabeth was a relative of Mary (1:36). The stories of these births are interwoven, with the birth of John being foretold first (1:5-25) and the birth of Jesus being foretold next (1:26-38). Then follows the story of a visit by Mary, soon to be the mother of Jesus, to Elizabeth, soon to be the mother of John the Baptist (1:39-45). Even at that early stage, we learn of Jesus' pre-eminence over John. Elizabeth, an elderly woman in a society that honors age, calls Mary, a young girl, "the mother of my Lord" (1:43). Elizabeth's unborn baby, John, leaps for joy at the presence of the unborn Jesus (1:44). Then we hear of John's birth (1:57-66) and the prophecy of John's father, Zechariah (1:67-79), followed by the birth of Jesus (2:1-40). Chapter 3 begins with a lengthy account of John's proclamation of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (3:1-20) and a brief account of Jesus' baptism (3:21-22). The chapter concludes with the comment that Jesus "was about thirty years old" when he began to teach (3:23) and gives the lineage of Jesus through Joseph (3:24-38). Chapter 4 begins with the story of Jesus' temptation, which begins his work (4:1-15).
As noted above, Luke has told us that John was "preaching the baptism of repentance for remission of sins" (3:3). Now we find three examples of his preaching (Fitzmyer, 464-466):
LUKE 3:7-9. ESCHATOLOGICAL EMPHASIS: THE WRATH TO COME
7 So he began saying to the crowds who were going out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Therefore bear fruits in keeping with repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham for our father,' for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Indeed the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; so every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
"He said therefore to the multitudes who went out to be baptized by him" (v. 7a). Matthew 3:7-10 records this incident in nearly the same words, but has John addressing Pharisees and Sadducees. Luke's "multitudes" makes the call to repentance and fruitfulness more general.
"You offspring of vipers!" (v. 7b). These people think of themselves as children of Abraham (v. 8), but John suggests that they are really descendants of the serpent-the tempter-the destroyer of all good things (Genesis 3).
"who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" (v. 7c). Perhaps they have come only out of curiosity to hear John-a new phenomenon-a break from their routine. More likely, the Holy Spirit has created in them a hunger for the Word of God-a hunger that caused them to pack their lunch and head for the desert to hear this new prophet-their first prophet in four hundred years.
We think of the desert as barren, but its dry vegetation can burn fiercely. High winds cause such fires to move quickly, and desert creatures scurry desperately to stay ahead of the flames. Such a fire inspires terror-destroys the dens of desert creatures-decimates the food supply-kills. The desert, always challenging, is even less hospitable after such a fire. John has called the crowd "You offspring of vipers" (v. 7b). The picture that he paints is one of snakes scurrying quickly in an attempt to escape desert fires.
"Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance" (v. 8a.) John suggests that this crowd has come, not from high motives, but to escape calamity. His approach seems peculiar. If people present themselves as candidates for baptism today, we rejoice and speak gently with them. Perhaps they have come to escape judgment, but that is valid. John, however, wants to insure that the people understand the reality of their situation. Like the Old Testament prophets, he speaks harshly, risking offense. He warns that God requires honest repentance-transformed lives-fruitfulness (v. 8a). The fruits of the Spirit come to mind-"love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23).
"and don't begin to say among yourselves, 'We have Abraham for our father;' for I tell you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones" (v. 8b). The Jewish people believed that God, in deference to their status as God's chosen people, would defer to them in the judgment (Barclay, 29). John quickly disabuses them of any such notion. Their membership in the Jewish community will not exempt them from judgment, and their salvation depends on their sincere repentance.
John says that God can raise children of Abraham even from the stones that lie at their feet. If God can bring life-holy life-to a stone, he can re-sanctify the lives of errant Jews "like Zacchaeus, who is reclaimed as a 'son of Abraham' (19:9)" (Tannehill, 80). God can redeem even the least likely candidate-can save the vilest offender-can reach out to Gentiles and outsiders and bring them into the family. Indeed, in this Gospel (written by the Gentile, Luke), Roman centurions express great faith (Luke 7:1-10; 23:47), and in Acts (also written by Luke) a centurion will be a key player in the drama that opens the church to Gentiles (Acts 10).
We are tempted to regard faith in Jewish heritage as an anachronism that has little to do with us today, but that is far from true. We too are tempted to trust in roots rather than fruits. We prize our membership in an elite congregation. We emphasize our connection to a particular denomination. We take pride in our place on the church board (vestry, session, parish council)-or our faithful church attendance-or our service in the choir-or our generous donations-or our baptism-or our ordination! Some of us put our faith in racial or national roots-or accomplishments-or family-or wealth-or social standing-or our position in the community-or our degree from the right school! John warns us that none of these has any value in the absence of genuine repentance-repentance characterized by fruitfulness.
"Even now the axe also lies at the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that doesn't bring forth good fruit is cut down, and thrown into the fire" (v. 9). Judgment is imminent. The keeper of the trees has only to draw back and take one good swing, and there will be no further reprieve for the unfruitful tree, which will be burned. Old Testament prophets commonly used such metaphors (Isaiah 10:33-34; 66:24; Malachi 4:1), which are surely familiar to this crowd.
Judgment is at hand, and pedigree is no defense. The judge asks only one question before marking a tree for the fire-Does this tree bear good fruit? If not, the tree will soon find itself on the fire. John clearly believes that this is not a fruitful crowd-that the barrenness of their lives mirrors the barrenness of the desert where they have come to hear John. Their situation is urgent, and requires immediate remedy.
LUKE 3:10-14. ETHICAL EMPHASIS: WHAT THEN MUST WE DO?
10 And the crowds were questioning him, saying, "Then what shall we do?" 11 And he would answer and say to them, "The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise." 12 And some tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, "Teacher, what shall we do?" 13 And he said to them, "Collect no more than what you have been ordered to." 14 Some soldiers were questioning him, saying, "And what about us, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages."
"The multitudes asked him, 'What then must we do?'" (v. 10). This is the same question that the crowds will ask at Pentecost (Acts 2:37). Peter will answer, ""Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38). Our Gospel lesson, however, takes place before Jesus begins his ministry, so John does not mention baptism in the name of Jesus or the gift of the Holy Spirit. Instead, he specifies particular ethical norms that constitute genuine fruit and serve as evidence of genuine repentance.
"He who has two coats, let him give to him who has none. He who has food, let him do likewise"(v. 11). At first blush, this seems like a minor remedy to a major problem. John could require any number of more difficult remedies-sharing food and clothing seems too easy. However, this is similar to the demand that Jesus will make on the rich man who wants to gain eternal life-"Sell all that you have, and distribute it to the poor" (18:22).
Torah law included provisions to provide for the needs of the poor. Landowners were required to leave the edges of their fields unharvested so that poor people could glean those fields and obtain enough food for survival (Leviticus 19:9-10). The law also made provision for the next of kin to redeem land sold by a relative (Leviticus 25:25), and required families to support indigent kin (Leviticus 25:35). The prophets emphasized concern for the poor and condemned ill treatment of widows and orphans (Isaiah 1:17, 23; 10:1; Jeremiah 5:28; 7:6; 22:3; Malachi 3:5).
While few of us think of ourselves as rich, our ever-growing problem with obesity shows that we enjoy more food than we need-more, even, than our bodies can safely tolerate. Massive closets in new homes quickly fill with unneeded clothing. Bloat is everywhere-in restaurant meals-super-sized drinks-SUVs-grand bathrooms-McMansions. John calls us to examine our true needs and to share with those who have less. This is no small matter. John warns that our eternal destiny hangs in the balance.
"Tax collectors (telonai-toll collectors) also came to be baptized, and they said to him, "Teacher, what must we do?'" (v. 12). These are Jews who have won the bid for collecting tolls, tariffs, and customs duties for Rome. It is a system with a high potential for abuse. Toll-collectors can easily demand more than the required amount and pocket the difference. John answers their question simply, "Collect no more than that which is appointed to you" (v. 13).
"Soldiers also asked him, saying, 'What about us? What must we do?'" (v. 14a). These are most likely Jews-possibly in Herod's service-perhaps assigned to protect toll collectors and to enforce collections. These people, too, are tempted to coerce excessive payments for personal gain.
"Extort from no one by violence, neither accuse anyone wrongfully. Be content with your wages" (v. 14b), John answers. John's response is remarkable in its simplicity! People despise tax collectors and soldiers, because they victimize people. One could even ask whether it is possible for a Godly person to be a tax collector or a soldier. The person who wins the contract for tax collection has little choice but to send out underlings with quotas to meet. The underlings must collect an extra amount for their own support, and are sorely tempted to gouge people. Soldiers provide muscle to insure that people pay as billed. It is a bad system that attracts bad people.
John, however, does not tell tax collectors and soldiers to find new occupations but instead tells them to deal fairly and honestly with people. If pressure from above makes it impossible to be honest and fair, perhaps they will need to seek other employment. First, though, they should try to bring integrity to their occupation. A Godly person can often bring about positive change from inside the system. Who knows what one Godly person might accomplish!
In verse 8, John said "Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance." His subsequent calls to sharing and honest dealings provide concrete examples of fruits worthy of repentance.
Are there occupations in which Christians should not engage? It is hard to see how a Christian could in good conscience engage in drug dealing or prostitution. I could not in good conscience grow or sell tobacco, nor could I promote gambling or pornography. Other Christians will have their own list of proscribed occupations. John's response to the tax collectors and soldiers, though, suggests that we might be transformational agents where we are. If the work environment is such that we are unable to deal honestly and fairly with other people, we should probably find a new job.
LUKE 3:15-17. CHRISTOLOGICAL EMPHASIS: HE WHO IS MIGHTIER
15 Now while the people were in a state of expectation and all were wondering in their hearts about John, as to whether he was the Christ, 16 John answered and said to them all, "As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."
"As the people were in expectation" (v. 15). It has been a long time since the Jewish people have seen a prophet of John's stature. It is only natural for them to wonder if he might be the one for whom they have been waiting. Each of the Gospel writers, therefore, takes pains to make it clear that John is subordinate to Jesus.
"I indeed baptize you with water, but he comes who is mightier than I" (v. 16a). In spite of his harsh assessment of this crowd, John does not deny them baptism. His purpose, like that of Old Testament prophets, is not to condemn, but to save. He has delivered bad news to this crowd (vv. 7-9), but only to prepare them for good news (v. 18).
John is quick to differentiate himself from the one who is coming. (1) The baptism of the one who is coming will be more powerful. (2) John is not worthy to tie the shoelaces of the one who is coming. (3) The one who is coming will come in judgment.
"He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire" (v. 16b). This can also be translated "wind and fire," which are suggestive of the Pentecost experience (Acts 2:1-4-also written by Luke). As he was writing this Gospel, Luke would know of the Holy Spirit and fire that appeared at Pentecost (Acts 2).
The question is whether the baptism of fire is intended to redeem or to destroy. Some scholars link the baptism of fire of verse 16 with the unquenchable fire of verse 17. However, God also uses fire to refine and purify so that a Godly remnant might be saved (Isaiah 1:25; 4:4-5; Zechariah 13:9; Malachi 3:2), and it seems likely that the baptism of Holy Spirit and fire is intended to save rather than to destroy. Or, perhaps, baptismal fire has a dual purpose-judgment for the unrepentant and refining for the repentant.
"whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing floor, and will gather the wheat into his barn; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (v. 17). The winnowing fork is a shovel-like tool with which the farmer tosses grain into the air. The wind blows away the lighter chaff, letting the heavier grain fall to the threshing floor. The farmer then burns the worthless chaff and collects the valuable grain. The metaphor is clear. Those who practice genuine repentance will be gathered into the granary, while those who do not will be burned with unquenchable fire. However, "The primary aim is to save the wheat, not to burn the chaff" (Craddock, Interpretation, 49).
LUKE 3:18. HE PREACHED GOOD NEWS
18 So with many other exhortations he preached the gospel to the people.
We are surprised to hear John's preaching characterized as "good news." Barclay says, "whatever the message of John was it was not a gospel. It was not good news; it was news of terror" (Barclay, 28). Indeed, John's preaching is not "feel-good" preaching. There is no Believe and Grow Rich theme here-no emphasis on self-esteem-no affirmation. Nevertheless, John's message contains both bad and good news.
In our preaching, we are tempted to emphasize the positive and to gloss over the reality of sin. John provides a better model. He begins by laying out clearly the sins of the people (vv. 7-9). He then provides concrete examples of fruits worthy of repentance (vv. 10-14), and promises that the one to come will have a wonderfully redemptive ministry to those who repent (vv. 15-17). That is good news indeed.
BLB Commentary - The message of John the Baptist.
1. (Luk 3:7-9) John's message to the multitudes.
Then he said to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him, "Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
a. Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Addressing your audience as a family of snakes is not a customary way to begin a sermon. Asking them "why are you here anyway?" isn't a smooth introduction. But John wasn't interested in preaching a soft message or tickling ears.
i. At the same time, we should admit it: John was weird. Any man who preached like this, lived in the desert, wore funny clothes and lived on grasshoppers and wild honey was just plain weird. Jesus didn't have a "slick" advance man with a thousand dollar suit and a two-hundred dollar haircut. God uses weird people.
b. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father': John cautions against trusting in Abraham's merits as sufficient for salvation. It was widely taught that Abraham's merits were plenty for any Jew's salvation, and that it was impossible for any descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to go to hell.
c. Bear good fruit: John is not unreasonable in demanding good fruit. True repentance will always have fruit-and the basic fruit of the Christian life is love (Galatians 5:22 and 1 Corinthians 13:1-3).
2. (Luk 3:10-14) John's message to specific individuals.
So the people asked him, saying, "What shall we do then?" He answered and said to them, "He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise." Then tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, "Teacher, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Collect no more than what is appointed for you." Likewise the soldiers asked him, saying, "And what shall we do?" So he said to them, "Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages."
a. What shall we do then? John's instructions are quite ordinary: he demands that people share, and that they be fair with each other, and that they do not be mean and cruel; that they be happy with what they get. These are things we teach our smallest children!
i. Integrity in the ordinary things is still the best mark of one genuinely repenting; we often think that what God requires of us as an impossible, huge task. In reality, the things God tells us to do are very simple and straightforward.
ii. He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
iii. Often we are more willing to be faithful in great, dramatic tasks than in the ordinary things.
b. Collect no more than what is appointed for you ... Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages: John did not see tax collecting or soldiering as inherently evil. He did not command these to quit their professions, but to conduct themselves honestly in them.
i. The Romans taxed by auctioning the rights to collect taxes to the highest bidder. Because the tax collector could only cover his costs and make a profit by getting as much as he could, these men were hated intensely.
c. What would John the Baptist say to you? How would the message of "you can turn from the wrong you're doing!" touch your life?
i. A young pastor in a logging town noticed that the wood cutters would brand their stamp on the end of each log as they put it in the river to float down to the mill. That way, the mill would credit them for the log. One day, down at the river, he noticed that some men from his church were sawing the ends off of some logs so the stamp would be gone and they could claim the logs as their own. That Sunday, the pastor preached a sermon on "Thou Shalt Not Steal," but he noticed the same men did the same thing the following week. The next Sunday, he titled his sermon "Thou Shalt Not Saw the End Off Thy Neighbor's Log"-and was promptly run out of town.
3. (Luk 3:15-18) John points forward to a greater One and a greater baptism.
Now as the people were in expectation, and all reasoned in their hearts about John, whether he was the Christ or not, John answered, saying to all, "I indeed baptize you with water; but One mightier than I is coming, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather the wheat into His barn; but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire." And with many other exhortations he preached to the people.
a. All reasoned in their hearts about John, whether he was the Christ or not: John made such an impact that people logically wondered if he were not the Messiah. Instead of cultivating his own popularity, he gave it all to Jesus. He pointed to One mightier than I.
i. Whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose: The rabbis of Jesus' day taught that a teacher might require just about anything of his followers except to have them take off his sandals. That was going too far! But John says that he is not even worthy to do this for Jesus.
b. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire: John says that the Messiah is coming with a different baptism. The Holy Spirit's outpouring was promised as part of the New Covenant. We are promised an immersion, an overflowing of the Holy Spirit in our lives. This was often experienced as people were prayed for with hands laid on them (Acts 6:6, 8:17, 9:17, 13:3-4, and 19:6).
c. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor: The Messiah would also bring a baptism of fire, fire that would will both purify and destroy what is lacking, like fire burns up the worthless chaff. God's power is always a transforming power, a purifying power.
d. The Messiah will also be the one to divide the true from the false, to separate the wheat from the chaff; the winnowing fan is in His hand. Judas is set apart from Peter; one thief blasphemes, another believes.
BARCLAY-JOHN'S SUMMONS TO REPENTANCE (Luke 3:7-18)
3:7-18 To the crowds who came out to be baptized by him, John used to say, "You spawn of vipers, who put it into your heads to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruits to match repentance. Do not begin to say among yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' I tell you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Even now the axe is laid at the root of the trees. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." The crowds asked him, "What are we to do?" He answered them, "Let him who has two robes give one to one who has none and let him who has food do likewise." The tax-collectors came to be baptized and said to him, "Teacher, what are we to do?" He said to them, "Exact no more beyond what your instructions lay down." The soldiers, too, asked him, "What are we to do?" He said to them, "Treat no man with violence and do not play the false informer and be content with your pay."
When the people were in a state of expectancy and when they were all wondering in their hearts about John, as to whether he could be the Anointed One, John answered them all, "I baptize you with water, but the One who is stronger than I is coming, the latchet of whose sandals I am not worthy to unloose. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand to cleanse his threshing floor and he will gather the corn into his store but he will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire."
Here we have the message of John to the people. Nowhere does the difference between John and Jesus stand out so clearly because, whatever the message of John was, it was not a gospel. It was not good news; it was news of terror.
John had lived in the desert. The face of the desert was covered with stubble and brushwood, as dry as tinder. Sometimes a spark set the face of the desert alight and out from their crannies came the vipers, scurrying in terror from the menacing flames. It was to them John likened the people who came to be baptized.
*The Jews had not the slightest doubt that in God's economy there was a favoured nation clause. They held that God would judge other nations with one standard but the Jews with another. They, in fact, held that a man was safe from judgment simply in virtue of the fact that he was a Jew. A son of Abraham was exempt from judgment. John told them that racial privilege meant nothing; that life, not lineage, was God's standard of judgment.
There are three outstanding things about John's message.
(i) It began by demanding that men should share with one another. It was a social gospel which laid it down that God will never absolve the man who is content to have too much while others have too little.
(ii) It ordered a man, not to leave his job, but to work out his own salvation by doing that job as it should be done. Let the tax-collector be a good tax-collector; let the soldier be a good soldier. It was a man's duty to serve God where God had set him.
(iii) John was quite sure that he himself was only the forerunner. The King was still to come and with him would come judgment. The winnowing fan was a great flat wooden shovel; with it the grain was tossed into the air; the heavy grain fell to the ground and the chaff was blown away. And just as the chaff was separated from the grain so the King would separate the good and bad.
So John painted a picture of judgment, but it was a judgment which a man could meet with confidence if he had discharged his duty to his neighbour and if he had faithfully done his day's work.
John was one of the world's supremely effective preachers. Once Chalmers was congratulated on a sermon. "Yes," he said, "but what did it do?" It is clear that John preached for action and produced it. He did not deal in theological subtleties but in life.