Depending upon your source, this third week of Advent focuses upon joy, the shepherds, or John the Baptist—not that these are mutually exclusive! This morning we’re going to continue to look at the life of John the Baptist. Last week as we considered the Benedictus, or Zechariah’s Song, we saw how the Lord anointed John, even from the womb, as one who would prepare the way of the Lord. This morning we have the opportunity to see him in action. We have recorded for us a snapshot of his life and message.
Now if someone were to ask you your occupation or profession, what would you say to them? Isn’t this one of the first things we ask people when we meet them? “So, tell me. What do you do?” But if we were to ask John what he did for a living, what might he say? “I’m a baptist”—which for him would have a completely different meaning than if someone today says they’re a Baptist. We would mean this as a denominational affiliation; John would mean this as a call. And if were to follow-up with John and ask, “So, tell me. What does a baptist do?” He might look at us with a perplexed look and answer, “Well, I baptize people.” “But,” we might ask, “what else do you do? What is your job description? What does your job entail?” “Oh,” he might answer. “Well, from the time before I was born, God let my parents know by the angel Gabriel that I would be a prophet and a baptist. My job is to go before Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, the Savior prophesied and promised in the Scriptures, telling people about the good news of his coming and of their consequent need to repent—to turn from their sinful ways—that they might follow Jesus not only in this life but also in that to come.” Is this a job description for which you would apply? Well, I’m not sure John would have applied for it either but this foreordained mission was a key reason for which he was born.
In the opening verses that precede this morning’s passage, we learn that “1In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar…”—this is probably around AD 29—“…2 the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” As we noted last week, after being silent for over 400 years, God has now begun to speak to his people again. After over 400 years John is now called by God to preach “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.” And again, this is in fulfillment of the Word that God sent to Zechariah, John’s father, by means of the angel Gabriel.
In these opening verses of chapter three we also learn, that John’s life is in fulfillment of an even older prophecy—even as the voice ensemble had opportunity to sing about this morning. Verses four and following state:
4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.5 Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. 6 And all people will see God’s salvation.’”[Isaiah 40:3–5]
So John is fulfilling not only God’s Word to his father, but also God’s Word to Isaiah the prophet 700 years before.
Our passage opens by stating that crowds were coming out to be baptized by John. According to one study Bible (Reformation), during this period in history, the purpose of baptism was to indicate conversion to Judaism. So Jews would baptize Gentiles if the Gentiles wanted to become part of God’s people. But John puts a twist on the practice of baptism. He called upon Jews to be baptized even though baptism, in the mind of a Jewish believer, would only have been appropriate for Gentiles. What he is doing is an insult to the Jewish believers in his audience. And as we read on, it becomes even more clear that John never read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. For the first thing he says to the crowds—again, who are coming out to be baptized by him— is
7 You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 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. 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.
Is this any way to encourage people to turn to Christ?? By calling them a “brood of vipers”? By demanding repentance? By noting that their claims to be true Jews is not enough? By noting that God’s judgment is at hand?
Yet, remarkably, the crowds respond positively. In verse 10 we see them asking: “What should we do then?” And John’s answer, basically, is that they must understand that repentance is more than words. And repentance is also more than a ritual. The rite of baptism isn’t enough. The baptism John is speaking of requires a change of heart that is evidenced in a changed life. Repentance entails far more than simply being baptized. Though baptism and repentance are related their relation isn’t a magical one. Baptism isn’t a magic pill you take which, having taken it, guarantees entrance into to the Kingdom of Heaven. And neither does it guarantee deliverance from God’s wrath. To be baptized without genuine repentance is an empty gesture. There isn’t any magic involved with baptism. To provide a twist on an old saying, getting baptized no more makes you a follower of God than sleeping in your garage each night makes you a car. No, repentance is about a changed life. It requires recognizing our need for God. It requires acknowledging that our lives are not our own for to want our lives to be our own indicates that we want to live our lives our way, not God’s way. But repentance requires dying to our old ways of life.
John goes on to state that neither does being a Jew—claiming Abraham as your father (v. 8)—qualify one as being part of the people of God’s. Being a Jew, in and of itself, does not deliver one from the wrath to come because being a part of God’s people is not about natural descent but is about a relationship with the one true God. The Jewish people were promised that a remnant would be saved, not the entire nation. And John notes that, God being God, he is able to “raise up children for Abraham” even “out of these stones” (v. 8). The time of judgment has come. “The ax is already at the root of the trees.” By the fruit the trees bear, it will be evident who is—and isn’t—a true child of Abraham, a true follower of the one true God. And even Gentiles are included in these true children of God if they, too, repent from their ways and turn to him—for all people will see God’s salvation (v. 6). And any who aren’t true children “will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Now, with our 21st century sensibilities we read verses like these and think, “Well, that’s not very nice of John. Why would he say such terrible things? Why is he focusing on God’s judgment and destruction of those who reject him? If John really cared about people—if he really wanted others to accept Jesus as the promised Messiah, as the promised Savior, as God in human form—then surely he would simply focus on God’s love. That would be a far better way of preparing the way for the Lord, wouldn’t it?”
But here’s the thing. John does really care about people. To love others involves speaking to them not only part of the counsel of God, but the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). And the whole counsel of God—even though we don’t like to hear or think about it—includes a proclamation of the consequences of rejecting God and his Word.
I think that, deep down, many of us don’t want to believe that there are consequences to rejecting God and his Word. Deep down, we want to believe that because God is loving, he isn’t really going to reject anyone. But this isn’t what God discloses about himself in his Word. And John, as the last in line of Old Testament prophets, knows this. And so he is proclaiming the whole counsel of God—which includes a proclamation of what will happen to those who reject God. “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” (v. 9). In other words, if the ax is already at the root, God’s judgment is near. God’s judgment is at hand.
Now I realize this is difficult to consider. And I also believe that the primary reason we should turn from our ways to God’s ways isn’t to avoid judgment. No, the primary reason we should turn from our ways to God’s ways is because he is so wonderful and we, having been created in his image, have been created not only by him but for him. So if we don’t turn to him, we will miss out on the whole reason of our being, the whole reason of our having been created—namely, to glorify God and enjoy him not only now but forever.
But there are consequences to rejecting our God-ordained purpose in having been created and we can’t—and shouldn’t—pretend that there aren’t. By preaching the whole counsel of God, John is fulfilling his purpose of preparing the way for the Lord—of making straight paths for him (v. 4). John is laying the foundation, he’s clearing out the rubble that is required for others to embrace Jesus, God in the flesh, as the Christ, as the promised Messiah that he is.
And, again, by God’s grace, the crowds whom John has just called “a brood of vipers”—that is, the offspring of poisonous snakes—and John may well have in mind here the seed of the serpent in the garden of Eden—the chastised crowds respond to his message of warning. They respond to his message of judgment. “What” they want to know “should we do then?” (verse 10).
So John tells the crowds. Fruit that is “in keeping with repentance”—verse 8—requires, for instance, that—verse 11—“Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” In other words, fruit that is in keeping with repentance recognizes and acts upon the truth that all that we are and that we have comes from God, the giver of good gifts. And our love for our Maker should overflow into a love for those he has placed in our lives—for those with whom we have been called to share our lives. If our loving and heavenly Father has met our needs above and beyond what we what we could ever ask or imagine, then we should be willing to share what he has provided for us with others who are in need. Do you know someone in need of a shirt? Give him one of yours. Do you know someone in need of food? Share with her some of yours.
True belief in the one true God is never just about offering our consent to the truths we find in God’s Word. It is never about orthodoxy—right belief—alone. No, true belief in the one true God is about acting on the truths to which we have offered our consent; it includes orthopraxy—right action; it’s about allowing the truths we know and hold to be true to change our lives and priorities so that they reflect God’s life and priorities.
Luke’s account of John’s life now turns from the crowds in general to a few representative groups within that crowd. We next see the tax collectors coming to be baptized in verse 12. Having heard John’s exhortation to produce fruit in keeping with repentance, they ask how this applies to them. They have understood that the act of baptism in and of itself is no guarantee of belonging to God. So they ask: “Teacher, what should we do?”
John complies by personalizing for them the application of this general principle of bearing fruit in keeping with repentance. Now Jewish tax collectors were representatives of the Roman government and were viewed as being collaborators with the occupying Roman forces. As such they were despised and hated for extortion, for collecting more than required for their own gain. Tax collectors were known to be notoriously dishonest. As such they were excluded from the religious life of the synagogue and the temple. Yet to these tax collectors—notice how the text says even tax collectors—John replies: “Don’t collect any more than you are required to do.” In other words, don’t be party to the crooked practices of other tax collectors. Carry out your job in a judicious and fair manner.
Similarly, some Jewish soldiers ask John, “And what should we do?” in verse 14. The soldiers, too, were despised for their dishonest ways—for their use of extortion and deception and force to profit themselves in their positions as part of the Roman government hierarchy. And, similarly, John replies “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” Repentance is very practical, isn’t it? Stop doing wrongly. Do the right that you know you should do.
So would you like to have been John? Would you like to have been one who, speaking for God, addresses those in power in human society and tells them to stop being so corrupt? To turn from their evil ways to the one true God? Yet, despite the danger, John does speak truth to those in power. And they respond. Though we learn in the verses following our passage (19–20) that when he later rebukes the evil deeds of one of the highest government leaders at the time, Herod the tetrarch, John is, in fact locked up in prison and, as we know, eventually beheaded.
But returning to our passage, because of the widespread response to John’s preaching and prophesying, we’re next told in verse 15 that “the people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah.” You see, there are many Jewish believers in John’s audience who knew that when the Messiah prophesied in the Scriptures arrived, he would bring justice and peace—God’s shalom. Messiah would make things right. Messiah would put an end to evil and corrupt practices. Messiah would make and restore things to the way God intended them to be. By addressing corrupt positions in society, John sure seemed as though he might be Messiah. But he corrects them of their misperception for he is not Messiah but—as prophesied by Isaiah in Old Testament times and Zechariah his father at his birth—John’s role is to prepare the way for the Lord. John himself is not the Lord.
So John replies to the people’s wondering hearts. “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (v. 16). John seems ever-aware of his role. He is there as a preparer. His baptism is to cleanse people of their guilt. This is an external cleansing. It’s a preparatory baptism. It’s an acknowledgment of sin and the need for change and further cleansing. But there’s a greater baptism yet to come. Water baptism prepares the crowds for Holy Spirit baptism. The Messiah—the Christ—will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. Only by means of Christ’s Spirit can human hearts be made clean. The old inner man must die. The new inner man must be born. The old inner man must be cleansed. And that cleansing is only possible by the Refiner’s fire. And, if there is no repentance for his refinement and purification, there will be the divine judgment of unquenchable fire.
Again, there are consequences to not acknowledging our sin. There are consequences to not acknowledging our need for the Messiah—the need for Christ. John continues in verse 17: “His”—the Messiah’s—“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 winnowing fork represents the separation of the wheat from the chaff, of the repentant from the unrepentant. Yet despite this message of impending judgment for those who do not repent, our passage ends with the statement: “And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.”
This is now the second week that we’ve considered passages that indicate that repentance is good news. And it’s the reason why I’ve entitled this week’s message as the “Joy of Repentance.” The juxtaposition of “joy” and “repentance” is intentional. We don’t associate repentance with joy, do we?
But repentance is a joy because it reminds us of our need for God in Christ.
Repentance is a joy because it reminds us of our God-created dependence upon God.
Repentance is a joy because apart from it, we cannot be cleansed from our old ways.
Repentance is a joy because with it, avenues are opened to allow God’s Holy Spirit to make us holy even as he is holy—to cause us to desire what God desires—to enjoy fellowship, a relationship, with him as he intended, as children of our heavenly Father and therefore as brothers and sisters to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and to one another by means of the Holy Spirit which unites us in Christ.
Repentance isn’t a four-letter word—repentance is genuinely and truly a joy.
Brothers and sisters, as we continue to celebrate and await the coming of our Maker, our Creator, our Redeemer, in the form of a babe in a manger, let us embrace, along with John’s audience, the good news he brings. Let us, too, repent—let us turn from human-centered ways of thinking and living to God-centered ways of thinking and living. Let us acknowledge and receive the eternal love Jesus Christ, Jesus the promised Messiah, provides in himself by his Holy Spirit. Let us embrace our identity as children or our heavenly Father and, by virtue of our union with Christ, let us embrace our union with one another as brothers and sisters. And let us proclaim and live out this good news of repentance, this joy of repentance, today and everyday.
Let us pray.