LUKE 1-4. THE CONTEXT
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):
• The first example (vv. 7-9) has an eschatological emphasis, warning of potential judgment and calling the people to “bring forth…fruits worthy of repentance” (3:8).
• The second example (vv. 10-14) has an ethical emphasis that includes very specific ethical guidance to the crowds (vv. 10-11), tax collectors (vv. 12-13), and soldiers (v. 14).
• The third example (vv. 15-18) has a Christological emphasis, with John pointing to one who will baptize “in the Holy Spirit and fire” (v. 16).
LUKE 3:7-9. ESCHATOLOGICAL EMPHASIS: THE WRATH TO COME
7He said therefore to the multitudes who went out to be baptized by him, “You offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, 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! 9Even 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.”
“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?
10The multitudes asked him, “What then must we do?” 11He answered them, “He who has two coats, let him give to him who has none. He who has food, let him do likewise.”
12Tax collectors (Greek: telonai—toll collectors) also came to be baptized, and they said to him, “Teacher, what must we do?” 13He said to them, “Collect no more than that which is appointed to you.”
14Soldiers also asked him, saying, “What about us? What must we do?” He said to them, “Extort from no one by violence, neither accuse anyone wrongfully. 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. John answers, “Extort from no one by violence, neither accuse anyone wrongfully. Be content with your wages” (v. 14b).
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
15As the people were in expectation, and all men reasoned in their hearts concerning John, whether perhaps he was the Christ, 16John answered them all, “I indeed baptize you with water, but he comes who is mightier than I, the latchet of whose sandals I am not worthy to loosen. He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire, 17whose 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.”
“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
18Then with many other exhortations he preached good news (Greek: euengelizeto—good news, 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.
• The bad news is that the “axe…lies at the root of the trees” (v. 9)—that “he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (v. 17).
• The good news is that fruitful repentance is redemptive (v. 8)—that even tax collectors and soldiers are welcome (vv. 12-14)—that one is coming who “will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire” (v. 16)—that Christ will “gather the wheat into his barn” (v. 17).
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.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, The Daily Study Bible, The Gospel of Luke (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1953)
Bock, Darrell L., The IVP New Testament Commentary Series: Luke, Vol, 3 (Downers Grove, Illinois, Intervarsity Press, 1994)
Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Craddock, Fred B., Interpretation: Luke (Louisville: John Knox Press,(1990)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Culpepper, R. Alan, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX. (Nashville: Abingdon , 1995)
Evans, Craig A., New International Biblical Commentary: Luke (Peabody, MA, Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1990)
Fitzmyer, Joseph A., S.J., The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke I-IX (New York: Doubleday, 1970)
Gilmour, S. MacLean & Bowie, Walter Russell, The Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 8. (Nashville: Abingdon , 1952)
Green, Joel B., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997)
Hendriksen, William, New Testament Commentary: Luke (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978)
Nolland, John, Word Biblical Commentary: Luke 1—9:20, Vol. 35A (Dallas: Word Books, 1989)
Ringe, Sharon H., Westminster Bible Companion, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press)
Stein, Robert H., The New American Commentary: Luke (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
Tannehill, Robert C., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Luke (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996)
Wilson, Paul Scott, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The Third Readings: The Gospels (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Copyright 2010, 2012, Richard Niell Donovan