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“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
The year is roughly around 29AD. In the mighty Roman Empire, ruled by kings and tetrarchs and governors, the word of God comes to Zechariah in the wilderness. The son of a priest, yet disconnected from the priestly aristocracy, John’s appearance in the wilderness, bears more consistency to the prophetic heritage of Israel. In other words, John appears not as a priest to mediate between the people and God, but as a prophet with a message to proclaim. Whereas the other Gospel writers comment on on John’s unique appearance, his garb and interesting diet, Luke’s interest is solely on the message John came to proclaim. Now we already understand some things about John:
• John’s Message Was Divinely Inspired: It was prophesied by the angle Gabriel that he would be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth.
• John’s Ministry Was Prophetically Foretold: The quotation Isaiah 40:3-5 is underscored so that we understand John’s ministry as continuing the promise-plan of God.
• John’s Motive Was Preparatory: John was to prepare people to meet the Lord.
John’s Method Was Unique: There is conjecture regarding the nature of John’s baptism and its relation to other ceremonial or initiation rites of the Jews. The latest scholarship indicates that method of baptism John was instituting was an entirely new thing, a prophetic picture of each individual immersing themselves in the wilderness through the Jordan river, each person going through their own individual exodus from sin. John’s baptism falls within the prophetic traditions where external acts actualize mental decisions. Whether John’s baptism was unique or not, his message was powerful: To Prepare People to Receive Salvation Through the Process of Repentance.
• Repentance Levels the Playing Field (v. 4-6) The Isaiah quotation uses metaphors to illustrate that the repentance that John would preach would level the playing field. In preparing the way of the Lord, all who are proud and haughty – the mountains and the hills, would be brought low in humility. Those crooked roads and those rough around the edges, will be straitened and smoothed out. The gospel is the great equalizer. If you are high on yourself, you must become as a little child through repenting of your high position and finding your place at the foot of the cross. There is no place for boasting in wealth, privilege, heritage, morality, or position. As Paul said, All I once thought gain, thought to be spiritually advantageous, I count as lost for the sake of knowing Christ my Savior. This leveling allows all flesh, the high and the low, to clearly see the salvation of God.
• Repentance Separates the Fans from the Followers (v. 7-8) He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. Luke tells us that John drew a crowd. Matthew puts it even more emphatically, “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to them.” Yet John’s ministry was not to simply produce crowds, but to engender transformation. It seems however, that some came simply for the spectacle, to be part of the movement, and John calls them out in very direct language. There is a danger inherent in every movement of God: while many will come in sincere and humble repentance, there will simultaneously be some who come for lesser reasons. You aren’t save by identifying yourself with a movement, but only by following the Lord through repentance.
• Repentance is Not a Birthright (v. 8) As you’re not saved on the basis of the crowd you identify with, neither are you saved on the basis of your heritage. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Part of the danger of being genetically connected to the people of God is that it breeds the natural assumption that salvation is a birthright. John called out his kinsmen for this false assumption. Repentance is first and foremost personal and individual, though it can in fact be communal as large numbers of people turn to God.
• Repentance is an Inward Turning that will Produce Outward Fruit (v. 8,9) Bear fruits in keeping with repentance … Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Defined literally, repentance is the turning of the mind, and so by definition is an inward change. Yet some in our day and age would sever the inward fruit from the outward lifestyle, so that one could come to Christ through an inward turning that would have no relation to the lifestyle of the convert. They would argue that to suggest to a new believer that they mist produce fruit would be to render the gospel of grace into a gospel of works. Three comments: 1) John, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, seemed to have no problem with commanding people to produce. 2) John retains a distinction between producing fruit and repentance, yet ties them together by declaring that the fruit we produce demonstrates the worth of our repentance. 3) By using the metaphor of fruit, we find that these tow concepts are organically related in the life of the Spirit. Every one in whom the life of Christ abides will to bear fruit. Finally, note this, baptism itself is not the fruit of repentance, John gives some concrete examples of what the fruit might look like - baptism is merely the symbol of the life marked by repentance. This understanding of the relationship between repentance, fruit and baptism remains consistent throughout the New Testament. As far as I can generalize, the early church baptized its converts upon recognition of the Holy Spirits work in an individual’s life. Sometimes there was immediate, dramatic fruit – vivid manifestations of the Spirit’s power. Sometimes there was a supernatural filling of the Spirit, which empowered the believer to ministry. And sometimes the evidence of the Spirit’s work was the transformed life of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and self-control. So that’s the question I ask candidates for baptism – what evidence is there in your life that your repentance is genuine?
• Repentance is an Ongoing Way of Life (10-14) And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 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 you are authorized to do.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” In this section unique to Luke’s Gospel, Luke emphasizes that the fruit of repentance takes different forms in different people – namely, the crowds, tax collectors, and soldiers. Notice that Luke brings out that repentance is first an ongoing way of life.
• Repentance is the Path to Societal Transformation: What is the purpose of Luke including the particular directives to the crowds, the tax collectors and the soldiers? Remember, one of Luke’s key themes is that the gospel will radically altar the social systems of the world – that the high would be lowered and the lowly lifted high. Here we get the first hint as to how this societal transformation will occur – not through government, or social programs, or the enacting of new laws, or community initiatives, but through individuals repenting of their sins and bearing fruit of righteousness. What a radical idea today! That in order to confront the widespread problems confronting our society: unequal distribution of wealth, human trafficking, violent acts of terror, the breakdown of the family, the only true transformative solution not legislation but repentance fueled revival. We live in an age of social activism, but see no societal transformation. Societal transformation on the macro level only comes through personal transformation on the micro level, and that through repentance.
• Repentance Lays the Groundwork for Faith in Christ (15-16) As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. With this powerful message, people were wondering as to whether John was himself the Christ, yet as we already know, John’s ministry was to point away from himself and prepare the people to meet the Christ, Jesus. This is a point of departure for us from the baptism of John. John’s baptism was only one half of the equation, repentance. Our baptism is a baptism of repentance, yes, but also faith in Christ. In our baptism identify with Christ, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah who also became our sacrificial lamb, dying on the cross to atone for, to pay for our sins, buried in a rich man’s tomb, and rising again with power on the third day.
• Repentance is a Prerequisite for the Spirit-Filled life (16-17) He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” John pictured the coming of Christ as bringing in what the prophets of the Old Testament referred to as the day of the Lord, and that was this, that the Lord Himself would come and create a people for himself through the pouring out of the Holy Spirit and through the pouring out of judgment. What the Old Testament prophets did not understand was that the Lord would come twice, first to unleash the Spirit upon those prepared to receive him, and then, at the end of this age, he will return in judgment. To repent is to prepare ourselves for both, in repenting we receive the Spirit of Life, and in repenting we receive reprieve from judgment.
• Repentance is Opposed by the Hard of Heart (v18-20) So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.” Finally, we see in this passage the good news of the gospel is opposed by the unrepentant because their deeds are evil and they do not wish them exposed. Herod locked up John in prison and eventually murdered him. Do not so harden your heart. Today is a day of salvation, freedom, and Spirit-producing fruit.