An article shared online recently told the story of how one of the great preachers of the 20th Century was travelling from London to Canada to speak at a few different events. During the trip, arrangements were made for him to spend some time with a young and upcoming minister who was having great “success.” The young minister was known for his powerful preaching that brought lots of people to faith. He proclaimed the wonder’s of life with Jesus, the power of the Cross, and the need for repentance. Yet, in between all the beauty and truth, he preached he would mock and ridicule those whose theology and beliefs he disagreed with.
When they met, the young preacher listened carefully as Martin Loyd Jones shared gospel wisdom with him. Yet, he was surprised when Loyd-Jones’s wisdom came in the form of rebuke for the tone of his preaching and his constant denouncing of those’s whom he disagreed. Loyd-jones advised him instead to focus on the beautiful message of the Gospel rather than constantly being negative about other people’s ministering because it would eventually cause harm to his ministry! The story goes on that the young preacher heard the words but refused to heed the warning, and eventually, the fruits of his ministry wained.
There are many different types of preachers in the church who communicate differently: some are more passionate, others direct, and some communicate more peacefully. Yet, what matters isn’t how we communicate but what we communicate – the Gospel. I wonder if John the Baptist was alive today and ministering across some of our churches, how people would respond to him? Would there first be intrigue, then perhaps we would grow weary because of his blunt tone? Would we maybe want someone to rebuke him and tell him to calm down? Might we whisper to one another: “He called us a bunch of snakes!” Yet, there is a difference between John the Baptist and that Canadian preacher: John was not being controversial or having at those he disagreed with for showmanship or to raise his own profile. No, he was preaching the truth of God that the people of God needed to hear even if it hurt their ears. He loved these people and wanted them to hear the good news of grace from repentance and knew it needed to be communicated firmly. Today we too must hear the truth that John shared and consider what God is saying to each of us.
Trust in the Right Thing (7-10)
Luke has just introduced us to John the Baptist as one who is more than a prophet (through the use of the text from Isaiah); John the baptist is declaring the truth of God but not just to call the people of God to repent of their sins and idols., No, he is here to prepare. John the Baptist ministry will be one of preparation; he is here to prepare the hearts and spiritual soil for the one who is to come – the Messiah.
Hence, there is an urgency and directness to the ministry of John the Baptist: because he is preparing the way, that means time is not on his side. Thus, the directness of John preaching and tone! He is not interested in his own platform; he is motivated by greater concerns: he knows the clock is ticking and the importance of the message of repentance he is proclaiming. The directness of his words and the firmness of his tone is because of how crooked the roads have become; gentleness will not straighten them! In that wilderness place, John knows that to “prepare the way for the Lord” and make “straight paths for him” as he straightens crooked roads straight; and smooths out dishevelled surface, it will require a directness that the world is not ready for.
With every year that has passed, the roads have become more crooked and rough as these peoples’ heart’s have hardened. As they have drifted away from trusting in God to trusting in their own devices and desires. Thus, every aspect of Johns message in form and content is intentional to the end of getting these people to understand their hopeless situation and what is their only hope – Jesus. As one commentator notes: “By labelling the crowds as a “brood of vipers,” John underscores their hopeless position apart from the way of repentance he presents to them. Indeed, his choice of words seems deliberately to contrast with their supposed self-identification. They are the offspring of poisonous
snakes, not children of Abraham.”1 John challenges them to consider the secureness of their foundations. To live fruitful lives in response to the Grace form repentance rather than trusting in their bloodline for salvation. The true children of Abraham are not those who are born of the same bloodline or tribe warns John but those who follow in the footsteps of his faith, believing in Gods word and counting on his saving work rather than their own.
Out of love and urgency, John calls the crowd to look beyond themselves to God. We are reminded of the simple choice that confronts every person: To trust in God or trust in something created. For the people of God, their cultural idol at that time was their ancestry. Across two thousand years of human history, every culture has sold the lie that something other than God can be trusted to provide the fullness of life we were made for. Today, we are exactly the same as we turn to other things to provide the life that only (faith in) Christ can bring. Our idols might look better or more sophisticated than a family tree, but they are no more fruitful. Question: What might we be resting in?
- Our religiosity? “I attend church every Sunday”
- Our moralism? “I live a good life”
- Our Membership of an organisation? “it teaches good things”
- Our career? “I make a difference in my work”
- Our Poessions? “Looked at all that I have gathered”
Do you know what John the Baptist says to it all: “You see these stones? Out of them, God can raise children of Abraham!” John is warning that to trust in anything other than God is useless. Why? God can take stones and make them descendants of Abraham. All idols have no worth and offer a foundation with no security. To the idols of our age, John would challenge us in the same way: “Your religiosity, moralism, belonging, success, and possession’s they are all useless! Stones live good lives, animals gather lots of things, and there is always a better Job! None of that matters in Light of our eternal purpose, only one thing matters; How we respond in faith to what God is doing!
The axe is already at the root of the tree, and every tree that is not fruitful will no longer be allowed to bear fruit. What is the good fruit? The fruit of repentance and faith. This is why his imagery appears so harsh and his warning so blunt because of the urgency of the task and the dangers for those who ignore it. Out of love, John warns them about the foolishness of the things they are trusting in, and out of wisdom, the crowd responds wisely by asking: What Should we do then? (3:10)
What Should We Do? Bear Gospel Fruit (11-14)
The Crowd have seemingly heard Johns warning and started to consider the foundations they have been building upon; additionally, they begin to wonder just what is the byproduct of their natural lives has been – fruitless. Thus, having come to see how fruitless their endeavours have been, they begin to consider what fruitful repentance looks like as they question themselves and John: What Should we do then?
Thus, over the next three verses, John outlines what a fruitful life shaped by repentant faith in God looks like. The fruit of the world is self-centred and aggressive as people strive against one another for success: in contrast, the fruit of Repentance mirror the Messiah to come and are generous, other-centric, and beautiful in their outworking. Why? Because those who come to a repentant faith are those, who have come to know the over-flowing generosity of God’s grace through faith in Christ. They are people who grasp the abundant generosity of Grace through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The fruits of the world mirror the ways of the world in their selfishness and folly: The fruits of repentance mirror the Grace of God in that they are generous, abundant and overflowing with the very heart of God and his way.
The repentant person is generous, John giving some practical examples of what that looks like. If you have two coats, give one to someone who does not have one; if you have enough food, then share with the hungry one. A repentant life is centred in the generosity of God made known through repentance. Additionally, those who find themselves in positions of power – Tax Collectors and Soldiers – live lives of integrity and honesty as a sign of their repentance; they are not to abuse their power. Tax collectors are not to collect more than is legally required, being satisfied with their lot. Soldiers are not to abuse the authority of their sword to extort money by accusing blackmailing people. In short, they are to worship God over money! Finding they are all in the graceful provision of repentance. The fruit of repentance in both these cases is integrity and honesty, displayed by simply being thankful for their wages.
It is through this generous and integral living that the child of God makes beautiful the life of repentance and dependence on God to a world that is lost and dismayed from trusting in foolish things. What are we to do? Produce fruits in keeping with repentance: produce Gospel fruits in the power of the Holy Spirit in the normality of our lives in response to what Christ has done.
Look to the One to Come (15-17)
When a crowd of people gather, it is amazing how quickly expectations can grow. People have come from all over to hear this maverick preacher, and you can imagine the stories that spread about John as people drew near to him. God’s people have been oppressed for generations, and that reality seeps into the individual desires of the people and their collective longings as they come before John – they want to be free! That longing shapes how they see the world and how they have come to want God to work in the world. As oppressed people, they long for a Messiah who will set them free, and in their oppression, they have limited their understanding of freedom. They had reduced their ideas of freedom and the workings of God to something human.
For some six hundred years, their cries and prayers were seemingly unanswered, and now there appears one from God proclaiming a message of God. Some in the crowd had responded to a message of repentance as they turned from a life of self to full life through faith in God. Yet, as ever, there are those who, regardless of the message being proclaimed, will look to shape the work of God to their own needs and desires. John, the forerunner to the Messiah, proclaimed and prepared for the one to come. Yet, the crowd wondered “Could he be the one?” They do what we all do: hear what they want to hear and shape the things of God into the things we want them to be.
The crowd want freedom, and they believe the Messiah will bring freedom as they understand it, so rather than listen exactly to John and look beyond him to the coming Messiah, they see in John what they want to see, and they hear from John what they want to hear. It is the most basic of human sins to confirm God’s message and work to our desires. Today, our challenge as we wait for the Second Coming of the Messiah (His Advent) is to be critical of our own seeing, hearing and thinking. Are we listening to what God is saying or hearing what we want to hear? Are we seeing what God is doing or seeing what we are doing as what we think God is doing?
As we are aware of the danger of the crowds and bringing out our own perspective to the work of God, we look to John and learn from him what true obedience to the call of God on our life looks like. He who the crowd looked at and thought: “He could be the Messiah” looked at the crowd and said: “I am not the messiah!” John knew what God had called him to, and he was delighted with his lot. He knew that he was a forerunner of the one who was to come and that his job was to point to Jesus. He was never going to take centre stage for long. Yet, he delighted in his privilege to serve because the point is what he did as he declared the greatness and power of the Messiah to come. He who will baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire and act with heaven’s authority.
John never let his fame increase his sense of self-importance: he knew it was not about him but about the one he was called to prepare the way for. He gladly stepped out of the limelight; and pointed to the Light of the world. John was called to be an arrow that pointed to the Messiah’s first coming, and he delighted in doing just that! He never took that which was not his to take in the call of God, never bowing to the crowd’s pressure even though that was the easiest thing to do. John is for us the model of faith and discipleship: firstly, he trusted in God and what God had called him to even when the world could not understand it; secondly, at this moment he captures for us the call of all disciples, he pointed to the (hope found in the) coming of the Messiah.
As John pointed to the first coming of the Messiah, today, if we follow Jesus, we live through faith in response to his first coming and point to his second coming! Declaring to the world his Grace and warning: Jesus is not simply coming back to say hello but to fulfil what he has begun. With auAuthoritythe winnowing fork v17), he will gather his wheat into his barn and deal with the useless crop (the chaff) by burning it in the fire. In the Advent of Christ, there will be both the fulfilment of Grace and Judgment as the curse of sin is death with.
John wants the world to know that Jesus is coming (to both save and judge the world) because this is the most urgent news for the world to hear. Two thousand years later, it is still the most important news for the world to hear: that life and all that we are meant to be centres on how we respond to the person and work of Jesus Christ! He who’s baptism is greater and who comes with the authority of Heaven to gather his children in and judge those who chose the world over him.
Let us learn from the crowd and consider what is shaping our expectations of Life and God and our hearing of what God is saying and seeing what he is doing. Then let us look to John as our model in the Kingdom of God, delighting that we take none of the Glory, but in the power of the Holy Spirit live fruitful lives as we point to the Advent of Jesus. Declaring the beautiful dual truth of that future event: Grace for the repentant and a warning for all who do not.
Conclusion: Exhortation and Proclamation (18)
Hear the words of verse eighteen again: “And with many other words, John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them. John had one purpose in life in response to what God had done for him – to make known what God had done for him by pointing to the Messiah to come. John exhorted: literally he sought to encourage people, admonish them and comfort them to the good news of the coming Messiah. It was an urgent and beautiful thing because it called people to consider their foundation and made clear the result of both trusting in God and not. Hence, with urgency, John orientated his life, time and fruit to point to the first coming Messiah who would baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire.
This Advent season, we must model our lives and priorities on the example of John The Baptist. As he shaped his life around the exhortation and proclamation of the good news of Jesus first coming and called people to bear the fruits of repentance to make that good news known: We must shape our lives and priorities around the good news of his second coming and bear fruits that make it known! Proclaiming the good news of he who lived the perfect life, was crucified and rose again so that we could enjoy the wonder of relationship with God. Then as we live in response to the Grace, we have received and produced the fruits of the spirit – fruits in keeping with repentance – in the normality of our context and place we make beautiful for a lost world the Grace we have received.
- 253, Luke (New International Commentary on the New Testament) ↩