If this writer kept a “top ten list” of the most important chapters of scripture in the Bible, Luke Chapter 3 would almost certainly be in that list, for reasons that will hopefully become apparent by the end of this blog. In verse 7, John the Baptist is speaking to the crowds that came out to be baptized. In Matthew chapter 3, we are told that Pharisees and Saduccees were among those who had come. The impression that is most natural to take away from John’s harsh-sounding words here are that they are meant for those two groups. But just as likely, they are aimed at any of those who had come without true repentance on their minds. That is what John had been preaching – a baptism of repentance.
Referring to them as a “brood of vipers,” the question he poses is “who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Judging from the verses that follow, it seems that what he meant was “where did you get the idea that you can avoid the wrath that is to come simply by baptism – that is, without repentance?” “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance” means that they must not only repent, but they must show the change in their lives by how they live, and by how they treat others from this day forward. He then admonishes them not to have the idea in mind that because they are descendants of Abraham, they have nothing to fear. God, he tells them, can raise up children of Abraham from the stones present around them. In other words, it is not enough – God is not so impressed with their pedigree.
In verse 9, John tells them that already “the axe is laid to the root of the trees.” They do not know it, but the imminent destruction that this alludes to is the coming destruction that will result from the Jews’ rejection of Jesus. And “every tree,” he says, “that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” So when the various people asked what they were to do, everything that he tells each of them in verses 10-14 has to do with a complete change in the way John knows (from the Spirit) that they are living – mostly how unjust they are to others, especially the poor and down-trodden. That part is the same story throughout the Old and New Testaments – God has always cared very deeply about how those two groups of people are treated.
All of these things together make up the crux of what John’s commission by God is all about, as far as “to prepare the way” is concerned. This is part of what makes this chapter of Luke one of the most important in the New Testament. There has been no word from God for 400 years – since Malachi foretold the coming of John the Baptist in Malachi 3:1 and 4:5. Now comes John the Baptist, filled with the Holy Spirit and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Although baptism in some form did exist before John the Baptist received his calling from God, it was not a baptism of repentance, nor was it for the forgiveness of sins. There was no real forgiveness of sins under the Law of Moses because, as Paul said, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:1-4). There was washing for purification, as first implemented with Aaron and his sons (Exodus 29:4, Leviticus 16:23-24), and for remedy of defilement (Numbers 19). And at some point (though not Biblically required), baptism (immersion in water) was added to circumcision as a requirement for Gentile proselytes to be converted to Judaism.
But now it was different. John the Baptist did not come up with the idea of this baptism on his own. It was part of “the word” that came from God (Luke 3:2-3). John the Baptist “prepared the way” for Jesus in three important ways that we can clearly see: 1) by proclaiming and practicing the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:3) 2) by proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven (and, necessarily, the Messiah’s arrival at last) was at hand (Matthew 3:2, Matthew 3:11-12), and 3) by clearly pointing his followers to Jesus as that long-awaited Messiah – the Son of God (John 1:29-34).
(This year’s reading plan for Luke, Acts, and 1 and 2 Chronicles averages just 15 verses per day – 5 days per week!)
Schedule for this week
Read or listen to audio of today’s selection from Luke here
Read or listen to audio of today’s selection from 1 Chronicles here
some images © V. Gilbert & Arlisle F. Beers
All of my comments in this blog, however, are solely my responsibility. When reading ANY commentary, you should ALWAYS refer first to the scripture, which is God’s unchanging and unfailing word. Reading schedules can be found on the “Bible Reading Schedules” page of my website at http://graceofourlord.com.