Text: Luke 3:7-17
Then he said to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
So the people asked him, saying, “What shall we do then?”
John the Baptist was a wild character. He lived out in the woods, he was wild-eyed and hairy, and he preached about a coming judgment of fire. Even with his strange diet and curious fashion sense, though, he didn’t actually give extreme advice. Now he did give an extreme critique. That’s for sure. But his critique was against sin. What he called people to do was actually pretty simple. It wasn’t easy to do, mind you, but it was simple to understand. He called them to repent and live lives of love and integrity.
This morning I want to look more closely at what John said. I want to show the he was preaching eschatological judgment but, more than that, that he was preaching covenantal judgment. He was preaching to the people of God and, in a way, against the people of God. He was telling the covenant people how to be “true” covenant people. And he prophesied that the coming judgment would make the covenant people plain to see. This judge, he taught us, was Jesus. Let’s take a look.
Now, was John the Baptist talking about the end of the world? This is a question that we’ve been talking about for a few weeks now. In one respect, the answer is no. We can see, from our point in history, that whatever it was that John said would happen “soon,” it wasn’t the end of the world. We know this because the world did not end and we are still here. But, at the same time, what he is predicting certainly sounds like the end of the world, or at least an apocalyptic scenario. He says that “wrath” is coming, that a winnower or reaper will come to separate the wheat from the chaff, and that there will be “unquenchable fire” to burn up the fruitless trees. These are images of judgment, and they are images of judgment that are often used by the biblical prophets when they are warning about God’s end-times judgment.
“Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? …His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather the wheat into His barn; but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.” (vs. 7, 17)
The fire is obvious, but the images of “winnowing fan” and “threshing floor” are also connected with eternal judgment. For instance, Jeremiah 15 says:
You have forsaken Me,” says the Lord,
“You have gone backward.
Therefore I will stretch out My hand against you and destroy you;
I am weary of relenting!
And I will winnow them with a winnowing fan in the gates of the land;
I will bereave them of children;
I will destroy My people (vs. 6-7)
Notice that the Lord holds the winnowing fan and that He winnows His own people.
The threshing floor is used in Daniel 2, with his dream about the great statue that is crushed by the stone: “Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold were crushed together, and became like chaff from the summer threshing floors; the wind carried them away so that no trace of them was found. And the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth” (Dan. 2:35).
Associating the righteous with wheat or good fruit and the wicked with chaff that is blown away by the wind is something we see throughout the Psalms, and it is also language used by Jesus himself. It always has to do with divine judgment. Sometimes this is the final judgment, and sometimes it is political judgment. John seems to be combining both political judgment and eternal judgment in that he is speaking about a coming king, but a king who judges with fire and the Holy Spirit. And don’t forget that the fire is “unquenchable.” John is predicting a mighty in-breaking of God Himself in order to redeem His people and judge evil.
Israel vs. Israel
John’s basic point seems pretty clear. Someone is coming soon who judge the bad guys. The big kicker is John is not speaking mainly to Romans or even political leaders. He’s mostly speaking to normal Jewish people, along with the religious leaders. Here in Luke we are told that his audience is a “multitude,” and then the soldiers and tax collectors are also mentioned. Matthew’s gospel lets us know that Pharisees and Sadducees were also present (Matt. 3:7). John’s is saying to them, “The bad guy is you.”
But this is more than just a convicting sermon. This is a covenantal accusation. John is saying that God’s covenant people have fallen away from their God and that many of them are not even true Israelites. He does this at first by calling them a “brood of vipers” and then he adds those incredible lines, “do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones” (Luke 3:8). John is letting them know that their simple external connection to Abraham, though history or bloodline, will not be protect them from God’s wrath. Unless they repent, they will be exposed as false sons.
In fact, the expression “brood of vipers” should make you think of what Jesus says. In Matthew 23, Jesus gives the scribes and Pharisees an extended rebuke, saying that they have always killed the prophets:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.’ Therefore you are witnesses against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers’ guilt. Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell?” (Matthew 23:29-33)
If you oppose God’s prophets, then you show that you are not children of Abraham but children of vipers. In John 8, Jesus says this makes the Pharisees “children of the Devil”:
Why do you not understand My speech? Because you are not able to listen to My word. You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe Me. …He who is of God hears God’s words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God.” (John 8:43-47)
We see that the evil deeds of the religious leaders is proof that they are children of the devil, that great serpent of old, but we also see that the fact that they are children of the devil is the cause of their evil deeds. “You are not able to listen to my words. You are of your father the devil… therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God.”
Now, this is extreme language. John and Jesus are both using very harsh language, and they are using it against men who would have been well-respected in their day. They are preaching this way against the leaders of this church! And this is what prophets do. They pronounce God’s judgment, they offer a way of repentance, and they make clear that the dividing line between God’s people and God’s enemies runs, not through blood or nationality, but through the heart. As Paul says in Romans 9:6, “they are not all Israel who are of Israel.” God’s people are His children, those who have been born of Him, and they show themselves to be His children through their fruits of repentance.
This point is very relevant for us today. A great many Christians are confused on the identity of Israel. They aren’t simply wrong about Israel’s significance, but they don’t understand what or who it even is. You see, Israel always had a twofold nature. You could use “Israel” to speak of the external tribal-ethnic unit who was in covenant with God. But you could also use the name “Israel” to refer to the truth of God’s promise and those who believe. This was the goal of the external covenant, to lead people to faith, and the prophets are telling us that “true” Israel is actually only those people who do believe. The New Testament makes this even clearer, showing that true Israel believes that Jesus is the messiah. As Paul states in Galatians 3:7, “know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham.” John the Baptist is telling his audience the same thing. They are about to meet the fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant. They had better get ready.
This observation does not mean that we have to have any hostility towards Jews today. Antisemitism is evil and a sin. But it does mean that apart from personal faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the Jews will perish in their unbelief. We must continue to evangelize them and repeat the same message, the same gospel, as John the Baptist and Jesus Himself. And Advent especially reminds us that we must not try to go backwards, back to the old covenant, but rather see that Jesus was Himself the fulfillment of that covenant and that when He comes again, He is coming to build His temple on Earth through His body, those children of Abraham who believe.
What Should We Do?
After John gives this call to repentance, the people say, “What shall we do then?” (Luke 3:10). He gives three answers, all having to do with “fruit worthy of repentance.” To the general crowd he tells them to give to those in need, “He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise” (vs. 11). To the tax collectors he says, “Collect no more than what is appointed for you” (vs. 13). And to the soldiers he says, “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages” (vs. 14). This is what the people should do if they want to avoid the judgment.
The first answer is the easiest to understand. We should give to others who are in need. Personal charity lies at the very foundation of Christian ethics. There are different positions that a Christian can take when it comes to political charity, but when it comes to personal charity the command is clear. You should give to those in need. Typically this is expressed by saying that those who have more should give to those who have less, but you should remember that “more” and “less” are comparative terms. You always have “more” than someone out there, and so when you see a person in need, you should consider the duty to give to be your own. John is talking about essentials here, and so we should start with that. Sometimes it does get tricky to know how much to give and when, but we should always be inclined towards generosity over stinginess, and if someone is lacking in basic necessities, particularly food and shelter, then our giving should be automatic.
The instruction to the tax collectors requires a little bit of history to fully understand. John tells them not to take more than what is appointed to them. In the Roman Empire in the 1st century, taxation was a difficult thing to pull off. People never want to pay taxes, but Rome was huge and did not have equal control over all of its provinces. In order to collect taxes, it would hire out publicans to acquire the money and then deliver it to higher-ranking political officials. You often had 3 or 4 levels to the bureaucracy. The way that each tax collector would make a profit was by charging a little more than he had to give to his superior. In a free market this makes perfect sense, but when it comes to taxes, this means that the burden is most heavily placed on the taxpayer, and each various collector had an incentive to pile on a bit more. This led to a lot of corruption. John is telling them not to do that but only take what is honestly owed them. To summarize, we can simply say, “No cheating” or “Don’t cook the books.”
The advice to the soldiers is very similar. He says to not extort people or take money by the use of violence. Don’t bully them, threaten them, or bribe them. Soldiers had authority then as they do now. The same would have been true for the police. John is saying that they should do the job they are supposed to do. They should be content with their wages. Don’t abuse your power. This advice can really be applied to anyone who has a position of power over another. Don’t abuse it. Don’t be greedy and try to take dirty money.
It’s also interesting, though, because both the tax collectors and the soldiers were working within broken systems. John does not tell them to quit their jobs and stand apart from the system. Instead, he allows them to continue working in jobs that were thought of as morally suspect as long as they personally conduct themselves honestly. This means that we can work in similarly-difficult jobs today. Some jobs are unlawful and no Christian should participate in them. Prostitution and drug-dealing are prime examples. There are other jobs which are lawful according to the human laws of our land but necessarily require you to sin. Pay-day lenders are an example of this, as well as many forms of gambling. There are certain sports which might also rise to this level. Christians must follow their conscience and refuse to take a job which requires them to sin. But there are also jobs which are morally ambiguous. They don’t require you to sin to do your job, but they might put you in a position where you might sin and where others commonly sin. Today we can think of the military and policing, but also politics, banking, investment, and many more. John’s instructions teach us that we do not have to find a totally pure job as Christians, but that whatever our job, we must conduct it with integrity, by being honest and only taking what is rightfully ours.
Now, it certainly does look like John was expecting a cataclysmic event to happen soon. We don’t know everything that he would have thought that all meant, but it does look like he is saying that God’s kingdom is about to be established on earth. He says that Jesus is coming and that Jesus is coming to bring fiery judgment. The only thing that the people could do was repent, and they could only repent by taking a few concrete steps to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
Today we can look backwards at John’s ministry and see a bit more. We know that Jesus did come and that Jesus did baptize with the Spirit and with fire. But we also know that this happened in a surprising way. Jesus baptized with the Spirit at Pentecost. And He also baptized with fire at Pentecost. Further, we know that Jesus brought judgment all throughout His earthly ministry, making plain who the “true” Israelites were and who the “false” ones were. But we also know that He left and promised to come again to finish this work. He even told us that we have to be branches which abide in Him, producing fruit, in order to escape the fire (John 15:1-8). So there is a continuing relevance.
The church has been living in the End Times since the very first century. Certain periods of history exhibit particularly intense moments of suffering, but all times live with the same commands. We are to be prepared. But the way to be prepared is not to go buy a bunker somewhere. It’s not even to stock up on D-cell batteries, though that’s never a bad idea in Florida… The way to be prepared is to bear fruits worthy of repentance, and these are charity and honesty. Give to those who are in need, don’t take anything more than you are owed, and be content with your wages. Know that Christ is not about to come bring judgment but is already in the process of bringing judgment. But know that this is good news for His people because His judgment is salvation. You can have this salvation and show yourselves to be true members of His covenant people by having faith in His work.
Let us pray.