One of the great threats to the church is that of assumption. I’ve pointed out before that Don Carson has noted that what is assumed in one generation will be lost in the next. And I think we can see how that can happen. You might have one generation who know firmly what they believe, and yet they simply assume the next generation knows those beliefs as well. Therefore, they fail to teach these truths and ground them in the Scripture. The next generation may have seen the effects of these beliefs and even heard them spoken of as they were growing up, however, when it comes time for them to teach the next generation key doctrinal truths, they will be unable because they were never taught themselves. And that third generation will have no contact at all with a people who know and cherish doctrinal truths.
Sometimes when we study church history, even Baptist history, we wonder how a people could wander so far from what we once believed. However, I think we can see one great reason for it this morning, and that is because it’s easy for us to assume everyone knows and believes doctrinal truths that we take for granted.
There are many ways to avoid making these assumptions as a church. One of the things we do is publish pamphlets on why we believe what we believe and do what we do. We also teach a rotating Sunday school cycle that instructs the church in what we believe and why. But one key way to avoid simply making assumptions about what people know in the congregation is to be committed to preaching through the whole counsel of God.
Were we simply to pick what texts we wanted to preach each week, it would be easy to avoid texts that highlight those truths we think everyone knows. Preaching through a book, however, forces us to look at the text in front of us and highlight truths that we might believe many in the congregation know already. As I’ve looked at Luke 3:1-20 this week, I think that this text fits that description. It would be easy to assume that the lessons in this text are known by all here today, but I don’t believe that’s the case. Secondly, even if it is the case that there is nothing highlighted in this text today with which we are not familiar, I believe it will serve to help refocus us on things we might not have thought of in a while, things that are crucial for faithfully living the Christian life. Our text this morning is Luke’s account of the ministry of John the Baptist, and my approach this morning will be to walk through this text in sections, highlighting some truths that the narrative and John’s preaching expose to us.
The text begins by noting that the Word of God came to John in the wilderness. John was out in the wilderness preaching to those who would hear him a message that God had clearly given to him. But Luke gives us the historical setting in which John was preaching in the first two verses. Luke writes, “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.”
Luke wants Theophilus (the one to whom writes his gospel) and us to know the exact historical time period in which John’s ministry began, and he notes it through who was ruling, governing, and leading the people at that time. Luke has told us already that John and Jesus were born during the reign of Caesar Augustus, who did much for Rome. But when John began his public ministry, Tiberius Caesar was reigning, and under his reign there was cruelty, some of which we will see throughout this gospel. Luke also notes that there were three tetrarchs (or rulers of a fourth) reigning in the land and Pilate was governor over Judea. Finally, he notes that Annas and Caiaphas were the high priest. Now, this is odd because there was only one high priest at a time, so why does Luke list two? Well, the reason he notes both of these men is because Annas had been removed as high priest and his son-in-law Caiphas had been made the high priest. However, everyone knew that Annas was still pulling the strings, so Luke writes that both of them were the high priest showing that he too knew what was going on in history.
So why does Luke give us all of this detail? I think it’s because he wants to make the point that Jesus was born and ministered at an exact point in history. He wants the reader to know that the story of the Christ is not some mythical story but a true story of a man who lived, ministered, and died at a certain point in history. John’s ministry therefore probably starts anywhere from 26-28 A.D. God had worked within history to bring about the salvation of his people through his Son.
Then, having noted the point in history, Luke begins to write of John the Baptist, the one preaching the Word of God in the wilderness. And Luke tells us exactly what John was doing. He writes, “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’” (vv. 3-6). And I think these verses highlight an important truth I was us to see this morning, namely, that the most important thing in our lives is our response to Jesus Christ.
Everyone must deal with Jesus
Luke tells us that John was proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And I want us to think through what this means. However, I first want us to look at why John was doing this. Luke tells us in verses 4-6 that John was doing this as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s writing in Isaiah 40:3-5.
In that chapter in Isaiah the prophet is talking to the Israelites about the time when they are in captivity to the Babylonians. Around 586 BC the southern kingdom was conquered by Babylon and the people were taken captive. In the chapters leading up to chapter 40 Isaiah has told them that they’ll be led away in captivity because of their sins. However, beginning in chapter 40 Isaiah’s book takes a turn. In that chapter Isaiah begins to proclaim hope. He proclaims to the people that God is going to come to them and deliver them from their captivity. Isaiah speaks of one crying to the people, “Get everything ready for God’s coming. Let the hills be made low, the valleys filled, the crooked places made straight, etc., for the salvation of God is coming.”
Luke declares to us that John is that voice crying in the wilderness for the people to get ready for the coming of God and of his salvation. But it won’t be about delivering people from Babylonian captivity from the captivity of their own sins. That is, Isaiah was prophesying about this day when God would send John the Baptist to prepare the people for the coming of the Christ.
But how was John telling them to get ready. He was telling them to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins. He was telling them that the way to prepare for the coming of God’s salvation was to turn from their sins and acknowledge their need for God’s forgiveness. He was telling them that there was nothing more important to focus on that preparing themselves to respond to the coming Christ.
You see, to this point in the narrative it is clear that God has made everything about his Son. All of history has led to the coming of Jesus. The promises of God were not to be fulfilled until the coming of Jesus. And God even sent one before Jesus to prepare people for his coming so that they might respond to him appropriately.
God has ordained this world, history, and our lives so that nothing is more important than our response to his Son. Luke will tell us later through the words of Paul that “the times of ignorance God overlooked, but now [i.e. now that his Son has come] he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31). Our response to Jesus is the most important thing in our lives. But what exactly does that response look like?
John has shown us that it involves repentance and acknowledging our need for forgiveness. That is what I think he is saying as he proclaims “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” You see, baptism was something that only Gentiles did when they wanted to become Jews. Gentiles had to go through a few things to become proselytes, but one of them involved baptism in water because they were considered unclean, unholy, and in need of being purified.
Therefore, when John comes on the scene preaching “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” I think the message would have been loud and clear: “You are unclean before God, in need of repenting so that your sins might be forgiven.” This was his proclamation to Jews and Gentiles, to all men. All are unclean and in need of repenting and turning to Jesus Christ.
All are unclean and in need of repenting and trusting in Jesus
You see, if what the Jews know of baptism is that it is something that Gentiles must go through because they were unclean, then they get the picture when John tells even them to be baptized. John is saying, “You are unclean before God as well. All men are unclean before God on their own merits and are in need of repenting and trusting in Jesus Christ.
And if they think they’re okay simply because they can trace their heritage to Abraham, John corrects them quickly. Luke tells us, “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. 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. 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\" (vv. 7-9).
Apparently John knew that there were some coming out to him who had no intention of altering their lives. They were insincere. Perhaps they wanted to be seen by others as righteous but had no intention of repenting. They thought there was no need for them to repent, since they were Jews by birth. But John tells them that it’s not about someone having a good heritage. He tells them that God could create children of Abraham on his own out of rocks. What is needed is a life bearing the fruit of repentance that God’s judgment is about to come against anyone not bearing such fruit.
The imagery John uses is that of a tree being cut down. It’s as if you’ve examined a tree for a while and determined that the tree is no longer alive because there is no fruit on it. Therefore, you begin to chop away at it. John says that the last blow of the axe is about to be dealt; it is ready to strike a blow to the very root of the tree, so if people really claim to have life then they better bear fruit.
These are two crucial reminders for us. Our response to Jesus Christ is crucial, and everyone without exception needs to respond in the same way: repenting of their sins and trusting in Jesus so that they might have forgiveness of sins. This, then, is demonstrated through baptism. Let’s remind our children of that who could mistakenly think that the fact that they’re born in a Christian home means that they are okay before God. No, rather they are unclean and in need of repenting and believing.
So John also tells us that true repentance is more than just words. If there is true repentance in someone’s life it means that they will begin to live in obedience to Jesus Christ.
True repentance produces obedience to Jesus
There are some in the crowd who hear John’s charge against those coming with an insincere heart who are indeed sincere themselves. They want to know what repentance should look like in their lives. So John tells them. Luke writes, “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\" (vv. 10-14).
John first addresses the crowd by telling them that a basic way one demonstrates repentance before God is by caring for their neighbor. He tells them that if they have two tunics and someone else has none, they should share with him. And they should do the same thing with food. He tells the tax collectors who were asking him what they should do that they should collect no more than what they were authorized to collect.
You see, a tax collector was someone who was not highly thought of in Jewish life. To collect taxes those in the Romans government appointed locals. These locals worked on a commission basis and so they might be appointed to collect ten percent, for example, and be able to keep two percent for themselves. However, most of them saw this as an opportunity to pocket more money, so they might charge fifteen percent instead of the ten they were authorized to collect and pocket more money. They abused their own countrymen, which was despicable. As if the Romans reigning over the Jews wasn’t enough, now the Jews themselves were abusing their own people even worse than the Romans. They were seen as traitors who preyed on the poor and helpless. John therefore tells them to stop abusing their position and simply to collect what they are authorized to collect.
Finally, a group of soldiers ask him the same thing. And John tells them not to extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations and to be content with their wages. Again, a soldier who wanted more money could use his power as a law official to bring a false charge against someone to extort money from them. It too was an evil practice, and John tells them to stop. Obviously the life of someone who had repented was going to be displayed in that person caring for his neighbor.
But there are two additional things I want us to see about John’s preaching in this regard. First, notice that John describes obedience to Christ in terms of loving one’s neighbor. That is, John’s description of holiness cannot be practiced in isolation from others. I know we’ve noted this before, but it is very easy to think that holiness is found in getting away from others and trying to devote oneself to God alone. This has been practiced throughout the history of the church with men often going out to a place to live alone, without contact with others so that they might be holy.
Well, John’s words here shows us that that is an unbiblical thought. Holiness is lived out in regard to others. Devoting oneself to God is devoting oneself in service to others. In fact, on that last day we will be judged, our faith will be vindicated, based on how we have served Christ, and that will be shown in how we’ve served our brothers and sisters in Christ.
But there’s a second thing I want us to see as well. John’s answer to the tax collector and the soldier is not to stop being a tax collector and a soldier. John doesn’t say, “If you want to be a really good Christian you need to leave those unholy jobs and practice a holy one, like being a Rabbi.” John’s answer is, “Keep being a tax collector and keep being a soldier, but do that job in a God-honoring way.”
A number of people head toward things like the pastorate because they know they really want to serve God and imagine that this must be the greatest way to serve God and live in holiness. I mean, how could one equal being a pastor? The answer is that one simply faithfully obeys God in doing whatever he does. Doctors, lawyers, plumbers, teachers, cable television installers, construction workers, nurses, factory workers, farmers, etc. don’t live holy lives by leaving their labors but by doing those things in a God-honoring way. Simply put, there is not a list of holy jobs and unholy jobs (unless sin is inherent in the job, of course) but simply jobs, all of which are holy when Christians do them in a God-honoring, Bible-obeying manner. That is what repentance looks like – obeying God in everything we do. But God doesn’t leave such holiness simply to our abilities. Rather, he purifies his followers.
God purifies those who are followers of Jesus, through his Spirit
Right after John says this he begins to understand that some think he might be the Christ. They think he could be David’s son, the promised Messiah. Therefore, John corrects them. Luke tells us the account, writing, “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. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with 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\" (vv. 15-17).
In this day people either went barefoot or wore sandals, and so their feet got quite dirty. Therefore, one of the things a slave would do for his master was to loosen the strap of his sandal so that he could remove it from his foot. However, the act was thought to be so humiliating that Jewish slaves were not required to do that. It was thought to be below even a slave in their minds. Therefore, John wants them to know so clearly that he is not the Messiah that he tells them that the one coming after him is so much greater than him that John is not even worthy to perform the humiliating act of loosening the strap of his sandal.
And John also notes that while he baptizes with water, this one will come baptizing with the Spirit and with fire. The idea is probably that Jesus will come and pour out his Spirit on them giving them life, but he will also bring about a purifying effect on his people akin to that which fire does.
Fire is used to destroy, but it is also used to purify. And so the idea I believe John is saying is, “Look, I’m baptizing you with water, which symbolizes purifying the unclean. However, this one really will bring purification. He will pour out the Spirit on his people and will work in them the same purifying effect of fire, bringing out from them those things which do not pertain to holiness.” In fact, John follows it up by using the imagery of a man with a winnowing fork, something that was used to separate wheat from chaff. The fork would be used to toss the wheat into the air, and the chaff would be blown away while the wheat would fall to the ground.
John is saying that God is going to purify his people so that there will be an obvious difference between those who belong to him and those who don’t. That’s what the Spirit does in our lives. He purifies us. That’s one of the reasons that God gives us the Spirit so that we might grow in purity and holiness in this lifetime.
Therefore, John has shown the importance of responding to Jesus in repentance and faith. He’s shown that this is something everyone must do since we are all unclean apart from Christ before God. He’s shown that true repentance is shown in a life of obedience, and that God purifies us through his Spirit so that we might live obedient lives.
If you are a believer this morning, that is very encouraging. It’s a reminder to you that God equips us for those things to which he calls us. He demands obedience and gives us the Spirit. However, this narrative ends in a surprising way with another reminder we need to hear this morning, namely, that living in obedience to Christ doesn’t mean this life will be easy and all will go well.
Obedience to Jesus doesn’t mean all will go well in life
Luke ends the section writing, “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” (vv. 18-20).
Part of obedience for John meant rebuking Herod for his marriage to Herodias. Herod and Herodias had fallen in love while they were married to others. Therefore, they left their spouses to be together. But if that was not bad enough, Herodias had been married to Herod’s brother. This was a terrible act. So John had rebuked them for this, and a tyrant will not put up with being publicly rebuked, so he imprisoned John. And we know that later John was beheaded and killed.
So the obvious question we might want to ask is, “Then what did John do wrong?” And the answer is that John did nothing wrong. He was fulfilling the tasks that God had given him. He was proclaiming the truth and preparing people for the coming of the Messiah. In fact, rebuking Herod was a gracious and loving act, for it gave him the opportunity to repent and be right before God. But instead it got him locked up in prison and eventually killed.
Yes, God demands that we repent of our sins, turn to him, and live obediently before him by the power of the Holy Spirit. However, he does not promise that all will go well and life will go easy simply because we obey. We will be abused, hated, persecuted, and maybe even killed. In fact, one thing promised for those who seek to live a godly life in Christ Jesus is persecution.
So remember that. Let that truth anchor itself in your heart deeply. Count the cost of following Christ. But then remember that the most important thing in your life is how you respond to Jesus of Nazareth. Will you repent, turn to him, and serve him even though it may cost you your life? If you do you will know eternal life. Or will you deny him and seek to serve yourself in this life? If you do you may avoid persecution, but you will stand before your Creator and Judge to be judged in how you’ve responded to his Son.
I pray this morning that we are renewed in our commitment to Christ and that these basic truths stir us to look to him in faith and ask for the help of his Spirit to live a life of obedience for him. Let that be our declaration even as we come to the table this morning. Amen.