Commentary on Luke 3:7-18
Luke depicts John the Baptist’s message as a clarion call to repentance.
His proclamation can be divided into roughly three sections: First (verses 7-9), he addresses potential excuses. He has harsh words (“You brood of vipers …!”) for those who think baptism will exempt them from the coming judgment. This is not just a message for Gentiles. It’s true for Jews, as well, John insists. It’s not enough to claim Abraham as their ancestor (Luke 3:8b). They must “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (3:8a). Those who do not bear such fruit will experience the swift, harsh judgment of being “cut down and thrown into the fire” (3:9)
This is just the first of several instances of “bearing fruit” imagery in Luke. Jesus later tells a parable communicating the same message about repentance, culminating in the following pronouncement: “Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down” (Luke 13:9). Elsewhere, Jesus uses this imagery to connect one’s actions to the state of one’s heart:
For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. (Luke 6:43-45)
As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience (Luke 8:15).
John, too, implies that fruits “worthy of repentance” will be evident in our behavior. This applies not only individuals, but to communities, as well. Just as the nation of Israel is called to repentance and restoration (see also Isaiah 40.3), so does John suggest that his baptism is not just for individuals; it has communal implications, as well.
In the second section of his message (Luke 3:10-14), when “the crowds” ask what they should do, he says to provide generously for those in need. Then, two groups — tax collectors and soldiers — ask the same question. Notice that both groups worked for the government, keeping order in the name of the Roman emperor Tiberius (who ruled 14-37 CE). Luke’s context of imperialism is unmistakable.
Tax collectors, for their part, were known to “skim off the top,” filling their own pockets with others’ hard-earned money. John reminds both groups not to push beyond the limits of the authority they’ve been given. They are not to use fear (such as extortion or threats) to coerce others into giving them what they want. Rather, bearing fruits worthy of repentance means pursuing economic justice. For them, this means doing only the job they’ve been given (Luke 3:13) and being content with the compensation they receive (3:14b).
These themes are carried into one of the most famous examples of a repentant tax collector, the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19. After meeting Jesus, this “rich” chief tax collector (19:2) declares, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” Zacchaeus recognizes his wrongdoing, repents, and makes amends. Jesus’ response echoes and reinforces John the Baptist’s preaching. John had warned the Jews that it wouldn’t be enough to claim Abraham as their ancestor (3:8b), and with Zacchaeus, Jesus proves the point: “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham” (19:9).
The third and final section of John’s proclamation in the wilderness (Luke 3:15-17) depicts him doing exactly what he has just advised. That is, he shows that he knows his role, and he refuses to push beyond the bounds of the authority he’s been given: When the people wonder whether John himself is the promised Messiah (3:15), he responds by underscoring his subordination to the one who is coming (3:16), and the ultimate authority that one will wield (3:17). John the Baptist thus embodies his own advice; he is content with what he has received. Luke draws the section to a close with a final summary description of what John has been doing in the wilderness: “he preached good news/the gospel (euaggelizo) to the people.”
“Preaching the gospel” is a familiar phrase to most Christians. But it’s important to remember that the Greek word euaggelizo and the noun form euaggelion (eu = “good” + angelos = “messenger”/angel) were not originally Christian words. In pre-Christian usage, in the Roman Empire, this could refer to any kind of “good news.” Typically, such news would be proclaimed orally by a town crier (an “evangelist”), and often, this good news reflected an imperial agenda; the evangelist would announce, for example, Roman victory at war or an imperial birthday.
Early Christians adopted and adapted these terms, using them to refer specifically to the proclamation of good news about Christ. My point is that Luke’s use of euaggelizo to describe John the Baptist’s message about Jesus (and to announce Jesus’ birth in Luke 1:19) is not neutral. In the Roman Empire, these words had clear political connotations.
This passage might lead us to ask: What does it mean to bear fruit worthy of repentance today? Are we content with what we have, or do we use our authority like the tax collectors and soldiers who coerced and cheated others? Further: How do or should Christians engage in political discourse? What is the “good news” in contexts of imperialism today?