Commentary on Luke 3:7-18
Like Israel’s prophets before him, the mission of John the Baptist is “to turn … the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17). His words sound harsh, but the promise is sure: “One who is more powerful than I is coming … He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with Fire.” (Luke 3:16). Into whose ears is this news supposed to land? Some ears will hear it as good; others, as bad.
What do people need?
Luke does not explain why crowds have come out to be baptized by John in the wilderness, but across the biblical witness the wilderness is often a place where human need encounters God’s gracious provision (for example, Exodus 13:21; Deuteronomy 8:16).
It is worth asking: what do the people need, then and now?
Perhaps the crowds who gather around John recognize the ways they have fallen short, how they have broken covenant with God and with each other, including the command to love God and neighbor (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18; see also Luke 10:27). If people are honest with themselves, most know in their hearts that their actions, inactions, and attitudes often fail to demonstrate love for others. Is there any hope for change?
Perhaps the people fear the costs of their failures and they are looking for a way out. (John hints at this when he compares them to snakes wriggling away from danger.1) Maybe they desire to live more faithfully but they do not know how. Perhaps they are overwhelmed or frightened and have nowhere else to turn.
Whatever their reasons, the crowds leave the relative comfort of home and venture out to the wilderness to be baptized by this prophet and hear him speak—even if his speech is severe and challenging.
Brood of vipers!
John’s first words in Luke sound harsh to modern ears, but they make clear John’s place within the Jewish prophetic tradition. His mission is to warn the crowds of the consequences of their current path and call them back to the ways of God (see also Jeremiah 1:9-10).
John cautions against abusing the privilege of a family tree that has a long prior relationship with God: “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.’” If any think that ancestry, ethnicity, place of origin, language or any other status-marker or identity—including, today, within the church or outside of it—allows them to lord it over others or lets them off the hook, John severs those notions at their root.
Indeed, if the [family] tree does not produce good fruit—if the community does not live in such a way that its life illustrates its relationship with God—it might as well, metaphorically, be kindling for a bonfire (Luke 3:9).
It is good to be reminded that John’s message is meant for a people who wait with eager longing for a Savior, then and now. If those who came to see John are called snakes, so are we. If they cannot claim special privilege based on their heritage, neither can we. If they risk cutting themselves off from God, if the ax is ready to fall on them … so it is on us.
At the same time, among those who gather this year for worship during Advent, many are all too familiar with the (figurative) blow of the ax. They know what it is to be cut off from friends and/or family. Some are experiencing the world as if it were without light, wondering where God is in the depth of their suffering. Some can feel in their bodies the blunt cut of illness, injustice, or disease. All have been touched by traumas associated with the pandemic.
John’s threat of separation is not just a threat; it is already a realized experience in the lives of many.
What should we do?
The question of what to do appears almost as often in Luke as in the other three Gospels combined.2 In our passage, the people ask this question in response to John’s instruction to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8).
Repentance (metanoia = literally to change one’s mind; to turn) is a significant theme in Luke-Acts, signaling a new or renewed relationship with God (for example, Luke 13:3; 16:30; Acts 3:19; 20:21). It is closely tied with forgiveness, such as in Jesus’ charge to the disciples just before his ascension: “ … that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47; Acts 5:31).
Repentance actualizes the gift of forgiveness that is already offered by God.
In response to the peoples’ question, John speaks directly to temptations inherent to each group—particularly that of grasping after “more” at the expense of others (a temptation that is familiar enough today). He admonishes the crowds to share resources. As for the tax-collectors, don’t be greedy. Soldiers, don’t abuse power.
John’s instructions suggest that it is not enough simply to be sorry (one of the ways we often think of repentance); repentance is lived out in the everyday practices of life, no matter one’s vocational calling.
Preparing the way of the Lord
John the Baptist’s mission in the wilderness is to call God’s people to repentance and to show what that looks like. However, neither his preaching nor the baptism he offers can actually empower lives to be changed. If John’s message were the end of the story, the people would leave the wilderness with little more than a story to tell and a to-do list that cannot sustain them in a life lived fully before God.
The good news is that God sends One who is more powerful than John, with gifts greater than the crowd can imagine. This Messiah brings a baptism of spirit and of fire: the very breath and power of God to change everything. That is very good news, indeed.
- In Matthew the invective is used against Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 3:7; see also Matthew 12:34; 23:33), while in Luke, it is directed at the crowds. Those who hear and read Luke’s Gospel today have an opportunity to imagine ourselves standing among those crowds who are gathered in the wilderness to listen to John.
- For example, in Luke 10:25 the question prompts Jesus to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan; see also the parable of the man with the barns (Luke 12:17) and Jesus’ encounter with the [rich young] ruler (Luke 18:18). The textual variant represented by Luke 23:34 is also worth noting: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”