Sermon preached on Luke 3:1-14 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 07/18/2021 in Novato, CA.
Too often today Christians present the gospel in a way carefully crafted to make it as least offensive as possible to the unbeliever. Don’t misunderstand me, I am all for a winsome gospel presentation. Nor should we look to be offensive in our sharing of Christ with others. In fact, people can sometimes present Christ in rather unnecessarily offensive ways. Yet, in our pluralistic coexist culture of so-called tolerance, we can be especially tempted to make our gospel presentation as lease offensive as possible to the hearer. That is fine as long as you don’t change the message in the process. You see, there is an element in the gospel that is inherently prone to cause offense to the sinner. And we see that here today with the ministry of John the Baptist. He calls people to repent of their sins in light of the coming judgment day of God. That language has offended many over the centuries. But we must not remove that part of the gospel message because it is part of the message. It was so much part of the gospel message that even before Jesus began his gospel ministry on earth, it was part of John the Baptist’s preparatory ministry in light of the coming imminent ministry Jesus. Indeed, while the gospel means good news, to really appreciate the good news we have to hear this bad news that we are guilty sinners that need to repent of our sins. That is what John’s ministry draws our attention to today.
Let us begin then in our first point with observing that John here proclaims the coming wrath of God. To modern people this is probably the most offensive teaching in the Bible. But it’s not our message, it’s God’s message that he has repeatedly given to humanity through his prophets. Here it is again in verse 7. There, John the Baptist says there is coming a day where the wrath of God will fall on this world. He recognizes there that this is something to flee ahead of time. His words imply that the people who have gathered there in the wilderness to hear his prophesying know that this wrath is coming. Of course they do. John was not the last prophet to speak of this. The Old Testament is full of major and minor prophets that spoke of God’s coming wrath. Often their prophecies put it in terms of the day of the Lord. Joel 1:15 said, “Alas for the day! For the day of the LORD is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes.” Obadiah 1:15, “For the day of the LORD is near upon all the nations. As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head.” Those are two examples of many the describe the day of the LORD as the day when God comes to bring judgment upon the wicked for all their evil deeds.
We see John the Baptist further describe this coming wrath in verse 9 with an analogy. There he speaks of the analogy of an axe being laid to the root of the trees. It imagines God as lumberjack felling all the worthless trees – trees that haven’t borne good fruit. As someone who has an apricot tree that virtually bears no fruit each year, I’m not sure why I’ve not cut it down yet. But God’s day of wrath will be like that lumberjack who chops down a fruitless tree. In case it is not obvious, it is saying that human sinners are the worthless trees that get chopped down for lack of good fruit.
As we observe this language about the coming of the day of the Lord, it is important to recognize that the prophets spoke of two aspects of this day. Yes, it would be a day of God’s terrible judgment upon the wicked. But it would also be a day of great salvation for God’s people whom he will come to save from all the wicked of this world who have afflicted them. In fact, this is noted in verse 6. In John’s quote about his ministry from Isaiah, we read it describe how all flesh will see the salvation of God when God comes. But the prophets’ teaching on this is that such salvation will only be for God’s people whom he comes to save. The wicked will not know his salvation but his wrath at that time. But the point is that there is a twofold aspect to the coming day of the Lord. It is a day of judgment for many and salvation for some.
So then, look at how he addresses the crowd, surely made up of mainly Israelites, and according to Matthew’s gospel it especially includes various Pharisees and Sadducees. He calls them brood of vipers. Connect the dots here. If the coming day of the Lord is going to be for God’s wrath for some and God’s salvation to others, he’s saying there’s a bunch of people there that that are in the wrath category. It would have been easy for the Israelites, to think that the coming wrath of God would be for the nations – like the Romans, for example. But here, to even the religious among Israel, John says that the coming wrath will fall upon them – unless of course they flee that wrath ahead of its coming. Probably that would have been shocking or offensive to some of God’s people to hear that they were in the crosshairs of God’s judgment. However, it should not have been too shocking, because in fact there were some prophets who had already warned Israel that it wouldn’t just be the nations who would bear God’s wrath when he came. Like Amos told Israel in Amos 5:18, saying, “Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD! Why would you have the day of the LORD? It is darkness, and not light, as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him, or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him. Is not the day of the LORD darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?” Yes, even Israel would be subject to God’s wrath if they were not properly prepared for his coming.
That leads us then to our second point, to consider John’s role as “one crying in the wilderness” to prepare God’s people for the coming of the LORD. In God’s great grace for Israel, he sends them a prophet ahead of his coming in the Messiah. Before this great day of the Lord, he sends one to call the nation to be prepared for his coming. This preparation can be summarized in one word: repent. Verse 3, “And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” In light of God’s coming to them in the Messiah, they need to repent of their sins. In light of the potential wrath of God upon them, they need to repent of their sins. So that God’s coming to them would be for their salvation and not their judgment, they need to repent of their sins.
This preparatory ministry by John is described in verses 4-6 with a quote of Isaiah 40:3-5. The book of Isaiah can be divided up into two parts, with the first part largely proclaiming God’s judgment on his people, and the second part then largely describing God’s restoration and deliverance of Israel. That second half of Isaiah begins at chapter 40 with those wonderful words of God saying to Israel, “Comfort, comfort my people.” That chapter then goes on to foretell the forgiveness of their sins but in the context of God himself coming to the people. It’s there in that chapter that this prophecy of a voice crying in the wilderness is given. And in the context of Isaiah 40 it’s specifically to prepare for the coming of God.
The imagery of Isaiah 40 and quoted here in verses 4-5 is that of God making his way from the wilderness to Zion, i.e. Jerusalem. So, the prophet calls for all the geography to respond accordingly and make a straight and level path for God to take to Zion. All the crooked parts should be straightened. All the mountains and hill should lower in elevation and all the valleys shall be filled up. The result is this level and straight path. It’s kind of like rolling out the red carpet for God. Now, surely this is meant to be understood figuratively. And we see the figurative interpretation here. John himself is out in the wilderness and preaching to people who came out of Jerusalem and the rest of the Promised Land. He’s preaching to them to repent from their sins in light of the coming of God. That’s how John applies this prophecy. Preparing for God’s coming is not about literally flattening the geographical topography or making crooked streets straight. It’s about turning bent hearts back to God.
The idea here is that when God then does come, that they would not experience God’s coming as a day of wrath but as a day of salvation. As he holds out in verse 7, there is the hope to be able to flee God’s wrath. Or as it states in verse 3, there is a hope that yet they could find their sins forgiven. As I mentioned, even this passage that is quoted from Isaiah 40 speaks of that hope for the forgiveness of sins. So, John is not preaching “repent” and maybe God will forgive you. No, he is heralding the forgiveness of sins that will come in the Christ. And to that end, he call’s them to repent and look in faith to that coming forgiveness.
But notice that John’s ministry is not merely one of the preached word. His message of repentance and forgiveness is joined with a special baptism. We should note at that time the Jewish people required a form of baptism for Gentiles who wanted to become proselytes of the Jewish religion. Sine Gentiles were seen as unclean, the Jews would have them go through a ceremonial washing to signify their conversion. So then, John calls here then Jews also to be washed in light of the coming purity of the Lord. It again emphasizes the point that God’s people had lived in sin like the nations and if they were to receive the Messiah’s coming with gladness then it would be to renounce their former sinful ways and look to be cleansed of their former wickedness and start afresh with the Lord. In this way, the outward symbolism of John’s baptism brings them outside the Promised Land proper to the Jordan River, to repent of their sins, be ceremonially cleansed, and then to return to the Promised Land in anticipation of the Lord’s soon arrival. So then, we can speak of John’s baptism as a baptism of repentance. And while very similar in nature to the baptism instituted by Christ for the new covenant church, we rightly distinguish it. Those baptized like this in preparation for Christ’s coming would be properly baptized again in the name of Christ after Jesus so instituted it.
With that summary of John’s ministry, let us turn in our final point for today to think a little bit further about repentance and its fruit. In doctrine class, we rightly recognize three primary components of true repentance. It involves confession of your sin, sorrow for your sin, and a turning of your heart from your sin. It’s this last part, the turning notion, that is especially fundamental to repentance. This Greek word for repentance in verse 3 is metanoia and is a compound word meaning to “change your mind”. While we can sometimes talk about confession and repentance almost like synonymns, it’s this mental turning that is the nuance with repentance. Repentance requires confession but it is more than confession. It is to have your heart turned from their former disobedience and set its trajectory and focus on the things of God.
With that definition, we find that repentance is not the same as doing good works. Good works are rather the fruit of a repentant heart. That is in fact what John the Baptist teaches here. Look at verse 8. When the crowds gather to heed his message of repentance and to be baptized in the hope of the forgiveness of sins, he strongly admonishes them to genuine repentance. He says that true repentance should show that it is genuine by bearing fruit. The fruit is not the repentance itself but it is what flows from the repentance. The repentance is about a changed state of your heart, but if your heart is really changed, there should be fruit that comes from that turned heart.
So then, he gives some examples to help explain what he is talking about. This is in verses 11-14 in response to their question in verse 10, of “What then shall we do”? Then he gives three examples of what fruit of repentance should look like. In verse 10, he addresses the wicked rich who’ve stingily horded their treasures when there is need all around them. For them, he says that fruit of repentance will show itself by sharing with the poor around them who are in needed. In verse 12, he addresses sinful tax collectors who have been abusing their government position by collecting too much and pocketing the extra. For them, he says that fruit of repentance will mean that they only collect what they are authorized to collect. In verse 15, he addresses soldiers who had been wickedly abusing their position by extorting money and threatening and perverting justice. You could imagine how they could intimidate people to get them to bribe them. For these soldiers, John says they need to stop these practices and instead be content with their salary as a soldier. You might recall another memorable example of the fruit of repentance in the story of Zacchaeus, a tax collector, in Luke 19. After Jesus met with him, he promised to restore fourfold to whomever he had defrauded. A fourfold restitution is what the law of God required for a thief to repay. Zacchaeus also promised to give half his goods to the poor. The point is that Zacchaeus had clearly become a rich tax collector by evil gain and he was repenting of that, turning over a new leaf, but even looking to make restitution for all his crimes. That’s fruit of repentance. And it helps to show that his repentance was genuine.
I do want to clarify that it is important to make this distinction between repentance and its fruit. Otherwise, we might make the faulty conclusion to think that we are saved by our good works. Often times we see that we are called to respond to the gospel with repentance, but that is not saying that we respond to the gospel by bearing a certain amount of fruit. We don’t want to misunderstand this point and think that in order to be saved we have to do a certain amount of good works. If we think that, then we have fallen into the trap of moralism. Repentance is about a hear turned unto the Lord. The works are the fruit that comes from that. This is a narrow but important distinction.
That all being said, the concern John has here is not about the moralism but rather the people who feign to be repentant but aren’t really repentant. And so, while we can rightly distinguish between repentance and its fruit, the point is that true repentance should bear fruit. While we are not saved by our good works but rather as we turn to Christ by faith, John’s point here is there is such a thing as false turning to the Lord. That is what John is warning the crowds against.
Along these lines, while we can acknowledge that false repentance is a thing, we also know that there is such a thing as a false faith. Faith and repentance are closely related things, and so we are not surprised that in verse 8 John quickly turns to address one form of false faith. He tells these Israelites not to trust in the fact that they are ethnically descendants of Abraham, for God can raise up such even from the stones. The point is that one’s ethnic heritage, even if from Abraham, should not be where you put your faith and trust. To put your faith and trust in such is to have a wrong kind of faith. It is not a saving faith. We need to put our faith and our trust not in our genealogy, nor in any good works that we do. We need to put our faith and trust in the Messiah, Christ Jesus, who holds out grace and mercy and forgiveness of sins in his name. That is what John is ultimately pointing the people to. We’ll see it more in the next passage. Ultimately John points the people to repent of their sins and put their faith in Jesus Christ and look to him to save them from their sins. But of course, this faith and this repentance must be genuine faith and repentance.
In summary, brothers and sisters, our passage today confronts us with a truth about the gospel that can sometimes offend. But it is a necessary part of the gospel message. We humans are sinful people who on our own are under the judgment of God. Our actions are full of things that are wicked and sinful and we need to acknowledge them as such and look to renounce them in Christ Jesus. This message can especially offend people when the things they need to repent of are things they highly value or identify with. While the gospel holds out full and complete pardon from sin, it is to the person who acknowledges their sins, and turns and looks to find grace and mercy in Jesus. God does not offer forgiveness to those who stubbornly and hard-heartedly cling to their sins and refuse to repent of their sins. Rather, to them he holds out the threat of a coming day of judgment and an eternal punishment of hell upon all who will not repent and turn to Jesus in advance of his coming.
While this message may seem offensive to some, and might even elicit their hatred and slander of God, what we really should recognize here is the wonderful grace and mercy of God. God has warned the world of this coming judgment. As verse 6 told us, this message is one that is going out for all flesh to see and hear. God has even made a way for the penitent of heart to find the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. There is a mighty washing and cleansing that he freely offers in Jesus. If you are here today, never having turned to Christ, do not reject his call any longer. And for us today who have already turned to Christ, let us be reminded today that he desires us to bear fruit. Let us each indeed think specifically and intentionally of what that fruit should look like in our own lives. To God be the glory. Let us all be prepared for the second coming of Christ Jesus. Amen.
Copyright © 2021 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
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