Series: Jesus’s Preparation For Ministry (3:1-4:13)
In our modern world, God’s judgment has been relegated to the dump heap of history. It’s as if humans have risen up and said to God, “You can’t judge any more, You need to stick with just loving people.”
But God’s judgment is real. Jesus spoke more often of Hell, judgment and destruction than He spoke of Heaven. In chapter after chapter, He warns us of the consequences of not following Him—
13 Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: 14 Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. (Matthew 7:13–14)
It was Jesus who talked about being thrown into “outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (for example, Matthew 22:13).
Today, if someone preached like that we would tell them that they are too harsh, that they need to speak of God’s love, not His judgment. Well, they’d have to tell Jesus to stop preaching, and they’d have to tell John the Baptist that he is all wet!
John spoke of God’s…
REAL JUDGMENT (3:7-9)
In the country around the Jordan, John the Baptist was baptizing and preaching. He had become a popular preacher and there’s no doubt in my mind that people started to come simply because it was the thing to do. So John’s words were pretty strong:
7 Then said he to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. 9 And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. (Luke 3:7–9)
We Are All Sinners
Luke 3:7 Then said he to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation [brood] of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
A “generation of vipers” is a brood of snakes. It’s a shocking statement to us. By calling the people “vipers,” (or snakes), John identified them as children of Satan (cf. Ephesians 2:2).
Imagine an evangelist or pastor standing before a crowd and the first thing he says is, “You people make me sick, you are a bunch of Satan followers.” You’d think that he was being a bit harsh. God is love and all that.
But the Bible says that we’re all sinners. And it has some pretty graphic words to describe sinners. Turn to Romans 3, and be warned, your self-esteem may suffer a blow—
9 What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin; 10 As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: 11 There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. 12 They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.
13 Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips: 14 Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness: 15 Their feet are swift to shed blood: 16 Destruction and misery are in their ways: 17 And the way of peace have they not known:
18 There is no fear of God before their eyes. 19 Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. (Romans 3:9–19)
How’s your self-esteem now? Our human reaction is to soften the blow somehow, or to find way to excuse ourselves. It’s what these people did. John alludes to their favorite excuse in the next verse:
Our Excuses Are Meaningless
Luke 3:8 Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance [prove your repentance by how you live], and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.
The Jews back then would find their assurance of forgiveness and salvation by saying, “We have Abraham [for] our father.” In other words, their assurance of salvation was based on the the fact that they were Jews—purebred Jews.
Paul said that he could have said something similar:
4 Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: 5 Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; (Philippians 3:4–5)
We have similar ways of excusing ourselves and claiming salvation. We might declare our denomination to prove our salvation, “I’m a Baptist! I am a Catholic! I am a Lutheran.” We might say that we’re an American or we’re not a Muslim.
What is John’s response to their excuse of having Abraham as their father? He says, “God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.” God doesn’t need you! He can wipe all of you out and make a new flock from rocks!
This is a good warning for us also. We like to think that we’re pretty important, that God is automatically on our side because we’re Americans, that we’re the good guys.
Folks, I say to us what John said to them—God is able to set us aside and to take the gravel in the parking lot and raise up a people for Himself. God’s judgment is real. Look at the next verse—
God’s Judgment Is Real
Luke 3:9 And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
The image here is graphic and clear. Most of us have seen or been involved in clearing out and burning dead or diseased trees in a farm yard or shelter belt.
The chain saw cuts through the base of the tree, it falls over. The limbs come next, each one is sliced off. The kids drag them to a pile. Then the main part of the tree is cut up into manageable pieces. Everything is dragged over and thrown on a pile.
Old motor oil or some other accelerant is poured over the quartered tree. The match is struck and the flames roar up, burning it all to ashes.
That’s the image that John uses. And he’s not referring to trees. He’s referring to unrepentant people. The culture doesn’t approve of fire and brimstone preaching anymore—God is love and all that. But that’s what the Bible approves of!
15 And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:15)
Jonathan Edwards, in a sermon that sparked the First Great Awakening in America, said,
O sinner! [we don’t dare refer to people as sinners anymore] consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God…You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have…nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment. (Jonathan Edwards, 10)
There is nothing that we can do to save ourselves, nothing we can but to repent and turn to Christ. Repentance is more than being scared of Hell or sorry for your sins. True Gospel repentance is defined for us in 1 Thessalonians—
9 For they themselves shew of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; (1 Thessalonians 1:9)
You must turn to God and turn from evil and this will manifest itself in an intent to “serve the living and true God.” Or, as John put in it verse eight, you will have “fruits worthy of repentance.”
To be saved from God’s real judgment, we need to have…
REAL REPENTANCE (3:10-14)
After his preaching, different groups of people came up to John the Baptist for counsel. They had heard what he said. They believed what he said about judgment and the need to repent. But they were wondering how they could be certain their repentance was real.
Real repentance will have deeds and behavior that grow out of it. Paul even said that he preached to the Gentiles and urged them to “repent and turn to God, and do works meet [proper] for repentance” (Acts 26:20).
Neither John nor Paul were saying that to be saved you needed to do good works.
8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 9 Not of works, lest any man should boast. (Ephesians 2:8–9)
They were saying that if you were saved, if your repentance was genuine, it would result in good works.
John addressed each group of people who come to him, and like a good preacher who knows his flock, he puts a finger on the biggest issues in their lives and says, “If your repentance is real, this issue will change.”
Luke 3:10 And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then?
Luke 3:11 He answereth and saith unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise.
Notice that John doesn’t even address a sin issue with this group of people. There’s no indication here that the people were being consciously selfish, that they were purposely withholding help from the needy people in their community.
But John encourages them to start taking on the character of God in their lives. God is merciful, Luke says in 6:36, so we ought to be merciful.
True repentance will result in the character of Jesus Christ being manifested in us. We will start being more compassionate and merciful toward those less fortunate than ourselves.
If we are truly repentant, we will become more and more willing to give up an extra coat or a box of hamburger because Jesus Christ gave up His life for us!
John turned to the next group…
The Tax Collectors
Luke 3:12 Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do?
Luke 3:13 And he said unto them, Exact no more than that which is appointed you.
In that time and place, there were two forms of taxes. One was direct taxes, such as a land tax, that was collected by the Jewish councils. Other taxes, like tolls and customs, were collected by private contractors hired by the Roman government.
These private contractors would put in bids for the job of collecting taxes in a certain town or region, and the highest bidder (the one who thought he would get the most taxes) would get the job.
Naturally, that meant that the contractor would then need to find every possible way to collect enough from people to pay the bid to the government and make a comfortable profit.
For a Jew who became a tax collector like Matthew or Zacchaeus (the wee little man from Luke 19) that meant that other Jews would hate them because, they were crooked tax collectors and they were helping the Romans (see Joel B. Green, 179).
John says to them that true repentance will manifest itself in your lives by being fair with people. It’s not wrong to be a tax collector, but it is wrong to be greedy and corrupt and unfair.
The final group of people who came to John the Baptist for counsel was…
Luke 3:14 And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.
Were these Roman or Jewish soldiers? An argument can be made for either. However, it’s interesting that, in the Gospels, every time a Roman centurion is mentioned, it’s always in a favorable way (cf. Luke 7:2-10).
So it’s very possible that these were curious Roman soldiers who came to see John the Baptist. In fact, it’s possible that one of the centurions who would later meet Jesus was here!
A soldier in those days would have had a lot of leeway and the benefit of being one of the few people armed with weapons. He would not have needed to worry about body cameras, dashboard cameras, or cell phone cameras recording his activities.
His brothers in armor would have stood up for him despite any wrong that he would have been accused of. In fact, I doubt anyone could have accused a soldier.
So you can imagine the sort of shakedowns the soldiers could have done to ordinary citizens to make a bit more money.
John says to them that a life of repentance will manifest itself in being just and fair with the people.
John could have easily recited the motto of police departments today: Your job is “to serve and to protect,” not to extort and scare. That is proof of real repentance.
One thing that I hope you picked up on from all three groups of people is that repentance is not a one time act. It’s not merely that time you walked forward to the altar and gave your life to Christ.
When you repent and are saved, that begins a life-long, progressive, process of repentance. The Christian is continually turning away from sin and turning to God as God shows us more and more of the depths of sin in our hearts.
Do not think, however, that this means that the Christian lives a sorrowful life, always moaning about the dark sin in our souls. It’s just the opposite. The life of repentance is one of assurance and joy.
One of the ways that we have assurance of salvation is if we are bearing fruit worthy of repentance. In 1 John 2:3 we read, “And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments.”
A lot of people now days claim to be a Christian, but they can have no such assurance because they live disobedient and unrepentant lives.
Living an obedient life doesn’t mean a perfect life, however. When you fail, you’ll find yourself repenting. And that pattern of walking with Christ and repenting when you fail will be a life of assurance because Christ keeps calling you back to a walk with Himself because you are His true child.
A life of true repentance is going to be one of joy, because you will be living a life close to God. Walking in God’s ways is how we gain joy in this life.
1 Blessed [happy, joyful] is the man That walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, Nor standeth in the way of sinners, Nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. 2 But his delight is in the law of the Lord; And in his law doth he meditate day and night. 3 And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water [not a tree that needs cut down and burned!], That bringeth forth his fruit in his season; His leaf also shall not wither; And whatsoever he doeth shall prosper. (Psalm 1:1–3)
Isn’t this the life that we all want? Don’t we want to be a mighty tree planted by rivers of water? If you want joy, then repent—turn away from sin and turn to Jesus.
Edwards, Jonathan. The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Vol. 2. Banner of Truth Trust, 1974.
Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997.