There are some words that are frequently used in church contexts. There are words that not many people understand, and yet they’ve all experienced them; and there are words that most people think they understand, and yet they don’t always live them out the way they should. In today’s text, we’re talking about the latter.
At this point Jesus is now an adult; he’s about to begin his ministry on earth. But before he can do that, God has planned for something else to happen. He has planned on John. John is the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth; he’s actually a relative of Jesus. John’s job is to prepare the way for Jesus before he comes. And John doesn’t mince words...
John the Baptist (v. 1-6)
The last time we saw John, he was just born and named by his father. We know almost nothing about the intervening years. The only thing Luke tells us is at the end of chapter 1, in verse 80: And the child [John] grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.
So at some point, John goes off to live in the desert. There in the desert he keeps to strict spiritual disciplines (as the angel told Zechariah he would, 1.15), and he learns from the Holy Spirit. This definitely made John a little weird—Matthew tells us in his gospel (Matt. 3.4), Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.
But his time in the desert would also have the effect of getting John ready, of making him into the man he would need to be to prepare the way for Jesus. So he prepared, and there, he waited.
Luke begins by situating us in history: 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, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas… (It’s okay if you don’t know who any of these people are. But Theophilus—the man Luke is writing to—would have. Luke’s just trying to orient him in time.)
He says that at this time, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. So John comes out of the desert, going into the region around the Jordan River, and he begins preaching. We’ll get into the content of his preaching in a minute, but first we need to see two things: we need to see what the point of John’s baptism was—the reason why he’s preaching—and what his baptism meant.
Luke tells us why John is preaching this baptism of repentance in v. 4-6: 4 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. 5 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, 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ ”
This is actually a very old custom. When a ruler was about to visit a city, the citizens would prepare to welcome him by carving out a smooth, wide road so that he could bring in all of his court with great pomp and circumstance. (Think of the way Napoléon and his armies would use the Champs Elysées when returning home —that’s the idea.) Isaiah is predicting a prophet who would do this, but on a much larger scale—he wouldn’t take out big stones that would obstruct the passage of a carriage; he’s leveling mountains; he’s filling valleys. He’s making it so that anyone who wanted to come could come; nothing about their exterior situation would prevent them.
The idea is this—John preached in such a way that no one who heard him had an excuse. Everyone—from the chief priests all the way down to the lowliest peasants—was on a level playing field. John preached in such a way that everyone understood they needed to repent, and that everyone could do so if they wanted to.
Secondly, John baptized people. Today, when people are baptized, it is a sign of their passing from death to life through faith in Jesus, and a sign of their belonging to the church—it is a means of grace that Jesus commanded of us. This isn’t exactly the same thing as what John was doing, because there was no church, and Jesus hadn’t yet begun his ministry. When they were baptized, John would plunge them under the waters of the Jordan River, as a sign of their repentance and forgiveness from sin. Even before Jesus, the promises of God held true: if his people would turn from their sin and obey his commands, he promised to forgive them. John’s baptism was a sign that that had happened.
Repentance (v. 7-14)
Now, that’s the general situation—Luke’s just setting the stage so we can understand the context. Next he gives us some of the content of John’s preaching; and it is the least seeker-sensitive thing you can imagine. The dude is harsh.
V. 7: 7 He said therefore— Now stop for a minute. What is that “therefore” referring to? It’s referring to what just came before: Isaiah’s prophecy. In v. 6, Luke quotes Isaiah: “and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” So how will that salvation come? It’ll come through messages like this.
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?” Translation: Most of you are hypocrites. Most of you are here, saying you want to repent of your sin and wanting a get-out-of-jail-free card, but you zero intention of changing anything. Your hearts are just as hard as they always were. You still love the things you’ve always loved; you just don’t want to go to hell. So you’ll do the minimum you think is necessary to escape God’s wrath—and really, how hard is it to get dunked under water for a couple seconds?—but when you’re all dried off, you’ll go right back to being the same person you’ve always been.
This is a tough word (I’ve never called you a brood of vipers!); but his goal in speaking this harshly isn’t to crush the people listening, but to drive them to true repentance.
v. 7b: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” 8 Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.
What he’s saying is that true repentance is not something you say, or even something you do; it is something you live.
Martin Luther put it this way: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.” It’s more than just talk, and it’s more than just behavior. If you change your behavior without a change of heart, you’re just play-acting (like kids playing doctor); but if you say you’re repenting without anything changing in your life, you’re just talking!
Let me just talk to the men for a moment. Men, when you get married, you’ll make mistakes, and you’ll have to say sorry. And if you’re anything like me, chances are you’ll make some of those same mistakes several times. And at some point, barring a miracle, your wife will get frustrated and say to you, “You say you’re sorry, but you always say that! And you never change! So your ‘sorry’ doesn’t mean anything to me! I’ll know you’re sorry when you stop doing what you say you’re sorry for.”
That’s what John’s saying—if we claim to repent but see no fruit of that repentance in our lives, then it’s not repentance.
Repentance is essentially turning from one’s sin and committing to live for God. But true repentance is always born out of a change of heart. Charles Spurgeon put it this way: “Repentance is a discovery of the evil of sin, a mourning that we have committed it, a resolution to forsake it. It is, in fact, a change of mind of a very deep and practical character, which makes the man love what once he hated, and hate what once he loved.”
That process of discovery, mourning and resolution will produce change in us.
John says, Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. When he says “bear fruit”, this is code for showing that something is true. If you’re a cinephile, you watch a lot of movies: you bear fruit in keeping with your love for movies. If you’re an athlete, you play sports, or you exercise (whatever athletes do): you bear fruit in keeping with your athleticism. If something is true about you, you’ll be able to tell. So if you have repented, it will be visible; you’ll be able to see it.
Because the temptation is to make “repentance” something you say. You pray the prayer: “Lord, I repent of my sin, please forgive me...” And you assume that because you said the words, then those words must mean something, and you must be a Christian. This is especially problematic for people who have grown up in church: they’ve prayed that prayer a million times! And far too often they’ve prayed it mechanically: they’ve prayed it because their parents or their pastor told them to pray it. And they assume that because of all the time they’ve spent steeped in church culture, it means that they are actually born again. But John says this is not true.
Second half of v. 8: 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. 9 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.”
In other words, there are people who have spent their entire lives believing that because they have inherited a particular religion, then their status before God is assured. But the truth is God could take a rock, and fill it with his Spirit, and it would be more his child than these people are.
Please hear the seriousness of this fact: there are people who are in our churches week in and week out, and who will not make it through the judgment. Because their repentance is not real; it has born no real fruit in their lives. They are doomed, and they don’t even know it. Which is why John feels the need to tell us. And he’s right.
So the question that naturally comes up at this point is, “Okay—something needs to change. But what does that change look like?” This is the question the crowds ask him in v. 10:
10 And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14 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.”
So John gives three examples of the change that comes out of repentance, and they’re essentially the same example. They all speak of compassion and generosity to others: caring for those in need, not abusing others or taking advantage of them. We find many other examples in the Bible (just look at Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel), but these three are a really good beginning.
They are a good beginning because they all impact one of the hardest things to let go of: our desire to take care of ourselves. Naturally, if we give to those in need, that will mean that we go without certain things. Or the example of the tax collectors and the soldiers: once we get the taste of luxury, of having a little extra, it is incredibly hard to get that taste out of our mouths. We want two tunics, because what happens if one gets messed up? We want to pad our bank accounts, because what happens if our water heater busts and we need to get a new one? Or (God forbid) if I give this much, then I won’t be able to take that trip to Greece I’ve been planning!
One of the marks of repentance is that we recognize that we are not the center of the world, but God is. We realize that we have missed the mark; we have not done what we were created for, and we want to get back to that—we want to do that for which we were created. We want to be restored to what God intended for us when he made us. So we will want to know what God loves, and do what God does. And what does God love? He loves the people he created. What does God do? He serves the people he created. If we have truly repented of our sins, we will necessarily find ourselves becoming more and more other-centered. It will happen in differing increments, and some of us will struggle with this more than others, but it will happen.
And there are a million other examples like that. When John says, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance,” he’s saying, “If you’ve repented, act like it. If your repentance is genuine, you will see yourself becoming more and more like God. So do it. Learn to love what he loves, and to act in accordance with that love.”
Now there’s one final question John has not answered yet. He’s told us what repentance is, and he’s explained what that will look like. But he hasn’t yet told us how that happens. Our temptation will be to think about this professionally. Here’s what I mean: we have been so imbued with the idea that if we put our minds to it, we can accomplish anything. We have learned to be efficient. We are efficient in our jobs, and we’re proud of that; so naturally when it comes time to live for God, we’ll try to put that same efficiency to work.
But it doesn’t work that way, because while we can control how we act, we can’t control what we want. We can give to the poor, because we feel guilty about not giving to them, or because we’re trying to prove something to ourselves or to others (to prove our faith is genuine). But we can’t make ourselves want to give to the poor. We can’t make ourselves not care about money, or our own personal comfort or pleasure. We can’t force ourselves to care more about others than we care about ourselves.
For that, we need something else—or rather someone else—who is exterior to ourselves, and who comes in and affects that change in us.
another baptism (v. 15-17)
V. 15: 15 As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ...
Of course no one had seen or heard anyone like John. This wild-eyed, manic prophet (the Bible never says he’s “manic,” but that’s how I always picture him), dressed in strange clothes, probably smelling pretty weird, eating bugs and honey… But who at the same time preached with an authority they had not heard before, with a conviction they hadn’t heard before… So naturally, many of them were asking themselves, “Could this guy be the Messiah? He fits the profile—he’s fiery, he’s brutally honest… Put a sword in his hand, and who knows what he’d be capable of?”
John makes sure to put those ideas to rest right away. V. 16: 16 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.” John recognizes that the One who is coming—Jesus—is far superior to him. John is just the messenger; he is not the Message. But even more important than John’s humility here (admitting that he’s not the Christ) is the comparison he makes between what he does and what Jesus will do.
He says (v. 16), “I baptize you with water.” Have you ever found it strange that when you go swimming for a long time, you get thirsty? Why is that? Because unless you drink the water, it stays on the outside. Water baptism is a fundamentally external act—it is something you can do to show what happened inside, but it doesn’t change anything about who you are, on a spiritual level. For that, we’d need something else: we’d need another baptism.
So John says that there is someone else coming whose baptism will be different. End of v. 16: He [the Messiah] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
So Jesus is coming, and he’s going to baptize you with the Holy Spirit. Now, charismatics, be careful here—he’s not talking about speaking in tongues, or the so-called “supernatural gifts.” He’s talking about what the Holy Spirit does inside all believers. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12.12-13, 12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
He’s talking about what happens to all believers when they are brought into the body of Christ, the church. It happened to me when I was in my twenties, and it was as progressive and imperceptible as learning a language: I woke up one morning and simply realized that I believed, that I was thoroughly convinced these things were true…and that I had been for some time. (It is possible to be a Christian and not even realize it yet!) For others, it happens in a moment: I have a friend who had this experience while sitting in a church in Spain listening to Gregorian chants. He had heard the gospel before, but his moment of conversion was inexplicable and nearly instantaneous: at the beginning of one song, he was an unbeliever; at the end of the song, he was completely convinced that Jesus was the Son of God, that he had died for his sins, and that if he placed his faith in him he would be saved.
This is what the Spirit does—it’s the first thing he does in all of us. He regenerates us. He convinces us. He opens our eyes to see the truth of the gospel and to love it, to believe it, to place our hope in it. He baptizes us, on the inside.
Secondly, Jesus is coming, and he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. This can be a scary image: being baptized with fire, on the inside. Fire does two things: fire destroys. This is why this is a scary image—most of what we see fire doing is destructive.
But fire also refines.
In its natural state, gold is practically worthless: there are so many impurities mixed in with it that it’s hard to find the gold. So the refiner will put the gold into an incredibly hot fire; the impurities (what they call the “dross”) rise to the surface, and the gold stays at the bottom. The refiner scrapes the dross from the surface, and then repeats the process—letting the dross rise, scraping it off—until all that is left is 100% pure gold.
This is what the Holy Spirit does in us. He regenerates us, so that we might have faith in Christ; and then—slowly, patiently—he refines us. He works inside us, to burn away those aspects of our character which aren’t in keeping with God’s will for us. He purifies us, making us more and more like Christ.
John says that his own baptism is good, but it is limited, for water only washes the outside. But there is a man coming—Jesus—who will baptize us with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He will work inside of us, giving us faith, and little by little making us like him.
This, brothers and sisters, is what makes repentance possible. This is how it works. Repentance which happens outside of this “baptism” is not repentance at all. But repentance which happens as a result of this baptism is assured. Which is what John says next, in v. 17:
17 “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.”
What he’s saying is that Jesus will know in whom he has done this work, so he will know whose repentance is genuine and bearing fruit. He will know because he’s the one who will do it. He will separate the wheat from the chaff—the faithful from the falsely religious. All those who hear this message and reject him—no matter what they say, no matter how religious they seem—will be judged by him (and this time, the fire he’s talking about is destructive).
This sounds, bad, and it is for those of us who reject Christ; but for those of us who repent and believe in him, this is really good news, because it means that if we have faith in him, if he has done this work in us, our repentance is assured. He calls us to repent and live like him, and if he has done this work in us, we will repent and live like him.
And we know it because he has come to gather the wheat into his barn. He has come to find all those in whom this work has done, all those who have repented for the forgiveness of their sins, and to gather us into his house. He’s not going to do this work in us and then leave us to our own devices: he’s going to get us home.
Endnote: Opposition and Confirmation (v. 18-22)
Luke ends this passage with two opposing notes about what happens afterward. Firstly, we see that John was opposed for the things he said; and secondly, we see that he was right.
V. 18: 18 So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. 19 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, 20 added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.
Herod was the king of Israel at the time, and he was benefitting from his authority as king to sleep with his brother’s wife.
And we know John: he doesn’t shy away from controversy. John publicly called Herod out for taking his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done. (If you read up on your Jewish history, Herod was a nasty character.) So Herod throws John in prison, and eventually—despite his better inclinations—cuts off his head and gives it to Herodias’s daughter on a platter.
Anyone, even if you’re as influential as John, who speaks for the truth will meet opposition. So we should expect it.
But opposition in no way means that what we are saying is wrong; John’s being thrown into prison does not presuppose a mistake on his part. What John is unable to confirm for himself, God takes upon himself to confirm.
V. 21: 21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” God doesn’t need John to convince anyone that Jesus is the Christ. He doesn’t need anyone to testify on his behalf. When the time came, God himself speaks from the heavens and confirms Jesus’s identity, in sight of all.
The way has been prepared. John did what he had to do to get the people ready. Now, Jesus has come, and he can get to work.
This text has a massive number of applications and ways that God calls us to action. I'll content myself with two this morning:
1) Examine your repentance. John said, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” And he warned that there would be those who assume that their spiritual state is solid because of their upbringing, or because of what they say about themselves, when the truth is that every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire (v. 8-9). What you say about yourself is far less important than what you do, because what you do actually proves (or disproves) what you say.
So are you bearing fruit in keeping with repentance? Is there noticeable, visible change in your life? Are there sins that you still secretly indulge in? Do you speak in a way that builds up or tears down?
And don’t just look at external behaviors. What do you dwell on? What do you want? What do you love? Everyone worships something; everyone loves something, and we are what we love. Whatever we worship will bear fruit in our lives. We must examine our repentance; we must examine our lives to see what is being produced by whatever it is that we truly worship.
But this is not to say that we should doubt the reality of our repentance. What we realize after examining ourselves may well be a source of gratitude. We spend so much time scrutinizing our faith for weaknesses that we forget to look for signs of its existence and health.
So look for signs of the Spirit’s work in your life. Examine yourself to see all the ways in which he has changed you. Because when we see that, when I realize all that God has done in me—the things I love today that I hated yesterday, the sins I hate now that I used to love—then I am so thankful for what God his done that I am thoroughly motivated to continue the fight.
2) Pray for baptism with the Spirit and with fire. John said that Jesus was coming, and he would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Now, Jesus has come. He has paid the penalty for our sins and offered salvation to all who would come to him.
So if you don’t know Christ, pray that he would baptize you with the Spirit. Pray that he would send his Spirit to open your eyes, that you might believe that the gospel is true, that Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross was sufficient to forgive you, and that he might cause you to repent. The fact that you can’t do this for yourself is actually very good news, because it means you don’t have to work hard enough, or become good enough, to receive him. He takes us as we are, and makes us what he wants us to be.
And if you do know Jesus today, pray that he would continually refine you. Pray that he would make you more and more like him. Pray that he would bring forth fruit in your life, in keeping with your repentance. This will not happen outside of his work; so pray that he would continue this work in you.
True repentance is not something you say, or even something you do; it is something you live. So let us live it—let us pray that God would help us to live it better, and be thankful for all those times he has helped us to live it in the past.