The Preaching of John Luke 3.1-20
I'm about to reveal my age, or lack of it depending on where you're coming from in this intro but one of my earliest memories of the outside world is seeing the Berlin Wall come down, I didn't understand it of course at the time but then perhaps neither did the people on the wall, could they grasp the change that had come so quickly – what would it have felt like to be on the brink of change like that? A generation who had never known anything but communism suddenly exposed to the West. Sometimes there are monumental shifts in the way that we think, there's an idea or an invention that so changes the world around us that we need someone to explain the impact of what's happening, to help us grasp the magnitude of the change and to help us understand the potential impact on us. Think of the invention of electricity something which at the time was thought of as mystical, even evil and yet which now supports almost every aspect of our lives. At times like this we need guides, guides to help us navigate a new age.
As we rejoin Luke's gospel this morning we meet such a guide; John's ministry comes on the brink of massive change in Israel. John will lay the foundations for Jesus' arrival leading Israel away from judgment and into repentance, before Jesus comes to finally deal with sin and death forever, permanently re-establishing relationship with God. So we are at a turning point in history, if you need another reason to take a look at John well listen to Jesus in Matthew 11.11;
Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.
Did I get your attention? I've got three points to help us navigate this transition;
A New Age A New Age of Repentance A Greater Baptism
See, they all begin with 'A', so first 'A New Age'
1. A New Age
Take a look at verse 1 and 2; p725
1In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.
Luke is very deliberate here about fixing John's ministry in history, he gives us both geo-political and religious context. It's tempting to skim over verses like this but if we do so we may miss their importance, here are a couple of reasons why they're significant;
a) This is real history – Luke isn't playing the pretend historian with these facts, they're accurate and allow us to place John's ministry as having started in either AD 27 or 28. Right at the beginning of the book in ch1v3 we see why Luke is so precise; his gospel is to be an orderly account a well written, painstakingly researched document commissioned by Theopholis a high ranking Roman official so that he might have certainty about the things he has been taught – the Gospel in other words. Theopholis had everything to lose by converting to Christianity, he had to be cynical and so probably at considerable expense he commissions Luke to investigate the facts – these are the facts.
If you struggle with faith because you want evidence, because you're naturally a cynic then join the club, Theopholis wasn't a fool he was an intelligent leader with resources at his disposal to weigh the eye-witness evidence and that's what Luke does.
b) Context helps us understand – The context here helps us understand the significance of John's preaching, the background is relevant. Essentially what Luke is saying is something like Rod Earnshaw came from Moore College Australia during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, when David Cameron was PM and Michael Hood was mayor of Gateshead and Rowan Williams was Archbishop and David Holloway was the vicar of Jesmond. These things fixes us in a time and place which give meaning. Here it will help us to know that the Jews are under Roman occupation and that they are under religious leadership which has failed to turn their hearts back to God. There is both darkness and silence. It has been several hundred years since Malachi spoke, the Jews have not heard the word of the LORD anew since then. There is also great darkness; Tiberias reign was one marked by corruption and terror and the religious atmosphere was at best confused. It is into this context that John's ministry is launched.
c) It places God's Word at the centre of history – Notice the end of v2 where it says; 'the word of God came to John', Luke deliberately places God's Word at the epicentre of world events, it's not to one side, not part of a separate, private sphere but right at the heart. God's word is the controlling category even above the reigns of Caesars and Tetrachs – that is its proper place.
So we are in real history with Israel under occupation, awaiting deliverance and then the catalyst for change arrives; 'the word of God came to John' We've seen the context of John's ministry let's turn next to the content in our second point ' A New Age of Repentance'
2. A New Age of Repentance
John begins his ministry, what will characterise it? The answer is in v3 but in fact we already have some clues back in Luke 1.16 where it says about John;
16Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. 17And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
John's role will be to; turn the hearts of Israel, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord this is the purpose of John's ministry which is described in v3 as; 'a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins' . There are then two elements of John's ministry for us to understand firstly that it is a baptism and secondly that it is a baptism of repentance;
John's call to baptism is significant not least because it gives him his name; 'John The Baptist/Baptiser'. It also marks his ministry out as highly controversial. At the time a 'baptism' was the route Gentile believers had to take in order to become Jewish, calling Jews to a baptism of repentance effectively said that unless you repent you are not really Jews at all and cannot count on God's promise of blessing to you, look at v8;
And do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.
In other words in order to have relationship with God you cannot rely just on being Jewish – without repentance and reliance on God's promise to redeem, not on their religion it means nothing. They must repent, their hearts must turn back to God.
Simultaneously this call to baptism is not a call to a religious rite of passage, rather it signals a change away from trusting in ethnicity which opens the door for Gentiles to come to God. You can see this in the Old Testament passage that Luke records John quoting from. All three synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—quote Isaiah 40:3 as a description of John's ministry: "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight" (Matthew 3:3, Mark 1:3). But Luke is the only one who goes on to quote Isaiah 40:4,5;
"Every valley shall be filled and every mountain shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God."
The issue is not Jewishness but repentance – a heart change. This then is a shocking change for the Jews they shouldn't trust in their Jewishness but come back to God through repentance, the same path that any Gentile might take. This sounds like radical new teaching but in fact it is not, God's concern has always been for the hearts of his people; back in Deuteronomy 30 at the end of Moses' life God tells Israel that he will renew his covenant relationship with him if they turn their hearts back to him;
The LORD will again delight in you and make you prosperous, just as he delighted in your fathers, 10 if you obey the LORD your God and keep his commands and decrees that are written in this Book of the Law and turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.
It's always been about repentance; John's role in preparing the way for Jesus is to remind God's people of that fact. This is difficult for the Jews because they have begun to trust in their ethnic identity, in their religion as the way in which they can be acceptable before God. It's difficult for us to because we also want to justify ourselves before God. We say I'm moral, I give to charity, I pay my taxes, I raise my children the right way, I have a meaningful career. Or we say I go to church, I'm not like most people I read my bible, I believe in family values, in marriage. All of these things may become our reason for God to accept us, our sacrifices before him but as Psalm 51 tells us;
17 The sacrifices of God are [c] a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
God asks for repentance not works, heart change not morality.
But notice what else it says in that verse from Deuteronomy as well as turning back to God with all their heart and soul they are to; 'obey the LORD your God and keep his commands and decrees'. Repentance is a change of heart but not in the shallow, quick to change our mind, way in which we often use the term. Repentance is a total change of heart, a turning around away from sin and to God – this will necessarily have a practical effect. This is what John's preaching is about in v10-14;
John says that genuine heart-repentance should lead to radical change in behaviour. There are two things Luke records for us in particular;
10"What should we do then?" the crowd asked.
11John answered, "The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same."
Anyone (John is preaching to the crowds here)who has repented and so been forgiven by God, brought back into relationship with him not on the basis of anything they have done but purely because of God's grace. These people should be moved to compassion and generosity because they themselves deserve nothing, or more accurately the only thing they do deserve is hell.
2. A right attitude towards power and sex
12Tax collectors also came to be baptised. "Teacher," they asked, "what should we do?"
13"Don't collect any more than you are required to," he told
them. 14Then some soldiers asked him, "And what should we do?" He replied, "Don't extort money and don't accuse people falsely—be content with your pay."
John narrows his focus here talking directly to tax-collectors and soldiers. Perhaps Luke records this for his master Theophilus' benefit - these are powerful members of society working for the Romans as he was and so this teaching would be particularly applicable to him also. Nevertheless these principles are more broadly applicable. The tax collectors and soldiers are told not to abuse their positions of power but to act fairly.
Then at the end of our section in verses 19 and 20 John teaches against Herod's infidelity with his brother's wife which ends up with him being imprisoned. There are no doubt many other behavioural changes that Luke could have recorded John teaching but perhaps these on money, power and sex get to the root of the issue. Our attitudes and desires around money, power and sex are some of the most powerful and deep-seated, if these are changed then something powerful is surely at work, these are the marks of true repentance what John calls 'fruit in keeping with repentance' in v8.
So the Gospel message is one of repentance. Our relationship with God is based not on our ethnicity or background but rather on a heart-felt recognition of our sin which we lead us to repentance and trust in God. Repentance won't stop at saying sorry though it will drive us to pleasing God in every area of our lives - down to the most deep-rooted and hard set dreams and desires of our hearts.
John has entered a confused culture trusting in all kinds of things to make them right with God and called them not to a new religion but to an old teaching; repent – turn your hearts back to God and live your public and private lives in a way that reflects that heart – change. And yet this radical teaching from an incredible preacher is just the warm up act for what's next.
3 A Greater Baptism
So John has brought the message of a baptism of repentance to Israel. There's a real surge towards John we see in v7 that crowds were coming out to him to be baptised. Israel hasn't had a prophet in hundreds of years and here comes John from the wilder eating locusts and honey bringing a message of repentance. John's stock is rising he probably has millions of followers on twitter so what does John do? Well he says all this is by means of introduction. Take a look at v15-17;
15The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ.[b] 16John answered them all, "I baptize you with[c] water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."
John's ministry is spectacular but it is only the prelude to what is coming next. John is accurately humble, he knows that one much greater and more powerful than him is coming. Jesus is orders of magnitude greater than John, he is God's son. John makes that clear in the most powerful language he says that he is not worthy to even untie the thongs of his sandals. To untie sandals was not a pleasant thing to do in the middle-eastern countryside in fact not even servants were required to do it, so degrading was it thought to be.
John has a clear understanding of who he is and of who Jesus. Despite the attention that surrounded John's birth and now his ministry he is not drawn into self-promotion. That's in spite of his followers who when Jesus starts his public ministry start worrying about losing market-share in the lucrative prophetic teaching market. When that happens John's message is the same; he says look at Jesus, 'behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world'. John forgets himself and points to Jesus and our task is to do the same. John's whole message is Jesus is coming get ready. Jesus is coming to judge the world so repent, turn your whole heart back to God and trust in Him.
John has prepared the way, he says to a nation in darkness, in spiritual confusion; Jesus is coming, coming to judge. Without overplaying the comparison I think we can say that our culture is at best in spiritual confusion. Does John bring a radical new message? Well yes and no a new age is coming but the call is the same – forsake your idols whether they be the obvious ones of materialism, sex, power and money or the subtler ones; morality, religion, a well brought up family abandon them as ways to make you right before God and keep on abandoning them every day. Repent turn your heart back fully to God and live differently because of that.
If you're new to HTG then that's what we ask of you is to forget us, look past us and look at Jesus. Jesus has come and is coming again, get ready to meet him. Repent, say sorry and turn to God.Some of you might be ready to hear and accept that message. If that's you then don't put it off simply admit your sin ask God to forgive because of what Jesus has done on the cross and ask him to take control of your life. Then tell someone who follows Jesus so that they can help you start living a life in keeping with repentance.