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by Mark Horne (May 25, 2003)

copyright © 2003

What story is Luke trying to tell us? How can we best hear him? I’ve started in chapter three because we covered chapters one and two a year ago last Christmas. While I doubt any of us remember what I said (I know I certainly don’t) chapter 3 makes a natural starting point. Chapters one and two set the stage by telling us of the births of the two heroes, now we learn how they become heroes.

So how are we to understand Luke’s intent? Why does he name the civil and priestly rulers? Mark didn’t feel it was necessary to do so when he began his gospel with the baptism of John. What is the point?

Luke gives us the answer in many different ways. But I think what might be most helpful is to remind you of a time when Jesus explained all this in a parable. Like both Matthew and Mark, Luke records Jesus telling the Parable of the Vineyard.

And he began to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard and let it out to tenants and went into another country for a long while. When the time came, he sent a servant to the tenants, so that they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. And he sent another servant. But they also beat and treated him shamefully, and sent him away empty-handed. And he sent yet a third. This one also they wounded and cast out. Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’ But when the tenants saw him, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Let us kill him, so that the inheritance may be ours.’ And they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When they heard this, they said, “Surely not!” (Luke 20.9-16)

God is the landowner and Israel, the Temple, the Covenant is the vineyard. God has sent prophets like Jeremiah and Jonah and Micah to get fruit from his vineyard. John is the continuance of a long line of prophets. They are the servants asking for some fruit.

What sort of fruit is God looking for? What does the metaphor refer to? John the Baptist tells us rather explicitly:

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? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. 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. 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” (Luke 2.7-9).

The fruit that God is looking are deeds appropriate to repentance.

When Jesus will later warn the chief priests and scribes, they respond in disbelief that God would do such a thing to them. John the Baptist addresses that presumption. Notice how he directly addresses their self-confidence that God must bless them because they are Abraham’s descendents. First, he accuses them of being the descendents of snakes. This is both terribly insulting and probably also refers to Satan the serpent who tempted Eve. Jesus will later tell some Israelites that their Father is not God, as they claim, nor is it Abraham, but it is rather Satan. He is consistent with John the Baptists ministry.

Second, John points out that God demands repentance and that otherwise they will be unable to face the judgment to come.

Finally, John deals explicitly with the issue of their lineage as Abraham’s children. “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.” It’s not enough to be in Abraham’s family. Without repentance one cannot escape God’s judgment. Perhaps many Israelites said to themselves, “This John must be overreacting. Things can’t be so bad because I’m a member of the covenant people and God has promised to bless me no matter what I do. If so, then they were greatly deceived.

We are going to see this time and again in Luke, so let me tell you right now that one of the main problem Jesus faces is a people who are convinced that they cannot possibly come under God’s judgment. They would that there was something wrong with Israel, now. Israel was obviously under judgment. But they were confidently waiting for God to come and deliver them–to justify them publicly before the nations. So here comes John and he calls it “the wrath to come.” John’s ministry to Israel is like that of the prophet Amos:

Alas, you who are longing for the day of the Lord, / For what purpose will the day of the Lord be to you? / It will be darkness and not light; / As when a man flees from a lion, / And a bear meets him, / Or goes home, leans his hand against the wall, / And a snake bites him. / Will not the day of the Lord be darkness instead of light, / Even gloom with no brightness in it? / I hate, I reject your festivals, / Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. / Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, / I will not accept them; / And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings. / Take away from Me the noise of your songs; / I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. / But let justice roll down like waters / And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

So John is warning them of what it really means that the promised king, the Anointed one–“the Christ” in Greek–is going to come as the representative of God’s kingship. As such his judgment may result in condemnation rather than in justification. He is coming for fruit and you will either be found to be wheat for the barn or chaff for the fire. There are two possibilities and the difference between them depends on repentance.

John’s baptism, by the way, graphically illustrates that impending judgment. John has stationed himself at the Jordan River. When Joshua first lead the Israelites into the Promised Land he led them through the Jordan as God miraculously parted the waters. Now, by coming back to the Jordan those who believe John the Baptist’s Gospel are confessing that they are really in the cursed wilderness and need to re-enter the Promised Land as new people.

But we see here that baptism makes demands on those baptized. We see here different groups coming to John and asking, “What then shall we do?” In this context they are obviously asking, “How can we escape the wrath to come?” It is a perfectly legitimate question. John himself has induced them to ask it by telling them that they must produce the fruits of repentance if they want to survive the arrival of God’s king.

In general, people are to share with one another and help one another. This seems awfully vague but as we travel further through Luke’s Gospel we will see that there are some in Israel who think they alone are faithful and that others are destined to God’s wrath. In one sense, John and Jesus could be seen as having the same thought. They were gathering a group who would be spared from destruction and given the kingdom while others were cast out. But in Jesus’ mind, one of the great sins of those who presumed they would be vindicated was that they regarded others as outsiders for no good reason. In the coming crisis, God wants a people who are united in love for him and one another. Sharing with others rather than hoarding for yourself is an essential response to believing that God is coming to judge.

John’s exhortations to the other two groups are more straightforward. Both the tax collectors and the soldiers are told to stop sinning. The way Luke adds these on imply there was something strange about the fact they responded. They aren’t just considered part of the populace but deserve special mention. The reason for this is because the tax collectors and the occupying soldiers were both working for pagans who ruled Israel. Most would assume they were beyond saving.

But John simply names the sins they are most prone to commit and tells them to resist the temptation. This is amazing in context because most Israelites would have told the tax collectors to find another line of work. Here we see how John’s demands for the kingdom are different than those around him. Instead of reducing the faithful to those who are patriotic Jews, John says tax collectors and soldiers are welcome as well if they respond to the Gospel.

And that’s the point where we can leave the first century and respond to God in the twenty-first. All these exhortations to stop sinning and to do good are the preaching of the Gospel. Look at verse 18: “So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people.” That word translated “good news” is literally gospel. John is preaching the Gospel and exhortations are involved in doing so.

The Gospel is good news but it is good news about a new king. You cannot preach the Gospel without preaching repentance just as you cannot believe the Gospel without repenting. Repentance is not optional. No one will be saved from the wrath of God without it.

John’s message of repentance is Gospel and it is the same Gospel preached by Jesus. Just as John welcomed tax-collectors who responded to his call to repent, so Jesus, when he was questioned as to why he was eating at table with tax-collectors, responded: “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (4.32). Likewise, in chapter 10, Jesus prophesies the destruction of Israelite town because of how they refuse to respond to the Gospel message:

Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more bearable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you.

Or again: The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here (11.32). Who is greater than Jonah? Obviously, Jesus is referring to himself. Then what is Jesus preaching? He is preaching the Gospel. The Gospel is leaving his own generation worse off because they are not responding by repenting.

Finally, unless we be misled by some who would claim that Jesus’ Gospel that demanded repentance was only for Israel, while we get a Gospel that demands no repentance, Luke’s Gospel ends with the same message that John the Baptist preached at the beginning. When the resurrected Jesus Christ appeared to his disciples, he said,

Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem (24.46).

By the way, I have no idea why the translators of the ESV and the NIV both changed the text here. But the manuscript evidence does not favor “repentance and forgiveness.” What Jesus said was that “repentance for forgiveness of sins” will be proclaimed to all nations. One repents in order to be forgiven. That is Jesus’ message, which he says will be proclaimed throughout the world. It is a recognizable message because we have heard it in our passage this morning being preached to those who came to the Jordan to hear John’s Gospel proclamation.

And when Luke records the first Gospel sermon after Pentecost he shows us exactly the same message as what John preached. The only difference is that John preached that the Spirit would be given and Peter preaches that the Spirit has now been given. But in both cases repentance and baptism are demanded to escape the wrath to come.

Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (2.37, 38).

See the pattern? The people ask both John and Peter what they should do and both Peter and John say to repent.

This is all over the book of Acts. The Gentiles who believe the Gospel are said to have been “granted repentance to life” (11.18). When Paul preaches the Gospel to the pagan Athenians he says that God “commands all people everywhere to repent” (17.30). When Paul sums up his ministry in his farewell speech to the Ephesian elders he says

You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, … how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ (20.18b, 20, 21).

Finally when Paul is on trial, he recounts how Jesus called him to preach the Gospel so that he

declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance. For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me (Acts 26.20, 21).

The Gospel, says Paul, quite nearly got him killed. We know from Church history that, in fact, it did get him killed. The same thing happened to John the Baptist.

Make no mistake: the Gospel, because it makes demands, can easily make enemies. Luke appeals to the prophecy of Isaiah that the mountains will be cast down and the valleys filled. Luke begins this account by naming some “mountains”: Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Caiaphas and Annas. How are the mountains going to feel about a message that demands their humility–their repentance? This section begins and ends with Herod in particular:

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 (vv. 19, 20).

A couple of Christmas’ ago I pointed out that Luke structures chapters 1 and 2 of his Gospel so that what happens to John happens afterward to Jesus only in a fuller way. That means that here we have a foreshadowing of what will happen to Jesus when he preaches his message.

Preaching the Gospel can get you killed because sinners don’t like hearing about the wrath of God or the demand for repentance even though salvation is being freely offered. Herod did not like being told about what God thought of his family morality–or his lack in that area.

This is what Jesus promised his disciples would happen. Luke 12.51-53:

Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.

The Gospel demands repentance. We will face persecution for proclaiming it but we must ourselves obey it. Will we respond in faith or in unbelief?

copyright © 2003

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