Encountering a prophet can be a challenge, as when you hear a preacher who can read your heart. God calls prophets to declare his will to sinful humanity. Often God's prophets use direct, explicit, even shocking images. Often they offend.
John the Baptist is no exception to this pattern. To listen to John is to be called to account. God wishes us to stop and reflect on where we are with God and to take fresh action, if necessary. For Luke, John the Baptist plays a twofold role. He prepares people for the Messiah, and he informs them concerning God's standard of righteousness (1:17). In this representative sample of his preaching, Luke shows how John accomplished the second concern. What does righteousness of the heart look like? What is the product of repentance? John's warning is direct. People need to be prepared to be open to God, to see and experience his grace.
A lesson on the differing responses to God's teaching appears in Herod's response to the criticism John gives in verses 19-20 and the crowd's response in verses 10-14. Where the people ask what they must do to honor God, Herod seeks to remove the prophet from the scene. We always face a choice when God's will is revealed. We may seek to accomplish God's desire, or we may reject it out of hand and try to remove the message (or messenger) from sight.
John's message is simple: (1) judgment is near (vv. 7-9), and (2) repentance means treating others well (vv. 10-14).
John is not at all soft-spoken as he addresses the crowd. His warnings are sharp, even severe. Those who come out to hear him are compared to snakes that slither out of their holes and flee across the desert as a fire approaches. God's enemies are often called snakes (Is 14:29; 59:5; Jer 46:22). Who wants to be near a snake? John calls the people snakes to warn them that their heart is not right and that his words must be heeded. No casual response will do; eternal realities are at stake. The snakes need transformation, since the fire of God's wrath draws near.
The reference to coming wrath alludes to the Day of the Lord (Is 13:9; 30:23; Zeph 2:2-3; Mal 3:2; 4:1, 5). John scares people into considering the fearful fate that may await them if they do not know and respond to God. The New Testament makes it clear that a person's position in relationship to Jesus is the key determinant of one's fate on Judgment Day (Rom 5:9; 1 Thess 1:9-10). Since John preaches before Jesus comes, he makes the point in terms of a person's self-perception. What might indicate that I am sensitive to God? John's answer is simple: a life that shows the fruit of caring about God by caring about others. Submit to God and serve others.
John asks for genuine fruit. In Greek the word for fruit is clearly plural, so John is asking for multiple produce. Repent is a slippery word in theological circles today. For some it merely means to feel remorse about something done, or maybe even just to attend confession with no real hope to stop the sin. But in biblical terms, to repent means to alter one's direction and perspective on something, to change sides or points of view. (For more on the centrality of repentance for Luke, see discussions on 3:1-6 and the introduction to Luke.) First Thessalonians 1:9-10 illustrates this meaning. The Thessalonians changed their allegiance from idols to serve the living God.
Jesus' call does not differ from that of John or of Paul to the Thessalonians (Lk 6:43-45; 13:6-9). In fact, for Luke repent is a key term that typifies what should be the response to the gospel's message (24:47). God wants us to come to him in repentance, but he calls us to him so he may grace us with a changed heart and a changed life. God honors a changed heart.
As John prepares the crowd to meet Jesus, he asks them to consider their identity. John is clear: religious heritage is not good enough. A good heritage can be an advantage, but it is no guarantee of blessing. The Jews of John's day thought that mere ancestral ties to Abraham would be good enough to guarantee them blessing (2 Esd 6:56-58). Some today think similarly, that one can be born a Christian or that attendance at church makes one a saved child of God. John warns that such thoughts of inherited salvation should not even cross their minds. Inherited salvation is no salvation at all. To come to Jesus we must come on his terms, not through a pedigree or by association with a certain organization. Though a good environment and roots can be of benefit, they do not yield salvation. Blessing is not a matter of physical heirship but of God's creative power. That God can raise up children out of stones pictures the reality that God's power is what produces new life. To get new life, we must come to him.
So John preaches that the one who pleases God seeks to serve others. Such a new outlook on life was imperative because the ax is already at the root of the trees. The poised ax makes it clear that any unfruitful tree will be removed and burned. The many allusions to fire in verses 7-9 show how warning dominates the section. The flame of judgment will consume. It is better not to get burned. John urges his audience to flee the threat of judgment just as they would run from a fire.
Judgment and accountability to God are not politically correct concepts in today's society. Nonetheless, they are present throughout Scripture. God as Creator has the right to hold our feet to the fire. We cannot be saved unless we are saved from something. God is neither a baby sitter nor a spectator; he is our Savior. Once the ax is wielded and the flames are kindled, it is too late. John is saying, "Watch out. Don't get burned!" Unless we come to him, we are at risk.
John obviously scored with some in his audience. Three different groups ask, "What should we do then?" John does not simply say, "Be baptized." Rather, he points them to their jobs and personal relationships. True repentance is a matter of the heart and results in change in everyday behavior. That is why the word do is repeated several times in verses 10-14. Each group wants to know the appropriate response to John's call; each reply points to how others are treated. The answer is in the spirit of the Old Testament and the Ten Commandments, which deal with how one relates to God and how one relates to others as a result. John makes it clear that he is not interested in their being baptized merely to participate in a sacred rite, but that the act represents and should point to a new way of responding to God.
The people should be ready to share their clothes, if they have more than they need: if someone is without clothes, clothe him. (The tunics were actually undershirts that were worn beneath the first-century tunic [Bauer 1979:882, visx1m].) The same response goes for food. Luke reports John's ethical and social concern, the call to give willingly to others and meet their needs (negatively, 12:13-21; positively, 14:12-14). Luke possesses a sensitive, compassionate theology of the poor.
The tax man is simply to collect the appropriate taxed amount, not extort additional monies. In the first century, tax collection was loaded with middlemen, who each added their own surcharge, so the potential for abuse was great (Donahue 1971:39-61). The soldier is not to take advantage of his authority; he is not to oppress the citizens with threats or violence.
The teaching of this text is not an ethical given. Little did I realize this passage's revolutionary power until I traveled in Latin America and realized the history of abuse of military authority and that of guerrillas who challenge the government. Guns and intimidation have played a large part in their history as well as in the present activities of many nations. Of course, twentieth-century history has shown that such abuse is not limited to Latin America. Power corrupts, because sinful human beings use it to take advantage of those who are powerless. But service in the name of the state is not a license to abuse authority. So soldiers should exercise restraint in dealing with the citizenry and should be content with their wages.
In ancient times a soldier was paid only enough to maintain a basic standard of living (Caragounis 1974:35-57). Contentment with salary was key, because discontent might lead to the temptation to extort additional funds from others. Service to an institution does not mean one has the right to rob the till or take advantage of others' powerlessness.
John's answers are stated directly and concretely. The penitent is committed to fairness to neighbors, sensitivity and responsiveness to others' needs, and willingness to accept a "no-frills" standard of living (Barclay 1975:34). If Paul had food and clothing, he was content (1 Tim 6:8). John does not tell the hated tax collector to seek a new job, but to perform his job faithfully and compassionately. How we treat others is a litmus test for how we are responding to God. As Jesus says later, "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful" (Lk 6:36).
John asks, "Where do we stand as the day of God's evaluation draws near?" Since John comes before the period of the cross, he cannot tell the people to place their trust in the work accomplished there. Rather, he calls them to live as children of God.
If such a life was pleasing to God before Jesus' coming, surely it pleases the Lord to see it in his children today. Heritage and words by themselves count for nothing. They may point us in the right direction, but they do not lead automatically to blessing. What pleases God is responding to him and showing concrete kindness to others. Such kindness involves compassion and concern for those in need, an ethical value that has corporate and individual dimensions. Authority should mean not the wielding of power but faithful service. Such is to be the life of God's saint still, as James 1:26-27 makes clear.