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Political vs. Personal - a study of John the Baptist in Luke 3:7-18

Updated: Jan 14, 2021

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Luke 3:7-18 - "Prepared"

The people came to John looking for a Messiah to change their world. He warned them that their Messiah was bringing judgment -- to everyone. Therefore, repent. No matter what is going on in our world, our primary concern must be our own repentance and righteousness.

The ax is already at the root of the trees. John 3:9

The Election, the Protests, and How to Handle That in Small Group Bible Study

I don't need to tell you what's been going on. [For anyone who stumbles across this in the future, today was the Capitol protest related to the Biden election certification.] There's no sense in trying to avoid major current events in a small group discussion. In my weekly pages that I use them as illustrations/applications for key verses so it is clear how the Bible can impact life. I prefer to use lighter fare for opening discussions (call them Icebreakers) so as to get people talking comfortably.

But when an event is on everyone's mind, you may as well address it up front. (Note: by Sunday, people may be sick of talking about this, so you may not need to talk about it at all! But as I publish this, it's still pretty fresh.)

Let's start with an important axiom of small group Bible study:

Sunday School, or any small group Bible study, is not primarily a place for people to share their thoughts and feelings. It's a place where we come to discuss how the Word of God should shape our thoughts and feelings.

Yes, it's important to get people to talk about what they think about things -- that's how we diagnose our walk with Jesus! -- but if we never get to learning from the Bible what God thinks about things, then we have failed in the fundamental purpose of a Bible study.

Not surprisingly (because God is very good at arranging these things), our passage speaks to our current situation very clearly.

Here's my suggestion (if your group can handle this): open with a question like "This week's events in Atlanta and DC have sparked many concerns and fears among the American public. If that includes you, what are your fears?"

According to surveys, it includes somebody in your group. A Chapman University survey determined that almost half (47%) of Americans were "afraid or very afraid" of this election outcome. (Interestingly, that's only 21st on the list of biggest fears. #1, for the fifth year in a row, was government corruption.) (Even more interestingly, liberals were three times more worried about this outcome than conservatives. That reveals so much, but this is a Bible study and not a sociology class, so I strongly encourage you not to go down that road.)

Here are some of the things -- people are afraid of changes in public policy, how it will affect their jobs, their taxes, their freedoms, their children's education. They're afraid of government intrusion, loss of privacy, untrustworthy officials. Right?

Then let's turn our attention to John the Baptist and ancient Israel. Every single fear we have is a fear they had. Goodness, in our passage John the Baptist talks about taxation and oppression and poverty and the misuse of power! The people were coming to him hoping that he could do something about it. And do you know what his response was? "You as an individual -- are you living righteously? Have you repented of your sins and are you walking as a child of God?"

You see, John understood that the circumstances of society meant nothing compared with the coming judgment. You can change someone's situation, but if there's not a heart change, it just means that they will go to hell with more money in the bank. And there's absolutely no positive way to spin that.

According to Luke, our first response to social and political unrest must be this: am I living as a follower of Jesus in my family and my community? If not, then none of these circumstances really matter. If so, then that's the only way meaningful change can happen anyway.


This Week's Big Idea: Timelines and Territories

Luke 3 (primarily the verses not in this week's focal passage) has always somewhat confused me with respect to the names, places, and dates. And it all goes back to Herod the Great, which we talked about a few weeks ago.

Because Herod the Great was paranoid, he had a number of his sons killed. He also changed his will multiple times. His final will divided his "kingdom" between three sons:

  • Herod Archelaus was given the territory of Judea. He was accused of sedition and banished in 6 AD, and Rome took direct control of the territory, assigning prefects. Pontius Pilate was the prefect of Judea from 26-36 AD.

  • Herod Philip (II) was given the territory of Iturea, which is the green section of the map. He ruled from 4 BC - 34 AD.

  • Herod Antipas was given the territory of Galilee and parts of the Transjordan. He ruled from 4 BC - 39 AD.

So, Herod Antipas is a key figure for our story because he was responsible for the areas where much of Jesus' and John's ministries took place. He built the capital city of Tiberias, naming it after emperor Tiberius (Tiberias) Caesar (ruled 14-37 AD) who was his patron.

Like Herod the Great, the Jews considered Antipas to be a usurper. John the Baptist confronted Antipas for divorcing his wife Phasaelis (who was the daughter of the king of Nabatea -- just past the green section) in order to marry his half-niece Herodias (who had been married to his half-brother Philip I). In Luke 3:19, we learn that Antipas imprisoned John, and in Mark 6:17-29, we learn that Antipas had John executed at the request of Herodias's daughter Salome. But Antipas got swift judgment -- the Nabateans came and destroyed his small, private army.

(Just to finish the story -- when Caligula became emperor in 37 AD, he appointed his childhood friend Herod Agrippa I (who was Herodias's brother) to rule Philip's former territory and more importantly let him be called "king". Antipas was called "tetrarch", which was a step down from king, even though their authority was roughly equivalent in the eyes of Rome. We can think of a prefect (like Pilate) as a governor of a province; a tetrarch was a governor of a tetrarchy, which was slightly more autonomous than a province. Antipas was so jealous that Agrippa manipulated him into saying seditious things, leading him to be banished in 39 AD. That's how Agrippa came to be the "King Herod" of Acts 12. And if you're wondering why Luke paid closer attention to these other characters than the other Gospel writers, it's because they played their larger part in Acts than the Gospels.)

About the Timeline

It seems like Luke is trying to establish an exact date for the beginning of John the Baptist's ministry by mentioning "the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar". That would put this around 29 AD. However -- and this is a challenge for all of these dates -- there is some evidence that Tiberius started ruling territories before 14 AD, so it's quite possible that Luke was using an earlier date related to Galilee, even as early as 25 AD.

Here's why we care. In Luke 3:23, Luke says that Jesus was "about 30 years old" when He began His ministry. If He was born between 6-4 BC (as I suggested), we're probably looking at the 25 AD date. But, if Luke the historian were using a co-regency date for Tiberius, it's quite possible that other historians from the era did as well. What that means is all of the dates for all of the rulers from this era can be questioned by a few years.

In other words, those who say that Jesus lived from 5 BC to 25 AD before beginning His ministry, and those who say that Jesus lived from 1 BC to 29 AD before beginning His ministry both can make very reasonable historical arguments. And that's fine! We are able to agree within a few years about events that happened thousands of years ago. A range of a few years does not materially impact what we believe.

It's somewhat strange to list two men as high priest, but here's the story on that. Annas was the high priest from 6 to 15 AD, and his family basically dominated that position for decades. Caiaphas was his son-in-law, and was high priest from 18 to 36 AD. Based on the Gospel accounts, Annas still had a lot of influence, which is why Luke listed him separately.

Bonus Big Idea: About John the Baptist

When we introduced the Gospel of Matthew (2015) and the Gospel of Mark (2019), I talked about the importance of John the Baptist. He was (and is) the ultimate prophet -- the one who came in the "spirit and power of Elijah" (Luke 1:17), the one who necessarily came to prepare the way for the Messiah (Mal 4:5). All four Gospels focus on John because He is that important. Luke reported Zechariah's prophecy that John would be "prophet of the Most High" (Luke 1:76).

John came out of the wilderness (Luke 3:2). His parents Zechariah and Elizabeth lived in the hill country of Judea (Luke 1:39), so this wilderness could describe any of the desolate region between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. The wilderness was a place of testing. Israel failed her test in the wilderness (Num 14:34), but Jesus passed His test in the wilderness (Luke 4:13). The implication is that John has also been tested. But the wilderness is also intended to be a place of discomfort and hardship. He wore camel hair with a leather belt (Matt 3:4), which is very similar to how Elijah was described (2 Ki 1:8). He was not in God's service for profit or glory. Consider this explanation:

Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swaying in the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothes? See, those who wear soft clothes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you. “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one greater than John the Baptist has appeared, but the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been suffering violence, and the violent have been seizing it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you’re willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who is to come. Matthew 11:7-14

Right before our passage, Luke also cites Isaiah 40, applying it to John. So, that's who we're talking about. John the Baptist is a big deal, and we will learn more about him this week.

[Note: some people try to raise a fuss about whether the quote of Isaiah 40 should be "A voice of one calling in the wilderness: prepare the way", or "A voice of one calling: in the wilderness, prepare the way". There's really not nearly the difference they claim.]


Part 1: Warning (Luke 3:7-9)

7 He then said to the crowds who came out to be baptized by him, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Therefore produce fruit consistent with repentance. And don’t start saying to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you that God is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

John had been attracting a following. Remember that Israel had not heard a prophet in 400 years, so they were absolutely longing for a word from God. John (as the Gospel writers so clearly explain) "fit the bill" of a prophet, and people were drawn to him. And as the Gospel writers also explain, some people wondered aloud if John were actually the coming Messiah.

Matthew's account (3:1-17) largely matches Luke's, as does Mark's (1:1-11). But they focus on two primary roles for John: bringing a message of repentance, and being the one to baptize Jesus. Luke and John includes elements of the rest of John's ministry.

I went to school at Texas A&M University. It's a very large campus, and "street preachers" regularly appeared to give their message to whomever was walking by. If they timed their appearance well, they could attract a crowd quickly. In that crowd would be people who felt obligated to hear the street preacher out of Christian conviction, people who loved to make fun of street preachers, and people who had no idea what was going on but were interested in the crowd. I imagine that also describes John's crowd.

This map identifies a lot of the traditionally-accepted areas of John's ministry. John 1:28 says that Jesus was baptized in "Bethany beyond the Jordan", and John 3:23 say that John baptized "near Aenon". There is, of course, debate over the exact locations, but it is generally accepted that John traveled up and down the Jordan, preaching to the crowds that came from all over. We have no reason to believe that John said these things one time to one group.

When John preached near Jericho, he would have attracted people from Jerusalem. Remember that last week we said that the main road north from Jerusalem actually went through Jericho and up the Jordan into order to avoid Samaria. That was a dangerous, 20-mile stretch that involved a 3,000 ft change in elevation. All of that to say -- John would have a few curious passers-by (like I was in college), but he also would have had a lot of people who intentionally went to hear him.

So, consider this question: what kind of "crowd" do you think John had? Did they like what they heard?

Note that people were coming out to be baptized by him (see below). If you've ever been to a Billy Graham Crusade, you know that hundreds or thousands of people come forward after his invitation. I know from the one we had in Kansas City that a lot of those decisions did not result in baptism or church membership. So, why did they come forward? What do you think? (Long and short, I think of the "Parable of the Soils" which we covered a few years ago.)

John knew that not everybody came to him with pure motives, and so he confronted them directly, calling them a "brood of vipers". The image is this: to chase out snakes, men would shove burning branches into their holes. The snakes would flee the flames, and the men would kill them. This is a warning of judgment!


[Aside on Baptism of Repentance.

Some people have argued that John would have lived with the Essenes in the wilderness at Qumran (re: Dead Sea Scrolls) because they too practiced baptism. We have found multiple pools in places like Masada where Essenes were known to live. To them, a baptism was a ritual cleansing; they generally baptized themselves.

But John baptized others. "Ritual cleansing" acted like "wash away your sins". But John knew that he could not do that (see John 1:29), and so his criterion for baptism was that repentance had already taken place. Does that difference make sense? Some of the Jews would have come to him expecting a ritual cleansing. But he was using baptism as a symbol of the evidence that something internal has already happened. That's the meaning that the early church continued.

Of course, the question has always been - "why did Jesus need to do this?" That even confused John! (Matt 3:14) For Jesus, it was not about the need to repent, but the demonstration of righteousness. And so today, when we are baptized, it is not only a symbol of our repentance, but it also identifies us specifically with Jesus (that He was baptized and that immersion unites us with His death and resurrection). (But had had additional purposes for Jesus' baptism, particularly the opportunity to declare that Jesus was "My Son, whom I love" (Luke 3:22).]


Obviously, those "vipers" had not demonstrated evidence of repentance ("fruit" - see Matthew 7). How did John know? Well, just look at the next few verses -- it's about visible acts. This is not to say that repentance is superficial, but that repentance should be visible in the way one lives.

For some reason, those Jews thought that their ethnicity meant that they were "okay with God" regardless of their repentance. (Before you laugh at them, realize that this is not very different than a person talking about their own salvation in terms like "I'm a member of First Baptist Church" or "my parents raised me in church". Right?)

The reference to "ax" is simple and powerful. A farmer would never take an ax to a tree that is healthy and producing. For a farmer to get the ax out meant that there was evidence that a tree was unproductive and/or dying.


Part 2: Response (Luke 3:10-14)

10 “What then should we do?” the crowds were asking him. 11 He replied to them, “The one who has two shirts must share with someone who has none, and the one who has food must do the same.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He told them, “Don’t collect any more than what you have been authorized.” 14 Some soldiers also questioned him, “What should we do?” He said to them, “Don’t take money from anyone by force or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

Telling Jewish leaders (Matt 3:7 says that this crowd contained Pharisees and Sadducees) that they were not okay with God was not okay with them. (Read Matthew 21, particularly the Parable of the Tenants, to see how Jewish leaders reacted to confrontation.) But the people who came under the conviction of the Spirit heard this and were cut to the heart. This is almost identical to the response the crowd gave Peter when he told them at Pentecost that they had crucified their Messiah:

Brothers, what should we do? (Acts 2:37)

Repentance must lead to a change in heart. And a change in heart always leads to a change in behavior.

The first statement is seemingly about generosity, but it is more about social awareness. Just like today, people in John's day tended to look down on those in need or in poverty. John told them that the proper approach to someone in need was compassion. We are to share as we are able. [Note: we can tell from John's wording that he is talking about people who are genuinely in need. Today, we get sidetracked by trying to quantify if a person is truly in need or not. My earnest hope is that if any of us knew of a genuine need, we would immediately act to meet it. That's what John is talking about.]

WARNING. POLITICAL LANDMINES. What does John give us here? Excessive taxes and law enforcement abuses. If you have highly partisan individuals in your class, they could easily take those topics and take your class off the rails (and the hardest part -- they could take it either direction; this could be fodder for Democrats or Republicans). None of that is John's point! John is addressing individuals who cared about their standing before God -- not "the system", not "the government", but individuals. Likewise, our class discussion needs to stay focused on individuals (namely us).

The background makes this clear. Rome contracted out tax collection. People who could extract a higher tax revenue would be more likely to get and keep the job. But in order to pad their own salary, they would extract even more in taxes. (And because local tax collectors were often Jews, they were seen as traitors and hated.) John's response to them is extremely reasoned: "you should not charge more in taxes than has been approved". Is that controversial? John is not telling them to stop being tax collectors. He is not launching a diatribe against tax rates or policies. He's simply saying to them as individuals to do their jobs righteously. Be honest. Don't be greedy.

And the soldiers. The word for "soldier" could be used of the Roman military, of local police, or of private security. Each group was often underpaid with the tacit agreement that they could take spoils when they wanted. (In fact, it's possible that these soldiers were the security for the tax collectors!) Obviously, that led to so much corruption and senseless violence. They could extort, steal, or threaten (our word "shakedown" might be related to this Greek word). Again, John's response is excellent: "you should not take by force what doesn't belong to you". Is that controversial? Again, no. John is not telling them that they should not be soldiers. He is not soapboxing about military occupation or police forces. He's simply telling them as individuals to do their jobs righteously. Be respectful. Don't grumble.

The people wanted John to get political. Instead, John got personal. That's how he addressed politics. (Indeed - when John went after Herod, it wasn't for his terrible public policy but for his personal sin.)

The personal application to what John said 2,000 years ago should be clear. Does our life demonstrate the fruit of repentance?


Part 3: Division (Luke 3:15-18)

15 Now the people were waiting expectantly, and all of them were questioning in their hearts whether John might be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water, but one who is more powerful than I am is coming. I am not worthy to untie the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing shovel is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with fire that never goes out.” 18 Then, along with many other exhortations, he proclaimed good news to the people.

So -- John is willing to confront religious leaders, government officials, and dangerous soldiers. Maybe he's the Messiah! That's what the people hoped. As we said when going through the Nativity story, the people were tired of being ruled and oppressed. They wanted change in their society. And, as John's words proved, not a few of them assumed that when God came to set things right, they were automatically on God's "nice list".

Just thinking that way distracted the people from John's true mission and message: Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand. And so he gave them the clearest rebuke possible. "You guys think I'm something? Your god is clearly too small." Indeed, John says that he is unworthy to perform even the most menial task for the true Messiah.

Now, let's understand "baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire" correctly. Some people in Pentecostal circles interpret this as two different baptisms (thus they would argue for a three-fold baptism -- baptism in water, baptism in the Spirit, and baptism in fire, each delineating three different classes of Christians). I can definitively tell you that John is speaking of one baptism. The Greek construction, which is found all over the New Testament, refers to one thing and not two different things (examples include calling someone "the brother and servant" or "the one speaking and keeping" or "the one hearing and doing"). This is one baptism.

That said, most Baptists believe this to be a reference to salvation. As in -- John brought us water baptism, but Jesus brings us salvation. That absolutely could be what John means! But let's look again at the context. John is accosting those fleeing from the coming wrath. The antidote to God's wrath is repentance, which he preaches. But there's someone who is more powerful than John. And he's just about to mention that chaff will be burned with fire. So, baptism with "the Holy Spirit and fire" could be a reference to the coming judgment. It seems to be a callback to Isaiah 4:

2 On that day the Branch of the Lord will be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land will be the pride and glory of Israel’s survivors. 3 Whoever remains in Zion and whoever is left in Jerusalem will be called holy—all in Jerusalem written in the book of life— 4 when the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodguilt from the heart of Jerusalem by a spirit of judgment and a spirit of burning [or, fire].

In other words, Jesus is bringing judgment to the world. As we know, those who emerge from this judgment are those who are saved, so the two ideas are intertwined, but I think John is maintaining a message of strong warning here. "You had better pay attention when the Messiah comes because He brings judgment with Him."

Let me make one last observation: Luke calls this message of judgment "good news". Huh? In the blockbuster movie Infinity War, there is a "herald" who goes around delivering the "good news" that they are about to die for the greater good. That's not good news. What John is preaching is good news. How? It's the message that salvation is available. Judgment is coming; but judgment has always been coming. What's new is that we now know how God is making salvation possible.

When you explain the gospel message from this passage, please avoid this mistake: Over the years, people have unfairly put John and Jesus into two different camps. They say that Jesus represents true salvation, and John represents legalism and superficial Christianity. Read these verses! John is doing everything he can to point his followers to Jesus so that they don't fall into the trap of legalism. John wants people to exhibit true repentance as evidence of true salvation.

Amazing passage, right?


Closing Thoughts: Threshing

We've talked about all of the concepts in this passage multiple times over the years, but it's been a while since we've talked about threshing. It's simple, really (but hard work). Not much has changed about this process except the technology in thousands of years.

Threshing is the process of separating grain (which can be eaten) from straw/husk. Grain, or cereal, is more or less grass seed. But it's stable and durable, making it a key component of agriculture. Common grains include rice, barley, oats, quinoa, and millet. But John's hearers would have thought about wheat.

Chaff is inedible; for the grain to have value, the chaff must be removed. It can be removed by tossing the wheat into the air (with a pitchfork) and letting the wind carry away the chaff. The wheat can be beaten on a sturdy object, forcibly removing the chaff. (Or both.) ]

Really, all this illustration is about is separating the "bad" from the "good". We aren't supposed to get too caught up in allegorizing it. When judgment comes, there will be a separation of people. Some people will be "burned" (which is an image of punishment), and some will be "gathered into the barn" (which is an image of salvation).

Here's an interesting exercise: look up the words "burn" (or "fire") and "barn" in the Gospels. You'll see a pattern how those words are used (in reference to judgment).


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