Hey everyone, Josh Hawkins here, and this is Episode 36 of Opening Up the Gospels. In Episode 35, we looked at over 200 years of Jewish history to help set the context for John the Baptist and the message he proclaims to Israel. We talked about the Maccabean Revolt against the Greeks and how Israel had languished under the Hasmonean Dynasty before finally coming under Roman jurisdiction. The promises made to Israel in the Law and the Prophets seemed so far off. Israel had tried, in some sense, on their own strength, to establish themselves and those promises and had failed miserably. And now, enter a man named John the Baptist in 26AD. He's out in the deserts, gathering people to himself and has all Judea stirred up again. It feels a lot like the Maccabean revolt - Rome is now in power instead of the Greeks, and there's a guy with a crowd in the wilderness. In this episode today I want to begin to break down John's message and look at what he's actually saying to the people. This is so significant to understanding the rest of the story of the Gospels, so let's jump in today in Luke 3:
“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.”
And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 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.”
As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 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. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 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.””
(Luke 3:7–17 ESV)
Alright well I hope you see that we have to start with the Old Testament if we want to rightly understand what John is saying here. Crowds of people are going out to see this guy in the wilderness and the very first thing he says is "you brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" That's definitely not what I'd be expecting to hear if I was a Jew in the first century. Now why is that? Well, the Old Testament is filled with prophecy about the Lord bringing wrath and vengeance on those who do evil and reject the God of Israel. Throughout the Scriptures, this day is called the Day of the LORD. And also, at the end of Leviticus and Deuteronomy and even throughout the Old Testament, God warns the people of Israel that they wouldn't be spared from judgment just because their ancestors like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were righteous. In other words, someone's ethnic descent from Abraham was not sufficient to qualify them to inherit the promises that God made to Abraham all the way back in Genesis. I'm going to take some time in a couple episodes from now to give a big picture overview of what that means, but for right now the biggest thing I want you to see was that they too would be under God's curse and would be ripe for judgment if they were evildoers. We see throughout the Law and Prophets many warnings to Israel of severe consequences for their disobedience. But, the mentality persisted in Jesus' day that they would be protected and would automatically take part in the promises God made to Abraham simply because of their ethnic descent from Abraham. This is why John the Baptist goes on to say this:
“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.”
(Luke 3:8 ESV)
I think it's really important for us to see right here - John is talking to Jews. He's not in Rome, he's in Bethany Beyond the Jordan, just east of the Jordan River in southern Israel. This may seem a little obvious, but I feel like somehow we tend to forget this as we move along through the Gospels, as if Jesus is just speaking these timeless words that mostly apply to us 2000 years later, where as in fact I think it's completely the opposite. John was sent to Isreal, Jesus was sent to Israel, and that must be the first way that we interpret what's being said. Remember, this story in the gospels is a continuing story from the Old Testament, not a whole new story that begins in Matthew chapter 1.
So, point number 1 in understanding John's message: He is speaking to Israel and is saying to them that their ethnic descent from Abraham does not exempt them from God's judgment and the wrath of the day of the LORD. He's rebuking them for their nationalistic confidence.
Let's keep going in Luke:
“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 3:9 ESV)
Here when John is talking about an axe and the root of the trees, he's referencing a prophecy from the book of Isaiah, specifically Isaiah chapter 6:
“Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and the LORD removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, whose stump remains when it is felled.” The holy seed is its stump.”
(Isaiah 6:11–13 ESV)
Isaiah 6 is the famous chapter where Isaiah sees the Lord high and lifted up, and he says "woe is me", and then says "here am I, send me!" We probably have heard this in the context of missions or evangelism, but the broader context of the chapter is shocking - Isaiah is saying "Lord, send me to proclaim the message of the coming judgment on the people of Israel!" That's way different than overseas missions! So in this chapter, the nation of Israel is pictured as a tree, and there's going to be a time, because of their hardness, when the tree is cut all the way down to the stump and only a stump will remain. That stump, according to verse 13, will be called "the holy seed", or the remnant of Israel.
And what does John say? He says "even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees." Picture this - it doesn't mean the tree has been cut down, but it's about to be cut down. John is drawing on Isaiah's language and saying "Israel, Israel, repent, an axe is about to come down on you - and when it's over, all that will be left is a stump. Repent so that you're not part of the tree that's cut down!" God was coming near Israel to reckon with them. There was a window of mercy that would be opened, but in order to obtain that mercy, they must bear fruits indicative of true repentance.
I think it's so critical to see that this is how all of the Gospels start their story of the ministry of Jesus. Right from the beginning, John's message was one of coming judgment. And I believe this is one of the most important keys for understanding the first coming of Jesus and the story of Israel during this time in their history - that Jesus came to Israel for judgment, to reckon with them. Now understand that the biblical idea of judgment is not just “punishment”. Jesus came for judgment, but the best way to understand the biblical concept of judgment is the idea of reckoning. For example, you could stand before a judge, and things could go well for you. A judge is one who evaluates and discerns and reckons, and based on that reckoning, renders the consequences. When I say Jesus came primarily for judgment, I'm not saying he came for just punishment. As we're going to see, the punishment would actually be delayed. Jesus came to lay things bare and expose how things really were in Israel. There was the opportunity to repent in the window of amnesty and mercy, but there were dire consequences if they didn’t.
Now as I mentioned, John is pulling the picture of tree and stump from Isaiah 6. Isaiah 6 is a very significant chapter for John the Baptist and throughout the Gospels. First, Isaiah 6 is referenced so often later on in Isaiah 40-55, and of course Isaiah 40 is where John the Baptist identifies himself from. And secondly, Jesus quotes Isaiah 6 in Matthew 13 as to the reason why he spoke in parables. We didn't read it, but it's the passage just before the one we read in Isaiah 6 - go check out verses 9 and 10 - it's the famous “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’” We'll talk about this much more when we get to the parables.
John says that the part of the tree that's cut down would be thrown into the fire. This is an illusion to many passages in Scripture that describe the fire of the day of the Lord that would come upon the earth. Specifically John had Isaiah 66 in mind. We'll talk about this a bit more in the next episode.
So, point number 2 in understanding John's message: He's telling Israel that judgment is coming to them, just as Isaiah had prophesied, and they must repent and bear fruits that indicate they've actually repented if they didn't want to end up in the fire.
Just feel the intensity of this - it's a few generations after the Maccabean Revolt where a bunch of rebels gathered in the wilderness to plot the overthrow of the Greeks and to retake Jerusalem, and now John is gathering crowds in the wilderness. But John is in the desert dressed as a prophet telling Jews that the kingdom of heaven and the day of the Lord is at hand, and the evil regime over them was not the only one in trouble. In order to be a recipient of the promises of the day of the Lord, they must bear the fruits of repentance and they couldn't just rely on their ethnicity. The glorious promises God made to Israel would never be established in the strength of man, as Israel's recent history had indicated. God Himself would bring forth His promises, but an hour of decision was coming like a snare upon the inhabitants of Israel. God was seeking the remnant of true Israel.
Well, we're out of time for today. Find all the other episodes on my website - www.joshuahawkins.com/gospels. I hope you come back next time where we'll continue looking at John's message to Israel. God bless.