Please read Luke 3:7-14 in your Bible. I’ve used the NIV 1984 to prepare these remarks.
USA Today called it “Date confusion;” as this year Ash Wednesday falls on St. Valentine’s Day and worse, Easter on April Fools’ Day. Writer Ann Zaniewski of the Detroit Free Press sagely predicted, “Christian couples might celebrate their love next month with smudges of ash on their foreheads. And a prank or two could infiltrate Easter Egg hunts.”
This quirky calendar coincidence hasn’t happened since 1945 and will not occur again until 2024. Ned McGrath, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Detroit commented, “For the record, the last time there was a confluence of these dates — 1945 — the Detroit Tigers won a World Series. No joke. I’m just saying.”
Leaders in Chicago’s Roman Catholic Church are offered this guidance: “Solemnly mark the start of Lent, a day the faithful are asked to abstain from meat and to fast, on Wednesday. Celebrate love over a steak dinner and candles another day.”
It seems to me that we’re missing the point here. We have an opportunity to observe, just once every eighty years – give or take – that LOVE was expressed on the cross of Jesus Christ. LOVE motivates us to repent and do better. Rather than just the cheapened version of love, we’ve been given a rather obvious opportunity to LOVE.
At Easter I’ll show how God made a fool of the devil with the empty tomb!!
“Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand,” was the heart (pun intended) of Jesus’ message (LKE 5:31-32; 19:10) and the message He commanded His disciples carry to the world (LKE 24:43-47). Ash Wednesday is the day in the traditional year devoted to repentance. Today we’ll look at JTB’s take:
Repentance is a single act and a way of life.
- Context: John’s ministry was to preach a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (3:1-6)
- John preached that repentance requires bearing FRUIT in KEEPING with a changed life. (3:7-14)
His sermon included a stern warning (3:7-9).
Verse seven has some tough talk: VIPERS and WRATH. These people are coming out to him; treating potential converts this was counter-intuitive, to say the least.
Matthew’s version clarifies John’s sternness – these remarks were probably directed at the PHARISEES and SADUCEES – religious leaders who’d probably come out to spy on and maybe oppose John.
Because of the Gospels, the name PHARISEE has become a byword for hypocrite. That is certainly one reason they were always at odds with Jesus. Worse, they turned their inflated legalism on others, creating burdens impossible to bear (see Luke 11:46). The SADDUCEES were a larger party of Jewish religious leaders who collaborated with the Romans, often to line their pockets. Whenever the Gospels say these two parties were working together, we should know that was a rare occasion and happened only when they saw a worse threat.
What was threatening about John? First, in Jewish practice, baptism was reserved for people not born Jews who converted to Judaism or Jews undergoing an extreme rededication of faith. John was using baptism in a new way; baptism for repentance for all people. John’s baptism created a doctrinal stir and that’s probably what caught the interest of the Pharisees.
Second, John was preaching about the Christ, the promised Messiah, as foretold in Scripture. This kind of talk got people wound up. The CROWDS gathering were an occasion for a riot. That would’ve made the Sadducees feel defensive.
The word VIPERS refers to poisonous snakes, which most of us would consider a physical and emotional threat. When there is a fire in the desert, snakes will come out their holes in the ground to flee the flames, which leads to the other provocative word, WRATH. This is a warning of God’s just punishment of all non-believers which will occur on the Day of the Lord (see Isaiah 13:9; 30:23; Ezekiel 7:19; Zephaniah 1:18; Malachi 3:2; Romans 1:18; 1 Thessalonians 1:10; Hebrews 10:27).
Real repentance requires righteous FRUIT. Repentance itself is not a work; it’s a change of direction based on sorrow over sin and a decision to discontinue it. However, a genuine change of mind leads to good fruit; actions that are godly in character.
In verse eight we find another warning: don’t rely on being Abraham’s kids. John tells them their ancestry dating back to Abraham is worthless toward salvation: “OUT OF THESE STONES GOD CAN RAISE UP CHILDREN TO ABRAHAM.”
John warned them that God is so powerful He can come by CHILDREN TO ABRAHAM pretty cheaply. It’s nothing special and will NOT save them from God’s wrath.
At His Triumphal Entry Jesus was told to quiet His disciples. Jesus’ reply was that if the people kept quiet, the stones beneath their feet would “cry out.” (see Luke 19:40). In addition to Abraham’s physical descendants, all who believe are spiritual descendants (see Romans 4:11-16; 9:8; Galatians 3:7+29).
And in verse nine, John warned them God’s wrath is on fruitlessness and it was imminent: “THE AX IS ALREADY A/T ROOT OF THE TREES” = irreversible judgment. Individuals are like trees in that they produce either GOOD FRUIT by godly living or bad fruit by godless living, sin. The call to repentance is to turning away from evil and toward God. Our new orientation will bear FRUIT.
In verses ten through fourteen John refined what he meant by FRUIT IN KEEPING WITH REPENTANCE. The word repentance literally means “turning.” It is a change of mind, direction.
What’s exciting about this passage is that each of these three groups of people had the insight to ask John “What must I do?” They got John’s warnings and more deeply understood repentance is manifest in actions.
John did not use or set up a legalism. Instead, he personalized what repentance would be for each of the groups.
To the general population (the CROWD), he used the example of TWO TUNICS and FOOD. A TUNIC was a shirt-like garment, the main clothing worn by a person of the time. A robe was worn over this. At that time, most people had only ONE TUNIC and everyone wore only one at a time.
John’s principle was to share your surplus. His example of FRUIT IN KEEPING WITH REPENTANCE was to suggest that whatever you have in surplus – beyond what it takes to satisfy your immediate needs – you should provide for those who have none. We Americans typically have closets full of clothes, pantries and freezers full of food, more than we need. We can demonstrate we are God’s people is by turning our surplus into support.
Addressing the tax collectors (12-13), John’s example was to meet your need, not your greed. Tax collectors were locals who contracted with the Romans to charge taxes. They realized a profit by charging more than what was required and pocketed the difference.
John’s repentance principle was “Save, don’t shave the sheep.” There’s a difference between making a living and making a killing.
To the soldiers (14) John gave three commands, but one example: don’t be abusive of your authority. These were likely King Herod’s soldiers and/or temple guards who accompanied the Pharisees and Sadducees. It took guts for them to admit to considering John’s baptism right in front of their bosses.
Command number one: “DON’T EXTORT MONEY.” It was common for soldiers to intimidate people and take bribes. The word EXTORT means “to shake violently,” hence our slang term, “shake down.”
Command number two: “DON’T ACCUSE PEOPLE FALSELY.” The word of a soldier was always taken over a citizen’s, which is an obvious occasion for abuse.
Command number three: “BE CONTENT WITH YOUR PAY” is asking a lot. Soldiers were underpaid, relying on bribes to make more money.
This is also John’s repentance principle: be content. John is not just teaching a moral principle; he is also giving sound financial advice. Repentant people are content with what they have; they don’t cheat or get themselves into debt simply to have better things.
- Context: John made it clear he was not the Christ, only His precursor. (3:15-20)
Repentance is a single act and a way of life.
Regardless of our individuality and circumstances, repentance is something we all must practice and it brings forth a character that is generous and refuses to abuse authority. This Wednesday night we enter into the traditional season of Lent. Lent is a period of preparation for Easter. A particular focus of Lent is repentance. We need to give additional time, thought, and prayer to turning away from sin AND turning to God.
Starting Wednesday night, here’s your homework. Keep a pad of paper and pen next to your bed. Before you lay your head down at night, list three sins you committed that day – either by omission or commission. Ask God to forgive you those sins. Cross them off to indicate they are forgiven. Next to each, write the opposite kind of action. This would be something godly you can do instead. Then, in the morning, circle those three things and go out and do them the next day. Imagine what great things can be accomplished if we would commit to this kind of discipline over the 40 days of Lent!