John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:3b). This message was preached with power in a way unlike the teachers of the day, and the common people flocked to hear it. They were instructed to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. What exactly was this message of repentance? What did the fruit of repentance look like? John preached this message in order to prepare the hearts of the people for the coming of the Messiah. Likewise, better understanding his message of repentance will serve to prepare our hearts for the message of the gospel.
John came on the scene like many of the Old Testament prophets before him; preaching in the wilderness (Matt 3:1). His message was twofold. First, he called for the people to repent because the kingdom of heaven was at hand (Matt 3:2). This was a reference to the impending public ministry of Christ. God had entered into history to redeem fallen creation and establish the reign of Christ; in heaven and on earth (Matt 28:18). If fallen men would enter into this kingdom they would need to repent and submit to the reign of its king.
This is further explained in Luke, where John is said to proclaim a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:3). The people were not ready for the coming of the Messiah because their hearts were evil. They were marred by sin. In recognition of this, they needed to turn from their sin, and turn to God for his gracious forgiveness. The physical baptism he performed was a picture of the cleansing their repentance brought.
John’s arrival on the scene proclaiming this message was the fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3-5 (Matt 3:3, Mark, 1:2-3, Luke 3:4-6). It was customary during this time, for great preparations to be made when a king would visit an area. They would go to great lengths to smooth the highways, and make the king’s route as direct as possible. John’s message, likewise, prepared the way for the coming king, by preparing the hearts of the people to receive his message.
With their repentant hearts prepared for the gospel message Jesus would proclaim: “all flesh would see the salvation of God” (ESV). This does not mean everyone would be saved, but that all who respond in repentance and faith, both Jews and Gentiles, will be saved. Only Luke includes this portion of the text from Isaiah and it serves to reveal his missionary heart for all peoples.
John must have seemed radical, to borrow one of our current buzz words, as he lived in the wilderness. His appearance was strange and reminiscent of Elijah (2 Kings 1:8), he wore a garment of camel’s hair with a leather belt (Matt 3:4, Mark 1:6). The bold preaching of John was very effective, and people from all around the Jordan river, as well as, Jerusalem and Judea were going out to be baptized and confess their sins (Matt 3:5-6, Mark 1:5).
Among the people coming to be baptized were many Pharisees and Sadducees (Matt 3:7a). John confronts them by calling them a “brood of vipers” (Matt 3:7b, Luke 3:7 ESV). His response indicates that their motives for baptism were impure. We might speculate that they either were coming to find some incriminating evidence against John, just as they would later do with Jesus. It could have been that they were just following the crowds, or were looking to maintain, or even elevate their religious reputations. In any case John’s harsh words remind us of Jesus dealings with them as well.
John commands them to demonstrate their sincerity of heart by bearing fruit in keeping with repentance (Matt 3:8, Luke 8a). He knows they are consumed with religious pride in their ethnicity, with Abraham as their ancestor, so he immediately addresses this (Matt 3:9, Luke 3:8b); simply having Abraham as their father is not sufficient to please God. If that were enough, God could raise up children of Abraham from the stones; indeed he created Adam from the dust. Ethnicity is not enough, as demonstrated with Ishmael and Esau (Romans 9: 8-13).
Returning to his command to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (ESV), he says that judgment is coming for those whose lack of fruit demonstrates the true nature of their hearts. Not only will fruitless trees be cut down and thrown into the fire (Matt 3:10, Luke 3:9), but even the roots will be destroyed. This is a picture of complete destruction.
John’s condemnation of the religious leaders is so shocking, the crowd responds by asking “What then shall we do?” (Luke 3:10). If the religious leaders were at risk of being cast into the fire, what hope did the common people have? John’s response is not a legalistic formula for earning forgiveness, but very practical examples of the fruit of true repentance in the life of the believer.
His response to the crowd is that true repentance will result in the sharing of personal possessions to meet the physical needs of others. He does not simply suggest this, but rather commands it as the necessary fruit of true repentance: “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” (Luke 3:11 ESV) For John, the fruit of repentance and the corresponding right relationship with God is the outworking of the second great commandment (Matt 22:37-40). This type of lifestyle is the mark of life in the kingdom of heaven he previously referred to.
The tax collectors also came asking what fruit they should bear as evidence of their repentant hearts (Luke 3:12). John responds that they should collect no more than they were authorized to collect (Luke 3:13). Tax collectors were infamously corrupt, and profited from collecting excessive amounts beyond the actual taxes. While the tax system was corrupt and broken, John did not call for its overthrow, but for the redeemed to transform it by operating under the principles of the kingdom of heaven.
In the same manner, soldiers came to him asking what repentance should look like in their lives (Luke 3:14a). John commands them not to extort money and to be content with their wages (Luke 3:14b). Their common practice of extortion via threats, and false accusations was fueled by a sinful lack of contentment. These soldiers’ covetous hearts led to the oppression of the weak for their own gain. True repentance will deal with this root of covetousness, and thus the behavior of extortion, and oppression. In this section, Luke captures what the repentance, John proclaimed, will look like practically as it yields its fruit in the lives of God’s people.
John’s ministry grew in prominence to the extent the people began asking if he were the Messiah (Luke 3:15). Even the priests and Levites from Jerusalem came asking if he were the one (John 1:19). John, having no desire to rob the Lord of his glory, was very quick to explain that there was one coming who was greater than he was (Matt 3:11a, Mark 1:7, Luke 3:16a, John 1:26-27). Further revealing John’s reverence for Jesus, he stated in John 3:28-30, that he rejoiced at the coming of Christ, and that it was necessary for his ministry to decrease while the Lord’s must increase.
John points to their baptisms to illustrate the superiority of Jesus to himself (Matt 3:11b, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16b). Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire is purifying for all who receive it. However, John’s baptism with water is only symbolic of this greater baptism by Jesus.
The analogy of the wheat and the chaff speaks to the redemption, and ultimate judgment that Jesus brings (Matt 3:12, Luke 3:17). Those who respond to John’s message of repentance and receive the one to come will be gathered together for eternal life. However, those who refuse John’s message of repentance of sin, and faith in the one to come will be judged by Jesus and cast into eternal fire.
John came to prepare the way for the Lord and this required repentance from the people. To understand the message of the Messiah, the people needed to understand their own sinfulness, and moreover, they needed to be broken and repentant over it. When we think of sin we do not often think of greed, covetousness, and love of self, but these were areas John specifically addressed. The church in the West would do well to consider how these sins flesh themselves out in our daily lives. We too are in desperate need of repentance in these areas.
For John, brokenness over sin was not simply a spiritual thing. If genuine, it would yield fruit in the life of the person repenting. He did not describe this fruit in vague terms, but very clearly explained what the fruit of a repentant heart looked like. Does repentance over sin, and faith in Christ, lead us to share sacrificially with others who are in need? Does it compel us to love our neighbor as ourselves, and to treat everyone justly? If not, then we may be in danger of being cast into the fire like fruitless trees or worthless chaff.
 W. MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. A. Farstad, ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995). Logos Bible Software 4 (accessed November 23, 2011).