Check out these verses:
[John, the Baptist] 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.” Luke 3: 7-9
And John says this about Jesus:
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: 17
I don’t know about you, but I think I’d be put off by someone calling me a “brood of vipers” or hearing that I may be “cut off and thrown into the fire” or that if I’m chaff, I’ll “burn with unquenchable fire.”
This does NOT sound like nice news and certainly not good news! Yet Luke says in verse 18: “So with any other exhortations, [John] preached the good news to the people.”
This really hard news about the need to repent must also be Good News. Because unless we know the depth of our sin and need, we will never turn to Jesus to save us from the wrath to come.
There is a ton to talk about in this passage, from John’s role to the meaning of his baptism, but there’s something else that intrigued me in this passage – the peoples’ response.
Far from turning away from John or arguing with him for his tough words or plotting to kill him (like the religious leaders did when Jesus said about the same thing), three groups ask the same question following John’s rebuke to repent and bear fruit that demonstrates their repentance. They all ask:
“What shall we do?”
In other words, how do we demonstrate our repentance? What fruit do we need to show?
I think that’s what we need to say to Jesus: What shall we do? How do we demonstrate that we have turned from sin to you?
The first group is the crowd at large – the crowd John exhorted. Then Luke quotes two much-hated subgroups: the tax collectors and the soldiers – both aligned with the oppressive Roman government.
In all three cases, John responds that the fruit of repentance involves treating others better or more ethically with money or goods. In response to the question, “What shall we do?” John says:
- the crowd should share whatever clothing or food each has with those in need
- the tax collectors should stop collecting bribes for themselves
- the soldiers should stop extorting money
Doing good involves sacrifice for the good of others. Repentance towards God bears the fruit of behaving more ethically toward other people.
What I love most about the crowds, the tax collectors, and the soldiers is that they did not respond to John in anger or indifference, but were convicted enough to ask what to do, how to show repentance.
Dear Lord: Help me to hear the hard exhortations of you or others – which is really good news for me – and to respond not with anger or indifference, but to ask you (and them), “what shall I do?” to reveal that I have truly repented. Amen