The Fruit of Repentance

1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet,

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
    and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall become straight,
    and the rough places shall become level ways,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

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.”

10 And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14 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.” Luke 3:1-14 ESV

Once again, Luke establishes a firm timeline in order to prove the historical veracity of Jesus’ life and ministry. The last chapter ended with the statement: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52 ESV). Luke’s last biographical entry concerning Jesus portrayed Him as a 12-year-old boy. But now, Luke has fast-forwarded nearly two decades and he establishes the timeline by providing a list of key historical figures with whom his readers would have been familiar.

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip was tetrarch of the region of Iturea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas – Luke 3:1-2 NLT

Luke doesn’t provide the specific year in which John the Baptist began his ministry, but by listing these seven historical figures, he narrows down the possibilities. The fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar would have been somewhere around A.D.29. The last year of Pontius Pilate’s governorship of Judea was A.D. 37. Herod Antipas was deposed as the tetrarch of Galilee in A.D. 39. His brother Philip, who was tetrarch of Iturea and Trachonitis, died in A.D. 34. Annas and Caiaphas, his son-in-law, shared the tile of high priest until the spring of A.D. 37. The only name on the list for which there is little historical record is that of Lysanias, the tetrarch of Abilene.

So, it would seem that somewhere between the A.D. 26 and the spring of A.D. 37, “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness” (Luke 3:2 ESV). After a long delay, John received his official marching orders from God. Luke doesn’t reveal how this information was conveyed to John, but he does clarify the nature of John’s assignment.

He went into all the region around the Jordan River, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. – Luke 3:3 NLT

John’s ministry and message had been given to him by God and it was in direct fulfillment of the words of Isaiah, written centuries earlier.

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
    and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall become straight,
    and the rough places shall become level ways,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” – Luke 3:4-6 ESV

Luke appears to be quoting from Isaiah 40:3-5, using the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament). By utilizing this prophetic passage, Luke is establishing that John was the divine fulfillment of this promise. He had come to prepare the way for the salvation of God. And to do so, he was given the task of “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3 ESV). As a prophet himself, John had been commissioned by God to call the people of Israel to repentance. The word “repentance” (metanoia) carries the idea of changing one’s mind. While we tend to think of repentance as an alteration in behavior or conduct, the New Testament concept of repentance conveys, first and foremost, a change in perspective or outlook. 

With the fulfillment of the Isaiah 40 passage, something new was about to happen in Israel. The old way of doing things was going away. Something new had come. And John’s job was to call the people to embrace a new way of thinking about everything, from the nature of the kingdom of God to the character of the Messiah, and even the means for achieving a right standing before God. Nothing was going to remain the same. With the launch of John’s ministry and the imminent arrival of the long-awaited Messiah, God was preparing to bring a radically new form of salvation – like nothing they had ever seen before.

John’s call to repentance and his offer of baptism was eagerly embraced by the crowds who flocked to see him in the wilderness. But it seems that John had suspicions concerning the sincerity of those who were verbally declaring their readiness to repent. He sensed that they were simply going through the motions, declaring with their lips that they were willing to change but with no intent to do so. In a sense, they were hedging their bets, desiring to receive forgiveness for their sins, but with no plans to change the way they lived their lives. So, John blasts them for their hypocrisy.

“You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Therefore produce fruit that proves your repentance, and don’t begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones! Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” – Luke 3:7-9 NLT

Whether John realized it or not, he was demanding that these people do something that was utterly impossible. He was calling them to “produce fruit that proves your repentance.” In other words, he was requiring that they change their behavior. And for centuries, that had been the call of every prophet of God.

“Yet even now,” the Lord says,
“return to me with all your heart—
with fasting, weeping, and mourning.
Tear your hearts,
not just your garments.”
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is merciful and compassionate,
slow to anger and boundless in loyal love—often relenting from calamitous punishment. – Joel 2:12-13 NLT

But no generation of Israelites had ever been effective in fulfilling this command. Even the prophet Isaiah would record God’s words of condemnation concerning the Israelites less-than-sincere attempts at behavior modification.

“These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.” – Isaiah 29:13 NLT

Their hearts weren’t in it. And by demanding that the crowds show genuine fruit that proves their repentance, John was asking them to do the impossible. In reality, the Jews who came to hear John preach were of the opinion that they were God’s chosen people. As descendants of Abraham, they believed themselves to be honorary citizens of God’s kingdom. But John reveals that their prideful dependence upon their status as Abraham’s seed was not going to save them. What they failed to recognize was that God had made them out of nothing. He had formed the nation of Israel from a single man and his barren wife. And John drops the not-so-flattering bombshell: “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (Luke 3:8 ESV).

Something new was about to happen, and John was trying to prepare the people for what God had in store for them. It would no longer be business as usual. Their half-hearted attempts at giving up their old ways were no longer going to cut it. God was done waiting for His rebellious people to return to Him in true repentance and contrition. He was no longer willing to allow those who bore His name to drag His reputation in the dirt by their ungodly behavior. God knew that the only hope of changing their behavior would come with a change in their hearts.

The prophet Ezekiel had recorded the words of God pronouncing His divine plan to one day do for the Israelites what they could never have accomplished on their own.

“Therefore, give the people of Israel this message from the Sovereign LORD: I am bringing you back, but not because you deserve it. I am doing it to protect my holy name, on which you brought shame while you were scattered among the nations. I will show how holy my great name is—the name on which you brought shame among the nations. And when I reveal my holiness through you before their very eyes, says the Sovereign LORD, then the nations will know that I am the LORD. For I will gather you up from all the nations and bring you home again to your land.

“Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations.” – Ezekiel 36:22-27 NLT

But at this point in the inaugural days of John’s ministry, he is calling the people to display the fruit of true repentance. And when they ask him for examples of what that might look like, he gets very specific.

“The person who has two tunics must share with the person who has none, and the person who has food must do likewise.” – Luke 3:11 NLT

To the tax collectors who came seeking to be baptized, John said, “Collect no more than you are required to” (Luke 3:13 NLT). Soldiers were told, “Take money from no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your pay” (Luke 3:14 NLT). Everyone, regardless of their status in life, was expected to change the way they lived. But this would prove to be a pointless endeavor. They didn’t have what it takes to produce true and lasting heart change. In fact, their hearts remained as stony and stubborn as ever. 

For generations, the people of Israel had attempted to please God by keeping His laws, and when they failed to live up to His holy standards, they took advantage of His sacrificial system so that they could receive atonement and forgiveness. But this cycle of sin and sacrifice had produced no lasting change in their behavior. But all that was about to change. God was preparing to introduce a new means of atonement that would produce lasting heart change and the ability to display the fruit of righteousness.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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