[Note: This is the “Old” version of the Grace Commentary on Luke. It will be updated to the new version soon.]
Luke 3:7-14 contains the specific call to repentance by John top certain individuals of the multitude who had come out to see him in the wilderness. These specific examples continue to show that John is not trying to tell people how to get into heaven or receive eternal life, but rather how to make the necessary changes in their life so that they will prepare themselves and their nation for the earthly Kingdom of God (or “Rule of God,” see Edersheim 1988:265-271) under the Messiah (cf. Barclay 1975:33). If the necessary preparations were not made, the people could expect only discipline and judgment from the Messiah when He arrived. The Messiah’s message would build upon and exceed the message of John (cf. 3:15-18). This message of John is in fulfillment of the words of the angel to John’s father, Zacharias (1:14-17) and the prophecy from Isaiah 40:3-5 (cf. Luke 3:4-5).
3:7. Verses 7-9 provide the general call to repentance that John preached. It was a message with an accompanying symbol. It was the multitudes who heard John preach. Matthew 3:7 directs John’s speech toward the religious leaders, which does not cause any problem here, since John undoubtedly preached the same message numerous times to various audiences.
When they heard him, they desired to be baptized by him. This baptism was most likely the Jewishmikvah, a purification ritual, which indicated a person’s desire to change their life, die to their old ways, and live a new life of obedience and faithfulness to God. See the commentary on Luke 3:3 for more about this.
Nevertheless, it appears John believed that just as with many of the other Jewish rituals of that time, some were going through the outward motions without any inner change of heart. Some people were coming out to John to be baptized by John, but they had not repented of anything. So his words to such people are pointed and direct. The term brood of vipers is a slanderous term, telling the people that they were offspring of snakes. Aside from the fact that snakes are unclean animals according to Jewish law, John was, in a sense, calling them “snake bastards” (Malina 2003:236). Jesus will later use this same terminology in reference to the religious rulers (Matt 12:34; 23:33).
The term is also an allusion to Annas, the High Priest (3:2). As was mentioned in the commentary there, Annas was known as “the viper” since he went about “hissing” or whispering in ears of politicians and other authority figures to influence their decisions. Other literature of the time refers to political rulers as “snakes” and “vipers” and so John’s accusation is political as well. He believes that many of those who have come out to him have aligned themselves with the corrupt political practices of Roman rulers.
Finally, the reference to vipers is an allusion to the serpent of Genesis 3, which was the devil. To be thebrood of vipers, or “begotten” by vipers means that these people were acting like the devil (cf. John 8:44) and were therefore children of the devil, rather than children of Abraham as they claim (Bock 1994:303).
There are numerous ways John’s question to the crowd can be taken: ”Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (cf. Bock 1994:304). The best option is that John wants to make sure that those coming to him for baptism understood what they were doing, and were not just getting baptized for appearance sake. If it was for appearance only, and no true repentance was taking place, they were only maintaining their hypocrisy and compounding the judgment that would come upon them. The wrath to come which John refers to is not hell, but is instead the temporal and physical judgment that would come upon the nation of Israel if they persisted in their rebellion and rejected their Messiah when He arrived. This is generally how the term “wrath of God” is used in Scripture, and is perfectly in line with the immediate context (cf. v 9; Isa 13:9; Zech 1:15), with what the Hebrew Scriptures foretold (cf. Deut 28:15-68 and all the Prophets), and with what actually happened to Israel in 68-70 AD (cf TDNTV:430-446).
3:8. Escaping the discipline of God is one reason to turn from sin. Yet John knows that many of those coming out to be baptized have no intention of repenting of anything, nor do they believe that divine discipline will come. So he challenges the multitudes that if they really want the baptism of repentance (3:3), they should bear fruits worthy of repentance. They should prove that they are actually repenting of something by taking definite and concrete steps to admit their sin and turn from it. They should state what sin they are turning from, and explain what corrective changes they will make in their life. Such changes are the true fruits, or results, of repentance. Without such changes, repentance did not take place.
Many of the Jews, however, felt that it did not matter whether they had personal failures or not. They believed they could rest on their patriarchal heritage, rather than on personal holiness. There was a belief among some of the Jews that due to the great faith and obedience of certain Jewish forefathers, such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses, God would never judge Israel. All Israel had part in the world to come. This sort of thinking is what John is referring to when he says, do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ Some even believed that in regard to eternal judgment, God had Abraham sit at the gate of hell to keep any Israelite from accidentally going there (Edersheim 1988:271). Yet John does not want such thoughts to even enter their mind ([i]do not begin to say…[/b]). “By itself the richest of biological connections is worthless spiritually if the spiritual environment and exhortations are ignored” (Bock 1994:305).
The Jews believed that as the chosen people of God, they were necessary to accomplish the plan and will of God. They knew the Messiah would come through them and that they must inherit the earth and so God could never set them aside, or do away with them as a people, lest His promises fail. John’s response is that God’s promises will never fail, for if God has to, He is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. If John was speaking in Hebrew or Aramaic, there would be a wordplay here between “stones” (eben) and “children” (ben; cf. Evans 2003:72).
John probably has several allusions and images in mind with such a statement. First, the reference tothese stones may refer to the twelve stones which were taken from the Jordan River by the Israelites when they entered the Promised Land with Joshua (Josh 4:2; 20-22; cf. 1 Kings 18:31-32; Evans 2003:72).
Second, John may be alluding to the prophetic image of God being able to use any person for His purposes, even if they have hearts of stone (Zech 7:12). God is not as concerned with family and lineage as with loyalty and faithfulness. “God’s children are not born at physical birth, but are transformed from the heart” (Bock 1994:301).
Finally, John may be alluding to Isaiah 51:1-2 where God reveals that Israel was figuratively hewn from a rock, which was Abraham. If God had done it once, He could certainly do it again. God can accomplish His purposes with rocks if necessary (cf. a similar argument by Paul in Romans 11:17-21). Later, the Gospel writers show how certain “stones” rejected by the people of Israel are raised up by God to become the new people of Abraham (cf. Luke 19:9-10; 20:17; Matt 16:18; Mark 3:14-16).
3:9. Therefore, the Israelites must be careful, because even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. It is uncertain whether John has particular types of trees in mind with this image, but in Jewish imagery, Israelite leadership and the nation as a whole is often portrayed as a tree, specifically, a fig tree (Hos 9:10). When every man had his own fig tree, it was a symbol of national peace and property (1 Kings 4:25; 2 Kings 18:31; Micah 4:4; Zech 3:10). Therefore, if the trees were cut down, it indicated judgment and discipline, often at the hands of enemies (Jer 2:21-22; Hos 10:1-2; Joel 1:12). John is saying here that just as every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down, so also, if the nation does not produce the fruit of repentance, they too will be cut down. Later in His ministry, Jesus told a similar parable (cf. Luke 13:6-9), and caused a fruitless fig tree to wither, symbolizing what would happen to the fruitless nation of Israel (Matt 21:19-21).
John goes on to say that when a fruitless tree is cut down, it is thrown into the fire. As with most of the references to fire in Scripture, this is not a reference to hell, but a way of speaking about temporal divine discipline on earth (cf similar prophetic speech in Mal 3:2; 4:1; Jer 22:7). “Both Jer 11:16 and Ezek 15:6-7 used the image to speak of the consuming destruction that crushed the nation and produced the exile… In the NT as well, fire is a picture of consuming destruction (Luke 3:17; 9:54; 17:29; Matt 5:22, 29; John 15:6)” (Bock 1994:307). This is what John speaks of here, and what began to happen to Israel in 70 AD with the destruction of Jerusalem.
The bottom line of John’s message is that being the elect nation of God was not enough to save them from His discipline. If the people did not repent and change their ways, discipline and judgment would come.
3:10. Many of the people who heard John’s words were convicted of their need to repent, and soasked him, saying, “What shall we do then?” In response, John provides three admonitions about what could be done to show the fruit of repentance. These admonitions struck at some of the core political, religious, and social issues of that day, but primarily at the issue of finances and greed. The people were greedy, and needed to repent and turn from their greed by being generous, honest and content (BKC II:211). “He does not call the crowd to his ascetic lifestyle, nor does he call for a commitment to a series of ritual religious acts, nor does he point to the sacrifices associated with the Jewish faith. Rather, he points to meeting the needs of others” (Bock 1994:309). True “religion” is not about doing things to please and appease God, in singing many songs and attending numerous meetings, but is found in being a blessing to others, serving them, and meeting their needs, especially for those less fortunate than ourselves (cf. Jas 1:27).
3:11. The first admonition was directed toward the people in general. It had no specific target group, but was intended for all. John said to them, “He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” John instructs the people to be generous with their possessions, to share with those who have less. People tend to hoard possessions out of greed or for a sense of personal security. “John could see the rich getting richer and the poor poorer. A start had to be made to get things back on track” (Wright 2004:35). Such a start begins, not with changing laws, electing officials, or public demonstrations, but by followers of God doing what is right in their own lives with their own possessions. John instructs the people that the proper fruit of repentance for those who own more than others is to give some of their food and possessions away.
This is not something that John came up with himself, but is rather a clear instruction from the Hebrew Scriptures (cf. Ps 41:1-2). James says something almost identical when he instructs believers to do more than simply believe that God can help others with their needs, but to actually help those in need (Jas 2:14-26).
3:12. In verses 12-14, John provides specific instructions to two specific groups who were renowned for using their positions of power for their own advantage at the expense of others. The two groups mentioned by Luke were despised and looked down upon by the average Jew. They were viewed as traitors of Israel and agents of Roman Imperialistic power. So in once sense, when these two groups ask John what they must do to repent, most people who were present would have approved, thinking that such sinners did indeed need to repent and be baptized. However, John has preached and Luke has shown that everyone in Israel needed to repent and be baptized, all the way up to the High Priests. Yet only these two groups, who were considered traitors to Israel, asked about how to repent. So it is they who are preparing for the Messiah, and therefore it is they who are loyal to Israel. Those who didn’t think they needed to repent of anything were not preparing for the Messiah, and were the actual traitors. It could be that these sinful yet repentant groups represent the “stones” from which God raises up new children of Abraham (cf. Luke 19:9-10).
The first of these groups was the tax collectors. There were numerous taxes in the Roman Empire, including a poll tax which all citizens paid, toll taxes on roads, land tax for all landowners, sales tax for both buying and selling, gate taxes to enter a city, and numerous other taxes which could be levied (cf. Bock 1994:311). Generally, a Jewish family could expect 30-40% of their income to go to such taxes (Neyrey, “Who is Poor in the New Testament?”). To collect these taxes from Jewish citizens, the Roman government hired Jewish tax collectors. This is due to the fact that zealous Jews would often murder Roman tax collectors, but would not murder Jewish tax collectors, even though the Jewish tax collectors were viewed as traitors, and were not allowed into the Synagogues.
Due to their position, the Jewish tax collectors often took advantage of their situation. Rome instructed the collectors to send in a set amount of taxes. Anything collected above that amount could be kept by the tax collector to cover his own expenses and provide himself with a salary (cf. Bock 1994:311). Though most tax collectors were honest and fair, some became wealthy by collecting well beyond what Rome had set for them (Malina 2003:416). Yet they are among those who feel convicted by what John has been preaching, and ask, “Teacher, what shall we do?”
3:13. John does not tell them to give up their profession, and quit working for a foreign, occupying government. Instead, he tells them to Collect no more than what is appointed. Doing so would mean that the tax collector would no longer be taking a salary. If they collected only what was appointed by Rome, they would have to send to Rome everything they collected. But this is the fruit of repentance. It is not only stopping the sinful behavior, but going in the opposite direction to do what is right. Repentance is often painful and costly. Certainly, of course, many of them would have already had large estates and great wealth stored up. John says nothing about that here, at least, not as recorded by Luke. Later, Luke does show Zaccheus the tax collector, when he repents, giving back fourfold what he had wrongly taken from others (Luke 19:1-10).
3:14. Another group which frequently abused their power and authority were the soldiers. It is unlikely that garrisoned Roman soldiers would come out to the Jordan for a Jewish ritual baptism. So these were likely Jewish soldiers conscripted by the Roman military, or possibly Jewish temple guards, personal body guards for the rich, or Herodian palace guards (Wright favors Herodian palace guards, 2004:36; cf. Bock 1994:312). Whatever their position, soldiers often took advantage of the weak and the poor. They not only had weapons to wound, or even kill people, but also had the authority to imprison people if they wanted. As a result, many would make false accusations to intimidate or extort others for money and power. Sometimes, they would even go on strikes and refuse to defend the public officials unless their wages were increased (Pfeiffer 1971:203).
John’s instructions to them is that they not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with [their] wages. As with the tax collectors, John does not tell the soldiers to quit their jobs. Instead, they must be content with what they were getting paid, instead of trying to garnish their wages or increase their power through extortion, false accusations, and the acceptance of bribes. The phrase not intimidate means “to shake violently” and is equivalent to the English slang expression “to shake down” (Bock 1994:313). Wages were generally set at a particular level, and since steady inflation was relatively unknown in ancient times as it is in modern Western economies, employees did not have to seek pay raises. So the soldiers are told to be content with their pay, rather than use the excuse of low pay to rob and pillage (Wright 2004:36).
John’s call for the people is to follow the righteous requirements of the Law in providing for those who were less fortunate, and in working hard and honestly at their jobs. It was okay for tax collectors and soldiers to be employed by the Roman Empire, but they should not abuse the power and authority that had come with the job. Though Caesar saw himself as a dispenser of judgment and wrath upon rebellious people, and though Caesar generally allowed those in his government to use their power any way they saw fit as long as peace was maintained, John warned those who worked for Caesar to be more concerned about the wrath of God, and to prepare for the coming Messiah by working honestly and living generously. In this way, Luke begins to show the reader that though a person may live in a corrupt nation with corrupt leaders, this did not mean that all people who were part of that nation or empire were also corrupt. People have a choice for how they live and perform their jobs.