The Ministry of John the Baptist, Part 3
Oct 23, 2013
Luke tells us the essence of John’s message of repentance in Luke 3:8, 9,
8 Therefore bring forth fruits in keeping with repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham for our father,” for I say to you that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 And also the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
The people of Judea were taught to depend upon the promise to Abraham as the source of their salvation. In other words, they said, because we are of the seed of Abraham, God will save us, for we are “chosen.” They did not seem to understand that their physical descent from Abraham was insufficient to prevent God from sending them into captivity in the first place, so how could they expect their genealogy to remove the captivity?
God’s law in Deuteronomy 28 promised to bring Israel into captivity if they violated their covenant, regardless of their genealogy. Throughout the book of Judges, God brought them into six distinct wooden-yoke captivities. The seventh brought them to Babylon under an iron yoke. After seventy years the people were allowed to return to their land and serve their captors under a wooden yoke. The wooden yoke lasted throughout the reign of Persia, Greece, and Rome, but in 70 A.D. God again put them under the iron yoke and forcibly removed them from the land once again for refusing to submit to the judgment of God.
The solution is not to present one’s genealogy before the divine court to show one’s worthiness to be released. The solution is repentance in order to reverse the original cause of the captivity.
The Fruit God Desires
John told the Pharisees and Sadducees in Luke 3:8 (NASB), “Therefore bring forth fruits in keeping with repentance.” My friend, Mark, who has studied the Greek and Hebrew for decades, says,
“Verse 8 is very difficult in the Greek. ‘Bring forth” is badly translated. It is a Greek word that is rooted in the word that means ‘to create to bring forth in creativity the fruits, the First Fruits that are worthy or honorable by the change of thinking, acting, and manifesting that comes from God’s Comfort’.”
In other words, John was connecting repentance to a first-fruits offering which in turn represented their hearts. We may recall Jeremiah 24, where the prophet saw two baskets of figs—one good, the other rotten. These were two first-fruits offerings given to God in the temple, and God revealed that they represented two kinds of people, each with a different heart toward God.
Hence, John was telling the Pharisees and Sadducees to bring good fruit to God. Stop doing what most of the people had done in Jeremiah’s day. Stop being “very bad figs, which could not be eaten due to rottenness” (Jeremiah 24:2).
The heart problem in Jeremiah’s day was still manifesting in the people in John’s day. Like Jeremiah before him, John was issuing a call to repentance, which, if they had heeded, could have prevented Judea from returning to the iron yoke. In part, repentance meant complying with the judgment of God and submitting to the wooden yoke that Rome had placed upon them (i.e., captivity within their own land). But if they did not bring the proper first-fruits (edible “figs”) to God, then God would place them under the iron yoke (Deuteronomy 28:48), even as in the days of Jeremiah, when the people were sent to Babylon under the iron yoke (Jeremiah 28:13).
The problem was that the people desired freedom from the yoke of captivity without feeling any need to repent. They continued to disagree with God’s judgment and did not feel that they were worthy of captivity. Their genealogical claims were more important to them than their faith and obedience to God.
The Children of Abraham
In Luke 3:6 we read that John’s calling was to present a very important truth: “And all flesh shall see the Salvation of God.” This quotation from Isaiah brought “Salvation” (that is, Yeshua) to “all flesh,” and not only to a certain “chosen” subset of humanity. Luke then proceeds to show how John was faithful to fulfill that calling.
John told the religious leaders not to depend upon their descent from Abraham, because “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” Abraham’s seed was to be as the sand of the sea (Genesis 32:12). Because sand is just small stones, some have insisted that God must still raise up genealogical Israelites in order to have “children.” However, this interpretation misses the whole point of John’s statement, as well as Luke’s purpose in writing this gospel.
Luke was trying to heal the breach between Jew and non-Jew and to tear down the dividing wall mentality. To say that the Greeks were dispersed Israelites by genealogy may be a partial truth—for indeed, some were—but the point is that Christ was coming to save the world, not just those dispersed Israelites. The process of regathering Israel and “others” (Isaiah 56:8) involved the Great Commission and something called FAITH.
All men, regardless of genealogy, were required to repent and to have faith in Jesus Christ before securing the blessings of the New Covenant. The New Covenant, as portrayed in Deuteronomy 29:10-15 and again in Jeremiah 31:31-34, is an oath of God to bring all men to the place of faith and obedience. It was prophesied to Israel and Judah, but it was never meant to apply to them alone. Israel and Judah were called and “chosen” to bring the New Covenant gospel to the rest of mankind.
As for the term “children of Abraham,” the Hebrew language used the term “children” many times in a metaphorical manner, saying, “wisdom is vindicated by all her children” (Luke 7:35). Wisdom cannot physically give birth to children, but the wise are her children. Likewise, Luke 16:8 speaks of “the sons of light.” These are enlightened ones, not sons who are physically begotten by light. In Luke 20:36 Jesus speaks of the “sons of the resurrection” in the sense of being the inheritors of the resurrection.
In John 8:39 we read,
39 They answered and said to Him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you are Abraham’s children, do the deeds of Abraham.”
This sets forth the precise metaphorical meaning of “children,” for the term was used to describe one’s deeds, not one’s genealogy. Hence, Abraham was reputed to be the father of faith (Romans 4:11), and “all who believe” are said to be Abraham’s children. Paul makes this plain in Galatians 3:6-9,
6 Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. 7 Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. 8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles [ethnos, “nations”] by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the nations shall be blessed in you.” 9 So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer.
Paul concludes his discussion in Galatians 3:26 and 29, saying,
26 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus… 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
The original pattern of the “household of faith” (Galatians 6:10) is established in the life of Abraham himself. When he left Ur of the Chaldees, he brought with him many families who had been led by the birthright holders since Noah and Shem. These were the household of faith who did not scatter into other parts of the world or become servants of those who tried to usurp the right to rule the earth.
When Abraham went to Canaan, he brought with him “the persons which they had acquired in Haran.” We are given no specific number until Abraham raised up an army to fight against the kings that had taken his nephew Lot captive. But Genesis 14:14 tells us, “he led out his trained men, born in his house, three hundred and eighteen.”
If Abraham had 318 men of military age in his house, then surely there must have been at least 2,000 in Abraham’s household of faith, including wives, children, parents, and grandparents. None of these were Abraham’s physical children, for Isaac had not yet been born, nor even Ishmael.
Ishmael was later cast out because he was contending for the birthright. The other children of Abraham’s house remained, because they recognized that the rightful ruler of the earth (the birthright holder) was to come only through Abraham and Sarah. Two centuries later, when the sons of Jacob went to live in Egypt, the population of the clan must have risen to at least 10,000. These increased in numbers and became part of the nation of Israel. When they left Egypt, their population was about six million, and by this time they had all been integrated into the tribes of Israel.
The point is that Israel was a nation, not strictly a genealogy. Abraham’s household of faith included many who were not his physical descendants. Yet they were part of the nation of Israel and, in fact, would have been in the majority. Scripture is careful only to choose the birthright holder in each generation, because that was the specific lineage through whom the Messiah would come.
The Sadducees and Pharisees in the first century believed that their physical descent from Abraham gave them special privileges over other men. Neither John nor Jesus ratified their belief. In fact, John called them a “brood of vipers” (Luke 3:7). Jesus acknowledged that they were “Abraham’s offspring” (John 8:37) but yet said to them, “You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father” (John 8:44).
They were not physical offspring of the devil, but metaphorical “sons” of the devil on account of their deeds and desires. Throughout biblical history, there were countless Israelites who were like them, having stoned the prophets sent to them. On account of their rebellious nature, in fact, the Israelites were cast out of the land and divorced by God (Jeremiah 3:8). The covenant was broken (Jeremiah 31:32), and no one could be reinstated apart from faith in Jesus Christ.
And so Luke tells us that John was not impressed with the genealogical claims of the Pharisees and Sadducees. They too had to repent in order to become children of Abraham. Any connection to Abraham had to be proven by the fruit of the Spirit manifested in their lives.
Keep in mind also that Luke’s attempt to heal breaches between Jew and non-Jew was only possible by abolishing the dividing wall in the minds of the people. The dividing wall had wounded all non-Jews and women. The victims of this ungodly mindset could be healed only through the blood of Jesus Christ reconciling all men to Himself. No doubt as a Greek, Luke felt the injustice and greatly appreciated Paul’s uncompromising stand on the issue, even confronting Peter’s hypocrisy (Galatians 2:11-13).
The message of John, then, was that Yeshua was for all men, not just for a chosen few. In this he fulfilled the expectations of Isaiah who prophesied that “others” besides Israelites would be gathered to God under the New Covenant (Isaiah 56:8) and that God’s house was to be a house of prayer for all people (Isaiah 56:7). God was not just the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but was also “the God of all the earth” (Isaiah 54:5).
The universality of Isaiah’s vision and understanding of God is seen most clearly in the New Testament, especially in Luke’s gospel and the epistles of Paul. John, too, expresses it clearly in Revelation 5:13, where he says,
13 And every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things in them, I heard saying, “To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever.”
This is part 3 of a mini-series titled "The Ministry of John the Baptist." To view all parts, click the link below.
This is part 9 of a series titled "Studies in the Book of Luke." To view all parts, click the link below.
Dr. Stephen Jones