Robert Wurtz II
So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people (Luke 3:18 ESV).
My objective for this entry is to continue doing my part to reverse the bad press and hostility that accompanies the good news of repentance so that we have a more biblical view of the subject. We need to think biblically, and that runs counter with this present evil world. Repentance is a good thing. To be given the opportunity to repent is marvelous. In an earlier post, I suggested that the enemy has always done more damage to the word repentance than any other. Both John the Baptist and Paul were beheaded for calling men like Herod and Nero to repentance. It was the greatest and most important message that they ever heard and yet they killed the messenger. We will face this attitude as well when we preach repentance.
Our passage in Luke 3:18 is located near the end of a lengthy description of the content of John the Baptist’s preaching. We are told in Luke 3:2 that the Word of the Lord came to John while he was in the wilderness. He then began preaching in the region around the Jordon the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. His methods were as crude as his diet. He asked the people, “Who has warned you to flee the wrath that is coming?” This is an interesting point given the fact that it was the Messiah who was coming.
Brood of Vipers
John referred to the people as a brood of vipers. This wasn’t intended to be an insult, but an accurate estimate of the people from God’s perspective. However, no matter how we spin the term “viper,” the word can’t be interpreted congenially. It was not meant to be. It was intended to get the people thinking accurately about their heart condition. Jesus took up the phrase as well, “You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34).
The Greek word for Viper in the cognate passages is only used once in the literal sense. In Acts 28:3 Paul was bitten by a Viper that came out of the fire. The natives watched to see if he would “swell up and die suddenly.” When he didn’t die, they suggested he must be a god to survive such a bite. This passage, tucked into the Lukan (Lucan) corpus (Luke and Acts), gives great weight to John’s and the Lord Jesus’ use of the word. From God’s point of view, the people are murderous towards one another. In the language of Paul, the poison of Asps was under their lips (Romans 3:13 quoting Psalm 140:3).
Ready to Receive the Word
Despite being characterized in this way, the people went out to see John in such large numbers that he was a significant threat to the religious leaders. John’s popularity is counter-intuitive to twenty-first-century thinking, but only because we can’t sense the dealings of God and the Messianic atmosphere (if you like) that pressed upon the people’s’ minds and hearts. They knew it was time to get serious. They could zoom out and realize that judgment is coming the likes of which was beyond their comprehension.
John the Baptist was a believable man. He was no jester. He was taken seriously by the hearers. This is vital to understand. The people had not heard a prophet in some 400 years. A sense of expectation coupled with the fear of God was upon them. To counter John’s influence, the religious leaders said that He had a demon (Matthew 11:18). However, they were not attacking John; they were attacking God.
Samuel encountered a similar attitude in his day. “And the LORD said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (1 Samuel 8:7). This is the critical thing about repentance. God is attempting to establish His authority in the lives of individual people. This is where the battle lies. What the Pharisees and lawyers were doing was rejecting the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him (Luke 7:30). This was their response to the evangel or as we commonly call it, The Gospel.
Good News Not Pleasant News
It’s not “good news” for most people to hear that God is calling them to turn in obedience to Him. Why should they? Most believed they were already set for heaven. The great challenge that John faced was that many of the people held on to false assurances. They viewed their genealogical and religious relationship to Abraham as the means by which they were right with God. Therefore, John said to them, “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” (Luke 3:8). He stripped away their assurance with three sentences.
The false assurance John confronted did not die easily since Jesus had to take up the subject later. “They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did” (John 8:39). In a few more verses He tells them they are of their father, the Devil. That is even harder to swallow than what John said when he called the people Vipers. John and the Lord Jesus were basically saying the same thing.
Notice that John’s words were less “pointed” than Jesus. Why? Because God generally begins with “just the right words” to accomplish the job. However, the people hardened themselves against John’s words, so Jesus had to declare the same truth more pointedly. This is an essential truth to understand regarding the Gospel. When “soft soap” doesn’t cut the “dirt,” you have to reach for something stronger. Because the dirt has to go (so to speak). These people were hardened in their sin, and God was utterly determined to save them from it. Love takes the necessary approach. False love lets the person die in their sins and experience the wrath that is to come.
I suggest that because we have yet to witness the finality of those who refuse to repent, we don’t rightly see the wisdom of preaching repentance. It comes off as harsh and unloving. I believe that when we observe the Final Judgment, we will regret not preaching repentance more seriously than we did. When we see people cast into hell and the smoke of their torment ascending up before God forever and ever, we will know that the “wrath that is to come” truly has come. Noah believed God and was moved with fear to prepare an ark for himself and all who would respond to the message. Are we moved with fear to preach the Gospel? Alternatively, do we treat the world as “business as usual” as Jesus prophesied concerning a rerun of Noah’s generation (Matthew 24:39).
Mean or Loving?
Was John a mean person? Was the Lord Jesus a mean person? God forbid. If we think them to be rude or mean we need our theology reviewed. We need to ask ourselves if we truly believe in “the wrath that is to come?” Is it going to happen? Does our urgency for souls reflect that belief? Moreover, God wants people to repent so He can move inside them and accomplish His purposes. God can’t come into people who reject the purpose of God for their lives. They have to come into agreement with God’s estimate of themselves and come humbly before their incoming King. This truth is as hard to accept today as it was then. We see the same responses today when repentance is included in the Gospel.
No person in their right mind enjoys being confrontational. A doctor who enjoys telling their patients that they have a potentially terminal disease is sick. Yet if the doctor cares about his patient he will do what he can to convey the message in a way that they will be alarmed enough to take action. He’s not trying to cause panic or despair. He is hoping they will pursue treatment and prolong their life. In the case of a minister, the stakes are more than a trillion times higher. Because eternity is infinite. If we “lose the patient” to sin and the devil the consequence is eternal. What manner of minister ought we to be as we teach and preach to prevent that from happening?