Luke 3:1-20

Luke 3:1-20

A Voice from the Wilderness

Introduction:  The last time we heard anything about John the Baptizer, he had just been born, named, and blessed.  In the last verse of Luke 1 we are told, “And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel.”  The last we heard about Jesus was his visit to the temple in Jerusalem when he was 12 years old, recorded for us in Luke 2.  Twenty years have passed since that account, but the silence regarding these two cousins is about to be broken.  

As we noted at the beginning of our study, it had been over 400 years since a prophet of God had spoken to Israel.  The silence of Heaven is also about to be broken.  In Luke 3 we read:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar–when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene– {2} during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. {3} He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 

{4} As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. {5} Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. {6} And all mankind will see God’s salvation.'” 

{7} John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? {8} Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. {9} The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” 

{10} “What should we do then?” the crowd asked. {11} John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.” {12} Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” {13} “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. {14} Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely–be content with your pay.” 

{15} The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ. {16} John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. {17} His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 

{18} And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them. {19} But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, {20} Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison.

Now there are many ways this passage could be outlined and expounded.  But I am going to approach it by focusing on the character of this man and suggesting why John would probably not make it as a Christian leader today, and why John did make it as a Christian leader in God’s eyes.

Now I have my tongue at least partially in my cheek in regard to this first point.  I am employing a touch of sarcasm to help us as a church—pastors and people—think through the basic qualities and characteristics that make a person a spiritual success.  While much of our Christian culture is pursuing the shallow, the flashy, and the entertaining, God wants us to go for the gold, the deep, the profound, and the permanent.  That’s what John did.  He cared nothing for the conventions and traditions of his time.  Small talk was not in his vocabulary, and working the crowd was not in his repertoire.  He went straight for the spiritual jugular.  

Now I would not hold John the Baptizer up as the ideal pastor for a suburban church.  He was a prophet, and prophets rarely make good pastors.  But at the same time there are some important things pastors of suburban churches could learn from him, as could the parishioners in such churches. 

Why would John probably not make it as a Christian leader today:

He started his ministry at an inopportune time.  The opening paragraph of our chapter goes into considerable detail about the political and religious scenery that served as a background for John’s ministry.  I think of the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”  That pretty well fits here, only backwards.  It was the worst of times, but because John is about to introduce the Messiah, it was to become the best of times.  

What made it the worst of times is the characters Luke introduces—Tiberias Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas, Annas and Caiaphas—these names stand for moral degeneration, political chaos, foreign domination, and religious apostasy.  Many religious experts today would have told John, “The time is not ripe to start a new movement.  Wait until there’s a change in the political atmosphere, or at least wait until there’s a new high priest.  The few righteous souls are enduring enough persecution already; don’t stir the pot.” 

Sometimes I think we spend more energy looking for the opportune time to launch ministries or plant churches or even witness of our faith than we do seeking God’s will in the matter.  Time, you know, is like the papaya; it has a trick of going rotten before it turns ripe.  When God reveals His will, that’s all we need to know—it’s time to act whether the time seems opportune or not.  The Word of God came to John, so he preached.

He located in rural areas instead of the population centers.  John was in the desert when the word of God came to him, and he went into all the country around the Jordan to preach. Scholars tell us this means he concentrated his ministry from the northern end of the Dead Sea up to the area around Jericho.  If you’ve visited Israel, you know that this is extremely desolate country.  This is the area from Masada to Jericho; this is where the dead sea scrolls were discovered.  If you’ve seen pictures of those caves, you know why it’s called “the wilderness.”  

Matthew tells us that people had to “go out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region” in order to hear him.  Wouldn’t he have reached more people if he had gone to Herod’s temple to preach?  Yes, but it appears that John preached in the wilderness to symbolize the spiritual desert Israel that Israel had become at the time.    

Many renowned missiologists today (that’s a fancy name for experts in world-wide missions) are urging the church to put its resources into reaching the great cities of the world, and particularly those cities where there is economic, political, and social freedom.  “Go where the results are greatest,” is a slogan one hears a lot today.  There is even some contempt expressed for efforts to reach small, isolated language groups of only a few thousand people.

I think targeting the great cities makes sense, but I don’t think it’s an exclusive biblical mandate.  Yes, Paul did take the Gospel to some of the great cities of Asia Minor, but there is also an emphasis in the NT on the Gospel being shared in out-of-the-way places, places that were very resistant to the truth, places where persecution was inevitable.  The biblical principle, found in the Great Commission, is “Go and make disciples of all nations.”  God will lead different people to different locations, and God led John to preach in the country around the Jordan.   

Friends, numbers mean a lot to us, and we are constantly evaluating success in terms of numbers.  I am a success in my career if I make X number of dollars; I am a failure if I don’t.  I am a success if I pastor a church over 500; I’m a failure if I don’t.  This is nonsense.  We are a success if and only if we are doing God’s will for our lives.  I think of several hundred Auca Indians who are in Heaven today because five young missionary men gave their lives to take the Gospel to a stone-age tribe in Ecuador in 1955.  Does the sacrifice of five lives for a few hundred Indians make sense when they could perhaps have spent a whole lifetime winning tens of thousands in one of the world’s great cities?  Yes, if God sent them there.

He wore strange clothes and ate weird food, putting himself out of the mainstream.  We learn this from Matthew’s account, chapter 3, verse 4: “John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist.  His food was locusts and wild honey.”  This is not only unusual dress and diet today; it was unusual in that day.  That’s why Matthew goes out of his way to mention it.

People don’t like their leaders to be weird or even different.  Christian leaders have to be careful what kind of house they live in and what kind of car they drive and even what kinds of clothes they wear, because they will get criticized if they veer very far from the norm, either up or down.  John couldn’t care less about such norms.  In fact, it may be that he dressed like he did and ate like he did just to gain attention for his unusual message.

He was intolerant and didn’t have the foggiest notion of “political correctness.”  Look at verse 7: “John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?’”  Now, that’s not the way for a Christian leader to win friends, influence people, and get a good pay raise.  In seminaries today pastors are taught how to manage conflict, how to get along with difficult people, and how to build consensus.  

After all, if you make them mad, they won’t give.  And if they don’t give, you won’t eat.  Well, John didn’t have to worry about that.  There were always plenty of locusts, and wild honey is free! 

I think many of us have no idea how the PC police (that’s political correctness) have affected our universities, our culture, even our churches to the point that many pastors are afraid to say anything controversial.  Calvin Miller, one of the finest evangelical pastors of our day, wrote an article entitled, “The Politically Correct Pulpit,” in Leadership magazine about four years ago.  He complained,

. . . the process of preaching is growing more and more nerve-racking.  Political correctness is … as broad as all the ethnic, economic, and academic sub-groups that compose our congregations…. 

In my former church, virtually every time I preached on a mildly controversial topic, someone walked out in disagreement.  If I preached my pro-life convictions, at least one pro-choice person would leave.  If I mentioned (as I once did) that not every person should home school, a home schooler walked out.  If I mentioned the need for parental involvement in the public school system, a public school teacher would leave (thinking I had slurred his or her profession). 

Our television (ministry’s) editor once deleted a sermon illustration in which I described a “fat service-station attendant in a Co-op ball cap.”  The editor informed me I should have said, “overweight attendant” and should not have mentioned the Co-op ball cap at all, since there were many “agri-career persons” in our viewing area.  

I once illustrated a sermon by saying that Juan Valdez with one little burro could not personally pick enough Columbian coffee, one bean at a time, for the entire Western world.  “Think of the coffee pots in Chicago alone,” I said.  “His burro would be frazzled and neurotic.”  When I said that Juan most likely had a combine and a fleet of trucks, one member became irate because she had personally seen the poor of South America picking beans one at a time.  “You are sociologically insensitive!” she said.[i]

There’s something freeing about being in John the Baptizer’s position—beholden to no one, unconcerned about salary or perks or popularity or even his own life.  

One of the areas where modern pastors especially walk on eggshells is racism.  They gently promote racial reconciliation, but they don’t dare confront the deep-seated racism that still resides in many people who fill our churches.  They excuse their silence by saying to themselves, “Many of these people don’t understand that they have racist attitudes, and it will take more time for them to become sensitized to the issue.  We need to go slow and not rock the boat.”  Well, John didn’t care about the boat; he cared about the people who were drowning in the water.  Look at verse 8: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.  And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’  For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.”

What does this have to do with racism?  Just this.  The Jews were plagued with racial pride.  They were sure that God was on their side and that He hated the Gentiles.  Jews didn’t get baptized because they didn’t think they needed it.  Only Gentile converts needed baptism.  Not so, said John, and he called upon the Jews to participate in a ritual they regarded as suitable only for unclean Gentiles.  John told them, “If you don’t produce good fruit, you’ll be cut down and thrown into the fire, no matter what race you are.”

He focused his preaching on sin and judgment.  Starting in verse 3 and throughout our text for today we find a great emphasis in John’s preaching on sin and judgment and wrath and repentance.  Look, for example, at verse 9: “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”  Or verse 17: “His (i.e., Messiah’s) winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”  

Not many growing churches today are characterized by that kind of preaching.  Some Christian leaders intentionally avoid the subject of sin.  I’m reminded of a book written by Robert Schuler and mailed to every pastor in the United States about ten years ago.   It essentially said that the pastor’s message must be positive and encouraging, and sin should never be the focus of our preaching. What do you think John would have said to Robert Schuler?  But who was more successful?  John didn’t have a Crystal Cathedral or book sales in the millions.  I guess it depends on how you measure success.  

I quote again from Calvin Miller’s article on “The Politically Correct Pulpit:”

“Sin is an omni-cultural problem.  We cannot view it as just another unpopular diversity in American culture.  We cannot respond to it by simply reclassifying it.  It’s one thing to rename handicaps “physical challenges,” but to rename sin as “bad cultural conformity” or “ethical dysfunction” strikes at the heart of redemption theology.  

So many things we used to regard as clear-cut sin seem to have been assigned to new categories.  As we rename the sinful aspects of our humanity, however, we also tend to dismiss them and the seriousness of their consequences.”[ii]

He became very personal in his sermon applications.  The modern pulpit tends to generalization.  Christians should be more loving, more kind, more disciplined, less anxious, more tolerant, etc.  But John had no use for such generalizations.  When three different groups came and asked him, “What should we do in light of your rather hard message?” he responded with very pointed and personal applications of biblical truth.  

To the crowd, which Matthew tells us were primarily Sadducees and Pharisees, he said, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.”  The Sadducees and Pharisees were known for their contempt for the poor.  Their attitude was, “They wouldn’t be poor if they weren’t so lazy,” so John’s application must have stung them.

To the tax collectors he said, “Don’t collect any more than you are required to.”  Again, that was a blow to the solar plexus of a tax collector.  The way he got rich was charging more tax than was due and keeping the remainder.  He wouldn’t have minded if John said, “Come to synagogue more often, spend more time saying prayers, and be baptized.”  But “stop collecting excess taxes?”  You gotta be kidding!  

To the soldiers, the third group, he answered, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”  I saw a program about a week ago on Dateline NBC about the police who patrol Interstate 10 in the State of Louisiana.  It was mind-boggling.  Talk about extortion!  I think these guys could have taught John Gotti a few things.  Extortion, false accusation and greed are a way of life to these people.  So also to the soldiers of John’s day.  And he nails them for it!  No mealy-mouthed platitudes about self-improvement from this prophet’s mouth. 

He failed to promote himself when he had the chance.  We read in verse 15 that “The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ.”  Now John knew he wasn’t, and there’s no way he could pretend otherwise.  But if he was really smart, he could have gotten a little mileage out of this case of mistaken identity.  He could at least have said, “No, I’m not the Messiah, but I know who he is, and if you stay with me I’ll get you a ringside seat.  I’m pretty tight with him.  In fact, I’m his cousin, his older cousin.”  

Frankly, self-promotion is not unusual in the Christian ministry today.  Everybody and his brother is sporting a doctor’s degree, whether earned or not.  Seminars are proliferating, with lots of endorsements from the bigwigs.  I think more than half the books in the Christian bookstore today are being written by people on an ego trip.  There are pastors publishing two or three books a year, and each one is more shallow than the one before it.  There are preachers on television, local and national, whose sermons taste like warmed-over gruel.  Oh, they’re good at talking, and they’re very entertaining.  But when you analyze the content, you have to conclude there is very little of substance.  And I ask myself, “What is this guy doing on television?”  And I conclude the only possible reason is self-promotion.

Contrast that to what John said when the people wondered if he might be the Christ.  Verse 16: “John answered them all, ‘I baptize you with water.  But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”

He committed the cardinal sin of the clergy–getting involved in the political issues of his day.  In verse 19 we read, “But when John rebuked Herod the Tetrarch because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, Herod added this to them all:  He locked John up in prison.”  There is a lot of uneasiness in the evangelical church whenever a pastor begins to address political issues.  Even issues that are primarily moral issues and only secondarily political issues—like abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, and scandals in Washington—elicit fear on the part of many pastors, fear that people will criticize them for stepping out of their area of expertise and getting involved in an area where, we are told, “everyone’s opinions are of equal value.”  

Well, John would have none of that notion.  He rebuked the top man in government for adultery, with the result that he got himself thrown into prison.  From what we know of John, I doubt if he lost any sleep over it.  After all, the board and room in prison was no worse than he was used to.  

Now, as I warned you, I have employed a bit of sarcasm in this first point.  I don’t really believe these things were mistakes on John’s part.  But I think you’ll have to admit that some of these characteristics would make him unwelcome in many of our churches today. 

A far more important consideration is this:  what did God think of John?  Well, some weeks ago we mentioned Jesus’ own evaluation of John, as found in Luke 7:28: “I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John.”

Why John made it as a Christian leader in God’s eyes:

He responded to the Word of God.  We talked earlier of the fact that John started his ministry at an inopportune time.  But John wasn’t setting the timetable.  God was.  “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, etc., during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.”  The next words are, “he went.”  All he did is make himself available as a channel of the Word of God.  When God spoke, John spoke. 

His ultimate goal was to help people find forgiveness.  Look at verse 3: “He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  John wasn’t out to make a name for himself or to put a damper on people’s fun.  He knew that forgiveness was the most basic need of the human heart, and he knew that repentance was a prerequisite for forgiveness.  1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins (i.e., if we will say the same thing about our sin that God says about it, namely it’s inexcusable), then He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  The reason John focused so much on sin and wrath and judgment is because he knew in the long run that only when people confront their sin and repent is forgiveness possible.

He was absolutely honest and impossible to intimidate.  John told it like it was.  One couldn’t intimidate him because he wasn’t beholden to anyone.  Refreshing, you say.  Yes, but would you tolerate a pastor like John?  Possibly—so long as he focused on the sins of the Pharisees, the tax collectors, and the soldiers.  What if he started talking about the sins of salesmen and accountants and housewives and students? 

He was humble, accepting his role as the Way-Preparer for Messiah.  We talked earlier of the fact that John failed to promote himself when he had the chance.  John knew who he was, and he knew who he wasn’t.  There are an awful lot of people who struggle with their identify.  They want to be someone they’re not, and they spend so much emotional energy on that futile quest, they end up wasting the potential they do have.  Not John.  He was perfectly secure with who he was, and therefore he could humble himself before God and be the Way-Preparer God appointed him to be.

Remember his response to the crowds, “One more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie”?  An ancient rabbinic saying goes like this: “Every service which a slave performs for his master shall a disciple do for his teacher except the loosing of his sandal-thong.”  That was considered just too menial.  But John selects precisely this duty as that for which he was unworthy.  Later in the Gospel of John we are told that John said about Jesus, “He must become greater; I must become less.”  That was true humility.  He was glad to just point the people to Jesus. 

He preached the good news.  I like what it says in verse 18: “And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.”  Bad news sometimes has to be shared before good news can be appreciated.  In fact, sometimes it’s impossible to separate bad news from the good news.  Certainly one cannot enjoy the good news of salvation by grace through faith unless one has acknowledged and repented of the bad news of his own sin.  God’s requirement on a Christian leader is that he teach the whole counsel of God—not just the pleasant truths, but the whole truth.  John did that, and as a result God could say that he preached the good news. 

He sacrificed himself on the altar of integrity.  Herod had married his brother’s wife after an adulterous affair.  John rebuked him publicly and Herod imprisoned him for it.  But Herod’s new wife, Herodias, was even more ruthless than he, and she demanded John’s execution.  Herod wasn’t about to grant that request because he had met with John several times in prison and was fascinated by this man’s boldness and his message.  So Herodias tricked him.  She had her daughter dance for Herod at his birthday party, and when he became excited and probably half-stewed, he promised her whatever she wanted up to half of his kingdom.  She went to her mother and said, “What shall I ask?”  The witch’s response: “The head of John the Baptist.”  

Herod was exceedingly sorry, but for the sake of his stupid oath and because of his pride (he didn’t want to appear weak to the other dirty old men at his birthday party), he gave her John’s head on a platter.  You can read the whole sordid story in Matt. 14 or Mark 6.   

Conclusion:  I want to be careful here this morning.  It’s easy to extrapolate from a story more than was intended.  I don’t think the Holy Spirit is necessarily presenting John the Baptizer here as the ideal Christian minister in all respects.  And I don’t think God is saying that we should pattern our lives after him in all respects.  Frankly, I think John would have a hard time being a Youth Pastor or a BSF leader or a pastor here in West County.  There’s certainly no mandate for us to move to Death Valley and eat insects.

But at the same time, I believe much of the weakness and anemia we see in the church today is because we have stifled the prophetic voice.  I’m not talking about voices that claim to predict the future; I’m talking about voices that call sin “sin” and call the church to repentance.  Too many of us want to pay our respects to God but we don’t want him revolutionizing our lifestyles or making unreasonable demands on our priorities.  

We need to hear this message today, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.  And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We are Free church members.  We tithe, attend a Small Church, and go to Promise Keepers every summer.’”  Friends, the axe is already at the root of the tree, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.   




Political correctness




[i] Calvin Miller, Leadership, Summer Quarter, 1992, pp. 68ff

[ii] Ibid.