The Gospel passage offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday (Luke 3:7–18) continues the narrative about John the baptiser, who attracted crowds of people to listen to his proclamation of “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (3:3) and to be dunked into the river in response to that message (3:7, 21).
This passage from the orderly account of the things being fulfilled among us (the Gospel of Luke) reports the message of John, as he makes clear the pressing need to take responsibility for living an ethical and faithful life. Insight comes as we compare the words attributed to John in this narrative, with the parallel accounts in the beginning of the good news of Jesus (the earlier narrative attributed to Mark) and the book of origins (a later work attributed to Matthew).
In Luke’s narrative there are three major sections in what John is reported as having said: a call to metanoia, instructions about what that metanoia looks like, and then a description of what faithful living will require in the future.
I The necessity of metanoia
Luke reports the first part of what John says as follows: John said 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 worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (3:7–9)
This is a significant expansion of the earlier Markan report, that “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). The words of John in Luke’s account fill out the content of that call for repentance.
Matthew provides some substance to that message, in words that almost to the letter replicate what is reported in Luke (Matt 3:7–10). The variations to be noted are twofold. First, the audience. In Luke, John addresses “the crowds”; in Matthew, he specifically addresses “many Pharisees and Sadducees”. Second, there is a tiny—perhaps insignificant—variation, in that “bear fruits (plural) worthy of repentance” in Luke are “bear fruit (singular)” in Matthew.
At this point, it would seem, these two separate Gospel compilers had access to a memory, a tradition—perhaps even a written source—that they have repeated almost exactly verbatim. That source (whether oral or written) is what scholars call Q, abbreviating the German word Quelle—which simply means, “source”. (How imaginative!)
The message of John, in this section, is fierce in its intensity and challenging in its orientation. It is a call to action that is impelled by the looming moment of judgement—strikingly symbolised in the image of “the axe lying at the root of the tree”. The trunk of the tree will be severed at any moment, it seems; and then, in the next dramatic image, the useless branches (that did not “bear good fruit”) will be burned to ashes.
The action that John seeks is contained in the potent Greek word, metanoia. This has a literal sense of replacing one’s mind. When we translate it as “repentance”, we need to bear in mind that it comprises a number of elements—which John articulates in these verses. To repent is to “flee from the wrath to come”, to re-orient life away from what will condemn, towards what will give life. It also requires people to “bear fruit”—that is, to demonstrate in their lives how this complete reorientation has taken place. There are ethical actions that are expected to follow from this.
The imagery of fire in the words of John (3:9) is drawn from a strong tradition in earlier prophetic texts, which give warn of the judgement to come in fierce apocalyptic terms. This judgement to come is regularly envisaged as taking place by burning in fire. We will return to this trajectory of fiery judgement passages when we come to the third section, where this is developed and expanded in what John says.
II Instructions regarding ethical responsibility: three case studies
Luke continues his narrative, with a distinctive paragraph (found only in his Gospel), in which he reports: The crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” (3:10–14)
Here, the three groups which pose the same question to John—what then should we do?—provide opportunity for three short case studies in what is required by the call to metanoia.
The instruction about sharing coats is similar to words of Jesus, reported by Matthew in the so-called Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” (5:38–42)
These actions of apparent generosity signify the metanoia, the change of mind, the complete reorientation of one’s person. Sharing the second cloak, walking the second mile, and turning the other cheek, are each metanoia in action: loving a life in accord with ethical principles. The same instruction is delivered by John. The addition of the sharing of food likewise resonates with the words of Jesus regarding giving water to the thirsty (Mark 9:41; Matt 10:42; 25:35–37) and sharing food with the hungry (as is demonstrated in the various narratives reporting the feeding of multitudes by Jesus).
Of course, in the second volume of the orderly account of Luke’s Gospel, the community in Jerusalem is marked by such sharing in its common life: “all who believed were together and had all things in common” (Acts 2:44), “day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts (2:46), and “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (4:32).
The instruction to tax collectors, not to collect more tax than what is owed, resonates with the story of Zacchaeus, much later in Luke’s narrative. Zacchaeus is a fine example of metanoia in practical terms: “half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much” (Luke 19:8).
There is debate as to whether this statement reflects an intention for acting in the future by Zacchaeus, which signals his repentance in the presence of Jesus; or whether this is a statement of actions already being implemented, which means that Jesus is recognising how Zacchaeus has changed. (The two verbs in the declaration of Zacchaeus are both in the present tense.) Either way, the message is clear: ethical standards are important when dealing with money or conducting business.
And that is precisely what John is instructing the crowds: a life of faith means a life of ethical behaviour; discipleship is shaped by deep-seated metanoia.
III The call to faithful living in the future
The third section in Luke’s expanded narrative about John links back to the earlier Markan narrative, which is widely assumed to have been a primary source for Luke. It shows strong similarities, once again, with Matthew’s report of John’s words:
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:15–17)
In Mark, John had simply proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (1:7–8)
In Matthew’s version, John has more to say: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matt 3:11–12)
Luke has the crowd pose the question about John: are you the Messiah? We hear that same question being asked at John 1:19–22, and the same answer being provided by John: “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” (John 1:26–27). We also have the question flipped around, when disciples of John later come to the adult Jesus, and ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matt 11:3).
In this passage in Luke, John identifies Jesus as “one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals” (Luke 3:16). He uses language drawn from familiar practices to describe the function that Jesus will fulfil. In bringing in God’s kingdom, Jesus will execute judgement.
The language of the threshing floor and the granary, wheat and chaff, is familiar language in agricultural societies such as ancient Israel. The threshing floor was both a place of work for farmers (Num 18:27, 30; Deut 15:14; 16:13; Job 5:26; 39:12; Jer 51:33) and of ceremonial events for royalty (Gen 50:10; 1 Kings 22:10; 2 Chron 18:9). The threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite was the place where David erected an altar to the Lord (2 Sam 24:18–25; he is named Ornan at 1 Chron 21:18–30) and also a favoured place for illicit sexual liaisons (Hos 9:1–2; Ruth 3).
It is, of course, the primary agricultural use which John has in mind in his preaching beside the Jordan; the winnowing that takes place there was essential to farming life. Usually it is the wind which blows away the winnowed chaff (Ps 1:4; 35:5; 83:13; Isa 17:13; 41:15; Jer 13:24; Hos 13:3; Zeph 2:2). The sense of judgement upon evildoers is imported into these references to the basic agricultural activity of the threshing floor.
Likewise, the function of the winnowing fork as integral to judgement is noted by the prophets (Isa 21:10; 41:6; Jer 15:7; 51:2), and the application of the activities of threshing floor to God’s judgement is made by the prophet Micah (Mic 4:11–13; and see 2 Esdras 4:31–32), whilst the burning of unwanted grass is part of God’s judgement at Isa 5:24.
In both Matthew and Luke, John extends the Markan reference to Jesus “baptizing with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8) to become “he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt 3:11; Luke 3:16). Reference to fire can be found regularly in the prophetic words about the coming times—The Day, The End—when God will call people to account and judge them in terms of their lives of righteous-justice. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/11/09/the-beginnings-of-the-birth-pangs-mark-13-pentecost-25b/
The fiery furnace scene in Daniel (chapter 3) indicates the use of fire as a mechanism for punishment in the ancient world. The Exodus from Egypt is portrayed as a time of liberation from a fiery furnace: “the LORD has taken you and brought you out of the iron-smelter, out of Egypt, to become a people of his very own possession” (Deut 4:20), along with similar references in 1 Kings 8:51 and Jer 11:4.
Accordingly, many prophets declare that the Lord will burn the enemies of Israel (Isa 9:5; 26:11; 30:27–33; 33:14; 47:14; 66:14–16; Jer 43:11–13; 49:1–2; 49:23–27; 50:29–32; 51:24–33; 51:58; Ezek 21:28–32; 22:17–22; 30:13–19; 38:17–39:6; Amos 1:2–2:3; Micah 1:2–7; Nahum 1:2–8; Zech 9:1–4) and also burn wickedness in Israel (Isa 9:18; Jer 4:3–4; 5:14; 11:16–17; Lam 1:11; Ezek 15:6–8; 19:10–14; 20:45–49; 24:9–13; Dan 7:9–14; Hos 8:14; Joel 1:15–2:5; 2:30; Amos 2:4–5; Obad 1:17–18; Nahum 3:12–15; Zech 13:7–9; Mal 3:1–4).
Indeed, Zephaniah reports the word of the Lord, that the whole earth will be consumed by fire (Zeph 1:17–18; 3:8).
This imagery recurs in the teachings of Jesus, who declared ““I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Luke 12:49) and readily portrayed the fiery fate awaiting lawless ones (Mark 9:42–49: Matt 18:8–9). Amongst the parables found in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus concludes with images of weeds burning (13:30, 40), reflecting the “furnace of fire” awaiting lawless ones (13:52) and “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:41).
In Luke’s account, Jesus notes the role played by fire in the judgement of Sodom and Gomorrah (Luke 17:28–30; see Gen 19:24–25; Deut 29:22–23; Ps 11:6). In like manner, when the disciples want to signal judgement on the Samaritans, they ask Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (Luke 9:54).
John stands in this tradition—a fearsomely intense tradition in which fire is the agent of divine of judgement and destruction. In the face of this threatened fiery judgement, metanoia is essential. The tradition of the prophets, John the baptiser, and Jesus of Nazareth is then focussed in the Revelation of John, with multiple references to “the lake of fire that burns with sulphur” (Rev 19:20; 20:10, 14–15; 21:8). In this work, this is the fate that awaits those who do not demonstrate metanoia (Rev 2:5, 16, 21–22; 3:3, 19; 9:20–21; 16:9–11).
IV To conclude: exhortations
Luke concludes this narrative of John beside the Jordan with the concise summation: “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people” (3:18). This is typical of Luke’s narrative style; there are similar summary sentences punctuation the narrative of both volumes (Luke 4:14–15; 5:15–16; 6:12; 8:1–3; 13:22; 19:47–48; 21:37–38; Acts 1:14; 2:42, 46–47; 4:32–35; 5:12–16; 6:7; 8:1–3; 8:40; 9:31; 11:19; 12:24; 19:20; 24:27; 28:30–31).
In the end, the characterisation of the preaching of John as exhortation indicates that the emphasis of all of this fierce judgement language is directed towards achieving metanoia: to re-orient life, to replace mind, to repent, and to bear fruit worthy of that repentance. The message impels us to ethical living.