What must we do? 3:1-20


In our passage for study Luke records the testimony of John the Baptist, as regard the messianic credentials of Christ. He sets the stage in v1-2, records the nature of John's mission in v3-6, the substance of John's message in v7-14, John's relationship with the coming messiah in v15-18, and finally his imprisonment in v19-20.

The passage

v1. Luke, in the style of a Greek historian, dates the preaching ministry of John and the baptism of Jesus, by cross referencing significant personages of the time. His dating is around 27-29AD.

v2. Although the Romans removed Annas in 14AD, he continued to exercise power while his son-in-law, Caiaphas, was High Priest. The wilderness is where we meet God and so it is where John receives his call from God.

v3. Only a Gentile convert to Judaism would be baptized (a sign of regeneration), but John demands that Abraham's children must also be baptized. It was as if Israel had reached the river Jordan and must again cross the river to enter the promised land. So, John preached a message of repentance, a repentance which had but one aim, the forgiveness of sins. Baptism, water immersion, serves as the outward expression of this repentance, while at the same time illustrating the cleansing of forgiveness soon to be realized in the coming messiah.

v4-6. Luke now quotes Isaiah 40:3ff. John's task is to prepare the way for the coming messiah. The Exodus journey of the messiah and his people to the promised land is made clear and straight by John's call to repentance. Those who heed the call will gain the long-hoped-for messianic deliverance.

v7. John sees the "multitude" coming toward him and questions their commitment. Although the description, "snakes" (children of the Devil), particularly applies to the Pharisees and Sadducees, John suspects that this crowd, which seeks to escape the day of judgment through baptism, is responding to his preaching at a superficial level.

v8-9. For John, baptism is an outward manifestation of repentance - the symbolic expression of a genuine cry for mercy. Genuine repentance exhibits an attitude of neighborly-love and serves as the mark of the new Israel.

v10-11. Heartfelt repentance accesses the mercy of God, which mercy prompts mercy. Here, radical generosity.

v12-13. The profession of tax collector is not sinful in itself, but in the Roman provinces it was often corrupt - a form of legalized extortion.

v14. Neither is serving in the police force a sinful profession, but again, it is open to corruption. The solders referred to here are most likely Jews, members of Herod's local police.

v15. Messianic expectation is high and so many in the crowd wonder whether John is the messiah.



v16. John indicates that his role is preparatory; he performs water baptism as a sign of repentance in preparation for the coming messiah. The messiah, who is about to inaugurate the long-expected kingdom, will baptize (in the sense of immerse or overwhelm) with, or in, the Holy Spirit and fire. Those who follow the coming messiah will be washed clean with his regenerating Spirit, but will also face the fire of persecution, of tribulation.

v17. Luke reminds us that the coming judgment is central to John's gospel message. The good news of a coming messiah has its bad-news side.

v18. Luke explains that the above is a summary of John's gospel preaching.

v19-20. Luke then summarizes John's run-in with Herod and so reminds us that John prepares the way for Jesus in his suffering, as well as in his preaching.

True repentance

John the Baptist's ministry has a threefold purpose:

i] He prepares the way for the coming of the messiah by calling on the people of Israel to repent in preparation for the messiah's arrival;

ii] He explains the nature of the messiah's mission. The messiah will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire;

iii] He witnesses to the messiah as one "more powerful than I."

It is interesting how Luke tells us that John was "preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." Baptism is not so much done, as preached or proclaimed. Luke also tells us that the substance of this proclamation is the gospel, he "gospelled them." The gospel proclaims that in the face of the coming day of judgment, forgiveness, and thus, acceptance by God of the sinner, is available to all those who repent.

On the surface, it seems that repentance is an act of turning away from self toward a life of neighborly care. Yet, the substance of repentance is certainly not good works. Repentance is a turning to God for mercy and acceptance. It is something the sinner does in search of salvation. Repentance is the cry: "Lord have mercy on me a sinner." Only then, having received God's mercy, can we respond by showing mercy.

So then, we see before us the one more powerful than John, the one who is the source of the promised blessings of God. As we face him, we are confronted by our sin and are reminded that our only hope lies in repentance - brokenness before him. And so yes, we cry "Lord have mercy", and in that cry we find mercy.


1. Analyze John's gospel preaching and try to devise a modern gospel message from it.

2. Consider the nature of repentance from this passage.

[Printer icon]   Print-friendly: Sermon Notes. and Technical Notes

Index of studies: Resource library
[Pumpkin Cottage]
Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources
Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons