Luke 3 – The Fire-and-Brimstone Gospel

Luke 3 Bible with Endangered Species Dark Chocolate with Forest Mint

Today’s ChocolateEndangered Species Dark Chocolate with Forest Mint

Today’s PassageLuke 3

Elephant-in-the-room time: I’m behind the eight ball. It’s Friday, this post should have been finished Thursday, and I’m playing catch-up again. Let’s have a post.

If the gospel of Luke were a comic book, you’d read the story of twelve-year-old Jesus getting lost in Jerusalem, you’d turn the page, and you’d see a huge establishing shot of the wilderness with John the Baptist. The narrative box would read, “Twenty years later…”, there’d be a bunch of John-the-Baptist stuff, and you wouldn’t see Jesus again for like six pages. I’d love to see how Cartoonist Luke would illustrate the genealogy that concludes the chapter, but the point remains: in the early chapters, Luke’s book about Jesus features Jesus less prominently than you might expect.

John the Baptist’s message to Israel centers on repentance. Luke describes the practice of baptism for which he’s known as “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (3), and John tells his audience, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (7-8). He tells the people to share their material possessions with those who don’t have what they need, tax collectors to do their job and not overcharge, and soldiers to refrain from abusing their power. This is no feel-good sermon; John doesn’t pull any punches.

But how’s that square with Jesus’ ministry? How’s it square with forgiveness and grace and not having to earn your salvation? Luke describes John as preaching the gospel (18), but the words “forgiveness,” “grace,” and even “salvation” are absent from the text of his preaching as reported by Luke, and John’s description of Jesus is fiery and judgmental (16-17). How is “Shape up and fly right, because God’s about to go axe-crazy on the trees if they don’t bear good fruit” good news?

Y’all know me; I wouldn’t ask the question if I didn’t have an answer (okay, that’s not always true, but it does happen to be true today). I think it’s important to discuss repentance in conjunction with forgiveness. The gospel is that Jesus Christ has come to offer salvation from sins, and that message is less sunshine and roses, more thorns and roses. It’s not our repentance that secures forgiveness for us, but if we accept salvation in Jesus Christ, we aren’t going to stay in the same self-destructive sins that we needed saving from in the first place. There’s got to be a change; we can’t keep hanging out in the burning trash pile shouting, “Jesus forgives me! God loves me just the way I am!” and hope to be okay.

I think John the Baptist’s message is particularly timely for our age, and not just because it preaches the incompatibility of the gospel with permissiveness. Look what he tells the people: “The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise” (11). For John, it’s a given that those with means need to provide for the poor. He doesn’t put any stipulations of merit on it.

And if a modern-day Christian asked him if he wasn’t enabling laziness with unearned hand-outs, I can imagine him unleashing a fiery response, castigating them for their greed and tight-fistedness. I can see him asking: should God demand his due for their debt of sin right now? Do they really think they could earn their salvation, or the gifts of material prosperity that God has given them? Should God take his axe to their trees and give them what they’ve really earned? It’s no surprise that they put John to death in his own time; I expect anyone preaching his message today would last just about as long before the authorities shut them up for good.

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