Saturday, October 1, 2011

John the Baptist’s Teaching concerning Baptism and Fruitfulness in Luke 3:7–17

I don’t know what you normally think of when you think about baptism; but baptism is a rather strange custom. When we think of baptism, we think of contact with water. Depending on the mode of baptism employed, this contact can either be like jumping into a swimming pool, or jumping in and out of the shower after a couple of seconds. But why does Christianity have this rite?

Baptism is a part of Christianity because Jesus taught it that way. In the Great Commission, Jesus spoke about how disciples are made, and he linked that with baptism: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19). Baptism is the first step to becoming in an official sense a disciple of the Lord Jesus. Through baptism, we officially become disciples of the Lord Jesus. Through baptism, as we confess our faith in Jesus as Lord, we officially become united to Christ, and officially begin to share in the eternal life which has been his since the time of his resurrection.

Baptism is a sign that we officially belong to Jesus, that we are officially one of his disciples. This means that baptism is a privilege. It is a wonderful privilege to be baptized, and to belong to Christ; but, like anything in life, with wonderful privilege also comes important responsibilities. And this is where John the Baptist’s teaching in Luke 3 comes in. John’s warnings function to remind us of some of the responsibilities that go together with baptism.

John the Baptist was called by God to go and preach “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sons.” John did his job well. Crowds flocked to hear his preaching, and they responded by submitting themselves to baptism in the Jordan River. This is something which is recorded not only in the Bible, but the famous Jewish historian called Josephus, who wrote a history of the Jewish people in the first century A.D., wrote about John, saying: “many people came like a crowd surrounding John, because when they heard his preaching, they were greatly moved.” Being moved by his preaching, the people responded by being baptized.

This is a pattern that we see in the early church. The apostles went out telling people about Jesus, and those who responded were baptized. For example, the Apostle Peter at the time of the Feast of Pentecost preached to a large crowd of Jews in Jerusalem. We read in Acts 2 how his message also cut people to the heart, and Peter called on them to “repent and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Baptism is a sign of repentance leading to the forgiveness of sins.

Here we need to be clear what repentance is. What does it mean to repent? In the Bible to repent basically means to change direction. It means to turn away from our sinful way of life in order to follow God. It means to turn away from following the way of the world to start follow God’s way, to start living the way he would have us live. Baptism is important as a sign of repentance, but it’s only the beginning of a life which is to be lived out in the spirit of repentance.

This is something about which John the Baptist strongly warned the crowds who were coming to him to be baptized. John was not one of your touchy-feely types. Seeing the crowds who were coming to him to baptized, he could have praised God for the wonderful response to his ministry. I’m sure that he was praising God for the effectiveness of his ministry, but at the same time he was aware that baptism was only the beginning. Seeing the crowds coming out to be baptized, John warned them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance!” (Luke 3:7–8). Baptism is a wonderful privilege, but it is only a beginning. When we are baptized, it is like being planted as a fruit tree in God’s orchard. It is great being a fruit tree in God’s orchard, but our job as fruit trees is to bear fruit for God.

John understood that some of the people coming out to him to be baptized had probably not fully understood the significance of baptism as being a sign of repentance. Those being baptized were primarily, if not exclusively, Jewish. So John warned them, saying: “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). Being a physical descendant of Abraham was not enough for a person to be right with God. Belonging to Israel was not enough to a person to be right with God. Being right with God demands true repentance.

John was warning his audience that baptism in and of itself was not enough to make a person right with God. To put it in another way, if baptism is a sign of repentance, then we all have need of a constant attitude of repentance throughout our lives. Martin Luther, the famous Reformer of the church, once said: “Baptism signifies that the old Adam in us is to be drowned by daily sorrow and repentance, and perish with all sins and evil lusts; and that the new man should daily come forth again and rise, who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”

To what extent have we been seeking to do that lately? Have you been seeking to put to death the old self with its selfish desires, and to please God instead, in everything that you do? Having been baptized, our whole life is meant to be characterized by repentance.

In fact, if our lives are not characterized by repentance, if we’re not seeking to live lives that please God, then there are serious consequences. In v. 9, John warned his audience by giving an illustration of fruit trees about to be cut down and destroyed: “Even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down, and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:9).

A fruitless fruit tree is basically a waste of space, and will eventually be removed and destroyed. In a similar way, an unrepentant baptized person, an unrepentant Christian, someone who is not bearing fruit for God’s kingdom will eventually be removed from God’s kingdom and destroyed. Such is the great responsibility of those who have been baptized: to honor the meaning of their baptism in their daily lives.

Baptism is somewhat like a marriage. During the wedding ceremony the man and the woman become husband and wife. The wedding ceremony is a special occasion, but it is only a beginning. What significance would the wedding have if after the wedding the husband or the wife went on living as if they weren’t married. Being married, you’re married! You can’t go on acting as if you’re not! If fact, the significance of the wedding and the marriage vows would effectively be lost if the husband or the wife did not commit themselves to the exclusive faithfulness that the marriage relationship demands.

Baptism is similar to a marriage. When a person is baptized, it is a special occasion, somewhat like a wedding. In the rite of baptism, we formally come under the lordship of Christ, and promise our exclusive faithfulness to Christ. It is a wonderful occasion, but like with a wedding it only marks the beginning of a life that is meant to be lived in an exclusive relationship of love with someone else. Baptism marks the beginning of the Christian life, not its end. Not to take the responsibilities associated with baptism seriously is to seriously devalue the meaning of our baptism.

Sadly the responsibilities of baptism are something that many people in the West have lost sight of. How many Westerners have been baptized? The figure seems to be dropping over time, but in some countries it is still quite high. In Australia, for example, the figure might be around 60% of the population. But how many of that 60% are genuinely seeking to live lives that honor God by being actively involved in Christ’s church? Probably not many. 20%? Even 20% seems a bit too generous. This means that there is a large proportion of Westerners who, having been baptized, need to be reminded of their responsibility before God to bear fruit for him. They need to understand the significance of baptism. Baptism is a wonderful picture of the gospel. It speaks to us about how our sins can be washed away through the cleansing power of the blood of Jesus. But the divine promise of cleansing needs to be met with us taking the promise of faithful submission to the lordship of Jesus seriously.

As John the Baptist warns us, if our lives are not characterized by repentance, then the baptism that we submitted to will not save us from the wrath of God which is going to come. This is something that all baptized people need to be told about. If baptism is a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, then have we been living out the meaning of our baptism? Have we been producing the fruit of repentance in our lives?

But what is this fruit that we are meant to produce? Basically, we can say that a repentant person will seek to trust in God’s strength to live a life that pleases God more and more as time goes on. We will seek to be more active in doing good. We will love our neighbor as ourself more, and we’ll have a different attitude to possessions and money that what we see around us today.

When John was warning the people whom he was baptizing, the people in the crowd asked: “What should we do?” (Luke 3:10). John replied: “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise” (Luke 3:11). Producing the fruits of repentance means sharing what with have with those who are in need. Producing the fruits of repentance means loving our neighbor.

Tax collectors were also baptized by John, and they asked him the same question: “What shall we do?” (Luke 3:12). And John answered: “Collect no more than you are authorized to do” (Luke 3:13). Tax collectors back in those days had to tender to get the job, and collecting more tax than was due meant greater profits for the tax collector.

Soldiers also came to John, asking the same question: “And we, what shall we do?” “Don’t extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages” (Luke 3:14).

Overall, then, to summarize John’s teaching on this issue, the fruits of repentance involve us having a new attitude to our possessions, money, and power. Repentance means sharing with the needy, and being honest in all our dealings. It means making money honestly instead of dishonestly. It means not abusing the authority of our position.

To what extent have our lives been producing these kinds of fruits lately? In what ways have you been helping those less fortunate than yourself? Have you been honoring God in how you make your money? One of the areas where we can be tempted today is in relation to taxation. Perhaps not many of us work for the government taxation office. We may not be employed as tax collectors, but most of us are taxpayers in some form or other. Even here honesty is needed. No one really likes paying taxes; but as Christians, we need to see paying tax as an opportunity to serve God. By paying our taxes, we serve God by contributing to the betterment of our society, and by helping our governments help those who are most needy in our community and in communities overseas; or at least that is the ideal.

Honesty and generosity are some of the fruits of repentance that God wants us to produce in our lives. If we haven’t been seeking to live this way, then we need to confess this to God, and ask for his strength and guidance to do better in the future, to be more productive as fruit trees in his orchard.

In pointing people to the coming Messiah, John the Baptist also warned them that the Christ would bring judgment as he came. According to John the Baptist, the Christ would come with the Holy Spirit and fire (Luke 3:16). Fire here is a symbol of judgment. “His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17).

The useless chaff and the useless tree will be dealt with in the day of wrath, in the coming day of judgment. This day is even closer now than when John warned his audience previously. There will be a day of judgment when every person who has ever lived on this earth will have to give an account before God of how they have lived. We need to be very clear about this. When we take our turn in God’s court on judgment day, will God see good works in your life as proof that you have taken your covenant responsibilities towards God seriously? On the day of judgment, will God find evidence in your life of the work of his Spirit?

In calling for the fruit of repentance to be evident in our lives, we need to understand that John is not speaking here of perfection. The perfect righteousness that all of us need in order to live in the presence of God can only come through Christ, but at the same time there needs to be a genuine positive response to God’s grace to us in Christ. John is talking on the level of covenantal responsibilities. Everyone who has been baptized needs to be true disciple of the Lord Jesus, following in his footsteps, walking in his way of life. This genuine positive response is what John calls repentance. Repentance is an ongoing commitment to walking in the way of the Lord, and the Bible speaks of it as being a condition for salvation.

In the fourth century there was a famous Christian called John Chrysostom. Chrysostom became the Archbishop of Constantinople, which was the second most important city in the Roman Empire after Rome at the time. His surname Chrysostom means golden-mouth, because he was famous as an eloquent and powerful speaker. Chrysostom once said: “even supposing you receive baptism, yet if you are not minded to be led by the Spirit afterwards, you lose the dignity bestowed upon you and the pre-eminence of your adoption.”

In sum: having started the journey, we need to finish the journey. And we finish the journey by persevering in the way of repentance, one step after the other, following in the footsteps of Jesus. Whatever you do, don’t throw away the benefits of your baptism! To paraphrase the words of John the Baptist: without the fruits of repentance you will have no part in the kingdom of God.

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