John the Baptist began preaching at the Jordan River —
(Luk 3:7-10 ESV) He said therefore 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? 8 Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And 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. 9 Even now the axe 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.” 10 And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?”
John begins by promising “wrath” — a word used but one other time in Luke —
(Luk 21:23 ESV) Alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people.
And this is a reference to the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in AD 70. So while John certainly might have been speaking of God’s wrath at the Judgment Day, it seems more likely that he is speaking of the curses of Deu 28 to be repeated in about 40 years at the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome.
In fact, the reference to claiming to be safe because they are descended from Abraham (v. 8) repeats Eze 33:24, where the same argument was being made in response to the prophet’s warning against the coming destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon.
Obviously enough, at this point in history, Jesus had not yet been revealed and John’s words would have been heard against the background of the Law and the Prophets. What answer would the crowd have expected to their “What then shall we do?” question?
Surely, something like, have faith in God, give up idols, honor the Torah, especially regarding the poor and vulnerable.
John in fact said,
(Luk 3:11-14 ESV) And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”
In short, act with justice toward others (don’t overcharge taxes, don’t demand bribes) and care for those in need (share your clothes and food). This is “repentance” as John preached it. John spoke in the context of his day based on the principles earlier taught. The crowd would have immediately heard echoes of many similar demands made by the Prophets.
(Luk 3:15-17 ESV) As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ [Messiah], 16 John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 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.”
John prophesies that the Messiah will divide Israel between those who will suffer unquenchable fire and those who will be gathered into God’s barn. The commentators enjoy debating whether he is speaking of AD 70 or the Second Coming. I would argue both.
Those Jews who rejected Jesus were damned and so suffered unquenchable fire (an allusion to Isa 66:24). But they also didn’t follow Jesus’ warning not to revolt against Rome and so they suffered the curses of Deu 28. They suffered both earthly and eternal wrath. And this interpretation fits very well with Deu 28 as well as Jesus’ farewell discourse to Jerusalem later in Luke, in which he warns against the Fall of Jerusalem in Deu 28 terms.
The promise to “baptize” with the Holy Spirit is surely a reference to the many prophecies of the outpouring of the Spirit when the Kingdom arrives, such as Joel 2:28-31 and Isa 44:3.
Baptism with “fire,” in context, can only mean God’s wrath, that is, the Messiah will either give you the Spirit or you will suffer the destroying fire of gehenna.
Some teach that “fire” refers to the tongues of fire on Pentecost, but John’s audience could not have possibly understood that, and he wasn’t speaking to the 12 but to “the people.” Besides, he defines the term in the next verse when he speaks of the unquenchable fire of Isa 66:24.
Like Matthew’s, Luke’s description of the baptism of the Messiah involves the Spirit and fire. (Cf. however, Acts 1:5; 11:16, which omit the reference to “fire.”) The main question about this statement involves whether the reference to “fire” is to be understood positively or negatively, i.e., does it refer to a blessing (the flaming, purifying work of the Spirit) the Messiah brings for the believer or to a fiery judgment that will fall upon the unbeliever. In favor of the former is the parallelism between the “you” who received John’s baptism and the “you” who receive the Messiah’s baptism. This suggests that the same group receives both the Spirit and fire. This would then mean that the baptism of the Spirit Jesus promised (Acts 1:5) was fulfilled at Pentecost when the Spirit came with tongues of fire (2:3).
Yet if Luke wanted his readers to see the reference to “fire” in Luke 3:16 as being fulfilled in Acts 2:3, one would have expected him to include “and with fire” in [Acts] 1:5, but he did not. On the other hand, the reference to fire in Luke 3:9 involves divine judgment, and the immediate context of the following verse that refers to “burning fire” is clearly one of judgment. In fact, “fire” appears throughout Luke as a metaphor for divine judgment (cf. 9:54; 12:49; 17:29).
In the other two instances in which Luke mentioned the baptism of the Spirit (Acts 1:5; 11:16), there is no mention of a baptism of “fire.” Perhaps this is because the audience addressed in these two instances consists of believers and thus “fire” does not fit their situation. In Luke 3:16, however, the audience is mixed, and “fire” describes well what happens to those who do not believe in Jesus. For Luke the baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire is thus best understood as involving two separate groups. For the “wheat” there is the blessing of the Spirit, whereas for the “chaff” there is the judgment of burning. The messianic age therefore is seen as twofold in nature. It brings the blessing of the Spirit to the repentant but the fires of judgment to the unrepentant.
Robert H. Stein, Luke, The New American Commentary, (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 24:134–135.
There are very respectable commentators who disagree, of course, but treating “fire” as the fire of judgment fits John’s style of preaching and fits well with the following verse.
The point, for today, however, is that “repent” for John also included following the Messiah for whom he was preparing the way. Moreover, we have to recognize that John introduced baptism as a means of repentance, with forgiveness as a result.
I skipped —
(Luk 3:3 ESV) 3 And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Now, in the Greek, this is very similar to Acts 2:38, omitting only the promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit and baptism “in the name of Jesus Messiah.” “Repent” would still mean, when spoken by John, just treatment of those over whom you have power (no bribes, no overcharging of taxes) and generosity to those in need (share food and clothing), as well as belief in the Messiah when he is revealed.
Moreover, “repent” would have had national overtones — each one of you should repent because God’ wrath is coming down on Israel.
Baptism, plunging into the river Jordan, was a powerful sign of this renewal. When the children of Israel had come out of Egypt—a story they all knew well because of their regular Passovers and other festivals—they were brought through the Red Sea, through the Sinai wilderness, then through the Jordan into the promised land. Now they were in slavery again—in their own land!—and wanted a new Exodus to bring them to freedom. Since the old prophets had declared that this slavery was the result of Israel’s sin, worshipping idols rather than their one true God, the new Exodus, when it happened, would have to deal with this. The way to escape slavery, the prophets had said, was to ‘return’ to God with heart and soul; that is, to ‘repent’. ‘Return to me, and I will return to you’, one of the last prophets had said (Malachi 3:7).
Hence John’s agenda: ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’. John was doing what the prophet Isaiah had said: preparing a pathway for the Lord himself to return to his people. This was the time. Rescue was at hand.
But the people were not in good shape. Indeed, since baptism was part of the ritual Gentiles had to undergo if they wanted to convert to Judaism, John’s summoning of Israel itself to baptism speaks for itself. Nor was it simply that the nation was in trouble politically; everybody in the crowds needed to face their own moral predicament. John wasn’t going to be satisfied with a mere outward ritual, in which many could hide their real selves behind an outward conformity to this new movement. If God was coming back, he wasn’t coming just to tell them that because they were Abraham’s children everything would be all right. The reason God brings rescue and salvation is precisely because he is the holy and faithful God, keeping covenant with his people—but, if that is so, he is bound to bring judgment as well as mercy. He isn’t a tame God.
Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 33.
Thus, John’s ministry called both for individual and national repentance for forgiveness of sin. God’s wrath would soon be revealed both in heaven, through gehenna, and on earth through the destruction of Jerusalem.
The call for repentance paralleled similar calls by the Prophets of old, except now, rather than being on the cusp of either the blessings of Deu 28:1-14 or Exile, the choice is the blessings of Deu 30:6 — the outpouring of the Spirit — or continued Exile, indeed, a worsening of the Exile.