Commentary Luke 3:7-18 Part 2
John's epithet, "the Baptizer" distinguishes him by his essential activity of baptizing to express repentance, the resolute act of entering into a life of transformation. His ministry in Luke's narrative world, as in the other Synoptics, is successful, for, as the narrator indicates, "crowds were coming out to be baptized by him."
Distinctively Lucan, however, is John's prophetic involvement in moral instruction as well as apocalyptic eschatology. Like the prophets before him, he did not hesitate to rebuke his audience in denunciatory speech. Amos had addressed the wealthy women of the Northern Kingdom as "You cows of Bashan," Jeremiah had referred to Jechoniah as "a despised broken pot." Speaking out of this prophetic tradition, John reprimands the crowds coming to his baptism, "Generations of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?"
What, indeed, had motivated them to come to John for baptism? Very likely the fear of divine judgment! But how sincere is their repentance? Genuine repentance manifests itself in deeds of justice and love, and the evangelist Luke will present John offering some concrete ethical exhortations to different groups of his contemporaries.
Above all, they are not to be tempted to rely on their ethnic identity as the elect people of God, the offspring of Abraham and Sarah. The identity of being God's Israel must always be established by works of justice, reconciliation and love. That is the integration of identity and activity that genuine repentance requires. God is able to raise up offspring for Abraham from inanimate stones, even as God created Adam from clay. Repentance is critical, for God is coming and a reckoning will take place. The separation that apocalyptic eschatology anticipated is imminent: "Already the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and cast into fire."
The crowds who have come to John for the baptism of repentance want practical guidance as to how they can produce fruit worthy of repentance: "What shall we do?" John proceeds to prepare a repentant people equipped for the Lord, in accordance with Gabriel's annunciation to Zechariah (1:17). To the general audience John urges no hoarding or acquiring more possessions than essential for daily life: "The one who has two changes of underwear, let him, let her, give to the one who has none, and let the one who has food do likewise." Repentance is expressed by a simple life-style that does not accumulate possessions but shares generously in view of the needs of the have-nots and the disadvantaged in society.
Tax collectors are among the repentant, and they too want practical guidance to give expression to their repentance. "Extract no more beyond that which has been ordered to you," John admonishes. Soldiers are also among those submitting to John's baptism, and they too desire guidelines. "Extort nothing by violence neither oppress," John commands, "and be satisfied with your wages."
John's baptism of repentance and his attendant ethical summons evoke speculation among the baptized penitents. Could he be the Christ, God's Messiah, who has at long last appeared?
Without hesitation or uncertainty John defines his dispensational commission: "I, on the one hand, baptize with water." Although he claims to be unworthy to play the role of a slave by loosing the thongs of the sandals of the one far stronger who is coming after him, his water baptism is not to be minimized or denigrated. He is God's forerunner preparing a repentant people for God's coming (1:15-17). He should not be regarded as the forerunner of the Messiah! Although 3:16 is often construed as a reference to Jesus, the referent of John's characterization can be none other than God. God is coming! When God comes, God will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Indeed, it is God who baptizes Jesus with the Holy Spirit and identifies him as his Son and surrogate who will fulfill God's work of salvation. It is also God who baptizes the 120 disciples with the Holy Spirit and the tongue of fire as they are gathered in the upper room, according to Acts 2:3.
When God comes, the apocalyptic expectation of the great segregation will take place. John's anticipation of this separation identifies him with Jewish apocalypticism. The divine judgment will be like a peasant's winnowing shovel. It will separate the wheat from the chaff. The chaff will be burned as fuel for fire, and the wheat will be gathered into the divine barn.
God comes, as John had promised! But only Jesus is baptized with the Holy Spirit. This is his commissioning as God's Son to serve as God's surrogate. But in contrast to John's apocalyptic prediction, Jesus will not fulfill this expectation of the great divorce. He will not separate the wheat from the chaff. Here is the decisive aspect of the paradigm shift that Jesus inaugurates. Because he does not fulfill John's apocalyptic expectations, John will eventually send two of his disciples to Jesus in 7:18-20 to inquire, "Are you the coming one, or do we await another?" Jesus responds to that question first of all with deeds: "In that hour he healed many of diseases and scourges and wicked spirits, and he graced many blind to see." Then he sends his reply to John, "Go and report to John the things you saw and heard. The blind receive their sight, the lame walk about, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are resurrected, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is anyone who is not scandalized by me!"
Apocalyptic eschatology, which John represents, was oriented to separation. Jesus, as God's surrogate, heals and restores and unites human beings in a new communion to constitute a new society. The disciples, like their Pioneer, will eventually be called to exercise God's rule on God's behalf and, like their Pioneer, subvert all forms and forces of separation in order to unite human beings and thereby continue to actualize the "kingdom of God."
Herman C. Waetjen