John has arrived, and he’s been preaching repentance. We must remember that though we know nothing about his formative years, he is of priestly lineage. Whatever training John received, his aged parents likely entrusted his care to those who would raise him to be faithful to God. He gets right to work when he steps into the public from the wilderness. While John is a prophet, he’s not just a prophet (Matt. 11:7–9). He’s the one God chose before he was even in the womb.
John’s activity attracted religious leaders (Matt. 3:7; Luke 3:7). Pharisees and Sadducees came, but we don’t read about them in the Hebrew Scriptures. When the Greeks spread Hellenistic culture in Judea, a group arose that wanted to remain faithful to the covenant with God. They were called “the pious.” This group aligned with the Maccabees and revolted in a holy war against the Seleucids. The “pious” later became Pharisees—a name meaning “separate”—while those who retired to the desert became the Essenes. The Pharisees were representatives of the Law—oral and written. While the New Testament somewhat vilifies the Pharisees, their intentions were born of a concern for preserving Jewish culture. They wanted ceremonial purity (Mark 7:7ff) and to protect fellow Jews from transgressing God’s commands (Matthew 12:1–2).
While their origin is ambiguous, the Sadducees were aristocrats. They were typically priests and differed from the Pharisees by enjoying the favor of the rich. The Pharisees wanted the populace’s confidence (Antiq. 13.10.6; cf. 18.1.4). They argued against the oral law and advocated primarily for the Law as higher than the prophets (cf. Matthew 22:23–33). They were not strangers to conflict with the Pharisees. They did not believe in the resurrection, angels, or that a person has a spirit (Acts 23:6–9; Mark 12:18; cf. Antiq. 18.1.4). Furthermore, they denied fate altogether (Antiq. 13.5.9) and believed a particular contribution should be made for sacrifices and that they should not be funded by the temple treasury. They were undoubtedly supporters of Rome, as witnessed by their support of the Hasmoneans. Because of this support, they enjoyed primary influence within the Sanhedrin—a governing body of seventy-one religious and political leaders for the Jews. Although, they would side with the Pharisees from time to time to be tolerated by the populace (Antiq. 18.1.4). Their political ideology gave them a willingness to compromise, which led to the adoption of Hellenistic tendencies.
John’s address of these two groups is telling (Matt. 3:8; Luke 3:8). Jesus used this exact phrase when addressing the Pharisees (Matt. 12:34; 23:33). To call someone a serpent was insulting and associated with moral deficiency because vipers were believed by the ancients to devour their mothers which may indicate that John intended to convey to the crowd that they were “unfaithful to their heritage” as Jews. Their corruption and satisfaction with the status quo weren’t what God wanted.
Before John immersed those who came to him, he sternly warned them that their lives be transformed and that the outcome of their faith shines forth in the bearing of good fruit (cf. Origen Luke 22.6). John’s baptism was unique because he administered it when washings (cf. Heb. 6:2) were typically self-administered (2 Kings 5:10, 14; cf. Zech 13:1). Proselyte baptism, from Gentile to Jew, was self-administered but was a one-time observance much like John’s. This baptism was meant to be understood as a conversion. The purposes of John’s baptism of repentance may be summed up as:
● Expressing repentance and turning to a new way of life.
● Mediating divine forgiveness.
● Purification from ritual and moral uncleanness.
● Foreshadowing the ministry of the expected Lord.
● An initiation into the “true Israel” and not a closed community.
● A protest against the temple establishment since it took place in the Jordan (Matt. 3:6, 13; Mark 1:5, 9; John 1:28).
If John intended to relay that they were unfaithful to their heritage, he would have further reiterated this belief by adjuring them to not claim their physical heritage as Abraham’s descendants. Since God could raise descendants from Abraham from stones, the Gentiles coming to faith should not be a considerable surprise. Only those showing worthy fruits of repentance would escape the fire.
To demonstrate those worthy fruits of repentance, the crowd asked John what must be done to illustrate those worthy fruits of repentance. Everything he told them to do infers that their pre-repentance behavior was immoral and sinful. Being a hoarder of clothing and food neglected one’s, fellow man. Tax collectors were to gather what was required and no more. The soldiers were to be content with their living and stop robbing people. Each of those addressed dealt not only with stewardship but with a divorce from materialism. Stewardship is a common theme in Luke’s Gospel and is often approached through sharing and even liquidation. Those necessary sacrifices were needed to follow Jesus in his mission because being tied down by materials hindered the complete devotion Christ demanded in spreading the Gospel.
John’s reference to unstrapping the Lord’s sandal has often been interpreted as the work of a slave toward their master. However, it may have been about the marriage custom of the bride to unstrap her husband’s sandal (Gen. 38; Ruth 4:7–8). Holy Spirit baptism is not the same as water baptism because Christ isn’t recorded as having baptized anyone (cf. John 4:2). Long before John the Baptist preached the baptism with the Spirit, the prophets foretold a heavenly outpouring of God’s spirit that would take place in the days of the coming kingdom of the Messianic era (Isaiah 32:15; Ezek. 39:29; Joel 2:28–29). The unmistakable act by which John would know the administrator of Holy Spirit baptism, the Lord, was the one on whom the Spirit would rest (John 1:32–33; cf. Acts 2:33).