Today’s reading of the Gospel
And the multitudes asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than is appointed you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” As the people were in expectation, and all men questioned in their hearts concerning John, whether perhaps he were the Christ, John answered them all, “I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he preached good news to the people.
Why did thousands come out to hear John the Baptist? And what was so unusual about his message? Luke says that John “preached good news to the people” (Luke 3:17). The people recognized John as an extraordinary man of God and a prophet for their times. John came from the wilderness in the spirit and the power of Elijah (2 Kings 1:8). Elijah was the Old Testament prophet who had ascended into heaven in a fiery chariot. The Jews understood that Elijah would return to announce the appearance of the Messiah (Malachi 4:5). Centuries had elasped between the last of the Old Testament prophets and John the Baptist. John broke the prophetic silence of the previous centuries when he began to speak the word of God. His message was similar to the message of the Old Testament prophets who chided the people of God for their unfaithfulness and who tried to awaken true repentance in them. Luke mentions in particular two groups of people who came to John for spiritual advice – tax collectors and Jewish soldiers who belonged to the Roman peace-keeping force. Both groups were regarded as questionable by the Jewish authorities and were treated as outcasts.
John’s message of repentance was very practical. He told the people three things: First, we must share our goods with one another, especially with those who lacked the necessities of life. Isn’t that what it really means to love your neighbor as yourself? True love is sacrificial and generous. Second, we must give every person their due and take no advantage of another because of their position or status. For example, those who have the duty to collect taxes from others must charge no more than what is rightfully due. (Tax collectors often made handsome profits for themselves by overcharging others.) Those who have authority over others must not demand more than what is just and right. Soldiers in the Roman army could compel any citizen to assist them whenever they wished, such as carrying their heavy supplies for them or giving them food and drink. They often, however, abused their position to force people to do more for them than what was necessary. John did not tell them to leave their profession, but to be good, honest, and respectful soldiers. And thirdly, John exhorted his listeners to be content with what they had and to avoid coveting what belonged to others. John basically called the people to turn back to God and to walk in his way of love and righteousness. Whenever the gospel is proclaimed it has power to awaken faith in people and to change their lives for good. Do you believe that God’s word is “good news” for you? And do you allow its transforming power to free you from sinful habits and harmful addictions?
John’s message of “good news” inspired many to believe that God was about to do an extraordinary things in their midst. They wondered aloud if John himself might be the promised Messiah, the one who would deliver them from their oppression. When John compared his position with the Messiah, John humbly stated that he considered himself lower than the lowest slave. His task was simply to awaken the the interest of his people for God’s word, unsettle them from their complacency, and arouse in them enough good will to recognize and receive the Messiah when he came. With John the Baptist, the Holy Spirit begins the restoration to the human race of the “divine likeness”, prefiguring what would be achieved with and in the Lord Jesus Christ.
John’s baptism was for repentance – turning away from sin and taking on a new way of life according to God’s word. John said that the Messiah would “baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Fire in biblical times was associated with God and with his action in the world and in the lives of his people. God sometimes manifested his presence by use of fire, such as the burning bush which was not consumed when God spoke to Moses (Exodus 3:2). The image of fire was also used to symbolize God’s glory (Ezekiel 1:4, 13), his protective presence (2 Kings 6:17), his holiness (Deuteronomy. 4:24), his righteous judgment (Zechariah 13:9), and his wrath against sin (Isaiah 66:15-16). John expanded this image with the illustration of the process of separating wheat from chaff. A winnowing fan or shovel was used for tossing the wheat in the air. The heavier kernels of wheat fell to the ground, while the lighter chaff was carried off by the wind. The chaff was then collected and used for fuel (see Isaiah 21:10).
In the New Testament, the image of fire is also used of the Holy Spirit who comes to cleanse us from sin and make us holy (Matthew 3:11 and Acts 2:3). God’s fire both purifies us of sin and it inspires in us a reverent fear of God and of his word. And it increases our desire for holiness and for the joy of meeting the Lord when he comes again. Do you want to be on fire for God and for the return of the Lord Jesus when he comes in his glory? Our baptism in Jesus Christ by water and the Spirit results in a new birth and entry into God’s kingdom as his beloved sons and daughters (John 3:5). Jesus is ready to give us the fire of his Spirit that we may radiate the joy of the gospel to a world in desparate need of God’s light and truth. The word of God has power to change and transform our lives that we may be lights pointing others to Jesus Christ, the true light of the world (John 8:12). Like John the Baptist, we too are called to give testimony to the light and truth of Jesus Christ. Do you point others to Jesus Christ in the way you speak and live?
“Lord Jesus, let your light burn brightly in my heart that I may know the joy and freedom of your kingdom. Fill me with your Holy Spirit and empower me to witness the truth of your gospel and to point others to the light of Christ.”
Don Schwager (2012)