John said 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? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’, for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” …
“But one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and 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 proclaimed the good news to the people.
Verse 18 says that “so, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people”. When one has good news, people rejoice when they hear it. How could the people have rejoiced when they heard that “even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees”, or “the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”? John spoke directly and clearly to the crowds, calling them “a brood of vipers” that needed to repent from their sin. What is there in the above passage that is good news?
I struggled with this for a long time when reading the passage. I could clearly see that the overarching direction of the gospel of Luke was to prepare the context for the good news of the coming and ministry of Jesus, but I didn’t see where the message of joy was.
Considering these passages were from the Advent reading, I should have seen that the good news comes in verse 16: “But one who is more powerful than I is coming”. The good news is that the one with the authority to gather the wheat into his granary and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire is coming, to administer justice on the earth. For this reason that the chorus of the Christmas song “O Holy Night”tells the hearer “Fall on your knees/ O hear the angel voices”.
But why did Luke mean when he expressed the message of the gospel as told by John the Baptist in such a way here in this passage? It was because he recognized that the good news of the gospel must come with an initial call to repentance. Rather than for all, God’s promises are for all that will receive – “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13).
It is an incomplete and deceptive telling of the gospel to speak only of the promises of God without the judgment of God, in which he will reward and punish those according to their works (Romans 2:6-8). Just as it is written in Scripture,“There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”, it is also written, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves,‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’, for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham”. We would do well to respond as the crowd does to John the Baptist, and turn to God.
The readings from the Prophets could not have been more aptly chosen to express this idea.In the passage from Isaiah 12, verse 1 says, “You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O LORD, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me.” We are thankful to him for though he was justly angry with us for our sins, he forgave us, and from that forgiveness comes our salvation and hope. Isaiah continues: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will be not afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation … Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great is your midst is the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 12:2,5-6).
The message of the entire book of Zephaniah is similar. The book of Zephaniah begins with the words, “I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, says the LORD” (Zephaniah 1:2). But this judgment is to show God’s zeal for removing all that is evil from the midst of his people; once he has done so, the end of the book of Zephaniah reveals such a shocking shift in tone that some scholars considered whether or not Zephaniah himself actually wrote the conclusion. But God is fundamentally a loving God, and his wrath is as the wrath of a father,to discipline and correct. The astoundingly loving God is the character he will display towards his children for eternity once there is no more sin:
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love;he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the LORD.
The good news of the gospel is this: All who repent and turn away from their sins will be forgiven, and the King of kings will make you his sons and daughters. He will be your salvation, strength, and might; he will rejoice over you with gladness;he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. He will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. Come, seek the Lord while he may be found. Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!
In closing, Philippians4:4-7 has the following to say to us regarding the fact that “the Lord is near”:
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
All scripture is taken from the NRSV.
Allen Lai ’20 is a Chemistry and Physics concentrator in Quincy.