Luke 3: 1 -20
A reading of the gospels may provide a view that Jesus’ ministry in Galilee often eclipsed the message of John the Baptist, but Luke’s Gospel presented a perspective that John presaged the arrival of the Messiah. In those days, the Jews believed that they would escape the coming judgment by Yahweh, simply due to their special relationship as His chosen people and as Abraham’s descendants. Although John’s conception of the gospel was pre-crucifixion (v.18), he preached a markedly different judgment theology, calling them to repentance (vv.3-6). In a nutshell, he warned them that they would not escape God’s judgment, and that God was more than able ‘from these stones to call forth children to Abraham’ (you really need to have an omnipotent view of God to believe that; vv.7-9; cf. Roms 4:11-12, 16-17; Gal 3:7,29). The overlap of John’s message with his cousin’s was seamless, paving the way for the gospel of salvation.
Many repented at John’s warnings, but what does repentance look like as the Jews turn their backs on their religious and racial pedigrees to trust in the mercy of God? First of all, there is a requirement that his followers bear fruits in keeping with it (vv.8-9). Luke mentioned three broad groups of enquirers, viz., the crowds, tax collectors and soldiers, and his exhortations were instructionally specific to each. Was there a reason for Luke to mention just these three groups? An obvious observation would be that these groups represented only a wider distribution of professions, and John’s remonstrations were inclusive. The animosities the commoners have toward the tax collectors and soldiers, who were part of the despised Roman occupation establishment were widely felt. But repentance leveled the playing field, and with it the elimination of enmities between enemies. Repenting of their culpability and accepting the mercy of God has only one outcome – a desire and readiness to extend that same mercy to others. Furthermore, Luke’s intention was to emphasize to Theophilus, who was likely a high-ranking Roman official, the abuse of power inherent within the administrative system and the availability of God’s mercy for forgiveness and hope, to those who repented.
To repent meant they had to behave differently towards each other as the nuanced exhortations implied concerning possessions and money. The disenfranchised, the mainstay of John’s audience, were instructed to share what little necessities they possessed, viz., clothing and food, with those even less fortunate than themselves (vv.10-11; cf. Heb 13:5). I recalled God’s faithfulness during the 1980’s recession when donations to the international mission organization I was serving as a home staff were extremely low. For three to six months, all donations were prioritized for field missionaries’ use and other exigencies. I was walking around with just coins in my wallet, and public transport was out of reach; walking 4 to 8 km was a norm whenever errands needed to be run. I often wondered how other home staff with children were coping, compared to a single person. Public ministry continued normally and no mention was made about our financial status. Only the daily incense of prayer went up to our heavenly Father. Our faithful God never forgets His children. Whenever food parcels arrived at the office, they were shared. A quiet trust in God prevailed and saw us through this testing time. For me, the trial lasted another nine months due to some unforeseen circumstances in the office that cropped up. The lessons were precious and there was a deep satisfying joy in trusting God for our needs.
It was apparent that abuse of the taxation system by the tax collectors was a common practice, but John charged them to collect what they were instructed to do, no more (vv.12-13). And soldiers were upbraided not to use their lawful authority to extort money or falsely accuse others (v.14), and to be content with their wages, indicating that they could live within their means on their current income. The obsession of accumulating and hoarding wealth spotlighted by John meant an absence of a lifestyle of dependence on God’s mercy and faithfulness, that inevitably drove them towards seeking security and contentment in its accretion, and in illegitimate ways too (Heb 13:5). To value mercy was not only to desist from the exploitation of others, but also to use their particular resources compassionately to alleviate distress and poverty around them (cf. Micah 6:8). The underlying guide was that they were stewards of all the resources that God has given to them (Ps 24:1; 1 Cor 7:23; 1 Tim 6:7-10). It is a pertinent reminder that these were object lessons prior to the full gospel message that John required of his disciples – nevertheless a challenge to our present lifestyle and worldly concerns.