[November 30, 2008] Remember why we come together on the Lord’s Day. We come:
- to hear Jesus presented to us in the gospel,
- to chew on this so that we remember and “recognize” Jesus,
- to receive Him into ourselves as our food through the Spirit,
- and to share this supper with each other in oneness.
This gathering is the hub around which turns our week and our life.
The Gospel according to Matthew was written by one of the Twelve apostles, the one who was a tax collector and who became their scribe. He had a table and the tools for writing, and collected the sayings and eyewitness accounts of Jesus. He composed his “gospel” in Antioch when the outreach to the Gentiles was just beginning and was still controversial. He wrote his gospel to be read in the churches, but the readers that he had most in mind when he wrote were Jews, those who believed in Jesus and those who did not. I think that Matthew had finished writing his scroll by the spring or summer of the year 52, before Paul started his third missionary journey, or about twenty-two years after the resurrection of Jesus.
The Gospel according to Luke was the second gospel written. Luke was a Gentile physician who was converted on Paul’s first missionary journey, in Galatia, six or seven years earlier (45-46). He ran into Paul again outside of Philippi four years after that (49). Sometime during these seven years he must have gone to Palestine to interview eyewitnesses and do his own gospel research. Then he got a copy of the Matthew’s Gospel scroll (52) and began work on his own gospel. He visited Paul when he was in prison in Ephesus (54), and four years after Matthew was finished, he finished his own gospel from his home in Philippi (56 AD, see 2 Cor. 8:18).
Why a second gospel? My sense is that Paul encouraged Luke in this endeavor and that it was because he wanted a gospel that was more accessible to the kind of churches that he was establishing in the Gentile world—churches immersed in Gentile culture but were familiar with the Old Testament through the Judaism of the diasporan synagogues (the synagogues scattered throughout the Gentile world). Luke was a highly educated Gentile convert who was qualified to undertake this task. The air we breathe in Luke is quite different than in Matthew. It breathes the air of the Roman Empire; it is cosmopolitan, whereas Matthew sees things from the perspective of the Jewish communities of Syria and Palestine.
Matthew is rigidly organized, like a manual, and its style is entirely Jewish. Luke reads like classical literature. It is about people and women, about life in the home, and about times together around the dinner table. It is full of human interest. Whereas Matthew was highly objective, Luke is the opposite; it is highly subjective. The church will later decide—through the Holy Spirit—that we need both gospels (or rather that we need all four), but at this point, let us at least recognize this: that Luke was written for us. Learn to taste it.
A Baptism of Repentance for Forgiveness of Sins (Luke 3:1-6)
We begin Advent with the words from Isaiah 40:1-5, “Make clear the way of YHWH [the Lord]; make straight a highway for our God. And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” This is the word of God that came upon John when he was out in the desert. God is coming! and with His coming, He brings salvation for all people. So get ready.
“Advent” means coming. For four Sundays before Christmas we get ourselves ready for the Lord’s advent. The hope of Israel is the Messiah. When He comes, salvation will come. They are waiting for Him to come, and we—the church—wait with them. Only we know that the One who is coming is the One who has already come. The One who is coming to bring salvation is Jesus born of Mary in Bethlehem, Jesus crucified under Pontius Pilate, and Jesus who rose from the dead and now lives as our Lord and is present within and among us through the Holy Spirit. We gather to Him. His living presence among us is what makes us the church. For us He is no unnamed spirit. He is Jesus who is presented to us in the Gospel. This is who we believe.
This should not make us intolerant of others. When Paul was in Athens, he saw an altar inscribed, “To an Unknown God.” He told them, “What therefore you worship without knowing, this I announce to you” (Acts 17:23). Jesus is the hope not only of the Jews but of all the people of the world. What they grope for in the dark is revealed in the coming of this One, the Jesus whom we have found.
The Jordan River runs north to south from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea, from Galilee in the north to Judea in the south. John went up and down the valley of the Jordan preaching to the people to repent and baptizing them as a sign of their commitment. Repent means to change your inner direction, to turn your life around. John internalized the words of Isaiah. The way of the Lord, literally the road on which He is to walk, is your life, your inner being. When Isaiah says that road is to be made smooth and straight, and every ditch is to be filled in and every bump smoothed out, the detours removed and the ruts paved over (Peterson’s Message), he is means your inner being, your heart, and the whole way you live your life.
We begin the Christian life with baptism. It assumes two things: (1) the world as a system that is organized in rebellion against God—and therefore is under God’s judgment—which enslaves people to its powers, and (2) Jesus Christ as the Lord and Savior who has defeated the world by His death and resurrection and is able to free us from its grip. When we are baptized, we renounce the claim that the world has on us and we declare that we now belong to Jesus, that we give Him our full allegiance. Baptism is the first act of obedience that signifies our faith. Unless you are baptized, you are still undeclared. You may be a believer, but you are disobedient.
Produce Fruits Worthy of Your Repentance (3:7-9)
Of course, vipers remind us of the Serpent in Eden. John says, paraphrasing Peterson’s words (from The Message), “Do slither down here to the river because you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to deflect God’s judgment?” There is no escaping God’s judgment. Do you think you can hide your life from God by showing up in church or by doing some outward things? As if God only sees what you do at certain times. God sees everything you do, and He sees your inner life as well. To repent means to accept God’s scrutiny, and His judgment, and to accept His demand that you must change—from the inside out—and this change must show fruits.
Jews may say, “We are children of Abraham,” but that is quite beside the point. God intends, after all, to make Abraham the father of a multitude of Gentiles (Genesis 17:4-5). I could also say, my parents were Christian and they had me baptized. To make this claim because of your natural birth is neither here nor there. As Paul says, “Circumcision profits if you practice the Torah; but if you are a transgressor of the Torah, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. If therefore the uncircumcision keeps the requirements of the Torah, will not his uncircumcision be accounted as circumcision?” (Romans 2:25-29). “What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.”
When John says, “The axe is laid at the root of the trees,” he is emphasizing that the time of judgment has come—because Christ has come, and that the judgment is radical (from Latin, radix, root), exposing the core of your being; there is nothing superficial about it.
What Kind of Fruits? (3:10-14)
If repentance does not affect your life, how real is it? You can call yourself a Christian, you can be baptized, you can attend worship once in a while, and you can avoid doing anything terrible. But if your life from Monday to Saturday does not reflect an interior change, probably you are deluding yourself. The change has to be reflected in your generosity in hard times, in your doing something for those people around you who do not have enough, in your treating people fairly, in your not grumbling all the time. It has to show in your integrity, not in your show.
Jesus in Luke’s gospel is going to pay a lot of attention to your attitude towards material possessions, your concern for your neighbor, and to your practice of hospitality in the home. John is mild compared to Jesus, so let us get used to it.
Even John Is Beside the Point (3:15-17)
People love celebrities, but John lets the people know that he is only a stagehand (Peterson). What matters is Jesus. Baptism in water, if it is an act of obedience, is one thing. In itself it is meaningless. What matters is the One who is coming, because He will baptize—literally immerse or dip—you in the Holy Spirit and fire. The Holy Spirit will empower the church for its mission. Fire signifies God’s cleansing and purifying action. “He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God, everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.”
At the end of the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus says, “Behold, I send forth the promise of My Father upon you … power from on high” (24:49) and at the beginning of Acts (Luke also wrote Acts), Jesus again tells the disciples to wait for the promise of the Father, “for John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized in the Holy Spirit not many days from now … You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you shall be My witnesses … unto the uttermost parts of the earth” (1:4-8).
The church is that entity on earth which has been baptized in the Holy Spirit by the risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ, the One who was born of Mary in Bethlehem. This baptism empowers every believer to be His witness, to bring others to the knowledge of Him, and to build up His church on earth.
The Gospel (3:18-20)
John announced the gospel—the good news, the glad tidings, the joyous proclamation—to the people. The gospel is Jesus. John’s message was not all about judgment. It was about the coming of God as the Savior. In Luke Jesus is the Savior. John also tells us that the Coming One will baptize His own in the Holy Spirit.
Luke takes John the Baptist out of the picture early (Matthew does it in chapter 14) to make room for Jesus. The coming of Jesus is the gospel that John proclaimed. Nevertheless, the hostility of the powers of the world toward John is a foreshadowing of what Jesus Himself would face, and what we as the church also face, daily.