Luke XIII: Lk. 3:10-20
One way to understand John’s announcement about “preparing the way of the Lord” is like the herald of a wedding. Just as God came like a hero to Israel in Egypt and married her, just as He had come for them in exile and redeemed His people, so John is saying that their Bridegroom is coming for them again.
A Bridal Gown of Grace
The sign that you wanted to be in on this wedding was a baptism of repentance, but John made it clear that it wasn’t enough to just say you were in, you had to live this way of repentance (Lk. 3:8-9). If you want to come to the marriage feast, you need to be wearing wedding clothes (cf. Mt. 22:1-13). So the people ask, what must we do? What does this repentance look like? (Lk. 3:10) John says that this means living lives of sacrifice and generosity and selflessness, sharing food and clothing, not stealing, demanding, threatening, but being content (Lk. 3:11-14). This message of repentance is not unique to John. The rest of the New Testament bears this gospel of repentance. Peter elicits the same question at Pentecost, and tells the people to repent and be baptized (Acts 2:37-38). Later, Paul explains how he ran afoul of the Jewish authorities by preaching repentance (Acts 26:20-21). Paul warns Timothy about the dangers of loving money and says that the Christian life is marked by contentment with food and clothing (1 Tim. 6:6-10, cf. Heb. 13:5). James says that it’s no good to see a brother or sister in need and wish them well; faith without works is dead (Js. 2:14-17). We are saved by faith alone, but we are saved by a faith that is never alone. Likewise, John says that we know we have passed from death to life because we love the brothers (1 Jn. 3:14), and he asks how the love of God can be in somebody who sees a brother in need and doesn’t help (1 Jn. 3:17). This is why we speak up for the unborn harvested for their organs. This is why we speak up for the orphans and widows crushed in the gears of chemical addictions and sexual perversions. This is why we speak up against economic policies that incentivize laziness and greed and poverty. Human societies are always organized around generosity or greed, sacrificial love or violent coercion, the way of Cain or the way of the cross. John is announcing that God is raising up a new Moses, a new Joshua, a new Adam that will come and lead God’s bride back to Him. This announcement is good news, and the only proper response is to repent and believe.
A New Redeemer
One of the offices of the old covenant was “near relative.” According to old covenant law, the near relative was to carry out the death penalty for murder (Num. 35:16ff). This near relative is called the “avenger of blood.” The same word is used for the near relative who sees a family member fall into extreme debt and poverty. If a brother loses his house or property or is himself sold into slavery for his debts, the “redeemer/avenger” may pay the debts and redeem his brother or his house or land (Lev. 25:25). The same word is used to describe the near relative who marries a childless widow to raise up an heir (Ruth 4:1-12). This provision is what Judah’s wicked sons refused to give Tamar (Gen. 38). According to the law, if a brother or the nearest relative refused the duty of being the kinsman-redeemer his sandal would be removed (Dt. 25:9, Ruth 4:7-8). This is all connected to what John says about Jesus. The people are rightly impressed by John’s courage and boldness, and they wonder if perhaps he is the coming Messiah/Redeemer (Lk. 3:15). But John explains that the One who is coming is mightier than him, a better man, a better husband, and thus John says he couldn’t possibly loosen His sandal (Lk. 3:16). In other words, even though John was there, and perhaps by Levite descent seemed like he might be the kinsman-redeemer for Israel, John assures the Israelites that there is One who is a nearer relative, a closer brother, and He will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Lk. 3:16). That baptism will be His justice in sifting Israel, separating the wheat from the chaff (Lk. 3:17). He is coming as the “avenger of blood,” to execute justice on the wicked, to redeem all who have been sold into slavery, and to marry the barren, widowed Israel and make her fruitful again.
The False Kinsman
Historically, it’s pretty clear that Herod and his evil family were Messiah-wannabes. Herod the Great was threatened by the report of another Messiah being born and ordered the murder of the baby boys in Bethlehem (Mt. 2:16-18), and his son, the Herod in our text, is remembered for spending a great deal of wealth to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Even though he was only a “tetrarch,” he wanted the glory of Solomon. He wanted his family to be a new Davidic dynasty. He wanted to be the kinsman-redeemer of Israel. But he clearly wanted this glory through coercion and violence and threats. He had committed adultery with his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias, and when she divorced her husband, Herod took her as his wife (Lk. 3:19). John’s condemnation of Herod’s adultery was not merely that it was unlawful and immoral (though it certainly was); the point was also that Herod was no kinsman-redeemer. Rather than supporting and blessing his brother’s family, he was stealing from and defrauding his brother. Rather than making Israel fruitful, Herod’s style of rule was full of threats and murder, as indicated by his treatment of John (Lk. 3:20).
These three sections of this episode on first glance feel rather disconnected: moral imperatives, the coming Messiah, John thrown in prison for rebuking Herod. But on second glance, they clearly hang together as they compare and contrast the way of grace and the way of the flesh. And what emerges is a picture of grace that is both generous and truthful, both compassionate and full of justice. Jesus, our Kinsman-Redeemer comes to marry us, to redeem us, to pay our debts, and He does it by giving Himself away freely for us. But He is also the avenger of blood, and He tells the truth boldly and resists the proud and the greedy. John’s message holds both of these things together. He preaches compassion and that Herod may not have his brother’s wife. He preaches generosity and against all the evils that Herod had done. And so we are called to embrace this same public witness. We are to be a community of grace, forgiveness, sacrifice and generosity, but we are also a community that loves the truth and tells the truth because our fellow human beings need the truth as much as they need food and clothing and friendship.