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Produce the Fruit of Repentance (Luke 3:7-14)
by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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"Eight Palestinian Viper Snakes in Nazareth home," blares the headline from IsraelWire for August 6, 1999. It turns out that a Nazareth family, after spreading the insecticide in the home, called the snake catcher after seeing numerous snakes coming out of the rooms. The snake catcher caught eight venomous Palestinian Vipers before he left. Scroll back in Palestine nearly 2,000 years and we hear John the Baptist railing at his audience as a "brood of vipers." Why?
Brood of Vipers (3:7)
Over night John the Baptist had become a celebrity. In my imagination I see crowds of gawkers hoping to see something spectacular. John looks at the faces in the crowd and sees the snide remarks, the haughty expressions of the religious elite come to hear the desert preacher. Why have you come if you're not serious? John wonders, and then calls out in anger. "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?"
The word "viper" is Greek echidna, " 'viper,' usually a poisonous snake,". But what is a "brood of vipers"? The word translated "brood" (NIV) or "generation" (KJV) is Greek gennema, which means, " 'that which is produced' or 'born' (of living creatures), 'child, offspring.' " The common Palestinian Viper lays up to 20 eggs which hatch in six weeks as eight inch long vipers. John the Baptist had probably run across nests of these poisonous snakes in the desert. Later in his ministry Jesus uses the same expression to describe the Pharisees.
"You brood of vipers!" says John. "Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?" Perhaps he has in mind the scurrying of vipers that would leave a burning field -- or in the case of the news story from Nazareth, insecticide. "Who warned you," John is asking, "that judgment fire is coming so that you scurry forth?"
Perhaps, he's speaking especially to the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 3:7) who come to look, but not to examine their own hearts. I wonder, sometimes, how many are in church just for the entertainment, but aren't really serious about seeking God? Onlookers, observers, who never quite enter in with their hearts.
Fruit of Repentance (3:8-9)
John demands the evidence or fruit of repentance, not merely the religious status quo. Decades later, Jesus' brother James put it another way, "Faith without works is dead" (James 2:17, 26).
You may recall in the previous passage where we observed that the religious establishment refused to be baptized by John (Luke 7:30). They would not submit to baptism, the kind of purification required only of Gentile converts to Judaism. They were Jews, circumcised, sons of Abraham, with a full pedigree. John's next words skewer this self-satisfied attitude:
"Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire." (3:8-9)
John destroys the notion that God can use only the Chosen People. He can just as easily create new children of faith -- and a few years later does just that as the Gospel moves out into the Gentile world and wins hundreds of thousands of converts to Christianity.
John compares the coming judgment to a fruit tree that is cut down and burned because it no longer produces good fruit. "The ax is already at the root of the trees," thunders the prophet. Judgment is about ready to begin. Now is the time for repentance. Let's look at the fruit of our lives.
Example: Compassion for the Poor (3:10-11)
Many of his hearers are cut to the heart. "What should we do then," they ask. Exactly what kinds of things constitute the repentance that God seeks of us? John proceeds to give several examples that echo the Prophet Micah's answer to a similar question:
"He has showed you, O man, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8)
The first requirement is for compassion and mercy on those less fortunate than ourselves: "The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same" (3:11). What a simple statement, but it drives to the root of our own selfishness and greed. If we are seeking to please God, then we must have God's heart of love for our neighbor and not close our eyes to his need. Share what you have with those in need -- that's the fruit of basic repentance and obedience to God.
Example: Tax Collectors (3:12-13)
The next two examples come in response to specific questions by members of professions that were hated by others. We tell lawyer jokes; they probably had developed a whole repertoire of jokes to jab at the selfishness of tax collectors and soldiers.
Tax collectors were hated for two reasons. First, they worked for the oppressor, the enemy, the Romans. They were viewed as traitors, turncoats, who would sell out their honor for the love of money. Second, they had a reputation for cheating their fellow citizens wherever they could. Tax collectors worked on a "farm system." A chief tax collector would bid on a contract to collect taxes from an entire district. He was responsible for collecting a certain amount. Whatever he could collect over that amount he could keep for himself. In turn, he hired others to work for him on a similar basis. Tax collectors had a strong economic incentive to collect as much as they could get away with.
John tells them plainly, "Don't collect any more than you are required to." They are to be just and fair, enforcing the tax laws as written rather than lying and cheating to take advantage of the weak and ignorant. I find it fascinating that he doesn't tell them to stop being tax collectors. It is possible to be an honest tax collector, in the same way that it is possible to be an honest lawyer or an honest politician or an honest used car salesman. Simple fairness, honesty, and justice is required of us. We are to repent of anything we are doing that takes unfair advantage of others.
"But I can't make a living if I don't shade the truth about the product I'm selling!" Then repentance requires that you don't sell it, and that you find another job. Honesty and fairness are required of disciples. The guideline Jesus gave us is the "golden rule": "Do to others as you would have them do to you" (Luke 6:31), or to "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Luke 10:27b). We disciples are to treat others the way we'd like to be treated if we were in their shoes. This is basic discipleship, the basic commandment that underlies all of God's commandments.
Example: Soldiers (3:14)
Soldiers were also present at the Jordan River with the crowds, and they, too, were conscience-stricken. "What should we do," they asked John. I wonder what kind of soldiers these were? Perhaps not Roman soldiers, but the forces of Herod Antipas, stationed in Perea. John gives them three instructions: (1) don't extort money, (2) don't accuse people falsely, and (3) be content with your pay.
Being in a position of power in a police state has its temptations. There was the threat of violence, and the threat of false accusation. The word translated "extort" (NIV) or "do violence" (KJV) is Greek diaseio, " 'extort money by violence' (lit. 'shake violently'; compare our slang 'shake down'), legal technical term." The word "accuse falsely" is Greek sukophanteo, " 'accuse falsely, slander,' then generally, 'annoy, harass, oppress, blackmail.' " .
We see this kind of problem wherever the police force is corrupt. They want money to do what they should do as a normal part of their job. They can make threats, both physical and legal, to compel average citizens to comply. Live hasn't changed so very much in 2,000 years.
The chief problem, John the Baptist says, is the soldiers' discontent with what they have. Greek arkeo means "be satisfied or content with something."  Paul uses this word again in 1 Timothy:
"But godliness with contentment (Greek autarkeia) is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content (Greek arkeo) with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs." (1 Timothy 6:6-10)
Paul uses the same concept, if not the same word, as he writes from jail to the Philippian church:
"I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content (Greek autarkes) whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength." (Philippians 4:11-13)
When you think about it, John's whole message here is about contentment. Each of John's practical examples of fruits of repentance revolve around the love of money or of material things. To share clothing and food with those less fortunate requires that we repent of selfishness and greed. For a tax collector to repent of over-collection of taxes deals with the sins of selfishness and greed. For a soldier to extort money by violence or blackmail, too, requires repentance from selfishness and greed.
Greed is the adversary of contentment in our soul. But greed stems not from a lack of money, but from a lack of trust. To be content to trust God for our daily needs is faith, while greed pulls us to grasp at money and material things in order to guarantee our daily needs. John the Baptist is not only preaching compassion and justice, he also preaching trust. Repentance demands dethroning the materialism as the sign that we are okay, that the future will be okay.
The common people responded to John's preaching with contrite hearts: "What should we do, then?" Our response as disciples should be a simple prayer to God, "What, Lord are you trying to say to me? And what should I be doing?"
Lord, when I examine John's message it no longer seems so harsh. It seems real and realistic. He's talking about real struggles I have in my own soul. The brood of vipers in me are snakes of selfishness, characteristic of lack of trust in you. Purify me. Purify my motives. Cleanse me from clutching at security so hard that it warps my soul away from compassion and justice. Forgive me, O God, and let the fruits of my repentance grow in my life from this day on. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.
"Produce fruit in keeping with repentance." (Luke 3:8a)
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- Why do you think John the Baptist calls people a brood of vipers, a den of snakes?
- How did the Jews' religious pride in Abraham keep them from taking John's call for repentance seriously? How could religious pride have that same effect on us?
- In what way does sharing clothing and food with the poor constitute meaningful repentance? What ways do you find to do this in your everyday life?
- Tax collectors were tempted to collect more than was due them How does this same temptation show up in your line of work or education or home?
- How will we know when we have repented? What are the fruits of genuine repentance?
- How does discontent with our lot in life cause us to sin? What would constitute repentance in this circumstance?
- "Eight Palestinian Viper snakes in Nazareth home," IsraelWire, August 6, 1999. http://www.israelwire.com/new/990806/99080624.html
- BAGD331. In modern times a total of 34 varieties of snakes have been found in Israel, seven of them poisonous, and of these, the Palestinian Viper (Vipera xanthina palestinae) accounts for the majority of snake bites, sometimes fatal if not treated. Rinna Samuel, Israel and the Holy Land (Golden Press, 1967, 1969), pp. 34-35. Terence M. Davidson, M.D., "Immediate First Aid for bites by Vipera xanthina palestinae (Palestine Viper)," University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, professor's section. He says, "This is a very venomous and dangerous snake native to Iran, Turkey, Israel, and Jordan. The Palestine Viper accounts for the majority of snake bites in these regions and envenomation may result in a wide spectrum of clinical manifestations including local tissue destruction, internal hemorrhage, coagulopathy, and cardiovascular collapse. Death may ensue rapidly but more commonly occurs within 12-24 hours." http://www-surgery.ucsd.edu/ENT/Davidson/Snake/Palestin.htm. He also lists the names of poisonous snakes in the viper category, specifically adders, to which the Palestine Viper belongs. http://www-surgery.ucsd.edu/ENT/Davidson/Snake/3cnames.htm
- BAGD155-156. Bauer sees our phrase as "brood of vipers," similar to an expression in Aesop's Fables.
- "Palestine Viper, Vipera palestinae", Utah's Hogle Zoo. Includes photo and description. http://www.hoglezoo.org/reptiles/palviper.htm
- Jesus says a similar thing in the Parable of the Tenants (Luke 20:16-19), and Paul describes Gentile Christians as "Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Galatians 3:29), even they have only been "grafted in" where the unbelieving Jews' branches were "broken off" (Romans 11:17-21). Perea is located east of the Jordan just below Pella on the north and the Arnon on the south. William S. LaSor, "Perea," ISBE 3:762-763.
- Marshall, p. 143. Josephus Antiquities, 18.5.1, sec. 113; also 17:198f.
Copyright © 1985-2016, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastorjoyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.
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