Ambrose reflects a widespread view among early commentators that John is here “a type of the law, because the law could denounce sin, but not pardon it” (Exposition of Luke 2.68; cf. Calvin 1972: 1.11). Later he adds, “there is therefore one baptism of repentance and another of grace” (Exposition of Luke 2.79).
Here the baptism is a sign of true and most practical repentance and John’s prophetic office: to the penitents’ Ezekiel-like question, “What shall we do then?” (Luke 3:10), John’s answer to those who have possessions is that they share them (3:11), to the tax collectors for the Roman government that they take no more than is appropriate (3:12–13), and to the soldiers that they should “not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with [their] wages” (3:14).
Both early and medieval commentators (Origen may have been the first) noted how these three groups of penitents reflected the three basic estates as they understood them: commoners, clerks, and knights (soldiers); these who come to John are thus a representative remnant of Jewish society.
This aspect of John’s message, namely that a scrupulous ethical life is both necessary for a true repentance and certainly consequent upon it, is recorded uniquely in Luke’s Gospel: “fruits worthy of repentance” (3:8) establish that reformed action, not mere membership, is the criterion, and it connects this passage, as Bonaventure notes, to the prospect of God’s judgment (2001–4: 1.20.240; cf. Matt. 21:19; Luke 13:7; Dan. 4:11).
Here, as earlier in Old Testament contexts, almsgiving is related to the idea that sin incurs indebtedness to both God and neighbor, and gifts to the house of the Lord and to the needy are ways provided by which our indebtedness may be satisfied (Augustine, Sermon 389). This concept will carry over into the teaching of Jesus, as the prayer he taught the disciples (Luke 11:2–4) and the repentance of Zacchaeus (19:8–10) make clear.
Calvin says that “good works are called the fruits of repentance, for repentance is an inward thing . . . but results in the production of fruit by a change of life” (1972: 1.122). In the light of 3:10–14, as read by the church down through the centuries, we cannot doubt that 3:8–9 links the general absence of “works worthy of repentance” in the larger population to Israel’s disfavor and God’s judgment, and so prompts John the Baptist’s prophetic image of “the ax . . . laid to the root of the trees” (3:9). He is here, as we are later told explicitly, the last of the Old Testament prophets (16:16).
©2012 by David Lyle Jeffrey. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.