Lesson Focus Baptism, and all that it represents, loses most of its value if it is not followed by the bearing of “fruit” in the believer’s life.
Lesson Outcomes Through this lesson, students should:
Understand that John’s baptism was meant to prepare the people for Jesus’ arrival.
Understand that we should respond to the work that God does in us through baptism by bearing good fruit.
Understand that bearing good fruit includes, but is not limited to, being generous, honest, and content with what God has given them.
Catch up on the Story The stage has been set for Jesus to appear on the scene as an adult. We have heard all about his birth and who people are saying he is and what he is to do. It is evident to those who have read Luke’s story that something great and expected will come from Jesus. Before we meet Jesus, however, we meet John, who is called the Baptist. In the words and actions of John, we will get a good idea of what Jesus is going to do. John, it seems, is the last of the prophets pointing the way toward Jesus.
The Story As we have read Luke’s gospel so far, we have witnessed his birth and his trip to the Temple as a child. Now the scene shifts to focus on the one who is preparing the way for Jesus, John the Baptist.
John, you will remember, is the son of Zachariah and Elizabeth, whom we have met earlier. John’s birth was something of a miracle. Luke begins this section with John by giving us many clues to his actual historical and social location. Luke has done this in such a way as to make his readers draw a connection between John and the prophets that Israel has seen before. In Luke’s mind, there is no doubt that John is a prophet who is to prepare the way for the Lord.
Luke further shores up his position by quoting from Isaiah. John is the one crying from the wilderness to point people to the one who will bring salvation for all “flesh.”
There is no need to understand this section as taking place at one time and place. There were likely many opportunities for John to baptize people and to proclaim to them who he was and for whom he was preparing the way. John had enough popularity and name recognition that people were coming in waves to be baptized by him.
Verse 7 begins with John announcing to the people what exactly it is that they are to be doing. As prophets do, John knows the context of his people, what they will say, what they think they want, and what they need.
John knows these people seek something –repentance– and they think it can be found in baptism. The people who are coming realize that in some way salvation can be found in what John is offering, but they do not realize that their baptism will require a change in allegiance, disposition, and action.
Then John lowers the hammer even further. They are to bear fruit worthy of repentance. In response to their repentance and subsequent salvation (turning from the direction they are headed toward God), they must do things differently, changing things about their behavior and actions.
Up to this point in Israel’s history, many thought that they had a get out of jail free card because they were God’s chosen people. But John warns them that this is indeed not the case. Even though they have Abraham as their father, they will not be immune from the coming judgment. John believes that even now, the ax is resting at the base of the tree that does not bear fruit, and it is ready to chop it down and throw it into the fire.
The people respond, realizing that John is indeed correct, and put a question to John, “What should we do then?” In other words, the people are interested in bearing fruit, but they are not exactly sure how that is to happen. What does it look like?
To the first group, John responds, “Those of you who have two pairs of underwear give it to those who have none. Likewise, if you have foods share it with those in need.”
John is not saying that only those who have abundant riches should give; they should. He is saying that even the poorest of the poor have something to offer. For this first group of people, who were perhaps the poorest of the poor, bearing good fruit is taking care of the needs of others.
Luke tells more of the story, showing that it wasn’t just the poor ones that came but even tax collectors and soldiers (probably men assigned to protect the much-hated dishonest tax collectors). They came and asked the same question, “What should we do then?”
John responds with straightforward advice that should not seem too burdensome. These tax collectors and soldiers were to be satisfied with what they were paid and to quit oppressing those from who they collected taxes.
Often collecting taxes was a contract job that went to the highest bidder. The payment was expected upfront, and it was left to the tax collector to recoup his money from the people. This was often done in harsh and excessive ways.
So What…? For Luke and his hearers, John’s “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” is a public rite of washing representing the opportunity for a new start in life, a renewal of things. But Luke is saying that baptism by itself is worthless unless people “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (v. 8). The change in direction must be validated by changed behavior.
One cannot rest on the fact that one has been “saved” or born into a Christian family has been a Christian his or her whole life. What matters is that a person responds to the grace and forgiveness received with a corresponding change in alliance and behavior. One must now produce good fruit (with the help of God’s Spirit, of course). What does the production of good fruit look like?
In this current passage, it looks like: Giving one’s surplus to those who do not have, not taking more than you deserve, and not extorting money from people of lesser authority.
In other places, it is: Loving our neighbor as ourselves and caring for the orphan, the widow, and the refugee.
At the end of the day, we are called to do the things Christ did. Some of these things are small, like sharing our underwear. But the point is that we cannot bear the good fruit we need to unless we do it together. We can do a few things by ourselves that help us bear good fruit, but we can only do those things well as we practice them in community, being accountable to the community. Serving the world together as a community is a turn in the right direction to bearing good fruit.
Critical Discussion Questions
What does God look like in this text?
God’s plan for redemption and salvation is moving forward. God desires for those who repent and find salvation to begin to bear fruit. This good fruit will help move God’s plan for redemption and salvation forward in the world. This fruit is also a sign that we truly desire to live as Christ would have us live.
What does holiness look like in this text?
Good fruit is the sign of holiness. If we are moving toward Christ-likeness, then we must do the same things as Christ has done. Christ certainly bore good fruit. Therefore, we must as well. This isn’t anything we do to earn our salvation or holiness. It is instead the response to salvation and the marks of growth in grace toward the recovery of the image of God.
How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we will become?
This passage should leave us with the desire to live rightly, with a desire to be allied with God and God’s community, the church. At the same time, however, it isn’t just about being a part of God’s community; we must produce fruit. Good fruit is love for others and service for the sake of life.
Specific Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
Why was it important for someone like John to prepare the way for Jesus’ coming?
Why is John so harsh with those who come to be baptized by him?
In verse 8, John tells those who will listen not to rest on their status as children of Abraham. Why would he do that?
Is there a connection between John’s admonition to bear good fruit and the people of Israel resting on their status as children of Abraham? If so, what is that connection.
What will happen if those who repent do not bear good fruit? Why do you think John uses the imagery that he does?
The people who have come out to see John ask what they should do to bear good fruit. What does John tell them to do?
Thinking about your world today, what does bearing good fruit look like?
How can your church help you and others to bear good fruit? How can you help your church bear good fruit?