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The Third Sunday of Advent — Gaudete Sunday — is December 12, 2021.

Readings for Year C can be found here.

The Gospel reading is as follows (emphases mine):

Luke 3:7-18

3:7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

3:8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

3:9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

3:10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”

3:11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”

3:12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?”

3:13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”

3:14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

3:15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,

3:16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

3:17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

3:18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

Commentary comes from Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Matthew Henry’s commentary on Luke 3 is excellent, full of pithy observations.

This particular Sunday is Gaudete Sunday, the one in Advent which is full of joy. Traditionalist priests wear a rose vestment to signify that happiness in the expectation of our Saviour’s birth. The corresponding Sunday in Lent is Laetare Sunday, when we anticipate Christ’s resurrection after His ultimate sacrifice on the Cross.

On the face of it, today’s Gospel reading does not seem very cheery. However, Henry has this to say of the state of our own souls and of John the Baptist’s heralding of Christ’s ministry:

When way is made for the gospel into the heart, by the captivation of high thoughts and bringing them into obedience to Christ, by the leveling of the soul and the removing of all obstructions that stand in the way of Christ and his grace, then prepare to bid the salvation of God welcome

We are now drawing near to the appearance of our Lord Jesus publicly; the Sun will not be long after the morning-star.

Therefore, it is a time of joy as we further prepare to celebrate the coming of the Christ Child.

We pick up from where we left off last week, when John exhorted the people to make straight the path of the Lord, our King, the Messiah. Luke gives us a full sense of John the Baptist’s preaching.

How was it that so many Jews — and undoubtedly some Gentiles — turned out for John the Baptist?

John MacArthur explains that they would have known his miraculous family story of his aged parents Elizabeth and Zacharias:

Now people came out to see John. In fact, the Scriptures tell us that all Jerusalem and all Judea came out. And there is a reason for that. I’m sure people knew about John. I’m sure the story had circulated through the thirty-year period that an old priest by the name of Zacharias, and Elizabeth, were able to conceive a son miraculously and that Gabriel the angel told Zacharias it would happen and that the son would be the forerunner of the Messiah and that that son was alive and he was out in the wilderness and he was a prophet of God. I’m sure that circulated outside the family of Zacharias and Elizabeth and circulated around the related relatives, Mary and Joseph and their family, because they all knew the story. The story must have spread. The fact that Gabriel showed up, the fact that a miraculous birth had occurred, the fact that the Messiah’s forerunner had been born must have been to some extent around so that people knew about it. And once John began to preach and announce the coming of Messiah, the people came out. They were curious. They were ready for the Messiah. They wanted the Messiah. They were compelled by their curiosity. They were compelled by the fact that this could be it, this could be true. I mean, how else can you explain Gabriel showing up? And how else can you explain an old priestly couple having a miraculous child? Maybe this is it. So the people desired to come and find out if indeed he was the forerunner of Messiah and if indeed the Messiah had come.

They were ready. They wanted to participate in the long-awaited blessings promised to Abraham and David. They were really weary of the oppression of the Romans. They were weary of never having independent authority and sovereignty and rule. They were weary of the way things were. They were excited with messianic hope.

John the Baptist did not mince his words. He called his audience a ‘brood of vipers’ and asked who warned them about the wrath to come (verse 7).

Today, we would say that his approach was not very nice, or, in theological parlance, not ‘seeker-friendly’. He would have received a pasting by both traditional and social media.

MacArthur elaborates on the imagery of vipers:

First of all, I think he’s calling them children of Satan.  Jesus did that in John 8:44. He said to the Jewish leaders, “You’re of your father, the devil,” didn’t He?  He said, “You’re of your father, the devil.”  Jesus said to the Pharisees, Jewish leaders, Matthew 12:34, Matthew 23 I think it’s verse 33, both places, “You brood of vipers,” same phrase exactly.  Jesus said it twice to the Jewish leaders. You sons of snakes!  I think he’s really identifying them with their father.  The devil appeared in the Garden in Genesis 3 in what form?  A serpent.  And according to the Scriptures he is a serpent, as clearly indicated in Revelation chapter 12.  So he is… He’s really telling them, you belong to Satan, you snakes.  What he’s saying to them is, you are running from the fire but not interested in any change of your nature.  You’re still snakes. You’re just scrambling in front of the fire.  Shallow repenters are offsprings of that snake, Satan.

By the way, Matthew 3:7, when Matthew writes about the preaching of John, says when John said this, at least on the occasion of Matthew writing, he said it to Pharisees and SadduceesLuke says he said it to everybody So particularly to the Pharisees and Sadducees who were the most vicious, poisonous and deadly, deadliest of all the snakes, of all the children of Satan because they wore the name of God, as it were, on the outside but were satanic on the inside. Thus their hypocrisy was more devastating.  He says you’re the worst of it, the rest of you also belong to the same nature, same satanic nature.  Beyond just the Pharisees and the Sadducees, all those people had the very nature of Satan. They were the children of Satan.  And he’s pointing out their superficiality. He says, your repentance is superficial because your true nature is vicious, your true nature is of the serpent, your true nature is poisonous, your true nature is hostile, your true nature is deadly, particularly those Pharisees and Sadducees, paraded themselves as if they represented God and they were just…just biting the people and filling them with poison.

Henry says that John refused to flatter any of the Jewish hierarchy who came to hear him. As far as John was concerned, all were tarred with the same brush of sin, hence a universal message to all:

… he did not alter it in compliment to the Pharisees and Sadducees, when they came, but dealt as plainly with them as with any other of his hearers. And as he did not flatter the great, so neither did he compliment the many, or make his court to them, but gave the same reproofs of sin and warnings of wrath to the multitude that he did to the Sadducees and Pharisees; for, if they had not the same faults, they had others as bad.

The idea that they had to be baptised must have been shocking for the Jews, because baptism was a cleansing ritual that Gentiles who wished to convert went through, not those born into the Covenant.

MacArthur tells us that, despite such a message, the people obeyed:

The people were so compelled by this that they did it. They came. They heard John and they got baptized which was a great admission on their part. To some degree they were saying, we’re outside, okay we’re outside, we’ve got to get inside and so we’ll go through this even if it is an acknowledgement that humbles us, by having to admit that we aren’t in the kingdom, we’re on the outside, no better off than a Gentile proselyte wanting to become associated with Judaism.

John could see that theirs was a superficial faith of belonging to the Covenant but not needing to do more than obey Mosaic law, so he insisted that they bear true fruits of repentance, warning them not to rely on their ancestry from Abraham, because God could make children of Abraham out of the nearby stones (verse 8).

Henry says:

By the fruits of repentance it will be known whether it be sincere or no. By the change of our way must be evidenced the change of our mind.

… If we be not really holy, both in heart and life, our profession of religion and relation to God and his church will stand us in no stead at all: Begin not now to frame excuses from this great duty of repentance, by saying within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father.

On that point, how many of us have heard a sermon preaching repentance this year, or any year? I have not.

MacArthur laments this omission from today’s churches:

John understands the reality of shallow faith. John understands the reality of shallow repentance, false repentance. And this sample of his preaching demonstrates that concern and it demonstrates the message that needs to be preached. And all across this country in churches all across this land a shallow message is being preached, a shallow gospel, a shallow call to repentance that is giving people the tragic and damning illusion that they are saved when they are not.

John goes further by saying that the ax is at the foot of the trees — implying divine judgement; all trees not bearing good fruit will be thrown into the fire of divine wrath (verse 9).

Our repentance must bear fruit in the way we treat others and revere God, otherwise it is but a shallow one. Henry expands on that point:

7. The greater professions we make of repentance, and the greater assistances and encouragements are given us to repentance, the nearer and the sorer will our destruction be if we do not bring forth fruits meet for repentance. Now that the gospel begins to be preached, now that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, now that the axe is laid to the root of the tree, threatenings to the wicked and impenitent are now more terrible than before, as encouragements to the penitent are now more comfortable. “Now that you are upon your behaviour, look to yourselves.”

8. Barren trees will be cast into the fire at length; it is the fittest place for them: Every tree that doth not bring forth fruit, good fruit, is hewn down, and cast into the fire. If it serve not for fruit, to the honour of God’s grace, let it serve for fuel, to the honour of his justice.

The crowds asked what they should do (verse 10).

Henry speaks of a personal journey of repentance, which John spells out in the next four verses:

They that would do their duty must desire to know their duty, and enquire concerning it. The first good word Paul said, when he was converted, was, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? These here enquire, not, What shall this man do? but, What shall we do? What fruits meet for repentance shall we bring forth? Now John gives answer to each, according to their place and station.

By way of a general response, John says that he who has two coats must give one to someone who has none and those with food must share it (verse 11).

Henry notes that we are not to give in order to deprive ourselves unnecessarily; however, if we have more than we need, then we are to give of that bounty:

The gospel requires mercy, and not sacrifice; and the design of it is to engage us to do all the good we can. Food and raiment are the two supports of life; he that hath meat to spare, let him give to him that is destitute of daily food, as well as he that hath clothes to spare: what we have we are but stewards of, and must use it, accordingly, as our Master directs.

MacArthur says that the word ‘coat’ means ‘tunic’ in this context:

“Tunic,” the word there refers to an undergarment and you only wore one of those so if you had two you had a spare one. It was the undergarment that you wore over your skin and then you wore your outer garment on top of that

So, this is more profound than it appears, perhaps, on the surface because there was a general selfishness, always is, in unregenerate minds.  There would be the evidence of regeneration in selflessness and in the consuming love of one another where you look not on your own things but on the things of others, as Paul said in Philippians 2.  So if you have two chiton, two of those linen undergarments and somebody has none, then you give him yours

Then the tax collectors — the publicans — who were the lowest of the low because they often asked for more tax than they should so as to line their own pockets asked what they should do (verse 12).

John told them to collect only the amount of tax due and no more (verse 13).

Henry observes that John did not tell them to leave their secular employ, only to carry out their duties honestly and beyond reproach:

The public revenues must be applied to the public service, and not to gratify the avarice of private persons. Observe, He does not direct the publicans to quit their places, and to go no more to the receipt of custom; the employment is in itself lawful and necessary, but let them be just and honest in it.

Soldiers asked John what they should do; he told them not to extort money in a violent or dishonest way and to be happy with their wages (verse 14).

Who were the soldiers? Here our commentators differ.

MacArthur is sure they were Jews, having changed his mind from them being Romans:

In my study Bible I put the note that they were probably Roman soldiers. I think I was wrong. As I’ve studied it again. It’s debatable in some ways, but I really kind of… I’m going to change that in the next edition. I’m going to change it to the fact that I think they were Jewish soldiers who were really assigned to Herod Antipas and stationed at Perea. That’s the best way to historically track them back. There’s really no compelling reason why Romans would show up here to get ready for the Messiah

However, Henry thinks they were Gentiles: Roman soldiers. I side with Henry on this one. It would be an early instance of Gentiles being welcomed into the Jewish group of penitents, just as the Magi — three Gentiles — were among the first to pay homage to the Christ Child:

Some think that these soldiers were of the Jewish nation and religion: others think that they were Romans; for it was not likely either that the Jews would serve the Romans or that the Romans would trust the Jews in their garrisons in their own nation; and then it is an early instance of Gentiles embracing the gospel and submitting to it.

Henry describes the military mind, which is not given to religion:

Military men seldom seem inclined to religion; yet these submitted even to the Baptist’s strict profession, and desired to receive the word of command from him: What must we do? Those who more than other men have their lives in their hands, and are in deaths often, are concerned to enquire what they shall do that they may be found in peace.

He then analyses John’s answer in light of military activities. Wise words follow, especially with regard to wages:

In answer to this enquiry, John does not bid them lay down their arms, and desert the service, but cautions them against the sins that soldiers were commonly guilty of; for this is fruit meet for repentance, to keep ourselves from our iniquity. [1.] They must not be injurious to the people among whom they were quartered, and over whom indeed they were set: “Do violence to no man. Your business is to keep the peace, and prevent men’s doing violence to one another; but do not you do violence to any. Shake no man” (so the word signifies); “do not put people into fear; for the sword of war, as well as that of justice, is to be a terror only to evil doers, but a protection to those that do well. Be not rude in your quarters; force not money from people by frightening them. Shed not the blood of war in peace; offer no incivility either to man or woman, nor have any hand in the barbarous devastations that armies sometimes make.” Nor must they accuse any falsely to the government, thereby to make themselves formidable, and get bribes. [2.] They must not be injurious to their fellow-soldiers; for some think that caution, not to accuse falsely, has special reference to them: “Be not forward to complain one of another to your superior officers, that you may be revenged on those whom you have a pique against, or undermine those above you, and get into their places.” Do not oppress any; so some think the word here signifies as used by the LXX. in several passages of the Old Testament. [3.] They must not be given to mutiny, or contend with their generals about their pay: Be content with your wages. While you have what you agreed for, do not murmur that it is not more.” It is discontent with what they have that makes men oppressive and injurious; they that never think they have enough themselves will not scruple at any the most irregular practices to make it more, by defrauding others. It is a rule to all servants that they be content with their wages; for they that indulge themselves in discontents expose themselves to many temptations, and it is wisdom to make the best of that which is.

Luke’s tone changes with the 15th verse, as he says that the people were filled with expectation wondering whether John the Baptist was the Messiah. That, by the way, was what many people wondered, even during and after our Lord’s ministry. Acts tells us of people far from Jerusalem who had followed John the Baptist but had never heard of Jesus. The people saw John as a pivotal, prominent figure, a great prophet.

John explained his position, saying he was unworthy of unloosing the sandals of He who is to come — Jesus; John could only baptise with water, but He would baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire (verse 16).

John goes on to say that Jesus is ready to gather the wheat into his granary — save the faithful — but burn the chaff with unquenchable fire (verse 17).

Henry elaborates:

He owns him to have a greater energy than he had: “He is mightier than I, and does that which I cannot do, both for the comfort of the faithful and for the terror of hypocrites and dissemblers.” They thought that a wonderful power went along with John; but what was that compared with the power which Jesus would come clothed with? [1.] John can do no more than baptize with water, in token of this, that they ought to purify and cleanse themselves; but Christ can, and will, baptize with the Holy Ghost; he can give the Spirit to cleanse and purify the heart, not only as water washes off the dirt on the outside, but as fire purges out the dross that is within, and melts down the metal, that it may be cast into a new mould. [2.] John can only preach a distinguishing doctrine, and by word and sign separate between the precious and the vile; but Christ hath his fan in his hand, with which he can, and will, perfectly separate between the wheat and the chaff. He will thoroughly purge his floor; it is his own, and therefore he will purge it, and will cast out of his church the unbelieving impenitent Jews, and confirm in his church all that faithfully follow him. [3.] John can only speak comfort to those that receive the gospel, and, like other prophets, say to the righteous that it shall be well with them; but Jesus Christ will give them comfort. John can only promise them that they shall be safe; but Christ will make them so: he will gather the wheat into his garner; good, serious, solid people he will gather now into his church on earth, which shall be made up of such, and he will shortly gather them into his church in heaven, where they shall be for ever sheltered. [4.] John can only threaten hypocrites, and tell the barren trees that they shall be hewn down and cast into the fire; but Christ can execute that threatening; those that are as chaff, light, and vain, and worthless, he will burn with fire unquenchable. John refers here to Malachi 3:18; Malachi 4:1; Malachi 4:2. Then, when the floor is purged, ye shall return, and discern between the righteous and the wicked, for the day comes that shall burn as an oven.

MacArthur says that part of that verse relates to the destruction of the temple, and part of it relates to God’s judgement involving every one of us. At some point in the future, the Jews will be saved and the Gentiles will fall away:

There were many individuals who…whose repentance was shallow and the ax was laid at the root of the tree, believe me, in those individuals’ lives. In 70 A.D. the Romans came in there and murdered, literally massacred a million 100 thousand Jews and the ax fell in judgment and those people were cast into eternal hell. There were so many of them that it constituted a nation literally going into temporary exile, as it were, out of existence temporarily. And, of course, they will mourn for Him and then a fountain of cleansing will be opened and they will be spiritually transformed and they will become the witness nation that God always wanted them to be and they’ll witness all through the tribulation and they’ll witness all through the kingdom so that on the robe of every Jew will be hanging ten Gentiles saying, “Take me to see the King of kings.”

But at the time that John was preaching, they rejected. The time of Jesus preaching, they rejected. So many individuals rejected that it constituted a national rejection. But every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit will be cut down.

And by the way, the Messiah will not only judge Israel this way, but He’ll judge all men this way. Zephaniah 1, “The great day of the Lord is near, very near, coming very quickly. It’s a day of wrath, a day of trouble, distress, destruction desolation, darkness, gloom, clouds, thick darkness.” And at the end it says, “He will make a complete end on the day of the Lord’s wrath, all the earth will be devoured. He will make a complete end, a terrifying one of all the inhabitants of the earth.” It isn’t just Jewish people that will feel the wrath of God. Anyone who rejects the Messiah will be subject to that final, terrifying judgment. He says in chapter 3 of Zephaniah verse 8, “He will pour out His indignation and burning anger on the whole earth.”

Luke concludes by saying that, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the Good News to the people (verse 18).

Henry explains the verse in this way:

Many other things in his exhortation preached he unto the people, which are not recorded. First, John was an affectionate preacher. He was parakalonexhorting, beseeching; he pressed things home upon his hearers, followed his doctrine close, as one in earnest. Secondly, He was a practical preacher. Much of his preaching was exhortation, quickening them to their duty, directing them in it, and not amusing them with matters of nice speculation. Thirdly, He was a popular preacher. Though he had scribes and Pharisees, men of polite learning, attending his ministry, and Sadducees, men of free thought, as they pretended, yet he addressed himself to the people, pros ton laonto the laity, and accommodated himself to their capacity, as promising himself best success among them. Fourthly, He was an evangelical preacher, for so the word here used signifies, euengelizetohe preached the gospel to the people; in all his exhortations, he directed people to Christ, and excited and encouraged their expectations of him. When we press duty upon people, we must direct them to Christ, both for righteousness and strength. Fifthly, He was a copious preacher: Many other things he preached, polla men kai heteramany things, and different. He preached a great deal, shunned not to declare the whole counsel of God; and he varied in his preaching, that those who were not reached, and touched, and wrought upon, by one truth, might be by another.

MacArthur gives us the keys to true repentance:

This is the real deal.  The genuine repenter does a real, honest inventory of the reality of his personal transgressionHe understands that no religious ritual and no heritage can bring about escape or protection from divine judgment.  That he must have a heart transformation that results in a righteous life that manifests love and justice and honesty and those virtues that are characteristic of God Himself. And all that is good.

There’s one other thing missing.  And the one thing missing is the sixth and final element in a true gospel preacher’s arsenal. It is this. He must receive the true Messiah. He must receive the true Messiah.   All the rest is insufficient without the true Messiah so that you repent but you also put your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, because Acts 4:12 says, “There is not salvation in any other name.” 

Despite the negatives here, which, we, living in the 21st century are unaccustomed to, MacArthur says that John’s message ends on the positive note of salvation and the coming of the Holy Spirit:

this is a very notable portion of Scripture, not because it is a theological treatise on repentance, but because it is an example of the true preaching for repentance exhibited by this man of God. And John gives us … elements of a true, genuine, saving repentance. This section, by the way, is just loaded with theology, just loaded with it. John moves from hamartiology, which is the study of sin, through eschatology, to soteriology to Christology and to pneumatology, the study of the Holy Spirit. Huge theological themes existed in his preaching. He was, of all things, a theological preacher.

He talks about sin. He talks about the end of the age and the coming wrath. He talks about salvation. He talks about within the framework of salvation, conversion, transformation, regeneration. He talks about Christ. He talks about the Holy Spirit. It is a…It is a sweeping treatment of theology. He was truly a theological preacher.

Therefore, we have every reason to be joyful on Gaudete Sunday.

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