Bible Study from Calvary Chapel Newberg
with Tom Fuller
A Messiah State of Mind
A few years ago my wife and I had the chance to travel to Italy. It was the trip of a lifetime for us. We wanted to get to know the culture and the people of Italy—and of course see the sites like Rome, Venice, the Cinque Terra, and Tuscany. But had we just gotten on a plane and landed at the Rome airport, our trip would have been a disappointment. We would have felt very out of place. To get the most out of our journey, we needed to learn to think, speak, dress, and act in a way that was culturally appropriate. We had to put ourselves into an Italian state of mind.
In much the same way, Israel needed to put itself into a Messiah state of mind. As we’ve already seen in our study through Luke’s gospel, Dr. Luke portrays Jesus as the Messiah—God’s secret agent sent to single handedly rescue humanity. But Jesus isn’t going to just appear on the scene—He needs someone to introduce Him, and someone to help the people prepare their heads for what Jesus will say and do.
John, Jesus’ cousin (we’re not sure how close of a cousin, but a relative for sure) performs that introduction. John’s parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, were already deceased. John had lived most of his life in the wilderness of Judea until God prompted him to begin speaking. It must have been hard, waiting in the wings, your lines memorized, your blocking set—but not going onstage until the Director said it was time. John spent the time perfecting recipes for preparing locusts and wild honey.
To begin this section, which goes all the way through Chapter 4 verse 13, Luke sets the historical context (as he did at the beginning of the gospel).
1 – 2
Luke puts the John story in the context of regional politics. This orients us in time, but also in terms of who was in charge vs who was going to be in charge. It also introduces us to a man that John will tangle with—Herod.
Tiberius Caesar was the step-son of Caesar Augustus—the one who forced Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem. The 15th year of Tiberius’ reign would have put the year between 28 and 29 A.D. Pontius Pilate governed Palestine from 26 to 36 A.D. He was in charge of Samaria, and Idumea (south of Judea and west of the Dead Sea). His job was to keep the peace and collect Roman taxes. This authority comes into play as John begins calling on the people to repent and prepare for a new King.
Herod, is Herod Antipas—son of Herod the Great (of the wise men fame). A Tetrarch is a secondary prince. He was in charge of a puppet Jewish government over Galilee and the area east of the Jordan. Another one of Herod’s sons, Philip, was over the area east and northeast of Galilee. This becomes important as John deals with the religious leaders who come to hear him. As far as Lysanius, who was over the area near Damascus—we know nothing.
Luke then turns from the political to the religious leadership. Annas was Caiaphas’ father. Annas had been high priest until 18 A.D. until Caiaphas took over, but no one liked Caiaphas, so Annas kept the title and much of the power of high priest. Stepping into this fractured and perilous political/religious environment steps John—who is about to throw everything into confusion.
3 – 6
At some point the Holy Spirit prompted John to begin his work, which was to prepare the way for the ministry of the Messiah. The external manifestation of this inward attitude was baptism—the physical dipping of the body under water. This likely would have been a new concept for the Jews. The Law talked about using water for ritual cleansing (Lev. 14-15) but that was mostly dipping or bathing. We see at least one picture in the Old Testament of immersion, that of Naaman in 2 Kings 5, where Elijah told him to dip 7 times in the Jordan (the same river John is baptizing in) to be cleansed from leprosy, which is a picture of sin. But this kind of baptism would likely be a new experience. The idea was to simulate death—going under the water and dying to the old ways, coming up with a new attitude—one here prepared for the coming of a Messiah.
Later, the Apostle Peter and others would call on everyone to ‘“Repent,” Peter said to them, “and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38)’. So the baptism of John was one of preparation, the baptism into Christ is one of purification.
The words of Isaiah 40:3-5 echo what Zechariah, his dad, prophesied in Chapter 1, verses 68-79 where he said: “76 And child, you will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways, 77 to give His people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins.”
In ancient times when a king was coming to town they would literally level the roads, removing potholes and rocks, to make sure the way in was as smooth as possible. Here the King of Kings is coming and so John is wanting to prepare the way into people’s hearts. What are the mountains and valleys—the potholes and rocks? They are heart attitudes that keep a person from realizing they have violated God’s character, owe Him a debt, and need that debt paid. Secondly they often take the form of old-nature attitudes that distract us from that realization and keep us drunk in our own self-centeredness. We’ll see how that plays out starting in verse 10.
Notice that John, quoting Isaiah, says “everyone will see the salvation of God.” This is another clue to us that Gentiles as well as Jews will benefit from this coming King.
7 – 9
John calls some who had come out a “brood of vipers”. Matthew (3:7) tells us John was speaking specifically to the scribes and Pharisees who had come to the scene—partially to be a part of the “in” thing and partially to report back on a potential threat to their power base. What does he mean by “brood of vipers”? It could refer to the Pharisees as sons of the serpent, Lucifer (John 8:43-44). Like a snake, their doctrine is poisonous to those who hear it and they latch on to people with the fangs of human-based Judaism and don’t let go with their adherence to extra-Biblical rules. Jesus described this later:
Matthew 23:15 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to make one proselyte, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as fit for hell as you are!”
John calls for “repentance.” The word means “to change your mind” and comes from the compound of “after” and “thought”. You go down a certain line of thinking and acting and later think about it and realize it was the wrong way, so you change your mind. John is saying that the thinking patterns these people have need to change. They had no concept that they had violated God’s character—and that violation brings a reaction from God called “wrath”. They thought because they were descended from Abraham that they automatically got in favor with God—it was inherited. John says they are thinking incorrectly. John tells them that God will judge anyone who does not think, speak, and act like God. It’s not a subjective measure. We don’t get to determine right and wrong—God does.
The sad but vital truth is that it isn’t only the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ day that belong to Satan, but all of us. We’ve inherited his character traits as we gave the title deed to earth and to our hearts to him. But one of these days God is going to return physically to reclaim His possession. He will remake this universe but only pure things and people can exist there.
The idea in verse 8 that God can raise sons up from the stones—God “cut” Israel from a rock (Isaiah 51:1-2) and can “cut” a fresh batch of His people (and he will—those that do change their minds about their actions and attitudes and realize their need of forgiveness).
Verse 9 basically is a picture that God is ready to cut down the “tree” that represents the current form of Judaism practiced in that day—one of earned favor by effort. That form of human religion will be thrown away and burned. In its place will be a new tree, a new vine—and fruit that includes a repentant heart. Paul picks up this idea in Romans 11 when he talks about the Jewish religion being “cut off” and us, who believe in the Messiah, being “grafted” in.
You do not inherit a relationship with God. Each of us has to approach Him individually and the first thing we need is repentance.
So hearing this, the crowds ask an important question:
10 – 14
John deals with three groups: the general population, tax collectors, and soldiers. I find it interesting that the religious leaders were not asking the question—apparently they were too smug in their self-righteousness to engage. John is not telling them they can earn forgiveness by changing their behavior, but that their minds can be prepared for the One who can give forgiveness through His grace.
John speaks about three categories of sinful attitudes that need to be adjusted but they are all about the same thing: security. It is a human need to feel secure. There is nothing wrong with that need—it is God given. We get into trouble when we try to fulfill the desire for security in ways that God did not intend. This is true for all manner of sin, actually. God intended for us to gain security from Him. The trouble is, with our sinful nature we cannot feel secure in our relationship with God—so there is a vicious cycle: we need security by apart from Jesus we can’t find it so we look elsewhere. One of the best ways humans have found to create a feeling of security is with stuff—money or possessions. But it is a false and temporary sense of security that blinds us to our real need.
Here, the activity to achieve security is portrayed by three ways that are not like God’s character: greed, thievery, and power. I think it’s interesting that John only deals with stuff—represented by clothing (very valuable in that culture) and money. These were things people could readily identify with. He lets Jesus delve much deeper into the human psyche and how rotten our attitudes are. I think what John identifies as ways to build false security act like drugs that keep a human from realizing a lack in their soul.
Greed: If you had two shirts you were doing well. Many people had only one.
Our need for security leads us to act in ways God would not act—holding on to whatever we’ve got even if there is an obvious need right in front of us. It blinds us to what’s really going on—a focus completely on the self to the detriment of all others. This is not agape love, which is self-sacrificing, other-centered affection. Greed blinds us and makes us drunk by focusing only on our own needs. Giving away some of what you have allows you to see the attitudes behind the scene—in your mind, and prepares the way for God to speak the truth about how sinful (self-centered, even self-worshiping) we really are. It’s also a matter of security. If you have two shirts you can feel pretty secure and it blinds you to your real need and the real source of security—a relationship with God.
So what were they to do? Show compassion. Realizing others have needs and doing something to fulfill them puts you in a place to recognize your own need and that God Himself will give you a “shirt” for your lack because of sin in the form of salvation and forgiveness through the Messiah.
Thievery: The tax collectors operated a sort of pyramid scheme. They’d bid on collecting taxes for the Romans—and as long as they delivered on their bid, they could charge anything they wanted above that. This also has to do with security—but also starts to edge into the idea of power. The tax collectors could get away with anything they wanted—and that unbridled access to power made them drunk on it—and blind to their need of accountability to God.
So what does John say to do? Be honest. Honesty helps us be honest with ourselves—to see that there is good and bad, right and wrong. Honesty helps us realize that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
Power: Roman soldiers were underpaid. They also had (mostly) unchecked power and could demand money or blackmail someone into paying them. This blinded them to their ultimate accountability to God. Abusing the innocent was something God frowns on greatly.
So what does John say to do? Be satisfied with your wages. Contentment is the answer to security.
Greed, cheating and power are three ways humanity has inoculated themselves against God. John says—stop it so you will be more aware of your real need for God. Paul would later say: (1Tim. 6:6) “… godliness with contentment is a great gain.” Jesus will say: (Matt. 6:33) “… seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.”
It’s all about seeking God’s kingdom, and His righteousness—if you get that, nothing else matters and everything else, and all the security you could need, will fall into place.
Next time, the people press John as to whether he was the expected Messiah they are preparing their hearts for.
So how about you? What is your state of mind? If you don’t yet know the Messiah Jesus, is your mind ready to receive the truth. By using false ways of fulfilling true needs we fit what Jack Nicholson said in A Few Good Men: “You can’t handle the truth.” Put yourself in a Jesus state of mind by realizing some of the ways you fulfill God-given needs are actually blinding you to the truth about yourself and about God. If you are already His disciple it is possible for these drugs to work on us as well—so be aware and focus on His kingdom and the rightness of Jesus first and foremost to give you security, intimacy, and purpose.