Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Luke 3.7-18
3rd Sunday in Advent - Year C

Other texts:

As I mentioned last week, 2 & 3 Advent of Year C uses a continuous reading of John the "B." I also presented the following outline and sources of the larger context.

Luke's account of John the Baptist's ministry comes from a variety of sources.

[Luke omits Mark's description of John's food & clothing (Mk 1:5-6)]


I have to admit that I have never called anyone who came to me for a baptism a "brood of vipers," or "Children of snakes," or even a paraphrased "SOB," which might better convey the sense of this uncomplimentary phrase. The word for "brood" [gennema = "that which is born from"] is synonymous with teknon = children [of Abraham] in v. 8, and it could allude to "fruit" that is produced by trees.

"That which is born from" implies having the same characteristics as the "parent". I think that three different groups are implied by John's comments: (1) the "children" of vipers," (2) "those claiming to be children of Abraham," and (3) "those children of Abraham that God has raised up." One's parentage is indicated by one's nature -- by one's actions.

Although this section has very close parallels to Mt 3:7-10 (and some of my comments were originally made in my notes on that text), there is one significant difference. In Matthew it is the "Pharisees and Sadducees" who come to John to be baptized. In Luke it is the generic "crowds." This is the first time we have seen "crowds" in Luke. They seem to be non-committed people; neither being disciples (7:11; 9:16, 18) nor opponents (13:17). They follow Jesus, but haven't made the necessary commitment, which involves "hating" one's family members and one's own life, to be disciples of Jesus (14:25-26).

Luke's Christian community does not seem to be in conflict with a Jewish community as Matthew's appears to have been -- with the Pharisees and Sadducees frequently representing "the enemy". Calling them "a brood of vipers" or "SOBs" makes more sense than using the phrase for a non-committal crowd. However, for Luke, radical discipleship is required from all who wish break out of the crowd and be Jesus' disciples.

Does John baptize members of this crowd who come to him for baptism? If he didn't, why not? Could this be a text we should use to refuse baptism for some who come to us? Should we not make a distinction between John's baptism and Christian baptism?

I find the question: "Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?" interesting. What answer was John expecting? Could he be wondering why they are coming to be baptized? Has God told them to do this? Are they just doing what has become popular? Are grandma and grandpa in town this weekend and would be a nice family thing to do?

Is baptism the way to flee from the coming wrath (baptism as "fire insurance)? Not according to John the "B". One needs to "bear fruits worthy of repentance." The word "worthy" (axios) originally comes from the image of a balance scale. One side needs to weigh the same as the other side. So it has the idea of being "worth the same as" or "equivalent to" or "measuring up to" or "corresponding or comparable to".

"Fruits" are produced naturally from a good tree.

"No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasures of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of the evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks. [Luke 6:43-45]

Fruits should not be "works," but flow naturally out of the repentant/forgiven person. Our emphasis should not be on the fruits, but on the goodness of the person. Spiritual renewal -- if there has been a renewal -- will naturally produce outward differences. One has new "parents" = new characteristics.

One cannot rely on one's ancestors or one's heritage. Douglas Hare (Matthew, Interpretation Commentary) suggests: "The Christian equivalent of 'We have Abraham as our father' is 'We have Christ as our Savior.' While trust in Christ's salvation is a first requirement, it is not the last." [p. 20]

I've also suggested that a modern equivalent to "We have Abraham as our father," might be "I've been a member of this church all my life" or "My parents (and grandparents) have been members of this church all their lives." It's not primarily about what was, but what is. How active is one in the church now?

The temptation to self-justification is universal. I'm certain that we can come up with other rationalizations that people use to dismiss God's call to us.

John's reference to children from stones has at least a couple of ironies connected with it. First of all, if he were speaking Hebrew or Aramaic, John is making a pun. The words for "son" and "stone" are nearly identical. In Hebrew son is ben and stone is eben. Secondly, if God can produce "fruit" from a rock (in the form of children), then certainly God should be able to produce the proper fruit in those who are truly repentant. I would think that God should be able to do more with us humans than with dumb, inanimate rocks -- but there are times when I prefer rocks over some people <g>. If that happens to me, maybe it also happens to God.

The "ax lying at the root of the trees" conjures up a number of different images. "Root" is used of ancestors. With its close proximity to father Abraham, could John be "cutting off" that ancestral root of faith and actions so that Christians might be grafted onto a new root? (see Romans 11:16-18, also Luke 14:25-26 about hating one's own family). "Root" also has the meaning of "source, cause, or reason." Motives for one's actions are important. Bearing good fruit is not just doing good things, but also doing them for the right reasons. Having good roots -- receiving the proper nutrition -- being connected to the proper source -- being a good person -- will naturally result in the proper fruit.

"Root" can also refer to the "underground part of a plant." Or, we might say, the hidden part of its life. Part of "confession" is making public what might be hidden. We confess sins to God, which makes our sins public to our selves. God already knows. We confess our faith before others, which males public our beliefs to the world. This use of the ax is not the pruning we read about in John 15. This gets right to the hidden source of one's life and kills it.

Luke relates a wonderful, graceful parable about the non-fruit-bearing tree (13:6-7). Before it is cut down, the gardener convinces the owner to let him work with it for another year to see if it might possibly bear fruit before it is destroyed. The emphasis is on bearing good fruit, not the destruction of the tree.

WHAT SHOULD WE DO? (vv. 10-14)

This section is unique to Luke. There is an emphasis on economical responses to conversion. In the early chapters of Acts, we see an attempt among the believers to have all property in common -- those who had more shared with those who had less. That emphasis is found throughout Luke. In fact, he has Jesus state: "None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions" (14:33). Many congregations may have completed their stewardship drives. Trying to move a congregation from 1% giving to 2% to 5% giving and up is nearly impossible. The people are likely to ask, "What should we do -- but don't ask me to give any money or change my lifestyle?"

I want to look at each of the four words: "What should we do?"

do (poieo)

Our English translations miss a vital connection with this word in our texts. The Greek word translated "do" in vv. 10, 11, 12, & 14 is the same word translated "bear" in vv. 8 & 9! Like the good tree naturally "bearing" good fruit, so the "doing" by the crowds, tax collectors, soldiers, and others, grows out of having repented -- having a changed mind and heart and life (and "roots"). Perhaps the question should be stated: "What should we bear?" [Not "what should we bare?" <g>]

Theologically, that is the necessary order -- the converted heart produces the new works. Doing good does not make one repentant; but true repentance produces the proper, good fruit. Sharing one's food and clothing, and living within one's means doesn't make one a Christian; but being a Christian should result in such deeds.

However, practically and therapeutically, sometimes the order is reversed. A slogan that was practiced at the alcoholic hospital where I worked part-time was: "Act your self to a new way of thinking." A similar saying is attributed to Jesse Jackson: "It is easier to walk your way into a new way of thinking -- than to think your way into a new way of walking."

I would respond to this "reversed-order" process by arguing that it still requires a "change in mind" (metanoeo) to force oneself to act or walk in the new way -- or even to seek the help needed for the changed behaviors. The change begins with the desire for a new life. Whether the life-change comes through new learning and then new actions; or new actions and then new learning doesn't make much difference. It begins with the desire and the recognition of the need for change.

A few other verses where we are told what to do (poieo) in less specific terms.

If people ask us, "What should I do?" I think that part of our answer needs to be "Do this in remembrance of Jesus" -- "Receive the sacrament."


"Should" is not a separate word in Greek, but a way, in English, of expressing the subjunctive verb form. Sometimes "should's" can be bad things. It can be destructive when someone grows up always hearing, "You should do this" or "You shouldn't do that." Sometimes this is described as "being should on." The oppressive "being should on" is not what is being expressed here.

While the subjunctive can denote obligation, more often, it expresses volition -- "What do you wish us to do?" or "What do you want us to do?" or "We want to do something, what should it be?" The verbs in the three questions are aorist tense. The aorist subjunctive normally refers to future actions and it can be used in place of the future tense. It seems likely to me that the question is about what the people want to do in the future -- not quite the same as the imposition of a law or "shoulding on" the people. An analogy might be the spouse who wants to do what s/he can to please or bring happiness to the other. Then it is a question of how to best love and care for the other -- in ways the other finds meaningful.

[NOTE: the form of this verb in v. 11 is a present imperative implying that "doing likewise" is a continual, ongoing act. It is not enough to share one's food once, but it becomes a way of life.]

Also, in contrast to the "being should on," it is not John who first tells the people what they should do. It is the people asking for guidance in living their new lives. The people's question is not, "What should we do so that we might repent?" The question is, "Now that we have repented -- now that our minds and hearts are changed -- what should we do?" Or to put it in other terms, we can ask, "Now that we are saved -- now that we are forgiven -- now that we are adopted by God -- what should we do? We want to do what God would have us do."


It's such a small word that we frequently overlook it. It is contained in the verb in the question by the crowd and by the tax collectors (vv. 10, 12). With the soldiers, it is emphasized, as NRSV does, "And we, what should we do?" (v. 14). It may be that our culture is so individualized that we automatically think "I" even when the text says "we".

Especially for the tax collectors and soldiers, the good fruit that John expects runs counter to the way tax collectors and soldiers operated. Culpepper (Luke, The New Interpreter's Bible) indicates that "toll collectors" is a more proper translation, rather than "tax collectors." He goes on to describe their work:

Toll collectors paid in advance for the right to collect tolls, so the system was open to abuse and corruption. Zacchaeus, a chief toll collector who would have had others working for him, pledges to pay back any whom he has defrauded (19:1-10). [p. 85]

He also writes about the soldiers:

The soldiers in view here were probably not Romans but local mercenaries serving the Herods or the Roman procurator. Their role, therefore, was similar to that of the toll collectors, whom they may have protected. Both were hated by the local population. The practice of extorting payments by threats was apparently common. Josephus records that both he and John of Gischala warned their troops to avoid theft, extortion, and rape and to be content with their rations. Since a soldier's allowance was minimal, there may even have been the expectation that he would supplement it by extortion. [p. 85]

What John is asking these groups to do us "to buck the (corrupt, but accepted) system." It would probably be impossible for one tax collector or one soldier to stand up to the common behavior of the co-workers; but perhaps a group of them could.

When someone joins a 12-step program, they are assigned a sponsor. By one's self, it is very difficult to start and continue acting in a new way, but together -- together with the sponsor and the support of the whole group, a change -- a new life is possible. It is nearly impossible for recovering alcoholics to stay sober by themselves. It requires a group working together for each other, and if often requires the recovering one to break away from the old crowd -- to stop socializing with the drinking buddies.

"What should WE do?" is a question that groups of Christians in common vocations should be asking. Christian schoolteachers should ask, "What should we do?" Christian nurses should ask, "What should we do?" Christian IRS agents should ask, "What should we do?" In a more general sense, congregations need to ask, "What should we do?" How will the fruits produced by us -- this gathering of people -- be different from the fruits produced by other gatherings of people the world?

what (ti)

Not once did John tell these people to do something that we might call religious. He didn't say, "Go to church every week" or "Read your Bibles every day" or "Pray to God three times each day" or "Go to seminary and become a pastor" or "Join a convent."

John's answers can be grouped under the theme of stewardship. Or as Culpepper (Luke, New Interpreter's Bible) says it: "All three answers call for an end to a life-style based on greed and the accumulation of material possessions. Such actions of unqualified concern for one's neighbor illustrate the 'fruits worthy of repentance' (v. 7)." [p. 84]

If one has two shirts -- the term refers to the clothing that was worn next to the body, not a "coat" as in NRSV -- give one to a person who has none. This distinction is illustrated in 6:29b: "and from anyone who takes away your coat (himation = "outer garment")) do not withhold even your shirt (chiton = "inner garment"). Walter Pilgrim (Good News to the Poor: Wealth and Poverty in Luke-Acts) says:

The coat mentioned was actually an undergarment worn next to the body. Normally a poor person owned only two such garments, one for everyday and one for the Sabbath. Yet even with so little, the one who has two is asked to share with one who has none. Likewise with the food. With the multitudes, then, it is really a matter of the poor helping the poor. [pp. 143-144]

There is also an interesting parallel when Jesus gives instructions when he sends out the twelve. He tells them, "Take nothing on the way, no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, not even two shirts." When the disciples are sent out, they were not to have food or two shirts. They were sent out as the poorest of the poor.

The instructions that John gives to the first question is not a sharing out of one's abundance. Even the bare minimum of what we have is to be shared with others.

I mentioned earlier about the "normalcy" of tax collector and soldiers trying to get as much money as possible from the people. What is interesting about John's instructions to these people is that he did not ask them to leave their vocations -- something that Hippolytus will do in a later writing. John asks them to live Christianly within their vocations -- to do things differently than the other soldiers and tax collectors. "...the repentance demanded is matched to the special temptations of their vocations..." (Pilgrim, p. 145). It also indicates that the repentant lifestyle is lived in the mundane, everyday life of the converts.

Back in 1982 I read an article about this text, which I didn't reference. It suggested that it ruined Christmas. The article asked: "What has stylish dress and excess calories to do with the Day of the Lord?" Isn't that what we have turned Christmas into? Every year in nearly every house, there will be new clothes under the tree. A Christmas without eating too much just wouldn't be Christmas! How can we justify such Christmas practices with John's injunction to give away our clothes and food to those who have none and not just to make room in our closets for more new clothes? How do we justify our getting so much at this time of year, with John's insistence on giving away so much?

Part of the "what" is the phrase, "Be satisfied with your wages." The word translated "be satisfied" (arkeomai) has an active meaning of "having enough". Lowe and Nida (Semantic Lexicon) gives this definition: "to be happy or content as the result of having what one desires or needs." The contentment or satisfaction comes as a result of having what is sufficient. They also indicate that in some languages "'to be content' is expressed negatively, for example, 'to not complain.'" How much more applicable would this phrase be if it were translated, "Don't complain about your salaries"? This also assumes that the salaries are sufficient to care for the worker's needs.

What if we change the setting and state: "Try to get through the Christmas season without complaining." I've heard from a number of people who work with the public that people are turning into a bunch of crazies.

I struggle with this phrase. Most of our Lutheran synods publish minimum salary guidelines. Many congregations pay below those guidelines. How do we balance our contentment with what we are receiving with a sense of justice in the economic arena? I ask this certainly not just for underpaid clergy, but other church staff people and people in society who may be underpaid so that others may have more than enough.


Only Luke has this verse about the "people" wondering if John might be the Messiah. We know from other passages that this was a problem in the first century. We need to examine if our allegiances are in the right place -- following the right person or not.


John's response to the people's wondering first comes from Mark (1:7-8 // Mt 3:11-12). In this verse, John differentiates himself from the "stronger" one in three ways. 

  1. John is not competent even to untie the thong of his sandals. Culpepper (Luke, New Interpreter's Bible) writes: "Untying sandals was such a menial duty that it was expected only of slaves; disciples were not expected to untie their master's sandals (see Acts 13:24-25)." [p. 85] The word translated "worthy" (hikanos) in NRSV is not the same word used early about "worthy" fruit. This word seems to carry more of the meaning of "being up to the task," "being adequate."

  2. John uses the phrase "stronger than me" or "more powerful than me" to indicate a difference between himself and the coming one.

  3. John baptized with water. The stronger one has a different baptism. While we usually connect "holy" with Spirit/wind; it could also be applied to "fire". The sentence could be: "He will baptized you in holy wind and (holy) fire." Only Luke includes "fire" as part of his description of Jesus' baptism.

Culpepper (Luke, New Interpreter's Bible) offers the following:

What is the relationship between Spirit and fire in this saying? The following interpretations have been advanced: (1) fire describes the inflaming purifying work of the Spirit; (2) the repentant will receive the Spirit, while the unrepentant will experience the judgment of fire; (3) since the Greek term for "Spirit" can also mean "wind," the meaning is that Jesus' baptism will bring the judgment in a mighty wind and fire; (4) as might be implicit in the first option, "Spirit" or "wind" and "fire" reflect the Christian interpretation of the Pentecost experience; or (5) John saw in Spirit and fire the means of eschatological purification: the refiner's fire for the repentant and destruction for the unrepentant. The last combines elements of (2) and (3) and fits both the historical context of John's preaching and the literary context in which the saying about winnowing follows. Luke, of course, may have seen the fulfillment of this saying at Pentecost in ways John could not have imagined. [pp. 85-86]


This verse comes from Q, but it is connected with the preceding by the image of wind and fire. John presents a strange picture of Jesus. We usually think of Satan as one standing with a fork in his hand. John says that Jesus comes holding and using a type of fork!

Wheat was separated from chaff by throwing both up into the air with the winnowing fork. The heavier wheat would fall back down and the wind would blow the chaff away. Robert Tannehill (Luke) writes: "The Messiah, according to John, will preserve what is valuable and destroy what is worthless, just as a farmer does. This may apply to good and bad individuals or to good and bad aspects of each individual" [p. 82].

Green (The Gospel of Luke, NICNT) notes:

. . . the language John uses actually presumes that the process of winnowing has already been completed. Consequently, all that remains is to clear the threshing floor, and this is what John pictures. This means that John's ministry of preparation is itself the winnowing, for his call to repentance set within his message of eschatological judgment required of people that they align themselves with or over against God's justice. As a consequence, the role of the Messiah is portrayed as pronouncing or enacting judgment on the people on the basis of their response to John. [p. 182]

GOOD NEWS? (v. 18)

As a Lutheran, Luke's description of John's preaching and "exhortations" as "good news" is not theologically sound. Luke needs to read more Lutheran stuff. <g>

However, Craddock (Luke, Interpretation Commentaries) offers this wonderful summary: "When repentance and forgiveness are available, judgment is good news (v. 18). The primary aim is to save the wheat, not to burn the chaff." [p. 49] John offers hope and new life for the tax collectors, the soldiers, and all sinners. We all can be gathered by Jesus into his kingdom.

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901