Luke 3:7–17, Then he said to the multitudes. What’s really going on in this exchange between John and the religious folks of his day? Let’s step back and look at the bigger picture.
The multitudes of Jews had to make the long, hot and arduous journey down through the Judean mountains down to the Jordan River, which was the lowest spot on earth, to hear John the Baptist who was the latest fad preacher to come on the scene. However, when they arrived at his lonely wilderness pulpit, instead of stroking their egos by complimenting them for their religious zeal, he excoriates them and calls them a brood of vipers. John confronts them when he says that if they don’t repent, the fires of YHVH’s judgment will consume them (John 3:7–9). John’s preaching pierces their hearts, and lays them low spiritually, and they ask him what he expects them to do (John 3:10). John then preaches a message of social justice involving giving to the poor, being fair and honest in your business dealings, and if you’re a government worker, treating the citizens you serve with respect (John 3:11–14).
Interestingly, he doesn’t instruct these religious Jews in what many might consider to be the specificities and dos and don’ts of the Torah-law. In our day, most Messianically inclined Torah teachers are telling their listeners to punctiliously start observing the 613 commandments of the Torah, and to cease working on the Sabbath, stop eating pork, toss the Christmas trees in the dumpster, grow a beard, put on a tassel and a head-covering, and to say “Yeshua” instead of “Jesus.” John instead tells his hearers to go back to the basic — something they either never learned to do or they had forgotten along the way. He’s really saying, “Just be nice to your neighbor. Be fair, honest, loving and caring in your dealings with your fellow man.” And then John points them to Yeshua the Messiah who is soon to become the new star on the Judean preaching scene (Luke 3:16–17). So be nice and follow Yeshua—the most loving Person of all, he says.
When witnessing to people, what is our approach? Do we bash them over the head with a Torah scroll by telling them all the religious legal requirements that are required of them, or do we tell them simply to love one another and to follow Yeshua, which inevitably, but lovingly, will lead them to observing the righteous requirements of the Torah?
But there’s more.
These Jewish folks were highly religious — even zealots. After all, some had hiked for several days, on foot, from the heights of Jerusalem descending more than 4,000 feet in elevation through the barren desert mountains of the Judean wilderness to hear John preach. Now that’s zeal! Nowadays, if we can’t get to the church building in ten minutes in our air-conditioned automobile, have nice cushioned chairs to sit in once we get there, or if the preacher is deemed to be too long-winded, we here words like, “Forget it Mildred, I’m staying home!” These multitude of Jews not only had go down to the Jordan River, and that was bad enough, but when it was time to go home, they then had to make the steep climb back up to Jerusalem. Oy vey!
What is the bottom line here? Why did John rebuke them, and then instruct them as he did?
These multitudes of Jews were religious zealots, to be sure, but that’s the problem — they were caught up in religiosity. After all, they were Abraham’s children. They had it made spiritually. Just ask them. And since they were Elohim’s chosen people, they wanted to make certain that their one-way ticket out of here for escaping Elohim’s judgments was stamped and good to go. (Sounds like some I know in the pre-trib rapture crowd!) That’s why John rebuked them and demanded that they repent. Their hearts were evil and were far from Elohim (remember Matt 15:8?), and because of this, they were sure to incur the wrath of Elohim — unless they repented.
But what did John expect them to repent of, we might ask? Of not being nice people! These folks had forgotten the basics of what the Torah was all about. Oh yes, they were religious, and pretty Torah-observant as far as it went, but they were a bunch of selfish, arrogant, self-serving and self-seeking individuals who cared nothing about their fellow man — whether he was starving and naked or not, whether their business dealings were fair and just, or whether they were content in their station of life or not. Yeshua also dealt repeatedly with these same issues in his ministry — super-religious people who thought pretty highly of themselves, but who were in reality, avaricious, hypocritical and supercilious bigots. Yeshua had to rebuke even some of the early believers for the same attitude. Remember the Laodiceans (Rev 3:14–21)?
John in his epistle asks the question, “How can you say that you love Elohim whom you haven’t seen if can’t love your brother who you have seen” (1 John 4:20 cp. 1 John 3:17)?
What John the Baptist and these other scriptures are teaching us is that religiosity (or religious works including legalistic Torah-obedience) is unacceptable to the Creator if we are failing to love our fellow man in the process. In fact, it’s totally unacceptable to Elohim. He wants us to love him by loving each other, which is the whole message of Yeshua’s Parable of the Sheep and Goats in Matthew 25:31–45. Let’s also not forget Paul’s admonitions to believers in 1 Corinthians 13 — the famous biblical “Love Chapter.” There Paul states that all manner of religious works are meaningless if not motivated out of love.
Have you noticed that some of the meanest and most uncaring people on earth are religious, even Torah-obedient zealots? Let’s break this cycle of mean spiritedness. Yeshua said that his disciples would be known for their love one for another (John 13:35). Remember, love is the fulfilling of the Torah (Rom 13:8, 10).
So let’s all just start being nice to one another, while at the same time combining this with obedience to the righteous requirement of the Torah.