Preparation and the Gospel

A sermon on Luke 3:1-4:13 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 1/22/2006

Imagine that this evening your phone rings. Upon answering, you hear: “This is the Chief Protocol Officer at the White House. To hear views of the people, President Bush is having dinner the next few Mondays with randomly selected American families. He will be at your house tomorrow night at 6. Please prepare.”

What would you do to prepare? How would you prepare your house? What would you serve for dinner?

We’ve never had that happen, but in 1984 we lived in Nairobi, Kenya, when Queen Elizabeth visited. Since we lived near the Kenyan Statehouse – the official residence of the President – her motorcade passed within a few hundred yards of our apartment. The week before her visit there was a flurry of activity: Potholes were repaired, the gullies on both sides of the road were filled in, flags were put up. Beth and one-year-old Erin waved at the queen as she drove by.

When a VIP comes to visit, you prepare.

This section of Luke concerns preparation for the greatest VIP of all. John the Baptist comes to prepare the way, to tell the people to get ready, for the Messiah is coming. They must prepare for the Messiah. The second part of the passage concerns preparation of the Messiah: preparing Jesus for the road ahead of Him.

This morning we will consider those two preparations, then conclude by asking what lessons we can glean for our own preparation to meet the Messiah, Jesus Christ.

Preparation for the Messiah

We’ve already seen John’s miraculous birth. God proclaimed the pregnancy ahead of time, and enabled Elizabeth to conceive in her old age. Now another miracle occurs:

The word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness (Luke 3:2, emphasis added)

Don’t overlook this miracle! Remember, there has not been a prophet in Israel for 400 years. No one has spoken God-breathed words of Scripture in all that time. To prepare the people for Messiah, the word of God comes, spoken by God’s prophet.

That’s John’s purpose: preparation. What does John do to prepare the way? Verse 18 sums up his ministry:

 So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. (Luke 3:18, emphasis added)

John preached the Good News! We need to remember that, for much of what John says doesn’t sound like good news. Look at the first words he speaks to the crowd in verse 7:

"You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

Is that good news? Is that Gospel? Yes! That is the first, vital part of the Gospel. We can break down John’s message into five parts, which together work to prepare the way for the Messiah, which together work to communicate the Good News which all flesh must hear:

1) “You are a sinner!”

John says, “You all are snakes! You all are sinners – even those of you who are Jews.” Note the second part of verse 8:

And do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.

He is saying, “Don’t depend on your ancestry! Ancestry will make no difference.” As Paul says elsewhere, “You were dead in your trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1);  “there is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10). Jew or Greek, rich or poor, master or servant – all are sinners.

2) “Judgment of sin is coming! You’re condemned.”

In verse 7, John refers to the “wrath to come.” Then in verse 9 he is even more explicit:

“Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

Judgment is coming, and it is near. Or as Paul says in Ephesians 2:3, we “were by nature children of wrath.”

3) So repent!

Verse 3 tells us that John came “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” To repent means to have a change of mind, a change of heart, to turning away from sin and turn to God.

The fourth part of John’s message is interesting and, perhaps, unexpected to us today:

4) “Act like you’ve repented!”

True repentance, true turning, will be followed by actions that are “in keeping with repentance” (verse 8). What types of acts does John exhort them to do? Intriguingly, not religious acts. His recorded words don’t even include the exhortation to be baptized. Instead, in his emphasis is on outward manifestations of repentance in everyday life – particularly changes in the ways they acquire and use money.

We see this in verses 10-14. The crowd, then the tax collectors, then the soldiers ask him what they are to do. John’s responses boil down to three exhortations:

1.      Share what you have with the poor.

2.      Don’t use power to take what is not yours – even when you can get away with it.

3.      Be content with what you have.

John focuses on our use of money. For the money is an excellent indicator of the heart. If you repent, if you truly believe, it will change the way you handle money. As Randy Alcorn says,

None of us can enthrone the true God unless in the process we dethrone our other gods. If Christ is not Lord over our money and possessions, then He is not our Lord.

Lastly, John says:

5) “Look forward to the Judge/Messiah who is coming!”

We see this in verses 15 and 16:

As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 16 John answered them all, saying, "I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

John is saying: “Don’t focus on me! I’m nothing compared to Him! I provide you with a picture of repentance and cleansing. But that’s not the goal! That’s only preparation! Repent, and look to the true Messiah! I’m preparing the way for Him!”

And what happens when the Messiah comes? What happens to the repentant people when He comes?  Verse 16 tells us that they are baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The power of God falls on them! So John says, “This is your hope: God’s work in your heart! The Holy Spirit coming upon you! So look to His coming!”

But that is not all John says. He goes on to characterize the work of the Messiah with another image that includes judgment:

“His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." (Luke 3:17)

The kernel of the wheat is what is valuable, but it is surrounded by chaff, which is good for nothing. Winnowing and threshing separate the wheat from the chaff. The Messiah conducts this separation. He takes the chaff and burns it. He takes the wheat and brings it safely into His storehouses.

David uses a similar image in Psalm 1. The righteous are like a tree planted by streams of water, always green, always prospering. The wicked are like chaff that the wind blows away. They cannot stand in the judgment.

So the Messiah is coming both to gather and to burn. Which will it be for you? Each of John’s listeners – and each of us - will face Jesus at death, or at the time of His second coming. He will separate the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the chaff, those who are His from those who reject Him.

This is the Gospel! There is no Gospel without this message of judgment. We never understand the depth of God’s mercy unless we understand God’s judgment of sin. The Good News is that although you are justly condemned by God, you can be accepted by God! Although you are repugnant to God, you can be God’s delight! Although you are estranged from God, can be His dear child for all eternity!

You’re a sinner. Judgment is coming to all sinners. So repent. Act like you’ve repented. And look forward to the Judge/Messiah who is coming.

What happens when you do that? Then will you have a great life? Yes – a great eternal life. You will have the greatest joy of knowing God, of being united with Christ.

But your life in this world might get worse. That’s one of the lessons from verses 19 and 20:

But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by [John] for Herodias, his brother's wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, 20 added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.

John clearly had no fear of speaking boldly. He spoke out against the adultery of Herod, so the tetrarch put him in prison. John obeyed God, did what was right – and ended up in prison.

The Gospel is not: “Repent, and God will make your life easy!” The Gospel is not: “Repent, trust God, and He will give you the life you’ve always dreamed of!” Instead, the Gospel is a message sent to all condemned sinners: “Repent! Trust God! Find your righteousness in Jesus Christ! Seek His face! Having Him, you will have all that you need. You will have the greatest possible joy, no matter what troubles and trials and sufferings come your way.” As Paul says,

everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12)

Do you believe that Gospel? Are you prepared?

Preparation of the Messiah

John prepares the people for the Messiah. God prepares the Messiah for His task. We see this in three sections:

God’s Declaration

Prior to Luke 3:21, who has declared that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah? The angel made this declaration to Mary and the shepherds. Devout Jews – Simeon and Anna – spoke to those around them. And the prophet John has proclaimed His coming. At this point, God Himself adds His voice to those declaring that Jesus is the Messiah. Three times in the gospels God speaks audibly; this is the first. After Jesus is baptized by John, while He is praying, the Holy Spirit descends in bodily form on Him. God then speaks in a voice that all can hear, saying,

“You are my beloved Son; with you I am well-pleased.” (Luke 3:22)

Jesus performs this public act of dedication to God at the beginning of His public ministry. God chooses this occasion to underline who Jesus is. He says, “You are pleasing to Me by nature and by the life You have lived.” Indeed, Jesus has lived the type of life that should characterize those who repent. God declares: “You are My Chosen One.” 

Many will reject Jesus. Next week we will see that even those in His hometown reject Him. Later, the leaders of the Jews will almost all reject Him. Things are no different today. Many reject Jesus. Many mock the idea of a Messiah, a Savior who died to save men. Many reject the whole idea of sin and judgment.

But God has spoken. He spoke to His Son, for all to hear: “Your human life to this point has prepared you for what is ahead. All eternity has prepared you for what is ahead. All those around you will doubt you and reject you. But I have spoken: You are my Son.”

God’s Preparation

Verses 23 to 38 record the genealogy of Jesus, taking His ancestry all the way back to Adam. Most discussions of this text have to do with the differences between Luke’s genealogy and the one recorded in Matthew. It seems most likely that Matthew provides the kingly line from David to Jesus, while Luke records the Jesus’ legal ancestry.

But that is not the main point Luke is making here. Luke, instead, highlights that Jesus is the hinge of history. All God has done since Adam points to this man. Even in the Garden of Eden, God had this man, this Messiah in view (Genesis 3:15). God has worked through all these generations, all these ancestors, to bring the right man into the world at exactly the right time. All history prior to Jesus was preparation for Him; all history subsequent to Jesus is response to Him. Now He is here. The time is come.

Jesus’ Temptation

Before Jesus can fulfill His role, He must prepare Himself by seeking God’s face, by dedicating Himself to Him.

And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days. . . . And he ate nothing during those days. (Luke 4:1-2, emphasis added)

Note that Jesus was already full of the Holy Spirit prior to going into the wilderness. He was led by the Spirit to that place. He did not go there in order to get more of the Spirit. Nevertheless, He still needs to seek God’s face. He still needs communion with God. He still needs to separate Himself from food and from interaction with others in order to focus on God. Though He is already well-pleasing to God – and thus has no need for repentance – His preparation nevertheless entails fasting and prayer.

If Jesus Himself needed fasting and prayer, how much more do we need the same?

Jesus’ time in the wilderness is not just a period of intimacy with God, however. You noticed I skipped a phrase at the beginning of verse 2: While in the wilderness He was “being tempted by the devil.”

Now, Jesus already faced the normal temptations of a child, an adolescent, a young man. Hebrews 4:15 tells us that Jesus “has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin.” Thus Jesus faced:

Yet God was well pleased with Him. He was without sin. He did not give in to these temptations. He loved the Lord His God with all His heart, soul, mind, and strength every minute of every day. He loved His neighbor as Himself without fail.

But now Jesus is entering His public ministry: He will represent all redeemed mankind on the cross. So Satan tries to derail Him right at the beginning.

Satan has done this before. He succeeded in derailing all humanity right at the beginning. Take note here of an interesting fact. Most written accounts of a person’s life would put the genealogy right at the beginning – like the Gospel of Matthew. Again like Matthew, most often the genealogy will start with the ancestor and work forward to the subject of the account. But Luke puts the genealogy here, subsequent to the birth narrative, and lists the legal ancestors in reverse order. The result is that Luke concludes with Adam, right before giving the account of Jesus’ temptation. I suspect this is an intentional contrast. Adam was tempted by Satan at the beginning and failed. Because of that failure, all humanity is stained by Adam’s sin. Now the second Adam, Jesus, is tempted – but He resists Satan. And in Him, all redeemed humanity is restored to God.

The first temptation is recorded in Luke 4:3-4:

The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread." 4 And Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone.'"

What is the temptation here? Some commentators and preachers have focused on the initial phrase, asserting that Satan wants Jesus to question whether or not He really is the Son of God. But the Greek won’t allow that interpretation. There are different possible ways to make conditional statements in Greek; in the one used here, the initial statement is not questioned. It is assumed for the sake of argument. Satan is not questioning whether or not Jesus is the Son of God.

Instead, Satan is asking Jesus: “Does God provide for all your needs? Do you need to provide an insurance policy against God’s negligence to provide for you? Look, you’ve gone without food for 40 days! That’s long enough! God hasn’t provided any bread. So take matters into your own hands, and turn these stones into bread!”

In His response, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:3. He tells Satan, “I need God, I need my relationship to Him, more than I need bread. He is my greatest joy. I feed on Him.” As Jesus says in John 4:34:

"My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.”

Jesus is also reflecting the attitude of David in Psalm 23:

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

So as we saw two weeks ago in Romans 15, “Christ did not please Himself.” He gained sustenance from God, from His obedience to Him.

Do you see how this preparation is necessary for Jesus? On the cross, the chief priests will call out to Him, “Come down from the cross! Save yourself!” It certainly will not look like God is providing for His needs. But Jesus must have confidence throughout His life that abiding in God’s will is His greatest joy, His complete sustenance. He rejects this temptation now and throughout His life.

The second temptation is recorded in verses 5 to 8:

And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, 6 and said to him, "To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." 8 And Jesus answered him, "It is written, "' You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.'"

Satan says, “Here is the kingdom! This is why you came – to be king! You’re a descendant of David! You’re to be the King of kings! So worship me – and begin to reign!”

Jesus responds by quoting Deuteronomy 6:13. His point is not only that worshiping anyone other than God is wrong. Jesus makes an even more fundamental argument: God is ultimate. No other objective, however important, can supplant God. Jesus did not come primarily to be king. He did not come primarily to restore the kingdom. He can to glorify God. He came valuing God above all else every minute of every day. To have the kingdoms of the world without God is worthless! He is the treasure!

We ourselves always face this temptation: To put some other objective ahead of seeking God. We must be God-centered. He is ultimate.

Satan’s third temptation:

9 And he took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written, "' He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,' 11 and "'On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.'" 12 And Jesus answered him, "It is said, 'You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.'"

Satan quotes Psalm 91 to say that Jesus can jump from a great height, the pinnacle of the temple, and not get hurt. In response, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:16 about not testing God. What is the temptation here?

Many preachers – including myself on earlier occasions – suggest that Satan is tempting Jesus with an easy path to popularity. He suggests that Jesus act as a showman, that He impress the crowd by this dramatic act.

Surely Jesus faced this temptation at times. But note that Satan makes no mention of crowds seeing Jesus. Indeed, Satan mentions no one else. It is not at all clear that anyone would even witness the event. So what is the temptation?

Think of it this way. Imagine a newlywed couple backpacking in Glacier National Park. As they begin their hike, signs at the trailhead warn them, “Beware! You are entering grizzly bear country!” That evening when they arrive at their campsite, the woman goes down to the stream to get water while the husband sets up the tent. Suddenly, he hears her cry out, “Help! Help! A bear is charging at me!” He immediately races to the stream – but sees no bear. His wife is standing by the stream smiling. She says, “I just wanted to see if you would come.”

How does he feel at that moment? Is she displaying trust in her husband?

One commentator calls this “unbelief masquerading as faith.” He says, “The demanding of miraculous protection, where it is not needed, is not faith or loyalty. It is sin.”

We must trust God. We don’t need to give God a quiz or a test to make sure He will come through. True faith rests on Him, on His faithfulness, on His Word. Jesus had such faith. He would always trust God the Father; He would never put God to the test.

Verse 13 tells us that Satan is not done with Jesus. He leaves him “until an opportune time.” Satan thought that after forty days of fasting, Jesus would be weak and vulnerable. He proved to be strong. But the Enemy will not give up. He will continue to tempt Jesus again and again, whenever the time seems right. But Jesus is now prepared for His ministry. Unlike Adam, He resisted Satan’s wiles. The Messiah is ready.

Your Preparation to Meet the Messiah

Think back on John’s answer to the question, “What shall we do?” We noted that John did not tell them to do any religious acts, such as fasting or prayer. Yet that is exactly what Jesus did to prepare Himself: Get alone with God, fast for forty days, pray. Should our own preparations for meeting the Messiah include fasting and prayer – or should we focus solely on loving our neighbor as ourselves, in line with John’s commands to those around him?

John’s point is not that fasting and prayer are unimportant. As we shall see in a few weeks, he and his disciples do fast and pray (Luke 5:33). The problem is that many in his audience saw fasting and prayer as meritorious rituals, ways to impress God. But a true fast is a humbling of oneself – and that humbling necessarily will lead to practical ways of loving others (Isaiah 58:3-10).

Given John’s methods of preparing the way, given Jesus’ ways of preparing Himself: How will you prepare yourself?

You will meet someone greater than the President. You will encounter someone more important than the Queen.

You will stand face to face before your Judge and King – the One who will either condemn you to an eternity of punishment or will welcome you into His glorious presence forevermore.

This judge furthermore will know your every thought; He will see your every intention.

So get ready! Repent! Believe the Gospel! Be born again by the Holy Spirit! Do acts consistent w repentance!

You will meet Jesus – so know Him. Love Him. Delight in Him.

Judgment is coming. Jesus divides the wheat from the chaff.

But hear the Good News: Turn from sin. Turn to Him. Love Him. Seek joy in Him. And by His grace you will be in Christ, you will be God’s beloved child, you will be the one in whom He is well-pleased.

This sermon was preached on January 22, 2006 at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC. The Randy Alcorn quote is from Money, Possessions, and Eternity (Revised and Expanded Edition, Tyndale, 2003), p. 5. Darrell Bock’s Luke 1:1-9:50 (Baker, 1994) was helpful throughout, particularly in his discussion of the temptations. Bock p. 381-82 is the source for the quote from “a commentator.”

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