Luke 3:10 And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” 15 As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ…
What is it about John the Baptist that would make them think that he was the Christ? Was it the locusts and honey? The camel hair? The fiery rhetoric? The ability to gather a crowd?
It is striking that John the Baptist prepares the way with a bit of moral teaching. His congregants come up to him after a particularly bold message where he had just called them a brood of vipers. But they were not satisfied; they wanted practical application. “What should we do then?”
They were focused on doing. They wanted moral implications to his words. They wanted action-items.
And so John the Baptist gives them very simple, very practical, and very relevant things:
- If you have two jackets, share with one who has none.
- Do not collect more money than you have to.
- Do not extort, falsely accuse…oh yeah and be happy with your pay.
John the Baptist provides them three steps to a more just and fair society. He gives them instructions on how to change their behavior. But not how to change their hearts.
Ask any doctor and they will tell you, it is easy to tell someone what behaviors they need to change. But for a lasting impact, it has to become a heart change. Ron Heifetz calls it the difference between technical change and adaptive change.
Technical changes are easy; they are what fill self-help aisles, TED talk audiences, and many church pews. This is also what draws the crowd to think that John the Baptist must be the Christ.
For some reason, people want a legalistic Christ. We want a Christ that tells us in rhyming couplets, lists, and action-items how to live because it continues to fuel our desire to be in control, and it makes life manageable.
What John the Baptist’s teaching reveals is that ethical teaching is not limited to Christ. Moral living can be very easily accomplished apart from Christ.
Strangely, though, this is how he prepares us for Jesus. By demonstrating a flawed approach, John the Baptist shows us that the real Christ is coming for something much greater than moralism, legalism, and do-goodisms.
John the Baptist provides three good ideas that can be taught through any civics lesson. That is why he is quick to defer any reverence…he is saying nothing new. The more radical claim is coming in just a few more pages. Not a legalistic Christ, but a grace-filled Christ. Real adaptive change; Real heart change:
If you know God loves you in Christ, and that there is nothing you can do or need to do but accept his perfect righteousness, then you can feed the hungry, visit the sick and clothe the naked, and all of it will be done as a gift of God.
But if you think you are going to get or keep your salvation by doing these good deeds, it is really yourself you are feeding, yourself you are clothing, yourself you are visiting.
Without faith in Christ, good deeds are not truly done for God, but for ourselves–and thus are not truly good.
John the Baptist prepares us for the birth of Christ because he shows that anyone can do “good.” But unlike any other faith in which action items, application, and 3-steps-to-righteousness are necessary, Christ is coming to free us from a performance-driven faith. As Paul says, there is no one who is truly righteous, because apart from Christ, all of our do-goodisms are our attempt to be loved by God.
In Luke’s sequel–The book of Acts–a crowd gathers around another man and asks the same question: What Shall We Do?
Now that the Gospel of Christ has been demonstrated through Jesus by his death on the cross for our sins, which set us free from past mistakes; and then by his coming out of the tomb to a new life, which assures our eternal salvation: What Shall We Do?
Paul’s response is not a list of action-items for a more ethical and just society, but a simple invitation to surrender:
Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
This question is what we should be preparing to ask ourselves on Christmas Day…If Christ came into the world for me and has set me free “what shall I do?”