Bear Fruits in Keeping with Repentance

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on January 14, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

Have you ever seen a commercial on television and realized that you had a problem that you never knew you had? A lot of products are designed to solve a particular problem that we have. When you watch commercials, they usually illustrate that problem, and then they give us great news: there’s a product that can fix your problem. Sometimes the problems aren’t really big. Do you remember those Ronco products that were sold on TV? Ron Popeil hawked all kinds of products on TV. You may remember the rotisserie machine that could cook two chickens at once. He also sold the Inside-the-Shell Egg Scrambler. Until you saw this product, you may not have realized how difficult it is to scramble eggs with a whisk. But with the Inside-the-Shell Egg Scrambler, you simply place a whole egg on the device, a needle sticks inside the egg, and the electronic device scrambles the egg’s yolk and white inside the shell. No more whisks needed!

Remember the Clapper? Before you saw that product advertised on TV, you probably didn’t think about how much time you spent turning lights off and on. But now, with the Clapper, you just clap to do the job. Just think what you can do with all of that time saved!

On a more serious note, sometimes we don’t realize we have a health problem. Perhaps we’re feeling fine, but we happen to have our annual physical and the blood tests reveal that our cholesterol or our blood pressure is too high. Perhaps something else is going on with our blood sugar levels or our white blood cell count. There may be some proteins in our blood that could be markers of a tumor. We didn’t think we had a problem, but now the doctor says we do.

The point is that in order to make changes, in order to find a solution, we first have to know we have a problem. In order to be healed, we need to know what disease we have. We first have to be confronted with the truth in order to be made well.

That can be true of all kinds of things in life. If we want to get better, we have to be confronted with the truth. I used to be a professor of music. Most of the time, I taught voice lessons. Most of the students accepted the fact that it was my job to get them to sing better. But I remember there was one student who seemed to be upset that I didn’t simply let him sing and then say to him how great of a singer he was. I wanted him to improve, so I challenged him. His voice was very soft, and to be an effective singer, you have to be able to project your voice. You need a certain level of volume in order to have a rich, resonant, pleasing voice. So, I corrected him and taught him some new techniques. I usually had good student evaluation, but he gave me a negative one. (Evaluations were anonymous, but I could identify his evaluation by the comments he made.)

In order to change, to improve, to be made well, we need to know what our problem is. And we need to be confronted with the truth. This is never easy. And, to quote that line Jack Nicholson delivers in “A Few Good Men,” there are many people who “can’t handle the truth.”

That’s certainly true when it comes to Jesus. In order to know that we need Jesus, we first need to know that we have a problem that only he can solve. That means that we will need to hear some hard truths. Some people will respond rightly to those hard truths. Others “can’t handle the truth,” and they will be dismissive.

We see this today in today’s passage, Luke 3:1–20. In the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, we were told the story of how a special child was born to two elderly parents who were previously unable to have children. This special child was named John. His father, Zechariah, was told that John “will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Luke 1:16–17).[1]

When John was born, Zechariah said this to him,

76  And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77  to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
78  because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
79  to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:76–79).

John’s job would be to go prepare the way for the Lord Jesus, who was his relative and was born a few months after John. John’s role was to prepare the people for the coming of their King and Savior. He would let them know that the salvation of God has come.

Now, we jump ahead three decades later. Jesus hasn’t begun his ministry yet, but John was ministering in the wilderness near the Jordan River. Let’s first read verses 1–6:

1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet,

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall become straight,
and the rough places shall become level ways,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

Once again, Luke gives us some historical context. He tells us that this is the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar (42 BC–37 AD). Tiberius was the emperor of Rome, who followed Augustus, his stepfather. He started to reign alongside Augustus in AD 12 and then he became the sole emperor in AD 14. Depending on how the years were counted, this could be as early as AD 26 and as late as AD 29. I think it’s possible that it’s now AD 28, particularly if Jesus died in AD 30. But some think he died in AD 33, and then the year 29 might make sense. At any rate, this is during Tiberius’s reign.

It’s also when Pontius Pilate was the governor, or prefect, of Judea. He held that position from AD 26 to 36. He was an administrative officer of the Roman Empire whose job it was to collect taxes and keep the peace.

Three other political leaders are mentioned: Herod Antipas (ruled 4 BC–AD 39), his half-brother, Philip (ruled 4 BC–AD 34), and Lysanias (dates unknown). This Herod is not Herod the Great, but his son. He was the one who ruled over Galilee, the region where Jesus ministered. He was also famous for divorcing his wife and marrying the wife of his half-brother, Herod Philip (not be confused with Herod the Tetrarch). John the Baptist spoke out against that marriage and that led to his death. Philip and Lysanias are not as important, but they were both “tetrarchs,” which means they were each a ruler of a fourth of Herod the Great’s kingdom.

In addition to the political rulers, there are the religious leaders, Annas and Caiaphas. Caiaphas was the high priest of the time (he held that position from AD 18–36). His father-in-law, Annas, had been high priest earlier (AD 6–15). Though he was no longer officially the high priest, it’s clear that he still had a lot of power (John 18:13, 24; Acts 4:6).

I think Luke tells us who these powerful men were in order to tell us when this event occurred. But he also tells us about these men because he contrasts John the Baptist with them. These men had political and religious power. In fact, four of them (Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas, Annas, and Caiaphas) will play a role in Jesus’ death. Yet John the Baptist didn’t have any earthly power. But what John had was more important: The word of God. John is presented as a prophet.[2] He delivers a message from God in the wilderness along the Jordan River. He is not in the palaces of Rome, Jerusalem, or Caesarea Philippi. He’s not in the temple in Jerusalem. But his job is more important than Caesar’s or the high priest’s. His job was to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. Nothing could get in the way of what God was about to do. Not the lowest valley, the highest mountain, the most crooked of roads, or the roughest patch of terrain. No, all flesh will see the salvation of God.

To prepare people for the coming of the Lord, John preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Baptism is the act of being immersed in water. In this case, it was the Jordan River. Repentance is a turning to God, a turning away from sin, a changing of mind and heart and behavior. What John was saying was that it was necessary to be washed from the uncleanness of sin and to turn to God in faith and to turn way from sin and idols.

The idea of needing to be washed is found in the Old Testament. In Isaiah 1:16–17, God says to Israel,

16  Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17  learn to do good;
seek justice,
correct oppression;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause.

The idea of being washed in the Jordan River also reminds me of a story from the Old Testament. A Gentile, named Naaman, was the commander of the Syrian army. He also happened to be a leper. He was told that the prophet Elisha could heal him. When he came to Elisha, Elisha told him to dip himself seven times in the Jordan River and he would be clean. Naaman was doubtful at first, but he did as he was told, and he was healed of his leprosy (2 Kgs. 5:1–14).

The idea is that the Israelites were unclean. They needed to be clean in order to be prepared for the Lord’s coming. Like everyone else, they had sinned against God. In order to be right with God, they needed to repent and be forgiven. Our great problem, our great disease is the separation that exists between God and people. That separation is responsible for all that is wrong with the world. Because of that separation, we have inner turmoil. We don’t feel at ease, we don’t feel peace, we don’t truly feel home. We can get depressed and lonely. Because of that separation, we fight. We covet and steal. We quarrel. Nations go to war. Because of that separation, God put a curse on the earth. There are earthquakes and floods, hurricanes and famines. And because of this separation, we get diseases like leprosy and leukemia, and we die. We’re separated from God because we don’t live according to our design. God made us to know him, love him, and worship him. But we don’t pursue God, we don’t love him as we should, and we don’t worship him. We tend to make ourselves or other created things the objects of our worship, even if we don’t call it “worship” or think of it as worship. This disease of sin affects all flesh, and it affected Israel just as much as it affected Gentiles.

Luke quotes Isaiah 40:3–5, identifying John as the voice in the wilderness. Another passage in Isaiah talks about preparing the way. Those who are lowly and contrite will be healed, but those who continue in their wickedness will not experience healing or peace. This is what Isaiah 57:14–21 says:

14  And it shall be said,
“Build up, build up, prepare the way,
remove every obstruction from my people’s way.”
15  For thus says the One who is high and lifted up,
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly,
and to revive the heart of the contrite.
16  For I will not contend forever,
nor will I always be angry;
for the spirit would grow faint before me,
and the breath of life that I made.
17  Because of the iniquity of his unjust gain I was angry,
I struck him; I hid my face and was angry,
but he went on backsliding in the way of his own heart.
18  I have seen his ways, but I will heal him;
I will lead him and restore comfort to him and his mourners,
19  creating the fruit of the lips.
Peace, peace, to the far and to the near,” says the Lord,
“and I will heal him.
20  But the wicked are like the tossing sea;
for it cannot be quiet,
and its waters toss up mire and dirt.
21  There is no peace,” says my God, “for the wicked.”

John’s message was the same. Healing would come to those who sought it. But there are those, the wicked, who will never seek God, and they will not experience peace.

Let’s continue in this passage to learn more about John’s message. Let’s read verses 7–9:

He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. 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. 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.”

John calls the crowds a “brood of vipers!” In Matthew’s Gospel, we’re told that he directed that statement to two sects of Jewish religious leaders, the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matt. 3:7). “Brood of vipers” more or less means, “sons of the serpent,” or, “sons of the devil.” The imagery goes back to Genesis 3, when Satan, in the form of a serpent, tempts and Adam and Eve. John asks them, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” He probably implies that they can’t slither out of God’s righteous judgment. The only way for them to avoid God’s wrath is to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” In other words, if their lives show that they have turned to God, then they can avoid his wrath. But they shouldn’t think they will be spared God’s judgment just because they’re Jews. They can’t take pride in their heritage and say that they are sons of Abraham. The true sons of Abraham are people of faith (Gal. 3:7, 9), people who are united to Jesus (Gal. 3:29) by faith. If all the Jews lacked faith and didn’t repent of their sins, then God could take stones and make them sons of Abraham. People of faith produce good fruit and will be spared, and people who lack faith bear bad fruit and will be judged.

This is similar to what happens in the Gospel of John when Jesus confronts Jewish religious leaders. He says to them, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31–32). They say that they are Abraham’s sons and have never been slaves. How can they be made free? Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave of sin. . . . I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you” (John 8:34, 37). When they insist that they are Abraham’s children, Jesus says that if they were Abraham’s children, they would be doing the works of Abraham. I think he means they would be acting out of faith, and if they truly loved God the Father, they would love God the Son, Jesus. But they don’t understand Jesus, because they cannot bear to hear what he says (John 8:39–43). Then Jesus brings out the big guns and says, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44).

In other words, Jesus calls the unbelieving Jewish religious leaders of his day a “brood of vipers.” They weren’t sons of Abraham and sons of God. No, they were sons of the devil. This shows us that God’s people are not of one ethnicity. It doesn’t matter whether you are Jewish or Gentile. People aren’t right with God because they have some position or power. They’re not right with God because they happened to go through the religious motions. No, they are right with God if they have been transformed, if God has changed them. As the apostle Paul says, “For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Gal. 6:15). You can’t boast in following all the religious rules, or flouting all the religious rules. What matters is being transformed by God, born of the Holy Spirit.

I think it’s no accident that John is in the wilderness and at the Jordan River. Remember that when God redeemed Israel out of slavery in Egypt, he brought them into the wilderness. And to enter into the Promised Land of Canaan, they had to cross the Jordan River. Though they entered into that land, they did not find rest for their souls (Heb. 3:1–4:10). Because the Israelites were generally unfaithful to God, God punished them and drove them out of that land. But when the reentered it, they still hadn’t fixed their problem of sin. The answer wasn’t entering into that land. The answer was a transformation. And that’s why John is here, in the wilderness, at the Jordan River. He’s saying, “If you want to enter the true Promised Land, the true paradise with God, you have to go through the Jordan. You have to be washed of your sin. You have to change. You must turn from you sin and turn back to God. You must trust him and you must live like it.”

Some people who heard John’s message were convicted. They realized that they had a problem and they wanted to know what they could do to prepare for the coming of the Lord. Let’s read verses 10–14:

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.”

When people ask John, “What should we do?” John gives them a pretty simple answer: start living rightly. The implication is they haven’t been living this way. They’re supposed to share their clothing. If you see someone who lacks the basic necessities of life, share with that person. Stop taking things that aren’t yours. Tax collectors in that time and place were known for taking more than they should. Apparently, soldiers did the same thing. John tells the crowd to live rightly, to be generous and honest.

Now, this doesn’t mean that this makes a person right with God. We have to remember that John’s message was not the full gospel. He was preparing people for Jesus. What he was doing was highlighting their sin and their need for salvation. He was telling them to start to pay attention to their dealings with other people, to be aware of their own unrighteousness and to start thinking more about righteousness.

Jesus will say that God freely forgives those who turn to him in faith. But Jesus will also stress the importance of sacrificial giving. Later in the Gospel of Luke, we’ll see examples of people giving generously. Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan is a story of a man who gives generously to someone in need. We’ll also see a story of a tax collector, Zacchaeus, who repents (Luke 19:1–10). And we’ll meet an honorable solider, a centurion (Luke 7:1–10). In this passage, Luke is introducing some important themes that will be developed later.

John the Baptist’s preaching pointed forward to the one who can make sinful people righteous. Let’s read verses 15–17:

15 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 fire. 17 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.”

John’s preaching was so powerful that some people wondered if he was the Christ, or Messiah, the long-awaited deliverer that the Old Testament promised would come. He clearly says no. He says that while his baptism was with water, there was one who is mightier than he. This one, Jesus, will baptize not with water, but with the Holy Spirit and fire. Water in and of itself does nothing to change a person. Baptism in water is just a sign. But the Holy Spirit is the third Person of the triune God. After Jesus dies, is resurrected from the grave, and ascends into heaven, he will pour out the Holy Spirit (Acts 2). The Holy Spirit is the one who ultimately transforms people. Fire can also change. Fire can destroy, but fire can also purify. For some, fire will mean judgment. Those who reject Jesus are the trees who produce bad fruit, and they will be thrown into the fire. But those who trust in Jesus will be purified. God uses the fire of trials to purify his people (Zech. 13:9; Mal. 3:2–3). He uses challenges in our lives to burn off the things that hinder our growth, to show us what is important and enduring and what won’t last. We should focus on the things that matter most, the things that are eternal.

Jesus is like a farmer who separates the wheat from the chaff. The chaff is the husk, which isn’t used for food and so is discarded. A farmer would use a winnowing fork to toss the grain in the air. The lighter chaff would be carried off in the wind and the heavier wheat would fall back to the threshing floor. The chaff would later be burned, while the wheat is stored in the barn. This is just a picture of judgment day. When Jesus returns, when the end of history as we know it comes, he will judge everyone who has ever lived. John preached this, but so did Jesus and his apostles. The idea that our lives will be evaluated means that our lives have meaning. If there is no evaluation, there simply is no meaning. But the fact that we will be judged should cause us to think more carefully about our lives. If all our actions, our words, and even our thoughts are used as evidence in the cosmic trial that is judgment day, could we stand in the right before God? Would we be found guilty or innocent? John is pressing the need that people have for salvation. He is preparing people for the only Savior.

At the end of this passage, Luke gives us a summary statement of John’s preaching. But Luke also tells us that John’s preaching got him into trouble. Let’s read verses 18–20:

18 So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. 19 But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him 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 preached “good news” to people. His message relates to the good news that the prophet Isaiah promised would come. Isaiah promised that God would come and gather his people (Isa. 40:9–11). He promised that God would bring peace (Isa. 52:7; the peace comes from the “Suffering Servant” of Isa. 52:13–53:12). God’s anointed one would bring good news to the spiritually poor, the ones enslaved to sin (Isa. 61:1). Isaiah promises forgiveness, restoration, and even a recreation of the world (Isa. 65:17).

But not everyone thought John’s preaching was good news. Herod Antipas, who had divorced his wife in order to marry the wife of his half-brother, didn’t like John’s preaching, and he locked him up. John had told Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have her” (Matt. 14:4). And so John was imprisoned and later he was killed (see Matt. 14:1–12). John the Baptist came in the spirit of Elijah, the Old Testament prophet who told people to stop worshiping idols, false gods, and to turn back to the true God. He spoke truth to power. In Elijah’s day, the power was King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Elijah had to run for his life. John also spoke truth to power, but for this he was killed.

Hundreds of millions of people and perhaps billions of people have heard about John the Baptist. How many of us know much about Tiberius or Philip the Tetrarch? We only know Pontius Pilate because he was involved in the crucifixion. These men are mere footnotes in the Bible. But John is a hero. That is because John the Baptist had real power. God’s hand was upon him, and he had the power of God’s word. Though his actions cost him his life, he knew that he could never lose eternal life in the true Promised Land of a renewed and restored creation. His glory far exceeds that of the emperor.

Now that we’ve gone through this passage, I want to focus on just a few points.

One, true power is found in God’s word. God’s word has the power to transform lives. When the Holy Spirit applies his word to the hearts of sinful people, those people turn to God. They are changed. The word of God has changed the world more than any emperor has. People often put so much hope in politics. They pour so much of their time, money, and emotions into political parties. But politics does not have the power of God. It’s important, but it’s less important than God’s word.

John the Baptist’s preaching challenged not only political powers, but also religious powers. His preaching—and Jesus’ preaching—challenged the Pharisees and Sadducees. They challenged the high priests. Some people put their hope in their priests, or in religious institutions. Formalized religion is not necessarily bad, but if it is opposed to the word of God, it is. When churches do things that aren’t biblical, they need to be reformed. If they don’t change according to God’s word, they, too, will be thrown into the fire, which will consume all their unbiblical traditions.

Two, God’s word tells us that our problem is our rebellion against God. Our main problem is not a lack of education or money. Our main problem isn’t political. Our main problem isn’t even racism or sexism. Our main problem is that we do not live for God the way that we should. And God has every right to condemn us. John’s preaching highlighted that fact.

Three, John’s job was also to point to the solution to our problem. Our problem is so great that we cannot fix it ourselves. We cannot atone for our own sin. That is why God sent his Son, Jesus. Jesus is the only perfectly righteous person who has ever lived. He has always loved God the Father the way that God should be loved. He has always obeyed God the Father the way that God should be obeyed. He loves people the way that people should be loved. And though he never sinned, he was treated like a criminal and executed on an instrument of torture, the cross. Yet this was God’s plan. On the cross, Jesus experienced God’s righteous, holy wrath. God hates sin, and Jesus was regarded as sin. He was crushed, because sin deserves to be destroyed. He experienced hell on earth, because sinners deserve to experience condemnation. And the great news is that anyone who turns to Jesus in faith and repents of their sins can be forgiven of all their sin. Jesus has already paid the penalty that our crimes against God deserve.

Four, that brings us to what a right response to Jesus looks like. We must trust Jesus. We must believe that he is who the Bible says he is and that he did what the Bible says he did. But faith isn’t just head knowledge. Faith leads to action. Repentance is the changing of one’s whole life. If a right response is a coin, faith is on one side, and repentance is on the other. You can’t separate the two. Jesus and his apostles called people to put their faith in Jesus, but they also called them to repentance (Luke 5:32; 13:1–5; 15; 17:1–4; 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 11:18; 17:30; 20:21; 26:20). If you haven’t yet turned to Jesus, you can turn to him now. It’s not too late. You can put your trust in him. You can start living a different way. I would love to talk to you more about that. But keep in mind that following Jesus is a real change. It’s one we need to make in order to be right with God and avoid judgment.

Five, repentance isn’t just what we do when we first come to Jesus. The whole Christian life is a continual repentance, a continual reformation according to the word of God. I talked a lot about Martin Luther last fall. In his famous Ninety-Five Theses, which was a protest against the Catholic Church’s abuse of the sale of indulgences, he began with this thesis: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to repentance.”[3] Many of us have put our faith in Jesus. How many of us are repenting even now?

Finally, I want to close with this thought: John the Baptist said that God could raise up stones to be Abraham’s children. And God has done that. In the apostle Peter’s first letter, he says that Jesus is “a living stone,” the “cornerstone” upon which the church is built (1 Pet. 2:4, 7). And Christians are “like living stones” who are “built up as a spiritual house” (1 Pet. 2:5). We were once spiritually dead, but we have been made alive, adopted as God’s children, and incorporated into God’s temple, the church. Peter says,

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (1 Pet. 2:9–10).

Praise God that he can raise up stones to be alive, to be his own possession, to walk in his light, and to receive his mercy. And let us continually turn from sin to God, living lives that are pleasing to him.


  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. It was typical for Old Testament prophets to be identified by the names of their fathers, the kings who reigned when they prophesied, and the fact that the “word of the Lord” came to them: Jer. 1:1–2; 11:18–20; 13:3; Isa. 38:4; Hos. 1:1.
  3. Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (New York: Viking, 2017), 115.


Born This Day in the City of David

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on the morning of December 24, 2017.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon, prepared in advance (or see below).

What does Christmas mean to you? What is it all about?

Perhaps the best way to find out what Christmas means to each one of us is to think about what comes to mind when we think of Christmas. What are the images in your head? What does your nativity set look like? What are the sights of Christmas? Lights? Decorations? What are the sounds of Christmas? Songs? Bells? Laughter? What are the smells of Christmas? Something baking in the oven, like cookies? Spices?

Does anyone here think of Christmas and then imagine a dirty, smelly room and a baby crying?

Probably not, but that’s how the first Christmas was, when Jesus was born. From a worldly perspective, or a natural perspective, the birth of Jesus wasn’t special or attractive. There was nothing glorious about it. But God delights in doing amazing things in unexpected ways. And, as we’ll see this morning, the birth of Jesus is contrary to what we expect when we think of a King and a Savior.

We’re continuing our exploration of the Gospel of Luke this morning by considering only seven verses. We’ll be reading Luke 2:1–7. To give us a sense of context, let me quickly review what we have seen thus far in Luke.

Luke is one of the four Gospels in the New Testament of the Bible. Each Gospel is a biography of Jesus, focusing on who he was and what he did, particularly in his miracles, his teaching, his death on the cross, and his resurrection. Each Gospel has its own emphases, its own themes. Luke is interesting because it was written by someone who didn’t actually witness the events he wrote about. Luke says at the beginning of his Gospel that he wrote this history on the basis of eyewitness testimony. He used written documents, he interviewed people, and he combined those historical accounts of Jesus into this book of the Bible (Luke 1:1–4).

In the rest of the first chapter of Luke, he tells two related stories of how an angel of God announced the coming of two special children. The first child is John, better known as John the Baptist. He was born to an old couple who were previously unable to have children. John’s role would be to turn the hearts of the people of Israel back to God and to prepare the way for the coming of the second child (Luke 1:13–17, 75–79).

That second child is Jesus, the long-awaited anointed King, the Messiah or Christ. He is also called the “Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32), or the Son of God. The angel Gabriel told Mary, a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, that Jesus would be supernaturally conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. This certainly was no ordinary baby.

Now, the time for Jesus’ birth has come. So, let’s read through this morning’s passage and then I’ll point out a few things this passage teaches us. Let’s read Luke 2:1–7:

1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.[1]

Here’s the first point I want to make: Luke is writing history. He situates the birth of Jesus during the time of Caesar Augustus, and also during time of Herod the Great. Herod was mentioned in the first chapter (Luke 1:5). Since he died in 4 B.C., this must have been prior to that time. Some of us may be surprised to learn that Jesus wasn’t born in the year zero, or the year 1 A.D. Well, there is no year zero. And the fact that he wasn’t born in A.D. 1 is due to the fact that the numbering of years didn’t come until centuries later. And Jesus probably wasn’t born on December 25, either. The reason that date is used to observe Christmas is because it was the date of a festival in the Roman Empire. If you want to know more about those details, you can read the article that I wrote, the one that is inserted into your bulletin.[2]

What’s important for us to see this morning is that Luke gives us two indications of when Jesus was born. It was during Caesar Augustus’s reign. He was the first emperor of the Roman Empire and he reigned for forty years (27 B.C.–14 A.D.). When he was born in 63 B.C. he was named Gaius Octavius. He was the grandnephew of Julius Caesar. When Julius Caesar was murdered (in 44 B.C.), he had named Octavius as his adopted son and heir in his will. Octavius then joined forces with two other men, including Mark Antony, to defeat Julius Caesar’s assassins. And when Octavius and these two other men fought against each other, Octavius prevailed. He was later named Emperor by the Roman Senate.

I’ll talk a bit more about Augustus in a moment. For now, it’s important to see that he was the most powerful man in the world at this time. And it was during Augustus’s reign that Jesus was born.

Luke also mentions another name, Quirinius. He was governor of Syria a few years after Jesus was born. The reason he is mentioned is because Luke tells us that Augustus decided to have a registration, or census, taken in the Empire. Luke says this decree required “all the world” to be registered. This is a bit of hyperbole, but it’s a phrase that was used of the Roman Empire (see also Col. 1:6). It’s not far from the truth, since the Roman Empire included most of the world known to people like Luke. Augustus wanted this census to be taken in order to tax everyone living under his jurisdiction. In addition to gaining revenue for the Empire, it was a way of showing the people who was boss.

Some people think that this mention of Quirinius is an indication that Luke got his history wrong, because a census under Quirinius was taken in 6 A.D., some ten years after these events. I deal with this in the article I mentioned earlier. There are two ways of dealing with this issue to show that Luke wasn’t wrong. One, it’s possible that an earlier census was taken, or that this same census had begun years earlier and took a decade to complete. It’s possible that an earlier census was overseen by Quirinius prior to his time as governor of Syria. It’s also possible that the same census took a long time to complete, that it had begun under someone else’s oversight, and that it was finished by Quirinius years later. So, that way of dealing with the issue states that we don’t really know all the details of this period of history. That’s fairly common for the ancient world. We don’t know everything that happened. We have to rely on artifacts, most of which are ancient writings. Some things were never written down, and much of what was written has not survived decay and destruction.

The second way of dealing with this issue is to realize that perhaps verse 2 isn’t translated correctly. The ESV says, “This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” But a footnote in the ESV says it could be translated, “This was the registration before Quirinius was governor of Syria.” That’s because the Greek word translated as “first” could also be translated as “before.”[3] If that is case, then Luke is not wrong at all. In fact, in Acts, the sequel to the Gospel of Luke, he tells of the effects that Quirinius’s census had on the Jewish people—it led to a rebellion (Acts 5:37). So, Luke is basically saying, “The Roman Emperor called for a census. No, this wasn’t that census, the one carried out by Quirinius. This was an earlier one.”

This census was taken according to Jewish customs, which had people return to their ancestral homes. Joseph, who was betrothed to Mary, was from the tribe of Judah and the line of David, the premier king of Israel who was from Bethlehem. Perhaps Joseph had inherited some property there. We don’t know. What we know is that this registration required him to go to Bethlehem. We also know he took Mary with him. Perhaps they had already been married yet did not consummate the marriage, and that is why they are said to be betrothed. If that is the case, she might have been required to be with Joseph. I’m sure he wanted his wife to be with him when she gave birth. So, for that reason, they traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a journey that might have been about 90 miles or so.

The second thing I want to point out is that Luke probably wants us to compare Caesar August and Jesus. Augustus was the leader of the world’s superpower. He was the most powerful man in the world. He received the title “Augustus,” which means “Illustrious One,” or “Exalted One,” when he became Emperor. He was also known as Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus, or “Commander Caesar, Son of the God, the Illustrious One.” That is because Julius Caesar was viewed as being divine. Over time, the Roman Emperor was viewed as a god and he was worshiped.

Augustus was known for expanding the size of the Roman Empire to include more of Europe and Africa, for strengthening the Empire, and for establishing what was known as the Pax Romana, or “peace in Rome.” Ironically, that peace was achieved through violence. One way to achieve peace is to conquer your enemies with the sword until they submit.

If you asked anyone in the Roman Empire in those who days who was the most important person in the world, the most powerful person in the world, anyone would say, “Caesar Augustus.”

But little did they know that the most powerful and most important person who ever walked the planet was being born in an unexpected place. Jesus, the King of kings, was born to a couple of humble people in a strange place, among animals. And he was placed in a feeding trough.

I should say now that some of the details of the Christmas story that we imagine aren’t necessarily true. There’s no mention of Mary heading to Bethlehem on a donkey. She probably walked, which would have taken several days. And when Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem, they weren’t rejected by an innkeeper who said, “Bah! Humbug!” There is no innkeeper mentioned. In fact, the word that is translated here as “inn” might mean “guest room.”[4] Houses at that time were simple. They didn’t have many rooms. There would be a main room for the people who lived there, a room for guests (because hospitality was necessary in a world without hotels), and perhaps a separate room for animals. Animals were brought inside to be kept warm. Or perhaps the body heat of the animals would help keep the humans warm. Joseph and Mary probably found lodging in someone’s house, but they weren’t put in the guest room. No, they were in a room with animals, which is why there was a manger there. And they placed their baby in that manger, or feeding trough.

There couldn’t be a greater contrast between Augustus, the Emperor, and Jesus, the Messiah. I bet if you told people in their day that the most powerful king the world has known was about to be born, they would imagine that birth taking place in a palace in a major city. They would imagine that the parents were a king and queen. But Jesus was born to two ordinary people, and he was born among animals, probably in filth.

There’s a children’s Bible that we’ve read a number of times to our kids. It’s called The Big Picture Story Bible. (We have a few copies on the back table, available for anyone who wants them.) This is what that children’s Bible says about Caesar and Jesus:

This Roman ruler thought he was very important. One day he wondered to himself, How will everyone know that I am the great Caesar, the Roman ruler, the king of the world? I know! I will count all the people under my rule. Surely that will show the world how great I am. So Caesar, the Roman ruler, the king of the whole Roman world, began counting all his people to show everyone how great he was. What Caesar did not know was that God, the world’s true ruler, the king of the universe was getting ready to show everyone how great he was. . . . And do you know how God was going to do this? Not like Caesar . . . not proudly, by counting all his people, but humbly, by becoming one of his people. In the power of his Spirit, God would bring his forever king into the world as a baby![5]

God often does the unexpected. He uses the small, weak, poor people more often than he uses the powerful and the rich. God delights in showing his strength through human weakness. God seems to enjoy doing things in a way that we would never imagine.

In Mary’s song of praise, the Magnificat, she says of God,

51  He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52  he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate (Luke 1:51–52).

God was doing just that in Jesus’ birth. God even used Caesar to cause Jesus to be born in Bethlehem. If not for the census, Jesus would have been born in Nazareth. But it was prophesied that a ruler would come from Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2). God is greater than the greatest human beings, and even when they don’t know him and claim to be gods, he can use them to do his will.

Jesus is the one who brings about true peace, peace with God. He didn’t come the first time to set up a political kingdom, at least not in the way the world would imagine a political kingdom. He didn’t come with a big army, ready to conquer the Roman Empire. He could have done that. But he didn’t. The reason that Jesus came was to take care of our biggest need, our problem of sin. Sin is our rebellion against God. It’s more than just wrong actions. Sin includes wrong desires and wrong motivations. It’s a power that is at work within us, corrupting us from the inside out. What we need is someone who can remove our sin and make us right in God’s eyes.

In Matthew’s Gospel, an angel says to Joseph, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:20–21). Jesus came to save his people from their sins. He does that by living the perfect life that we don’t live. Therefore, he fulfills God’s requirements for humanity. But he also dies a death in our place, taking the penalty for our sin. When Jesus was born, he was wrapped in swaddling cloths. After he was crucified, his body was wrapped in linen cloths (Luke 24:12; John 19:40). We need to remember that Christmas led to Good Friday, when Jesus died to pay for our sins. And that story leads to the good news of Easter, when Jesus rose from the grave and cast aside those cloths. He was unbound, having defeated the powers of sin and death.

Augustus created a peace of sorts through military strength. Jesus creates real peace through his own death. The greatest man who has ever lived was not proud. He was humble, laying down his own life.

And that leads me to the third point I want to make: God comes down to us in our filth. We often have a nice, pleasant view of Jesus’ birth, even though we know he was born among animals and placed in a manger. Our view of Christmas is sanitized. But the reality was that it was probably a filthy, foul-smelling environment.

Years ago, I read a book of Advent and Christmas readings. Some of these writings were by authors like C.S. Lewis and Martin Luther. Others were written by authors I didn’t know, some of whom were Catholics. One such author was Giovanni Papini.[6] He begins by saying Jesus was born in a real stable, one that was dirty, not the tidy stable of our imagination. He says that the only clean thing in the stable is the manger, where the hay is placed. (I can’t imagine the manger and its way was too clean, but I suppose it would be relatively clean.) Then he starts to describe how the hay is made. He writes,

Fresh in the clear morning, waving in the wind, sunny, lush, sweet-scented, the spring meadow was mown. The green grass, the long slim blades, were cut down by the scythe; and with the grass the beautiful flowers in full bloom—white, red, yellow, blue. They withered and dried and took on the one dull color of hay. Oxen dragged back to the barn the dead plunder of May and June. And now that grass has become dry hay and those flowers, still smelling sweet, are there in the manger to feed the slaves of man. The animals take it slowly with their great black lips, and later the flowering fields, changed into moist dung, return to light on the litter which serves as bedding.[7]

That’s a nice picture, isn’t it? Where is he going with this? Well, we must read on:

This is the real stable where Jesus was born. The filthiest place in the world was the first room of the only pure man ever born of woman. The Son of Man, who was to be devoured by wild beasts calling themselves men, had as his first cradle the manger where the animals chewed the cud of the miraculous flowers of spring.

It was not by chance that Christ was born in a stable. What is the world but an immense stable where men produce filth and wallow in it? Do they not daily change the most beautiful, the purest, the most divine things into excrement? Then, stretching themselves at full length on the piles of manure, they say they are “enjoying life.” Upon this earthly pigsty, where no decorations or perfumes can hide the odor of filth, Jesus appeared one night.[8]

We take the beautiful things that God has made and turn them into filth. And Jesus came into that filth. And, as we’ll see later in the Gospel of Luke, people acted beastly towards Jesus and they killed him. This was all God’s plan.

Think about that. God stoops down and enters into our filth. We don’t have to clean ourselves up to get to God. No, he rolls up his sleeves and comes into the muck of this life to rescue us. That is what is amazing about Jesus and about Christianity. Religions generally say, “Do this and you’ll be acceptable to God. Do this and you’ll get to heaven, Paradise, Nirvana, etc.” Christianity says, “You can’t do that. Your sin taints all your efforts. You can never make yourself pure enough. You can’t save yourself to get to God, so God must come down and save you.” That is why Christmas is amazing.

And we must see that Jesus lived a real life. Yes, it started with a miraculous conception. But he lived as a human being. As a baby, he soiled his diapers. And I’m sure he cried. The familiar hymn, “Away in a Manger,” says “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” But that is silly. We have no reason to believe that Jesus wouldn’t cry. He cried as an adult, why not as a child?

The sights of the first Christmas included animals and probably a very simple structure with a dirt floor. The smells include manure. The sounds included a woman in labor and a baby crying. God enters into this environment to save us. He enters into our chaos, our noise, our filth.

Here’s a fourth thing that we should see in this passage: The baby Jesus is placed in a feeding trough. This is where the food for animals would be placed. Perhaps this is no accident. If we turn all the beautiful things that God has made in this world into filth, perhaps we need better food. And Jesus provides that food. He is our spiritual food. Food sustains life. Jesus says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). Of course, this is a metaphor. We “feed” on Jesus by trusting that he alone gives us eternal life. He alone can save us from our sin. He alone gives us true life. He alone can satisfy the deepest cravings of our souls. It’s no wonder that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, for Bethlehem means “house of bread.”

No emperor could do this. No president or prime minister can. No businessman, no scientist, no professor, no celebrity, no entertainer, and no athlete can do this. Only Jesus can. He is the greatest person who has ever lived, yet he came humbly, stooping to our level to bring us up to his.

So, how should we respond to this message? I think there are two ways that people generally respond to Jesus. I suppose one way is the way of Caesar. We could rely on our own strength, too proud to see that we need a savior. We could say, “I find all that talk about being a beast and turning good things into crap offensive. I’m not like that.” Perhaps we have some knowledge that we do need a savior, but we don’t want to come under the authority of Jesus. If that is the case, we’re responding with the way of Caesar.

Another way of responding is the way of Joseph and Mary, and, as we’ll see tonight, the way of the shepherds. We can receive the gift of Jesus with joy and humility. We can submit our lives to God’s authority. We can wonder that God would come to save lowly people like us. I must say this as clearly as possible: no matter how much you’ve fouled up your life, no matter how much you’ve taken beautiful things and turned them into excrement, Jesus can save you. Turn to him and trust him. Learn about him, believe that he is who the Bible says he is and that he has done what the Bible says he has done. Confess your sins to him and ask him for cleansing.

Jesus came as a baby, but this is no kids story. We dare not sanitize the story by making it a cute little tale. No, this is a real, gritty story. And because of that, it’s a powerful story. Best of all, it’s true. Jesus, the light of the world, entered into our darkness. Jesus, the only pure human who has ever lived, came into our mire. Jesus, who gives us the water of life (the Holy Spirit), came to clean us up. He did this at a great cost to himself. He is the greatest Christmas gift, and his salvation comes to us without price. Will you receive this gift?


  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. “When Was Jesus Born?” can be read at
  3. πρῶτος.
  4. The Greek word is κατάλυμα.
  5. David Helm, The Big Picture Story Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 235–241.
  6. Giovanni Papini, “Ox and Ass,” in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004).
  7. Ibid., 236.
  8. Ibid., 236–237.


Born This Day in the City of David (Luke 2:1-7)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on Luke 2:1-7. Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the most humble–and filthy!–circumstances. Jesus, the true King, is contrasted with the ruler of the Roman Empire, Caesar Augustus. Jesus came humbly into this world, stepping into our filth to rescue us from our sins.