True prophets of God have always told people the things they needed to hear, not what they wanted and expected to hear. John the Baptist taught that being a natural descendant of Abraham did not qualify one to belong to the kingdom of God, only repentance that brought forth good fruit would do. The Pharisees were held in high regard among the people for the sanctity of their lives. They taught that a meticulous observation of every tenet of the law was necessary for salvation. They believed they were producing good fruit in abundance and had no need of repentance. John, in calling them vipers, implied that there was a deadly poison in their teaching.
However, many in the crowd of common people who heard John’s message asked anxiously: “What shall we do then?”. What kind of fruit will be evidence of true repentance? In brief, John’s response to them was to be charitable and merciful, to be mindful of the needs of others.
The publicans (tax collectors) asked the same question. Their position afforded many opportunities to enrich themselves at the expense of others. Yet taxes, and therefore tax collectors, are necessary for the orderly functioning of society. John did not tell the Publicans that they were in the wrong line of work, he instructed them to be scrupulously honest.
Even some soldiers asked: “And what shall we do?” John’s answers apply to working people everywhere. Do not seek to intimidate others (this is the meaning of the word translated “do violence”), don’t gossip or spread false stories about others, be content with what you are paid.
John told people they needed to be baptized. He meant something more than water baptism, for he said: “I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire” (Luke 3:16). It is this Holy Ghost baptism that produces “fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8).
Jesus attested to the validity of John’s baptism by requesting to be baptized by him, “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). John’s baptism was a forerunner of Christian baptism, as it looked forward to the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The baptism instituted on the day of Pentecost, and practised by the Church of God since then, goes a step further. It is a witness that the person baptized has already repented and received the baptism of the Holy Spirit and it is the way of entrance into the fellowship of true believers in the church.
John taught that self-righteousness was not what God was looking for. His answers to the people, the publicans and the soldiers teach that repentance will bridge the barrier between God and men and between people from all levels of society.