What Shall We Do?

adapted from PCC Prayer Meeting Exhortation by Mr Linus Chua on 18 July 2008

10 And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then? 11 He answereth and saith unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise. 12 Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do? 13 And he said unto them, Exact no more than that which is appointed you. 14 And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.  15 And as the people were in expectation, and all men mused in their hearts of John, whether he were the Christ, or not;   16 John answered, saying unto them all, 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: 17 Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and will gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable. 18 And many other things in his exhortation preached he unto the people. 19 But Herod the tetrarch, being reproved by him for Herodias his brother Philip’s wife, and for all the evils which Herod had done, 20 Added yet this above all, that he shut up John in prison.” (Luke 3:10-20)


Luke 3:10-20 may be divided into three parts. Firstly, from verses 10-14, we see the people’s response to John’s preaching and John’s practical application and counsel to them. Then from verses 15-18, we have John’s prophecy concerning the One who was to come. And finally, in verses 19-20, we have the imprisonment and the end of John’s public ministry.

1.  Practical Application
(vv. 10-14)

In verse 8, John had said, “Bring forth fruits worthy of repentance.” His words did not fall on deaf ears. Instead they had a powerful effect on the hearers. The Greek verb ‘ask’ in verse 10 is in the imperfect tense, which means they kept asking or they repeatedly asked him, “What shall we do then?” The hearts of the people had been convicted of their sin, and they were convinced that true conversion always implies a forsaking of the old way of life. And so they were eager to know what they ought to do.

Luke records three groups of people who came to John with the same question. The first group was made up of people from the crowd who were neither tax-collectors nor soldiers. They were the general public from various walks of life. John said to them, “He who has two coats, let him give to him who has none, and he who has food, let him do likewise.” The word for coat refers to a tunic or a garment that was worn under the outer robe, i.e. a kind of inner shirt. Now a person might own two or more tunics, either to wear on cold days or to keep as a spare for future use. John told them that those who had two should give one of them to the person who had none. Likewise, those who had extra food should share it with others who had nothing. James would later use the sharing of these two items as examples of sincere faith, “If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, Depart in peace, be warmed and filled, but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?” (Jms 2:15-16). The point is that true faith is not content with just the uttering of a few kind words. Instead, it accompanies kind words with kind actions. The voluntary sharing of one’s substance and possessions with those in need is one of the results of true faith and it reveals the genuine character of one’s profession of faith.

The second group that approached John consisted of the tax collectors who had come to be baptized. Taxes in the Roman Empire were a complex affair. There were different ranks of collectors and there were different taxes to collect. The system of collection was known as tax farming. The tax-buyers or the farmers paid a fixed sum of money to the Roman government for the privilege of collecting toll from the people. They would not only have to collect the tax that Rome had stipulated, but they would also have to add a surcharge to meet their own expenses, and they had total control over this additional charge. These farmers would sublet their rights to chief publicans (men like Zacchaeus) who in turn employed publicans to do the actual collecting.

Now it’s obvious that such a system of multiple collectors, each of whom could add his own surcharge as he pleased, could create great abuse, and that was what happened. And so the publicans had the reputation of being extortionists and robbers. The Jews hated them greatly, and if the publican was a Jew himself, they would look upon him as a traitor because he was in the service of the foreign oppressor and they would excommunicate him.

The publicans who came to John knew that they had been robbing the people all this while and their consciences were stricken. John’s reply to them was very definite and uncompromising. “Collect no more than what is appointed for you.” In other words, they were to do their job honestly and fairly without extortion, surcharge, payoffs and bribes. They were not to take advantage of their authority to enlarge their personal accounts. They must exact only what has been appointed to them to collect.

Notice that John did not call them to give up their jobs as tax collectors and neither did he preach against the right of governments to collect taxes. Christ would later teach the same when He said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” (Mt 21:21) And Paul would write to the Roman Christians, “Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honour to whom honour.” (Rom 13:7)

The third group that came to John was made up of soldiers. Now these were not Roman but Jewish soldiers. We know that because John had just addressed the physical descendants of Abraham. And from the way they asked their question, which can be translated, “What shall we also do?” (i.e. we alongside the tax collectors), we gather that they were most likely Jewish soldiers who assisted and protected the tax collectors.

John told them, “Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.” The soldiers were to take note of three things: two negative and one positive. Firstly, they were not to do violence to anyone. The idea is that they must refrain from intimidating anyone so as to extort money violently from them. They were not to use strong-arm tactics to gain financial advantage. Secondly, they were not to increase their wealth by falsely accusing people. It was not uncommon in those days for the soldiers to falsely accuse especially the rich people in order to extort money from them. Then thirdly and positively, John told the soldiers to be content with their wages. Soldiers in those days were not paid very well, and so the temptation to misuse their power in order to supplement their income was very great. Again, notice that John did not ask them to leave their job but rather to be honest soldiers.

We may summarize John’s response to the three groups in this way: he calls the people to be compassionate, loving and fair to their neighbours, and not to take advantage of or ignore others for selfish gain.    

2.  Prophecy (vv. 15-18)

Next, John looks ahead to the One who was to come. His ministry not only stirred the people to repentance and inquiry; it also stirred them to speculation and expectation. Verse 15 says, “And as the people were in expectation, and all men mused in their hearts of John, whether he were the Christ, or not…” The word translated ‘expectation’ denotes a high level of expectation about an event that draws near. They people began to raise the question in their hearts about whether John was the Messiah or not. And so in response to this speculation and question, John made it clear that he was not the One, and he did this by pointing out three things about the One who was to come that made Him far superior.

Firstly, He is mightier or stronger than John. Verse 16 says, “but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose.” According to angel Gabriel, John would come in the spirit and power of Elijah. Anyone familiar with the Old Testament account of Elijah would know what a mighty and powerful prophet Elijah was. The people had witnessed something of this power in John’s ministry, which led them to ask whether he was the Messiah. But now, John says that there is One mightier than him who is coming.

And to illustrate just how much mightier He is, John says, “the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose.” In other words, John was not even worthy to untie a sandal from His feet. Most people in the first century wore sandals and one of the duties of a slave was to untie the sandals from the master’s feet. To the Jews, this was such a degrading task that a Hebrew slave was not to perform it.

And so, John is saying that this One who is coming is so Superior to him that he is not even worthy to perform the most lowly and menial task for his master. So inferior is he to Christ that he is not even worthy to render the services of a slave. Now John is not exaggerating. He is giving an accurate representation of the qualitative difference between himself and the Coming One. As an aside, it would be helpful to keep these words of John in mind when you next meditate on Christ’s act of washing His disciples’ feet.                

Secondly, John tells us that the One who is coming will bring a better baptism than his. Verse 16 says, “I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh…he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire.” Perhaps the best way of looking at this verse is to see that John is speaking of just one kind of baptism, namely, that it refers to the great change or renovation that takes place within the heart of an elect. The contrast between John’s baptism and Christ’s baptism is simply this: that in the case of John, it is a mere man administering an outward ordinance to other men, whereas in the case of Christ, it is the Son of God performing an inward and effectual work in the heart of His own.

Now we understand that He does this work of grace through the Holy Spirit whom He sends and that is why John says, “he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost”. But what about the phrase, “and with fire”? In the Bible, fire symbolizes a few things and one of them is purging and cleansing, for example Isaiah 4:4, Zechariah 13:9, Malachi 3:3. The purpose of fire in these verses is to refine, to purge and to purify the people of God so that they may be brought into a right relationship with God and may serve Him acceptably and glorify Him. The baptism that Christ brings not only leads to initial regeneration, but it also results in continual sanctification and purification, and ultimately to glorification.      

So John tells us that the One who is Coming is far Mightier than him and that He will bring a baptism that is better than his. But thirdly, John says that the Coming One will be a Judge. John came as a prophet but no where do we read that he came as a judge to pronounce and to execute judgment. But Christ does. Verse 17 says, “Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and will gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable.”

This is a picture of judgment and separation. It is harvest time. The sheaves of grain are spread out on a threshing floor. The winnowing fork or shovel is then used to lift the grain in the air so that the wind or a winnowing fan could separate the wheat from the chaff. The usable grain, which is heavier, would fall straight down onto the threshing floor while the useless chaff, which is lighter, would be blown away. The precious wheat is gathered and stored away in the granary. The chaff, which has fallen a distance away, is also gathered but for the purpose of burning in the fire. In the previous verse, fire is a symbol of purging and cleansing, but here, it is a symbol of God’s wrath and judgment. The commentator Darrell Bock says, “The picture of the unquenchable fire alludes to the fierce and unending quality of an inescapable judgment that will be decisive and irreversible.”

As the Great Judge whom God has appointed, Christ will divide and separate between the people of all ages and all nations. Those who are His own will be treated like the wheat grain – very precious and very valuable, and welcomed into their everlasting home above. But those who are not His people will be treated like the chaff, worthless and hateful in the sight of God, and cast into hell, the place of unquenchable fire.         

Then in verse 18, Luke gives us a summary statement about John’s preaching ministry, “And many other things in his exhortation preached he unto the people.” In other words, what we have from verses 7-17 is but a sample of John’s preaching. There were many other things he preached about which are not recorded in the gospel.

3.  Imprisonment
(vv. 19-20)

Luke ends his account of John the Baptist’s public ministry with his arrest and imprisonment. In verse 19, we read that John rebuked Herod Antipas for his ungodly marriage to Herodias, and for all the evils which he had done. The marriage of Herod and Herodias was objectionable for at least two reasons. Firstly, they had both sinfully separated from their previous marriages in order to get married to each other. Secondly, according to Leviticus 18:16 and 20:21, it was unlawful for a man to take his brother’s wife.

And so John reproved Herod for his adulterous and incestuous marriage, together with all his other evil deeds, and as a result, Herod had him locked up in prison. The phrase in verse 20, “added yet this above all” means that among all the wicked deeds that Herod had done, his crime of imprisoning John was the worst of them all for it was a crime, not only against an innocent person but also against the gospel, the people and against God Himself, who had sent John.


In closing, let me leave us with three brief lessons.

Firstly, we are reminded of the right response to the preaching of the Word. After the crowd heard John preach, they immediately responded by asking him what they should do, and John gave them specific applications according to their circumstances in life. “What shall we do?” should always be a question we ask after we’ve received the Word. It is a mark of a true believer not just to listen attentively to the Word but also to inquire diligently into how that Word might be applied to his life in very concrete and tangible ways.

Sometimes after hearing the Word, we immediately know what is required of us and the only question is whether we will obey or not. But sometimes, we are not so sure how the Word should be applied specifically, and at such times, we must make the effort to ask the preacher or the elders or other godly brethren for advice and counsel.

Notice also the phrase in verse 15, “all men mused in their hearts of John”. The word mused means reason or consider or reflect. The sermon had caused them to consider and think about things, and that is a good thing whether it be for converted or unconverted people.

JC Ryle says, “The cause of true religion has gained a great step in a parish or congregation or family when people begin to think. Thoughtlessness about spiritual things is one great feature of unconverted men…Let us always thank God when we see a spirit of reflection on religious subjects coming over the mind of an unconverted man. Thinking, no doubt is not faith and repentance. But it is always a hopeful symptom. When hearers of the Gospel begin to “muse in their hearts”, we ought to bless God and take courage.”         

And so the right response to hearing the Word should be first a musing in our hearts and then a diligent inquiry into how it may be applied specifically into our lives.

Secondly, we are also reminded of the wrong response to the Word. When Herod Antipas was reproved and rebuked by John for all his evil deeds, he laid hold on John and threw him into prison. Instead of a careful consideration of what God’s Word said about his life and a true repentance from his sins, Herod sought to suppress the Word by imprisoning the preacher. Darrell Bock writes of Herod, “Often sin seeks to remove the source of exposure rather than heed a warning of love.” Let us be careful not to respond as Herod did especially when our sins are exposed and our lives are judged by the Word.

Thirdly, we are reminded of some of the elements of good preaching. First, John preached faithfully according to the Word that came to him from God (v. 2). Second, he preached courageously and without the fear or favour of man, even such men as Herod Antipas. Third, he used striking illustrations and word pictures in his sermon, which captured the attention of his hearers, for example, “O generation of vipers…the axe is laid at the root of the tree… the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose…whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor.” Fourth, he made pointed and direct applications to his hearers, for example, “he that hath two coats let him impart to him that hath none…do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.” All these are elements of good preaching. But fifthly and most importantly, John preached not himself but Christ. “He must increase, but I must decrease” was ever his ruling principle. I can do no better than quote what Bishop Ryle wrote on this, “Would we know whether a minister is sound in the faith and deserving of our confidence, as a teacher? We have only to ask a simple question: Where is Christ in his teaching? Would we know whether we ourselves are receiving benefit from the preaching we attend? Let us ask whether its effect is to magnify Christ in our esteem? A minister who is really doing us good will make us think more of Jesus every year we live.”       

Let us remember to pray for all preachers of the gospel – that they may preach Christ and exalt the Saviour, and also that they may preach faithfully, courageously, powerfully and pointedly. No man is sufficient of himself to this work, and how well or how poorly he preaches is closely related to how much or how little the congregation prays for him. But let us also not forget to pray for all hearers of the gospel, ourselves included, that we may listen attentively, carefully consider what we have heard, and respond in the right way. W