The Book of Luke, more than any of the other Gospels, presents a sweeping look at Jesus’ teachings on ethics. Over half the parables we have from Jesus are unique to Luke. They cover topics like how to steward money and how Jesus sees people the world overlooks, such as the poor, the disabled, and women.
At the foundation of it all is Jesus and his preaching about the kingdom of God.
I have spent more than 40 years of my professional academic life in Christian vocational service and in the study of Luke’s gospel. Key texts in it have opened my eyes to the scope of Jesus’ mission in ways I rarely heard about as a younger Christian.
The first such passage is in Luke’s first chapter. Gabriel foretells the birth and calling of John the Baptist to his father, Zechariah, saying John will prepare the way for the Messiah.
He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go as forerunner before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared for him. (vv. 16–17, NET throughout)
One of the things I have learned about reading Scripture is to define its terms by asking questions of the text. Here the question arises, “What does it mean to be a people prepared for the coming of the Lord?” This text gives a two-part answer.
First, the expected part: John will turn people back to God. This reflects quite rightly what prophets are supposed to do.
The second component—which is also part of John’s call and what God seeks from people ready for deliverance—is what had eluded me in the past. Gabriel announces that John will turn people back to one another in two key spheres: relationships in the family (“the fathers back to their children”) and ethical wisdom exercised in public life (“the disobedient to the wisdom of the just”).
This shows a horizontal (human-to-human) direction for repentance, not just a vertical (human-to-God) one. Repentance is not one-dimensional.
Both my relationship with God and my relationships with others were in God’s mind as John received his calling to prepare a people for the coming of deliverance. Reconciliation and relationships were at the very center of what God was getting ready to do through Jesus.
The biblical term for repentance, turning, has one unified goal: bringing people back to God while also bringing them back to one another.
This text is about moving and living in such a way as to connect hearts, pursue love, and seek others’ good.
How is that done, and who takes the initiative? John the Baptist shows the way.
If there is any doubt about this holistic approach to repentance, a later text about John the Baptist’s teaching and baptism reinforces this goal.
People participated in John’s baptism as a response of repentance, saying, I am ready for the Lord to come.
Consider Luke 3:8–14 (I’m transliterating the Greek for certain terms to show the connections):
“Therefore produce [poiēsate] fruit that proves your repentance, and don’t begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’” … So the crowds were asking him, “What then should we do [poiēsōmen]?” John answered them, “The person who has two tunics must share with the person who has none, and the person who has food must do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, “Teacher, what should we do [poiēsōmen]?” He told them, “Collect no more than you are required to.” Then some soldiers also asked him, “And as for us—what should we do [poiēsōmen]?” He told them, “Take money from no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your pay.”
This text’s theme is John the Baptist’s theme: repentance. The different groups in Luke 3:10, 12, and 14 are responding to John’s call to live out (make fruit out of) their repentance. This is the application of the prophecy about John’s vocation of preparing for the Messiah.
Both the accounts in 1:16–17 and 3:10–14 are unique to Luke. It is the only Gospel making this point and linkage. If we flatten the Gospels, assuming they say the same things about John the Baptist, then we might miss this crucial Lukan emphasis.
English translations of this section in Luke 3 obscure the word echo in the newly baptized people’s questions and John’s exhortation in verse 8. The terms I transliterated in the passage are all variations of the Greek verb poieō, which means to “make” or “do.” The groups are asking how to apply the repentance John is calling for in their everyday lives. Remember: John is preparing the way for Jesus to build on this message.
A surprise awaits us in John’s replies. In each case, the application addresses not how I am responding to God but how I am responding to others in everyday situations.
I am to be generous with what God has given me (in the crowd’s case, with clothes and food) and in the role I have (in the tax collectors’ case, by not taking advantage of people financially; and in the soldiers’ case, by not abusing their power).
Surprisingly, God is not directly mentioned in any of John’s answers. The point is, repentance is not only about how I relate to God, but also about how I interact with others.
By turning to God, in the same measure I am also preparing to turn to others. It means I have a heart that takes the initiative in moving toward others. This is in spiritual preparation for the coming of the kingdom Jesus brings. Those who are ready for Jesus will take repentance to these lengths.
This brings me to the next text in the sequence: Luke 5:32. Here Jesus says, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
The context is important (vv. 29–32). Jesus is having dinner with tax collectors while some religious leaders complain that he is doing so. Why have a meal with people whom many reject?
Jesus’ reply is that, like a doctor, he treats those in need. The implied reflection is: And who is not in need of God?
Jesus’ call to repentance appears in numerous Lukan texts (4:16–19; 14:7–24). By his own example, Jesus showed to whom his followers should pay attention. He demonstrated his priorities by ministering to and showing special concern for people who were often discounted.
We testify to a God who cares about reaching all people as we also show them care. Jesus, building on John’s point that repentance ought to produce fruit, calls us to take the initiative to repair relationships.
So how does this work? Perhaps one of the clearest examples of a holistic view of repentance is found in the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1–10). It starts with Jesus’ welcoming encounter with the hated tax collector. This interaction leads to a changed heart, illustrated in Zacchaeus’s declaration of his intent to reverse his wrongs and reconcile with his community.
At the center of this holistic repentance is an encounter with Jesus. There was something about the way Jesus welcomed people in need of God that drew them to him. He then took the initiative by moving toward them as a way to show God’s care while also challenging them. Jesus invites us to follow this example and be ready to extend a hand of reconciliation and care. This is the heart behind the call of the coming kingdom.
Together, these texts in Luke changed me. They did not do it overnight, but quite gradually the full array of applications in new directions became evident.
This fresh mindset slowly removed a blind spot in how I saw repentance and gave me a vision of how comprehensive God’s program for salvation and personal transformation is.
The passages in Luke revealed a relational and ethical dimension to a term—repentance—that I had often privatized as being solely about my God and myself.
The connection to others floored me.
It opened up a whole sea of application I had been missing as I reflected on the corporate, social, and relational elements of repentance.
I felt a greater sense of conviction from these Scriptures about what kind of heart God sought from me and all those who seek to be kingdom-minded. The heart of someone prepared for the Messiah moves toward people, even those they might not be naturally inclined to move toward.
Did my repentance prepare me to be aligned with God’s heart in all the ways he was asking? Had I ignored some of the things God had indicated should accompany my response?
I had to reflect about how shallow my response had been and what it would mean to seek God’s forgiveness. His forgiveness was designed to take me not only to him, but to his heart for people.
Two more related themes then became clear to me as I studied Luke: how we are to forgive as God has forgiven us, and how we are to understand the Great Commandment.
The Lord’s Prayer includes the request to “forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us” (11:4). I am to learn an approach to relationships that mirrors what God did for me when I did not deserve it. God shows a readiness to forgive us.
In our world, where we often keep score, this is a revolutionary idea. When we forgive, we model how God treats us. God’s forgiveness is complete and multifaceted. Understanding this helps us appreciate it even more and is intended to change us and our responses to others.
The Great Commandment is to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:27). This creates an ethical triangle—God, me, and others—exactly as Luke 1:16–17 and 3:8–14 highlight.
It isn’t just a New Testament idea. It is also in the Ten Commandments, whose first group of rules is dedicated to how I relate to God and whose second group is about how I relate to others.
Together, these texts make clear the ethical-relational center of how God wants to turn our hearts to him and others when we follow and mirror him.
The idea of love that Jesus taught explicitly includes enemies (Luke 6:27–36), something he argued should make Christians distinct. A love like that shows the character of God and shows that we are his repentant children. As we reflect his heart, the scope of our repentance is all encompassing.
I would suggest this idea of true repentance is one of the most comprehensive and revolutionary thoughts in Scripture. It is where God seeks to take believers as he changes our hearts, turning us toward him, our families, and our neighbors.
A people prepared for and participating in the coming of the Lord should be ready, willing, and able to go to such lengths.
If the church applied this goal consistently, I believe it would change our world as it drew others to God. God’s call to prepare is a call to take the initiative of being wise, forgiving, and full of love and care for others—even toward some who initially might not wish for it.
In turning to others, we also turn to God. We might even be inviting them to turn back to God and others in ways they had not imagined.
Darrell L. Bock is executive director for cultural engagement and senior research professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has written numerous books, most recently Cultural Intelligence: Living for God in a Diverse, Pluralistic World.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.