In the last essay we studied Luke 2:41-52, the only story in the New Testament about Jesus’ youth. It had to do with a Passover visit to Jerusalem by Jesus’ family when he was twelve years old (vv. 41-42). In this essay we turn to chapter three, where we finds that Jesus is now an adult. In this section of his Gospel, Luke presents the emergence of the Messiah (3:1-4:13), and he starts in 3:1-20 with the ministry of John the Baptist.
Luke begins his account by dating the beginning of John’s ministry in the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius. Unfortunately, there is some uncertainty about when that fifteenth year took place. Was it in AD 11 when Tiberius began to rule with Augustus as co-regent? That would make the fifteenth year AD 26. Or was it AD 14 when Tiberius began to rule alone, which would make the fifteenth year AD 29? Since AD 26 fits better with all of the other information in the New Testament, that is the date I prefer.
In the rest of verse one and in verse two, Luke gives the names of the other secular and religious leaders of the day. Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea from AD 26 to 36. Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, ruled over Galilee from 4 BC to AD 39. His brother Philip ruled Ituraea and Trachonitis from 4 BC to AD 34. And Lysanias ruled Abilene at that time.
Annas and Caiaphas are named as the high priests. Technically in Judaism, there was only one high priest, who was supposed to be in office for life. But the Romans appointed high priests as they desired. Annas was the high priest of record from AD 6-15. Caiaphas, who was the son-in law of Annas, was the high priest of record from AD 18-37. But Annas still was considered the high priest by many of the Jews, and he had considerable power behind the scenes.
Now then, beginning in verse three, Luke tells us about the ministry of John the Baptist. There are several elements to John’s ministry, and we see three of them in these verses. First, at the end of verse two we are told that John was a man of the wilderness. Matthew and Mark both emphasize this more by describing John’s clothing and food as clothing and food of the wilderness (Mt. 3:4; Mk. 1:6). This wilderness theme probably is more significant that you realize. The wilderness theme was a prominent theme in the Old Testament. When God called the Hebrews out of Egypt, he called them into the wilderness where he molded them into a disciplined nation and renewed his covenant with them. And now, through John the Baptist, God once again was calling people into the wilderness to purify and prepare them to become a New Covenant people, under the leadership of a new Moses, the Son of God.
Second, John’s message was a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, verse three. If you glance at Matthew’s parallel (Mt. 3:2), he indicates that John also preached the nearness of the coming kingdom. But his main message was repentance of sin. Water baptism symbolized the inward act of repentance, and the forgiveness of God. In this way John prepared a purified people for the coming of their Messiah.
Of course the great symbol of John‘s ministry was water baptism. He baptized with water those who answered his call to repentance. Now water baptism was not new in itself. Many ancient groups used such a ritual. But baptizing Jews was new. The Jews believed they were right with God by virtue of their birth as Jews. Thus they needed no baptism. In their view it was Gentiles, who wanted to become Jews, who needed baptism. The water baptism symbolically cleansed the Gentile converts for entry into Judaism. But John the Baptist was calling Jews to repentance, and symbolizing that repentance by means of water baptism. That was new.
Third, John’s ministry was a fulfillment of prophecy. Luke, like Matthew and Mark, understood John’s ministry as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy about preparation for the coming of the Lord. All three Gospel writers quote Isaiah chapter forty. However Mark and Matthew quote only verse three; Luke quotes verses 3-5. Thus all three Synoptic writers understood John‘s role as fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy of a “voice” crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. But Luke went further with his extended quotation. He declares, in effect, that John‘s ministry prepares for the “salvation of God.”
It is hard to overstate the importance of this. John the Baptist was the first true prophet in Israel in more than 400 years. That means that he was an exceedingly important end-time figure. Although technically John appears at the end of the Old Covenant period, his ministry ushers in the New Covenant and God’s end-time events. Jesus said of him, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist.” Wow! There can be no doubt about the importance of John. But it is important to realize that this was not the end of Jesus’ sentence. He went on to say, “yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Mt. 11:11).
Next, in verses 7-9, Luke records a summary of the teachings of John. First, Luke tells his readers that John had a harsh word for those who were coming for baptism, but were not truly repentant. Interestingly, Matthew in his parallel identifies the ones who were coming for baptism as Pharisees and Sadducees who were not truly repentant. Whoever they were, John calls them “a brood of vipers,” a bunch of snakes. And he orders them to “bear fruits worthy of repentance.” In other words, there should be visible evidence that they were truly repentant.
John also rejected the notion that descent from Abraham, that is being a Jew, would save them. Lots of Jews mistakenly made that assumption. But John insisted not only that evidence of repentance needed to be present; but using a tree metaphor, he also insisted that they needed “to bear good fruit” with their lives. Otherwise they would be “cut down” and burned at the judgment.
Next, in verses 10-14, Luke illustrates some specifics of John’s teachings. The listeners, perhaps frightened a bit by John’s threats of judgment asked him, “What then should we do?’ Three specific groups are addressed in this summary: the well off, tax collectors, and soldiers. I used the term “well off” rather than “wealthy,” because when we think of the wealthy, we think of people with much more than those John was talking about. John was addressing people who simply had more than the many poor people of the day. And he asks them to share what they have with those who have nothing. Jews in general hated tax collectors, who made their money by squeezing as much as possible from the people over and above what they had contracted to raise for the government. John’s advice to repentant tax collectors was simple. Be just. Collect only a just and fair amount. The soldiers referred to likely were troops of Herod Antipas rather than Roman soldiers. His advice to the soldiers was similar to that of the tax collectors. They must not use their authority to extort money from people. Rather they should be Satisfied with their wages.
Earlier when we studied verses 3-6, we saw three elements of John the Baptist’s ministry: the significance of the fact that he was a man of the wilderness, that his message was one of repentance, and that it was a fulfillment of prophecy. Here in verses 16-17 we see a fourth, namely, that John prophesied that one greater than himself, meaning the Messiah, was coming. Of course Jesus was not only greater than John the Baptist. He was greater than Abraham and Moses. He was, and still is, greater than all. He is the Son of God.
The twenties of the first century were exciting times. Messianic expectation was “in the air.” And it was natural for those responding positively to the ministry of John to wonder if he was the one. But as we see here, John from the start rejected that idea. He answered questions along that line by contrasting his ministry with that of the coming one. To begin, he declared, the coming one, the Messiah, “is more powerful than I.” Of course he couldn’t have been more right about that. Moreover John said the Messiah is more worthy: “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.” There is no doubt that John was a true prophet. He could not otherwise have had these kinds of insights.
John also contrasted his ministry with that of the coming one by reminding the questioners that his ministry was one of water baptism, whereas the Messiah’s ministry would be one of baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire. John’s water baptism was merely a symbol of inward repentance. But the Messiah’s baptism of the Holy Spirit is a spiritual reality that enables the baptized one to overcome sin, and it empowers one for ministry. Luke undoubtedly believed that the outpouring of the Spirit at the first Christian Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4) was the fulfillment of John’s prediction. The difference between the baptisms of John and Christ truly is significant. Without the baptism with the Holy Spirit, one who is baptized with water does not have the spiritual strength to keep sin from gaining the upper hand.
Finally, in verse 17, John told the questioners that the Messiah would bring the judgment that John had predicted in verse nine. Using the image of the threshing floor, John taught them that the Messiah will judge us, and he either will gather us into his granary (heaven), or he will burn us with unquenchable fire. Wow! Fire is a powerful image, and notice that it has both a positive and a negative function. The fire of the Spirit burns away the dross of sin; which is a big positive. But those who refuse the fire of the Spirit will know the unquenchable fire of judgment, which is entirely negative.
Verses 18-20 provide an historical note. Herodias was Herod Antipas’ niece as well as his brother’s former wife. And Herod put away his first wife in order to marry her. The Jews were much offended by the scandal and the marriage; but John, by voicing that disapproval publicly, suffered imprisonment as a result. You may recall that Matthew, in his chapter 14:1-12, tells the rest of the story. Herodias was very angry with John; and the day came when she would get her revenge. On Herod’s birthday, Herodias’ daughter, Salome, danced for Herod. He was so pleased that he made the foolish vow that she could have anything she wanted up to half his kingdom. Prompted by Herodias, she asked for head of John the Baptist on a platter, and he gave it to her.