Luke 3:1-6 – Context for John the Baptist’s Ministry
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar– when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene– 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. 5 Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. 6 And all mankind will see God’s salvation.'”
For the last few weeks, we have been looking at the story of Jesus’ birth according to Luke and his time at the Temple as a twelve year old. Now, Luke picks up about 18 years later (around AD 29) with this passage (3:1-20) on John the Baptist’s ministry. We begin by looking at the context for John’s ministry. The first couple of verses give us the regional context. Verse three speaks briefly about the content of John the Baptist’s message, and verses four to six are a quotation from Isaiah 40:3-5 which ties John to the expected forerunner of the Messiah.
The first two verses are a bit tedious, but I think the message they communicate is impressive. That message is simply that God’s revelation does not necessarily come through the structures we expect it to. This was a theme we discussed when examining the birth of Christ as well (Jesus’ Birth). First we learn John’s ministry starts in the “fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar.” Tiberius Caesar inherited the Roman Empire from Augustus in AD 14. This is how we know the current passage is speaking of AD 29…14+15=29. 🙂 Next Luke records the regional rulers: Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip and Lysanias. Finally he records the Jewish religious leaders at the time, Annas and Caiaphas. Annas and Caiaphas were not high priest at the same time, but they were the key leaders in the priesthood from AD 6-36. While Caiaphas was the high priest from shortly after AD 15 until AD 36, it is clear from John 18:13-27 that Annas continued to have influence even after he was no longer high priest. Okay so we now know who was “in charge,” but what is God up to? While these leaders were ruling, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.” We have already been told a lot about what John’s ministry will entail (JtB Birth foretold & JtB Birth), but this is where it all begins…in the desert!
The content of John’s ministry is simply stated here and then elaborated in Luke 3:7 and following. John’s ministry takes place all along the Jordan river and entails “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Was John forgiving people’s sins? No, only God can forgive sins (Luke 5:20-21). We know John’s ministry is preparatory for the coming of Christ. It is my understanding that John is calling those he encounters to repent…to change the way they are living. As a symbol of that change individuals were immersed in water. The commentary I have been using as an aid to my study of the book of Luke describes John’s baptism this way, “a washing [of an individual who] looks with hope for God’s coming and lives in light of one’s relationship to him” (Bock, 289). John is not forgiving people’s sin for only God can do so. He is instructing them to turn from their selfish way of life and to look forward to the coming Messiah who will forgive sin (Luke 1:77).
As with Matthew 3 and Mark 1, Luke shows how John the Baptist’s ministry was foreseen by Isaiah by quoting Isaiah 40:3-5 which says, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all mankind will see God’s salvation.” This quotation sheds additional light on what we have already learned of John’s ministry from Gabriel (Luke 1:5-25) and from Zechariah (Luke 1:76-77). The purpose of John the Baptist’s ministry is to prepare the way for the Lord. His ministry is one which removes obstacles from people’s understanding about how to follow after God. As we will see in the next set of verses, John makes it clear that being a child of God does not start with a certain heritage, but with a turning from selfishness to selflessness.
Luke 3:7-14 – You Brood of Vipers!
John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked. 11 John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” 13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. 14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely– be content with your pay.”
We should point out that what is recorded of John the Baptist’s ministry here is not comprehensive. That is, the record of historical events which we will discuss are not the only instances of John’s preaching. However, they do typify the ministry which John was doing along the Jordan river. John’s greeting to those coming for baptism is…strong to say the least. That said it is also the most loving thing he could say to them. Sometimes the truth hurts, and John the Baptist recognized that those coming to see what his ministry was about needed to hear the truth. They had neglected to show love to those whom God loves. John is not just using strong language here for effect; he is stating a fact about the character of those coming out to see him. That character is selfishness to the point of corrupt personal gain (3:12-14). John says these crowds are fleeing the coming wrath, and it seems as if their motives are not true. They are looking for the formula with which they can escape God’s wrath and so they are willing to try John’s baptism. But as we have studied already, John’s baptism is a baptism of repentance. It is not the act of baptism itself that saves. Rather it is the repentant heart of an individual who recognizes their sinfulness and their utmost need of God’s mercy. Such a heart moves an individual to compassionate action. Thus John says to the crowd, “produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” Or to put it another way, show that you have truly repented from your sinfulness and desire to pursue God by extending the mercy that was extended to you.
The next thing John says emphasizes how serious he is about the need for children of God to produce fruit in keeping with repentance. John tells this crowd of Israelites who proudly draw their heritage to Abraham that God can raise up children for Abraham from stones! This actually should not surprise the crowd. Throughout Israel’s history, gentiles joined with Israel. Here are a few examples…
- Caleb the Kenizzite from Edom (Numbers 32:12)
- Ruth the Moabite (Ruth 1)
- Non-Israelites who joined in the Exodus (Exodus 12:38)
The Bible teaches from Old Testament and New that the people of God are those who fear the Lord, regardless of heritage. John tells this crowd that the children of God are those who produce fruit, and he goes on to say those who “do not produce fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” This is a serious statement, John is indicating there ARE consequences to the way we live our lives. There is a coming wrath. The good news that John is sharing with these crowds is that they have the opportunity to respond in repentance to God and live fruitful lives. This is a theme that will come up again throughout the teaching of Jesus in the gospel of Luke. From Luke’s gospel as a whole we see the need for repentance demonstrated, and ultimately the need to trust Jesus alone for salvation. As a result of such teaching, we must consider the relevant questions, and I would love to hear your thoughts on these: Is there an afterlife? What happens to us when we die? Do you think there is a heaven? If so, how does one get there? Does everyone get to go? Feel free to comment or email me I would love to engage in this discussion with you.
As we move on in the text it is clear at least some in the crowd take John’s warning very seriously since they ask, “what should we do then?” John’s answer is very clear so I will let you go back and read it from Luke 3:10-14 and simply summarize it for you here: repent from selfish living and live a life marked by generosity and integrity. This reminds me of something I read from Francis Schaefer in his book The Great Evangelical Disaster. He said of the compassionate use of wealth…”As I have stressed in the past, this means two things: First, making [money] with justice; and then using it with real compassion. As a matter of fact, I have said a number of times and places where I hope it counted that I think when Christians get to heaven and they speak of how much they gave to missions, to build schools, and so on, that the Lord is going to tell them it would have been better if they had had less money to give and had made their money with justice.” Generous living is not only about giving from our abundance, but earning our living in as just a manner as we are capable of. This is exactly the message John the Baptist is teaching: Earn your money justly, and spend it compassionately.
Luke 3:15-20 – One MORE Powerful…
The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them. 19 But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, 20 Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison.
As we have mentioned before, John’s ministry (JtB Birth foretold & JtB Birth) is preparatory for the ministry of Jesus Christ which would come on the heels of John the Baptist’s ministry. John’s ministry was meant to call Israel in particular to repentance and righteous living (Luke 1:15-17) before the Messiah came. John’s ministry was powerful, but as we will see in this section of our passage, Jesus’ ministry will be even more powerful.
Luke starts out this section recording that the people were wondering if John was the Christ, the Messiah. It is evident from this statement alone that the ministry John was accomplishing was powerful and many lives were being changed by his call to righteousness. In response to the buzz that was being generated, John says, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” John in this statement fully yields to the superior nature of Jesus’ coming ministry. John is not the Messiah, he is simply preparing the way (Luke 3:4-5). I think there are a few things John communicates in this response:
- Jesus’ baptism is greater – Jesus’ baptism comes with the power of the Holy Spirit. This is demonstrated throughout the book of Acts. Anywhere you find people being baptized into Jesus’ name, you also find the Holy Spirit moving powerfully in their lives. (IE: Acts 2:38; 8:14-17; 10:44-48)
- Jesus is more powerful – John had a profound ministry as we have noted in prior posts. God worked through the ministry of John the Baptist to return many in Israel to the Lord (Luke 1:16). He preached repentance and selflessness, and many responded to his call. Jesus continues this preaching. Except Jesus’ preaching is accompanied by miraculous works and even the forgiveness of sin (Luke 5:23; 7:48; 23:34). Furthermore, He is crucified dead and buried but rises from the grave three days later, and His Church continues to proclaim His great love to this day.
- Jesus comes as Judge – According to John the Baptist and as we will see as we continue to examine the teachings of Jesus in the gospel of Luke, Jesus does not simply come to give us tips on how to be a better person. He comes declaring himself to be THE means through which we are able to approach God (John 14).
These are serious statements. They are ones worthy of our study; which is why we are studying the entire gospel of Luke. We want to examine what it is Jesus said about himself, and how it is applicable to our lives. In Luke’s words, we want to “know the certainty of the things [we] have been taught” (Luke 1:4). As always we would love to have you join us as we continue to study through the book of Luke. For more information about when and where we meet, email me.