Luke 3:1-20

Preludes to Jesus’ Ministry


The New Elijah Steps Out

Luke 3:1-20  -  The Proclamation of John the Baptist

1 It was the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberias Caesar.
Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea,
Herod was tetrarch of Galilee,
Philip his brother tetrarch of the districts of Iturea and Trachonitis,
and Lysanias Tetrarch of Abilene.
2 Annas and Caiaphas were the high priests.
It was then that the word of God came upon John,
son of Zechariah, in the desert.

With the arrival of John the Baptist on the scene, Luke’s narrative took a new turn and moved into the realm of actual historical events, even though Luke’s personal acquaintance with them was at best second hand. For the story line of the narrative, Luke was dependant on the previous Gospel of Mark.

The events surrounding the childhood of Jesus had happened during the reign of King Herod the Great. Those events still belonged to the era of Israel, and to some extent touched the heart of Israel’s hopes and possibilities.

The public life of Jesus began a new, decisive and significantly different moment in the story of God’s dealings with humanity. Luke confidently situated it on the world stage, a world shaped by the intrigues of Roman politics and military expansionism. Palestine was a subject people.

John’s ministry and that of Jesus were carried out in a conquered country under foreign occupation and financial oppression. Rome conquered nations in order to grow rich on their wealth. Judea in the south was directly governed by Rome. Herod, a puppet king acting under direction from Rome, administered Galilee in the north. The Roman military presence would have been effective and obtrusive.

For Luke, the story of Jesus was not simply of significance for Jewish people. His activity and his teaching were of crucial relevance for the whole world. The community for which Luke wrote was itself an embodiment of the world-wide outreach of the Jesus movement. Its members, Theophilus included, were not of Jewish descent. They were citizens of the Roman Empire. 

3 He went through the whole Jordan region
proclaiming a baptism of conversion for forgiveness of sins,
4 as was written in the book of the sayings of Isaiah the prophet:
"A voice shouting out in the desert,
'Prepare the way of the Lord.
Straighten out his paths.
5 Every ravine will be filled;
every mountain and hill will be brought low.
Crooked tracks will be straightened
and rough paths smoothed out.
6 All flesh will see the salvation of God'."

Though Luke saw the life of Jesus as crucial for all flesh, he also clearly saw it as the fulfillment of God’s preparatory work with Israel. He firmly situated it at the heart of Israel’s prophetic imagination and Jewish expectations.

In his “Infancy Narratives” Luke had already clearly connected John with Jesus, portraying them even as cousins. More than that, they both shared a restlessness for change. In time they would go their separate ways, and tension perhaps would grow between them. But not yet!

Luke saw John ushering in a vision of Second Isaiah (who lived and wrote about five hundred years before Jesus, towards the end of the Jewish experience of captivity in Babylon). Isaiah had seen in the graciousness of the victorious Persian ruler, Cyrus, the hand of God promising return and new beginnings for the people who would journey back to Judea.

Isaiah’s experience in Babylon, beyond the constricting bounds of Israel, had led him to a sensitivity to other nations, and had opened his eyes to God’s dominion over and concern for all nations and peoples. Jesus would share this sensitivity - though it would not be appreciated by most of his contemporaries.

The return of Jewish exiles to Palestine and their efforts over the succeeding centuries to rebuild their destroyed land and city under Cyrus had hardly proved to be evidence of God’s saving action for all flesh. Various groups in Palestine were restless for change.

Isaiah had imaginatively called for the metaphorical clearing and smoothing of the desert separating Babylon and Palestine. John chose to situate his ministry precisely in the desert. His call for reconstruction did not look to new roads and bridges, but to the terrain of people’s hearts, whether they were city dwellers or others.

He looked forward to salvation, which for him consisted in God’s forgiveness of sin. The necessary preparation would consist in repentance.

7 He said to the crowds who came out to be baptised by him,
“Offspring of snakes!
Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?
8 Produce fruit worthy of conversion.
Do not start saying among yourselves,
‘We have Abraham as our father!’
For I tell you, God can make children of Abraham from these rocks.
9 Already the axe is laid to the roots of the trees.
Every tree that does not produce suitable fruit
will be cut out and thrown on the fire.”

John’s approach was assertive, even aggressive and threatening. He directly attacked his hearers’ insularity and their reliance on their Jewish heritage. (This would become a sore point in the ministry of Jesus. Luke seemed to be making a point that Jesus was not alone in this.) Yet, crowds of people responded. They wanted to learn what he meant by repentance.

10 The crowds questioned him and said,
“What should we do then?”
11 In reply he said, “Let anyone who has two tunics
make a donation to someone without one.
And let someone with two meals do the same.”
12 Tax collectors came to be baptised,
and said to him, “Teacher, what should we do?”
13 He said to them,
“Do not collect more than has been stipulated.” 
14 Soldiers asked him,
“And what about us? What should we do?”
To them he said,
“Do not intimidate;
do not accuse people falsely.
Be content with your wages.”

John’s repentance was ethical, behavioural repentance. It was a call to sharing and concern for others, to non-violence. It was eminently practical, yet curiously uninspiring.

It is significant to notice the three groups of enquirers. The first seemed to belong to an undifferentiated category. Tax collectors were marginalised Jews, unpopular and ostracised because of their collaboration with the Roman regime. The third group, soldiers, would seem to have been Roman mercenaries, not necessarily Romans themselves, but presumably non-Jews. Isaiah’s broad vision was evidenced in those who took notice of John.

15 A sense of expectation was in the air;
people were debating in their hearts
whether or not John might be the Christ.
16 So John responded, telling everyone:
"I baptise you with water.  
But the one stronger than I is coming.  
I am not worthy to untie the strap of his sandals.

At this time in the history of Judaism, a number of Jews in fact awaited a Christ/Messiah, though their expectations differed. Most thought in terms of a political liberator, a genuine king, not like the Hasmoneans and Herodians of recent history, but an authentic descendant of the Davidic line. Certainly much of the prophetic literature provided a basis for this conclusion. But the prophetic vision was not unanimous. After the experience of the corruption of the Davidic dynasty before the Babylonian captivity, some prophets, among them Second and Third Isaiah, lost confidence in any political king. If they spoke in terms of Christ/Messiah, their vision was of someone other than a political leader.

In his “Infancy Narratives” Luke had claimed divine intervention in John’s birth. He was quick, however, to make clear that John was not the Christ/Messiah. He was special, but subordinate to a stronger one to follow him, Jesus. (It was the unborn John who quickened with delight at the presence of Jesus in the womb of the pregnant Mary.)

He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 
17 The winnowing fork is in his hand
to clean his threshing floor,
to gather the wheat into the bin
and to burn the chaff in unquenchable fire." 
18 He was spreading the good news
and giving a lot of other advice to the people.

Luke showed a John who seemed to be projecting his own aggression onto the attitude of Jesus, the one to come, whom he expected to baptise with the Holy Spirit, burning with unquenchable fire those whom John dismissively labelled as chaff.

19 He reproved Herod the tetrarch
on the issue of Herodias the wife of his brother
and a lot of other evil deeds that he did.
20 To cap them all off, Herod shut John up in prison.

Herod had no problem with how people regarded his morals. Herod’s previous wife, however, had been the daughter of the Nabatean ruler. Divorcing her was an affront to her father’s honour and politically provocative. John had not so much criticised his divorce, which was an acceptable practice at the time, but his marriage to Herodias, the wife of one of his brothers. To marry a sister-in-law was forbidden in the Torah. Moral issues easily became politicised.

Herod’s Offence

The Book of Leviticus clearly stated:

If a man takes his brother’s wife, it is impurity; he has uncovered his brother’s nakedness (Leviticus. 20:21). 

“Impurity” in the language of the time did not refer to the impropriety of sexual actions but to something more important in the culture, the departure from the “normal” that threatened the stability and cohesion of the family unit and the inviolable honour relationships within it. What shocked was that it severely dishonoured a blood brother, a fellow male in the family, bringing into question his sexual capacity. Such dishonouring meant the self-destruction of the family unit and threatened the regular nature of things.

John was to become in fact a prisoner of conscience, arrested and interned without trial. Though Luke would refer later in the Gospel to John’s being beheaded by Herod, he would give no details. By mentioning his imprisonment, however, Luke helped to create the backdrop against which Jesus would exercise his future ministry. To take seriously the love of God and the non-negotiable values of justice, compassion and forgiveness that flow from it, was dangerous in a world where power came through domination. Little has changed over the centuries. Jesus would be arrested and killed on the charge of having made himself king. As Luke would make obvious further into the narrative, Herod kept tags on Jesus and knew of his doings, and was puzzled about his identity; but apparently he took no steps to silence him. It would be the religious authorities who, with the connivance of the Roman governor, would succeed in having Jesus crucified.

Why did John Baptise?

“Baptise” has taken on a quite specific meaning in Church circles. The word itself has a much more general connotation, and means “to immerse or to plunge in water”, even “to wash”.  

  • Ritual immersion was a practice common among the Essenes, a group of quasi-monastic Jews living down by the Dead Sea, not far from where John was baptising. It expressed a desire to be cleansed from faults, honour-debts and impurities; and happened on a regular basis. 
  • Pharisees also had a tradition of washing before certain ritual actions, again to express their seeking liberation from ritual impurities. 

John’s baptism was similarly an expression of the desire to be freed from sin in preparation for the imminent coming of the Lord. The effect of John’s baptism lay not in the action itself but in the repentance it signified.

John hoped that the one to come would baptise with a baptism powered by the action of God’s liberating and purifying Spirit that would of itself effect forgiveness.

Next >> Luke 3:21-22