I read today’s passage and think to myself that I must be doing this pastor/preacher thing all wrong. I’m just too nice! Seeing this fellow John the Baptist, here is a guy who looks like someone competing on the Survivor show or a character from the cast of Alaska: The Last Frontier. He calls his audience a “brood of vipers,” yet multitudes of people flock to hear him preach. Maybe I need to kick up the nasty factor a few notches and embrace my aggressive New Jersey in-your-face heritage of communication a bit more!
What we have in our reading today is essentially Luke’s calling of the characters on the stage to get into their positions, while he as director calls “Action!” Luke sets the stage by introducing some of the major players of that era in the political and religious fields of leadership …
Luke 3:1 – 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 wilderness.
This exact year is A.D. 29. Tiberius was the ruler of the Roman Empire from A.D. 14 to A.D. 37. Pontius Pilate ruled from A.D. 26 to A.D. 36, and this Herod is the famous Herod Antipas – ruling over Galilee from 4 B.C. to A.D. 39. His brother Philip ruled to the east side of the Jordan from the same beginning point, but ending five years earlier in A.D. 34. Not much is known about this Lysanias dude, who ruled out on the fringe of our story, beyond Damascus. Of the Jewish leaders, Annas had been high priest for nine years until A.D. 15, when the Romans dumped him. Though his son-in-law Caiaphas was placed in that position from A.D. 18-36, the people generally recognized Annas as the rightful high priest.
The action starts in this general timeframe with the ascendance of John the Baptist to public notice, being led by God to come out of his wilderness isolation and begin to preach his message of repentance as a preparation for the public ministry of the Messiah …
Luke 3:3 – He (John) went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘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 people will see God’s salvation.’”
This is a quote from Isaiah 40:3-5 that anticipated the coming Messiah, and the gospels of Matthew and Mark also attribute this to John’s preparatory ministry about Jesus. When visiting monarchs came from far places and crossed desert terrain, preparations were made to clear obstacles and make a smooth pathway of entrance for the coming king. This is what John was spiritually accomplishing. His preaching was becoming well-known and people came out from the towns and cities to hear his message …
Luke 3:7 – 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, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
12 Even tax collectors 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.”
15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and 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 proclaimed the good news to them.
The idea of repentance is to agree about the truth of errant ways of life and then changing one’s life to demonstrate the inner conversion. A symbol of this was baptism: an outward act that spoke of an inner change of heart. The people could also prove their genuine change by the manner in which they lived and treated others. This was especially true of those who were privileged and could use authority to steal money by extra taxation (like Zacchaeus did) or to threaten with military power for extortion – there was no one for an oppressed victim to turn to when this happened.
There was a need in Israel for repentance; true faithfulness and biblical insight was more rare than common. Yet at the same time there was a great expectation of a coming Messiah, though this hope was for most people more of a political desire in terms of their difficult lives under Roman domination… more than it was a spiritual anticipation, as John and Jesus would preach.
So people wondered if John was this Messiah, but he makes it very clear that a greater one is soon coming behind him. John was merely the warm-up act in the show.
John’s message was indeed very bold and confrontational. Notice how Luke says it was for all nations, seeing also how even soldiers were coming to this truth. As well, it says that John, along with his hard message of truth, also exhorted the people in many other ways about what was indeed the good news.
19 But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of his marriage to 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.
Hey, scratch what I said at the beginning about more bold preaching! John’s ministry likely only lasted about a year or so, and then he was imprisoned for a couple of years before being beheaded. We’ll cover this in more detail in chapter 9 when we get to that point in late January.
The message and challenge of the gospel remains the same for us today. We may grieve our physical life conditions and wish for better circumstances, but the greater issue is actually a spiritual one. The matter of greatest importance is the condition of our hearts and our relationship with God through his son, Jesus Christ. And that is the greatest issue of concern we should have for others around us – our families, friends and associates. This is the true reality.