Luke 3

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John the Baptist's Message

Verse 1: In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, (NRSV)

  • Tiberius reigned from after Augustus (birth of Jesus) 1t 14 CE to 37 CE.
    • The first year of Tiberius' rule is debated, though.
    • So John probably started around 28-29 CE (Nolland 139)
    • All of this dating is not to date this exactly, but to set the stage for John as prophet by telling who the main players were (Green 167).
  • Pontius Pilate was a horrible governor, and ruled from 26-36 CE. (NOAB 101) He ruled Judea.
  • The reign of Herod the great is over now, and his land has been divided among his relatives, with the exception of Judea. The Herod mentioned here is not Herod the great, but a lesser successor.
  • Literally, these “rulers” are tetrarchs. A Tetrarch is a fourth of a king, used to designate petty nobles and rulers during that time period.

Verse 2: during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. (NRSV)

  • There are two high priests mentioned. This wasn't supposed to happen. There is only supposed to be one at a time.
    • Annas was high priest, then got deposed by the Romans. His son-in-law Caiaphas (18-36 CE) ruled later. But high priests were supposed to be for life so as long as Annas was alive he also held a lot of power (NOAB 101)
    • That Luke calls them both “high priests” is a slap on the face to how much Rome has interfered and how far the priesthood had fallen.
  • It is important that the high priest and rulers or the elite and the city folk are mentioned, and then immediately God comes to the wild prophet in the wilderness.
    • God chose to avoid the elite, and go to the wilderness
    • God did not go through normal channels because they weren't efficient. God got radical instead.
    • The leaders mentioned here almost all show up later working in opposition to God by working against John or Jesus. The rulers missed it.
  • ”Word of God” here is not talking about Jesus, like in the beginning of John. It is not talking about the Bible, either, but about God conveying a message to John directly.
  • Notice that John is not called by his title “John the Baptist” but “John, son of Zechariah” (Fitzmyer 452).
  • The wilderness traditionally brings images of rawness, new things, hardship, and God directly working to Jewish minds.
  • People expected the rebirth of Israel as a great nation to come from the desert. So John comes from the desert, signifying the rebirth coming.
  • This is actually the proper beginning of the gospel, the start of the ministry of Jesus. John acts as a transition from law to grace. This is also what Acts 10:37 refers to as the beginning of Jesus' ministry (Fitzmyer 450).

Verse 3: He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, (NRSV)

  • Baptism in Jewish culture is rather interesting. Usually it was just for purifying yourself before temple sacrifice, a dunking of water by yourself.
    • Baptism became associated with new converts, but it is unknown if this was common during John's day or not (Nolland 141).
    • We are fairly sure that public baptism of Jews was not common practice at all. This was telling people who lived their entire lives obeying the law that they were not yet saved. That's a radical statement.
    • We don't see God's action in reply to us, that is the role of baptism. We repent, and then we are baptized so we can see God forgiving us through the water rushing over us.
    • John's reference to the one coming also says that he knows he can't fully offer everything he's claiming to give. This is the first hint of what wee will eventually see.

Verse 4: as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. (NRSV)

  • Literally, it says “has been written,” which is a passive perfect tense. Basically, that means that someone else did it, and that while the writing has stopped the consequences of that writing continue.
  • Apparently, the baptism message and the passage from Isaiah are connected.
  • ”Prepare the way of the Lord” refers to when rulers came to visit a place.
    • People were expected to have the roads rebuilt for them before they came.
      • This is because the road systems were so bad that the only way for a large number of people to pass over them was to completely rebuild them.
      • By the time John was quoting this, however, the Roman road system was so much better that this was no longer a real issue within the empire.
    • This is talking about making a straight and clear road for God to come to Jerusalem on (Nolland 143). Nolland claims this is about individual readiness for God to come, but I don't think it's about individual readiness so much as us acting on God's interests.
    • This is saying that God is on his way, and we need to make it easy for God to get where he is going.
  • ”Prepare the way of the lord” is really the linchpin of this entire section.
    • It is in a tense (aorist) that is normally past tense in English, but here it is probably gnomic use, meaning that it is referring to an event that is timeless.
    • Also, this is the mood of command, this is a proclamation that John wanted everyone to always do.
    • Finally, this is second person plural, “you all” referring to all people and not to himself or only one person.
  • In context Isaiah 40:3-5, this quote is about God coming to His people.
  • As John is calling out, he is calling others to prepare the way for God.
    • That means neither John nor God are the ones straightening the paths.
    • The only way John could be the one who straightened the paths was if the verb “make” was in the past tense so that after calling out, it became straight.
  • ”Make straight” is present tense, which means we are to do this now.
  • A common way of understanding this passage is that John was calling that God would make our paths straight, but that is the opposite of what this verse is saying. John was calling to people, make “his” paths straight.
  • Some factions viewed this Isaiah passage as preparing the way of the Lord by strict adherence to the law (Fitzmyer 461). Instead, John says that we need to do stuff to prepare God's way. We need to act.

Verse 5: Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; (NRSV)

  • Martin Luther King quoted this passage in his “I have a Dream” speech as having a desire to see this verse come true. He continued to refer to it with “every mountain and molehill” of Mississippi ringing freedom, indicating that how he saw this passage coming true is through freedom and equality coming to people.
  • Given that John is the one calling, and we are the ones preparing the way of the Lord, we are grammatically also the ones leveling and straightening every path to make that way straight.
  • ”every chasm will be filled” is future tense, so it is happening after the preparation starts, but because it is also a passive voice it is unclear who is doing this.
    • It is also third person singular, so possibly the lord is doing this, but this could also be referring back to the chasm, which is singular.
    • The passive voice was often used as a way of disguising God's action without referring to God by name.
    • Most likely, it is still done by people being used by God, but that this is a more eventual goal.

Verse 6: and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.' ” (NRSV)

  • ”All people” is really “all flesh” and could be referring to people or to all creation that is alive and in the flesh. It is simply making a point of saying that this is earthly, not heavenly.
  • This quote is a huge thing. If we are expected to do this, then we can do it. It seems nearly impossible, but we can prepare the way for God. It would not be asked for if it was not possible.

Message Ideas/Scripts/Liturgy That Use This Chapter

Cousin John, Working for the Kingdom without a King1-6We prepare the way for Christ to work in those around us through all stages of life.Community
AdultsAdventMessage Idea
Jesus Ends the Exile1-22Jesus came as the savior of his people, and we are part of the kingdom Jesus built.Covenant
Kingdom of God
GeneralGeneralMessage Idea
Prepare the Way1-6We are to prepare the way for God, not the other way around.PreparationAdultsMessage Idea