Luke 3:1-6

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[Note: This is the "Old" version of the Grace Commentary on Luke. It will be updated to the new version soon.]


Luke now transitions from writing about the birth and early years of Jesus, to the events immediately preceding the beginning of His mission (Luke 3:1–4:13). Continuing the pattern of alternating between Jesus and John, Luke now turns to talk about mission of John in preparing the way for the Messiah. John’s message is one of national and personal reform. It is not a message about how to receive eternal life, but rather about how the Jewish people must prepare to welcome the King of Israel.

3:1. Luke indicates a jump forward in time by providing a new historical time reference. As with the other time references (1:5; 2:1), the names listed not only provide a time reference, but also foreshadow some of the themes Luke will emphasize in the text that follows. Here, Luke’s point seems to be that the entire nation, politically and religiously, has become corrupt. “Behind the list of names and places is a story of oppression and misery that building up to an explosion point” (Wright 2004:32).

The events that follow take place in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, which is between September of 27 AD and October of 28 AD (Keener 1994:196; Barclay 1975:31). Tiberius Caesar, like the Caesars before him, was being worshiped as a god (Wright 2004:32). He was the adopted son of Augustus Caesar, was generally a good Roman emperor, not wasteful with money, and not too prone to war or excessive abuses of power. However, since he was not good with people, he was not popular, and it was widely rumored that he had sex with young boys (Evans 2003:67; Grant 1975:103). Also, as with many rulers of the time, he increasingly suspected that many of those near to him were engaged in treasonous plots, and so in 26 AD, he moved to the remote island of Capri, and never returned to the city of Rome. He continued to rule as the Roman Emperor, but only by correspondence with the Senate, his generals, and the governors of Roman provinces (Grant 1975:84-107). So at the time of the events in Luke 3, the empire was being ruled by an absent and suspicious Caesar. It was during these years of self-imposed exile, that Tiberius’ rulings became ruthless, cruel, and cold-blooded (Grant 1975:105; Green 1997:168). The entirety of Jesus’ public ministry was during the absentee reign of Tiberius, who died in 37 AD.

Luke next turns his attention to the local rulers of Palestine. After the death of Herod the Great, the province of Judea was further sub-divided into various regions which were ruled by three of Herod’s sons, who were called tetrarchs (tetrarch literally means “governor of a fourth part” but later came to refer to a governor of any part; cf. Barclay 1975:31). The genealogy of Herod the Great is confusing. Part of this is because he had two wives, and all his sons had similar names. The first wife was Cleopatra of Jerusalem. Together, they had a son named Philip. Herod the Great also married Mariamne II, and they had Herod Antipas, Herod Archelaus, and Herod Philip. Herod Philip married Herodias, and together, they had a daughter named Salome before Herodias left her husband and married Herod Antipas. Salome married Philip, her half-uncle.

So the first region of Herod the Great was given to Herod Archelaus, who ruled over Judea, Samaria, and Edom. But he ruled so poorly that the Jews petitioned Rome for his removal, and Tiberius, impatient with all the troubles in Judea, removed Archelaus and installed Pontius Pilate, a Roman governor in his place (Barclay 1975:31). The province of Judea had always been one of the most difficult regions in the Roman Empire, as the Jews frequently rebelled against Roman rule (Horsley 2003:35-54), but during his rule, Pilate was able to bring some semblance of peace.

However, just before Jesus began His public ministry, he seems to have deliberately provoked the Jewish people into rebellion when he sent a company of troops into Jerusalem carrying their standards with the images of the gods on them, and telling the people to worship and pray to these gods, and pledge their complete allegiance to Caesar. Aside from such a display violating the First Commandment, this was a way of saying that the God of Israel had been conquered and subjected to the Roman gods. Crowds of Jewish people prostrated themselves before Pilate’s house for five days in protest. When they refused to disperse, he ordered his soldiers to surround them, and threatened the people that if they didn’t leave, he would have them all beheaded. When they heard this, the Jewish people bared their necks to the soldiers and said that they were ready to die rather than break the Law. At this, Pilate relented (as reported by Josephus in Horsley 2003:48). Occasionally, Pilate did resort to punishment by death, as alluded to in Luke 13:1, and as he did with Jesus and the two other criminals (Luke 23).

The second son of Herod the Great was Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee. Herod Antipas had been raised at the imperial court, and was especially skilled at extracting tax revenues from Galilee (Horsley 2003:15). Like his father, he used these revenues not only to support imperial Rome, but also to engage in large-scale construction projects. Among these, he built two new cities, Tiberias and Sepphoris. This caused great financial stress on the people of Galilee (Horsley 2003:34, 61, 85). Tiberias was an affront to the Jews, partly because it was built on a graveyard, but also because it contained numerous images of Roman gods and Caesars (Green 1997:169).

Later in the Gospel accounts, Herod Antipas imprisoned John for condemning his marriage to Herodias, who had been the wife of his brother Herod, who is also called Philip (Luke 3:19-20; Mark 6:17; Matt 14:3). Herodias did not like such criticism, and so was able to convince Herod to behead John (Matt 14:1-11). It was also Herod Antipas who, together with Pontius Pilate, agreed to have Jesus crucified (cf. Luke 23). Such actions were often taken by the Roman ruling structure to quell what they viewed as acts of terrorism and rebellion against the Roman Empire (Horsley 2003:27).

Third is the half-brother of Herod Antipas and Herod Archelaus, Philip (not to be confused with the other Philip–also called Herod–who was the first husband of Herodias). Luke records that this Philip was the tetrarch of Iturea and…Trachonitis. These regions spread from Galilee up toward Damascus, and though sparsely populated, were important to the Roman Empire for their trade routes and as a first line of defense against the Nabateans and Parthians. This region contained very few Jews, and Josephus records that Philip ruled with justice and benevolence, gaining the respect of his subjects (Josephus, Antiq. 18.4.6). He remained in this position from 4 BC to 34 AD. During his reign, Philip built Caesarea Philippi.

The third tetrarch that Luke writes about is Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene. Very little is known ofLysanias or the region of Abilene. Some have concluded that Luke made an historical error, but there are a few vague references to such names and places in Josephus which indicate that the problem is our own ignorance, not Luke’s.

Altogether, these five names not only provide an accurate time reference for the events that follow, but more importantly, reveal that the nation of Israel was under foreign occupation. And not only were these rulers foreign, bu they were corrupt and merciless in carrying out their plans. Therefore, Israel was praying for a deliverer like Moses to lead them out of bondage to Rome.

The idea of YHWH’s being king carried the particular and definite revolutionary connotation that certain other people were due for demotion. Caesar, certainly. Herod, quite probably. The present high-priestly clan, pretty likely. (Wright 1996:203).

3:2. Generally, in such situations, the people would look to the religious leaders for such deliverance. However, if the political scene in Israel was corrupt, the religious scene was even worse. Luke records that both Annas and Caiaphas were high priests. First, there was only supposed to be one high priest. The fact that there were two indicates that something is wrong. The records indicate that the Roman officials were constantly having problems with the High Priests, and kept replacing them, trying to find one who would work with them in controlling the people. Annas was one of these, and served as High Priest from 7-14 AD. He was succeeded by four of his sons, one after the other, and then finally, by Caiaphas, his son-in-law. Caiaphas was the official High Priest according to Roman records, but it was widely recognized that Annas was the power behind Caiaphas, who rarely did anything without the consent of Annas. So both were viewed as “High Priests” (cf. Barclay 1975:32; Evans 2003:68), and explains why Jesus, at his trial, went first before Annas, and then Caiaphas (John 18:13, 24). They constantly used their power to line their own pockets and increase their own authority. Annas was even sometimes called a viper who hissed or whispered in the ears of judges and politicians in order to influence their decisions (Edersheim 1988:263) Archeological explorations from the time indicate that the high priestly families built increasingly elaborate mansions for themselves in Jerusalem. This could have only occurred through close collaboration with the Roman rulers of the region (Horsley 2003:15, 33).

The list of names indicate that the political and religious condition of Israel was so fallen and corrupt, it was clearly time for the Messiah to be revealed. Israel needed a new deliverer, not just to deliver them from political bondage and foreign rule, but also from spiritual and religious corruption.

But before the Messiah is fully revealed, a prophet must rise and call the people back to God, to prepare the way for the Messiah. With terminology from the Hebrew Scriptures, the rest of verse 2 introduces the last of the Old Testament prophets. Though Luke has listed one emperor, one governor, three tetrarchs, and two religious high priests, the word of God comes to a relatively unknown man living inthe wilderness. Luke references John’s location to show two things. First, that John was separate from the political-economic scene and the religious apostasy that was common in his day. He was separate from all this. Second, Luke wants to portray John like Moses, who came out of the wilderness to rescue Israel from Egypt. Luke is raising the question in the reader’s mind about John, and whether he will be the one to deliver Israel. Luke answers this question in 3:16.

In chapter 1, Zacharias had been told by an angel of the Lord that his son, John, would be a prophet in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord (1:17). Now, 30 years later, this promise is about to come true. John is living in the wilderness, and the Word of the Lord came to him. This is a formulaic expression used of numerous Old Testament prophets (Jer 1:1; 13:3; 1 Kings 12:22; 1 Chr 17:3; Isa 38:4).

3:3. John spoke the word from God in all the region around the Jordan. Prophets generally localize their ministry to a particular region. John stayed and preached along the Jordan river. This was important since part of his ministry involved the baptism of repentance. Furthermore, his ministry in the region of the Jordan river also points to him being like the prophet Elijah who spent his last days in the Jordan river area (2 Kings 2:1-13). John was coming in the spirit and power of Elijah to herald the way for a King. Furthermore, the baptism John performs in the Jordan would have clearly pictured the “baptism of Moses” in the Red Sea when God led Israel out of Egypt, and also, the similar events at the Jordan River when Joshua finally led Israel into the promised land. Through the baptism at the Jordan River, John was alluding to the fact that a Messiah like Joshua was about to arrive who would lead them out of bondage and into the fulfillment of all God’s promises to them (cf. Wright 2004:33).

The message John spoke is widely misunderstood and misapplied. Some refer to John’s message as the gospel, and while it is part of the gospel message, John is concerned primarily with the message of good news to the people of Israel about how God’s promises of land and inheritance could be fulfilled (cf. Barclay 1975:33). John is not telling the people of Israel how to escape hell, receive eternal life, and get into heaven. Rather, he is telling them how to prepare the way for the Messiah and all that they hoped would come with Him. The people wanted freedom and deliverance from Roman occupation, to be restored unto their land with the right to rule themselves, and the Messiah to set Himself up as King in Jerusalem, reigning over the whole world. John’s message about the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins explain how the people can prepare their lives and their communities for these Messianic expectations.

His basic message is “turn or burn” as verses 7-14 make clear, but not “burn” in the sense of “go to hell” but face the dire temporal consequences for their continued rebellion against God. To avoid further enslavement and destruction, the people needed to clean up their lives, and return to living righteously before God. This is what John meant when he preached about a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.

This baptism of repentance was also known as John’s Baptism (cf. Acts 1:22; 19:3-4). It is not exactly the same type of baptism that Jesus instructed his disciples to follow, nor is it the type of baptism that occurred at Pentecost or that Paul talks about in Romans 6. There are numerous types of baptism mentioned in Scripture, some that involve water, and some that don’t. Some are physical, some are spiritual.

The word baptism (Gk. baptizo) means “immersion” and can refer to several different events or ideas. It can refer to being washed with water, or being identified with the death and resurrection of Jesus, or fully receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, or facing the full force of God’s judgment, or even to being fully instructed (i.e., immersed) in a particular subject or topic. John’s baptism was of the symbolic kind, and was a baptism of water reserved especially for Jewish people. There is, in Judaism, a baptismal practice whereby Gentiles who want to become Jews must, among other things, must undergo a ritual washing of purification, or baptism, called a mikvah (cf. Wright 2004:33). The Jewish Talmud, in the Mikva’ot tractate, states that when a Gentile wishes to become a Jew, he must be instructed according to the 613 commandments of the Torah, must be circumscribed, and must go through a Mikvah, that is, be baptized. When he goes under the water, he goes under a Gentile. When he comes back out, he comes out a Jew, born again like a new-born babe, with a new soul, spiritually and ritually pure. It is said that just like a baby is surrounded by water in the womb, so in a Mikvah, the person is surrounded by water. And just as the baby, when it comes out of the water, is born to a new life, so also, the person who comes up out of the waters of the Mikvah, is born to a new life as a Jew.

However, once a person becomes a Jew, they will often continue this practice of ritual washings. Devout Jews will often go through numerous mikvahs per year, sometimes as frequently as once per day. These washings are intended to purify the person from ritual impurity that occurred throughout life (cf. 2 Kings 5:24; Sirach 34:25; Mark 7:4). This is a way of maintaining purity.

It is something similar to this that John was calling the people of Israel to in his day. The Jewish religious system and political scene had become corrupt, and John was calling the people to turn away from the corruption, and be restored to a new life of faithful obedience to God. Baptism was a sign that the person was terminating their old relationships and old ways of living, and stating allegiance to new relationships and new ways of living (Pentecost 1981:84).

This is why it’s called a baptism of repentance (Gk. metanoia. Just as baptism symbolizes a death to the old self and the raising up to a new and different self, so repentance is a mental and moral turning from the old habits of life, to a new and righteous pattern. John’s baptism was a representation or picture of repentance, of turning from the old toward the new. It is, in a sense, a visual sermon.

Through this baptism of repentance the Jewish person would receive the remission of sins. In Western individualistic theology, this term has come to mean “forgiveness of my sins so I can get eternal life and go to heaven when I die.” This is not what it meant for the Jewish people in John’s day. The term remission (Gk. aphesis) literally means “deliverance” or “release” and means to be delivered or freed from bondage of sin. It carries with it the idea of the release of captives, of setting prisoners free (cf. Luke 4:18-19). But more than that, in Jewish thinking, sin and rebellion against God was always coupled with bondage and enslavement to foreign powers. When the nation gained deliverance from their sin, they would also gain deliverance from foreign rule (cf. comments on 1:77).

This idea is seen clearly in Jeremiah 31, where New Covenant language ties forgiveness of sins with the Israelite expectations for God’s rule on earth. During this time, God would reign in righteousness over all the earth from Jerusalem, Israel would be delivered, and evil destroyed. It is for this that the Messiah would come. It is for this that John preached. A promise about forgiveness of sins is a promise about restoration (cf. Malina 2003:364).

In summary, the prophetic ministry of John in the wilderness reveals that John was calling the people to a new Exodus, not from Egyptian bondage, but from corrupt Judaism. Further, the baptism of John indicates that this renewal will take place apart from and outside of Temple worship (Wright 1996:160). The Temple had become the nexus of corruption, and this renewed people of God would have nothing to do with the former corruption.

3:4. John’s message and ministry was in fulfillment of prophecy, as written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet. Isaiah is, as many have noticed, the Bible in miniature. It contains 66 chapters, just as the Bible contains 66 books. Isaiah is divided into two parts, the first part being chapters 1-39, which correspond to the first 39 books of the Bible. The second part of Isaiah (chapters 40–66) is 27 chapters long, and correspond with the general theme and ideas of the New Testament. The passage that Luke refers to here comes from Isaiah 40:3-5, the opening sentences to the second part of Isaiah.

The prophet Isaiah declared that before the Messiah arrived, a prophet would come before Him, who would be recognized by particular actions. First, he would be a voice…crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord. This is significant on two levels.

First, Isaiah is portraying this prophet as an emissary who goes before an Emperor or King to prepare the way. In the Roman Empire, when the Emperor planned to visit a city, he would send an emissary or herald before him to announce his coming. But this emissary would do more than just announce the coming of the Emperor. He would act as an inspector. He would go around the city, and make a list of things that needed to be cleaned and repaired. Sometimes this would involve rounding up criminals and putting them in prison, and instructing others how to behave when the Emperor arrived. Such preparations were vitally important, for if the Emperor arrived and the city was not prepared for him, he might mete out judgment and punishment upon the city and its rulers.

He follows the typical pattern of Caesar biographies of that time by showing a man named John acted as the emissary preparing the way for Jesus. In this way, Luke puts Jesus on the same level with Caesar, the Emperor of Rome. Both have emissaries who go before them to prepare the way for their arrival.

But secondly, as Isaiah reveals, this emissary does not go into the cities of Jerusalem to preach and prepare the people in the cities for the Messiah. But this emissary, says Isaiah, will declare his messagein the wilderness. This is curious because the wilderness is not where the people were. They were in the cities. But spiritually, morally, and politically, they were in the wilderness, as Luke has already hinted at with the list of names in verses 1-2. In Jewish thinking, the wilderness was a place of chaos, disorder, and dark spirits (Malina 2003:236). So having John begin his ministry in a place of chaos, disorder, and darkness gives the impression that something new is about to begin, just as when the Spirit of God hovered over the dark chaos before the original creation (Gen 1:1-2).

Mention of the wilderness also evokes images of the wilderness wanderings of Israel. Such wanderings served as a time of purification for the nation, after the Exodus from bondage in Egypt, but before entrance into the Promised Land. By preaching in the wilderness, John is forcing the people who want to hear him, as multitudes do, to experience a personal Exodus from the cities, and come out to the wilderness for purification. In so doing, John was preparing the people for the Messiah who, it was hoped, would bring about the national Exodus of the Israelites from bondage to Rome.

This is what Luke (in quoting Isaiah) refers to in the next several descriptive phrases. First, the quote from Isaiah says this emissary will [i]make His paths straight,[/b] that is, the prophet will make straight paths for the Messiah. Again, when Roman dignitaries visited cities, massive excavation, construction, and beatification projects were often undertaken in the cities and surrounding areas prior to his arrival.

3:5. Sometimes the work performed would be to such a great extent that every valley would be filledin and every mountain and hill brought low. One of the things expected was that the path or road he arrived on was straight and level. This would protect him from getting lost by having to make too many turns, from danger by not being able to see around corners, and from weariness (or his horse from weariness) by having to go up and down too many hills. Through parallelism, Isaiah says that the crooked places shall be made straight and the rough ways smooth. Such terminology hints, of course, that when it comes to the Messiah and the prophet that would prepare the way before Him, God is not concerned about the roads and buildings, but about the spiritual and moral lives of His people (referred to as “all flesh” in verse 6.) He wants them to straighten out the crooked ways in their lives, and smooth out the rough places.

Again, this terminology points back to the Exodus and the wilderness wanderings. Jewish tradition states that the pillar of cloud which went before Israel in the wilderness brought every mountain low, filled in every valley, and cleared their resting places of snakes and scorpions. The Jews applied such terminology to the expectation that through the Messiah, they would once again be led out of captivity (Lightfoot 1989:51).

3:6. The result of all of these preparations is that all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ This verse, in connection with Luke’s reference to the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins in verse 3, has caused many to believe that John is telling people how to “be saved,” which to many, means “get eternal life, escape hell, and go to heaven when you die.” But this is not what John is preaching, nor what Luke is referring to, nor how the term “salvation” is most often used in Scripture. In Scripture, the “salvation” word family (save, saved, salvation, etc.) most often refers to being delivered from some physical, temporal calamity such as sickness, enemies, and storms. Sometimes it refers to being delivered from the enslaving power of sin in our lives. Only rarely does it refer to having something to do with going to heaven when we die (e.g., Eph 2:8-9), and even then, the terminology is debatable.

Here in this context, Isaiah, Luke, and John are all clearly referring not to eternal life and going to heaven, but rather to being delivered from one’s enemies, and more particularly, from the Roman occupation and religious corruption Luke referred to in 3:1-2. Individually, this will occur as each person makes the necessary preparations in their own lives by making steps to be delivered from sin. John tells them how to do this in verses 7-14. So here, the salvation of the Lord refers to freedom from sin and freedom from foreign rule, and a return of all flesh, that is, all the world, being ruled by God. When this happens, the power and domination of paganism will be broken, God will return to Zion, the covenant will be renewed, Israel’s (and all the world’s) sins forgiven, the long-awaited ‘exodus’ will happen, the Temple will be rebuilt, and all the other promises fulfilled (Wright 1996:xviii).

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