[Note: This is the “Old” version of the Grace Commentary on Luke. It will be updated to the new version soon.]
John’s ministry was to prepare the Jewish people for the coming of the Messiah. In such a prophetic role, it was inevitable that people began to wonder if he himself might actually be the Messiah. When questioned about this, John answered that he was not the Messiah, but that the Messiah would come after John, and be greater than him. John prophetically spoke more than he knew, since Jesus was greater than John in every way, not only in His ministry, but also in His death.
3:15. The people were in expectation for the coming of the Messiah. They knew the promises of God and prophecies of Scripture, and were constantly waiting, looking, hoping, and praying for the Messiah to arrive, lead the nation in perfect obedience to the Torah, set Himself on the throne of David, restore proper Temple worship, and subject the nations of the world to the kingdom of Israel. Numerous prophets had come and gone in recent Israelite history – some had even been hailed as Messiah – but none had amounted to much (Wright 1996:151-155). So as John began to carry out his prophetic ministry, the people all reasoned in their hearts about John, whether he was the Christ or not. Like many prophets before him, John ministered and worked in the wilderness, called people out to him, and baptized them in the Jordan. All this signified that a new Exodus was underway, and that this renewed Israel did not rely on the Temple (Wright 1996:160).
In light of what John was preaching and doing, many wondered if he was the Christ, which is the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew “Messiah.” Both terms literally mean “anointed” and can refer to anyone who has been chosen and anointed by God to carry out a specific task (cf. TDNT, IX:493-580). It is used of various human figures in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament, it is only used in reference to Jesus. Here, of course, the Jewish people thought that John might be the Christ. This reveals some of the Jewish expectations for the Messiah, as well as some of the things they were not expecting. While they did expect the Messiah to be one like Moses, who would preach and teach in the wilderness, calling out a people who were set apart, they didn’t expect the Messiah to be born of a virgin, or to be divine. These latter two ideas are not inherent within the title “Christ.”
3:16. To those who wondered if he was the Messiah, John explained that while he did indeed do things that the Christ was expected to do, he was not the Christ (cf. John 1:20). Though John doesbaptize…with water this does not prove he is the Christ. Many teachers of the time baptized people with water, and most Jews practiced the ritualistic purification mikvah which was similar to John’s baptism (see Appendix 12, “Baptism of Proselytes” in Edersheim 1988:745). Performing baptisms was not something that proved the identity of the Messiah. After all, Jesus Himself did not baptize anyone (John 4:2). So John’s statement here is more of a reference to what baptism symbolized, namely, that since Judaism has become corrupt, a new Exodus was occurring, and those who repented and were baptized where helping prepare the way for the Messiah.
As an emissary should do, John points the people beyond himself to the [b]One mightier than[b] John who is coming after him. John is only the emissary going before the King, and as such, the Messiah will be mightier than John in every way (cf. John 3:30). John indicates his own lowly position by stating that he is not even able to undo the sandal strap of the Messiah. In the Middle East at this time, sandals and feet often became quite dirty from walking on the roads, and with numerous animals on the road, the feet may even reek of animal droppings. Only the most lowly of servants were asked to remove the master’s sandals and wash their feet. It was so degrading, that Hebrew slaves refused to do it (Bock 1994:321). Yet John says he is too low to even perform such a shameful and menial task. Jesus, during His ministry, outdoes John even in this. Jesus, as the master, would never have had to wash His own feet, let alone those of His disciples. And yet in John 13, Jesus humbles Himself and washes all their feet.
John goes on to emphasize his own lowly position by stating that when the Christ arrives, He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. John was simply baptizing with water. The baptism with the Holy Spirit is a permanent, spiritual baptism. It first occurred at the birth of the Church in Acts 2 during the Feast of Pentecost. When the later New Testament writers speak about the baptism into Jesus Christ, it is this Spirit baptism they are referring to. When new believers are baptized in water, they are outwardly symbolizing the inner, spiritual baptism that took place when they believed in Jesus for eternal life. Though the Jewish people certainly knew the prophecies out of Joel 2:28-29 and Ezekiel 36:25-27 about God pouring out His Spirit on His people, it is uncertain how much John and his Jewish hearers understood about the baptism of the Spirit.
A related issue is John’s reference to fire. In connection with the baptism of the Spirit, one common view is to associate this fire with the tongues of fire that alighted on the head of each disciple in the Upper Room in Acts 2:3. That view is possible, but it seems better to take the reference to fire in the same way John uses it in context (3:9, 17), and also in the way it is used in Joel 2, as a reference to divine discipline and judgment upon Israel (Pentecost 1981:91; cf. Bock 1994:323). John is saying that one way or another, through the Spirit or through fire, the nation will be cleansed.
3:17. John elaborates on this theme of blessing on some and judgment on others through the image of grain threshing, which is the process of separating grain from the chaff. The person doing the threshing would typically use a tool called a winnowing fan, which looked like a cross between a rake, a shovel, and a fan. It was used to scoop up the grain and toss it in the air, and in the same motion, create a gust of wind to blow away the chaff, thereby allowing the grain to fall back down to the ground (Bock 1994:324). The job was made easier if there was a light breeze to blow the chaff away.
The threshing was done on a threshing floor which was a level surface made of stone. This was where the mixture of grain and chaff was piled. As the grain was tossed into the air, the chaff blew off onto one side, and the cleaned grain was then raked off onto the other side. When all was separated, thewheat was gathered into the barn. This is symbolic of the ingathering that the Messiah would accomplish for Israel, brining many people back into covenant faithfulness, and therefore, usefulness for God’s plan on earth.
However, not all would be brought in. Some would continue in their rebellion. Their end will be like that of the chaff which is burned with unquenchable fire. As with the other references to fire in the context, this refers to physical, temporal discipline from God (cf. 3:9; cf. 12:49). It does not refer to hell. Even if it did refer to hell, this verse could not be used to support the idea of eternal conscious torment in hell. The fact that the fire is unquenchable does not mean that it burns forever, but that is burns until all is burned up. It finishes the work it set out to do, which is to burn away the chaff. Chaff, of course, burns very quickly, and leaves almost no ash, and therefore no evidence that it was once there. This is what it means for the chaff to be burned with unquenchable fire. When it refers to temporal divine discipline, the image fits better. The Messiah, when he comes, will divide the nation into wheat and chaff. The wheat will be gathered into the storehouse where it will be used to feed and bless the nations; the chaff will be burned up until no trace of it is left. The former receive the Spirit, the second only fire (3:16).
3:18. Such was John’s typical message when he preached to the people. His message was exactly in line with that of other Hebrew Prophets: the nation of Israel must turn from their disobedience and return to faithfulness to God. Those who did so would be used be God; those who refused would be disciplined.
3:19. This message of exhortation was not for the people only, but also for Herod the tetrarch. This Herod was one of the sons of Herod the Great, and he ruled mainly from Jerusalem. Like his father, he claimed to be the King of the Jews, but was actually Idumean, and was politically, religiously, and morally corrupt. As Luke records, at one point Herod took Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife as his own wife. Aside from stealing his brother’s wife, Herodias was also Herod’s niece (Barclay 1975:36). Such an action was detestable (Lev 18:16; 20:21), and so John rebuked Herod for this, as well as for all the evils which Herod had done. John, as a Prophet of God, longed to see justice restored on the earth, the wicked to be destroyed, and the Kingdom of God inaugurated. As many prophets had done before, John dared even to speak against the corrupt leaders and rulers of Israel, and condemn them for their immoral actions.
3:20. In light of the sort of message John preached, about blessing to the faithful, and the fire of judgment to the rebellious, when John preached against Herod, the people probably expected Herod to either repent of his sin or receive divine discipline. However, neither happened. Instead, above all the other evils which Herod had done, the greatest evil of all was that he shut John up in prison.Josephus records that Herod imprisoned John because he feared John might start a rebellion (Barclay 1975:35). Whatever the reason, Luke does note record here what happened to John in prison, but maintains the suspense. Theophilus, Luke’s first reader and a high-ranking public official in the Roman Empire, certainly knew of Herod’s reputation, and also knew that most likely, John would die in prison. But if the Messiah was coming, and when He arrives He will overthrow wicked rulers, then maybe John would be delivered, Herod would be cast down as the King of the Jews, the Messiah would be set upon the throne, and the Kingdom would be restored. This incident begins a contest of power between the Rulers of the World and the Agents of God’s Kingdom (cf. 7:18-33; 9:7-9; 13:31-33; 23:8-11).
3:21. Before John was arrested, while John was still baptizing, Jesus also was baptized. The other gospel accounts go into greater detail about this event (cf. Matt 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; John 1:29-34). Nevertheless, the context here raises a key issue: Why did Jesus need to get baptized? The baptism of John was a baptism of repentance (cf. 3:3). It was a baptism for people who had sin to turn from. Luke doesn’t reveal it here, but later New Testament writers explain that Jesus never sinned (2 Cor 5:21; Heb 4:15).
The solution is twofold. First, the baptism was more than just a baptism of repentance. It was also a symbolic way of showing that the one being baptized was dying to corrupt Judaism, and was being raised to new life in covenant faithfulness to God. This was certainly what Jesus was about. Much of His teaching and miracles were directed at the corruption within Judaism, and how He was introducing a new way of maintaining fellowship with God (cf. Barclay 1975:37; cf. Pentecost 1981:94). His baptism revealed that He was not there to support First Century Temple Judaism, but following the example of John, was leading people out of Judaism and into a new way of living with God and with each other.
Secondly, though Jesus never sinned, His baptism helped Him associate with a sinful nation. This foreshadows His ultimate identification with sinful humanity when He dies on the cross for the sins of the whole world (Pentecost 1981:94).
While the other gospel accounts go into greater detail about the baptism of Jesus, only Luke writes that Jesus prayed. Luke writes more about Jesus praying than the other Gospel writers, which reveals a key to His power and effectiveness in ministry. When Luke shows someone praying, it is nearly always right before something significant happens (Evans 2003:80). In this case, when He prayed, the heaven was opened. It is uncertain how Luke intends this phrase to be understood. Did clouds roll back like a scroll? Most likely, the term is simply a figure of speech for “receiving an answer from God” (cf. Ezek 1:1).
3:22. God answered the prayer of Jesus by sending the Holy Spirit to anoint Jesus (cf. 4:18). As with prayer, the Holy Spirit is a prominent theme in Luke’s writings, and another key to the power and effectiveness of Jesus. Luke records that when the Spirit came upon Jesus, He descended in bodily form like a dove. This is most likely a figure of speech indicating that the Spirit descended in the same manner as a dove would, but not actually in the form of a dove (Bock 1994:338). Nevertheless, in whatever form the Spirit descended (was it light in the form of a man?), was for all to see (Evans 2003:81). The Spirit descends onto Jesus before He begins His ministry, showing that the Holy Spirit provides empowerment to Jesus for His ministry.
After the Spirit came upon Jesus, a voice came from heaven which said, “You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased.” This is the voice of God the Father, and He indicates, in the presence of all, that Jesus is His Son, and God is proud to be His Father. This is a key verse for the doctrine of the Trinity, since all three members are present and interacting with each other. Also, the imagery of verse 22 points the reader back to the original creation, where God’s Spirit hovers like a bird over the surface of the waters, and from heaven, God speaks to bring about creation (cf. Gen 1:1-3). With such imagery, Luke shows that Jesus brings a new creation (Evans 2003:78; cf. Edersheim 1988:287; contra. Bock 1994:339).
But most important to Luke’s theme is how this statement from God would be understood by Jesus and the multitudes. The words were a sign to them that God’s Messiah had arrived. It also served to show Jesus what His task as the Messiah would be (Barclay 1975:38; cf. Bock 1994:341-342). The first part of the statement, ”You are my son” comes from Psalm 2:7, in the context of God adopting a Son who will overthrow evil rulers and, as the new King over the earth, restore righteousness and justice to all the nations. The second part, ”In you I am well pleased,” comes from Isaiah 42:1, which begins the Suffering Servant portion of Isaiah. So the affirmation of the Father to Jesus is also a call to vocation. It instructed Jesus to be the Messiah, both a Ruling King and a Suffering Servant. This baptism is the inauguration ceremony of Jesus (Bock 1994:344).