Luke 3: 1 – 19 John the Baptist prepares the way
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberias 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 – during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 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. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all people will see God’s salvation.”’
John said to the crowds coming out to be baptised by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 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. The axe has been laid to the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.’
‘What should we do then?’ the crowd asked.
John answered, ‘Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.’
Even tax collectors came to be baptised. ‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘what should we do?’
‘Don’t collect any more than you are required to,’ he told them.
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.’
The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, I baptise 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 baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing-floor and to gather up the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’ And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.
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, Herod added this to them all: he locked John up in prison.
* * *
Chapter 3 of St Luke’s gospel tells us of the ministry of John the Baptist, and how this leads into the ministry of Jesus. St Luke wants, therefore, to ground the time firmly in history, and he does this by mentioning seven prominent people of the period, five of them political, and two of them religious. There is solid historical evidence for all seven of them fulfilling the roles that St Luke says they occupied. Even with this evidence, though, we can’t be exactly sure of the date of John the Baptist’s ministry, because of ambiguity about the start of the period during which Tiberias was emperor. The reason is that Tiberias first reigned as co-regent with Augustus, beginning in 11/12 AD, and then ruled alone as emperor after Augustus’s death in 14 AD. The most likely date for the events that St Luke describes in this chapter is 27 – 29 AD.
A small point that I find interesting as a writer is that four of those St Luke chooses to mention subsequently play a part in the crucifixion of Jesus. Introducing details like this early in a narrative is called ‘foreshadowing’ and it adds to the credibility and impact when the climax of the narrative plays out.
John had spent many years in the wilderness, and now he was prompted by the Holy Spirit to preach a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”. Such a baptism was known to the Jews, but was normally reserved for proselytes before they were allowed to become Jews. The Jews themselves, children of Abraham, dealt with sin by providing an animal to be sacrificed by the priests in the temple at Jerusalem.
But John’s baptism was specifically to the Jews. John’s ministry is paving the way for Jesus, and it’s doing so by declaring personal accountability for sin and by offering personal forgiveness through repentance and baptism.
The crowds who flocked to John were told, ‘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.’ John “went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
Despite John’s ministry taking place in the wilderness, the people flocked to him. There must have been an authenticity about him that attracted them. And what did he say his hearers should do?
‘Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.’
‘Don’t collect any more than you are required to.’
‘Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay.’
In other words, share generously, deal fairly with people, and don’t use power to extort money.
And the same things apply in our own time.
The one I struggle with is sharing generously. I certainly have two shirts (and the rest!). I am aware of a world full of need and yet I don’t give to the limits of affordability. And the parable of the Good Samaritan teaches me that my giving should be based on the needs of those I could help. I need to work on this.
Thank you for the record of your interventions in history, and especially today for St Luke’s gospel. Thank you for your guidance as we read it. Please help me to give more generously.
In Jesus’ name, Amen