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John the Baptist prepares the way
Luke chapter 3, verses 1-20
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—during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘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 mankind will see God’s salvation.’”
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? 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 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.”
“What should we do then?” the crowd asked. John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “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 Christ. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 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.” And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them. But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of 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.
We last heard of John son of Zechariah in chapter 1, verse 80. There Luke reported that “he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel.” That public appearance is initiated not by John but by the word of God that came to him. One is reminded of similar calls to service received by the Old Testament prophets. Jeremiah reports, “The word of the LORD came to me” (chapter 1, verse 4). God calls John to prepare the way for Jesus.
The public nature of John’s ministry is emphasized by the setting given it by Luke. He notes that the word of God came to John in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar. This Roman emperor was the successor of Caesar Augustus, who died in A.D. 14. The 15th year of Tiberius would be A.D. 28/29. At that time Pontius Pilate, who would condemn Jesus to death, was the governor of Judea. The capital city of Jerusalem was located in the province of Judea and was under the direct rule of Rome. Pilate served as governor in the years A.D. 25–36.
Other parts of the country of Palestine remained under the control of the family of Herod the Great, who was king of all Palestine when Jesus was born. Herod the Great had ten wives. Two of his many sons are mentioned by Luke: Herod tetrarch of Galilee and his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis. The Herod mentioned here became the ruler of Galilee and Perea on the death of his father in 4 B.C. He is the Herod we will hear about several times in Luke’s gospel. He is also known as Herod Antipas. The title tetrarch originally meant the governor of one of the four divisions of a country or province; in time it became simply a stereotyped title for any petty prince.
Luke mentions two religious leaders, the high priests Annas and Caiaphas. Annas was high priest during the years A.D. 6–15. He also continued to exert great influence in temple affairs during the high priesthood of his son-in-law Caiaphas (A.D. 18–36). This is the political and religious setting for the public ministries of both John and Jesus.
John’s father, Zechariah, had said that his son “will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins” (chapter 1, verse 76 and 77). John did exactly that in the country around the Jordan River. The words written in the book of Isaiah the prophet are fulfilled: “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord.’” The quotation ends on this significant note: “All mankind will see God’s salvation.” The preaching of John prepared the way for the Savior of all people.
John was a preacher of repentance. The word repent is used in two senses in the Bible. Sometimes the word means only “to be sorry for sins.” An example of this use is the summary of Jesus’ message: “Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark chapter 1, verse 15). John’s preaching of repentance included the call to faith in the coming Savior. This is evident from Luke’s statement that John “exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.” Response to John’s preaching of repentance included both sorrow for sins and faith in the good news of forgiveness of sins.
John did not only preach; John also baptized (hence the designation “John the Baptist”). His was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The people who were baptized made confession of their sins (see Matthew chapter 3, verse 6). The word of God that came to John no doubt included the command to baptize. This was an added means by which John made ready the way for the coming of Jesus. John recognized that his baptism was only preparation for what was to come: “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come. . . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” John’s baptism was an effective means of grace for the forgiveness of sins, but it was only preparatory for the baptism of Jesus that would follow.
Luke includes some examples of the preaching of John. He certainly does not mince words as he addresses the crowd coming out for baptism as a “brood of vipers.” A brood refers to a group of young offspring such as birds, fish, or snakes. John’s words are a reflection on the religious leadership that brought forth such spiritual children. They sense the coming judgment but are like sheep without a shepherd. They don’t know how to escape the wrath to come. John points the way: produce fruit in keeping with repentance. The fruits of faith show the genuineness of repentance. Being the physical children of Abraham is no guarantee that a barren tree will escape the ax and fire of judgment.
The preaching of John moved the crowd to ask, “What should we do then?” John points out to them some of the fruits of genuine repentance. He urges them to share their garments and food with the poor and needy. He tells the tax collectors to be fair and honest. Soldiers are directed to refrain from extorting money from people through false accusations; rather, they should be content with the pay they receive. Notice that John suggests fruits of faith which bring benefits to other people. Here is preparation for him who would give the commandment to love one another.
The ministry of John raised in the hearts of people the thought that he possibly was the promised Messiah, the Christ. John would, of course, have none of this. His ministry was to prepare the way for the Coming One—one infinitely more powerful, one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit, one who would ultimately be the judge of the living and the dead. John did not feel himself worthy even to untie the sandal strings of this Coming One.
The ministry of John came to a grinding halt when he was locked up in prison by Herod. John had rebuked Herod for the evil things Herod had done; above all, John had spoken out against the adultery of Herod in divorcing his own wife and taking his brother’s wife, Herodias. The Word of God is not well received by the sinful world. John made this discovery. His imprisonment for speaking the Word is an ominous introduction to the ministry of Jesus and foreshadows the cross on which he will die.
The baptism and genealogy of Jesus
Luke chapter 3, verses 21-38
When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry. He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph,
the son of Heli, the son of Matthat,
the son of Levi, the son of Melki,
the son of Jannai, the son of Joseph,
the son of Mattathias, the son of Amos,
the son of Nahum, the son of Esli,
the son of Naggai, the son of Maath,
the son of Mattathias, the son of Semein,
the son of Josech, the son of Joda,
the son of Joanan, the son of Rhesa,
the son of Zerubbabel, the son of Shealtiel,
the son of Neri, the son of Melki,
the son of Addi, the son of Cosam,
the son of Elmadam, the son of Er,
the son of Joshua, the son of Eliezer,
the son of Jorim, the son of Matthat,
the son of Levi, the son of Simeon,
the son of Judah, the son of Joseph,
the son of Jonam, the son of Eliakim,
the son of Melea, the son of Menna,
the son of Mattatha, the son of Nathan,
the son of David, the son of Jesse,
the son of Obed, the son of Boaz,
the son of Salmon, the son of Nahshon,
the son of Amminadab, the son of Ram,
the son of Hezron, the son of Perez,
the son of Judah, the son of Jacob,
the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham,
the son of Terah, the son of Nahor,
the son of Serug, the son of Reu,
the son of Peleg, the son of Eber,
the son of Shelah, the son of Cainan,
the son of Arphaxad, the son of Shem,
the son of Noah, the son of Lamech,
the son of Methuselah, the son of Enoch,
the son of Jared, the son of Mahalalel,
the son of Kenan, the son of Enosh,
the son of Seth, the son of Adam,
the son of God.
After describing the ministry of John, Luke once again introduces Jesus. He is among the people who come to be baptized by John. Jesus identifies with the people whom he came to save. Matthew tells us that the association of Jesus with sinners coming for baptism brought forth a protest from John. Jesus’ answer points to his work of fulfilling the entire will of God for us: “It is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew chapter 3, verse 15). The Sinless One does not separate himself from sinners but becomes one with them in his baptism.
The way in which Luke reports the baptism of Jesus makes it a flashback into the ministry of John. Jesus was, of course, baptized before John was locked up in prison. Here the chronological order of events is not being followed, but rather the theological. Luke wants to finish the ministry of John before introducing Jesus. So he saves the report of the baptism of Jesus till this point in the story.
Jesus was a person of prayer. This is especially emphasized in Luke’s gospel. It was while Jesus was praying after his baptism that heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in bodily form like a dove. In Acts chapter 10, verse 38 Peter, preaching in the home of Cornelius, makes reference to the fact that “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power.” The visible descent of the dove is public witness to the fact that here truly is the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One. For John, this was God’s sign that made the Messiah known to him (John chapter 1, verses 32 and 33).
The climax to the baptismal scene comes with the declaration that Jesus is none other than the Son of God. The voice of the Father from heaven introduces his Son: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Before Jesus begins his public ministry, the Father puts his seal of approval on him. Everything that is reported about Jesus in this gospel must be seen from this perspective: here is the Son of God. To read the gospel simply as the story about a man who dies on the cross is to miss the point completely. It is the Son of God who dies for sinners.
We don’t want to leave this event without pointing out the presence of the Holy Trinity: the voice of the Father from heaven, the Son being baptized, and the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove. When Jesus gave the command to baptize all nations, he told us that we should baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew chapter 28, verse 19). Our baptisms today continue to confess the Holy Trinity, who was revealed at the baptism of Jesus.
We are told that Jesus was about 30 years old when he began his ministry. He had fully matured physically; spiritually, he was ready to undertake that arduous service which would ultimately lead to the cross.
But before going on with the story of that ministry, Luke pauses to demonstrate that Jesus is both Son of God and Son of Man, both divine and human. To teach this truth, Luke makes use of a long list of names, the genealogy of Jesus. As we today read Luke’s gospel, we might be inclined simply to skip over all these names. They don’t mean much to us.
Altogether, there are 78 names in the genealogy. The first name is Joseph, thought to be the father of Jesus (the reader of the gospel knows differently, of course, because of what was said in chapter 1). The last name is that of God. In contrast to Matthew, who begins his genealogy of Jesus with Abraham (Matthew chapter 1, verses 1-17), Luke traces the roots of Jesus back to God himself.
The next-to-last name is Adam. His fall into sin made it necessary for the second Adam (1st Corinthians chapter 15, verses 45-47), Jesus Christ, to come into this world. Adam was created by God from the dust of the earth. Jesus is not the Son of God by creation; rather, in the words of Luther’s explanation to the Second Article of the Apostles’ Creed, Jesus Christ is “begotten of the Father from eternity.”
Yet though he is the only begotten Son of God, Jesus also has a human genealogy. He is the descendant of many famous Israelites. It would appear that Luke has given us the family tree of Joseph. However, in Matthew chapter 1, verse 16 Jacob is listed as the father of Joseph. In Luke, Joseph’s father is named Heli. The other names from Joseph back to David in the two lists also differ completely.
Several suggestions have been made to explain this different listing of names. Some believe that what Luke records is actually the family tree of Mary, starting with her husband’s name. Others explain the different names as the result of the Jewish law of levirate marriage: a child receives the legal name of a woman’s dead husband though physically being the child of the man’s brother with a different name. We may finally have to admit that with our present knowledge of the way genealogies were constructed in ancient times, we simply are not able to explain why the names differ in the lists of Luke and Matthew.
This genealogy shows that Jesus is the culmination of Israel’s history. He numbers among his ancestors men like Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Judah, and David. He comes from the people. But at the same time he comes from God. Here is one uniquely qualified to carry out the work of saving all people. Here is God’s Servant.
The temptation of Jesus
Luke chapter 4, verses 1-13
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone.’”
The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. So if you worship me, it will all be yours.”
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”
The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus answered, “It says: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.
Testing by the devil is the final episode in the preparation of Jesus for his ministry. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were tested by the cunning serpent and failed. In the wilderness of Sinai, the people of Israel lusted after the worldly pleasures of Egypt and murmured against the Lord’s leadership. But Jesus Christ shows himself to be the true Servant of the Lord in triumphing over the devil.
The devil was once an obedient angel serving his Maker. But this role was not satisfactory; he rebelled against the will of God and was cast down from heaven. With God’s permission Satan tests the faith of believers. The ultimate clash between two wills is the contest fought by Christ and the devil.
Jesus is directed by the Holy Spirit to enter into this contest. After his baptism in the Jordan River, he is led by the Spirit into the desert, a location reminiscent of the wilderness through which Israel was guided by Moses. The temptation lasted 40 days; this again reminds one of the 40 years of the exodus from Egypt. The 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert are the origin of the 40-day period of Lent.
During these 40 days, Jesus fasted; he ate nothing and was terribly hungry. Israel also experienced hunger and thirst in the wilderness. The devil seizes upon this situation by suggesting to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” The devil is not so much challenging Jesus to prove his divine sonship as tempting him to use the power of that sonship for his own selfish purpose: to provide bread for himself. Jesus responds by quoting a portion of Deuteronomy chapter 8, verse 3. These are words of Moses addressed to Israel: “He [God] humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” The devil had focused attention on the bread alone; Jesus directs attention to the one who stands behind the bread. Jesus would fail in his mission if he used his divine power for his own selfish purposes to satisfy his earthly needs.
The next temptation reported by Luke (the order of the temptations varies from Matthew chapter 4, verses 1-11) is political in nature. The devil led Jesus to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. Then the test: “I will give you all their authority and splendor . . . if you worship me.” As the Son of God, Jesus had almighty power. He could easily have become a great world leader and controlled nations. But in seeking this end, he would have been rejecting the will of his Father (even as Satan had done). Jesus overcomes Satan with a quotation from Deuteronomy chapter 6, verse 13: “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.”
Now the devil led Jesus to the highest point of the temple in Jerusalem. He urges Jesus to jump down from this height, assuring him by a quotation from Psalm 91, verses 11 and 12 (though omitting the key phrase “in all your ways”) of the angels’ guarding care. Israel in the wilderness had put the Lord to the test in similar ways. Jesus refused this course by once more quoting the Scriptures (Deuteronomy chapter 6, verse 16).
Jesus won the victory over the devil by using the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. He did what Adam and the people of Israel had failed to do. Like us, he was tempted (Hebrews chapter 4, verse 15), but he was not overcome. He supplies us with the example of how we can use the Word of God to win victories over the temptations that come to us from Satan.
This defeat of Satan in the desert is not, however, the end of the story. Luke closes with the rather foreboding comment: “When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.” Jesus would be faced with various tests during his earthly ministry. The most serious of these was the cross. Through all the testings, Jesus continued to do the Father’s will. We find comfort in the fact that although we do at times give in to the devil, Christ did not. He is our champion; by faith in Jesus, we are assured of the final victory over sin, death, and the power of the devil.