The Text in Context
We now move into the story proper, and it begins, as chapter 1 led us to expect, not with Jesus but rather with John, the forerunner. At 3:21 the focus will turn to Jesus, but John’s call to repentance, and the considerable impact that it had on public opinion, will remain in the background of Jesus’s own ministry. In many ways Jesus will be, as he was popularly perceived to be, the successor to John (7:33–34; 9:7–9, 19; 11:1; 20:1–8), and Jesus himself will emphasize the pivotal importance of John’s ministry (7:24–28). Here the scene is set for that later linkage.
Historical and Cultural Background
In 3:1–2 Luke is keen to set the story of Jesus in its wider historical context within Roman and Jewish history. The date that he describes is probably AD 28/29 (depending on how the beginning of Tiberius’s reign is calculated). The “Herod” who is now tetrarch of Galilee (and Perea) is Herod Antipas, the son of the “King Herod” of 1:5; all subsequent references to “Herod” in the Gospel (3:19–20; 8:3; 9:7–9; 13:31; 23:7–12) are to Antipas.
The historical significance of John the Baptist is shown by the fact that the Jewish historian Josephus devotes more space to him than to Jesus. His account is similar to Luke’s, but he attributes Antipas’s action to the political threat that he perceived in John, as a popular leader with a volatile following.
Ritual purification was important in Judaism, but normally on a continuing basis before each act of worship, not as a one-time rite of initiation. John’s innovative practice may have been modeled on the baptism that non-Jews were required to undergo in order to become Jewish proselytes (though some argue that this practice originated later); see below on 3:8 for the implications of this background.
Key Themes of Luke 3:1–20
■ John’s baptism is a symbol of repentance and a new beginning.
■ He fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy of one who would prepare for God’s coming.
■ His baptism challenges Jews not to rely on their Jewishness for salvation.
■ True repentance leads to a practical change of life.
■ John’s revival movement is highly significant, but he himself is not the Messiah.
■ His fearless confrontation of Herod Antipas leads to his imprisonment.
3:2 the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas. There was only one high priest at a time, but Annas, whom the Roman governor deposed in AD 15, continued to be influential, and he was probably still regarded by many as the true high priest, during the period of office of his son-in-law Caiaphas (ca. AD 18–36); see John 18:19; Acts 4:6, where Annas is still described as “the high priest” at the time of Jesus’s execution and resurrection.
the word of God came to. This is a familiar scriptural formula (e.g., Jer. 1:1–2; Hosea 1:1) that marks John out as a prophet in succession to the Old Testament prophets.
wilderness. The Jordan Valley north of the Dead Sea was a wild area remote from the nearest town, Jericho. For “wilderness” as a theologically pregnant term, see above on 1:80.
3:3 a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This “dipping” in the Jordan, in an area far from recognized places of worship, was different from the routine washings before worship in the temple and in synagogues. It was not about ritual cleanness, but about moral and spiritual renewal. The Gospel reports indicate that it was a once-for-all experience, indicating a complete change in a person’s relation to God, and in this it prepared the way for Christian baptism.
John preached a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (3:3). His ministry was concentrated in the region around the Jordan River (shown in the photo) north and west of the Dead Sea.
3:4 A voice of one calling in the wilderness. Luke’s full quotation of Isaiah 40:3–5 (cf. the shorter quotations in Matt. 3:3; Mark 1:3; John 1:23) emphasizes John’s role as the one who prepares for God’s coming to save his people. We have noted in the earlier references to John’s role as Elijah and in the Benedictus that the Old Testament texts refer to a forerunner of God, not specifically of the Messiah, and the same implication is even clearer in Isaiah 40:3–5: the “Lord” who is coming is Yahweh himself. By extending the quotation to Isaiah 40:5—which in the LXX speaks of “God’s salvation” made known to “all people,” not just to the Jews—Luke ensures that this key theme of his Gospel is heard already in John’s ministry.
3:7 You brood of vipers! Not very diplomatic language! Matthew 3:7 says that these words were addressed to Pharisees and Sadducees visiting the scene, but Luke is content to leave it as applied to the whole crowd, presumably to emphasize the sinfulness from which they are to be cleansed.
3:8 Produce fruit. This is a regular metaphor for the ethical and spiritual response God seeks (cf. 6:43–44; 13:6–9; 20:10). The baptism itself is not enough; it must lead to changed lives. In 3:10–14 we will be provided with three concrete examples of what this means.
We have Abraham as our father. Jewish expectation was that God’s salvation was for his own people, the descendants of Abraham (cf. John 8:39, 53). John challenges that belief. His pun on the two very similar Aramaic words for “stones” and “children” pokes fun at this narrow nationalism. If his baptism was recognized as a development from the baptism of proselytes (see “Historical and Cultural Background” above), it was in effect saying to his Jewish hearers, “You are no better than pagans; without repentance you do not even belong to God’s people.”
3:9 thrown into the fire. The focus of John’s preaching is on the judgment that will be the prelude to God’s work of salvation. It will be for Jesus to bring the fullness of that salvation, though judgment will remain a key element in his mission as well (cf. 3:16–17).
3:10–14 What should we do then? The “fruit” that John specifies is ethical. The tax collectors and soldiers are simply told to play by the rules and not to exploit their position of power over ordinary people. That in itself would be proof enough of a serious change of life in a society where corruption and exploitation were normal. But the message to the people in general in 3:11 goes much further. For the haves to share with the have-nots, even to the extent of bringing them up to a position of equality, is a radical social ethic worthy of the most idealistic reformers. No wonder people listened to John!
3:16 one who is more powerful than I. Nothing has previously been said about a messiah figure, and John’s hearers might still have assumed that he was talking, in the light of passages such as Isaiah 40:3, about God himself soon coming to judge. But by mentioning people’s speculation whether John himself was the Messiah, Luke prepares us for the natural Christian assumption that the “one who is more powerful” refers to Jesus, whom the reader already knows to be the Messiah. The contrast between baptism with water (outward and symbolic) and baptism with the Holy Spirit (a real inward change) sums up the difference between John’s preparatory ministry and the true role of the Messiah.
the straps of whose sandals. A rabbi’s pupil was expected to undertake all sorts of mundane service for his teacher, but the removal of the sandals was too low even for the pupil; it was the slave’s job.
Holy Spirit and fire. In the light of 3:9, 17, it is more likely that “fire” here refers to judgment on the unrepentant as the flip side of Jesus’s mission of salvation than that it denotes the purification of those who are saved. Luke might also be thinking, however, of the fire that would accompany the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:3).
3:19 John rebuked Herod. Antipas’s recent marriage (in AD 26) to Herodias, who had divorced her previous husband (Antipas’s brother) contrary to Jewish law, was a scandal to his Jewish subjects. A popular preacher who dared to challenge it was a threat to public order as well as a personal embarrassment. John was clearly not one to compromise, and he paid the price. Luke mentions his imprisonment here, and in 9:9 he will refer to his subsequent execution, which is graphically related in Mark 6:17–29.
Luke describes John’s mission as “preaching good news” (3:18). Its focus, as Luke records it, is mainly on coming judgment and the call to repent. Even when he speaks of the future ministry of Jesus, he says more of judgment than of salvation (3:16–17). This “bad news” is part of the good news. There is a great deal wrong with God’s people that must be put right before salvation becomes a reality.
Baptism with water (3:16) is not itself salvation. It is a symbol of the repentance (change of direction) that is the prerequisite of salvation. True salvation depends also on the work of the Holy Spirit, which makes a person new inside. The reference here, of course, is to John’s baptism, but the same principle applies once Christian water baptism has taken its place. “Baptism with the Holy Spirit” here and elsewhere in the Gospels and Acts speaks not of a separate ritual, or even of a separate spiritual experience, but of the inward reality that the outward act of water baptism signifies. These are not two stages of initiation in Christian discipleship; they are the outward and inward aspects of the one life-changing experience that we call “conversion.”
John, the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, began his ministry sometime during the reign of Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee. Herod Antipas ordered the minting of these coins. The one on the left records the mint location, “Tiberius,” and the one on the right shows a palm tree and the words “Herod the Tetrarch.”
Teaching the Text
Luke’s intense interest in the historical foundations of the Christian faith is on display in verses 1–2 and would be good to bring out in a sermon or lesson. Verse 3 echoes the language of the Old Testament prophets and shows John the Baptist’s role as a link and bridge between the old age of promise and the new age of fulfillment.
As with various passages in the birth narrative (1:4–25; 2:52), a message here should deal with the relationship between Jesus and John. What is John’s role in relation to that of Jesus? It would be good to challenge listeners to think out from this passage why Jesus rated John’s importance so highly (7:24–28). What new notes did John’s ministry introduce that had not been heard before in Judaism? How fair is the common Christian view of John as simply a “warm-up act” before the real hero comes on the scene? John is in important ways a model for the Christian teacher/preacher. Note, for example, his unwillingness to curry favor (“You brood of vipers”),
- his challenge to entrenched assumptions about who are really God’s people,
- his consistent pointing away from himself (just “a voice”) to the one he prepares for,
- his insistence that repentance must be more than just words,
- his radical social ethics, and
- his refusal to be silent about the moral scandal of the most powerful man in the land.
Can you add other ways in which John is an example to follow?
This may also be a good opportunity to think through the meaning of baptism in relation to Christian salvation, especially in the light of your particular church’s baptismal practices. There is, of course, some awkwardness in arguing from John’s baptism to the meaning of later Christian baptism, but John himself gives a pointer forward in 3:16. And if “baptism with the Holy Spirit” is contrasted to John’s water baptism, how does it relate to Christian water baptism?
R. T. France, Luke, ed. Mark L. Strauss and John H. Walton