The Ministry of John the Baptist

3:1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip was tetrarch of the region of Iturea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, 3:2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

John and Jesus remain side by side as Jesus prepares for his ministry. John is the “One who goes before,” Isa 40:3-5; Lk 3:1-6, while Jesus is the “One who comes,” Lk 3:15-17.

Here is the answer to the question posed in Lk 1:66.

Here, the first two verses of this chapter, are no less than six indicators of the time of the commencement of John’s ministry. Whereas we date things BC or AD, ancient historians often tended to date events according to the year of a ruler’s reign. An inscription found near Damascus speaks of “Freedman of Lysanius the Tetrarch” and is dated between 14 and 29 AD.’ (McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, 72). A date of AD 25-26 would fit with the data here and what we know of the chronology of the life of Christ.

There are two things in particular to learn from this: (a) the historical accuracy of the Gospel narratives in general, and of Luke’s writings in particular; (b) the perfect timing of the Lord, in preparing the way for his Son, cf. Gal 4:4.

Tiberius was Roman emperor from AD 14-37.

Pontius Pilate – Roman ruler over Judea, Samaria, and Idumea.

Herod tetrarch of Galilee – one of the sons of Herod the Great (d. 4 BC).

Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene – In the past, this has been thought of as an error on the part of Luke. The ‘fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar’ was AD 27. Lysanias was put to death years before. And he wasn’t a tetrarch, but a king. The schoolboy answer is, of course, “Perhaps there was another Lysanias.” Actually, an inscription has been found in a pagan temple in Abila (the town that gave its name to the territory of Abilene). The inscription includes the words, ‘The Lords Imperial’, and that was only used of the Emperor Tiberius and his mother, Livia. This narrows the inscription down to the days of these two rulers, i.e. between AD 14 and 29. And the builder of the temple, Nymphaeus, describes himself as ‘a freedman of Lysanias the tetrarch.’ (Hayward, God’s Truth, 175)

Abilene was located some 18 miles NW of Damascus.

Lk 3:2–10 = Mt 3:1–10; Mk 1:3–5

The high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas – Under Jewish law there was just one high priest. Annas was high priest from AD 6 to 15, when he was deposed by the Roman official Gratus, and replaced by his son Eleazor and then his son-in-law Caiaphas. However, Annas retained much of his power, and the Jews continued to recognise him, (cf Jn 18:13 Acts 4:6) and so his name is mentioned along with that of Caiaphas.

‘As to the combination of the two in this respect, Annas was the “high priest” from A.D. 7-14, and, by the time referred to, had been deposed for some years; his son-in-law, Caiaphas, the fourth “high priest” since his deposition, was appointed about A.D. 24. That Annas was still called the “high priest” is explained by the facts (1) that by the Mosaic law the high priesthood was held for life, Nu 35:25; his deposition was the capricious act of the Roman procurator, but he would still be regarded legally and religiously as “high priest” by the Jews; (2) that he probably still held the office of deputy-president of the Sanhedrin; (cf. 2 Kings 25:18) (3) that he was a man whose age, wealth and family connections gave him a preponderant influence, by which he held the real sacerdotal power; indeed at this time the high priesthood was in the hands of a clique of some half dozen families; the language of the writers of the gospels is in accordance with this, in attributing the high priesthood rather to a caste than a person; (4) the “high priests” were at that period mere puppets of Roman authorities who deposed them at will, with the result that the title was used more loosely than in former days.’ (Vine)

The word of God came to John – as it had come to the OT prophets, cf. Jer 1:2. Here is the source of John’s teaching and the authority for his baptising. This is especially striking, in view of the 4 centures of silence with respect to prophecy.

Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, and Caiaphas were all powerful men in their day. But God spoke to, and through, a loner from the desert. Don’t judge people by appearances or by the world’s standards – God measures greatness by the standards of faith, obedience, courage, and trustfulness.

Remember also that John came upon the scene during very dark days. The men mentioned in these two verses were renowned for their evil deeds, and they presided over much wickedness among the people. But the darkest hour is just before the dawn. Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity. Do not say, ‘There is so much evil in the world today, God cannot possibly act.’ Rather let the moral darkness of the days be an argument and an incentive in praying for God to come with power.

Stott notes the following factors that made the world ready for Christ:

1. Rome had united the world from the Euphrates to the Atlantic in one state.
2. The whole earth was enjoying the Pax Romana.
3. The empire was criss-crossed with Roman roads, making travel safe and easy.
4. The Greek language had become universal. Rome conquered Greece, but then Greek culture conquered Rome.
5. There was a widespread inarticulate moral and spiritual hunger: Socrates sighed for a teacher from heaven. Pliny prayed for a strong deliverer. Aurelius reached out for someone beyond. The old gods of Rome no longer satisfied the people.

(The Preacher’s Notebook)

The ministry of John the Baptist

  1. Its Precise Timing, v1f
  2. Its Spiritual Focus, v3
  3. Its Old Testament Anticipation, v4-6
  4. Its Stern Warning, vv7-9
  5. Its Detailed Application, v10-14
  6. Its Remarkable Impact, v15
  7. Its Christ-honouring Focus, v16f
  8. Its personal cost, v19f
3:3 He went into all the region around the Jordan River, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

A baptism of repentance – In his preaching he taught, as his baptism symbolised, the necessity of a change of heart and life in a godward direction. Note, John did not come preaching an opinion, or a sect, or a party; he came preaching repentance.

Baptism is not an exclusively Christian idea. Similar practices include the Hindu rituals in the Ganges River, the purification ritual in the Babylonian cult of Enki, and the Egyptian practices of purifying newborn children and the symbolic revivification rites performed on the dead. Ritual practices similar to baptism were found in early Cretan religion, Thracian religion, Eleusinian mystery religions and in several gnostic groups and cults. (DJG)

The OT background for baptism includes the purification rituals of Le 13-17 Nu 19, (cf. Mk 7:4 Heb 9:20) the prayer of the Psalmist in Ps 51:2,7, reference in Isa 4:4 to cleansing ‘by a spirit of judgment and a spirit of fire.’ The account of Naaman the leper, (2 Kings 5) which is possibly a purification washing, is also relevant.

Jewish proselytes underwent baptism, although Scholars are not certain whether this practice dates from before or after the development of Christian baptism. Such Proselytes to Judaism underwent a threefold initiation: a baptismal bath (received by all members of the family), circumcision, and sacrifice (offered by the head of the house). The baptismal bath spoke of cleansing from Gentile impurity, and of the unity of the recipients with the Israelites in their passage through the Red Sea, which itself constituted the people of God as a nation. John’s baptism, however, differed in a number of important respects: (a) it was given to Jews, showing that their own religious heritage could not save them; (b) it was not self-administered: it had to be received at the hand of another; you could not make yourself fit for the kingdom; (c) it looked forward to deliverance from ‘the coming wrath’ (3:7).

John’s baptism also had some things in common with the purification washings of the Qumran community. These had, like John, an association with repentance, and also, like him, an eschatological (i.e. forward-looking) focus. The Qumran washings, however, were self-administered and took place on a frequent (possibly daily) basis, whereas John’s baptism was a once-only initiation rite.

3:4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet,
“The voice of one shouting in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make his paths straight.
3:5 Every valley will be filled,
and every mountain and hill will be brought low,
and the crooked will be made straight,
and the rough ways will be made smooth,
3:6 and all humanity will see the salvation of God.’ ”

“Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him” – just men would improve roads in preparation for the journey of a king. John’s ministry was like a bulldozer, preparing the ground for Christ by creating a sense of need, and a state of readiness. The way for Jesus needed to be prepared, partly because of the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of the people, and partly because of the erroneous ideas about the Messiah which prevailed. They needed, therefore, to realise their great need for repentance and forgiveness, and to appreciate the true nature of the Messiah’s ministry.

How can we prepare our hearts for Jesus? -By focusing on him, listening to his words, responding obediently to him; -by diligently removing all obstacles to God’s grace.

Edwards: ‘The tectonic metaphor of filling valleys and moving mountains signifies the radical and fundamental act of repentance, which alters the landscape of personal and social life.’

“All mankind will see…” – The universality of the gospel is a favourite theme in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus and his message are for all, whatever their age, race, or background.

3:7 So John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 3:8 Therefore produce fruit that proves your repentance, and don’t begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones! 3:9 Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Verses 7-9 are almost identical with Mt 3:7-10.

The crowds coming out to be baptized – many of whom would have trekked twenty miles or more to this parched and dreary place. Yet the people of Jerusalem and Judea left their cities and their homes, and made the journey to listen to this man preach. But why? There was nothing immediately attractive about either his personality or his message. Yet he spoke to a universal need in their lives – the same need that grips people’s hearts today. That need has three elements: sin, guilt, and fear. That is, offence against the living God, shame and self-loathing, fear of the consequences.

“You brood of vipers!” – According to Mt 3:7, this is especially addressed to the Pharisees and Sadducees.

“The coming wrath” – the final judgement, cf Jn 3:36. Some were coming for baptism so that they could escape punishment, rather out of a desire for salvation. They wanted a kind of insurance policy, or a vaccination. But they didn’t want the radical reformation the John demanded. The Baptist had harsh words for such people.

It is one thing to mourn for sin because it exposes us to hell, and another to mourn for it because it is an infinite evil; one thing to mourn for it because it is injurious to ourselves, and another thing to mourn for it because it is wrong and offensive to God. It is one thing to be terrified; another, to be humbled. (Gardiner Spring)

‘Let us never be ashamed to avow our firm belief that there is a wrath to come for the impenitent and that it is possible for a man to be lost as well as to be saved.  To be silent on this subject only encourages men to persevere in wickedness and fosters in their minds the devil’s old delusion that they will not die (Genesis 3.4).  Never will a man flee until he sees there is real cause to be afraid.  The religion in which there is no mention of hell is not the religion of John the Baptist nor of our Lord Jesus and His apostles.’ (Ryle)

In view of this kind of attitude on the part of John, we can begin to understand why, unlike Jesus, he is not described as ‘growing in favour with man’! (Lk 2:40; cf v52) Yet there is a place for the blunt plain-speaking of a John the Baptist when people need to be shaken out of their complacency.

“Produce fruit in keeping with repentance” – Repentance and faith are only authentic when accompanied by evidence of a changed life, Jas 2:14-26. Jesus himself reserved his severest criticism for religious people whose hearts were not right with God, and who felt no need to change.

“Do not begin to say…” – This would have been deeply shocking to the Jews, who placed great store by their family lines and traditions. But faith is not inherited. It cannot be passed down from parent to child like eye colour or hair colour. Each one has to make his or her own commitment. Don’t rely on someone else’s faith. Put your own faith in Jesus.

‘The Jews had not the slightest doubt that in God’s economy there was a favoured nation clause. They held that God would judge other nations with one standard but the Jews with another. They, in fact, held that a man was safe from judgment simply in virtue of the fact that he was a Jew. A son of Abraham was exempt from judgment. John told them that racial privilege meant nothing; that life, not lineage, was God’s standard of judgment.’ (DSB)

Two great mistakes in the matter of acceptance with God are pinpointed in vv7-8:- the futility of trusting in (a) outward ceremony; (b) family descent.

“God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones!”

The true children of Abraham are defined, not by their national descent, but by their repentance and good fruit.

‘Abraham is mentioned fifteen times in the Third Gospel, playing an especially important role as the father of the family of salvation. Especially included in Abraham’s family are hurting people and outcasts: a woman afflicted for eighteen years is called a “daughter of Abraham” (Lk 13:16); Lazarus sits in the lap of father Abraham (Lk 16:24); and Zacchaeus, a tax collector, is called a “son of Abraham” (Lk 19:9).’ (Edwards)

Evans notes: ‘If God can create the world out of nothing, if he can create a nation out of two aged and infertile people (Sarah and Abraham), then God can create for himself a people who will love and obey him. John’s words strike at the very heart of the presumption held by many of the religious of Israel, and because of this they provide a fitting introduction for Jesus, whose teachings will likewise explode cherished but erroneous views.’

“The axe is already at the root of the trees” – Judgement is already near for those who remain unrepentant.  It is a great mercy to be warned of disaster while there is still time for it to be averted.

‘In the NT God’s wrath is not final and irrevocable, but a penultimate warning of the consequences of rejecting the divine will. The object of the warning is not to destroy but to effect repentance and renewal.35 Hence, the ax lies at the root of the trees (v. 9), but it has not (yet) felled them.’ (Edwards)

“Fire” – symbolic of judgement, Mt 7:19; 13:40-42.

3:10 So the crowds were asking him, “What then should we do?” 3:11 John answered them, “The person who has two tunics must share with the person who has none, and the person who has food must do likewise.” 3:12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 3:13 He told them, “Collect no more than you are required to.” 3:14 Then some soldiers also asked him, “And as for us—what should we do?” He told them, “Take money from no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your pay.”

“What should we do then?” – Perhaps they thought that something really extraordinary was required. But John’s answer is simple”] in the extreme. Let the tax collector be a good tax collector. Let the soldier be a good soldier. We can serve God right where we are.

DSB quotes a negro spiritual:-

There’s a king and captain high,
And he’s coming by and by,
And he’ll find me hoeing cotton when he comes,
You can hear his legions charging in the regions of the sky,
And he’ll find me hoeing cotton when he comes.
There’s a man they thrust aside,
Who was tortured till he died,
And he’ll find me hoeing cotton when he comes.
He was hated and rejected,
He was scorned and crucified,
And he’ll find me hoeing cotton when he comes.
When he comes! when he comes!
He’ll be crowned by saints and angels when he comes,
They’ll be shouting out Hosanna! to the man that men denied,
And I’ll kneel among my cotton when he comes.

Lk 3:11 John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.”

John’s answer to the question, ‘What shall we do?’ has at least three elements: (a) share your possession with those who are in need; (b) whatever your work is, do it conscientiously and fairly; (c) be content with your wages. In this matter of right living, what changes do we need to make in respect of generosity, conscientiousness, and contentment?

John’s message found a hearing among the poor, the dishonest, even the hated. We too often confuse godliness and respectability, but they are not the same. Indeed, respectability can get in the way of our relationship with God, because it obscures our need of grace. Which are you more interested in protecting – your character or your reputation?

Peter Oakes (in ‘We Proclaim the Word of Life’, eds Paul & Wenham) suggests that preachers (and scholars) might take note of the ‘urban assumptions’ that are apparent in Luke’s Gospel.

For instance, if a preacher…is handling Luke’s substantial material on tax collectors, the temptation is to view this in purely Galilean and Judean terms, focusing solely on the role of Tax collectors in that region.  A common consequence of this is that interpreters give priority to the role of tax collectors as collaborators with an occupying power.  this political characteristic is often seen as central to the issues relating to tax collectors in the Gospels.  However, for Luke and his readers in the Greco-Roman urban world this would not be the main characteristic of tax collectors.  Taxes, and consequently tax collectors, were indeed commonly resented in the provinces of the empire.  However, the most frequent complain about tax collectors was of corrupt extortion, enabling them to get rich as the expense of the population.  This broader characterisation of tax collectors actually fits Luke’s text much better than a Judea-centred focus on collaboration.  Luke’s material on tax collectors is book-ended by John the Baptist’s call for them to renounce extortion (Luke 3:13) and Zacchaeus’ example of doing that and repaying money (Luke 19:8).

These soldiers were Roman troops sent to keep peace in the province. Many would have abused their power by oppressing the poor.

3:15 While the people were filled with anticipation and they all wondered whether perhaps John could be the Christ, 3:16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water, but one more powerful than I am is coming—I am not worthy to untie the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 3:17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clean out his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire.”

There had been no prophet in Israel for more than 4 centuries. It was widely believed that when the Messiah came, prophecy would reappear, Joe 2:28-29; Mal 3:1 4:5. When John burst onto the national scene, there was naturally great excitement and expectation. He was obviously a great prophet, and so the people naturally wondered if the Messianic age had arrived at last, and even speculated as to whether John himself was the Messiah.

There are many hints in the Gospels of a messianic hope, Mk 15:43. There was, however, uncertainty and confusion about exactly how the Messiah might be recognised when he came. Luke, alone of the Evangelists, makes it clear that the account of Jesus’ baptism clarifies the distinction between John and Jesus.

Lk 3:16,17 = Mt 3:11,12; Mk 1:7,8.  See also Jn 1:19-27.

The baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire was fulfilled at Pentecost, Acts 1:5,8; 2:3,4,17,33,38,10:44; 11:15. The mention of fire, however, is once again suggestive of judgement, v17; cf. Mal 3:2; 2 Thess 1:8; 2 Pet 3:7,12. But fire can also signify grace, Isa 6:6f; Zec 13:9; Mal 3:3; 1 Pet 1:7. There is also the fire of testing, 1 Cor 3:13. In conclusion, it would not be wrong to see John’s reference to baptism ‘with the Holy Spirit and with fire’ to refer both to the Pentecostal outpouring and the final judgement. The fact that ‘our God is a consuming fire’ is at once the best of news to the saint but the worst of news for the sinner.

There is sometimes thought to be a textual problem here.  John is supposed to be reading his audience’s mind (v15) in order to answer a question that was not being asked.  The objection, however demonstrates literary insensitivity.  ‘There is a public-square question on the table. When the text says succinctly, John “answered,” it is not a specific question he is responding to…but to the general and expressed speculation: a publicly raised question that opens the door for a reply. There is nothing at all problematic about the text as it stands.’  (Bock)

Recall the testimony paid by Jesus to John in Lk 7:25-28.

“Winnowing fork” – ‘The winnowing fan was a great flat wooden shovel; with it the grain was tossed into the air; the heavy grain fell to the ground and the chaff was blown away. And just as the chaff was separated from the grain so the King would separate the good and bad.’ (DSB)

“Wheat…chaff” – representing the righteous and the unrepentant respectively.

“Unquenchable fire” seems here to be a description of hell. Cf. Mt 13:50 25:41 Rev 19:20 21:8.

We have no right, or need, to question John’s description of Jesus. It was, however, only a partial description, and John himself would need reassurance that Jesus, with all his compassionate meekness, was indeed ‘the one who was to come’, Lk 7:19.

3:18 And in this way, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed good news to the people.

Many other words – What else do you think John had to say?

John…preached the good news – Much of what John had to say does not sound like ‘good news’. Yet any faithful exposure of human sin and witness to Christ is the best news anyone could hear. Even the announcement of the wrath to come, v7, is filled with mercy, for its purpose is that men might repent.

John’s preaching, says Matthew Henry, was (a) affectionate and practical – he ‘exhorted’; (b) popular – he addressed ‘the people’; (c) evangelical – he preached ‘the good news’; (d) copious – he preached with ‘many words’.

3:19 But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil deeds that he had done, 3:20 Herod added this to them all: He locked up John in prison.

Herod Antipas had married the daughter of Aretus IV of Arabia, and then divorced her in order to marry his own niece, Herodias, who was already married to his brother, Herod Philip. See Mt 14:3 Mk 6:17.

According to Josephus, John was imprisoned in Machaerus, to the east of the Dead Sea. This took place some time after the commencement of Jesus’ ministry, but Luke mentions it here to tie up his account of John’s preparatory role. John’s death is briefly mentioned in Lk 9:7-9.

This passage raises the question for us, What counts as success in the Christian ministry. By many standards, John was a failure. But he did his work of preparation faithfully and boldly.

He locked John up in prison – This did not take place until some time after this, but it is mentioned here to show what was the result of John’s preaching, and to fill out the account concerning him. John’s imprisonment is implied in Lk 7:18, when John sent messengers to Jesus to enquire whether he (Jesus) was indeed ‘the one who was to come’.

‘Why does Luke record the imprisonment of John the Baptist (3:20) before he records Jesus’ baptism by John? This is such an odd order of events that there must be some point. The answer would seem to be that Luke wants to emphasize the break between John’s ministry and Jesus’ ministry. Verse 15 shows that some people thought John might be the Messiah. Others could think that Jesus was one of John’s disciples. One way to keep clear in the reader’s mind that a tremendous turning point in redemptive history came when Jesus started preaching, was to mention John’s imprisonment even before Jesus comes on the scene. Lk 16:16 says, “The law and the prophets were until John, since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached.” There is a break between the period of the law and prophets and the period of Jesus preaching of the Kingdom. John belonged to the former period and so Luke did not want to stress the slight overlap in Jesus’ and John’s ministry. (Jn 3:22f) In Lk 7:26-28 Jesus says John was a prophet and more than a prophet; the preparer of my way. “I tell you among those born of women none is greater than John; yet he who is least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he.” John was a great prophet but now something new has come; the Messiah is here and calling people into his Kingdom, and the least person in the Messiah’s Kingdom has a greater privilege than John. So in Luke’s mind there was a great break between John’s work and Jesus’ work and the odd order of his narrative stresses this break.

Even in Lk 3:21 I think this is confirmed in the word “all:” “now when all the people were baptized…” This means that Jesus’ baptism was not just a part of John’s work but its climax. We don’t have to press “all” to mean that Jesus was the very last person John baptized, but it must mean that John’s ministry was virtually done when Jesus was baptized. This too shows that the coming of Jesus meant the going of John: “He must increase but I must decrease.” (Jn 3:30) This also gives us help in answering my second question.’ (John Piper)

The Baptism of Jesus

3:21 Now when all the people were baptized, Jesus also was baptized. And while he was praying, the heavens opened, 3:22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my one dear Son; in you I take great delight.”
Lk 3:21,22 = Mt 3:13–17; Mk 1:9–11
Lk 3:23–38 = Mt 1:1–17

‘A divine endorsement accompanies Jesus’ arrival (Lk 3:21-22), while the genealogy (Lk 3:23-38) and the temptations (Lk 4:1-13) give his historical and spiritual credentials.’ (IVP NT Commentary)

All the people were being baptized – The whole country was seething with expectancy. Hundreds of Jews were submitting to John’s baptism in the river Jordan, confessing national and personal sin. There had not been such a turning to God for hundreds of years: not, at least, since the days of Ezra. And Jesus stepped forward out of obscurity to join the others.

Jesus was baptized – ‘The baptism of Jesus at the hands of John the Baptist is explained in some detail in Mt 3:13-17, briefly recounted in Mk 1:9-11, mentioned in Lk 3:21-22, and implied in Jn 1:29-34.’ (DJG)

The baptism of Jesus marks, amongst other things, his entry into public ministry. It is a turning-point, a hinge. Thirty years (Lk 3:32) have passed virtually silently. But now a heavenly vision and voice signals the beginning of a new phase.

‘The general reason why Christ received baptism was, that he might render full obedience to the Father; and the special reason was, that he might consecrate baptism in his own body, that we might have it in common with him.’ (Calvin)

“He washed my sin away”

‘John the Baptist is baptising in the river Jordan, and huge crowds are coming to him, and it is all rather disorganised. So some businessmen in the crowd decide to sort things out and tidy things up. They set up tables and get people into queues and as each person reaches the front of the queue they are asked for their name, which is written on a sticky label. Then the person behind the desk asks what their main sin is, what it is that they want to be forgiven for. So Bob walks up to the table. “What’s your name?”

“Bob.”
“What’s your most awful sin, Bob?”
“I stole some money from my boss.” So the person at the table writes in big letters BOB – EMBEZZLER on the label, and sticks it on Bob’s chest.

The next person comes forward. “What’s your name?”
“Mary.”
“Mary, what’s your worst sin?”
“I gossiped about some people. It wasn’t so bad, what I said, but I know I shouldn’t have done.”
“So they write down MARY – GOSSIP and stick it on her.

Another man walks up to the table. “Name?”
“George.”
“George, what’s your sin?”
“I’ve often thought about how much I’d like to have my neighbour’s car.”
So they write down GEORGE – COVETER and stick it on him.

Another man comes up. “What’s your name?”
“Gordon.”
“What have you done, Gordon?”
“I had an affair.”
So they write down GORDON – ADULTERER and slap the label on his chest.

Then comes Jesus to be baptised. He hasn’t got a label on his chest. But he walks down the line of people waiting to be baptised and one by one, he peels the labels off their chests and sticks them on himself. Then he goes to John, and as he steps down into the water, the river washes away the writing from every single one of those labels.’

(Coupland, Spicing up your Speaking, 55f)

As he was praying – This detail is omitted by the other evangelists. We should not miss the significance of this, as well as other references to the prayer-life of Jesus. Cf. Lk 6:12; 9:18, 28-29; 11:1; 22:41. The spotless Son of God relied on prayer to the heavenly Father, and so should we. He would not submit to a sacrament without praying, and neither should we. God forgive our prayerlessness, and our thoughtlessness. Perhaps a hint of what Jesus was praying for, or about, is given in Lk 11:13: possibly Jesus was praying for a manifestation of the Spirit to confirm to him his Messiahship and that God’s favor was on him as he set out on his public ministry.

‘He did not confess sin, as others did, for he had none to confess; but he prayed, as others did, for he would thus keep up communion with his Father. Note, The inward and spiritual grace of which sacraments are the outward and visible signs must be fetched in by prayer; and therefore prayer must always accompany them. We have reason to think that Christ now prayed for this manifestation of God’s favour to him which immediately followed; he prayed for the discovery of his Father’s favour to him, and the descent of the Spirit. What was promised to Christ, he must obtain by prayer: Ask of me and I will give thee, etc. Thus he would put an honour upon prayer, would tie us to it, and encourage us in it.’ (MHC)

Heaven was opened – It is pointless to enquire into the meteorology or astrophysics of this phenomenon! The expression could simply mean that the clouds parted and the sun shone through. Suffice it say that a connection was made with something beyond the planets and the stars. The opening of heaven is ‘an apocalyptic revelation motif.’ (Eze 1:1; Jn 1:51; Acts 7:56; 10:11; Rev 19:11) (WBC)

‘Why did the Spirit, who had formerly dwelt in Christ, descend upon him at that time? This question is answered by a passage of the prophet Isaiah…”The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord God hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the broken-hearted,” (Isa 61:1) Though the grace of the Spirit was bestowed on Christ in a remarkable and extraordinary manner, (Jn 20:33-34???) yet he remained at home as a private person, till he should be called to public life by the Father. Now that the full time is come, for preparing to discharge the office of Redeemer, he is clothed with a new power of the Spirit, and that not so much for his own sake, as for the sake of others. It was done on purpose, that believers might learn to receive, and to contemplate with reverence, his divine power, and that the weakness of the flesh might not make him despised.’ (Calvin)

The Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove – Cf. Jn 1:33. This was seen by Jesus himself, Mt 3:16 Mk 1:10, and also by John, Jn 1:32. Whether it was seen by the others who were present, is uncertain. But why like a dove, and not like fire? Calvin suggests that the reason is to emphasise the meekness of Christ, to assert his mission of grace over that of judgement. Cf. Mt 10:16. He came to preach ‘good news’ to the poor, 4:16. His business was with bruised reeds and smouldering wicks. His invitation was to those who were weary and heavy-laden, and what he offered to them was rest. Still, whether the Holy Spirit actually looked like a dove, or whether it was just that he descended as a dove might have done, is debateable. This was not, of course, quite what John had expected, Lk 3:16, and this may have led to his later question about who Jesus was, Lk 7:19.

‘In bodily form’ could equally be rendered, ‘in appearance’. Morris, however, says that this expression ‘shows that there was an objective reality,’ not a vision.

‘This was a real visible appearance, and was doubtless seen by the people. The dove is an emblem of purity and harmlessness, and the form of the dove was assumed on this occasion to signify, probably, that the spirit with which Jesus would be endowed would be one of purity and innocence. The Holy Spirit, when he assumes a visible form, assumes that which will be emblematic of the thing to be represented. Thus he assumed the form of tongues, to signify the miraculous powers of language with which the apostles would be endowed; the appearance of fire, to denote their power, &c., Acts 2:3.’ (Barnes)

‘This, of course, does not mean that the Lord Jesus was not previously full of the Holy Ghost or that he was not conceived by the Holy Ghost, but merely indicates that he had now been equipped by the Holy Ghost with all official gifts to appear openly as Messiah and Redeemer. At the time of his conception by the Holy Ghost it was a question of the forming and development of his human nature, but at the baptism is is a question of the public declaration of his Messiahship and his equipment with the gifts necessary for this official and public fulfilling of his vocation as the Christ of God.’ (Geldenhuys) This being the case, we perhaps ought to be freer in our prayers for the Holy Spirit to descend with power on those whom he already indwells.

The descent of the Spirit seems to be associated with commissioning for service. ‘The Isaianic servant receives the Spirit (Isa 42:1 and cf. Isa 61:1); prophets receive the Spirit, (Lk 1:15; 2 Chron 15:1; 20:14; Ne 9:30) as did the judges before them; (Jud 3:10; 6:34; etc) the Davidic messiah receives the Spirit.’ (Isa 11:2) (WBC)

All three persons of the Trinity were present at Christ’s baptism. ‘There is something deeply instructive, and deeply comforting, in this revelation of the blessed Trinity, at this particular season of our Lord’s earthly ministry. It shows us how mighty and powerful is the agency that is employed in the great business of our redemption. It is the common work of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. All three Persons in the Godhead are equally concerned in the deliverance of our souls from hell. The thought should cheer us, when disquieted and cast down. The thought should hearten and encourage us, when weary of the conflict with the world, the flesh, and the devil. The enemies of our souls are mighty, but the Friends of our souls are mightier still. The whole power of the triune Jehovah is engaged upon our side.’ (Ryle)

This anointing of Jesus with the Holy Spirit inaugurates his public ministry. We could possibly assume that it was only from this time onward that he exercised the power of the Messianic Age in the form of miracles.

A voice came from heaven – A silence, that had endured for hundreds of years, was now broken. The rabbis held that after the last of the prophets died, the voice of God was no longer heard. All that was left was the ‘echo’; the ‘daughter of the voice’. But now God speaks again. ‘This is the first of two times in Luke’s Gospel that a voice from heaven addresses Jesus (the other is in 9:28-36). Both events represent a divine endorsement of him.’ (Ac 10:37-38; 13:23-25) (IVP NT Commentary). Such a voice from heaven features in Rev 4:1; 10:4,8; 11:12; 14:13 and cf. Isa 6:4,8; Eze 1:25,28.

“You are my Son” – It is usual to hear in these words an echo of Ps 2:7, which identifies Christ as heir of David. Some scholars have objected to an identification of the Messiah with sonship. But see, for example, Isa 9:6. ‘That Jesus is by Luke identified as Son in relation to being messiah is clear from the following. (i) Luke has introduced the Christ category into the context at 3:15, and he clearly uses the title in relation to Davidic messianic hopes (see at 2:11). (ii) Luke draws attention to the etymological connection between “Christ” and “anointed,” (Ac 4:26-27) and does this precisely in relation to a text from Ps 2. (Ac 4:25-26) (iii) Luke treats Jesus’ experience at the Jordan as an anointing by the Spirit. (Lk 4:18; Acts 10:38) (iv) Luke sets Son and Christ in closest relationship (Lk 4:41; cf. 22:67, 70; Acts 9:20, 22; and without the title, Lk 1:32-33).’ (WBC) However, the expression ‘my Son’ indicates something even higher than Messianic status and is to be understood in the light of the virginal conception already suggested by Lk 1:35 (and also by Matthew). ‘As Son, Jesus is uniquely qualified to speak for God (Lk 9:35) and to reveal God (10:22). An unparalleled approach of God and his rule is implicated in Jesus’ identity as Son (cf. 5:8, 21, 24, 26; 11:20; 17:21, etc).’ (WBC)

Notice how the Tempter attacks Jesus’ divine sonship before anything else, 4:3.

“With you I am well pleased” – What was it about Jesus with which the Father was ‘well pleased’? Why did the Father want to tell him? Morris says that the sense of this expression is, “On you my favour rests.” Tasker says that the words carry the meaning, “On you my plan for the salvation of mankind is centred.” In any case, in the combination of allusions from Ps 2:7 and Isa 42:1, the voice from heaven directed Jesus’ thoughts to the crucial truth about his person (“you are my Son”), and to the crucial truth about his work (the Suffering Servant).

The Father was was ‘well pleased’ with the Son even though Scripture is virtually silent on what the latter had been doing for the past 30 years! Sometimes, only God knows and understands what we are and what we have been doing. Strongly reminiscent of Isa 42:1, which comes at the beginning of the ‘Servant of the Lord’ passages (Isa 42-53). These passages will re-emerge at key points in the history and interpretation of Jesus’ ministry, Mk 10:45; 14:24; Acts 8:32-35; Php 2:6-11; 1 Pet 1:10-11; 2:21-24.

The one with whom the Father was ‘well pleased’ was despised and rejected by men. But better, far better, to be accepted by God and rejected by men than celebrated on earth and shut out of heaven!

‘Perhaps for Luke the voice from heaven is sufficient to dispel any concern that receiving John’s baptism could implicate Jesus in prior sin.’ (WBC)

It is often supposed that for Jesus, as omniscient Son of God, knowledge was intuitive and complete. This, however, is inconsistent with his laying aside of the use of his divine attributes in his incarnation. It is better to think of him learning about himself, his relationship with his Heavenly Father, and his divine mission. If so, then the descent of the Holy Spirit and the voice from heaven were learning experiences as much for him as for John, and ourselves. It then helps to explain, not only his miracles, but also his authoritative utterances (often beginning, “Amen, amen”) and his practice of addressing God as ‘Abba’.

‘Whom I love’ (= ‘beloved’, agapetos) is comparable to ‘only begotten’ (monogones), Jn 1:14. The expression is also not far in biblical language from the verb ‘to choose’ (cf. back to Isa 42:1). Lane connects these ideas thus: “Because you are my unique Son, I have chosen you for the task which you are about to enter.”

‘It is against the background of these words that the descent of the Spirit should be understood. In the Isaiah prophecy and the other ‘servant songs’ that follow (Isa 42-53), it is because Yahweh puts his Spirit upon the chosen one that he is able to fulfil his task “to bring forth justice to the nations;” that is, to subdue and reconcile the whole world to God (Isa 42:1; cf. Isa 11:2-4; 61:1; Lk 4:16-21). The kingdom does not come without God’s king, but neither does the king extend the kingdom of God without the Spirit of God. The Spirit does not simply touch him, it descends and remains on him.’ (Jn 1:32) (Lewis, The Glory of Christ, 15)

Both the Spirit’s descent and the Father’s words identify the baptism of Jesus is a Messianic act. He submitted to John’s ‘baptism of repentance’ not because he needed to repent but because he was the Lord’s Servant whose mission was to identify with sinners and bear their sins in his own person, Isa 53:6-10; Mt 3:15. ‘Here, in the waters of an alien baptism, the sinless Son of God takes his place alongside sinners as he will one day take his place instead of them’ (Lewis). In his baptism, Jesus is ‘numbering himself with the transgressors’, cf. Lk 22:37. ‘He is submitting to be baptised with their baptism, identifying himself with them in their relationship to God as sinners, making all their responsibilities his own’ (Denney). In this sense, the work of atonement was begun at Christ’s baptism, and it marked the commencement of his public ministry which was to conclude with the events around his death.

Let we who are God’s adopted children take great heart from this. ‘In ourselves we can see no good thing. But if we believe in Jesus, the Father sees nothing in us that he cannot abundantly pardon. He regards us as the members of his own dear Son, and, for his Son’s sake, he is well pleased.’ (Ryle)

‘In Isa 64:1 the prophet called out: “Oh that thou wouldest rend the heavens, that thou wouldest come down!” In the story of the baptism of Jesus we see how God answered the sighings of the centuries and did indeed open the heavens, aswe read in Mk 1:10. The heavens are opened to Jesus as our Representative and Substitute, and thus we have the divine assurance that every impediment and wall of partition that might hinder our return to God have been removed by him. In Christ Jesus heaven has been opened to us – the way has been paved for us to go to the Father’s eternal home as his beloved children, saved by our Redeemer.’ (Geldenhuys)

Notice that the descent of the Spirit and the Father’s approbation were quickly followed by the time of severe testing in the wilderness, Lk 4:1ff. Indeed, Jesus ‘was led by the Spirit in the desert’, Lk 4:1. In his temptation, as in his baptism, Jesus shows solidarity with those he came to save. The Spirit of the new age will confront and overpower the spirit of the present age, and this conquest will then become ‘the pattern for the rest of the Gospels as they report the power of Jesus to heal the sick and cast out demons’ (EDT)

‘The baptism of Jesus…is not an event of merely passing interest; it marks an epochal juncture, not only in Jesus’ ministry but in the whole history of salvation. It involves considerations that lie at the heart of the Gospel. this does not mean, however, that Jesus was not the Messiah before his baptism or that only then did he become aware for the first time that he was the Messiah. The gospels teach plainly both that he was the Messiah from his birth, and that he was correspondingly self-aware (cf., e.g., Mt 1:21; Lk 1:31ff; Lk 2:21,25-38,49). At the same time, in view of his true humanity he had genuine need of endowment with the Holy Spirit for the new phase of sonship and messianic obedience inaugurated by his baptism and culminating on the cross.’ (NDT)

The Genealogy of Jesus

3:23 So Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years old. He was the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli, 3:24 the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Melchi, the son of Jannai, the son of Joseph, 3:25 the son of Mattathias, the son of Amos, the son of Nahum, the son of Esli, the son of Naggai, 3:26 the son of Maath, the son of Mattathias, the son of Semein, the son of Josech, the son of Joda, 3:27 the son of Joanan, the son of Rhesa, the son of Zerubbabel, the son of Shealtiel, the son of Neri, 3:28 the son of Melchi, the son of Addi, the son of Cosam, the son of Elmadam, the son of Er, 3:29 the son of Joshua, the son of Eliezer, the son of Jorim, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, 3:30 the son of Simeon, the son of Judah, the son of Joseph, the son of Jonam, the son of Eliakim, 3:31 the son of Melea, the son of Menna, the son of Mattatha, the son of Nathan, the son of David, 3:32 the son of Jesse, the son of Obed, the son of Boaz, the son of Sala, the son of Nahshon, 3:33 the son of Amminadab, the son of Admin, the son of Arni, the son of Hezron, the son of Perez, the son of Judah, 3:34 the son of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham, the son of Terah, the son of Nahor, 3:35 the son of Serug, the son of Reu, the son of Peleg, the son of Eber, the son of Shelah, 3:36 the son of Cainan, the son of Arphaxad, the son of Shem, the son of Noah, the son of Lamech, 3:37 the son of Methuselah, the son of Enoch, the son of Jared, the son of Mahalalel, the son of Kenan, 3:38 the son of Enosh, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.

About thirty years old – ‘In Greek society, men often entered public service at the age of thirty; Levites’ service in the temple also began at thirty. Like a good Greek historian, Luke says “about thirty” (3:23) rather than stating an estimate as a definite number, as was more common in traditional Jewish historiography.’ (NT Background Commentary)

The two genealogies

The genealogies of Matthew and Luke differ in a number of ways.  As Peter J. Williams notes: ‘Matthew’s genealogy runs from Abraham down to  Jesus in three groups of 14 generations. Luke’s genealogy goes from Jesus all the way back up to Adam, and indeed God before him.  While the two genealogies are similar between Abraham and David, they diverge dramatically between David and the exile, meeting for Shealtiel and Zerubabel, before diverging again and only meeting with Jesus’s legal father, Joseph. Consequently, Joseph is presented as having two different fathers: Jacob in Matthew and Eli in Luke.’

Various explanations for the divergences have been offered:

(1) one (probably Matthew) records the genealogy of Joseph, the other of Mary (even though there is nothing in the text that suggests this);

(2) one (probably Matthew) spiritualizes the genealogy rather than following it literally;

(3) the lines of descent cross but are different because one list includes several adoptive lines through levirate marriages (Deut 25:5-10) (NT Background Commentary).

F.F. Bruce (Answers to Questions, p40f) inclines to the view that Matthew’s genealogy gives the line of succession to the throne of David (which did not always correspond to the line of descent from father to son, whereas Luke gives the line of Joseph’s descent from David by another branch of the family.  Machen is quoted: ‘There is nothing at all inherently improbable in such a solution.  When a kingly line becomes extinct, the living member of a collateral line inherits the throne.  So it may well have been in the present case.’

Peter J. Williams stresses that ancient genealogies do not necessarily conform to modern ideas of such things: ‘To us,
genealogies record faithfully and accurately our lineage, step-by-step, through the generations, without missing any out.’

Williams continues: ‘The two gospel genealogies make different points. Matthew traces from Abraham through the royal line to Jesus, and strikingly mentions four women who were either non-Israelite (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth) or at least had foreign connections (Uriah’s wife). Among other things this prepares us for the end of the book, which shows the gospel going to all nations.  Luke’s genealogy connects Jesus with the first man and helps us to think of the contrasts
between Jesus and Adam (and all other humans generally). It’s a perfect prelude to the temptation narrative in Luke 4:1–13 in which Jesus refuses food in the barren desert in contrast to Adam who took the forbidden fruit in a garden full of other fruit.’

‘The nature of God’s timing requires that we practice trust. Imagine the Savior of the world working in a small-town carpenter’s shop until he was thirty years old! It seems incredible that Jesus would have been content to remain in Nazareth all that time, but he patiently trusted the Father’s timing for his life and ministry. Thirty was the prescribed age for priests to begin their ministry. (Nu 4:3) Joseph was thirty years old when he began serving the king of Egypt, (Gen 41:46) and David was thirty when he began to reign over Judah. (2 Sam 5:4) Age thirty, then, was a good time to begin an important task in the Jewish culture. Like Jesus, we need to resist the temptation to jump ahead before receiving the Spirit’s direction. Are you waiting and wondering what your next step should be? Don’t jump ahead-trust God’s timing.’ (Handbook of Bible Application)

It is commonly said that Jesus was 33 years old at the time of his crucifixion.  This is based on the present verse, together with the consideration that John appears to record three Passovers.  But this neglects not only Luke’s approximation, but also the likelihood of Jesus having been born around 5 or 6 BC.  Accordingly, he was probably nearer to 37 or 38 at the time of his death (probably Spring of AD 33).

Preaching from the genealogy

There is a danger that such a list of names could go over readers’ and listeners’ heads.  It will help if the preacher can:-

  1. point out Luke’s motivation in providing this genealogy: ‘Luke is answering the question: Is Jesus qualified to be God’s promised Son?’ (Bock, NIVAC)
  2. remind hearers of how the early Jewish Christians would have responded to this genealogy, which connected their Saviour ‘to the great men and women of faith who had come before them? How significant must it have been to know that Jesus was the descendant and heir of King David and was the very seed promised to Adam, Eve, and Abraham?’ (France)
  3. identify the three main foci: ‘The connection to David establishes his rights as regal heir; Jesus can be king of Israel. “Son of God” in this sense involves the right to rule as the Promised One, the Son of David (1:31–35; cf. 2 Sam. 7:6–16). The connection to Abraham links Jesus to the national promise and hope. The connection to Adam allows Luke to argue that Jesus represents all humanity. So in Jesus God has carefully designed affairs so that as Son Jesus can realize both the hope of the Old Testament and the hope of creation.’ (Bock)
  4. show that in many cultures genealogies answer important questions about identity and status.  France quotes Melba Maggay, a Filipino theologian: ‘Our notions of the core of the gospel may not be the same for other cultures where these genealogies are important. It’s certainly important in my culture, where we want to know exactly where you have come from: Who are your ancestors?… I think the Chinese know this, the Filipinos know this, the Africans know this. The genealogies are important.’  Even in our own Western culture it would not be difficult to find examples ‘where a legitimate heir might inherit a vast estate, or where someone might gain access to a famous person’s papers and memoirs because of ancestral claims.’ (France)  TV programmes such as ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ (BBC, 2004 onwards) testify to this interest.
  5. emphasise that Luke’s genealogy stretches right back to Adam: ‘In a day when ethnic diversity and hatred are raised to almost religious levels, we do well to reflect that even in our diversity humanity is one. In his provision for humanity, Jesus represents all of us. It is easy to let our nationality, race, or social status blind us to this fundamental truth. As human beings we not only share a planet, we share a relationship to each other. Transcending that is the fact that Jesus, as Son, offers an opportunity to any of us to share in God’s rich blessing.’ (Bock)

The son of Adam – The link back to Adam emphasises the kinship of Christ with the whole of the human race. Cf. Mt 1:1f.

The son of God – ‘Greco-Roman biographers included lists of ancestors, especially illustrious ancestors, whenever possible. Like Greco-Roman genealogies, but unlike Matthew and *Old Testament genealogies, Luke starts with the most recent names and works backward. This procedure enables him to end with “Son of God” (cf. Lk 1:35; 3:22; 4:3).’ (NT Background Commentary)