John the BaptistLuke 3

1. Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene,

The date of the beginning of John’s ministry is pinpointed exactly in history by the reference to all these historical facts. This is not a tale that takes place “a long time ago and far, far away.” This is no legend that grew up long after the events that actually took place, and that is divorced from the real history of the time. Rather, these are events that are firmly based in actual history, and if we had more thorough knowledge of that history, as those who read Luke originally would have had, we would no doubt be able to identify from all these facts the exact time when John’s work began. The Bible is a book of history, not of legend.

Herod was a family name, and so we need to keep track of which Herod is being referred to. This is not the same Herod as the one who was reigning at Christ’s birth, nor is it the same Herod we read about in the book of Acts. This Herod was, according to the Companion Bible, “Herod Antipas, half-brother of Philip I, who abducted Philip’s wife, Herodias, and married her. This was the Herod to whom the Lord was sent for trial.”

Notice too that the Roman political structure over the land had changed. In Luke 1:5, we read that the Herod that sought to destroy the Lord after learning about Him from the wise men was the king of Judea. Yet thirty years later, his descendant, this new Herod, is no longer king over Judea. Rather, Pontius Pilate is now the Roman governor over Judea, and the line of Herod now rules over Galilee in the north. Herod is now known as a tetrarch rather than a king, though there was little real difference in the amount of power he wielded. Yet Galilee was a much less desirable territory than Judea. The Herods had indeed come down in the world.

The word for “reign” in the case of Tiberius Caesar and the word for “governor” in the case of Pontius Pilate both come from the same root. Pilate was the absolute Roman ruler over Judea, just as Tiberius was over the empire.

2. While Annas and Caiaphas were high priests, the word of God came to John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.

After giving one more fact regarding the time when these events took place, Luke takes us on to the actual point: that this is when the ministry of John began by the word of God coming to him. We would love to know how exactly that word came to John. Did he hear an audible voice? Did he see a vision, as Ezekiel did when he started his prophetic ministry? Did an angel appear to him and give him this message? We cannot really say from this passage. What we do know, however, is that John was the last of the prophets leading up to Jesus Christ.

We live in a time when God has been silent for over nineteen hundred years. Therefore, we know of no one who has had such an experience take place in his life. For us, the word of God comes only by the written Word, the Bible. We would love to know what it would be like to have the word of God come to you, as it did to John here. Yet with no source to go to, our curiosity will have to remain unsatisfied. The important fact is that the word of God came to John, and as always, it produced results.

Notice that John starts out in the wilderness when this word of God comes to him at first. It appears that he was already living in the wilderness, perhaps in training for the work he was to do. John was not living in the comfortable surroundings and with the higher-than-average lifestyle that would have been common for the priests of his day. Instead, he was a man of the wilderness, setting himself apart from the established norms in Israel, and living more in the way of the prophet Elijah, who seems to have spent most of his life outdoors.

The Companion Bible explains the fact that both Annas and Caiaphas are said to be high priests by the fact that “Caiaphas was the high priest as the successor of Aaron; while Annas was the Nasi, or head of the Sanhedrin (as successor of Moses), and thus associated with Caiaphas in government.” This explains why both these men have power, as we see later on during the Lord’s trials.

3. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins,

The result of John receiving the word of God is that he begins to do the great work that God had planned for him to do. That work began with him traveling the entire region around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. We need to examine this important work, and determine what exactly it was that John was doing.

First of all, the word translated “preaching” here is the Greek word kerusso. It is unlikely that this word would ever have been translated “preaching” if the translators of the Bible had not wanted to get preaching into the Word of God. What this word means is “proclaiming.” John was not preaching sermons. He was proclaiming God’s truth, and he was using God’s words to do it. He was not just making up a three point sermon. Instead, he spoke the message that he was given by inspiration. This was why the word of God had come to him in the first place.

The word “repentance” here is a translation of the Greek word metanoeite, a form of the Greek word metanoia. Dr. A.T. Robertson, the noted Greek scholar, had this to say on the translation of metanoia.

Repent (metanoeite). Broadus used to say that this is the worst translation in the New Testament. The trouble is that the English word “repent” means “to be sorry again” from the Latin repoenitet (impersonal). John did not call on the people to be sorry, but to change (think afterwards) their mental attitudes (metanoeite) and conduct. The Vulgate has it “do penance” and Wycliff has followed that. The Old Syriac has it better: “Turn ye.” The French (Geneva) has it “Amendez vous.” This is John’s great word (Bruce) and it has been hopelessly mistranslated. The tragedy of it is that we have no one English word that reproduces exactly the meaning and atmosphere of the Greek word. The Greek has a word meaning to be sorry (metamelomai) which is exactly our English word repent and it is used of Judas (Matthew 27:3). John was a new prophet with the call of the old prophets: “Turn ye” (Joel 2:12; Isaiah 55:7; Ezekiel 33:11,15). Dr. A.T. Robertson, “Word Pictures in the New Testament,” notes on Matthew 3:2.

Dr. Robertson cites his father-in-law, John A. Broadus, as saying that the translation of metanoia by “repentance” is the worst translation in the entire New Testament. I do not know if I agree with this statement completely, but I do agree that metanoia does not mean “repentance” at all. When we de-construct the word, we find that meta means “after” and noia means “mind,” which Robertson renders as “think afterwards.” Some have used this to claim that metanoia means “changing your mind,” and is the same as the change of mind that takes place when one repents. This is not what metanoia means either. One can be after-minded without ever changing your mind at all.

What it means to have the after-mind is to make up your mind so completely about something that nothing in the future could change it. In other words, if I dedicate my life to Christ and I have the after-mind, then I will follow and serve Christ for the rest of my life no matter what that may mean. If, however, I do not have the after-mind, then I may fall away when times get hard or I no longer feel my first enthusiasm. Thus, after-mindedness is much more akin to submission than to repentance. It means placing yourself at God’s service in advance, before even knowing what He will require of you. This is what all faithful believers must do. We do not already know what the Bible will say before we read it. Yet, we are determined to believe what it says nevertheless. Those who study the Bible only to justify what they already believe have a form of after-mindedness as well, but it is submission not to God, but rather to their church or doctrinal school. This is not true after-mindedness or submission to God. It is our job to serve and believe Him no matter what that may mean to us in the future. People can be after-minded who were serving God before, yet now they are truly dedicating themselves in a more extreme way. In other words, there does not have to be a change of mind to be metanoia, just a making up of the mind, a strong dedication or submission. This is what the baptism of John was to identify these people with. Those who were baptized by John were those who were ready to proclaim that they would follow God with the same mind for the remainder of their lives, no matter what might come after. Thus those who were baptized by John believed in Jesus when the time came, whereas the Pharisees, who had not been baptized by John, did not believe in Him (Luke 7:29-30.) Those who rejected Him did not have the after-mind!

A baptism of submission means an identification with submission. The word “baptism” is the Greek word baptisma, and it has not been translated in our Bibles, but merely transliterated from Greek letters into our alphabet. The word in Greek originally meant “to dip.” In time, however, it came to take on a technical meaning related to the dyeing industry. When a cloth was dipped into ink, it would take on the character of that ink. Though it may have started off as a white cloth, after it was dipped in the ink, it would forever after be identified with that ink. From now on it would be a red or purple or blue cloth, or whatever color the dye might have been into which it was dipped. That was what the word “baptism” had come to mean at the time of Christ…an identification resulting in a merger. Thus these people who were baptized with a baptism of metanoia were identified as people who were marked out in God’s mind as people having the after-mind. We might call this baptism a promise. The people who were identified by John were identified as being people who promised to have the after-mind before God. When the time came, they would prove whether they really had that after-mind or not.

4. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, saying:
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the LORD;
Make His paths straight.

This quotation from Isaiah 40:3 reveals John’s message. First of all, he told the people to prepare the way of the Lord. They were to do this by being baptized or identified by John as an after-minded individual. This would prepare their hearts to hear Yahweh, Jesus Christ, when He came. “Make His paths straight” has to do with the same idea. The figure is that they are to make His road easy to travel. They were to do this by preparing their hearts to receive Him when He came.

Interestingly, in the Hebrew this reads, “Make straight in the desert A highway for our God.” It was in the desert, in the wilderness, where John was doing his work to prepare the way of the LORD. This phrase “in the desert” is left out of the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament, which would have been the Bible that Theophilus would have had access to. The Holy Spirit thus chooses to leave this phrase out here, which of course He has the right to do when quoting His Own message. The truth of “in the desert” is certainly here in this passage, even if the words do not appear.

5. ‘Every valley shall be filled
And every mountain and hill brought low;
The crooked places shall be made straight
And the rough ways smooth;

I do not believe that Isaiah was speaking literally here. There are few things more monotonous than a landscape that is perfectly flat, with no hills or valleys, or a road that is perfectly straight, with no twists or turns. Of course, we do like roads with no rough places. Yet this is not what this is talking about.

There were people in Israel, even as there are today, who are very low on the scale. These were those who were poor, who had no real means of supporting themselves, and who were discounted by all, even their neighbors. There were also those who were very high in Israel, such as the Pharisees and other religious leaders, who had exalted themselves so high over the common people that they claimed there was a great gulf fixed between them. Yet the LORD was going to iron out all such differences, and all would be dealt with upon a level playing field when He considered them in judgment. This was the meaning of valleys being filled and mountains and hills being brought low.

This matter of straightening out crooked places and smoothing out rough ways has to do with fixing those things that are wrong with this world. We cannot list all the things that are crooked that should be straight in this world, or all the things that are rough that should be smooth. The problems in this world are innumerable, and overwhelming. Yet there is nothing wrong with this world that God cannot fix, and that He will not fix when the time comes for Him to do so.

6. ‘And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

This is the Spirit’s summation here of Isaiah 40:5, which reads in the original, “The glory of the LORD shall be revealed, And all flesh shall see it together; For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” When this happens, all flesh shall see God’s salvation-bringing work. John proclaimed this truth when he announced to them that the Kingdom of the Heavens was at hand, as he did in Matthew 3:2. This will be the time when all things wrong with the world will be repaired, not just physically, but also what is wrong in the governments of the world and, indeed, in the hearts of its inhabitants. This is the salvation-bringing work of God to which John pointed in his ministry. That work has still not been done, but praise God, it is just as sure now as it was when John proclaimed it. Someday, all flesh will see that work!

7. Then he said to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

These were John’s words to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him. His message certainly was not one to tickle the ears of those who listened! We know from Matthew 3:7 that his harsh words were mainly directed at the Sadducees and Pharisees, although, as we learn here, there were those in the multitudes who deserved them as well.

This matter of the wrath to come is an interesting study. It is certain that God will not hold His patience with the wicked forever. There will be a time when God’s anger against those who do wickedness will be revealed. There is wrath poured out upon those who rebel against God at the time of the tribulation. Certainly there also is wrath against some when God brings His kingdom to earth at last. Since John was proclaiming that kingdom, as we see he did in Matthew 3:2, we would equate this wrath with that which will take place then. If this present parenthesis of the dispensation of grace had not occurred, that wrath might have been poured out in the lifetimes of those who heard this message.

8. “Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.

John urges these men to bear fruits in their lives that are worthy of metanoia, that is, worthy of those who have submitted themselves to God. Then, John anticipates their thoughts, and condemns these men for believing they were right with God just because Abraham was their father. Being a child of Abraham was nothing special in and of itself, John reveals, for God could raise up children to Abraham from the very stones that surrounded them. They needed more than physical descent from Abraham to make them right with God.

Many are the people even in our day who think because they have been born into a Christian family that that is enough to secure them a place in God’s sight. If they are born a Christian, then they figure that somehow that makes them right with God. They stubbornly cling to this belief, even when their lives are lived almost entirely contrary to Him. This is not the kind of people God approves of, or the kind of servants He desires. Rather, He looks for those who will bear the fruits in their lives that are worthy of ones who have submitted their all into His hands.

9. “And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

One would not use a typical ax on the roots of trees. The idea here is that of a mattock, which is used not merely to cut down a tree, but rather to dig it out by the roots. John is comparing these men to trees that bear bad fruit, which are good for nothing but to be felled and thrown into the fire. Worthless and selfish men like the unfaithful religious leaders of Israel will be hewn down and have no place in the Kingdom of God, when all His rulers will rule in righteousness and truth. At that time, the only use for the wicked will be as fuel for the fire.

10. So the people asked him, saying, “What shall we do then?”

These people ask the question that God was looking for. They desire to know what God would have them do. Once they hear it, they need to display the attitude that God was looking for as well, and do what He commanded them. If they truly have the after-mind, they will do it.

11. He answered and said to them, “He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.”

The word for “tunics” here is closest to our idea of “shirts.” This was a long, outer garment. We would wonder, upon reading these verses, why those who claim John as the founder of their denomination do not do what John said here? We would guess that most of these have more than one shirt in their closet, and more food than they need for the day in their houses.

The situation in Israel at this time was very difficult for the people there. Poverty was rampant, and many were in terrible straits. For them to help each other at this difficult time was what God desired of them. None of them had much, but He wanted them to share what they had with those around them who had less than they did. This is indeed a great example for us of the kind of attitude we should have. We are getting the wrong idea, however, if we go to our closets and start to count shirts. This situation just does not apply to us directly.

12. Then tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?”

Tax collectors were generally outcasts. Often these were people whom the Pharisees had excommunicated from the community of Israel for one reason or another. Some of these might have been legitimate reasons, but many of them might have been cast out because they dared to challenge the oppressive authority that the religious leaders held over those under them. At any rate, those who were thus cast out found themselves in a bad way, as no one in the community would have anything to do with them from then on. People would not want to buy from them or sell to them, even their own families, for fear that they too might share their fate. Those who found themselves in this terrible position often were forced to make their living by doing what most Israelites considered turning traitor, by collecting taxes for the Roman Empire. Moreover, these outcasts, so rejected and mistreated by their own people, would often retaliate by abusing their authority by taking more than the rightful taxes from the people and keeping the extra for themselves. At least, this was the reputation that such men had.

Yet these particular tax collectors come to John with a sincere desire to be identified as those who are submissive to God. You certainly did not have to be a bad person to run afoul of the religious leaders of that day, for Christ certainly did that Himself! Still some of these might have been ungodly, yet now their hearts are touched by God’s truth, and they respond to that truth with submission to what He would want of them.

13. And he said to them, “Collect no more than what is appointed for you.”

The message for these men was different than what it was for the people. These tax collectors could generally charge the people as much taxes as they wanted as long as they gave Rome their share. Now God’s command to them was that they abstain from this dishonest practice and do their jobs correctly, collecting only as much as was appointed to them to collect. This would probably include some small profit for themselves, but would not provide them with the luxurious wealth they were able to gather by overtaxing the people. Notice that He did not tell them to leave their jobs entirely, or to stop being tax collectors. They could continue to do their jobs, as long as they would do them honestly. John as just as the Lord Himself did, seeking no quarrel with Rome, and stirring up no insurrection against them.

14. Likewise the soldiers asked him, saying, “And what shall we do?” So he said to them, “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages.”

These were either Roman soldiers who were proselytes to the Israelites’ religion, or else Jewish soldiers. The Companion Bible notes that “Josephus (Ant. xviii. 5, 1,2) tells us that Herod Antipas (v.1) was engaged in a war with Aretas his father-in-law, a petty king in Arabia Petrea, at this very time, and his soldiers were passing from Galilee through the very country where John was proclaiming.” So these might well have been the soldiers of Herod. It is well known that, at the time, soldiers would often misuse their power, and would intimidate people or accuse them falsely to maintain a tyrannical position over them. Not content with their wages as soldiers, they would use their power over the people to extract money from them. Thus their instructions from God were to cease from these practices, and not to misuse their authority. Of course, this is something that every believer today who is in a position of authority over another should take to heart.

Notice that God’s command to each of these groups, the people, the tax collectors, and the soldiers, was different, but all three required the same response: obedience; and all three offered the same opportunity: the opportunity to show faith. If they would listen to these words from God and act accordingly, this would be faith in God’s sight.