The Ministry of John the Baptist. Luke 3, 1-20.
The time of John's ministry: V. 1. Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene, v. 2. Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, the word of God came unto John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness. With the historian's propensity for exact dating of events, Luke here fixes the time when John began his ministry in the wilderness. It was in the fifteenth year of the rule of Emperor Tiberius, who became regent with Augustus in the year 765 after the founding of Rome, and assumed the full functions of Caesar two years later. This would place, the beginning of John's ministry in the year 26 A. D., when Jesus was thirty years old, v. 23. Pontius Pilate was the sixth or fifth governor, or procurator, of the Roman province of Judea, from 26 to 36 A. D. Other parts of Palestine were governed by members of the Herod family, by sons of Herod the Great. Herod Antipas became tetrarch of Galilee and Perea after the death of his father, ruling there until 38 A. D. His brother Philip became tetrarch of Iturea and Trachonitis, also of Batanaea, Auranitis, Gaulanitis, and some parts about Jamnia. He died in 32 A. D. Finally, Lysanias, the tetrarch of Abilene, is mentioned. This was the second ruler of this name, the former having ruled sixty years before. This tetrarchy is mentioned by Luke, because the district afterwards formed part of the Jewish territory, "having been assigned by Caligula to his favorite, Herod Agrippa I, in A. D. 36." Annas and Caiaphas are named as the incumbents of the high priest's office. Annas had been deposed by the Romans, after having held the office from 7 to 14 A. D. Caiaphas, his son-in-law, became his successor, 14-35 A. D. But Hannas continued to hold high honor among the Jews and exercised great authority. Whenever the two names are mentioned together, that of the influential Hannas receives first place. It appears, then, that Luke's careful chronology in this instance has again been substantiated by records of secular history. This was God's appointed time. His word, His command, came to John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness. He had the direct authority of God for his ministry; the content of his preaching was given him by the Lord, just as the content of the preaching and the manner of fulfilling all the works of the pastor's office are definitely fixed by God, to this day, in Holy Scriptures. John, at this time, was in the wilderness, living chiefly in the mountainous wilderness southeast of Jerusalem, toward the Dead Sea, but also in the wilderness of Judea and in the valley of the Jordan.
John's ministry: V. 3. And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins; v. 4. as it is written in the book of the words of Esaias the prophet, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make His paths straight. V. 5. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; v. 6. and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. John came down, at the appointed time, from the remote fastnesses of the hilly wilderness, for he had a message to the people of Israel, who very soon heard of his powerful preaching and flocked down to hear him. His chief place of sojourn during his ministry was in the valley along the Jordan, and he seems to have moved as far north as Galilee, on both sides of the river; it was under the jurisdiction of Herod of Galilee that he was imprisoned and murdered. His work was that of a herald, calling out, proclaiming; its summary was the baptism of repentance unto the remission of sins. Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand. "It does not say: Repent, in order that the Kingdom of heaven may come, but, because it has come. Grace goes before and is free, it is not earned through repentance; that we are able to repent, that in itself is a work of grace in us; by our means we should only attain to the despair of Cain and Judas. The Complete change of heart and mind which is demanded in Scripture as an indispensable condition for the attainment of salvation, is no amelioration out of our own strength.... Therefore there is no repentance without faith, no rejecting of sin without the acceptance of the forgiveness of sin." 32) But where such true repentance obtains, there the Gospel gives the assurance of remission, and Baptism is the seal and surety of the completed redemption. In all this work of John, the prophecy of Isaiah was being fulfilled, in which the effect of his preaching was described in beautiful, figurative language, Is. 40, 3. His was the voice of one calling aloud, attracting attention by his calling, causing men to give ear to his message. Prepare the way of the Lord, make everything ready for His coming, let no one be indifferent to His advent. Make the highways straight; do away with all indirect, roundabout ways, let all hypocrisy be removed far from you; as He deals straightforward and with all directness, so do you meet Him. Every ravine shall be filled up; all anxious minds and discouraged hearts shall take confident courage, for the King is coming to pay the penalty for, and forgive, all their sins, Every mountain and hill shall be made low; all self-righteous, proud spirits shall be broken and brought to the understanding that without Jesus they cannot escape the wrath to come. The tortuous and crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places shall be made smooth; all those that are lost in the error of their own lusts, all those that are seeking, by devious byways, to enter into life, should cast their foolish thoughts far from them and come to Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. And no one is excepted from the grace of God in Christ Jesus: all flesh shall see the salvation of God; all that is flesh, even the most depraved sinners, if only they turn from their sin and repent with all their heart, belong to the redeemed of the Lord and become partakers of His salvation. The universality of the redemption in Christ is emphasized very strongly, according to Luke's manner of bringing out this point. There is no mind so good, it must be changed; there is no mind so bad, it can be changed; there is no sin so small, it must be forgiven; there is no sin so great, it can be forgiven.
John's preaching: V. 7. Then said he to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? V. 8. Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father; for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. V. 9. And now also the ax is laid unto the root of the trees; every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire. These words of John, although directed mainly to the Pharisees and Sadducees, found their application to most of the people that came to John's baptism, inasmuch as they blindly followed their blind leaders in their hypocritical behavior. The great mass may ever be willing enough to come and hear an earnest preacher of repentance, but they have no intention of changing their heart. Therefore John fitly calls them generation of vipers, who have the nature and the attributes of serpents, Ps. 140, 3. Their pitiful attempt to escape the wrath to come by feigning piety and giving themselves the resemblance of truth-seekers will not save them from the wrath to come. Fruits of repentance, deeds of love and kindness that flow out of a heart which, in repentant humility, has turned to Christ, they only will be accepted as proof of an entire change of mind, of the fact that the new birth has taken place. Not fictitious, but real, actual fruits are demanded, such as measure up to the thoroughness of the change of heart. "In order that they might not glory in their repentance and righteousness, He says to them furthermore : Bring forth fruits worthy of repentance.
As though He would say: You want to be righteous before all other men and depend upon your own works; change this foolish notion, acknowledge yourselves to be poor sinners, and perform other and better fruits of repentance." 33) And begin not to say within yourselves ; the fact that Matt. 3, 8 has: Think not to say within yourselves, need cause us no uneasiness, for the Aramaic word which John undoubtedly used in this sentence, with a very slight change in the vocalization, may mean either "think" or "begin." And the Lord, by accepting both forms, has authorized both readings. That they had Abraham to their father, that they were direct, lineal descendants of the father of the Jewish race, that their genealogies supported them in this boast, upon this fact many Jews relied for their acceptance before God. But they are not all Abraham's children that can trace their family back to him, according to the flesh, John 8, 39; Rom. 4, 11. The real children of Abraham are those that, like him, place their trust for salvation in the Lord and His redemption. And besides, God can very well create children unto Abraham out of the stones of the desert. Of the entire Jewish nation the words were true that the ax was laid to the roots; if the national tree would not bring forth fruit when this last great chance was offered them and bring forth good fruit, then their judgment would be carried out upon them, as a warning also for all future generations, no matter where they might be living in the world. The last great visitation of grace for the children had dawned with the coming of the Baptist. Once more and for the last time the hand of sparing mercy stayed the hand of avenging justice which had even now lifted the ax; the people as a whole rejected the Savior, and the ax of God's wrath cut down the unfruitful fig-tree in the vineyard. The final disposition of all those that continue to reject the salvation of Jesus the Christ is the fire of the punishment of hell.34)
Individual counsel to the people: V; 10. And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then? V. 11. He answereth and saith. unto them, He that hath two coats let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat let him do likewise. V. 12. Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do? V. 13. And he said unto them, Exact no more than that which is appointed you. V. 14. And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages. The preaching of John did not remain without its effect upon the people. Some there were that were struck in their hearts, and who now became perplexed penitents. They accepted the rebuke of John in all meekness, they acknowledged their sins, but they were at a loss as to the manner in which they should now give evidence of their change of heart; they needed lessons in sanctification. And so John makes the application of the Law in their individual cases. The great fault of the people in general was their grasping meanness. If they had merely discouraged promiscuous begging due to laziness, they would have acted laudably. But they were mercenary and grasping, and therefore John teaches them that they should be willing to share with the needy, Is. 58, 3-6; Dan. 4, 24. To help the poor with clothing and food is not only well-pleasing to God, but under circumstances may become a matter of duty demanded by the worship of Him. Matt. 10, 42. The publicans also felt the justice of John's general rebuke and submitted the question as they came to be baptized: Teacher, what shall we do? Their sin was covetousness, greed, and therefore overreaching and fraud. To them he gave instructions not to exact payment in excess of the fixed duty. This was a comparatively easy matter for them, since the system permitted graft on a wholesale scale, and it was nothing unusual for a publican to amass a fortune. This they could not continue if their repentance was sincere; a hint to the grafters of our day, not to mention, food profiteers and other pirates that ply their trade under the guise of legitimate business. The last class whom John gave special instructions were soldiers, probably such as mixed with the people out of curiosity or were sent down by the authorities in anticipation of trouble. Upon their question as to their proper behavior under the circumstances, John gives them instructions to extort neither by force nor by fraud, by misrepresentation, and to be satisfied with their wages. In the work of their calling, the temptation to bully the people, and to receive bribes and hush-money, was very great, Matt. 28, 12. They extorted money by intimidation in the case of the poor, they obtained money by acting as informers against the rich. John's words were a lesson for each one to consider his own station according to the Law of God.
John's testimony concerning Christ: V. 15. And as the people were in expectation, and all men mused in their hearts of John whether he were the Christ or not, v. 16. John answered, saying unto them all, I indeed baptize you with water; but One mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose; He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire; v. 17. whose fan is in His hand, and He will throughly purge His floor, and will gather the wheat into His garner; but the chaff He will burn with fire unquenchable. V. 18. And many other things in his exhortation preached he unto the people. V. 19. But Herod the tetrarch, being reproved by him for Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, and for all the evils which Herod had done, v. 20. added yet this above all, that he shut up John in prison. The fearless testimony of John made a powerful impression upon the people as a whole. The popular expectation and conjecture was that he might be the promised Christ. This opinion was gaining ground very rapidly, with the people debating the question with great vehemence. But when this movement was brought to the attention of John, he promptly opposed and did all he could to suppress its further spread. His statement seems to have been a formal, solemn, public declaration. His baptism was that of a servant carrying out orders: he baptized with water only. He, for whose coming he was preparing the way, would be so much mightier and stronger that John did not feel worthy to perform the lowest service of a slave for Him, that of unstrapping and bearing His sandals. Christ would baptize with the Holy Ghost and with fire. In and through the Gospel He gives to the sinners His Holy Ghost for the renewing of their heart, for the sanctifying of their life. His power would have the purifying, cleansing properties of fire. It would give the sinners strength to do what John demanded, fruits of life worthy of repentance. But woe unto those that refused to accept this Savior with His Holy Ghost. As the husbandman separates the chaff from the wheat by a careful and repeated use of the fan, gathers the wheat into his granary, but burns the useless chaff, so Christ, as the Judge of the world, will deal with those that have been weighed and found wanting, that have the outward appearance and behavior of real believers, but lack true, sanctifying faith. Unquenchable fire in the abyss of hell will be their lot. But while John thus chiefly gave testimony concerning Christ, he spoke many other things to the people, both in the form of exhortation and in the form of pure Gospel-preaching; he did the work of a true evangelist. But he could not continue his work very long without interference. With the frankness of the preacher of truth, he did not hesitate about rebuking Herod, the tetrarch of Galilee, for his adulterous union with Herodias, his niece and the wife of his half-brother Philip (not the tetrarch of the region beyond the Sea of Tiberias). And John's rebuke was not confined to Herod's sin with Herodias, but rather included all his misdeeds, of injustice, cruelty, luxury, etc. And so Herod felt constrained to place John into prison, being content with that for the present. The later developments Luke does not relate. Though the treatment accorded to ministers and confessors of the Gospel may not often reach this climax in our days, the same enmity toward their open confession of the truth and their fearless testimony against falsehood and every form of sin is abroad in our land today. As Herod rejected the mercy of God and fulfilled the measure of his sins, so many an unbeliever and enemy of Christ is trying to stifle the voice of his conscience by deeds of violence against sincere Christians.
The Baptism and Genealogy of Christ. Luke 3, 21-38.
The baptism of Jesus: V. 21. Now, when all the people were baptized, it came to pass that Jesus also being baptized and praying, the heaven was opened, v. 22. and the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon Him, and a voice came from heaven, which said, Thou art My beloved Son; in Thee I am well pleased. When all the people were being baptized, when the ministry of John had reached its climax, Jesus Himself came to be the companion of sinners that were seeking forgiveness of sins through Baptism. Through His baptism, Jesus was formally inaugurated into His office. For after His baptism, while He was praying, as He was wont to do in all the important situations of His life, the heaven above Him was opened. And at the same time, the Holy Spirit, in the bodily form of a dove and as such externally visible, came down from heaven upon Jesus. The entire event was a miraculous witness of God the Father to the Sonship of Jesus, as He also called down in an audible voice: Thou art My Son the beloved, in Thee I am well pleased. It was a manifestation intended for the strengthening of Christ at the beginning of His ministry. In the days which were before Him, it would often seem as though the hand of God were entirely withdrawn from Him, that He 'no longer had a loving Father in heaven above. But the assurance which He received at His baptism gave Christ the necessary courage, according to His human nature, to meet all the trials which must needs fall to His lot as the great Vicar of mankind. Note that the Triune God is present at this great induction of the Son into His office. "With these words God makes the heart of all the world laughing and happy and transfuses all creatures with the full measure of divine sweetness and comfort. How so? Why, if I know that and am certain that the man Christ is the Son of God and well-pleasing to God, as I must be certain, since the divine Majesty itself speaks from heaven, which cannot lie, then I am also certain that all that this Man says and does is all the word and work of a beloved Son, which must please God in the highest measure. Well, then, that I note and grasp it well: How could God give me more convincing evidence and offer Himself with greater love and sweetness than by saying that it pleases Him from His heart that His Son Christ speaks so pleasantly with me, loves me so cordially, and out of great love for me suffers, dies, and does everything? Thinkest thou not, if a human heart should feel such pleasure of God in Christ when He serves us thus, that for joy it would burst into a hundred thousand pieces? For there it would see the abyss of the fatherly heart, yea, the bottomless and eternal goodness and love of God which He bears toward us and has borne from eternity." 35)
The genealogy of Jesus: V. 23. And Jesus Himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli, v. 24. which was the son of Matthat, which was the son of Levi, which was the son of Melchi, which was the son of Janna, which was the son of Joseph, v. 25. which was the son of Mattathias, which was the son of Amos, which was the son of Naum, which was the son of Esli, which was the son of Nagge, v. 26. which was the son of Maath, which was the son of Mattathias, which was the son of Semei, which was the son of Joseph, which was the son of Juda, v. 27. which was the son of Joanna, which was the son of Rhesa, which was the son of Zorobbabel, which was the son of Salathiel, which was the son of Neri, v. 28. which was the son of Melchi, which was the son of Addi, which was the son of Cosam, which was the son of Elmodam, which was the son of Er, v. 29. which was the son of Jose, which was the son of Eliezer, which was the son of Jorim, which was the son of Matthat, which was the son of Levi, v. 30. which was the son of Simeon, which was the son of Juda, which was the son of Joseph, which was the son of Jonan, which was the son of Eliakim, v. 31. which was the son of Melea, which was the son of Menan, which was the son of Mattatha, which was the. son of Nathan, which was the son of David, v. 32. which was the son of Jesse, which was the son of Obed, which was the son of Booz, which was the son of Salmon, which was the son of Naasson, v. 33. which was the son of Aminadab, which was the son of Aram, which was the son of Esrom, which was the son of Phares, which was the son of Juda, v. 34. which was the son of Jacob, which was the son of Isaac, which was the son of Abraham, which was the son of Thara, which was the son of Nachor, v. 35. which was the son of Saruch, which was the son of Ragau, which was the son of Phalec, which was the son of Heber, which was the son of Sala, v. 36. which was the son of Cainan, which was the son of Arphaxad, which was the son of Sem, which was the son of Noe, which was the son of Lamech, v. 37. which was the son of Mathusala, which was the son of Enoch, which was the son of Jared, which was the son of Maleleel, which was the son of Cainan, v. 38. which was the son of Enos, which was the son of Seth, which was the son of Adam, which was the son of God. The legal genealogical table of Christ is given by Matthew, 1, 1-17, who takes care to establish an unbroken sequence back to David. We have here the natural genealogical table of Jesus, through His mother Mary. There are no special features in the list, although the names of such men appear as were born of women under a cloud according to Jewish understanding. There were some exceptionally great sinners among the forefathers of Jesus, and, as one commentator remarks, He was numbered with the transgressors even by virtue of His descent from such notorious transgressors. In comparing this list with the Old Testament accounts, it should be remembered that son and son-in-law are used indiscriminately. "The two son-in-law who are to be noticed in this genealogy are Joseph, the son-in-law of Heli, whose own father was Jacob, Matt. 1, 16; and Salathiel, the son-in-law of Neri, whose own father was Jechonias, 1 Chron. 3, 17; Matt. 1, 12. This remark alone is sufficient to remove all difficulty. Thus it appears that Joseph, son of Jacob, according to St. Matthew, was son-in-law of Heli, according to St. Luke. And Salathiel, son of Jechonias, according to the former, was son-in-law of Neri, according to the latter. Mary therefore appears to have been the daughter of Heli, so called by abbreviation for Heliachim, which is the same in Hebrew with Joachim. Joseph, son of Jacob, and Mary, daughter of Heli, were of the same family: both came from Zerubbabel; Joseph from Abiud, his eldest son, Matt. 1, 13, and Mary by Rhesa, the youngest, v. 27." 36) Of interest is the fact that Luke continues the genealogy of Jesus beyond David to Adam, and thus to God. He thereby emphasizes the universality of the Gospel of this Jesus, the Brother of all men, whose ministry is by no means confined to the Jews, but extends beyond the boundaries of Judea to the ends of the world. Scripture spares no trouble to testify to us that Jesus Christ is true man, descended with us from one blood, and that He is the Savior promised to the patriarchs of the Old Testament, the blessed seed of Abraham, the Shiloh out of the family of Judah, the son out of the house of David, in whom is our one sure trust of salvation.
Summary. John the Baptist begins his ministry of preaching and baptizing, also of bearing witness of Jesus, whom he baptized before he was imprisoned by Herod the tetrarch; the natural genealogical table of Jesus is given, extending His line back to Adam.