Preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
As the 3rd chapter opens, we notice time has passed. The birth narratives and early years of Jesus are left behind and the story of Jesus and John as adults begins. If Luke 2:41-52 was a farewell story to Mary, then Luke 3:1-23 is a new beginning to Luke’s gospel centred around the life, teaching and ministry of Jesus. The twelve year old boy of 2:42 has become a man of about thirty (3:23) and the eighteen years between has passed by in silence.
Luke began his book with the promise to give accurate details of the events that have taken place and been fulfilled so that we may have certainty of the truth. Chapter 3 begins with some specific detail of the political landscape and historical data.
Warning: this is a long passage and a longer than usual exegesis.
- 1-2 Historical context in the world
- 3-6 John’s ministry described
- 7-14 John’s style of ministry
- 15-18 John describes the Messiah
- 19-20 John’s ministry concludes?
- 7-14 John’s style of ministry
- 21-23 Jesus’ ministry begins
- 3-6 John’s ministry described
- 23-38 Historical context to the Son of God
1-2 Historical context in the world
This space is not the best for expanding on the data that Luke provides here. We can see the spread of rule in the area and there were both Roman and Jewish rulers (including the high-priesthood). Tiberius Caesar ruled over all with many cooperating in his rule including governors, regional rulers and Jewish leaders. The data places us in the time of A.D. 29 although some debate can be made of this. The mention of two high-priests is interesting since there ought only be one high-priest. It was in this setting of foreign rule and misguided Jewish religion that the word of God came to John.
3-6 John’s ministry described
“He went into all the country around the Jordan…” The river Jordan represents the roots of the Jewish faith and is the perfect place for an Israel baptist to perform his ministry. When Israel entered the promised land, they had to go across the Jordan river. They departed from their sinful wandering in the wilderness and into the promised through the waters of this river. If John is to return the hearts of the people back to God and prepare the way through repentance, it will be to take the people of Israel back through the waters of the Jordan again.
“…preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” If there is to be forgiveness of sins there must be repentance. Only the blood of Jesus can save – true. But without repentance, how can a person be forgiven? Secondly, the baptism is described as a preaching. That is, the baptism says something and has a clear message to it. There is no sprinkling, dunking, or washing without the message of the gospel and accompanied repentance. See also the comments below regarding verse 7.
“As it is written…” the Jordan River has taken us back to the roots of Judaism but we are reminded also here that John’s ministry was prophesied in Isaiah. We should expect that what Isaiah says will make sense of what John was doing and vice versa.
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness…” The wilderness reference reminds us again of Israel before arriving at the promised land. This quote is from Isaiah 40:3-5. Looking up that quote shows some small differences none of which are problematic. This phrase, ‘a voice of one calling in the wilderness’ is written in Isaiah as ‘a voice of one calling: in the wilderness prepare the way…’ The resolution to this difference can be simplified as Luke quoting from a Greek translation of Isaiah. While that is a true answer there is more that could be discovered through research. But contentment with this answer should suffice. This blog does not aim to substitute or compete with commentary study – it aims at helping english readers to get to the point of the text.
“Prepare the way…the rough ways smooth.” The bulk of the quote refers to the act of making every preparation for the coming of a king or ruler. It’s not to be taken literally but plainly the message is to remove any barriers that will slow the king down. John’s teaching matches with this goal to remove from everyone’s lives the sin that so entangles them.
“And all people will see God’s salvation.” Here we see Luke substituting the end of his quote with a phrase that contains the point of Isaiah while serving his own purpose clearer. Luke’s vision for salvation is for the whole earth. Not just the Jews but for all people. God’s glory is substituted with God’s salvation. A reading of the rest of Isaiah 40 shows that the whole earth is on view and a continued reading of Isaiah shows clearly that the prophet has salvation for the whole world on offer (Isaiah 52:10). What Luke has done is tweak the end of the Old Testament quote, without messing with the author’s original intent, in order to make his point clearer.
7-14 John’s Style of Ministry
“You brood of vipers!” It makes me smile when I picture the people and families coming to this man of God to be baptised and get insulted! John is blunt with those who come to him for Godly wisdom and guidance. We need to watch why and how John ministers to the people before we adopt what he does. Note well that John’s rebukes eventually put him in prison. Again, this is no argument to abandon rebuking but my point is for us to measure what is being taught and to adapt what is good and righteous practice. The phrase, brood of vipers, simply means offspring of a snake. Can you imagine what that would mean to Jewish ears? Remember Genesis 3? The snake is the enemy of God and good and righteousness. John’s first words spoken in the book of Luke is to call his followers ‘children of Satan.’
“Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” Well, firstly, John thinks clearly and teaches boldly about a time of wrath that is coming. Under the heading of baptism, we have heard the words, repentance, sins and wrath (also forgiveness). Secondly, when he says, who warned you? This is a rhetorical question which might mean something like: where did you get the news that you needed to be baptised and to repent? I think of this phrase often in connection with modern day baptisms and wonder how people fail to connect the dots between baptism and the fear of the Lord. “Check your motives for being here” might be a way of capturing his intent. If they have been listening to God all along they would know how to live and how to respect and love God.
“Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” Simply, repentance is underscored again. This is about turning around and going back in the right direction. This is exactly what John was foretold to be doing (Luke 1:16-17). John’s mission was to turn people’s hearts back to God again.
“Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘we have Abraham as our father.’” Being a Jew was much much more than pure descent. Repentance is a must and a changed life that matches with the intention. I do not understand how theologians can conclude that all Israel by blood will be saved. See the next verse for more!
“God can raise up children for Abraham [from these stones]”. Being a child of Abraham is about the promise and not the seed. See Romans 4.
“The ax is already at the root of the trees…” If a Jew will not repent and turn back to God then they will be excluded from salvation and thrown into the fire. Salvation is for the whole world and everyone, Jew or Gentile, will be saved on the basis of repentance that leads to forgiveness.
“What should we do then?” Clearly being a preacher with clear application in your sermons is smiled upon here.
- “Share” Verse 11
- “Fair” Verse 13
- “Care” Verse 14
- “Beware [of envy, greed or covetousness]” Verse 14
John’s application for different people did not demand leaving their current calling but to live out their vocation in the fear of the Lord.
15-18 John describes the Messiah
“The people were … all wondering … if John might possibly be the Messiah.” It’s great that in the hearts of the people was a desire to know the Messiah. This could only be possible if teachings of the Messiah were going around. After 400 and more years, the Jews were still hoping and wanting to see him. But likewise, John was definitely someone who stood out from the crowd.
“I baptise you with water…He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” There was nothing magical about the water that John used. His ministry was more about his preaching and preparing than it was about water rituals. Jesus is something else. His baptism will be life changing, cleansing, purifying and from within and throughout. John’s baptism did not come connected with the receiving of the Holy Spirit. (See Acts 1:5, 11:16, 19:4). The Holy Spirit can be easily connected with the gift coming after the resurrection. The fire reference is a sign of refinement which John expands on in the next verse.
“His winnowing fork is in his hand…but he will burn up the chaff…” John illustrates the work of the Messiah with a picture of a wheat farmer gathering up the crop for safe keeping but the chaff will be burned up. The chaff is the unwanted waste apart from the grain which is kept. Reading between the lines, if you don’t get ready and on board with the Messiah then being a descendant of Abraham will do nothing for you.
“Many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.” We have another summary statement to close off this part of the story but here is where we can move from John’s unique ministry to our present day requirement: to admonish or preach clearly and provokingly that the King is here and waiting for your repentance.
19-20 John’s ministry concludes?
John’s rebuking went even to Herod the tetrarch but Herod’s response was to sin further by locking John in prison. Herod removed John from his ministry of calling people in the wilderness. John portrays for us a man who did not run with the pack but whose purpose for living was to call people to repent and be ready for the coming king. He did not buckle at his calling even for self preservation.
21-23 Jesus’ ministry begins
“…Jesus was baptised too.” When we approach this verse with the thinking that baptism is for sinners then we can be confused why Jesus needed to do it. When we see it as Jesus joining with the people of Israel and viewing John’s work as God’s work then we can ask what is being achieved by Jesus’ baptism. The answer is that Jesus sees it as necessary for all people to be Godward in their hearts and since John is calling the people to prepare the way for God’s kingdom, Jesus is on board with that. (See Matthew 3:13-15). Jesus does not need to repent since he is without sin. But this does not make a water ritual which shows the heart of someone being for God redundant. Matthew, Mark and Luke all include the detail that Jesus was baptised. In doing this, Jesus aligns his ministry with John’s.
“As he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him.. And a voice came from heaven…” The Son was communing with the Father while the Spirit was present and the voice of the Father from heaven was there too. The three persons of the Godhead show their unity in the commencement of Jesus’ ministry.
“You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” The question must be asked: who is this message for? It is a statement from the Father directed at the Son. Luke 9:35 (and Matthew 17:5 and Mark 9:7) describe the same voice from heaven at the time of Jesus’ Transfiguration. At that time, the statement is directed to the disciples who are there. They are told that Jesus is God’s Son who is pleased with him and they are to listen to him! That occasion marks a turning point in Jesus’ ministry when the disciples cease wondering who he is and Jesus turns his head toward Jerusalem – to the cross. But at the beginning of his ministry, the voice is for Jesus. Others must have heard it since it is recorded for us now. But Jesus himself is given direct revelation from the Father. A direct communication from God – not an angel. Jesus is not a sinner who is saved but the eternal Son of God who has come to save.
“Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry.” Trivial? Just some info for us to register in our database of information that does not change lives? What strikes me, is not that Jesus was thirty when his public ministry started – although it is an amazing example to us that he was so patient to begin. Remember that he started to separate from his parents back when he was 12 but chose to be obedient to them since they were not ready. Jesus was now of an age that would be respected by elders. But what strikes me is the fact that he began his ministry. That is, there was a time before this that he had not begun in plain view what he would be remembered and worshiped for. There came a day when he stopped being a child and started his ministry. True, he had a clear vision of what his mission and ministry was and many of us struggle to identify what it is that we have been called to do with our skills. But there comes a time when a man or woman needs to make a decision and begin something. Our day and age is producing aimless wanderers who go from job to job and decision to decision aimlessly getting by when we ought to be mindful of what it is that we are doing here on earth. We don’t have to aim higher than we are able to. None of us are to be the Messiah. Most of us will travel through our lifetime affecting those around us, not making a noticeable dent in history and then we’ll be forgotten soon after we’re gone. But our time today is for pursuing the glory of God here on earth.
23-38 Historical context to the Son of God
“He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph, the son of Heli…” One issue with this genealogy is that it differs from the genealogy in Matthew 1. Comparing the list from Abraham to David produces matching list. While Matthew begins his family tree back at Abraham, Luke traces ancestry from Abraham back to Adam and ultimately to God. This difference reveals the two purposes of the genealogy. While Matthew is drawing our attention to the promises of God through the people of Israel – poetically providing three phases of 14 offspring (which he does by skipping people) – Luke, on the other hand, draws our attention to the history of all mankind. Luke’s intention is to teach us that the Saviour has come into the world to save humanity. The biggest dilemma in comparing the two lists is to compare the descendants from David down to Jesus where only two names, Shealtiel and Zerubbabel, are in both lists. Why are these so different when Luke has boasted such research into his account (and of course Matthew mustn’t be assumed as a sloppy researcher!)? One theory is that Luke’s list follows the line of Mary while Matthew’s list follows the line of Joseph. This could work if we decide that Mary is a blood descendant of Jesus (see Luke 1:32; 69 where it could be argued Mary must be of the line of David). Take care though not to presume that the mother of Jesus, the only blood connection to this race must be a descendant of David. Matthew has no problems declaring Jesus as the son of David through the line of Joseph. We do not need to force this upon Mary. The major problem with this theory is trying to make sense of verse 23 when Mary is not mentioned at all but Joseph is. It is a strange sentence to be sure but some acrobatics are needed to make it sound other than what it naturally says. An example of a rewording of the sentence to make it work might be: “Now Jesus himself, supposedly Joseph’s son, was about thirty years old when he began (his ministry), being a son of Heli.” The second theory, and where this writer is content, is to see Matthew’s genealogy as following the Davidic heirs to the throne while Luke stuck to a direct bloodline history. We can see this from the direct son of David being Solomon in Matthew’s list compared to Nathan in Luke’s (see 2 Samuel 5:14), Both men were indeed children of David but only Solomon got the throne. Matthew stuck with the enthroned kings while Luke followed the family tree of Joseph. This is the most natural reading for the words in the text. The biggest problem with this theory is what to do with Joseph’s dad. In Matthew he is Jacob and in Luke he is Heli. Many theories exist to explain this and most of them are credible but unprovable. It is likely that Jacob and Heli had a close relationship such as being brothers or half-brothers or adopted or what’s known as a levirate marriage. Bock writes, “What emerges from both evangelists’ genealogies is that Jesus belongs on the throne no matter which route one takes. Both the physical route and the legal route lead to Jesus… the genealogy’s point is obvious. Jesus has a claim to the throne through David and is related to all of humanity through Adam.” (Bock, D.L., Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament).
“…the son of Adam, the son of God.” Luke places his genealogy at this location in his narrative following straight on from God’s own words that Jesus is his beloved Son. Only two individuals can claim that title by nature (as opposed to adoption through promise such as Israel or a believer). The first is Adam and the second is the second Adam, namely Jesus. Ending the genealogy with Adam also brings him into focus before finding Jesus in the wilderness to be tempted. Where the first Adam failed, the second Adam will succeed in remaining faithful and pleasing to God. See also 1 Corinthians 15:22, 45.
On the playing field of human history, none has been pleasing and loved by God than Jesus Christ His Son. Adam’s descendants all need a saviour. Abraham’s descendants, children of the promise, also need to repent and turn back to God. John is unworthy to even untie the sandals of Jesus. But when the promised one is ready to begin his ministry, he will not only prove himself to be without sin, he is declared from heaven above to be approved by the Father and the Spirit of God. The second Adam and the true King has come. Prepare the way. Repent and be ready. He comes to baptise with the Spirit and fire. This is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry announced.
- Topic A: Preaching repentance. John’s ministry was to call people to repent and show themselves repentant. The baptism ritual he performed among the people meant nothing unless their lives were turned around. He said that their safety is not in their upbringing or religion but in their hearts being changed. What would you say to someone who says ‘do you mean I can just live as I please but then say sorry to Jesus and he’ll forgive me?’ How can we talk about Jesus as both saviour and judge?
- Topic B: Being repentant. Review the ways John preached to the crowds in verses 10 to 14 and discuss some modern equivalents to these applications. Which hits home to you?
- “Share” Verse 11
- “Fair” Verse 13
- “Care” Verse 14
- “Beware [of envy, greed or covetousness]” Verse 14
- Topic C: Placing Jesus both in history and above humanity. We see in this passage that Jesus is both a son of Adam and the Son of God. John himself was unworthy to treat him as an equal. Consider how we describe and talk about Jesus and even how you talk to him. Are there helpful and unhelpful ways that we talk of Jesus in conversation and in prayer?
Prayer of the Week
Father in heaven and Lord of all the nations, hear us in the name of Jesus that we may turn back to you, living lives worthy of repentance and acknowledge Jesus as the true king. Thank you that your word is trustworthy and your Son is righteous in every way. Please accept our prayers and service to you in His name. Amen.