Chapter 3 - Commentary on Luke's Gospel

3:1-9 The Ministry of John the Baptist

3:1 Our common system of dating as BC (BCE) or AD had not yet been introduced, so Luke dates the events by reference to the main political and religious persons of the day. The emperor Augustus died in 14 AD , and Tiberius reigned from 14 AD to 37 AD. So his fifteenth year was 29 AD. Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea from 26 to 36 AD. Herod the Great was still reigning when Jesus was born (Luke 1:5, Matthew 2:1-4, 16) and he died in 4 BC (our dating system which was introduced five hundred years later got the BC and AD division dates wrong by 5 years).

Herod's kingdom was divided among his sons into four tetrarchies. Herod Antipas built his capital in Tiberias and reigned over the main part of Galilee from 4 to 39 AD (mentioned in Luke 13:31-32, 23:6-12). His brother Philip the Tetrarch ruled over the area to the north and north-east of the Sea of Galilee from 4 BC to AD 34. Abilene was further north to the west of Damascus, and Lysanias is mentioned in the history of Josephus and appears on an inscription in the ruins of the capital Abila. Evidently Luke's concern is to locate the historical facts of his Gospel exactly in Roman history.

3:2 Annas became the high priest in 6 AD, but he was deposed by the Roman authorities who appointed his son in law Caiaphas (John 18:13-14), and it was Caiaphas who said that Jesus' death was necessary (John 11:49-50). But Annas continued to be respected as the properly appointed high priest (John 18:24, Acts 4:6). So John the Baptist's ministry began in 29 AD (see 3:1) when Jesus was already in his thirties (3:23 since Herod the Great died in 4 BC).

John the Baptist may have been raised in the Qumran monastery boarding school on the west shore of the Dead Sea (see Luke 1:80). The hills up towards Jerusalem were a barren wilderness. Luke omits the fact that "John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey" (reported in Mark 1:6, Matthew 3:4). Luke wanted to focus on the message of John the Baptist, and John's strange clothing and food would have been distracting for his Roman readers. The voice of prophecy had been silent for four hundred years since the time of Malachi, but now John heard the Holy Spirit give him the Word of the Lord (exactly as in Jeremiah 1:4, Ezekiel 6:1, Hosea 1:1, Joel 1:1, Jonah 1:1, Micah 1:1, Zephaniah 1:1, Haggai 1:1, Zechariah 1:1, Malachi 1:1).

3:3 The area of John the Baptist's ministry was by the river Jordan just before it entered the Dead Sea. He usually baptized near Bethany (not the Bethany near Jerusalem, 24:50, John 11:18) a location on the east bank of the river where people could come and camp with their families for a period of teaching (John 1:28). In the ancient world teachers gave their message by enrolling disciples who would remain with them for some time for basic instruction, and then meet with them when they could for further teaching. John the Baptist and Jesus used baptism with water as a sign of enrolling new disciples (John 4:1, Acts 19:1-5). In the crowds who came to be baptized (3:7) five men had walked the week's journey from Galilee to become disciples of John the Baptist. They were John the writer of the Gospel, Andrew and his brother Simon, Philip and Nathanael. After the baptism of Jesus these ceased to be disciples of John the Baptist and they must have been baptized to become disciples of Jesus the Messiah (John 1:29-49). Teachers propagated their message by training some of their disciples to become apostles (sent ones), so these five with seven others became the first twelve teachers to be sent out, and then seventy others were added (10:1).

The heart of both John's message and the preaching of Jesus and his apostles was turning to learn from God. Repentance does not mean deep contrition which usually comes much later, but turning from one's previous way of life to begin learning God's way. But as soon as they begin learning disciples are assured that all their past sin and failure is forgiven (Mark 1:4), and John the Baptist announced that the Messiah would empower them for this new life by the Holy Spirit (3:16, Mark 1:8). This message is called the good news of the Messiah reigning in his kingdom (4:43, 8:1, 9:2, as in Matthew 3:1, 4:17, 23).

3:4 All four Gospels quote Isaiah 40:3 as applying to John the Baptist's preaching (Matthew 3:3, Mark 1:3, John 1:23).

3:5-6 Luke fills out the quotation from Isaiah 40:4-5. Obviously the passage does not imply literally leveling mountains and valleys. It refers to the practice of leveling the ground to prepare for a straight Roman road in preparation for the coming of a king. Isaiah had written "the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all people shall see it" (Isaiah 40:5) and Luke paraphrases this to explain that "all flesh shall see the salvation of God." Salvation refers to the Lord King Messiah's interventions again and again in the Old Testament period to free his people, but that good news of salvation from bondage is not limited to the Jewish people but is now revealed as applying to all nations.

3:7 John's message to the Pharisee religious leaders seems harsh to us, but Jesus used similar words concerning the Pharisees who "tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them" (Matthew 23:2-4). He called them hypocrites, blind fools, whitewashed tombs, snakes, a brood of vipers (Matthew 23:13, 16, 27, 33). John the Baptist warned the Pharisees to flee from the impending wrath, and three years later Jesus would warn of this wrath when the religious establishment of Jerusalem would be decimated in that generation (Matthew 23:33-36, 24:34, as happened in AD 70). It is important to remember that many of these Pharisees, including people like Nicodemus and Paul, did become Christians after the resurrection (Acts 2:41, 5:14, 6:7). And in AD 67 when the Roman legions arrived all who believed the Messiah's warning escaped from Jerusalem as they were told (21:20, as in Matthew 24:15-18).

3:8 The word axios (meaning "in keeping with", see Arndt & Gingrich Lexicon) is used in the same way in Acts 26:20. We could translate "fruits appropriate to their change of direction." This new kind of life was not a condition of baptism, but it was learned after baptism. In each case the appropriate behavior (3:10-14) would have to be put into practice back in their homes and in their jobs. Surely John did not send spies back with the candidates to see if they did this before baptizing them. The idea of a period of probation before baptism was unfortunately invented in the second century. All the baptisms that Luke records were immediate (as in Acts 2:41, 8:12, 16:15, 33). And the parable of the Sower (8:5-15) suggests that after their baptism some never even appeared for teaching, some only "believe for a while" and others get choked "by the cares and riches and pleasures of life." But in spite of many drop outs (John 6:66) an open baptism followed by teaching those who want to learn results in rapid multiplication (8:7, 15). Where churches have tried to restrict baptism to what they think are reliable candidates the result is that church growth is slowed.

3:9 The school of the Spirit has an open admission policy, and both John the Baptist and Jesus accepted the fact that though some dropped out, there were still many who went on to produce the good fruits of discipleship. The good fruits of conversion would appear later and, as Jesus said, branches which did not bear fruit were regrettably broken off (John 15:6)

3:10-14 The Preaching of John the Baptist

The other Gospels do not give the content of John's ethical teaching. Luke must have wanted to know precisely what this was, and he may have got this information from the group of John's disciples that remained faithful to their teacher (see Acts 19:1-4). Jesus' teaching would begin with a love of God, which involves a turning to talk to, and enjoy, and learn from God. The second commandment is to love one's neighbor (10:25-28). So John gave examples of what this involved.

3:10-11 A basic evidence of love for one's neighbor is to avoid greed (12:33-34, Matthew 6:19-21) and that includes a willingness to share one's surplus.

3:12-13 Those who had paid for a contract to collect taxes under the Romans authorities would love their neighbor by keeping to the prescribed tax rate instead of gouging the public.

3:14 Soldiers who loved their neighbors would be satisfied with their wages, rather than extort extras "by threats or false accusation."

3:15-22 John the Baptist's Pointing to the Messiah

3:15-16 People wondered whether John the Baptist could be the Messiah (as in John 1:19-20, 25). A rabbinic saying was that a disciple would do any task that a servant would do, except undoing his teacher's sandals. But John explained that in comparison with the coming one he was not worthy even to act as a slave who undid his master's sandals. John was baptizing to teach people how to prepare for the Messiah, the Messiah would teach people to live by the power of Holy Spirit. In the Old Testament the Holy Spirit was compared to wind moving, and wind breathing in one's lungs (inspiration). The last of the Old Testament prophets had said that the Messiah would be like "a refiner's fire" (Malachi 3:2-3). New Testament metaphors for the Holy Spirit include wind (John 3:8, , inbreathing or inspiration (2 Timothy 3:16), fire (12:49), the life force of a body (1 Corinthians 12:4-11), and sap in the Vine (John 14:17, 15:4-5).

3:17 The wind of the Spirit would either blow away the chaff or keep the good grain for the granary. The metaphor of our response to the light has a similar meaning (John 3:19).

3:18-20 For ordinary people the preaching of John the Baptist was good news, but Luke notes that in due course it would make Herod Antipas very angry. Luke mentions the later imprisonment of John the Baptist in the jail of Herod's palace in Tiberias, but he decided to leave out the actual beheading of the prophet (described in Matthew 14:1-12, Mark 6:17-29).

3:21-22 The baptism of Jesus is recorded in all four Gospels (Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 2:9-11, John 1:32-34). Luke adds the significant fact that Jesus was praying after his baptism. And it was then that the voice came from the Father publicly recognizing that Jesus was his Son (see the same words on the Mount of Transfiguration in 9:35). We will see in the next chapter that Satan felt he had make Jesus doubt that he was the Son of God in two of the temptations (4:3, 9). It is the Apostle John who stresses the fact that Jesus was not just a son of God, but the eternal Son of God (John1:1-2, 14, 3:16, 5:18-23, 8:23, 58, 10:36-38, 17:8, 21, 20:31).

3:23-38 Luke's Genealogy

Luke gives us the important information that Jesus was about 30 years old when he began his ministry (see the note on dating in 3:1-2). Matthew was a Jew writing for Jews and he took his genealogy of the Messiah (see Matthew 1:1, 16, 18) only as far back as Abraham. Luke takes the genealogy back to Adam. This points to the universality of the good news for all peoples. Luke's genealogy is similar from Abraham to David, but then the two genealogies follow different routes. As in all royal families there are discussions about the correct lineage. In any case the two possible genealogies both met and ended with Joseph, and it seems that no one ever questioned Jesus' right to the line of David (see note on 2:4). And Luke is careful to say that Jesus "was the son (as was thought) of Joseph" (see 1:34-35, Matthew 1:18-21). The genealogy ends with "Seth, son of Adam, son of God." Adam was adopted from the beginning as a son of God, as we can be (John 1:12) but Jesus was the eternal Son of God. Paul explains that "The first man, Adam, became a living being; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit" (1 Corinthians 15:47). This suggests that the first Adam was a son of God, but rejected that status at least for a time. Jesus took human birth
by the act of the Holy Spirit (1:35) and his ministry resulted in spiritual life being given to many by the Spirit.

Chapter 4 .....