The ministry of John the Baptist begins. John – the most important prophet in the Bible (per Jesus) and one of the oddest – preaches repentance in no uncertain terms. He’s not beholden to tradition, power, prestige, precedent, wealth, or comfort. He’s here to tell the truth and pave the way for the Messiah. John knows exactly what his mission in life is and will let nothing get in the way of it – even the preservation of his life. In so doing, he becomes an example to all believers. All of us would do well to imitate John’s perspective, boldness, otherworldliness and single-mindedness.
Luke takes great pains to set this story in a historical context (just as he did in 1:5 and 2:1-2). He names seven different men in various political and religious roles to make sure the reader understands that what he’s about the relate includes real people at an actual time and place.
The Herod mentioned here is one of three sons of Herod the Great (the Herod in power at Jesus’ birth) who now rule. Herod the Great broke his kingdom into three parts in his will and gave them to three sons – Archelaus (Judea), Antipas (Galilee – this is the Herod mentioned in this text), and Philip (Iturea and Trachonitis – Philip also mentioned in this text). Archelaus – who was the son most like his father (insane) and was the reason Joseph and Mary went back to Nazareth rather than stay in Judea upon their return from Egypt (Matt 2:22-23) – died years ago and so Pontius Pilate now rules Judea for Rome.
Note the oddity of naming two men as high priest – Annas and Caiaphas. Annas is the rightful high priest but was deposed by Rome and replaced with Caiaphas. Caiaphas is the son-in-law of Annas. Luke mentions both here because it’s likely that the Jews only recognize Annas even while Caiaphas has the title. Both men will figure into Jesus’ trial in a few years.
At this point in history, the word of God comes to John in the wilderness. We know from the end of Chapter 1 that John has lived in the desert since a young age. We don’t know anything about his life to this point – he’s 6 months older than Jesus so he’s probably around 30-31 years of age – but he presumably has been waiting for God to show him that it’s time to start his public ministry and fulfill his mission as the herald of the Messiah. The word of God comes to him and he begins his mission.
John’s ministry is in the district around the Jordan. There may be some symbolism to this. He obviously needs water to baptize, but he also calls Israel back to the Jordan to essentially start over. Unlike the first crossing of the Jordan that ended with a disobedient nation exiled from the Promised Land, John calls them back to commit themselves to God through repentance and baptism. Essentially cross the Jordan again. This time they can begin to live in obedience. It’s a second chance for the nation.
His ministry is unique in that he calls for Jews to be baptized. Baptism is typically required for gentiles converting to Judaism, not for Jews already aligned with the Law. John calls them to repentance and then to baptism as a sign of that repentance. He doesn’t allow for the assumption that judgment is only for the gentiles. Jews must repent and commit themselves to obedience.
Luke quotes Isaiah to describe John’s ministry. He’s the forerunner of the King, making sure all the roads are straight and level. He’s the voice crying in the wilderness to warn the people of the King’s coming. Note the last description from Isaiah – “And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Luke is the only gospel writer to cite this – it goes along with his goal of making it clear that Jesus comes for all people, not just the Jews.
John’s message is not the message of someone looking to grow a ministry or accumulate followers. His is not the preaching of a people-pleaser. He condemns those who come to him with impure motives (his condemnation in verse 7 is here made to sound like it’s for all people but in Matthew it’s specific to the religious leaders – Matt 3:7). He knows who comes to truly repent versus those coming to make a show (the religious leaders likely come to see him out of curiosity and also because it’s the thing to do – their interest is self-serving).
Note that verse 7 says multitudes come to see and hear him. It’s hard to know if this is because they think John himself might be the Messiah (vs 15) or because his message of the coming Messiah is well-received and believed. It could be that people so want a political savior that they excitedly embrace John’s ministry (though John says nothing about the Messiah having any political impact). And repentance and baptism in preparation for the Messiah makes sense to them.
John condemns the Jews for thinking their lineage exempts them from judgment. Repentance and fruit characterize a true follower of God, not ancestry. Jews do not have an automatic in with God by virtue of their status as the people of God. By saying that God can raise up children of Abraham from stones, he communicates both that being a child of Abraham doesn’t punch your ticket to God and also that God’s grace extends beyond the Jews.
John also makes it clear that along with the good news of the Messiah’s coming is sober news that judgment will be included with salvation. The axe is already laid at the root of the trees. Trees that don’t bear fruit – people who claim to be followers of God but whose works show otherwise – will be cut down and thrown into the fire (Jesus will repeat this teaching in the Sermon on the Mount – Matt 7:15-23).
John’s preaching of judgment has an effect. The people ask, “Then what shall we do?” John’s answer has to do with social justice and treatment of the poor. Share with those who do not have – take care of the less fortunate. For tax gatherers – do not collect more than what’s been ordered. For soldiers – don’t steal, don’t accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages. John’s answer is similar to what Jesus will teach about coming judgment (Matt 25:31-46). Those who minister to the poor and the homeless and prisoners will be welcomed into the kingdom of God on Judgment Day. Those who do none of those things will not be welcomed. The message is that those who truly follow God or are disciples of Jesus love others and care for them. They are characterized by their love and compassion. Love and compassion don’t enable entrance into the kingdom, but the lack of both shows someone not filled with the love of God and thus not one of His followers.
John’s preaching is so impactful that people begin to ask if he’s actually the Messiah. He makes it clear that he’s not. The Messiah is coming, and He is much greater than John. John is the messenger, not the promised One. John’s not even worthy to untie the thong of the Messiah’s sandals (a task assigned to a slave, not a disciple).
While John baptizes with water, the Messiah will baptize with the Holy Spirt and fire. It’s interesting to wonder how much John’s listeners understand what he means by the Holy Spirit. They could understand it to be the Spirit of God as referenced in Ezekiel 36:25-27 (a prophecy about God replacing His followers’ hearts of stone with hearts of flesh filled with His Spirit). Fire carries with it a sense of purification (not judgment). The Messiah will enable His followers through the power of the Holy Spirit but also purify them to the glory of God. Purifying fire isn’t pleasant, but it results in a more godly and useful disciple of the Messiah.
In verse 17, John repeats that the Messiah comes to judge as well as save. He will gather His own and judge those who aren’t. Without judgment, there isn’t salvation. Both are part of the Messiah’s coming.
John shows without a shadow of a doubt that he’s no respecter of persons or power when it comes to preaching the truth. He condemns Herod (Antipas – see above) for marrying his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias (who is related to both and thus has the family name – feminized). Herodias left Philip (different Philip – a/k/a Herod II – than the one listed earlier in the text) to go with Antipas because Antipas is more powerful and has more influence. John condemns the illicit relationship that broke up a marriage. This leads Antipas to imprison John (adding to the wicked things – not spelled out in the text – that he’s done).
John is a unique character who’s a powerful example to any child of God. He single-mindedly serves. He cares nothing about what the world cares about. He has no ties to the world other than what’s necessary to fulfill his mission. His entire life is about Another. He does nothing for selfish gain or to further himself at all. He doesn’t even live in civilization. Everything he does is with an eye toward furthering the kingdom of God. Ultimately, he doesn’t even care about his safety or preserving his life.
While John is unique and gifted in ways we aren’t, it would pay to have his perspective. He essentially personifies Jesus’ admonition to seek first the kingdom of God rather than worrying about the cares of the world. We may not be called to live in the wilderness, eat locusts and wild honey and wear rough clothing, but ultimately we have the same mission – live our lives for the Savior. And if we adopted John’s approach to our mission it would radically alter our effectiveness for the kingdom. Imagine the difference in our lives if we modeled them after John the Baptist instead of John the Successful American or John the Family Man or John the Anxious or John the Workaholic or John the Man Whose Feet are So Firmly Planted in This World that He Never Thinks About Eternity.
John’s entire existence is based on living for Another. In that way, we are exactly like him and so should take our shared mission just as seriously.