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THE MINISTRY OF JOHN THE BAPTIST

Luke 3:1-3:20
Key Verse: 3:2

So far we studied chapters 1 and 2. In these chapters we studied about the back ground of Jesus’ coming, how Jesus was conceived, and in what circumstances he was born. We could also think of who Jesus is through Zechariah’s song and the angels’ messages, and could learn of Jesus’ childhood and boyhood. All these stories were uniquely written only in Luke’s gospel. We give credit to him. But like the other gospels, before getting into Jesus’ ministry, Luke introduces the ministry of John the Baptist in today’s passage: 3:1-20. Nonetheless, Luke’s description is distinctive in a sense. According to Luke’s description we can think about the ministry of John the Baptist.

First, the word of God came to John (1-2). Look at verses 1 and 2. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene—during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.” Augustus died on 19 August AD 14, and was succeeded by Tiberius Caesar, so “the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar” was August likely between 28AD and August of 29AD. Judea was a part of the region assigned by Herod the Great to Archelaus, but Archelaus had ruled so badly that his subjects petitioned the Romans to remove him. They did so and installed their own governor in 6AD. Pilate held this office 26-36AD. Herod here is Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. He became tetrarch of Galilee and Perea at his father’s death in 4 BC and held office until 39AD. He thus ruled during most of Jesus’ lifetime over the territory in which most of Jesus’ time was spent. The word tetrarch strictly means a ruler over a fourth part of a region, but it came to be used of any petty prince (Herod the Great in fact divided his kingdom into three parts). Herod’s brother Philip ruled his tetrarchy (which was northeast of the Sea of Galilee) 4 BC- 33AD. Lysanias ruled as tetrarch in Abilene, which is to the north of the other regions mentioned. Annas was high priest 6-15AD, when the Roman governor Gratus deposed him. Five of his sons became high priest in due courses, and Caiaphus, who held the office 18-36AD, was his son-in-law. Luke uses the singular, which shows that he knew there was only one high priest. He appears to mean that while Caiaphus was actually in office, Annas still exercised great influence, and perhaps was even regarded by many Jews as the true high priest (Ac 4:6). It may be worth pointing out that when Jesus was arrested he was first brought to Annas (Jn 18:13).

We have thought thus far of the eight names written here: Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, and Lysanias, these figures were political leaders of that time; and Annas and Caiaphas, who were supposed to lead people to God as religious leaders, collaborated with the political leaders. John was just an ordinary man, son of Zechariah, from a human viewpoint. But the word of God did not come to the so-called leaders of the world, who had human position and popularity and power. Rather, the word of God came to John, who had no reliable human backdrop at all.

Then how could the word of God come to him? Luke 1:80 says, “And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel.” That he lived in the desert does not mean he lived as a hermit. When we look at the geographical landscape of Israel, desert and plain are usually situated in parallel in the northern half land of Israel. So desert can be better understood as wilderness as other versions translated (NET, NASB, ESV, NLT, NRSV, KJV). Certainly, John’s living in the desert implied his devotion to God. He devoted himself to hearing the voice of God without any hindrance of the voices of the world. In that devotion the word of God came to him. Then he could begin his ministry; do the work of God.

Here we learn who can do the work of God. Those to whom the word of God comes can do the work of God, although we cannot ignore human credentials. When Romans 1:17, “The Righteous will live by faith,” came to Martin Luther, he could begin the amazing work of reformation and God was with him in all the trials. God gives his word to the one whom he calls for his purpose. When God called Jeremiah, he said, “Ah, Sovereign LORD, I do not know how to speak; I am only a child.” But when the word of God came to him, he could stand against the whole land—against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests and the people of the land and deliver the message of God’s judgment (1:6,18). When God called Abraham, the Lord said to him, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great and you will be a blessing” (Ge 12:1,2). And this promise of God was renewed in his life at each time of hardship, and was with him to the end of his life. When Jesus called his first disciples, he said to them, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Mk 1:17).

Luke used the expression, “the word of God” 4 times in his gospel: Here, “the word of God came to John”, in 5:1, “One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, with the people crowding around him and listening to the word of God,” in 8:11, “The seed is the word of God,” and in 11:28, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” The word of God is the word of God, different from the words of men. As we studied in Psalm 119, the word of the LORD is eternal, it stands firm in the heavens, and is boundless (119:89,96). The Psalmist confessed, “My eyes fail, looking for your promise” (119:82). The reason why we study the Bible is that we may hear and receive the word of God. May each of us study Luke’s gospel with such a longing in our own desert so that one word of God come to us very personally while we study this gospel of Luke. And through his word may his people here be convinced to do the work of God in this generation.

Second, he preached a baptism of repentance (3-14). Look at verse 3. “He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” The word of God empowered him to go into all the country around the Jordan and preach the message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In time past and present man’s fundamental problem is sin problem. There is no remedy for sin but repentance. Repentance is to recognize one’s sin and grieve over it and turn to God. God gives the grace of forgiveness to those who repent. Repentant souls are truly blessed. Jesus said in beatitudes, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Mt 5:4). It is not easy to deliver the message of repentance, but John could preach the message repentance, because he truly cared for the people. At the end of this gospel, it is written, “…repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations” (Lk 24:47).

Luke saw the ministry of John the Baptist in the light of the words of Isaiah: “As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: ‘A voice of one calling in the desert, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all mankind will see God’s salvation.”’” The land of Israel is not boring (or monotonous) with one kind of land formation, but rather has a variety of land formations: mountains and hills, and valleys and prairies. Certainly, Isaiah was not talking about geographical state of the land, but the heart state of people. A person’s heart can be deeply withdrawn into himself like valley, with very low self-esteem; another, proud like mountains with a very high view of himself; another’s heart, crooked with crooked way of thinking; and still another, rough. A rough heart is different from a gentle heart. Jesus once said “Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest…I am gentle and humble in heart…” (Mt 11:28,29). People can have rest in a gentle heart, but in a rough heart no one can take rest. People’s heart states are different and each is uncommon. However, one common factor is that all need repentance. Through repentance all become level ground and straight paths for the Lord. This was John’s mission and is the mission of the servants of God who God called. All mankind needs repentance and in that all mankind will see God’s salvation.

Now John helps the people further. Look at verse 7, “John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?’” We can understand this verse better when we look at the MSG translation: “When crowds of people came out for baptism because it was the popular thing to do, John exploded: "Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to deflect God’s judgment?” Here John told the crowds not just to try to be baptized for public recognition, for mere baptism would not exempt them from God’s impending judgment. He urged them to have sincere and constant repentance to produce fruit, saying, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” Then he warned them for the danger of spiritual pride: “And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.” In our times there are many believers who abuse God’s choosing and saving grace. They say, “I am already saved” and then live as they want. They are greatly mistaken. True salvation brings change in one’s life. And then he said in verse 9, “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”According to John, the judgment does not rest on one’s baptism, ritual ceremony, but on producing the good fruit in life which is the result of sincere and continuous repentance.

Jesus said in Matthew 7:18,19. “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” Jesus told this to his disciples as a warning against false prophets. False prophets have wrong motives and live before people. They cannot bear good fruit. But those who live before God eventually bear good fruit. And God wants us to live in this world with a sense of his judgment, knowing that life is given to produce good fruit, not to idle away.

In verses 10-14, John helps the people practically. When the crowd asked, “What should we do then?” John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.” When tax collectors asked, “What should we do?” he told them, “Don’t collect any more than you are required to.” When some soldiers asked, “And what should we do?” he replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” True repentance affects our relationship with God and relationship[s] with our neighbor[s] as well. God wants us to be mindful of the people around us and not to abuse our given position but in any position to do what is right in his sight.

In this part we learn that repentance is the way of life for the forgiveness of sin and for fruit-bearing. Repentance is the remedy for our sins. Nothing can change our hearts but repentance. Repentance makes one’s heart lifted, humble, straight and smooth. In true repentance we can produce good fruit of life and flee from God’s wrath and his dreadful judgment. May we live in this world as repentant people in his grace!

Third, he introduced Jesus (15-20). Look at verse 15. “The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ.” Wow! What popularity! His fame was sky high. At the time of people’s recognition and honour most people are swayed away and forget God’s grace and become blind to see who they are. This is fallen men’s tendency. How about John? John answered them all. John was not ambiguous, but gave a clear answer to their question. He said, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Here we see the greatness of John the Baptist. He was truly great because he denied such popularity among the people, knowing his unworthiness before Christ. He said that he would not be even worthy to be his servant, knowing who Jesus is and what he does. It was said that at that time untying the sandal-throng was too menial for a disciple to do for his teacher. But John regarded himself not fit even to do that job for Jesus. He turned people’s attention from himself to Jesus and introduced Jesus. Jesus is the one who baptizes repentant hearts with the Holy Spirit and fire. His power is over the spiritual world. When he baptizes our hearts with the Holy Spirit, evil spirits are driven out and the Holy Spirit begins to reside in us and rule us. He purifies our hearts with fire. And he is the one who judges every one. He clears his threshing floor and separates the wheat and the chaff.

Look at verse 18. “And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.” All people of the world need the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. However, we should know that the good news contains judgment, for unless in the end evil is decisively overthrown there is no ultimate good news.

John was faithful to his mission. When he rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison. Then John would be headed there. Nothing could stop his mission, even imprisonment and death. John not only denied human popularity but also was not afraid of imprisonment and death to live a life of mission to the end. He was an example of a man of mission.

May God help us to make every effort to hear the voice of God in the desert so that the word of God may come to us very personally and empower us to do his work in our times. Keeping his words may we produce fruit of repentance in our lives and live a life of mission to preach repentance to the people of our times and lead them to Jesus.

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