Luke XII: Lk. 3:1-9
Today Luke introduces us to John’s ministry of repentance. He urges us to resist all tyranny and corruption by dealing with the root of evil in our hearts and proclaiming the same to all men.
Who’s Really In Charge?
Luke’s summary of the setting of John’s ministry is packed with meaning. First, Tiberius Caesar is the Roman Emperor, and Pontius Pilate is the Roman governor of Judea, the capital of Israel. Herod, Philip, and Lysanius are the three sons of Herod the Great who was king of Judea when Jesus was born (1:5). In other words, the Jews have gone from being ruled by an evil Edomite (half-Jew) to being ruled directly by Rome. Herod’s sons have been given regions to rule, but the capital is ruled by a Roman. The fact that Luke lists Annas and Caiaphas as High Priests should strike us as odd. According to Hebrew law there was only one high priest at a time. John subtly points to the same oddity in his gospel when he explains that the soldiers brought Jesus to Annas first who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas the High Priest (Jn. 18:13). But then John proceeds to refer to Annas as the High Priest (Jn. 18:19) as well as Caiaphas (Jn. 18:24). Some three years later, Luke will refer to Annas as the High Priest while Caiaphas, John, and Alexander are designated as part of the “high priestly family” (Acts 4:6). Extra biblical records suggest that Rome deposed Annas around 15 A.D. and put his son in-law Caiaphas in his place, but all the indicators are that Annas continued to function authoritatively. This probably indicates corruption in the high priestly family, especially when you consider that these are the guys who will order Christ’s execution. This detailed historical setting continues underline Luke’s care for details, the historical significance of the gospel, and sobering reality for Jews. Lastly, we should not miss the highly ironic assertion that despite all of the glory of Rome, the tattered pieces of a semi-Israelite dynasty, and even two functioning high priests, the Word of the Lord came to John in the wilderness (Lk. 3:2). The authority that John has to proclaim a baptism of repentance is the Word of God (Lk. 3:3). John does not have Roman, Herodian, or Jewish authorization. He has God’s Word. That’s enough for John, and that’s enough for you.
Lost In Your Own Home
Luke cites Isaiah’s prophecy of a voice crying in the wilderness to prepare a road for the Lord (Lk. 3:4). The way you make a road is by flattening the hills, filling in the valleys, straightening the tight curves, smoothing out the rocky spots (Is. 40, Lk. 3:4-5). But for Luke to cite this particular prophecy on the heels of his sobering description of Israel’s political situation is pretty radical. Isaiah 40 comes immediately after a prophecy about Babylonians carrying Judah away into exile. When Isaiah sings “Comfort, comfort, my people… speak peace to Jerusalem, tell her that her warfare is ended and her sins I cover…” – Isaiah is announcing the end of that exile. And God did end it under Cyrus, and the Jews did rebuild under Ezra and Nehemiah. But now they find themselves in another exile-like situation in their own land. God already fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy once and there was a highway from Persia and Babylon back to Israel, but now Luke is saying that somehow God is going to do that again inside Israel. The exile itself was judgment for Israel’s sins, and that’s why this promise of comfort and return includes the promise of forgiveness of sins (Is. 40:2). But how can you go home when you are already home? This is one of those powerful human moments in the gospel that points to the universal predicament of humanity. Who has not felt this sort of despair, this level of brokenness at some point in their life? At least when Israel was in exile, they had a home to long for. But what do you do when you feel like a stranger in your own home? When your home becomes a place of oppression and slavery? What do you do when you feel lost inside yourself? This is why there are so many homecoming stories in the world. Everyone wants to go home, everyone feels a sense of displacement, a sense of longing, a sense that we don’t belong. John comes announcing that the God who made all things is coming for His people, for all people who have lost their way in this world, and He is coming to bring them home again.
How God Kills Snakes
This is why John is proclaiming a baptism for the remission of sins at the Jordan. The Jordan River was the place Israel first crossed into the Promised Land after leaving Egypt and wandering in the wilderness for 40 years (Josh. 3). John is baptizing at the Jordan to indicate that God is willing to renew His promises to Israel. He is willing to give the land back to them. But when Israel crossed the Jordan that first time, Joshua had the priests stand with the ark of the covenant in the stream and made the water stop flowing. It was not nearly as dramatic, but no one missed the fact that God was reminding them of how He brought them out of Egypt by parting the Red Sea. We build tunnels and bridges, but God walks His people straight through the sea. Repentance is like that. We want to make up for our sins or forget about our sins, but God wants to actually take our sins away. In order to take them all away we must face them, like the first Israelite’s did when Pharaoh and his armies chased them to the Red Sea. This is how God gets glory over our enemies, over our sin. He gets glory by looking it right in the eye, by luring it after us and then drowning it in the sea. So John announced that if the Jewish people wanted to be delivered from Roman emperors and governors, and Herodian Tetrarchs, and compromised Jewish leaders, they need to let God lead them through His path in the sea again. This means being baptized, but that baptism is a pledge and commitment to bear the fruit of repentance. John calls the people “vipers,” the offspring of snakes, which is not only rather abrasive, but it is also theologically rich, not to mention accurate (Lk. 3:7). It was the serpent in the garden that seduced Adam and Eve, and God’s promise was that the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent would be at enmity with one another (Gen. 3:15). But Pharaoh was another serpent, and this is why the first sign that Moses did was to turn his staff into a serpent that swallowed Pharaoh’s. John may be saying that the reason the Jews have snakes as rulers is because they are snakes; he may also be saying that because snakes rule over them, there’s far more snake in them than they realize. They may be tempted to think that because they resent their overlords they have remained relatively faithful to Abraham their father (Lk. 3:8). But John says they can’t bank on that. It’s not enough to side with the right political party, they need to produce fruit or they will be caught in God’s judgment (Lk. 3:8-9).
Our day is not that different from John’s. Christians increasingly find themselves in a land that seems more and more foreign. And many, feeling restless and disoriented, seek out solutions through various pleasures and distractions. But John still speaks to us. And we are actually in a better position than the Jews of that day because we have seen the salvation that John was announcing. The Lord did come in the person of His Son Jesus, and He walked through the land of Israel announcing this good news, healing the sick and forgiving sins, but He also came as one of us in order to become God’s great decoy to make a path through the deepest, darkest sea: death itself. He led our sins, our enemies, our accusers, and all the powers of Hell right into that darkness when He suffered on the cross for us. And He destroyed them there. This is why faith in Jesus produces the fruit of repentance. It is the death of the serpent and all our snake-ishness. And this is why Christian repentance is no mere “turning over a new leaf” – this repentance subdues kingdoms and overthrows tyrants. Christian repentance is the way God carries all of His lost children home.