Before you read this post, prepare yourself by reading Luke 3:1-20 in your Bible.

In this passage, Luke records information regarding John the Baptist’s ministry. Though this passage is one literary unit, because of its length, we will consider its contents in two separate posts.

Luke begins with a description of how…

John Received Revelation from God (vv. 1-2).

These verses help us to determine the date of the ministries of John and Jesus. Ancient dating methods employed the use of governing leaders as reference points.

Verses 1-2 describe the setting.

In verse 1 Luke cites some political personalities. He said, “Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar.” Since Tiberius began to rule in A.D. 14, his fifteenth year was from August, A.D. 28, to August, A.D. 29. Furthermore, we know that “Pontius Pilate” was “governor of Judea” from A.D. 26–36. “Herod” (Herod Antipas), son of Herod the Great, was “tetrarch of Galilee” from 4 B.C.-A.D. 39. “His brother Philip” was “tetrarch of Iturea and the region of Trachonitis” from 4 B.C.-A.D. 33/34. Finally, “Lysanias” was “tetrarch of Abilene,” but we don’t know the specific dates. Therefore, the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry was roughly in A.D. 28 or 29.

In verse 2 Luke mentioned some religious personalities. “Annas” was the official high priest in Israel until A.D. 15. While the people still held Annas in high regard and treated him as the high priest, his son-in-law “Caiaphas” was the official high priest, from A.D. 18–36.

In the OT, the ministry of prophets was dated alongside governing kings. In preparing to introduce John the Baptist, Luke dated John’s ministry in relation with current rulers to demonstrate that John was a prophet of God.

In verse 2b, Luke described an unusual event which propelled John into ministry.

Verse 2b describes the revelation from God.

John the Baptist lived in solitude in the “wilderness” for 34 years. And at the right time, “the word of God came to John.” This means that God revealed His will to John – God called him to be a prophet and God gave him the message (“word”) which he was to proclaim. God did not tell John everything, only that which John needed to proclaim. You will see in this passage, and the rest of the Gospel, that John did not know that Jesus was God, he simply knew and proclaimed Jesus as Israel’s Messiah.

In verses 3-6 we have a summary of John’s message, which involved a call for Israel to repent.

John Preached about the Need for Repentance (vv. 3-6).

Verse 3 summarizes John’s message.

John lived and ministered in “the region around the Jordan.”

His ministry involved “preaching” or proclaiming. John preached “a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” First, what is “repentance”? Repentance is an attitude which is motivated by the reality of God’s impending judgment against sin (v. 7). Repentance refers to a change of mind in light of God’s anger towards sin. Unfortunately, some people present repentance as merely a change of mind. Repentance is more than simply changing one’s beliefs or thoughts. Repentance is a change of heart – it is a change of one’s orientation (internal attitudes and affections).

The mystery is that people can’t change their sinful disposition towards God. All people are, by their very nature, hostile to God (Romans 3:10-12; 8:7; Colossians 1:21). Therefore, hostile people can’t change their spiritual affections, attitudes, or orientation. Therefore, John preached to persuade people to repent, relying upon the Holy Spirit to use his message to move people to genuine repentance (1 Corinthians 2:14).

John preached that repentance was necessary “for the remission of sins.” Since God’s judgment was imminent because of their sin, they needed to have their sin removed in order to avert judgment. Removal of sin was offered by God through His Messiah, whom we know as Jesus, though Jesus had not yet been revealed to them. They could have their sins removed by Messiah if they repented. They needed to change their affection for sin by seeing its ugliness and its resulting judgment. They needed to change their attitude toward God – their concept of God was deficient.

Lastly, John preached a “baptism.” Notice carefully how this is worded. John proclaimed that they were to be baptized. This baptism was “of repentance for the remission of sins.” In other words, the baptism followed the repentance which leads to the remission of sins. If they repented of their sins, their sins were removed, and therefore, they needed to be baptized as a demonstration of the fact that they had repented.

Biblical baptism was always by immersion – placing the one being baptized completely under water. The Koine Greek used in Jesus’ day had specific words for sprinkling or pouring, and these words were never used to refer to baptism. The word “baptism” comes from another Greek word which specifically means to dip or immerse.

This was not a Christian baptism, because Christian baptism involves knowing and believing in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which had not taken place yet (Rom 6:1-6). “Baptism” was practiced as a religious rite for many years prior to John, and it was a symbol of purification. Therefore, the candidates were completely immersed in water – to demonstrate cleansing – which is why NT baptisms were performed in large bodies of water like rivers.

Baptism does not result in the removal of sins. We can’t earn salvation by being baptized. Baptism, as a work of man, cannot contribute to one’s salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5-7). John called the nation of Israel to repent of their sins. Those who truly repented anticipated the removal of sins through Messiah and they gave testimony of the fact of their repentance by participating in John’s baptism.

In verses 4-6 Luke shows how John’s preaching ministry was in harmony with the Old Testament.

Verses 4-6 describe John’s role.

Luke began by saying, “as it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet.” He was referring to Isaiah 40:3-5 which says:

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the LORD; make His paths straight. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill brought low; the crooked places shall be made straight and the rough ways smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ ”

In order to properly interpret Luke’s passage, we have to properly understand Isaiah 40:3-5. The prophecy of Isaiah 40:3-5 is millennial – it refers to the Millennial Kingdom which Christ will establish in the future (from Isaiah’s perspective as well as Luke’s and ours). The passage clearly describes the comforting of Israel (v. 1) through the establishment of God’s kingdom on the earth through the Messiah. The prophecy predicts a “voice…crying in the wilderness.” That is a reference to the future ministry of Elijah who will prepare Israel for Christ’s future kingdom (Malachi 3:1; 4:5, 6; Matthew 17:10-11; Revelation 11:28).

So Luke is not saying that Isaiah 40:3-5 was fulfilled by John the Baptist, but that John the Baptist’s ministry functioned like the future ministry of Elijah. John the Baptist was also a voice in the wilderness. As Elijah in the future, so John the Baptist preached a message of repentance to the nation of Israel to prepare them.

Notice in Isaiah 40 that there is an analogy of a highway. When ancient kings traveled in the desert, workmen preceded them to clear debris and smooth out the roads to make travel smoother. Isaiah’s passage uses hyperbolic language – not only are rocks cleared out of the way, but valleys are filled in and mountains are removed. That metaphoric language is descriptive of repentance – the people of God are prepared for God’s arrival through repentance. The hyperbolic description is more apt for Elijah – when he preaches to Israel in the future the great majority in Israel will listen. When John the Baptist preached most did not listen and failed to prepare themselves for the Messiah – Israel as a whole rejected their Messiah.

Luke quoted Isaiah 40:5, “And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” This continues his theme of a universal offer of salvation through Messiah. “All flesh” does not mean that all people without exception will be saved, but that all kinds of people (Gentiles as well as Jews) will be saved through Messiah.

Luke shows in this passage that John the Baptist’s ministry was to prepare Israel for Messiah by calling them to repent of their sins. They would only be prepared for Messiah and His offer of a kingdom if they repented of their sins. Only by being born again, which comes through the repentance of sin, can one truly enter into Christ’s future kingdom on this earth (John 3:1-6). Those who truly repented would receive the removal of their sins and would give testimony of their repentance through water baptism.

In verses 7-9 we also find that John the Baptist issued a warning for false repentance.

John Warned of Insincere Repentance (vv. 7-9)

John’s call to repentance began with a rebuke.

Verse 7 records John’s rebuke.

Ironically, when John saw “the multitudes” coming “to be baptized” he tried to stop them! To us this seems strange – how many times have you witnessed a pastor rebuking people for responding to his message?

John cried out, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John promoted the idea that God’s judgment (“wrath to come”) was imminent and that God’s judgment was for Israel as well (they thought it was merely for unbelieving Gentiles). Therefore, John rebuked them as insincere responders – as a nest of venomous snakes. He saw that they were responding outwardly, but not genuinely.

Therefore, John’s remedy for their insincere repentance, is recorded in verse 8.

Verse 8 records the remedy.

John said, “Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance.” We learned earlier that repentance is a work of the Holy Spirit – the Holy Spirit causes sinners to repent (change their minds and turn to God from their sin). Since the Holy Spirit had not produced genuine repentance in their hearts, their “repentance” was merely outward and insincere.

John was not commanding them to make themselves repentant, he was commanding them to demonstrate “fruits worthy of repentance.” True repentance, which is a result of the Holy Spirit’s work in the heart of a person, will be demonstrated in the person’s life by good works. In essence, John was saying, “If you have truly repented of your sins, there should be a visible demonstration of a spiritual reality.” Genuine repentance is demonstrated by outward works. Performing good works does not mean a person is repentant, but one who repents of his sin will demonstrate this through outward change and good works. If they had genuinely repented of their sins, it would have been evident by forsaking sin and living in righteousness.

John cautioned his audience about the false notions they held when he said, “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ …God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.” The Israelites mistakenly thought their ancestry from Abraham was their ticket to paradise – they thought they would automatically enter God’s kingdom on earth. However, John showed them that religious heritage or Jewish ancestry would not shield them from God’s coming wrath.

In verse 9 John warned them about the consequences if they did not respond in a genuine repentant manner…

Verse 9 records the consequences for not heeding the warning.

John the Baptist said, “And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” God’s judgment ax was ready to cut down the trees, which represented the unrepentant people of Israel. Those who did not manifest genuine repentance of their sins through good works would be thrown into God’s judgment fire.

Summary: John prepared the people for the Messiah’s coming.

God called John the Baptist to be a messenger in order to prepare Israel. Through John’s message, God called for Israel to prepare for His Messiah by repenting of their sins. However, true repentance involves a change of attitude – it involves changing one’s love for sin into a hatred for sin, and it involves changing one’s hatred for God into a love for God. This type of repentance cannot be fabricated by man, it is the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of man – God has to change their very nature and disposition of sinful men.

When genuine repentance has taken place in the heart of man it will be demonstrated in his life through good works. Those who have outward proof of inner repentance are those who have been prepared for the Messiah and His future Kingdom which He will establish on this earth. Those who have no outward proof of repentance are those who have not genuinely repented of their sins and they will suffer God’s wrath.

John the Baptist was certainly not like so many modern-day preachers who use smooth sounding words to ingratiate the audience. John told them what they needed to know. Verses 10-14 are recorded to show us if they liked what they heard. We will explore these verses in the next post.

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