Pastor Scott Andrews | October 22, 2023
It had been over 400 years since the Jews had heard from God through one of His prophets. The last was Malachi, who wrote in the final two verses of his short book:
5 “Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord.
6 “He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse.”
By the time we get to the beginning of Luke’s gospel, over 400 years later, the fullness of time had finally come – the fulfillment of the promises made as far back as Adam and Eve, to Abraham, to David, and to and through many of God’s prophets, to include Malachi. The enduring, agonizing silence had been brutal, lasting through oppressive overlords, to include their present oppressor, the dreaded and dreadful Romans. The time was ripe – and while few waited, there were some who longed for the coming of the Messiah with promised deliverance.
To be sure, the silence was first broken to a priest named Zacharias in the Temple, when the angel Gabriel appeared to him and told him his aged, barren wife Elizabeth would have a son. But not just any son. His name would be John, and he would be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb. He would turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God. More, it would be John who would fulfill the prophecies of the forerunner and would come in the spirit and power of Elijah, don’t miss the wording, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous [to change the hearts and minds of sinful people – a theme begins to emerge], and further, to make ready a people prepared for the coming of the Lord. How the Jews – at least the remnant, those looking – had longed for this day.
That same angel soon thereafter appeared to Mary and told this young, virgin woman that she, too, would bear a son. Again, not just any son, but He would be named Jesus. The same angel, we assume, then appeared to Joseph, Mary’s betrothed, and told him the same thing – name Him Jesus, for He would save His people from their sins – the theme pops up again – the change of hearts and forgiveness of sin. Well, Gabriel had told Mary, who was shell-shocked, that her son would be the Son of the Most High, that He would sit on the throne of His father David, and that He would reign over the house of Jacob forever; His kingdom would have no end.
How can this be, since I am a virgin? The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, for which reason your son will be called the Son of God. You want proof – go see barren Elizabeth who is in her sixth month. Mary high-tailed it to see her relative Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John. And as soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s voice, the baby in her womb leapt for joy. You see, John was already beginning to fulfill his call to be a prophet, the forerunner of the promised Messiah.
Three months later, when John was born, his father Zacharias let loose with a song of praise. The song included prophetic words – well, at least words he had heard from Gabriel, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the LORD to prepare His ways; to give His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.” There it is again. Maybe, just maybe the planned Messiah would come not so much to deal with the problem of tyrannical Rome, but the problem of tyrannical personal sin. Well, the long-awaited prophet, the forerunner, the one to prepare the way of the Lord, had finally arrived.
Six months later, in Bethlehem, the son of Mary, more, the Son of God, was finally born to this poor, working class couple from the no count, backwater town of Nazareth. His birth was announced by an angel to shepherds, heralded by a heavenly host of angels. The shepherds then made their way to see this baby lying in a manger. A feeding trough, no pomp, no circumstance, but simply the fulfillment of all the prophecies, made since the beginning of time, had finally come. God had not only ended the silence, He had invaded our space in human flesh. The word became flesh and dwelt among us.
Eight days later, according to the law, the child was circumcised and named Jesus per angelic command. Forty days after His birth, Joseph and Mary made their way to Jerusalem’s Temple – for Mary’s purification, and the child’s presentation. And once again, the silence was broken, by two unsuspecting heralds – old righteous Simeon and old prophetess Anna – likely a prophetess as she announced the arrival of the Christ child to all who were looking for His advent.
The silence had been broken, but then, it goes quiet for a few more years. By this time, Jesus is twelve, and when His family made their annual trip to Jerusalem, post Passover, Jesus stayed behind. After three frenetic days of search, his parents find Him among the teachers, amazing all present with His understanding and questions. His exasperated mother asked Him, why have you treated us like this – your father and I have been anxiously searching everywhere for you.
To which young Jesus responded, “Why – did you not know I would be here in My Father’s house?” Actually, My Father knew where I was. The blanket of silence was pulled back once again as this twelve-year-old boy not only amazed the teachers, onlookers, and parents – but He also claimed that God was His Father. After all, the Son to be born would in fact be the Son of God – making Him God in the flesh. The amazed teachers no doubt chuckled to themselves – well, He still has a few things to learn, doesn’t He. Only later, as an adult, when He calls God My Father yet again, they will seek all the more to kill Him – calling God His Father, thus making Himself equal to God.
Well, twelve-year-old Jesus returned to Nazareth with His parents, to whom He continued in subjection. And it goes quiet for yet 18 more years. Nothing recorded. The last we heard of John, the forerunner, was back at the end of chapter 1, verse 80, which said, “And the child [John] continued to grow and to become strong in spirit, and he lived in the deserts until the day of his public appearance to Israel.” The last we heard of Jesus was at the end of chapter 2, verse 52, which said, “And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.” In other words, simply stated, the boys grew up, rather privately, for eighteen more years until they were both about 30.
But think about it – it had been 30 years from their respective births. By this time, very likely, aged Zacharias and Elizabeth were dead – they had gone on to heaven. By this time, very likely, Joseph had died and joined them in heaven since he is never mentioned again in the gospel narratives. Simeon and Anna – the two aged witnesses and heralds were undoubtedly dead by now, watching things unfold with Zacharias, Elizabeth and Joseph – perhaps with a bag of popcorn. Meaning, most of the witnesses as to the identity of John and Jesus were dead. And the blanket of silence descended again. Perhaps those who had heard the news from the shepherds and Simeon and Anna had gone on – in death or on with their lives. Even Mary, by this time, was in her mid-forties. It was silent again, except for the buzzing of locusts and honeybees, and the sound of hammer and chisel.
But it would not remain so. You see, the fullness of time had come. God had sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem His own. How? We’ll see, by repentance and faith. While perhaps earth and the Jewish people had gone back to their miserable existences, all was about to change, starting with the promised forerunner. He had moved to the wilderness, perhaps after the death of his parents. And all along, God was preparing this Spirit-filled one – this one who would come in the spirit and power of Elijah. Bringing us to our text – Luke 3:1-6. Let’s go ahead and read through verse nine to set the tone.
As we’ve discovered, Luke was a very capable historian with deeply theological purposes. Both of those are important. You see, when he recorded rulers and reigns, titles and territories, he was invariably right. Not that some see him as always right – in fact, sometimes they accuse him of historical inaccuracies – but in the end, he is proven correct. Which helps us with the timing of biblical events covering a seventy-year period through Luke and Acts – from Caesar Augustus and Herod the Great, through Tiberius Caesar and Pontius Pilate, to Emperor Nero, governors Festus and Felix and King Herod Agrippa, the last of the Herods. It’s an amazingly accurate history.
But historical data is not the most important of Luke’s contributions. Again, while a capable historian, he always had a theological purpose for his carefully researched data. So here, he lists no less than 7 names – five political, two “religious” in nature. Why? Because into this dark landscape in the depth of political and spiritual depravity, John came, preparing the way for the One mightier than he who would soon come. Truly, Jesus came in actual fact of history, born of a woman, in the fullness of time – when He would be the light of the world, a very dark world.
And so, how and what does John come preaching? What indeed. The need for repentance and corresponding baptism for the forgiveness of sins – all to prepare the way for the One to come. And I would suggest – while John’s baptism is not Christian baptism – Jesus still comes the same way – to people who need rescue from the tyranny of sin, who repent, and thereby, flee from the wrath to come. Oh, it’s not a very popular message today. We even have a name for it – hellfire and brimstone preaching. I suspect John’s message would not much be welcomed today, nor would the One mightier than John who came to rescue us from the coming wrath. You see, Jesus’ first message was, repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Would John, even Jesus be received in most churches today? Well, let me give you the outline of the text:
- The Political Landscape (1)
- The Religious Landscape (2)
- The (Much-Needed) Message of John [in the midst of darkness] (3-6)
As I mentioned earlier, Luke lists seven names in verses 1 and 2, which comprise our first two points. We see five political names, five rulers in verse 1, starting with Tiberius Caesar. Which means we have rolled the clock forward from Caesar Augustus to Tiberius Caesar. Luke actually mentioned Augustus back in chapter 2 at the birth of Jesus. Matthew tells us it was also during the reign of King Herod the Great in Palestine. We know Herod the Great died in 4 BC, so Jesus was born at least by then. Augustus ruled as emperor from 27 BC until his death in 14 AD, at which time Tiberius became sole emperor. I say sole emperor, because he was named co-ruler with Augustus in 11 AD. Tiberius reigned until his death in 37 AD.
Which means, when Luke says it was in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius, it was somewhere between 26 and 29 AD. But later in chapter 3, we find Jesus began His ministry when He was about 30 years old. If He was born in 4 BC at the latest, doing the math takes us to about 26 or 27 AD. Just my calculations.
It was also when Pontius Pilate was governor – better, prefect of Judea. He ruled during all of Jesus’ ministry, and eventually had Him crucified. Now, when Herod the Great died, his kingdom was divided between his three sons – Archelaus, Herod Antipas and Herod Philip. But soon, Archelaus proved to be incompetent, and Rome replaced him with prefects – governors who maintained Rome’s interests and peace in political hotspots. Pilate was the fifth such prefect in the very troubled area of Judea which included Jerusalem. We’ll talk more about him later in our study, but he appears in extrabiblical literature to include Jospehus; and an inscription with his name as prefect was found in Caesarea in 1961 on what is now called the Pilate Stone. History tells us he was not a very capable ruler – he was always in trouble with his Jewish subjects, his specialty was infuriating them, which got him in hot water with Tiberius back in Rome.
Next was Herod Antipas, who was tetrarch of Galilee, and ruled from the death of his father in 4 BC until 39 AD. His headquarters was in Tiberias, a city on the west coast of the Sea of Galilee he built in 20 AD and named after the emperor. Now, a tetrarch was a fourth ruler, but Herod only had three competent sons to which he left his empire, but what’s a tetrarch among friends. Antipas ruled the area of Galilee and Perea to the east of the Jordan. He divorced his wife to marry his brother Herod Philip’s wife, Herodias. John the Baptist will later publicly condemn the union, which led to his arrest and eventual death by beheading. I mean really, should a religious leader like John be calling out the ungodliness of governmental leaders… We’ll meet Herod later when Jesus calls him a fox, and again later as Luke alone records Jesus was sent by Pilate to Herod who was in Jerusalem for the Passover festival when Pilate heard that Jesus was a Galilean.
Next, we meet Philip who was the tetrarch of Ituraea and Trachonitis, to the northeast of Galilee. The capital city was Caesarea Philippi, named after himself, and where Peter rightly declared Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the living God. Philip ruled from 4 BC until his death in 34 AD. Some suggest he was actually the best of the Herodian rulers. Still with me?
Next was some guy named Lysanias who was tetrarch of Abilene – even further to the northeast of Philip’s territory. This one is interesting, and for a long time caused problems, because the only Lysanias known ruled in 36 BC, decades before this. So, they said, Luke was wrong, right? Not so fast – later inscriptions were found that another Lysanias – which was perhaps a dynasty name – ruled in the area during this period – just like Luke said. Again, liberal historians and even theologians are left with egg on their faces.
Now, why does Luke record these names so meticulously? Well certainly as a careful historian, he wants to place Jesus firmly in actual history. It’s like God knew while inspiring the NT that later liberals would question its historical reliability. But not only that, these rulers – none of which were Jews – were ungodly. Their rule was ungodly, their character was immoral and wicked. One author said that everything we know about this impressive list of leaders testifies to their pride, violence, and self-indulgence. And so Jesus came at a time when His light would shine brightest in deepest darkness.
Which brings us to our second point – the religious landscape, which was just as dark. We read in verse 2 this all took place during the priesthood, singular, of Annas and Caiaphas. That was an incredible shot across the bow of the ungodly and unbiblical priesthood(s) of Annas and his family. You see, the High Priesthood was owned by the Sadducees at this point, who denied most of the OT, accepting only the first five books, denied angels, denied the miraculous, denied the resurrection, and saw themselves as the embodiment of the messianic ideal – in other words, they denied there was actually any Messiah coming. So of course they didn’t accept Jesus.
Further, they were totally in bed with the Romans. They wanted to preserve Roman rule, because they partnered together and enriched themselves thereby. Any upset in the status quo would have a negative impact on their wealth and power, so they eventually and vehemently opposed Jesus and His message. Now Annas was the high priest from 6-15 AD before he was removed by the Romans. But, the OT said the high priest – and there’s only one – served until his death. Further, he was the head of the Sanhedrin – the Jewish ruling body, making him quite powerful. But again, Annas was removed by the Romans, but that did nothing to abate his power and wealth. He still controlled all the ungodly commerce in the Temple – which is why Jesus went in and overturned the tables of the moneychangers and people selling stuff. This market was pejoratively called the Bazaar of Annas.
After he was removed, five of his sons served in the role of high priest, and his son-in-law, Caiphas, who wasn’t in the line of the priesthood – served in the role from 18-36 AD. They were both alive and ruling during Jesus’ ministry, arrest, trial and crucifixion. In fact, after His arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, He was taken first to Annas, then to Caiaphas. Caiaphas tried Him and declared Jesus guilty of blasphemy because of His claim to being Messiah, the Son of God. It was Caiaphas and his cohorts who took Jesus to Pilate, not having the right to the death penalty. We’ll save more for later – but these two were real spiritual giants – religious charlatans.
So all that gives you the landscape, but don’t miss the end of verse 2. And the word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness. First you should know, the wording is much like the Greek translation of the OT when the word of God came to many OT prophets, like Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea and Joel. Meaning, the 400 silent years have finally been lifted – the word of God came to the last of the OT prophets named John, who served as the bridge between the Old and New Testaments; the forerunner of the Messiah who would bring the New Covenant.
But here’s the theological point: the word of God did not come to the halls of the political power of the day – to Tiberius or Pilate or Antipas or Philip. The word of God didn’t even come to the sacred halls of the Temple – to Annas or Caiaphas, the supposed spiritual leaders of the nation. The word of God came to John, with no title, no impressive city or palace, who was living in the wilderness, the largely uninhabited desert area to the south and east of Jerusalem. Why? Because the religious leaders were corrupt, and Jesus came in a way you would never expect to a people you would never pick. John the Baptist?
Luke doesn’t tell us, but we know from the other gospels a little more about John’s life in the wilderness. His parents were told he would drink no wine or liquor, causing some to suggest he was a Nazarite from birth. If that’s true, he never cut his hair, which means at age 30, he would have been a sight to behold. Further, his clothing was camel’s hair and a leather belt, and his diet consisted of locusts and wild honey. The buzzing of locusts and honeybees was reaching a crescendo. And remember, he was filled with the Holy Spirit from the womb, which means his life in the desert was filled with God – as he waited for his calling and mission to be carried out.
And it came when the word of God came to him, bringing us to our third point, the much-needed message of John in verses 3-6 – which is actually just an introduction and summary of his message. It goes through verse 17, but we’ll stop with verse 6 today.
We see first John came into all the district around the Jordan, that is the Jordan River – because it was close to the wilderness and further, he was baptizing, so he needed water. And what was his message? He preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Just like Gabriel said he would, just like his father Zacharias said he would. To turn the hearts of the fathers back to their children, and the attitude of the disobedient back to the righteous. To give people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.
Now to be clear, baptism was not the means of repentance or salvation – it was a symbol that pointed to that which had happened in people’s hearts as large crowds came to listen to his preaching. And they were convicted of their sin by the Holy Spirit, turned from it in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. Again, not Christian baptism, but Christian baptism is also a symbol which points to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, providing salvation to repentant hearts. Because there is no salvation without repentance. Repentance is absolutely necessary for salvation to be experienced. But the Scripture is clear – even repentance is a gift granted by God. So it’s not a work, but a work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of people, who then repent, when they are awakened to the grace of God and the glories of Christ.
And what is it to repent? It is a change of heart and mind. It is a turning from sin and turning in faith to Jesus Christ – and we will find, bringing forth fruit as proof of salvation. What James called a living faith – because faith without corresponding works is dead. You see, regardless of the time – OT, the preaching of John, New Covenant – repentance is required for true salvation. In other words, you can’t just use Jesus as a fire escape from hell. The grace of God through the gospel will change your life.
John is going to make that abundantly clear in the verses ahead – don’t think because you have Abraham as your father that you’re okay. You’re not. Family pedigree won’t do it. Repentance and fruit in keeping with repentance will do it – because it proves the reality of faith. Don’t think you can just be baptized and be okay. The gospel will change your life. And it begins with repentance. The story is told of 19th Century Methodist preacher, Peter Cartwright. He was told before a service that President Andrew Jackson would be there. He was a fiery preacher, so it was suggested he guard his words. So, he stood up and said, “I understand that Andrew Jackson is here. I have been requested to be guarded in my remarks. Andrew Jackson will go to hell if he doesn’t repent.”
I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me close with this – verses 4-6 are a quote of Isaiah 40. Isaiah 40 is a turning point in the book – it had been pretty much doom and gloom – judgment till then. But Isaiah offers hope. The Lord is coming. And Luke quotes Isaiah 40:3-5. The other gospels only quote Isaiah 40:3 when talking about John – but Luke goes beyond. Look at it:
The voice of one crying in the wilderness, make ready the way of the LORD – He’s coming, and His name we now know is Jesus. Don’t miss that Isaiah 40 is about the LORD’s coming – Yahweh – and it is applied to Jesus – God in the flesh. And how do we prepare for His coming? Luke goes on. You see, back then, when a visiting dignitary – perhaps a king or high-ranking official – was coming – cities and towns would prepare. They would go out and clean up the roadways of trash and garbage, of overgrowth, rocks, and ruts. But here, this isn’t just any king, this is the King of kings – so every ravine shall be filled, every mountain and hill will be brought low, the crooked will become straight, and the rough roads will be made smooth.
This is a metaphor for what happens when the people of John’s day repented – they prepared their hearts and minds for the coming of the Messiah. And as a result, all flesh will see the salvation of God. That’s why Luke went beyond verse 3 – because he understood, and made clear, the Messiah was not just a Jewish Messiah – He would be the Savior for all flesh, all people. And we receive Him by repenting of our sin, and believing in Him by faith.
And so, all people will need to make a decision about Christ. You see, the previous private lives of John and Jesus had become quite public. And they appeared before most of the seven names in the list. John appeared before Herod Antipas, and lost his head for calling out sin and preaching repentance. Jesus appeared before Herod, Pilate, Annas and Caiaphas – and they together crucified Him. Paul will later appear before Herod Agrippa, governors, and ultimately Caesar. All these political and religious leaders – household names – had to make a decision about Jesus. So do you. John and Jesus preached repentance. The rest of the NT preaches faith in Jesus Christ. He has come quite publicly. What will you do?