Luke introduces readers to John the Baptizer, a prophet who warns crowds of people about God’s coming judgment, calls them to perform justice in their interactions with one another, and performs a “baptism of repentance.”
Of all the Gospels, Luke provides the most detailed description of John the Baptizer’s ministry. Luke connects John’s message to the book of Isaiah (quoting Isaiah 40:3-5 in vv. 4-6). John issues pointed warnings about God’s impending judgment, expressed in images familiar from the Jewish Scriptures (the Christian Old Testament) (vv. 7-9, 17; see also Matthew 3:7-10, 12). He instructs people to practice basic justice (vv. 10-14, material that appears only in Luke’s description of John). He promises that one “more powerful” than he is on the way (vv. 15-17). This brief sketch of John continues the tendency established in Luke 1-2, where John and Jesus are both closely associated (part of the same work on God’s behalf) and clearly distinguished (Jesus is the Christ, and John goes before him “to prepare his ways,” according to 1:76).
Luke introduces John, in vv. 1-2, in a manner recalling the prophets of the Old Testament and historical writings of the Greco-Roman age. The rulers of the day are identified, from the Roman emperor down to more regional, local officials. The scene is set: from a Jewish perspective, this is an atmosphere of foreign occupation; yearnings for the Lord to deliver the people of God must be in the air. Luke draws additional attention to the tense political setting later, in vv. 12-14, by reporting John’s words to tax collectors and soldiers (two of the most visible, constant reminders of the Roman Empire). John admonishes these groups against using their positions for economic exploitation.
“The word of God” comes to John, who preaches and calls people to repentance. This is his role in making “ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17). The call to repentance is explicitly linked to a washing, a “baptism” (the word simply means “dipping”) for forgiveness of sins. In undergoing John’s baptism of repentance, people commit or recommit themselves to God and, as a result, should “bear fruits” in living lives that manifest God’s intentions. John was not the only Jew of his day promoting a lustration rite (a purification ceremony), but his stands out in that he immerses others in water (as opposed to people washing themselves). His activity attracted large numbers of people. Certainly Jesus’ close association with him—an association that this Gospel strongly emphasizes in Luke 1—would have attracted people to Jesus, even as it would have repelled others.
Luke names John’s message as “good news” (or “gospel”) in 3:18, indicating it aligns fully with what Jesus and his followers will later proclaim in this Gospel and the book of Acts. Not everyone hears it as good news, however; Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee and Perea, responds to John’s criticisms by arresting him. Herod will later execute John (Luke 9:9). In Luke and Acts, proclaiming “good news” about judgment, repentance, justice, and forgiveness in this political climate proves over and over again to be dangerous business.
3In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler* of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler* of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler* of Abilene,
2during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,
4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
5 Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, We have Abraham as our ancestor; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
10 And the crowds asked him, What then should we do? 11In reply he said to them, Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise. 12Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, Teacher, what should we do? 13He said to them, Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you. 14Soldiers also asked him, And we, what should we do? He said to them, Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,* 16John answered all of them by saying, I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with* the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. 19But Herod the ruler,* who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brothers wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, 20added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org