Luke 3:1-20 – The Teachings of John the Baptizer
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.