John the Baptist Prepares the Way
[Luke chapter 3, verses 1-14]
In this week’s ongoing study of the gospel of Luke, we’ll be moving on to chapter three. Here is where we find ourselves introduced to a now-full-grown John the Baptist, whose birth is foretold in chapter one. As chapter three opens, we find ourselves moved forward in time, to the time of the calling of John the Baptist into his ministry, a calling that would ultimately culminate in his death. So let’s proceed with today’s study beginning at verse one.
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar – when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod the tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip the tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene – during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: ‘A voice of one calling in the desert, prepare the way of the Lord, and make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, and every mountain and hill laid low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all mankind shall see salvation.’ John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’. For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children of Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.’ ‘What should we do then?’, the crowd asked. John answered, ‘The man with two tunics should share with the man who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.’ Tax collectors also came to be baptized. ‘Teacher’, they asked, ‘what should we do?’ ‘Don’t collect any more than you are required to’, he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, ‘What should we do?’ He replied, ‘Don’t extort money, and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay.’” (Luke 3, verses 1-14)
The word of God came to John in the desert. Now understand, John the Baptist had no Internet, no phone or any other portable electronic device, not even a carrier pigeon! He didn’t even have a Bible, because there were no Bibles in those days. So how did John know to meet the Lord in the desert? We will find the answer by going back to chapter 1 and verse 67, which says, “His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy
Spirit and prophesied….” ‘Prophesy’ simply means to proclaim, extol and uphold the Word of God. Well, like Zechariah’s son John, his father was Spirit filled, meaning they can discern and interpret the sayings, truths, and other things of God without any input from other people, and without the text of the Torah (the Hebrew version of our Old Testament). To prophesy is a form of direct communication with God. Zechariah the priest had it, so did his wife Elizabeth, and they passed that on to their son John. “…. preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Here we have the introduction of water baptism and repentance. Repentance is defined here as a renouncement of old ways of living, or the breaking of bad habits. Repentance towards God is the first step towards forgiveness by God.
Luke then quotes the prophet Isaiah chapter 40, verses 3-5, “A voice of one calling in the desert, prepare the way of the Lord, and make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, and every mountain and hill laid low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all mankind shall see salvation.” As you can see, this is clearly a prophecy of the coming of John the Baptist that was made approximately 800 years before it occurred. As you can also see, when it comes to prophecy that originates from God, it’s either 100% accurate or it’s not real prophecy. There is no ‘in between’ when it comes to prophecy. Notice too, it doesn’t say ‘all mankind will be saved’, because salvation comes through Jesus Christ. John the Baptist’s role was to prepare the way for the ministry of Christ, which had still not occurred yet. Through him, wrote Isaiah, all humankind would see salvation, but not by him. The text of chapter 3 explains why in a few more verses, as you will see.
I find it interesting that, in the very next verse, John called the crowds that were coming out to be baptized a family of poisonous snakes (“you brood of vipers”). One thing we can take away from this is that it’s a waste of time to worry about what others may think of you. John clearly didn’t care about his own popularity, otherwise he would not have made such inflammatory statements to those who had presumably walked a long way to see him. “I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children of Abraham.” I find this encouraging, because it says here that God could make followers out of whatever he wanted, even the stones in the quarry. But instead He chose us and made us special and set apart, choosing to make worshipers into living and interactive beings that could freely choose to make him their God, and to make themselves his people, like one giant family!
“…every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.’ ‘What should we do then?’, the crowd asked. John answered, ‘The man with two tunics should share with the man who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.” This was a prophecy in every sense of the word. Either be a fruitful producer in the sight of God, or be “cut down and thrown into the fire”! What fire, you ask? The fires of hell, that’s what! I realize I could lose some readers here by writing this, but hell is a real place. It’s not imaginary, nor mythological, not is it transcendental or trans-dimensional. It’s a real place where people go if they reject the free salvation of the shed blood of Christ, or if they refuse to believe or acknowledge that Jesus is the one and only Son of God. This is not a joke, nor is it a threat. It’s reality, which is just the way it is.
But then the apostle Luke goes deeper when he quotes John the Baptist’s response to the question, “what should we do?”. He responds, “The man with two tunics should share with the man who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.” This was a foreshadowing of what Jesus said when he was rebuking the Pharisees in Matthew’s gospel chapter 12 and verse 7: “Go and learn the meaning of this, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’”. As you have learned from previous lessons, Jesus was referring to the requisite animal sacrifices that were commanded by the Old Law. Today we call this the first 5 books of the Old Testament but, as I wrote further above, there were no Bibles in existence when this was first written. Jesus was telling the religious leaders of his day to de-emphasize religious sacrifices and start substituting some personal sacrifices for the people they were supposed to be ministering to. Moreover, back when this was written the world was a very harsh and unforgiving place. Wealth and education were only for a tiny minority at the top, while everyone else was desperately impoverished and pathetically uneducated. The religious leadership of that day did nothing for these people. They kept all the meat from the animal sacrifices that they could eat, while everyone else ate barley bread. So John the Baptist was telling those who came to him to be baptized, “As I baptize you, you can make your baptism authentic by helping others who are less fortunate. Otherwise, you are wasting your time and mine.”
“Tax collectors also came to be baptized. ‘Teacher’, they asked, ‘what should we do?’ ‘Don’t collect any more than you are required to’, he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, ‘What should we do?’ He replied, ‘Don’t extort money, and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay.’” Does this look familiar to anyone? It should, because the same things are still happening today! Far, far more taxes are collected here in the US to fund the American Empire’s global war machine than need be. While our military goes on excursions abroad – excursions of questionable necessity and dubious legality – America’s infrastructure continues to crumble, higher education and health care remain ridiculously expensive, and America’s power grid continues to be desperately in need of replacement. America’s top 1% continue to keep all the excess tax revenue and profit for themselves while 25% of the population is forced to rely on government subsidies so they can eat and feed their kids!
And then there’s law enforcement and the court system. The US has more people locked up than any other nation by far, making the Soviet gulags of the Cold War look tame in comparison. Prisoners on death row are now routinely exonerated and set free thanks to DNA testing, the technology for which didn’t exist until just recently. Over 54% of all US prisoners are serving time for simple drug possession. They are basically serving time for committing a crime against themselves. To call that ‘faulty logic’ would be a colossal understatement!
All the things that were going on during the time of John the Baptist are still going on today. Except, as you’re probably already thinking, things have gotten much worse. Corruption has become more widespread because big government has gotten that much bigger over the centuries. But not only that, since government is bigger there are more people involved in it than ever before, and the population has increased greatly as well. So the things John was warning them about have gotten much worse since the apostle Luke first wrote those words. The phrase “don’t extort money” means far more than a ‘mob racket’. It means don’t overcharge the people with excessive taxation like the federal income tax, as well as hidden taxes like inflation, inequality, exorbitant traffic fines and “Obama-care”.
With the presidential election that has just transpired, I’m hoping it will be a catalyst for change in the way things are being run in Washington. But, of course, that is a topic for a much different discussion to be undertaken separately at a later time. But for now, I will close today’s lesson by reminding you once again, all my dear readers, that standing against greed and corruption, as well as economic inequality, go hand in hand with being a practicing Christian and a Jesus follower. If John the Baptist did it, and if Jesus preached it, then I’m going to preach it too. And next week, we’ll conclude the third chapter of Luke’s gospel. Be blessed in Jesus’ mighty name!