A Voice in the Wilderness
Tiberius Caesar, the Emperor. Pontius Pilate, the Governor. Herod and Philip, Tetrarchs. Annas and Caiaphas, High Priests. Luke opens his third chapter by dropping these important political names. Then … he drops them as if they mean little more than setting an historical timeframe. History is filled with great political and religious figures, but these men have no bearing on whether God will fulfill His plans through Christ. These names are followed by the more obscure John the immerser. He does not carry the historical weight in terms of politics, but he is far more significant in God’s plans.
When John enters the scene, he is preaching “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). This theme is carried through both Luke and Acts. This is also provided to identify John as the one who would be preparing the way for Christ. John’s job is described via Isaiah (40:3-5):
“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 shall be made low,
and the crooked shall become straight,
and the rough places shall become level ways,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
There are a few points arising from this quote:
In Isaiah’s passage, the “Lord” is Yahweh. Luke’s use of “Lord” is consistent with this identification of Jesus as God. When the angels told the shepherds about the birth of Jesus, they said, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). When John is preparing the way for Jesus, He is preparing the way for God in the flesh to accomplish His work.
John would make paths straight so that Jesus can do His work more efficiently. The valleys are filled and the hills and mountains made low. This idea may be alluding to humbling the proud, which is important to Luke’s gospel. In Mary’s praise, God has “brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate” (1:52). Jesus teaches that “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (14:11; cf. 18:14). To accept Christ, the proud need to be humbled. This is seen almost immediately as John addresses the various people who come to him. Humbling oneself is in keeping with repentance.
Isaiah’s prophecy of John also pointed to “all flesh” seeing the “salvation of God.” Again, this is an important theme in Luke’s gospel. When Simeon took the baby Jesus in his arms at the temple, he said, “my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:30-32). God’s plan was to include the Gentiles, even as shown in the promise to Abraham (Gen 12:1-3). All nations, all flesh, are to participate in the salvation that comes through Christ the Lord. This is a theme that is carried through Acts as well. As Peter realized, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35). The gospel is for all, and Luke stresses this throughout his writings.
John’s message immediately had to do with repentance. “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance” is a consistent message (3:8). Those who follow the Messiah will have to humble themselves, repent of their sins, and bear the fruit of this change. That is the same message that was preached in Acts. Peter highlighted repentance and baptism in Acts 2:38, then again spoke of repentance so that “times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19-20). Preparing the way for Christ meant teaching repentance, but even after Christ came that message of repentance was a constant. There is no following Jesus if we refuse to turn from sin.
John’s message also showed that repentance has much to do with character. His specific instructions pointed to the need to be honest, to stay away from threats and accusations, and to demonstrate contentment (vv. 10-14). Following the Lord likewise means developing a certain character as represented by the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-24. This is summarized by Paul’s statement, “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” We are humbled by the cross.
“So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people” (Luke 3:18). Yet not only did John baptize a number of those who came to hear his message, he also baptized Jesus according to the Lord’s instructions. This validated the message of John and identified Jesus with John’s message. John knew he would decrease in popularity and give way to Jesus. That was the plan from the beginning. With the divine voice identifying Jesus as the Son, the gospel message would proceed just as God desired. God be praised that even today we can partake of this same gospel!