All the Gospels make clear that the ministry of Jesus was preceded by and prepared for by the ministry of John, who is known in Christian history as John the Baptist. They all indicate that the nature of John’s ministry was the proclamation of the necessity of repentance in prospect of the appearance of the Lord. “Prepare to meet thy God.” That was John’s message as it had been Amos’ before him. But only Luke gives us so much detail as to the precise form of that message and, in particular, how John tailored his message to the members of his audience.
v.1 Luke is writing for Gentiles, citizens of the Greco-Roman world whose supreme difficulty with the Christian message was in believing that the ultimate truth for all mankind was to be found in a member of a despised race who lived in a distant province of the empire and who was executed as a criminal by the imperial authorities. So Luke begins boldly proclaiming that the events he is about to narrate are, in fact, a part of world history.
Augustus died in August of the year 14, so it would seem that the 15th year of Tiberius would be the year between August A.D. 28 and August 29. However, there are other factors that bear on the calculation of the date Tiberius began his reign and it could be as early as the year 27 that John the Baptist began his ministry and Jesus began his. Pilate was the Roman governor of Judea between A.D. 26 and 36. Herod Antipas, the son of Herod of the Great of the Christmas story, was tetrarch of Galilee from 4 B.C. to A.D. 39. We know almost nothing of this Lysanias of Abilene. All of these dates fit well with the best estimation of the date of the Lord’s crucifixion some three years after the beginning of his public ministry.
v.2 Now Luke adds some dates important to the Jews. And Luke is very precise here. There was but one high priest at any time, but Annas was deposed by the Romans in A.D. 15. Caiaphas was his son-in-law, but the Jews regarded Annas as the true high priest and perhaps it was still Annas that exercised the real power of the office. You may remember that when Jesus was arrested he was taken first to Annas. [John 18:13] This is one of those many instances in which Luke proves to be a highly accurate historian. We don’t expect to find two names given when the high priest is identified, but that was precisely the situation de facto at the beginning of John’s ministry.
v.3 “Baptism of repentance” refers to a baptism that follows repentance and is a sign of it. And repentance was preached as the indispensible prerequisite of forgiveness.
v.6 All four Gospels associate Isaiah 40:3 with John’s message, but only Luke adds vv. 4 and 5 from that same Isaiah passage. The imagery of valleys being filled and mountains being leveled describes a road being prepared for the coming king and “all flesh” fits with Luke’s emphasis, already seen, on Jesus as bringing salvation not only to the Jews but to the entire world.
v.9 These words are virtually identical to what we read in Matthew 3:7-10. There is a clear revelation here of the burden of both John’s and Jesus’ message: the necessity of a changed life to demonstrate the reality of repentance, the prospect of divine judgment that makes that repentance so essential, and the Jews’ tendency to assume that their descent from Abraham would render them immune to God’s judgment. Now, like any good preacher, John applies his message to the variety of situations before him. Each calling in life has its own temptations and it is the mark of the truly penitent to resist them. [Morris, 110] And the genuinely repentant want to know: what should I do to please God?
v.13 The Romans collected taxes by farming out the responsibility for taxation in any area to the highest bidder. He would have to pay Rome what he had bid but he made his money by collecting as much more than that as he could. No wonder the tax collector has such a bad reputation in the Gospels. It was a legalized form of theft.
v.14 The occupying Roman force in Judea was not composed of legionaries but local auxiliaries (Syrians, Samaritans, Idumeans, but never Jews). Only the senior officers were Roman. Poorly disciplined, the soldiers were on the lookout for loot and could be savage in dealing with the locals whom they despised anyway. They operated what we would call nowadays a protection racket: if you don’t want your inn, or if you don’t want your shop to have trouble, give us money and we’ll make sure that you remain safe. So John’s counsel was very apt. [Seward, Jerusalem’s Traitor, 20-21]
An entirely new chapter of world history commenced at the moment John the Baptist, that strange, other-worldly, titan of a man came out of the desert and began to preach in the Jordan Valley that men everywhere should repent because the day of the Lord was near. John appeared, we read, because the word of the Lord came to him. That is, after 400 years of silence, since the days of Malachi, a prophet of the Lord had appeared in Israel. “The word of the Lord came…” is a typical way of identifying how the prophets of ancient Israel received their message. In 1 Kings 18:1 we read that Elijah’s ministry began when the word of the Lord came to him. John is the second Elijah and the word of the Lord came to him as well.
John had been living in the wilderness, apparently alone and apart. And in all probability he would have continued to live alone and apart in the desert, wearing, as Matthew tells us, his strange clothes and eating his strange food until he died had not the word of the Lord come to him. But when it came John could do nothing else but give himself to that word with everything that he had. And with the authority of the divine word in his mouth, at least for some months, his preaching of repentance and the coming of the Lord led to a meteoric rise to fame and influence. Josephus refers to this in his history of the Jews. It was not to last, of course. As we will read later in chapter 3, John’s preaching offended Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, and so John was arrested and then some time later he was beheaded in Herod’s jail to satisfy the cruel bloodlust of Herodias, whom John had condemned for divorcing her first husband to marry Herod, who had likewise divorced his wife so as to marry Herodias. John had the temerity to say publicly that the whole seamy mess was an offense to God. John’s fearless preaching of the word of the Lord got him killed, as it had some other prophets before him.
But such is what happens when the word of the Lord comes: one must be true to that word come wind, come weather. He cannot, she cannot help it. We don’t know precisely how the word of the Lord came to John only that it did and brought him out of the desert with a message that was to change the world. Now, to be sure, John had known the word of the Lord in one sense, since he was a little boy. His parents had taught him the word of God and taught him to revere it. But this phrase “the word of the Lord came” means more than that. Here it means not only that a particular message from God was communicated to John to communicate to others, but that this message came with the power of the Holy Spirit, the force of its truth was felt in a way that compelled obedience.
In that sense, there is not a believer here this morning to whom the word of the Lord has not come, even if not as uniquely or as supernaturally as it came to John in the desert. In fact, in this chapter 3 of the Gospel of Luke and then throughout the Gospel we see the word of the Lord coming to others besides John. When the crowds gathered around him – why after all did people suddenly feel compelled to listen to this strange man, multitudes making the trip from Jerusalem down to the Jordan River expressly to hear John – they heard a message, after all, that was hardly likely to appeal to the masses.
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to fell from the wrath to come?”
Not an opening calculated to make a preacher popular. But they hung on every word! Many would say today that John should have taken a course from Dale Carnegie before he began to preach. And then, to make matters worse, when he descended to particulars, he demanded of people the most draconian changes in their behavior. It was not enough that they think more kind and loving thoughts toward God and man. They had to make sacrifices, sharing what little they had with others; they had to refuse to take advantage of opportunities upon which their hope of financial success depended; and they had to abandon behavior that was not only expected of them but by abandoning it would set them at odds with their fellows. It is not easy to be the one soldier in a unit who refuses to participate with the others in what they take to be normal and even essential activity. To become a traitor to one’s peers is a sacrifice indeed!
But huge congregations of the most unlikely hearers not only heard John speak of the wrath of God, heard him demand of them to prove their repentance by their deeds, and heard him directly condemn the religious viewpoint in which most of them had been raised and in which most of them had lived comfortably for years, I say they not only heard this message from John, but were shattered by it. All their characteristic complacency vanished as they listened to the preacher and they saw themselves, for the first time, stripped of all pretense and self-righteousness, for what they actually were: inveterate sinners standing helpless before a holy God. The word of God that had come to John had now come to them through John and left their tidy, comfortable lives in shambles.
“What must we do?” they cried to John, as they would cry out to Jesus and then on Pentecost a great crowd would cry out to Peter. “What must we do?” And John hit them between the eyes: telling each group before him to forsake the sins which were most characteristic of that group. In other words, manifest genuine repentance toward God by striking at those sins which are most natural to you and for which you have the most affection and which cannot be forsaken without others being aware of it. This is how you make yourself ready for the Messiah who is about to appear. This is how you can share in his salvation and how you can escape the wrath to come.
We know how controversial that message was because, though many were mesmerized by it, many others were deeply offended by it, scorned John and his preaching, and eventually welcomed news of his murder. But no matter: multitudes were inexplicably drawn to John’s preaching because they found that the word of the Lord came to them through him. John worked no miracles as Jesus would (John 10:41). He never calmed a storm, he never healed the sick, and he never raised the dead. There was a need to distinguish the greater ministry of the Lord from that of his predecessor. All John did was preach and baptize. But no matter; people couldn’t stay away and many couldn’t help but believe and obey. The word of the Lord had come to them through John! When the word of the Lord comes the bare words leave the pages of Holy Scripture or jump out from the voice of the preacher and penetrate the soul, carrying all before it. The Bible often speaks of the word of God in this way.
“Let all the earth fear the Lord, let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him; for he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded and it stood firm.” [Ps. 33:9]
“As the rain and snow come down from heaven and do not return to it without watering the earth…so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” [Isa. 55:11]
As Martin Luther beautifully put it: “…the words of God’s mouth are not so many merely grammatical vocables. The words of God’s mouth are true, and actual, and essential things. The sun and the moon; the heavens and the earth; Peter and Paul; you and I are all so many words of God.” When God sends out his word, when he accompanies it with divine power to accomplish his bidding, it carries all obstacles and impediments and objections before it. It does this whether it is a word such as “Let there be light” as on the first day of creation; or a word such as “Jerusalem shall be destroyed for her many sins,” that came to Jeremiah the prophet; or such a word as came through John that sinners could find forgiveness with God if only they would believe in God and repent of their sins. It is for this reason that Jesus Christ is called “the word” in the Bible. He is the ultimate word from God, the most powerful and effective communication ever dispatched from heaven to earth. And so it is that the word of the Lord has often come to people on earth and does so still today.
I could give you unending illustrations of this reality as you yourselves very well know: the word of the Lord coming to a man or a woman for the very first time, as it did to many who heard John, or the word of the Lord coming to a believer time and again throughout his life. I often think of my father’s experience of this when, contrary to all the assurances he had been given when he remained in the army reserves after the Second World War, he found himself uprooted from his Wheaton, Illinois pastorate in 1950 and transported to the war zone in Korea. When he arrived in a group of eight replacement chaplains – since North Korea was not a signatory of the Geneva Convention it did not observe the rules regarding non-combatants (chaplains, medics, and the like) that were observed by other nations and chaplains were being killed at an alarming rate in the early months of the Korean war – it was announced to them that there was a need for a Protestant volunteer to be the chaplain of a parachute regiment. Five of the eight were Roman Catholics and the regiment already had a Catholic chaplain. The other two Protestants were disqualified for other reasons so he was the only possibility. He asked for time to think and pray, collected his Bible, and made his way to a nearby chapel to pray. You can imagine the prayer he prayed. He had his own fears of jumping out of airplanes in combat, he had concern for his wife and children at home and wondered if he dared assume a greater risk; but in the midst of that prayer the words of the 91st Psalm came unbidden to his mind:
“Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place – the Most High, who is my refuge – no evil shall be allowed to befall you…. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” [Ps. 91:9-12]
What a word for a reluctant paratrooper! But the word of the Lord had come to him and he volunteered for the position. He made his way to his new unit with the assurance of his superiors that he would be given adequate training before ever being asked to make a jump in combat, but when he arrived his regiment was readying for a jump behind enemy lines in two days time (a jump, by the way, that still today is remembered as one of the great combat performances of that airborne regiment, a formation that still exists and is today stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky). He protested that he had no idea how to jump out of airplane but the Roman Catholic chaplain assured him there was nothing to it and that he really needed to go for the men’s sake. Good Friday, 1951, he marched with his unit to the air strip, his assistant helped him get into his gear, the first time he had worn a parachute in his life, and into the plane he went. He was sitting next to a sergeant who was trying to remember whether this was his 99th or 100th jump. Shortly after take-off he began to pray that, as a Christian minister, he wouldn’t be paralyzed by fear and bring disgrace to the Lord’s name before the men. He was beginning to get very afraid. It was near the beginning of that prayer that this word from the familiar 23rd Psalm shot up into his heart:
“I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.”
The word of the Lord had come again and he was flooded with so much peace that he was the only man of one hundred in the plane who slept the rest of the two hours to the drop zone and had to be awakened for the jump. The report of that quickly spread throughout the regiment and became a great opportunity to bear witness to the reality of God’s presence. There were men on that plane who would later become followers of Christ themselves because the word of the Lord came to my father.
And you can remember when the word of the Lord came to you and what a tremendous difference it made to you and how it lifted you up or cast you down or set you on a course you had not planned to walk before. It is what distinguishes Christians from all others. The word of the Lord has come to them. It may remain lifeless on the page or held captive in the voice of the minister for many others, but in the case of Christians, time and time again, that powerful, life-changing word, that word that commands belief and obedience, has come to them. Irresistible, full of divine authority the word of the Lord came like a thunderbolt in some cases, like a still small voice in others, but always it could not be denied or ignored. It was the voice of the Almighty in your soul!
And the proof of that is that we cannot control this word; rather it controls us. We cannot summon it whenever we wish; nor can we make it depart when we would rather be without the voice of God sounding in our hearts. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wisely observed:
“If it is I who determine where God is to be found, then I shall always find a God who corresponds to me in some way, who is obliging, who is connected with my own nature. But if God determines where he is to be found, then it will be in a place which is not immediately pleasing to my nature and which is not at all congenial to me.” [Mataxas, 137]
And that is precisely what we find here in the word of the Lord that came through John. All the gospels indicate that repentance was front and center in the ministry of both John and Jesus. In Mark 1, for example, we read that
“…after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’”
And later, in Acts, we read Paul’s own summary of the message that he preached around the Greco-Roman world:
“[I preached that men] should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with repentance.” [Acts 26:20]
And in Acts 20 we read his summary of his preaching during the three years he spent in Ephesus: “repentance toward God and…faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” [Acts 20:21]
That sounds very much like John the Baptist doesn’t it? But nowadays we are likely to think that repentance is not a winning message. That’s why there is so little of the call to repentance in Christian preaching today. Preachers don’t think people will like it or come back a second time. They don’t want to hear that they need to perform deeds and bear fruit in keeping with real repentance. Certainly in modern sermons we don’t find too much of repentance as a way of fleeing the wrath to come. Indeed, this tendency to relax the Bible’s demand for repentance has been typical of Christian preaching and thinking about Christian faith and life. In the Bible repentance is primarily a change of behavior. But you’ll notice that in many ways, no doubt unwittingly but perhaps predictably, that message is over and over and over again softened into a message about a change in thinking. To change one’s thinking isn’t nearly as costly as changing one’s behavior. I notice, for example, that virtually every hymn in the “Repentance” section of Trinity Hymnal is not actually about repentance at all, but about conviction of sin and sorrow for sin and the desire to be forgiven of our sins. True enough, conviction is a presupposition of repentance – you are unlikely to turn from behaviors until you recognize them as sinful, wrong, unworthy, and offensive to God – but conviction is not biblical repentance. Remorse for sins past is not biblical repentance; it may be a part of it, a presupposition of it, but it is not repentance itself. There must be the change of behavior; there must be the deeds that are in keeping with repentance. And so here, when John is asked what repentance would look like for this group of his hearers or that, he responds by telling them not how they should feel, or what they should think, but what they should do differently from what they have done before.
But when the word of the Lord came, that is what people wanted to know: what should I do differently? They now knew of God’s coming wrath, they knew that they were sinners and naked before the judgment of God, they knew God’s holiness and God’s grace made forgiveness possible for them, but they also knew that it would be granted only to those who repented, who changed their ways. And with the force of truth pummeling them, they had to know: what must I do? “If I must bear fruits in keeping with repentance, what are those fruits, because I now know that bearing them must be the great business of my life; God has so spoken to me!”
And for those of us to whom the word of the Lord has come, it should be, it must be the same. And I know it often has been the same. You have heard the word of the Lord and your life has changed, your behavior has changed. In light of God’s wrath, in light of God’s mercy in Christ, what must I do differently; how must my life change? It matters not if I have just now become a Christian or have been a Christian for years. Repentance is the lifeblood of true faith, the characteristic mark of the genuine child of God. It isn’t once for all, it is a grace that must accompany our lives to the end.
If you remember, the very first of Martin Luther’s 95 theses, the posting of which unwittingly ignited the Protestant Reformation in 1517, read this way:
“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’, he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
Or as Samuel Rutherford put it in a more homely way: It is the Savior’s will that we “break off a sin or a piece of a sin every day.” And so it becomes our duty and our calling to ask the same sort of questions that John’s hearers asked. “What about me; what shall I do?” There is obviously something for me to do. What is it? As our Westminster Confession of Faith sums up: “it is every man’s duty to endeavour to repent of his particular sins, particularly.” [XV, v]
The gospel of Jesus Christ begins here – it does in John’s case, it does in the case of the Lord Jesus himself and his preaching – with a call to repentance in view of the divine wrath to come and the coming of the Lord, but it does not ever move beyond this message. The main thing, the principal thing, the essential thing was repentance and those to whom the word of the Lord came through John’s preaching wanted to know nothing so much as precisely how they must repent and of what they must repent and of what changes in their ordinary behavior true repentance would consist of. It is that kind of holy curiosity that is produced when the word of the Lord comes upon a soul.
Brothers and sisters, how is the way prepared for the coming of the Lord? We need him to come in power and effect, do we not? We need him for ourselves, our families, our society and our country. We need the word of the Lord to come to us and to multitudes of Americans in our day more than we need anything else on earth or in heaven. And how is the way prepared for that? We are not in control of the word of the Lord, we know that. But is it not right that by doing what men and women do when the word of the Lord comes to them, we honor that word and, as it were, our actions are themselves an enacted prayer, a powerful prayer for the coming of the word of the Lord. By men and women heeding the call to repentance and bearing fruit in keeping with repentance we best seek the word of the Lord, which when it comes will put us to doing just that still more! I suspect most of you know very well at least one or two or three things which in your case must change. You know how repentance would be practiced in your case; this John-like kind of repentance; a change in behavior, public, dramatic; the changes that concern those temptations most endemic in your life. If you don’t, pray that the Lord will show your sin to you and then make you want nothing so much as to kill it dead and to live instead in obedience to God and in the love of Jesus Christ.