Series on Luke, II Identification, G The Baptism Accepted, Text: 3:1-22, Title: Preparing for God


The Old Testament had many washings or lustrations called baptisms. To these the rabbis added others. Generally speaking the function of these baptisms was to cleanse away the pollution of contact with the Gentiles in a world that was not “kosher.” The most prominent of these was proselyte baptism. Many of the ruins toured by visitors to the Holy Land have Mikvehs, or ceremonial bath pits. Though these were used for various kinds of cleansing in first century Judaism, when John came preaching baptism for repentance of sins to all of Israel including the religious leaders, it was an affront and an embarrassment to them. They thought that they were living kosher lives unstained by pollution and contact with that which was unclean. They observed all the rabbinical rules. Why would they need to be washed like some dirty Gentile convert, or menstrous woman, or someone who had touched a dead body? They were clean, or so they thought. So we can draw two immediate conclusions. First this preaching was sure to stir up trouble, and secondly it was an Old Testament washing. There is a tendency to think of John’s baptism as New Testament baptism, but it is not and this is proved by the fact that in Acts 18;24-26 Apollos was preaching Christ but knew only the baptism of John, and was corrected by Priscilla and Aquila. John’s baptism was an Old Testament ordinance and was not Christian baptism. In this passage we make three observations about John’s ministry. It was prophesied, it was to prepare for Jesus, and it brought punishment.

I Prophecy

Luke gives us, as is his custom, all the historical markers surrounding this event. This is done for his Gentile readers. And then he quotes the prophecy of John’s ministry from Isaiah, and so we read in verses 1-6, In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip 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 for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all mankind will see God’s salvation.’” We are told that he is preparing the way for Jesus. What Isaiah says concerning this ministry is to be understood spiritually and not carnally or physically. The leveling and straightening is not geographical,  but metaphorical. The prophet is telling us that with the coming of John and Jesus and the preaching of a new stage of the kingdom of God, the old barriers are being removed, and the old obstacles are being taken away and the message will spread out over the whole earth. This is in contrast to God’s revelation being confined to Israel in the Old Testament. Formerly, Israel knew Yahweh and others had to come to Israel to be joined to His people. Now every nation will be brought into the fold. This is especially important to Luke’s Gentile readers.

II The Preparation

There are three parts to the preparation. Part one is the destruction of the old. Part two is the new demand for repentance, and part three is the punishment that is the result of this drastic change.

A The Destruction

The destruction of the old ways is in verses 7 -9, 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 for 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.” The Judaism of John’s day was focused on pride in God’s having chosen Israel as His own. Their preoccupation with their physical lineage and Abraham as their Father was phenomenal. They were so blind to their sin that in John chapter 8 they are unable to understand Jesus words. In John 8:31-33 we read, To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?” They had been slaves in Egypt, they were slaves in Babylon, and now they were slaves of the Roman empire, and they didn’t see it. They couldn’t conceive that they needed to be freed, but of course Jesus was talking about the bondage of sin. So John says, stop claiming that you are Abraham’s children. The ax was about to strike the tree of Israel and level it because it was fruitless, and they were going along blithely assuming that they were immune because they were Abraham’s children.

B The Demand

The new stage of the kingdom of God being introduced here demanded repentance because you could not enter it by birth. The entrance was only by spiritual rebirth as Jesus said to Nicodemus, a master and teacher in Israel, I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. And so John preaches repentance in verses 10-14, “What should we do then?” the crowd asked. John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him 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, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” This demand for change is very important as witnessed by the fact that Jesus, himself, came preaching, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand, as we are told in Matthew 4:17. Spiritual rebirth is invisible, but the evidences of it in life are observable and include repentance first  and then faith.

C The Denial

The changes that were taking place incited the curiosity of the people regarding the ancient promises and their expectations of a deliverer, the Messiah. Thus we read in verses 15-18, The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them. John is not the Messiah, but he assures them that the divine Messiah is following after him in short order. With his words he dispels the foolish notion that the Messiah is coming only to bless Israel because he says that the Messiah’s ministry will be with the Holy Spirit and fire. In other words it is a ministry of judgment as well as mercy and grace. The Spirit will minister grace, but judgment will come upon the old ways. The national pride, the self-righteousness, the presumption, the preoccupation with the law as a way of salvation and indeed, the whole Old Testament economy will be burned up and replaced by the new ways.

III The Punishment

Now it is clear from the remainder of our text that John was savagely punished as a martyr for preaching the truth. He followed in the footsteps of all the prophets who had suffered for their faith. But there is also another punishment in view here. First we read verses 19-22, But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison. When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” John was imprisoned by the exceedingly wicked Herod. He was one more in a long line of Herod’s murdered victims because later the gospels reveal that Herod had him beheaded. He did not do this with personal impunity, but was haunted by what he had done because later, as Jesus ministry grew, he feared that Jesus was John risen from the dead. Now the other punishment is not so clear cut. It is the sort of thing that one must ponder. The Scripture says that Jesus came to be baptized by John. Why? It was a baptism of repentance and Jesus had no sin and therefore no need to repent. Luke records the confirmation from God the Father that Jesus is His Son and that what Jesus is  doing is very pleasing to God the Father, but he does not tell us another detail recorded in Matthew 3:13-15, Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. The reason given by Christ for undergoing John’s baptism is important. Jesus does not need to repent, but He has come to identify with His people and save them. In His baptism he undergoes an ordinance which identifies Him with His sinful people whom He came to save. It is therefore an emblem of His death which is the means of their salvation. Baptism always symbolized death to the old and emergence into the new life. Thus Paul says in I Corinthians 10 that Israel was baptized unto Moses in the Red sea. They escaped the watery death. And according to I Peter 3:21 the waters of Noah’s flood symbolized baptism and the reason is that Noah and his family escaped the watery death. So the baptism of Christ is the second death resulting from John’s ministry.